In the years following 1787, the new government of the United States surveyed the lands of the old Northwest Territory—an area now comprised of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota—into blocks of 36-square mile parcels called townships. Those townships became the basis of local government, such as it was, throughout the Northwest Territory, and that “system” was kept when the Indiana Territory was carved out of the old Northwest on 1 July 1800. The townships remained the cornerstones of local government in the constitution of Indiana at its 1816 admission to the Union.
Jump forward over 200 years. Earlier this month a proposal to reduce the number of townships in Indiana was introduced in the state Legislature, but it died without a vote. House Bill 1005 would have eliminated approximately 300 of the smallest townships, those with populations of fewer than 1200 residents, by merging them into larger, neighboring townships.
Just two townships on Allen County’s east side would have been eliminated by merger due to their small populations: Scipio Township with 414 residents and Jackson Township with 504, but in other counties across the state many more rural townships would have been on the chopping block.
HB 1005 would not have immediately affected Wayne Township, which is among the ten largest townships in the state, but it did raise many issues that are important to all of us as citizens, and those issues should be part of the public discussion. Chief among them is the question ‘What do we want our government to do for us?’
Those in favor of HB 1005 including the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, argue that reducing the number of townships in Indiana—currently there are just over 1000—would lead to greater efficiency, saving tax money and improving service. The bill’s opponents, including the Indiana Farm Bureau, say that township government even at the smallest units’ level should be preserved because it is the government that is closest to the people. They also worry that such mergers would shift the tax burden of the larger townships onto rural residents who currently pay a lower tax rate.
The Indiana Township Association first supported HB 1005 as a compromise that would merge the smallest townships but then allow for more latitude in borrowing funds for fire protection and township assistance (poor relief) obligations. However, when those options were stripped from the bill in committee the ITA withdrew its support of the bill.
In forthcoming columns, I hope to discuss these, and other issues related to the future of township government, including the mysterious relationship between survey townships and civil townships in Indiana.
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