They were just passing through Evansville, this indigent family, when their car broke down on U.S. 41. The Indiana State Police called the Pigeon Township Trustee's Office.
It was after office hours, as Trustee Mary Hart recalls, but that didn't matter. Hart, whose office spent almost twice as much taxpayer money as any other local township on poor relief last year, didn't need a meeting of her advisory board to act.
"They needed a place to stay for the night while the vehicle got repaired," she said. "We put them in a hotel for that night until they could get their vehicle repaired and continue to their destination. They didn't live in the township, but this happened in the township.'
To Hart, the story illustrates how fast and agile township government is when helping the indigent in emergency situations. Township poor relief, she said, can step in when help isn't forthcoming from non-profits and social services bureaucracies that work only during office hours.
"We have the flexibility to handle immediate emergency assistance, and no one else would be able to do that. They would be in just black and white, strict guidelines -- and there are people who fall through those cracks," she said.
But critics point to township government's administrative costs, its well-publicized instances of corruption and its origins in Indiana's 1851 Constitution, when local government accessibility meant you could get there within a day by horse and buggy. They say the speed with which townships can deliver food, clothing and shelter almost certainly could be replicated more efficiently and at less cost to taxpayers.
"When I worked in Mayor (Russell) Lloyd's office, if somebody came in and said, 'I don't have a place to sleep tonight, what can you do for me?' I tended not to send them to the (former Vanderburgh County Department of Public Welfare) because I knew that they needed help this afternoon. I would send them to the Pigeon Township trustee because at least there was some chance that they might get instant help," said Randall Shepard, former Indiana Supreme Court chief justice and co-architect of the 2007 Kernan-Shepard commission report on reforming Indiana local government.
"So yes, I think that's a plus -- but I don't have much doubt that the people who serve as county commissioners could organize themselves to achieve similar ends.'
That's what Shepard's commission recommended -- eliminating township-level government and transferring its duties to counties.
Poor relief is a thing in Hart's township, which includes all of Evansville's inner city. Pigeon Township's expenses for 2016 included such big-ticket items as $130,548 to Vectren to help residents pay bills. The township spent $83,618 on vouchers to buy food until food stamps kicked in, and toiletries and cleaning supplies that can't be purchased with food stamps.
The property tax rate Pigeon levies for "township assistance" – about 10 cents per $100 of assessed value -- is the highest assessed by any Vanderburgh County township. For all the poverty there, Hart pointed to more affluent areas on Reitz Hill and in other areas of her sprawling township with homes with high assessed values. Homes occupied by people who can pay the poor relief tax rate. Townships also receive local income tax money.
But while Pigeon Township reported that it spent $518,781 in public money on "township assistance" in 2016, that's just 53 percent of what it spent from its fund devoted to township assistance. Knight Township spent the second-highest amount from its poor relief account -- $360,870 -- but only 62 percent of that went to actual poor relief.
That means Pigeon and Knight spent 47 and 38 percent, respectively, of every dollar for poor relief on something other than direct poor relief.
That's too much, Shepard said.
"The going rate among township trustees is something like 40 percent,” Shepard said. “That is to say, if the taxpayers contribute $1,000 to help poor people, $400 of it goes to hire staff in the trustee's office and $600 of it actually gets into the hands of needy citizens."
Hart acknowledged that the 47 percent of her township assistance fund that didn't go to direct assistance went primarily to what she calls "welfare administration" -- employee salaries and benefits, insurance, retirement accounts. She had eight full-time staffers last year. She has six now. Hart's own $56,203 salary is the highest among Vanderburgh County townships, but she said that's because it's the only trustee position classified as full-time and has the heaviest poor relief burden.
The Pigeon township assistance fund's budget for 2017 also includes such items as $8,000 for office rent and $22,000 for "repair and maintenance supplies."
What the numbers don't and can't measure, Hart said, is the quality of assistance rendered. Township caseworkers conduct probing interviews with potential clients, she said. They're not constrained by hard-and-fast regulations that leave no room for thoughtful consideration of someone's unique circumstances.
