Two weeds in Mitch's gardenDavid Hoppe
"Weeding the garden" is how our new governor, Mitch Daniels, put it during his campaign. He was talking about state employees. Daniels' message was that over the course of the past 16 years - the span during which Indiana had Democrats in the governor's residence - the state's government had become overgrown with bureaucrats. It was time, he said, for them to go. Dan and Beth Henkel
But many of the people Daniels called "weeds" have been working hard - and effectively - on some of the state's problems. For these folks, the transition from one administration to another is bittersweet, to say the least. For them, the work of putting the state back on course is still unfinished. They are also about to be unemployed.
Beth and Dan Henkel know more than many of us can ever imagine about this state's government. For the past two years, Beth has been in charge of the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. That's right: She's had the thankless task of implementing the state's controversial property tax reassessment. Her department has been staffed with fewer than 70 active employees to serve 92 counties, 2,600 taxing units, over a thousand local assessing officials, hundreds of local county officials, other state agencies and the Legislature.
For his part, Dan has been working as the executive director of communications for another beloved agency, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. He was part of the team that, for the past year, has been responsible for reforming the BMV, improving its security and accountability, as well as its customer service.
I met Beth and Dan over the holidays in the employees' cafeteria on the north side of the state government center. My property taxes have increased over 100 percent in the past year; I have also recently managed to renew my driver's license online. So meeting the Henkels was a little like sitting down with the Wizard(s) of Oz.
"There's a very logical part of me that understands completely what's going on," said Beth, who tendered her resignation on Dec. 21. "On the other hand, I do feel like I'm not done with my job."
Dan, who submitted his resignation letter on the same day, was still torn about seeing his team laid off at the BMV. "We worked very hard together. There was a great sense of camaraderie and accomplishment. We love and respect one another. It hurts to see that team breaking up. You hope everyone will be OK."
According to the Governor's Office, the change in administration will cause at least 150-200 people to lose their jobs. These will include all agency heads and the staffs of the governor and lieutenant governor.
"I don't expect a lot of thanks," Dan said. "I hope that people will try to understand the complexity of what we do."
It is difficult to imagine a more complex job than dealing with the state's court-ordered property tax situation. A reassessment on this scale had never been attempted before. While there were people who understood the budgeting side of the property tax, and others with expertise on the assessing side, hardly anyone, it seems, knew how the two were supposed to go together. "Many times I've been in a meeting where somebody says, 'I don't know how this works' - and I can tell them," Beth said. Although she expects to be replaced, Beth has indicated a willingness to serve in a Daniels administration, at least until a new commissioner is chosen.
For the Henkels, problem solving, not politics, is the key to what they do. "It doesn't matter if you're an 'R' or a 'D' - it's getting the job done," Dan said.
Indeed, Beth was praised by a Republican township assessor in Lake County, Hank Adams, who said, "I'm a good Republican, but she is by far the hardest working and most knowledgeable person we have ever had in that post."
While working for the state can make people feel like they're doing something worthwhile on a daily basis, that work can also be vexing. "Here you are representing the state against its citizens," Beth said. "But what you're really doing is representing the public's interest against some unrealistic expectation that people might have."
Based on the appointments he's made so far, it looks as though Daniels' approach to governance will be based on a business model. Whether treating citizens like customers will protect all Hoosiers' rights - or merely provide us with the rights we can afford - remains to be seen.
When Beth started making trips to Lake County, the county hit hardest by reassessment, she was warned she might need a police escort. "I go up there now, I get hugs," Beth said of her Lake County colleagues. "Last time I went up there I took the fairly famous Viennese almond torte that I make - they just loved it. It's the relationships. It's always the relationships."