Senate bill could change county government

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Indiana's current commissioners and county council form of government will cease to exist if a bill approved last week by a Senate committee becomes law.

Not only will local government be affected, but also libraries and schools would be drastically changed if the Indiana General Assembly approves the recommendations proposed by Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Earlier this year, Daniels recommended combining school districts, reducing the number of elected officials in each county, creating countywide library systems and more, all based on recommendations from the Kernan-Shepard report made by the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform.

One of the major recommendations of the 2007 Kernan-Shepard Commission is to streamline local government by replacing county commissioners with a single county executive. That proposal is now on its way for consideration by the full state Senate.

After a hearing that lasted several hours last week, the Senate Local Government committee passed Senate Bill 506 with a 6-5 vote.

The bill would start the process of replacing the county commissioners, who now serve as the county's three-member executive and legislative board.

Instead, counties would have two choices for their structure:

They could choose a single elected county executive and a more powerful county council that would be a true legislative body, instead of merely a budget-writing board; or,

Choose to have a seven-member county board of supervisors that would hire a county manager to handle the day-to-day duties of running government.

Putnam County Commissioner Gene Beck told the Banner Graphic he feels making this change is not good for the county.

"It's going to cost the counties more money. If they do away with the commissioners and have one elected person it will cost a lot more than it does now. You're not going to hire somebody for less than $75,000 a year to do this. Plus they will need a vehicle, office and one or more secretaries," explained Beck.

Currently, each of Putnam County's three commissioners makes around $20,000. Additionally, the auditors' office takes care of all the secretarial work for the commissioners as part of its regular duties.

Beck says that the Association of Indiana Counties and the Indiana Association of County Commissioners are all opposed to the change.

"If they pass this they will have to change the State of Indiana's Constitution. I think it should be left up to the people to vote. It's taking away from people's constitutional rights," said Beck.

An amendment to the bill exempted Lake County from it and Marion County has a different system of government with the county and city tied together.

"If they want to do this in Marion and Lake counties, that's fine, but leave the rural counties alone," said Beck.

Another concern of Beck's is the opportunity for corruption with only one person in charge of everything. Putnam County Commissioner Kristina Warren agrees with Beck's concern.

"If they make the executive manager an elected official and then he appoints the other positions of assessor, auditor, recorder and others, there are no checks or balances," she said.

"If they get the wrong person in power they open the doors up to nepotism or appointing their friends. Who is going to stop them if they are elected?" she asked.

"If the auditor and assessor are both appointed there are no checks and balances either. If you had all three of those people in cahoots, they could be across the border with $20 million dollars," she added.

"At least if the executive manager is elected and the county council oversees that person, they would have control of the position," she noted.

If the bill becomes law, counties would have to adopt one of the options late this year. If they don't act, the choice would automatically go to voters in a 2010 referendum. Counties would not be allowed to keep their current structure.

The legislation would also make the county assessor an appointed position, instead of an elected one.

"This is a set of changes that are long overdue in Indiana," Daniels said in a news release. "We have more of almost everything -- taxing units, subdivisions and politicians -- than elsewhere. More than we need, more than taxpayers can get good service for, and certainly more than we should be paying for."

Bill supporters said the revisions are necessary to improve efficiency and accountability in a government structure that has gone largely unchanged since 1851. But many county officials testified the current structure works well and that no change is necessary.

Gibson County Council member Tony Wolfe testified at the hearing last week, that a single county executive ought not be a state mandate.

"People in rural Indiana, at least the county I am from, do not have a problem with the existing structure," Wolfe said.

He predicted that if county executives stand for election, big companies would pour huge financial contributions into their campaigns.

The revised bill moves next to the full Republican-controlled Senate. If it passes there, the county executive bill faces an uphill fight in the Democratic-controlled Indiana House.

Sen. Travis Holdman, who serves on the Senate's local government committee, doesn't think any of the legislature's bills originating from Kernan-Shepard topics have the ability to pass into law as constituted.
 "I don't believe any proposal has the legs," said Holdman, R-Markle.

"I can guarantee none of these proposals will pass through as they've been introduced." Holman believes any change to local government must first involve giving people at the local level a direct voice in what change they want to see.

Rep. Joe Pearson, D-Hartford City, said people at the local level are often better suited to shape the local government than state legislators. 

