Township trustees talk spending, poor relief services

Township governments across Johnson County bring in thousands in taxpayer dollars each year — but many townships don’t spend all of their budgeted assistance money.

Township assistance, by Indiana law, is supposed to be the last resort for people in need of money to help with expenses like rent, utilities and food. Who does and does not receive aid is entirely at the discretion of the township trustee, who manages the day-to-day operations of township government and administers aid.

The last two years, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, township aid spending has changed, as many people received stimulus checks and were helped with rent and utilities from state and federal programs.

Township trustees say they have been spending less of their budgeted money in the designated township assistance funds because of the pandemic, but prior to that, some also were not spending their budgets entirely anyway.

The trustees in the three largest townships in Johnson County — Franklin Union Needham Township, White River Township and Pleasant Township — explained how each of their townships spends poor relief money, and how the township offers other services.

Trustees across the county are up for reelection this year, but only White River Township Trustee Mark Messick has a challenger in the general election. Messick, the Republican incumbent, is challenged by Democrat Suzanne Fortenberry.

Assistance spending

In 2021, none of the nine townships in Johnson County spent more than half of their budgeted assistance money, according to the state TA-7 document all townships fill out to report how much assistance is dispersed each year.

Lydia Wales, trustee of the newly-merged Franklin Union Needham, or FUN, Township, said there is much more context needed beyond the TA-7, which does not paint an accurate picture during the pandemic.

“To look at any trustee’s state TA-7 for 2020, 2021 and probably 2022, it’s not going to give a complete picture … And, you know, the state and federal money is what is saved the township funds for the last two and a half, three years,” Wales said.

Franklin Township, prior to the merger, spent about $38,000 of its roughly $80,000 budget in township assistance in 2021, helping 84 of 105 people who applied for assistance. In that period and in 2020 during the pandemic, the township assisted with helping people apply for state and federal assistance, so they were still providing help, just not spending their budget.

In a typical year, the township normally spends almost all of its budgeted assistance, Wales said. In 2019, Franklin Township spent $80,000 in township aid.

Every township is different and the trustee has discretion over how his or her office is run.

Pleasant Township, the largest township by population in Johnson County, has one of the smallest township assistance budgets, compared to other townships in similar size, such as FUN and White River Township.

Pleasant Township budgeted just over $23,000 for its assistance budget in 2021, and spent a little over $1,000 of it. Also last year, 1,926 people were reported to have asked for township assistance, and two people were given assistance, according to Pleasant Township’s TA-7 report.

William Hart, Pleasant Township Trustee, said the report likely included an error, however he did not explain what the error was when asked. He said the township office spent at least $900 each on three funeral assistance requests last year, so the TA-7 might be inaccurate.

Hart also mentioned the pandemic as a reason why fewer people were given township aid in the last two years. Many people who called his office were directed to state or federal programs to help with rent and utility assistance, he said.

Apart from the last two years, Pleasant Township still had typically dispersed only a small portion of its assistance money. In 2019, 12 people out of 100 who requested assistance received it. That year, roughly $3,000 out of $21,000 in the township assistance fund was dispersed for aid.

Hart believes that is how a township should operate — only spending its own money if absolutely necessary, he said.

Most of the calls his office gets, he and caseworkers will first help direct people to other services for help, such as federal programs or nonprofits such as United Way, the Salvation Army, or local churches. He said that is a policy he follows, along with White River and Clark townships.

“People don’t agree with it, maybe. But why should we spend taxpayer money if we don’t have to, if we can get assistance for these people elsewhere to make sure they get the help that they need, and it not cost us anything?” Hart said.

Last year, on the township TA-7, Hart reported the value of assistance given outside of township funds was over $900,000.

Hart also said Pleasant Township is at its max for its roughly $23,000-24,000 annual assistance budget, based on how much money comes in from tax collections. He said he believes tax abatements offered to businesses in Greenwood and Whiteland are taking hundreds of thousands away from the tax base.

In White River Township, around $17,000 of the $35,000 assistance budget was spent in 2021, according to the township’s TA-17. Most of that was on shelter assistance, and went to people who needed help with rent, Messick said.

The federal rent moratorium stopped at the end of last year, causing White River Township to be loaded with shelter assistance requests, Messick said.