"There's a lot of man-hours involved that the other agencies would not have time to do -- your non-profits," she said. "Say they're running a scholarship. They're going to look at the student and say, 'Well, the income qualifies, this qualifies, this qualifies -- they spend maybe 15 minutes determining whether or not they qualify for this scholarship.
"My caseworkers may spend five to six hours referring these clients to different places to get additional assistance.'
Debbie Driskell, executive director of the Indiana Township Association and trustee of Delaware Township in Hamilton County, flatly declared that, "federal agencies don't help people with rent and utilities and things like that."
"There are no federal programs for that. None," Driskell said. "You can try to make an argument that not-for-profits assist, and yes they do -- but if you think about it for a minute, if the trustees system goes away, how are these not-for-profits going to come up with the money to replace what we do? It's pretty much -- I think they would tell you -- an insurmountable goal.'
Driskell responded with a request to "clarify" what she had said.
"We're not talking about assistance where you can, in an emergency, go get help with your rent," she said. "(Federal HUD assistance) requires an application to move you into a HUD-approved apartment."
'They've got some flexibility'
The network of townships is so diverse that Pigeon spent 83 percent of its money last year through a poor relief fund while comparatively affluent Scott Township didn't even levy a property tax rate for poor relief.
The statutes governing what township trustees give them broad discretion to shape and carry out their missions as they see fit. The law is supplemented by state accounting guidelines that list 36 trustee duties.
"If (trustees) want to concentrate more of their money and their resources on township assistance, they can structure their property tax levy rates higher than, say, their recreation rate or their fire protection rate," said Ryan Preston, director of audit services for the State Board of Accounts. "As long as they're within the (state-imposed) property tax caps, they've got some flexibility."
The Knight Township Trustee's Office provides the full range of taxpayer-funded poor relief -- help paying for burials for the indigent, life-sustaining medications, utilities, shelter, food. Those benefits are tempered by a lengthy, strict and sometimes complex list of eligibility standards, required proof that help is needed and proof that other resources have been exhausted. There are nearly as many potentially disqualifying client actions as there are clients.
There’s a long list of township rules about which utility bills get paid. And there’s this: Anyone seeking help with utilities must bring to the trustee’s office a disconnect notice issued under the name of at least one adult household member. Trustee Martin said her office will pay $50-$75 per household in most cases, typically helping a single household with utilities no more than twice annually.
The trustee's office won't help with rent if an applicant is on Section 8 or receives subsidized or reduced rent housing. You have to have lived at your current address for at least 30 days.
Knight Township Trustee Kathryn Martin knows how to say no.
"In March someone had gotten $8,000 back on their taxes, and they wanted their Vectren bill paid," she said. "They got denied. You need to pay your bills if you can.
"We've also seen people get $4,000, $5,000 back, but (government tax records) will show they're only actually getting $200 because of student loans, medical bills or a judgment against them. We'll help under those circumstances."
Some residents want township aid when it's clear they don't work much and don't want to, Martin said. She requires they seek job referrals -- sheets signed by potential employers attesting the applicant applied there -- before considering it.
"If they're in between jobs and have one week without pay, we're forgiving on that," she said.
Seven years into her tenure as trustee, Martin fundamentally wants to help. She takes an expansive view of the services her office can provide. The Knight Township Trustee's Office's web site evinces a sense of mission, stating assistance is provided "with the goal of helping our citizens become productive members of society."
To that end Martin and her staff help residents create their personal budgets. They help the first-timers call other agencies for help. They reach out to churches and shelters to see what help is available. Sometimes, Martin said, she helps newly unemployed residents with rent because they need the money that had been earmarked for rent to pay for food while they file for food stamps. An elderly couple who've lived in the township a long time might get help paying the utilities bill so they have enough to pay property taxes.
Helping residents navigate other agencies costs the township's taxpayers little, and Martin has held the line at least enough that her office's total spending last year was 47th-lowest per capita among 988 Indiana townships reporting. Knight's $9.33 per township resident was the lowest in Vanderburgh County.