‘You don’t just hand that money out’

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Trustee explains why Clay Township’s assistance funding for residents in need lags behind neighbors, hit $0 in 2021

When Hoosiers suddenly find themselves in a financial emergency, unable to pay for basic needs such as food and rent, state law ensures they can turn to their township trustee to apply for help.

In Clay Township, whose borders essentially align with the affluent City of Carmel, assistance requests have long lagged far below its neighbors in Hamilton County. In 2021, however, it became one of the few townships in recent history to spend $0 on township assistance before bouncing back this year to spend more in this area than it has in a decade.

Doug Callahan

According to Clay Township Trustee Doug Callahan, there are several reasons for the assistance disparity between Clay and other nearby townships, including demographics, partnerships with nonprofits that help people in need, and the thoroughness of the investigation into assistance requests. He said the dip to spending $0 on township assistance in 2021 was caused by unique circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, which also led to the jump in 2022.

Callahan, who served as chief of the Carmel Fire Dept. before becoming trustee, said it’s long been important to him to help people in need – especially the township’s youngest residents.

“No kid is going to go hungry, and no kid is going to sleep on the floor if I’m aware of it,” he said. “I think that’s what everybody feels in this office.”

Danielle Carey Tolan

Westfield Washington Township Trustee Danielle Carey Tolan said she was “shocked” to see that Clay Township spent $0 on township assistance in 2021, but she said differences in how townships operate doesn’t mean residents aren’t receiving help.

“Each leader does it a little bit differently,” she said. “I don’t think people are not being served (in Clay Township). I’ve never heard of somebody saying, ‘I can’t get anything from anybody.’”

Fewer requests for help

It’s natural to assume that Clay Township doesn’t receive as many requests for assistance as its neighbors because of the number of wealthy residents within its borders, and Callahan and other officials agree that could explain some of the difference.

Year Clay Westfield-Wash. Noblesville Delaware
2021 0/29 170/192 297/457 168/250
2020 5/57 314/240 546/486 244/535
2019 12/40 341/259 604/489 146/284
2018 8/34 389/322 1168/669 186/277
2017 8/25 385/255 715/628 166/215
2016 18/42 542/281 589/553 125/152
2015 18/34 774/302 539/486 436/982
2014 127/108 845/284 474/520 457/1108
2013 161/288 866/341 448/416 348/1432
2012 284/176 917/376 522/462 330/1645
2011 399/251 1302/488 582/517 401/382

But likely a bigger reason Clay Township receives fewer requests for help, according to Callahan, is the township’s strict adherence to its guidelines regarding when someone can receive assistance and a diligent review of individual situations surrounding assistance requests.

“A lot of it goes back to our caseworkers. If you have a caseworker that’s on top of it, that’s doing their job, (those seeking assistance) – sometimes – they won’t come back,” he said.

Clay Township only received 29 requests for assistance in 2021, substantially less than nearby Noblesville (457), Delaware (250) and Westfield Washington (192) townships. In 2020, Clay Township approved 5 of 57 requests as its neighbors approved hundreds of requests they received. The numbers aren’t much different in the years leading up to the pandemic.

Callahan, who will retire from office at the end of the year when his term expires, said he expects an increase in township assistance requests in early 2023 once his successor is in place, but with his current caseworker and clerk set to remain in their roles, he doesn’t expect much to change in how requests are handled.

Paul Hensel

Paul Hensel, a Clay Township board member who will replace Callahan, doesn’t plan to make major adjustments, either.

“Everything has run pretty smoothly so far, so there’s no need for us to mess anything up or change anything,” Hensel said.

Seeking relief elsewhere

Although less than 30 people applied for assistance from Clay Township in 2021, hundreds of other Carmel residents sought relief elsewhere.

Callahan said the township spent $0 in assistance funds in 2021 because of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which provided federal funding to cover rent and other related costs for those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hamilton County allocated $10 million in federal funds for the ERAP and delegated its administration to the township trustees, since they already had systems in place to work with those in need.