The trends this year prompted Messick to increase the township assistance budget to $65,000 for 2023, a roughly 25% increase. With inflation and the cost of living going up, he saw the need to increase to avoid overspending, he said.

“You had so many things going on, that really did create a state of emergency. So we had to step up our game at the end of last year, and now games (have) been stepped up all year this year,” Messick said.

Messick also acknowledged there are items in the assistance budget that he has to budget for that are often not used. For example, with food assistance, the office usually gives out donated food or sends people to pantries. The township also doesn’t usually spend the money budgeted for emergency housing because they send people in need to shelters or homeless services in Indianapolis, he said.

Funds at discretion of the trustee

Township trustees are tasked with creating guidelines for giving township assistance. Guidelines differ between all townships, as they are made at the trustee’s discretion.

In FUN Township, Wales said the township’s 54-page guidelines are used “like a Bible” to determine how to distribute assistance and who qualifies.

There are caps on salary levels in all the townships to receive assistance. Cost of living and rents in the area are also factored into most guidelines. FUN Township’s income table follows the federal poverty levels, Wales said.

“We try to follow (the guidelines) to a tee, and then that way everybody is treated the exact same way,” Wales said.

A reason someone could be turned away could be because they do not meet the criteria, or also more specific instances such as they voluntarily quit their job, or they’ve come in for assistance before and did not follow-up on referrals to other agencies the township made, Wales said.

Wales, like most trustees, offers referrals to outside help if the township cannot provide funds, she said.

In White River, Messick has set guidelines for income level, and rental studies, but he says he’s not beholden to them. He and caseworkers in the township office spend time getting to know people’s situations to see how they can help. Messick said he tries to help in any way he can, even if it is just by referring people to other agencies for help.

“It’s not our job to give 23 reasons that we can deny people, it’s our job to find the reason that we can help them,” Messick said. “What’s extraordinary, what’s exceptional. What is this emergency?”

Messick also uses his discretion to determine if people are willing to help themselves, and not abusing the system, he said.

“We sit with our people for like an hour and a half. So when they leave, we know the story,” Messick said. “I’ll ask my caseworkers, how they feel about people. They’ll go, ‘Well, you know, look at the amount of money they spent on alcohol, look at the amount of money they spend on cigarettes. Look at the amount of money they spend on DoorDash, or something like that.’”

Similarly in Pleasant Township, Hart said he meets with people to go over their finances and determine if they truly have a need. Hart and caseworkers require meetings beyond the application process, and most people who apply do not show up, but they still have to record that as a person requesting assistance on the TA-7, he said.

“We do ask them to bring in their bank statements for 60 to 90 days. And we go through what they’re spending … We call it wasted resources that we deduct off of their income. That’s if it’s a person, who’s got a $500 cellphone bill. Well, why?”

Trustee salaries vs. spending

Most township trustees in the county, apart from Wales and Blue River Township Trustee Ray Walton, make more money than what is spent on poor relief, according to salary documents on Indiana Gateway.

Hart is the highest-paid township trustee in Johnson County, making over $44,000 a year. That was the salary he inherited when he took office in 2018, he said.

He does not see the need for it to be less than or equal to the township assistance spending, he said. He said it is a fair salary for the work he does.

As Pleasant Township Trustee, Hart is on call 24/7, and most people can access him around the clock, he said. Though late night calls are rare, he added.

“The sheriff knows how to get ahold of me, if he needs. The police chief, fire chief, know my home address, phone number, cell number,” Hart said.

Wales also said comparing a trustee salary to how much aid they give is not fair. Every township is different and salaries should be determined by how much work a trustee does, she said. Wales’ 2021 salary was $37,000.

Wales is also on call 24/7, and she answers many phone calls in the middle of the night, whether it’s to send aid out, or put someone needing emergency shelter in a hotel for the night.

“I’m not here to make a profit off of this, but I’m also here to make a living much like anybody else,” Wales said.

Messick believes he and others in the White River office put in the work to deserve their salaries. His 2021 salary was $37,000. His township office provides services beyond spending money, and he devotes time to meeting with people who need help. Last year, the township reported on its TA-7 the value of assistance from non-township funds was over $1 million.

Messick said he often comes into work on the weekends to answer calls, which surprises people, he said.

“People say, ‘I can’t believe you called me.’ And I said, ‘Well, here’s the thing, if you’re calling me looking for assistance is one of the worst days in your life,’” Messick said.