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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Reform plan greeted with skepticism

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This week the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform released a highly anticipated report entitled, “Streamlining Government: We Got to Stop Governing Like This.”

The commission’s report included 27 recommendations that if enacted into law would present the most sweeping administrative changes in the state’s history. They include the adoption of a countywide executive to appointed officials that are currently elected, a transfer of township responsibilities to county government, rigorous examination of taxes and public spending by elected officials accountable to voters and potential expansion of school districts to generate more resources for schools.

The recommendations would reduce the number of local government units from 3,086 to 1,931, a 37 percent reduction, and decrease the number of local elected officials from 11,012 to 5,171, a drop of more than half.

“After reviewing reams of research and data, and spending hours in discussion and debate, we agreed unanimously on recommendations that we believe will allow Hoosiers to receive better local services at a lower cost,” said Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard, who served as co-chair of the commission along with former Gov. Joe Kernan.

The commission was appointed by Gov. Mitch Daniels six months ago to look for and recommend ways to reduce the size and operating cost of local governments.

Supporters say the commission’s recommendations are designed to make local governments more efficient and effective, but reaction in the local African-American community has been mixed.

Amos Brown, strategic analyst for Radio One and host of WTLC-FM’s “Afternoons with Amos” expressed initial skepticism about the recommendation on his program Tuesday.

“After hearing about this I thought ‘hold on just a minute, what will happen to the jobs of all the African-American elected officials we have here on the county and township level?’” Brown said.

Currently Marion County has four African-American elected officials — Auditor Billie Breaux, Coroner Kenneth Ackles, Sheriff Frank Anderson and Treasurer Michael Rodman. In addition, Black officials are serving in various positions in Center, Lawrence, Pike, Wayne and Washington townships.

Breaux, whose position will be placed under a county executive if the recommendations become reality, urges serious public discussion before any of them are implemented.

“There’s probably room for some reform in county government, but I don’t think it’s in the best judgment to have one person appoint county officers,” she said. “That’s too much power for one individual to have.”

Breaux also noted that currently county officials are required to respond to the people because they are elected, and if they are appointed it would be more difficult for voters to hold them accountable.

Rodman would like to see a detailed analysis of how eliminating his position or placing it under a county executive would be cost effective. However, he is open to seeing the position altered if evidence proves that doing so will help citizen taxpayers.

“If we discover that cutting my job is something that will save people $100 on their taxes and the work of my office can be done more effectively under the new arrangement, then I say go for it,” Rodman said.

He cautioned, however, that if a county executive (which in Marion County’s case would likely be Mayor-elect Greg Ballard) receives the power to appoint county officials, then a check and balances system must be in place to ensure that his appoints are sound. City-County Council approval for county appointments, Rodman said, might be an option.

“Even the President of the United States has to receive approval from the Senate for his appointments to federal office,” Rodman stated.

Rodman also expressed concern that county and elected officials might lose their autonomy and ability to make independent decisions if they are serving at the pleasure of a supreme county authority. He noted that he would not, for example, have been able to immediately propose payment plans for county residents this summer when property tax bills increased if he had to first introduce the idea to the mayor.

However, Pat Kiely, president of the Indiana Manufacturers Association, said citizens would appreciate the economic benefits of implementing the commission’s recommendations.

“While the focus of discussion of late has been property tax reductions, up until now no roadmap existed allowing us to reduce property taxes while not adversely impacting local government services,” said Kiely. “The commission’s report shows Hoosiers how we can reduce taxes in a meaningful and lasting manner.”

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