Indiana township trustees have three primary responsibilities as elected officials: They contract for fire service, maintain cemeteries and disburse township assistance — sometimes called “poor relief.”
Funding for all of those functions comes primarily from property taxes, though trustees also receive a portion of excise and income taxes.
Not including cumulative funds, which are intended to be built up over time, between 19 and 35 percent of local trustees’ budgets was spent on township assistance last year.
In some townships, that fund is almost never drained by the end of the year. In others, it is barely enough. Since most of it goes toward paying heating bills in winter, the four trustees all said they try to hold back enough so they can help in November and December.
In 2016, Van Buren Township Trustee Vicki Payne spent less than half of what she budgeted for township assistance — about $6,000 of $15,000. She attributes some of the low spending to the pride many of her residents have and unwillingness to ask for help.
Yet, trustees also try to work with people to find solutions aside from simply handing them a check.
This winter, a resident called Payne because she and her husband were facing winter without heat. A recent heart surgery kept the husband from being able to cut wood. Payne connected the couple to Community Corrections to see if they had a client who needed to do community service hours who could cut wood for them.
Ten years ago, at the request of then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard issued a report that included 27 specific “reforms” to improve local government and reduce costs of providing various services to taxpayers.
Among the suggestions in the Kernan-Shepard Report was a recommendation to eliminate township trustees and transfer all their duties to county government.
One duty — assessment of properties — did end up being transferred to the county assessor, but others still remain in the hands of township trustees rather than the county council or county commissioners.
One of the reasons the Indiana Township Association was against eliminating township trustee jobs was that this was the government “closest to the people.” That is how local trustees attempt to operate.
When Washington Township Trustee Brandon Magner notices someone having repeated problems with bills, he offers to sit down with them and develop a budget. That is a skill some of them were never taught, he said.
Magner used around $21,500 of his $25,000 township assistance budget for 2016.
He estimated between $9,000 and $11,000 of that went just to electric bills. The second greatest portion goes to help with rent.
The third most significant expenditure from Magner’s assistance fund might be a surprise: cremations.
Most of the time, families are referred to township trustees for help with death expenses by Brown County Coroner Earl Piper, Magner said. A trustee can also pay for cremation of a township resident when there is no known family, but Magner hasn’t had to handle such a case yet.
He said he wishes more people understood that trustees can’t pay late fees or deposits. They can help with some pre-pay plans available through utilities, though. The key difference is that it has to go directly toward the cost of a product they have used or will use.
Magner said in his experience, the biggest unmet need in Brown County is with housing — “a long-term housing solution, not a short-term, shelter-type solution.” It can be hard for people to make deposits and gather the first month’s rent to get into an affordable apartment, and ongoing rent assistance is also needed, he said.
Magner is limited to providing $300 in assistance to each household without special approval from his advisory board. It is unlikely he can ever pay more than a portion of someone’s late rent.
He estimates he gets between 95 and 105 household requests for assistance each year, and if each received the per-household limit in assistance, he would exceed his annual budget by several thousand dollars.
In 2016, Jackson Township Trustee Sandy Higgins spent about $28,000 of her $31,000 township assistance budget. There is a lot of need in Jackson, and that means she has to be careful in how she applies the resources she has, she said.
She gave an example of a woman who had a job in Bloomington and a car that needed repair. The straightforward option was for Higgins to pay for travel on the Access Brown County van until the woman had enough money to repair her car. Higgins instead figured out a way to pay to have the car repaired for about the same amount it would have cost to pay for Access for several weeks.
The trustees all have a method for referring people in need to other sources of help, such as calling 211 or handing out a printed sheet of contact information for places such as Mother’s Cupboard or St. Vincent de Paul.
Higgins also keeps paperwork for the South Central Community Action Program with her when she visits people who need help with an energy bill. That way they can apply for SCCAP’s low energy assistance program immediately, rather than making a trip just to get the paperwork. It may seem like a small thing, but for people with little money or access to transportation, it can make a big difference, she said.
Trustees also make room in their budgets to contribute money to other aid groups.
In 2016, Hamblen Township Trustee Phil Stephens used about $17,000 of the $24,000 he budgeted for township assistance.
He also put money from his general fund toward local organizations: $500 for Access Brown County, $1,500 for Mother’s Cupboard and the Brown County Women’s Center, and $5,000 for Hickory Ridge Senior Center.
Hickory Ridge is the only senior center in the county and was facing major expenses such as a new roof, Stephens said.
“So, to me, it’s only fair that the trustee turn around and support them,” he said. “We’re strengthening each other, and that’s how a community takes care of itself.”
Stephens also has gotten involved in some volunteer work at the senior center.
A trustee’s job doesn’t follow a set of office hours or end with disbursing money, he said. His hours are “by appointment” and he’s had calls in the middle of the night.
“I’ve had several medication emergencies — all of it involving insulin,” he said. “And there’s been a couple with food too as well.”
The trustees make $10,000 to $13,000 a year for the work they do.
During an ongoing dispute with the Van Buren Township Fire Department, Payne tightened her belt in order to cover legal expenses. Both she and her clerk stopped taking a salary June 1, and she began paying expenses such as telephone and insurance out of her own pocket.
It’s not a job someone takes for tangible rewards, Payne said.
“I’ve helped some people that I feel good when I’ve helped them,” she said.
“Lots of times they just need to talk about what’s going on in their lives.”
Township assistance spent: $17,000
Township assistance left over: $7,000
Percentage of township budget that goes toward township assistance: 35 percent
Township assistance spent: $28,000
Township assistance left over: $3,000
Percentage of township budget that goes toward township assistance: 28 percent
Van Buren Township
Township assistance spent: $6,000
Township assistance left over: $9,000
Percentage of township budget that goes toward township assistance: 19 percent
Township assistance spent: $21,500
Township assistance left over: $3,500
Percentage of township budget that goes toward township assistance: 27 percent
NOTE: When figuring percentage of budgets spent on township assistance, cumulative funds such as fire equipment were not included. Those are purposely built up over time.