Calumet Township files federal suit over secession law
BY MICHELLE L. QUINN Post-Tribune correspondent January 27, 2014 10:22PM
Updated: March 3, 2014 1:56PM
The chasm between Calumet Township and Griffith has gotten deeper, with a federal lawsuit filed by the township against the state’s Department of Local Government Finance.
A lawsuit filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Hammond claims a recent state law allowing Griffith to secede from the township is unconstitutional.
House Bill 1585, passed last year, allows Griffith to secede if Township Assessor Mary Elgin can’t reduce the property tax rate that funds Calumet’s township assistance to less than 12 times the average of the state’s 1,008 townships.
The suit was filed Jan. 9 on behalf of Township Trustee Mary Elgin and the Rev. Dwight Gardner against Gov. Mike Pence and Micah Vincent, chairman of the local finance department.
Elgin and Gardner contend in the suit that H.B. 1585 violates the U.S. Constitution — among other things, the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment.. Gardner, pastor for Trinity Baptist Church in Gary, serves as president of the Northwest Indiana Federation; he said the law proves there’s an out-and-out war on the poor.
“The issue isn’t township government; it’s the treatment of impoverished people,” Gardner said Monday night. “When you take an honest look at the level of children living in poverty and at the number of people unemployed here, it simply makes no sense.”
Gardner also said there was already a state law that would allow a municipality to secede from a township and attach itself to a different one, so the General Assembly coming up with the new formula when comparing the various township rates isn’t like comparing apples to apples and is further proof of hostility to the poor.
“The same governor who put this in place is the same governor who controls the RDA, and what did the RDA do? It removed the ability of local governments to require local hiring from their cities and towns,” Gardner said.
“For me, it’s not a debate over how well or not well the township is run.”
Griffith Council Vice President Rick Ryfa, R-3, said he wasn’t surprised the township filed suit. He said whatever is implied by the suit has nothing to do with the town’s intentions.
“It’s a suit the governor and DLGF will have to defend, but our intentions this whole time were to look out for our residents as well as the people in Calumet Township who aren’t benefiting from township services,” Ryfa said.
Town Clerk-Treasurer George Jerome pointed out that during testimony on the bill last year, Trustee Elgin said the township already complied with the law, so why it feels the need to file a lawsuit concerns him.
“I wish the township, instead of filing a frivolous lawsuit, would take its taxpayer money and learn how to get in compliance” with the law, he said.
If the township doesn’t meet the tax rate put forth by the bill, the state would come in and oversee the township’s finances. If that fails, the state next would allow Griffith to hold a secession referendum in 2016. Two-thirds of town residents would have to approve for the town to secede.