Indiana’s mayors : Lots of responsibility but not much power

Indiana mayors have little power to go with their great responsibilities. They are largely invisible outside their own communities. They are not weak people, but collectively have little statewide clout.

A year ago, I set out to interview former Indiana mayors about their experiences. Former mayors who held office in the past 30 years, with “no skin in the game,” I expected to be blunt and objective, knowing they were speaking off the record.

Each interview with 18 former mayors was a learning experience for me. First, I learned I was a bad interviewer. I did not draw out my subjects, did not direct them to the issues I wanted to cover, but let them flow on issues they chose.

Second, I discovered what conscientious, generous people we elect as mayors. These are our neighbors who want to accomplish good things for their constituents, for their communities.

Third, mayors know the barriers they face. But those impediments, mainly creations of the General Assembly, are taken as given and worked with or worked around. There are no televised marches on the Capitol. Their representation in the State House (the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns – IACT) takes an “incremental” approach to rectifying the wrongs done to our local governments.

Fourth, political party is of little consequence to mayors. As several said, “Garbage and snow are neither Democrat nor Republican.” Yet, politics and partisanship are critical to many city councilors and workers.

Fifth, most mayors did not talk of meaningful contact with their home legislators. Mayors are largely ignored by the superior personages in the General Assembly. Even though a few mayors “graduate” to the Legislature, their focus shifts from “operations” to “policy.”

These were, to me, critical findings. I perceive a crisis at the municipal level throughout the state. Local revenues, once mainly property taxes, have been under attack for more than 40 years. What’s wrong with local property taxes? Why are income and sales taxes, controlled by the distant Legislature, better? Why do we have an amendment to the Indiana Constitution putting a cap on local property taxes?

Farmers and homeowners (many of whom believe they are farmers because they own a riding mower) oppose property taxes. Likewise, equipment- and inventory-rich businesses got rid of the inventory tax and now pressure to eliminate the personal property (equipment) tax.

Our flat rate state income tax and sales tax hit households. Localities were bullied into adopting local income taxes, but there was no outrage expressed in my interviews.

Mayors know they cannot fight legislators who hold the purse strings. They must bow and wait to be kicked again while bending over.

Thus, I confess my failure in still another research activity. This column constitutes my report. From here on, I’ll stick with numbers. Talking to people, however delightful, is not my strength.

Morton Marcus is an economist, writer and speaker who may be reached at mortonj marcus@yahoo.com.