Larry DeBoer
Professor of
Agricultural Economics
Purdue University

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Indiana's Historic Referenda

It was a historic election for the United States. Indiana held some historic elections, too, though quite a ways down the historic scale from the big presidential vote. We asked voters in 43 townships whether or not to keep their township assessors. And we asked voters in five school corporations and one county whether or not to approve big capital projects.

We've never done either of these things before.

Assessors are the government officials who value property for taxes. The property tax reform passed in March moved the assessing duties of the township trustees to the county assessors, as of July 1. Trustees won't do assessing, but they'll still be responsible for poor relief and fire departments in most townships. Bigger townships had separate elected township assessors. The reform eliminated most of those offices. But the 43 largest townships held referenda to ask the voters whether or not those offices should be dropped. In 30 of 43 townships, a majority of voters said yes.

At the start of 2008, Indiana ranked in the top 10 among states with the most assessing jurisdictions. There were 1,008 townships and 92 counties with assessing responsibilities, 1,100 in total. Now, there will be 92 county assessors and 13 township assessors. That's 105 assessing jurisdictions.

There is research evidence that full-time assessors with modern assessing tools (like computer-assisted mass appraisal) tend to assess property closer to their selling prices. Most township-trustee assessors were part time. There isn't enough property in those townships to keep an assessor busy year-round. The move of assessing duties from township trustees to county assessors ought to improve assessment quality, if the research results hold up. Elected township assessors work full time, so we may not see big improvements where those offices were eliminated.

Research also supports the idea that there are economies of scale in assessing. Big jurisdictions with more properties can assess them at a lower cost per parcel than small jurisdictions. That may apply to moving the work of full-time elected township assessors to the county level. It probably doesn't apply to township-trustee assessors, because we'll be replacing part-time assessors, who were paid little, with full-time assessors with full-time salaries. County-based assessment probably won't reduce costs very much, in most cases.

Curiously, most of the remaining township assessors are in five counties on our northern border, stretching from Lake to Elkhart. The others are also in the northern half of the state, in Allen, Howard, Vigo and Wayne counties. All the township assessor offices in the Indianapolis, Evansville and suburban-Louisville regions were voted out.

Moving property assessment to counties was one of the recommendations of the Local Government Reform Commission (that's the Kernan-Shepard Commission). The commission made 27 recommendations all together, including the complete elimination of township government. If the governor chooses to promote some of these other recommendations, will he face a north-south regional divide?

Capital referenda are another result of the March property tax reform. Money can be borrowed for big projects and repaid out of property taxes, but only if voters approve. Five school corporations and Jay County held referenda. Voters in four school corporations and Jay County approved. Voters said no in one school corporation.

Research implies that people weigh the benefits and costs of a project when they decide how to vote. Voters who benefit -- like parents with kids in school -- are more likely to vote yes. Voters who would see their taxes rise a lot to pay for the project are more likely to vote no.

Six referenda are not nearly enough to test these ideas. But three of the four school referenda that passed were in urban school corporations, where the tax base has a lot of commercial and industrial property. Revenue can be raised at lower tax rates in such places. In years to come, will we find that capital referenda are more likely to pass in urban places? In rural places, with only homes and farmland to support capital spending, will referenda be less likely to pass?

Indiana's 2008 referenda were not historic by presidential standards. Still, if some day someone does write a history of Indiana local government, 2008 should get a chapter.



Writer: Larry DeBoer
Editor: Cindie Gosnell