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Feeling forgotten in rural Indiana

By TRAVIS WEIK - tweik@thecouriertimes.com

A new law could wipe out one-third of Henry County’s townships in the next five years.

Local trustees don’t think this will save taxpayers any money and could actually make it harder for residents to connect with the government services they need.

Republicans in the Indiana Statehouse announced their 2018 agenda last week. Speaker of the House Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) said that consolidating townships with a population of less than 1,200 will help reduce government bureaucracy.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” said Stoney Creek Township Trustee Mike Lykens. “I really think we serve a purpose.”

Lykens said the biggest roles that trustees play in rural Henry County is helping poor residents with utility bills or emergency food and making sure there is fire protection service in the far corners of the county.

If Stoney Creek has to dissolve, it would likely be absorbed by neighboring Blue River Township, home of Mooreland.

Lykens worries that volunteer fire departments in both townships – and in similar communities around the state – will suffer from forced consolidation. Besides serving as the township trustee, Lykens is also chief of the Blountsville-Stoney Creek Township Volunteer Fire Department.

Volunteers would be expected to provide coverage for communities that are miles away from where they live, which could stop new people from stepping up to the call without getting paid, Lykens said.

Lykens is also really concerned about the older or disabled people who live in his town. Township trustees live close enough to most folks that they can walk down the street or make a quick phone call to get help.

“We are the first person people come to,” Lykens said. “If they do away with us, they’re going to have to hire somebody at the courthouse to fill our role.”

He wonders how poor people or people who can’t get around too easily are going to get to New Castle and visit the county courthouse when their electric is about to get shut off or when they need emergency shelter.

Lykens also suspects that any new full-time government employees are going to cost far more in tax dollars than he and his township board members make throughout the year.

“You don’t do it for the money. You do it for the community,” he said.

House Bill 1005, authored by Rep. Cindy Ziemke (R-Batesville), has been largely supported by the Indiana Township Association (ITA).

ITA Executive Director Deborah R. Driskell said the Indiana Township Association worked with Rep. Ziemke while she drafted HB 1005.

Driskell said the ITA agreed to help work on HB 1005 in exchange for the 2017 legislature stopping a bill that would have eliminated township boards and put them under county control.

Lykens is a member of the ITA, which lobbies for larger townships, and also of the United Township Association of Indiana, which was created to give smaller townships a voice in Indianapolis.

The ITA outlined its 2018 legislative positions and agenda in a Dec. 7 email to all its members. The association spelled out that “townships of less than 1,000 population must merge with contiguous township(s) to create new unit of no less than 1,000.”

According to StatsIndiana, Stoney Creek is the only township affected by the ITA recommendation.

“I’m upset that the ITA took this stance,” Lykens said. “Basically, they sold out the little township to do it.”

House Bill 1005 sets a higher population minimum of at least 1,200 township residents. This adds Dudley and Franklin townships to the chopping block.

Blue River Township has an estimated 1,205 residents, meaning it is right on the edge of the blade.

“This bill could potentially affect a lot more people than they are talking about,” said Henry Township Trustee Nancy Webb. “It won’t affect us in that my township would dissolve. But it could be affected if it has to absorb a neighboring, smaller township.”

Webb said state lawmakers have made so many changes to township government in the last eight years that she isn’t sure exactly how Henry County will be affected if HB 1005 passes.

“There’s too many questions with this,” she said.

Lykens said any consolidation should not be based on the population of the township, but on how far it is for taxpayers to get access to their government services, like local fire protection.

Rachel Clark, trustee of Greensboro Township, is also concerned about being able to continue providing fire protection to towns like Shirley and Kennard.

“Our main job is fire protection and poor assistance,” Clark said. “Will this bill help or will it hurt us? We need to figure that out.”

Indiana Volunteer Firefighter Association District 8B Chairman Lloyd Wright said the IVFA has sent out a survey to their members to see how many communities could be affected if HB 1005 becomes law.

Wright also wondered how cash-strapped counties would shoulder the additional cost of paying for fire protection in rural communities if the townships went away.

“I personally think the people in government ought to worry about other things than fire service and the size of these townships,” Wright said. “Just let us do our jobs.”

State Representative Tom Saunders (R-Lewisville) started his political career in 197 as the elected trustee for Franklin Township.

Saunders remembers being in charge of giving out government-issued food to hungry neighbors who knocked on his door at 6 a.m. or putting families in his car and driving them to a shelter in the middle of the night.

“Not all Republicans support this,” Saunders said, “because I kind of like township government.”

Saunders said any changes to a township should be up to the people who actually live there. The residents in those communities should be the ones making decisions about consolidating, not the state lawmakers, he said.

“I don’t see it as my job here in Indianapolis to tell you how to run your township,” Saunders said.

In his 2018 legislative survey, Saunders asked people in his area if they support the idea of allowing voters to decide whether or not to eliminate their township government.

Look for the survey in the mail or take it online at www.indianahouserepublicans.com/constituent-survey-hd-54/

Saunders said constituents can also call the Indiana Statehouse at 1-800-382-9841 to share their thoughts and concerns about the township issue or anything else they think he should know about.