Some time back, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law that gave localities great flexibility in designing and implementing governmental consolidations. This was meant to make things easier than what happened with the Indianapolis Unigov model, where it took special legislation to push through the merger. The new rules let two or more governmental units design a merger, then put it to their communities for a ballot for approval. This keeps things flexible and easy, ensures public support, and gets around a recent Indiana Supreme Court ruling that severely curtailed the ability of the legislature to enact special purpose laws for a given municipality.
This law was likely intended to facilitate city-county consolidation. However, as it has worked out, it is basically being used as an anti-annexation tool by rural areas. An example out of the Fort Wayne area provides a perfect example. Eleven townships and the municipalities therein have proposed a merger to form something called East Allen Communities. The vast majority of this territory is rural. However, the consolidation is structured such that the entire area will be considered incorporated. This means none of the territory can be annexed by Fort Wayne. Keeping Fort Wayne out and making sure the area cannot be subject to a city-county merger, is no doubt the sole intent of the merger. (Interestingly, the merger charter would appear to be unconstitutional, since there is one council member per township. Unless all townships have equal population and stay that way forever, it violates the one man, one vote principle).
A similar situation is playing out in Zionsville. Previously, residents of the unincorporated township areas had fought tooth and nail against annexation by Zionsville. However, after Whitestown made a gigantic annexation that included a portion of Eagle Township, the residents decided that Zionsville was the lesser of two evils. So now there is a proposal to merge Zionsville with Eagle and Union Townships. The backers struggle to show benefits to the taxpayers because there aren’t any. The sole purpose of this is to make sure Whitestown can’t annex any more territory. It is a merger in name only. In fact, there is a even a two-tier system where old Zionsville residents continue to get city services at a higher tax rate, while areas outside get county services at a lower one. (This is a troubling arrangement in its own right. Will the district boundary line be fixed by the terms of the merger? If so, it will put residents of the old city at a permanent tax disadvantage as the urbanized area expands. Can it be changed by the city council? If so, that would be nothing more than a functional equivalent of annexation. Is change automatic as urbanization thresholds would be reached? One would hope so.)
Arrangements such as these should not be allowed by the state. Flexible merger powers are a good thing, but they should not enable to rural areas to incorporate themselves in a way that would never be allowed under the current incorporation statute. Any territory which is not urbanized and will not be urbanized within a reasonable timeframe should not be allowed to be included inside a municipal boundary.
While I’m on the topic, I’ll bring up another dubious local government practice that seems to have become prevalent of late: fire territories. A fire territory allows two or more entities, normally a town and a township, to establish a joint fire service district, with proportional funding from each. Now this doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, but for any municipal taxpayer it is. Here’s why. Extending core municipal services like fire protection outside of the city limits on an a la carte basis creates two tiers of citizens: those who live in the town, receiving and paying for all city services whether they want them or not; and township residents, who get the menu plan, being able pick and choose just what services they feel like paying for, and enjoying a quality and cost level of services they would never be able to get except by being next to the town. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to discover that one township residents get the critical services they want like fire protection, their desire to be annexed will plummet.
Municipalities should jealously guard their services. Extending services is the only real lever that a city has to get people to agree to voluntary annexation. Give away your most precious services on a contract basis, and you’re done for. Plainfield and Brownsburg may discover this to their chagrin.
There’s a better way. If a town and township want to combine forces, the township could simply contract with the town for the service, with costs shared equitably, for a limited term only. Because this is a contract that would need to be reviewed periodically, there are opportunities to reconsider the appropriateness. One of the huge levers that Fishers has over Geist is that there is no Fall Creek Township fire department, and there is no way that the rump of unincorporated territory in the township could create its own fire department on a cost-effective basis. In this way, township residents in unincorporated areas are able to enjoy the benefits of high quality municipal fire service, but then have less ability to object if the town subsequently wants to annex them, which is only fair.