Allen County Referendum Is a Good Start: Could Indiana Eventually Replace Elected Assessors with Appointed Tax Administrators?

by Faegre Baker Daniels

Allen County Referendum Is a Good Start:  Could Indiana Eventually Replace Elected Assessors with Appointed Tax Administrators?

To the great credit of the General Assembly and Governor Pence, House Bill 1346 was enacted to allow Allen County voters to decide if they want to transition from a three-member county board of commissioners, which has executive and legislative powers, to a single county executive balanced by a county council having fiscal and legislative powers. The referendum will be held this fall.

I am excited to see the voters of Allen County given this opportunity, and I hope the General Assembly will take the next step to allow other counties this type of opportunity.

In a state where we profess to value limited, cost-effective government, we continue to elect nine other county officials: assessor, auditor, clerk, coroner, prosecutor, recorder, sheriff, surveyor, and treasurer. And, that does not include three-member board of commissioners (in all counties but Marion where we have Unigov) and county councils.

This antiquated system has numerous downsides. Just to name a few:

  • Many voters do not know or care about these offices—sheriff and prosecutor excluded—because they do not have a direct impact on the quality of their lives.
  • County property administration-related functions are divided up between the assessor, treasurer, recorder, and surveyor. This not only leads to unnecessary overhead costs, it means that taxpayers often have to visit multiple offices to address a property related issue.
  • In recent years, the General Assembly has effectively made the positions of assessor and coroner appointed positions because of the variety of technical requirements added for each of the offices. These requirements were intended to ensure competence to do the job, but few people with those capabilities seem to run for office leaving it to the parties to find someone.
  • For the 91 counties with three-member boards of commissioners, three CEOs does not make sense—especially when they have legislative powers, but not fiscal powers.

So, let’s put this question, which Allen County will vote on this November, to the other counties with boards of commissioners:

  • Shall the county government be reorganized to place all executive powers in a single county executive and to place all legislative and fiscal powers in the county council?

And, let’s not stop there. Here are two other questions all counties should be asked:

  • Shall the elected offices of county assessor, recorder, surveyor, and treasurer be eliminated with the functions of those offices combined into a position of chief property tax administrator appointed by the elected county executive subject to the approval of the elected county fiscal body?

A yes vote will lead to one appointed official to manage property related functions more efficiently. This person will be a qualified individual who is not encumbered by fundraising and running for office. The county executive and fiscal body, the Property Tax Board of Appeals, the State Board of Accounts, and the laws set by the General Assembly will continue to ensure necessary checks and balances remain in place.

  • Shall the elected office of county coroner be eliminated with the functions of that office transferred to state government?

Let’s transition the coroner’s office to the Indiana State Department of Health, or another department of state government, so that a regional approach with medical examiners can be instituted over time.

There are other ways to do this, of course. But, virtually any approach that results in the elimination of the elected offices of coroner, recorder, and surveyor and strikes a more streamlined balance between the assessor, auditor, treasurer, and county executive will be tremendous progress.

Many of the people who hold those offices (and those who do not want those officeholders to run for an office they hold) can be expected to oppose such reforms. We can expect them to say the following, among other things:

  • These issues need to be studied again and these particular questions are poorly worded. (Hearings in the General Assembly will sufficiently address such concerns.)
  • This is too much consolidation of power. (Do we not already have a county executive, county fiscal body, State Board of Accounts, Department of Local Government Finance, and the laws of the General Assembly to provide sufficient checks and balances?)
  • This is too much change, too fast. (The property tax crisis led to the elimination of about 1,000 township assessors who were replaced by their existing county assessors. That transition went just fine. And, these transitions will be planned out over the course of years. No elected official will be removed before the end of his or her term.)
  • There are good people in these jobs. (Of course there are! But, no one is entitled to a government job. Any transition will include efforts to ensure each and every public servant is helped through the process.)

If these ideas get legs in the next legislative session, opponents might try to add more so as to kill it. Why not the prosecutor, sheriff, clerk, and auditor to boot? No serious case has been made to eliminate the prosecutor. Administration of county law enforcement relative to city and towns, the state police, and the Indiana Department of Correction does require more consideration. The clerk is rightly positioned as an independent election official (though the balance of that office’s responsibilities with the courts should be considered). As for the auditor, I would keep the independence of the small administrative office as a check and balance on the distribution of funds to local units in the county and on the issuance of county checks (but have the county executive prepare and manage to the budget, overseen by the council).

The Allen County referendum is a good step forward. Let’s take great steps forward along these lines in the next legislative session.

This post originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal’s blog INforefront on June 5, 2014, which can be viewed here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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