By PAULENE POPARAD
Local residents and public officials urged the Indiana Commission on Local
Government Reform to be wary of recommending sweeping changes without first
understanding their immediate impact and long-term consequences.
Especially when it comes to libraries, which were well represented among the
approximately 200 persons attending the two-hour listening session hosted by
commission staff Monday in Gary.
Among them were six members of the local Westchester Public Library Board,
WPL library director Phil Baugher, assistant director Jane Walsh-Brown and
WPL attorney Terry Hiestand. The Library Board has been vocal in its
opposition to possible mandatory consolidation of WPL, a township-based
library service, with the Porter County Library System.
But according to Porter County library director Jim Cline, that’s something
his Library Board isn’t anxious to do either. “We’ve discussed it and I can
safely say the consensus is it would be more expenses associated with
(consolidation) than savings. It would take decades to recover what you’d
Saving Hoosier taxpayers money by operating government more efficiently and
cost-effectively is a focus of the Reform Commission, which plans to make
recommendations to Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Indiana General Assembly.
While some believe the Daniels’-appointed commission was formed to support
his legislative goals, member John Stafford of Fort Wayne was present Monday
and said no agreement on recommendations has been reached.
“No we haven’t. If we have, I haven’t been clued in. We’re at the beginning
point in the process,” said Stafford.
“There is no such thing as a perfect solution,” he stated. Judgement calls
will have to be made but citizens shouldn’t underestimate the influence of
having their voice heard as part of the commission’s process. Public comment
is open through Oct. 31. The final recommendations are due by Dec. 31.
“If anything worries me it’s we’re close to having to make decisions and
haven’t,” said Stafford, the director of the Community Research Institute at
Indiana University/Purdue University Fort Wayne who’s also served 20 years in
various government posts.
Previous legislative attempts to abolish or modify township government have
been made. Stafford said right now, “Everything’s on the table.”
That worries Mike Schultz, LaPorte County’s Center Township assessor. “It’s
township government on the chopping block first,” he predicted.
The audience was divided into about 20 small-discussion groups. Schultz was
in one with WPL Library Board president Karen Nash and member Sharon Robbins.
Schultz said with the General Assembly going into a short session from
January to March, restructuring government is too big an undertaking to rush.
“My biggest fear is they’ll do something just to get it done,” said Schultz.
Agreed Nash, “We have to make sure we’re not putting fingers in the dike when
this is all over.” Schultz said because “everybody has to be a player in the
fix,” a statewide ballot referendum may be needed first.
Dr. Clarence Boone of Gary, a former Indiana University trustee, reminded
that some of the recommendations proposed may require amending the Indiana
state Constitution by public vote. Tim Mills-Groninger of Whiting supported
reviewing the implications of change before enacting it.
Mills-Groninger strongly challenged the assumption that consolidation of
government bodies and institutions such as libraries and schools will save
money or improve quality of life.
During public comment later, many speakers stopped short of endorsing
wholesale consolidations in favor of encouraging greater cooperation and
compatibility between levels of government; standardizing administrative
procedures and processes in the areas of human resources, accounting and
purchasing; streamlining and synchronizing delivery of services; and
increased accountability from and leadership by government officials.
The clear message: no one-size-fits-all approach will suit everyone.
Nash said WPL already fits the needs of the community it serves. “Why do we
want to touch what works?” Under a consolidation scenario, Robbins said,
“We’re very concerned about losing many of the things we do.”
Patron Melissa McLaughlin of Porter came Monday to support WPL. “I use our
local library and love its sense of community. My little boy and I go to the
library at least twice a week. We look forward to it. I can’t imagine going
any place else for learning.”
Rick Kieft of LaPorte said the bigger you make government, the less
representation you have.
Cline said although the Porter County Library Board hasn’t taken a public
position on a possible WPL consolidation, the question has arisen how much of
a voice patrons in the current WPL service territory would have if that
occurred. Darla Block of Jackson Township is the only Duneland-area resident
on the seven-member county Library Board.
Cline noted many other things would need to be resolved, including what tax
rate would be used to finance a consolidated library system and how services
would be provided. “To consolidate and lose services would be a real
Nat McKnight of Gary said his discussion group agreed that among all units of
government, libraries do a pretty good job and the ones that are shouldn’t be
Other speakers said the value to citizens of a government unit’s
independence, identity and local control shouldn’t be discounted, while some
said a closer look at schools is warranted. Public safety and access to
public transportation generally were identified as priorities.
Getting specific, Schultz called for bucking the newspaper lobby and
eliminating the County Commissioners’ need to advertise their claims to be
paid. He said the role of townships may need to be redefined, and spoke of
regional fire districts replacing township fire departments if insurance
companies don’t penalize property owners because of the change.
WPL’s Baugher said he felt libraries took a step in getting their message out
Monday, yet the Library Board isn’t taking any chances.
Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Library Service Center, 100 W. Indiana Ave. in
downtown Chesterton, WPL is hosting a local forum to report on the
consolidation issue and to receive comments from the community regarding it.
The public is encouraged to attend.