HANCOCK COUNTY – They come with different stories. Varying needs. A mother who needs help paying for her child’s school books. A senior citizen who can’t make it to the grocery store for food.
About a third of the people who visit Jim Nolte’s office leave in tears, grateful for the help he provides in making ends meet.
As one of the county’s nine elected township trustees, Nolte is entrusted with providing financial assistance to residents who need help paying for rent, medical and utility bills and food, among other household expenses. But every year, much of the funding allotted for such aid goes unspent.
Annually, more than $300,000 of tax dollars is divided among the townships for township assistance — formerly known as poor relief. About half of that funding goes unused, data shows. Every year since 2012, the county’s township trustee offices have spent no more than 54 percent of the total funding budgeted to provide food, shelter and clothes to residents in need, financial reports show.
Story continues below gallery
Officials say a number of factors contribute to the problem. They believe some residents are unaware such assistance is available; others might face barriers, such as a lack of transportation to get to the office or struggle to fill out the application required to get financial aid, they say.
One thing, officials agree, is certain: there are people in the community who need help.
Approximately 7.6 percent of Hancock County residents live in poverty, up from 5.6 percent five years ago. Another 20 percent of households earn above the poverty level — $24,300 annual income for a family of four — but less than the basic cost of living, according to United Way of Central Indiana.
And yet, fewer people have requested financial assistance from township trustees every year since 2012. That year, 587 people countywide made a request; by last year, that number had dropped about 31 percent to 405.
Connecting residents in need with the available financial assistance can be a challenge, said Jim Peters, director of Love In the Name of Christ (Love INC), a local organization that pairs residents in need with ministries and organizations that can help.
In 2015, for example, township offices ended the year with a combined $600,000 surplus in poor relief funding.
The amount of township assistance spent annually varies from township to township, data shows. Vernon Township, which comprises Fortville — the county’s neediest area with a 21 percent poverty rate — used nearly 70 percent of its $75,000 in poor relief funding in 2015. Jackson Township, located on the east side of the county, which is made up of mostly farmland, spent just 7 percent of its $10,000 allotment.
Township advisory boards govern township trustee office activities, and each office is responsible for setting up qualifications for poor relief, including income and residency restrictions, and determining how much will be given for each type of request.
Officials say it’s difficult to decide how much assistance to budget in a year. If township boards set aside too much, there’s a surplus of tax dollars going unused. If they don’t budget enough, people who need help could be turned away, Nolte said.
And so, unused tax dollars continue to build up.
The number of residents who visit Nolte’s office fluctuates — some days go by with no residents seeking aid; on the busiest day he can recall, 13 people told the trustee they desperately needed his help.
Nolte holds office hours twice a week but says he’s available 24/7, publishing his cellphone number online in hopes of reaching more people, but he knows there are those in his township who need help they aren’t getting.
Jackson Township trustee Bob McDaniel estimates his office gets contacted about poor relief once a month, but few of those who reach out end up taking the necessary steps to receive aid, he said. He asks residents to fill out an application, including information about their job search if they are unemployed. About 90 percent of people who pick up an application never turn it in, he said.
When deciding how much to budget for assistance, the township board looks to the year before, said Center Township trustee Ron Horning. How much rent assistance did the township spend? How high were utility payments? How many families needed help paying for a funeral?
As Horning spends that funding throughout the year — Center Township has the highest number of requests in the county, about 200 per year — he said he keeps taxpayers in mind, trying to stretch the money he has.
Peters, who filters requests for Love INC, said he counts on township trustees to help him fill the gaps for clients in need.
The partnership goes both ways, Peters added — sometimes, trustees can’t provide the assistance residents are looking for, and Love INC can direct them to ministries associated with the organization, Peters said.
Officials work to help people in need overcome barriers to receiving assistance, Peters added; for example, he sometimes sends volunteers to help residents through the application process.
Local relief organizations work together to make assistance accessible, but officials say they can serve only those who are willing to ask for the funding the county provides.
“This is your money as a taxpayer,” Nolte said. “It gets taken out for this purpose.”
Hancock County’s township trustees have funding to help residents in need. They can provide temporary housing, help provide funding for funerals, provide food or help pay utility bills to get residents’ electricity and gas turned back on.
Each township is responsible for setting qualification standards for residents living in their area.
Here’s whom to contact if you need assistance:
6624 E. County Road 100S, Greenfield
5876 S. County Road 400E, Morristown
223 S. Pennsylvania St., Shirley
Buck Creek Township
5809 Airport Boulevard, Greenfield
143 Green Meadows Drive, Suite 2, Greenfield
5212 E. County Road 600N, Greenfield
10710 E. County Road 200N, Charlottesville
Sugar Creek Township
3545 S. County Road 600W, New Palestine
104 N. Main St., Fortville
Each year since 2012, fewer people have requested financial assistance from local township trustees — despite a rise in the county’s poverty level.
2012: 587 requests
2013: 507 requests
2014: 498 requests
2015: 405 requests
Source: Indiana Gateway