I have to be honest. I haven’t really thought a lot about township government throughout my career in the newspaper business.

Then along comes Democrat Shari Benyousky, the Warsaw area resident who has decided to run for Wayne Township trustee.

She’s written a couple of letters to the editor and bought a video ad on our website, talking about her vision for the office.

She’s a 48-year-old English professor and this is her first try at an elected office. She’s campaigning fairly aggressively along with three Democrat Wayne Township advisory board candidates.

In the video, Benyousky pledges to “help people up with dignity when they need a hand.” She also says:

“I’m tired of no one speaking for me in local government. I’ve watched my taxes climb without solutions to public transportation, health care, affordable housing, child care for working parents. It’s clear that change around here hasn’t addressed the needs of all of us.”

And then: “This race is about ideas versus money. I have ideas, my opponent has money.”

The money Benyousky is talking about is $1.4 million Wayne Township has in total cash and investments. She contends that money accumulated in recent years is not earmarked for anything and questions the wisdom of that policy.

Benyousky is running against Republican Jeanie Stackhouse, who works in the township office as an investigative clerk.

Stackhouse has worked there for eight years. In a recent letter to the editor, Stackhouse defended the current state of the township trustee’s office.

She wrote:

“According to the law, a township of our size can help along with other organizations up to a certain amount of money. There are laws that trustees must abide. This is both for the protection of the taxpayer as well as the protection of the citizens requiring services. If the money runs out, it is still the responsibility of the trustee to fund the assistance.

“The township does have a cushion in our account. This should be looked at as being good stewards of the public's money that was entrusted to the current trustee and the advisory board. Without this money in the account, where would we be if one major employer closed its doors?

“The money in the separate funds are, by law, to be used for the purpose of that specific fund. The township fund (Fund 840) can only be used for the purposes of township assistance. It cannot be used for business growth or any other reason. The cemetery fund (2120) also can only be used for the maintenance and so on.

“The current trustee is open for audit by the State Board of Accounts and has never had issues with any audits. They follow the law as to how they can spend township money. I will continue to do this as trustee.”

As this whole thing played out, I became curious. Why, indeed, is there $1.4 million in the Wayne Township trustee’s coffers? Is this an oddity? How does this compare with other townships?

Following is a chart listing each township in our county, its tax rate, population and the amount of cash and investments it had on hand at the end of 2017.

Township    Rate    Pop.    Funds

    (2018)    (2010)    (x$1,000)

Clay    1.175    1,712    $419

Etna    1.118    1,503    $117

Franklin    1.288    1,206    $239

Harrison    1.461    3,587    $669

Jackson    1.570    1,238    $236

Jefferson east 1.435    2,040    $214

Jefferson    west 0.899

Lake    1.162    1,588    $119

Monroe    1.512    1,147    $93

Plain    1.109    7,698    $1,269

Prairie    1.149    1,651    $405

Scott    1.185    1,696    $52

Seward    1.278    2,567    $362

Tippecanoe    0.919    6,661    $549

Turkey Creek    0.928    8,428    $5,339

Van Buren    0.899    4,191    $291

Washington    1.600    2,996    $207

Wayne    1.498    27,551    $1,427

As one can clearly see, far from being an outlier, Wayne Township actually looks pretty frugal. Compare and contrast Wayne with Plain. Wayne has four times the population of Plain, yet Plain has almost as much money.

And then there’s Turkey Creek. With a population of 8,428, it has more than $5.3 million lying about.

Is this unique to Kosciusko County? Nope.

I checked Center Township in Marshall County, home of the county seat Plymouth. Population, 15,593; cash, $1.958 million.

I checked Columbia Township in Whitley County, home of the county seat Columbia City. Population, 11,047; cash, $1.156 million.

Of course, all of this begs the question, what’s up with all this cash lying around?

So I asked County Auditor Michelle Puckett.

She said since many townships have to provide fire service, it’s not uncommon for them to have a lot of money saved for equipment or fire trucks.

Each year, townships do a budget where trustees meet with their board, look at revenues, expenditures and cash on hand. The board reviews the budget and adopts it. After that, the budget goes to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

Puckett said generally, the DLGF doesn’t look at cash reserves as long as the township has enough funds to support its budget.

She said Turkey Creek has such a large cash reserve because the township administers fire protection for the town of Syracuse as well as for the township. The township collects all the funds for the entire fire territory and administers all the financial books.

Taxpayers in Warsaw and Wayne Township pay into the Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory, Puckett said, and both taxing units have a seat on the fire territory board.

Puckett said townships generally have a five- or 10-year plan that explains why they’re saving money.

Townships are limited by law to certain services they are required to provide and they have to stay within their realm of service, she said.

At the state level, legislation has been introduced to force townships under a certain population to consolidate. Also, there have been bills calling for elimination of township government and turning over those functions to the county. Those bills went nowhere.

Those bills, and several others, were the outgrowth of the 2007 Kernan-Shepherd report, a study authorized by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels to provide recommendations for a leaner local government structure.

In the 2018 session, State Sen. John Ruckelshaus introduced Senate Bill 231 which would have had forced townships to consider “(1) the ending balance that will remain in each township fund relative to the budgeted expenditures from the fund; and (2) whether the part of the balance in excess of 10 percent of budgeted expenditures should be used instead of imposing additional property taxes for the ensuing year.”

The bill also would have forced the DLGF to consider those factors when reviewing township budgets.

Aware of the fate of earlier bills aimed at consolidating or eliminating township government, Ruckelshaus opted for a scaled-down version.

Friday afternoon, he told me his aim was to urge fiscal responsibility as many townships were accumulating a lot of cash.

“The idea was, look, do what you have to do to service citizens. But look at your budgets, and if you do have a hoard of cash, try to work within that instead of going back to the taxpayers.”

The bill was referred to the committee on local government in January and went nowhere.

So while some folks might like to see the role of township government expanded, others in the state legislature view it as arcane and in need of restructuring.

Certainly, there is always room for improvement, but it seems to me townships in our county are playing by the rules and are pretty good stewards of our tax dollars.