"I don't believe Indianapolis ought to be telling local communities, 'This is how you will form your government,'" Pearson said, adding that he strongly favors local control for local government.

After passing the county executive bill last week, the committee heard a separate proposal for a constitutional amendment that would convert some elected offices --the county coroner, surveyor, treasurer and recorder -- into appointed offices.

The committee heard hours more testimony on the amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 7, but did not vote on it.

To become law, each of these bills must be passed by a Senate committee, go to the full Senate for second reading, the amendment stage and then go up for a final vote by the full Senate. If the measures pass, they will go to the state House of Representatives for similar treatment.

If language in the House-passed version differs from that in the Senate version, the bill will be referred to a four-member conference committee that will reconcile the versions before each chamber takes one last vote.

To reach lawmakers with your comments, call the Indiana Senate switchboard at (800) 382-9467 or the Indiana House switchboard at (800) 382-9842.

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  • Why would the County Commissioners be in favor of this, it means they would lose their job. Each commissioner is paid $20,000, but how much does their insurance cost? The same goes for the other county employees. It comes down to dollars and cents and we need to start being more efficent. The county is saving money by removing Township trustees and assessors. I like the idea of one person in charge with a board. Change isn't always bad.

    -- Posted by letmegetbacktoya on Wed, Feb 11, 2009, at 7:25 AM
  • Gene Beck will lose his power in the good 'ol boy system, allowing him the right to appoint all of his cronies to boards and oversight committees. How truly awful it would be. Bring on the trained county manager, and the good business sense that will come with it.

    -- Posted by fireman on Wed, Feb 11, 2009, at 9:05 AM
  • This could be beneficial to the county, if it were set up properly. We could have a Board of Directors (called Co Council or Board of Supervisors) who would hire (not elect or appoint) the CEO (County Executive). Then the other positions would be hired and not appointed to run the different departments. We always talk about making government more like business, this could be the start. It is possible we could make the operations more efficient and more responsive to taxpayer needs. However we could probably do this under todays structure, if we wanted to truly make people responsible and hold them accountable for the way they run their departments.

    -- Posted by hoosierpete on Wed, Feb 11, 2009, at 9:20 AM
  • I think it's a great idea! Expecially the county wide school district, maybe out children would get a better education with the money that is saved on big salaries.

    -- Posted by concern on Wed, Feb 11, 2009, at 9:42 AM
  • We are becoming more and more of a socialistic society everyday. It is important to see the fine print. Our government is attempting to take our right to vote away from us. If this is such a good system then why not include Marion County and Lake County? Why not include all elected postions such as the Sheriff and the Auditor? I see the bill this way: We the tax paying, hard working citizens who vote for the same people pushing this change to our Constitution, are now incompetent to vote for the right person for the job. If you truly understand Government, then you will see that this proposed system WILL cost more tax money. It is not a way of saving money, it is a way of restricting our rights and constricting our options for change.

    -- Posted by Whynotwrite on Wed, Feb 11, 2009, at 10:25 AM
  • Gene Beck says it could cause Nepotism, he should know he has had his family members work in about each office in the courthouse for years, that is Nepotism, and look at the other Commissioner who works in the Auditors office at present,and serves as a commissioner, which is illigel, but no one does anything about it. This County has enough wrong doings to fill a court room to capacity. Maybe someday the tax payers will vote to change some of this.I don't really think our Governors plan is any good for these small counties, come up woth something that will work , There should be only 1 Supertendent for the entire county for the school system.

    -- Posted by whatno_guessing on Wed, Feb 11, 2009, at 11:56 AM
  • As my previous post was taken off, here I go again. They are all afraid to lose their 20,000.00 "JOB". Nepotism? You've got to be kidding. Certainly there is no nepotism in the courthouse. (ughhhhh) Of course the "big three" are all against it.

    -- Posted by whodouthinkur on Thu, Feb 12, 2009, at 7:00 AM
  • Getting further away from the elected officials does not seem to be an effective way to care for local government to me. I WANT a township trustee who lives in my area, I WANT whoever is in charge of county government to be elected by the people, not appointed by a few. The fewer people we have representing us, the less our voices can be heard from faraway Indianapolis. Remember, the same people pushing this plan were telling us back in October that Inidana was in much better shape than our's that looking now? As for the ones we have now..if they don't suit us, let's vote them out.

    -- Posted by countyboy on Thu, Feb 12, 2009, at 3:30 PM
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