“A lot of us didn’t have to pay out rental assistance because of that,” Callahan said.

According to data submitted to the state, however, Clay Township is the only one in Hamilton County that didn’t use any of its own funding in 2021 to provide rental assistance.

Debbie Driskell

Debbie Driskell, executive director of the Indiana Township Association and Delaware Township trustee, said Clay wasn’t the only Indiana township to see its assistance numbers dip during the pandemic in response to the availability of federal funds. But Clay Township is unusual demographically, she said, in its total lack of spending.

“Looking back, historically with townships across the state, there were townships that spent $0 (on township assistance) from time to time,” she said. “They were typically in more rural, less populated areas.”

Although Carmel residents may have not often sought help directly from Clay Township, they applied in large numbers for ERAP funds during the pandemic. Since the online portal to apply for ERAP funding opened in March 2021, administrators had received 950 applications from Clay Township residents and approved 618 by mid-December 2022, providing nearly $2 million in the process. Only Noblesville Township received more ERAP applications than Clay Township, according to Carey Tolan, who managed the program in Hamilton County.

The trustee of Adams Township began handling ERAP review and approval for Clay Township after Clay was unable to keep up with the requests, which Clay handled like a typical request for township assistance.

“We look at everybody (who applies for assistance) and we do an investigation,” Callahan said. “I don’t care if it’s the federal government or the local government. You don’t just hand that money out.”

Callahan said the closure of the ERAP application portal is a significant reason why township assistance requests and funding jumped in Clay Township in 2022, as residents who received up to a year of federal funds to help cover rent are now turning to the township for assistance. After spending $0 on township assistance in 2021, Clay Township had spent approximately $80,000 as December 2022 neared an end.

“The problem with this is, people are now thinking they can just come in and get money, but the ERAP program and township assistance are two different things,” Callahan said. “The federal government, when they gave out that money, there were no questions hardly asked.”

A looming setback

Of the money spent from Clay Township’s assistance fund in 2021, $89,304 covered employee compensation, $402 covered supplies and $100,000 was transferred to the township’s rainy day fund, which can be used to cover unexpected expenses.

Callahan said the state’s Dept. of Local Government Finance, which reviews municipal budgets, allowed all townships a one-time opportunity in 2021 to make a transfer into rainy day funds because of the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Callahan said the funds could eventually be used for township assistance or something else, but with an unrelated financial setback looming, it made sense for the township to boost its reserves.

For years, as Clay Township lagged behind its neighbors in providing direct township assistance, it far outpaced them in awarding grants to many of the nonprofits to which it refers people in need. Thanks to the state’s formula for local income tax distribution, the debt the township incurred through its Central Park bond led to it receiving millions of dollars each year that other townships in the county aren’t collecting.

In 2020, for example, Clay Township was able to donate $19,500 to Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, $14,500 to Merciful H.E.L.P. Center, $10,000 to Family Promise of Hamilton County, $3,000 to Prevail and $27,000 to Janus Developmental Services. Callahan estimated the township has awarded more than $5 million to nonprofits during his 16 years as trustee.

In 2021, however, those and other grants essentially disappeared. Callahan said he and the grant recipients knew the loss of the Central Park LIT funds would eventually lessen the township’s ability to provide grants, but the pandemic ended it a bit earlier than expected as the Township braced for falling tax revenue resulting from pandemic disruptions.

Callahan said he expects the township will still award some grants, and he’s asked leaders of nonprofits who previously received them to come before the township board to make a specific request when they need funds.

“I feel bad for them, but I’ve got to look out for what’s right for this office and do the right thing,” Callahan said. “All of the townships in the county would love to help out these organizations, but it goes back to what can they afford? We were fortunate with this (Central Park) LIT money that we were getting $3 million to $4 million a year. It’s coming to an end, and we had to start somewhere with cutting back.”

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