Senate bill could change county government
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.