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September 1, 2013

Trustees say services undervalued

Direct assistance doesn't account for casework

If township trustees were judged the same way nonprofits were, half the controversy over the office would die away, or so goes Dawn Manfredi’s theory.The Center Township Trustee’s office even paid an accounting firm to investigate what the numbers would look like, if all of the casework performed by their office had a dollar figure attached to it.“Trustees are a service provider, not a check writer,” said Manfredi, Center Township Trustee Jean Lushin’s daughter and chief deputy.Last year, the Center Township office paid out about $408,000 in direct assistance, paying bills, rent and obtaining medical services for the disadvantaged.It’s officially still called “poor relief,” a term which dates back over 100 years. Along with contracting for fire protection and tending cemeteries, poor relief is what township trustees provide.For Lushin and Manfredi, the overlooked story is the amount of indirect help the trustee’s office provides.Last year, they estimate they were responsible for obtaining $1.26 million in support from other services, in addition to the direct assistance the township provides. Township officials negotiate with creditors and landlords and they go out and find state and federal assistance. “I guess you could say that it’s not always about dollars when you’re talking about human needs,” Lushin said. “No one else does what we do. No one else is in a position to advocate for the poor. Churches come close, but churches don't have the resources." For critics, it’s easier to look at the Center Township budget, which shows last year the township spent more than $1.1 million on running the office, including salaries, benefits and contracted services.Manfredi’s point is focusing exclusively on direct assistance vs. operating costs ignores the fact the bulk of the township employees’ time is spent with working with clients — looking into their needs and addressing them.The accounting firm estimated that in 2010, Center Township spent $1.2 million on “program services” and about $200,000 on management costs.“You have to look at it like you would police or firefighters,” Lushin said. “If you don’t have any fires and you don’t need the police, everyone is happy. But there’s a cost involved in what they do.”Ball State University professor Michael Hicks disagrees, saying Center Township and other trustees aren’t doing anything state welfare caseworkers aren’t already equipped to do.Even making poor relief a county function would be better, Hicks said.“It’s a prioritization problem,” Hicks said “If you just advocated moving all of that [trustee] money to the county level, maybe the discussion becomes, ‘Hey, maybe we don’t need a wheel tax. Maybe we have enough resources to avoid raising taxes.’ Or maybe you spend the money on something else.”

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