The job of township trustee has shrunk in recent years, but trustees say the hundreds of people they help with rent or utility bills during a tough time keeps their work relevant.
The elected trustees are responsible for managing each of the county’s nine townships, ranging in size from about 25 to 45 square miles. The work they do includes assisting needy residents with paying for housing or utilities, keeping cemeteries mowed and clean and making sure invasive weeds aren’t spreading.
The economy, housing and needs in Johnson County can vary widely from Greenwood in Pleasant Township to Edinburgh in Blue River Township, and a trustee living in the community can be in tune with those differing needs, trustees said.
When you go to vote this year, you’ll see a township trustee race on your ballot. In the primary, the seats are contested in Franklin and Hensley townships.
And every year, your property tax bill includes a line of what you pay in township taxes, which typically is the lowest rate on your bill. In White River Township, that amount is zero because the township doesn’t currently charge a tax rate, while a person with a $100,000 home in Franklin would pay about $24 in township taxes per year.
Your taxes pay for maintaining cemeteries, controlling weeds, providing fire protection and managing township property. But trustees devote the most time to giving out assistance from township tax funds. In 2013, county trustees gave out about $140,000 in tax funds to residents who needed help paying for rent, electricity and heat. The trustees work as a backup for public assistance from helping groups such as Human Services, Nineveh Township Trustee Janet Renner said.
Franklin and Blue River townships each gave out the most money, about $35,000 in housing and utility aid, while Hensley Township distributed the least at just less than $2,000 in 2013.
The number of residents needing aid spiked during the recession, but townships have a limited amount of funds. In the less populated townships, that can mean helping 10 or fewer people per year.
Governments can increase the amount of taxes they collect from year-to-year, but the amount of money available for assistance hasn’t kept pace with inflation, which means fewer dollars are available today, Blue River Township Trustee Larry Whitlock said.
Flexibility in assistance
Trustees in the county’s nine townships are responsible for managing just more than $1 million in tax dollars combined, with the smallest townships such as Hensley and Union planning to spend less than $40,000 this year. On average, 30 percent of the funds go toward providing aid to residents who have to fill out a long application, meet income guidelines and have an interview with the trustee.
Although trustees use federal poverty guidelines — less than $23,850 income for a family of four — to help determine whether someone is eligible for aid, each has some flexibility in deciding who receives help. A person slightly over the limit could get a one-time check to help with a heating bill, while someone living in poverty might be denied if they’re not wisely spending the income they do have, trustees said.
Although assistance is the top duty of the trustees, it doesn’t make up the largest portion of their spending. Salaries and wages, office rent, cemetery maintenance and operating costs typically make up about 70 percent or more of the townships’ spending.
Personnel costs, such as salaries for trustees, township board members and other employees, make up about 40 percent of spending each year, which is more than most offices have available for poor relief.
For example, Nineveh Township has $12,500 available for aid out of about $75,000 total spending.
During the past 10 years, lawmakers have questioned the need for township governments, arguing that taxpayers end up paying more to run the offices than necessary for the duties trustees have. The state removed property assessing duties from townships years ago, but lawmakers never approved a plan to consolidate to a single countywide office or do away with townships altogether.
Each year, state lawmakers draft new bills to eliminate township trustees, but they are gaining less and less momentum each year, said Pleasant Township Trustee Mary Ann Powell, who is a member of the statewide Indiana Association of Townships.
Townships are here to stay for now, which is good for the community, trustees said. Having a local official means that people in need can talk to someone who is familiar with the area and the problems they might have.
Centralizing the job of trustees would be inconvenient for the people they are supposed to help. Someone who needs help keeping the lights on in their house often doesn’t have a car or doesn’t have money for gas, Powell said. So she’ll have to buy an Access Johnson County bus ticket so someone can ride from Greenwood to her office in Whiteland for an interview, she said.
“The people that do get assistance, some of them would get lost in the system if they had to go up higher to deal with it. This gives them a more one-on-one chance to sit down with someone they know from their community,” Clark Township Trustee Neil Trisler said.
Taxpayers might save some money if the county had fewer township trustees, White River Township Trustee Mark Messick said. The busier offices in White River, Pleasant, Franklin and Blue River could combine with smaller townships to create four township offices instead of nine, which would cut operating costs while still providing local aid to residents, he said.
Consolidating to just one office, such as if the county took on trustees’ duties, would be a mistake and likely drive up the amount of aid money needed because staff would have to rely more on a person’s application than their knowledge of the township, he said.
Trustees are responsible for screening applications before handing over tax dollars to residents. Residents have to fill out a nine-page application detailing their income and expenses before the trustee reviews it, interviews the person and makes a decision within three days. While reviewing the application, the trustee is looking at whether they meet guidelines for assistance, how they spend their money and whether they’ve filled out the application truthfully.
“I want a snapshot of where you’re at so you can understand you spent this amount of money doing things. Or I want you to know no matter what you do you’re not bringing enough income and we need to do something to get you another job or get you into some Section 8 housing,” Messick said.
More than financial aid
The goal is not only to help a resident with an immediate need but also steer them toward services that will ensure they’re not back the next month needing the same assistance, Renner said. For example, a person may need to keep paying $30 per month for Internet to search for a job but could drop cable TV service to save more money for food that month, she said.
Trustees also frequently refer people to other helping agencies for needs they can’t spend tax money on. Someone who is working but living paycheck to paycheck might not qualify for township aid but could get some food from local food pantries, free clothes from a church or helping organization or medical care and prescriptions from a reduced-cost or free clinic, Powell said.
Last year, Powell gave out no tax dollars for people needing food assistance but referred more than 2,500 people to other agencies.
Being embedded in the community also helps trustees know who genuinely needs help. Trustees need to be familiar with local rental housing, businesses that are hiring or laying off workers and other helping organizations, Whitlock said.
Whitlock has been trustee for 24 years and said he is familiar with residents in Edinburgh and other areas of the township as well as the local housing and economy.
Since quality of life and job opportunities vary widely when comparing the north and south ends of the county, having a local trustee is a better way for officials to know if someone is paying rent that is too high or whether a local business is hiring. If the county only had one office for that type of work, staff would have to rely more on the information in an application for the sake of the knowledge and flexibility that trustees use when giving out aid, Renner said.
“It’s the little idiosyncrasies about the community. Our way of life out here in Nineveh is different than it is in Greenwood,” she said. “You would have to go, ‘These are the standards, and we don’t care.’ We don’t need to take that care out of it.”