Every Hoosier lives in one, but few know its name. Every taxpayer supports one, but few know for what and why. The ugly step-child of local government, once of consequence, is now considered expendable. But the township remains despite having powerful forces seeking its legal execution.
Depending on how you count them, Indiana has 1,008 townships. Of those, 26 are prosaically named Center. Patriotic names like Union (35) and Liberty (18) are prominent.
However, important national figures dominate with Jefferson cited 27 times, 24 recorded for Harrison. Clay and Franklin were each honored in 17 counties. But none of those compare with 47 named for Jackson. Even Washington falls short of Old Hickory at 46.
Townships were neat in their day. Surveyors, such as George Washington, could mark them out easily as squares or rectangles with perhaps a river or creek for an irregular boundary. Then, if perfect squares, they could be divided into six-by-six sections suitable for unambiguous subdivision into fairly homogeneous farmland.
Back in 1890, the time of blessed memory, Indiana had 999 townships, as nine had yet to form. Only Center Township (Marion Co.) with 112,000 had a population over 100,000. By 2018, eight township each had over 100,000 persons, led by North Township (Lake Co.). Meanwhile, the previous leader, Marion’s Center Twp., had been reduced to a population below what it enjoyed in 1900 at 168,000.
The arguments against townships rest mainly on their small size. In 1890, there were 854 townships with fewer than 2,500 persons. In 2018, there were still 594 Indiana townships under 2,500.
Furthermore, between 1980 and 2019, 287 townships had lost 178,000 persons. To be fair, half of that loss was in just three townships (Center Twp. of Marion Co., Calumet of Lake, and Wayne of Allen). Nevertheless, consolidation or elimination of many townships could be considered.
How is this to be done? As with most issues, it is too much for the administration or the legislature to consider. What we’ll get is a Blue Ribbon Commission, carefully chosen to give no offense to any minority opinion. But carefully selected and chaired by a person who has already made up his/her mind and has previously demonstrated dominance over non-conformist participants.
This is not an urgent situation. There is some money at stake and some unemployment or early retirement to consider. In several cases, there might be convenience or confidentiality considerations. But most Hoosiers don’t care and passionate advocates of “smaller is more efficient and more beautiful” can be dismissed as deluded reactionaries.
What does matter is to quiet the critics of government who latch onto antiquated public sector practices as examples of fatal, inherent flaws in all governmental activities. These are often the same people who believe that markets will scrub clean the inefficiencies and inequities of the private sector.