How to start your own town, Hoosier-style


Last week, in addressing what Bloomington could do to see more “affordable” housing built, I wrote this:

Council has some authority, but not that much in a country called the United “States” of America, whose provinces have significantly more power than do provinces in other countries.Our Constitution mentions neither cities nor any other form of local government. Thus, what authority the city of Bloomington has is based on what’s granted by Indiana state law.

In order to understand the limits of the office of city councilmember, it’s important to know the provenance of cities in Indiana. I wrote about this a decade ago, but the article was long in the tooth and needed a rewrite. Let’s look at some new sources.

According to The Free Dictionary:

Generally, the authority to govern the affairs within a state rests with the state legislature, the governor, and the state judicial system. However, states give localities limited powers to govern their own areas. The origin of the municipal corporation varies from state to state. Municipal corporations are given the power to govern through either the state constitution or state statutes, or through the legislative grant of a charter.

States give municipalities the power to create an official governmental body, such as a board or council…The local body has the power to pass ordinances, or local laws. These laws may not conflict with state or federal laws.

So, a group of landowners can decide, hey, we want to incorporate as an official place under state law. What are Indiana’s conditions for incorporated places? Looking at state statute is sometimes the simplest way to find out, and in this case is simple indeed. Indiana code (IC) permits four kinds of incorporated places: towns, and three classes of cities.

A town is any place that decides it wants to provide urban services — police, fire, utilities, streets, and so on (IC 36-5-1-8). Towns have no explicit minimum size. They elect a five-member town council and a clerk-treasurer, who keeps both the minutes of the council’s meetings and the books of the town. Towns do not have mayors; instead, the council appoints a town manager. These are the conditions necessary for a group of people to form a new town:

  • (1) That the proposed town is used or will, in the reasonably foreseeable future, be used generally for commercial, industrial, residential, or similar purposes.
  • (2) That the proposed town is reasonably compact and contiguous.
  • (3) That the proposed town includes enough territory to allow for reasonable growth in the foreseeable future.
  • (4) That a substantial majority of the property owners in the proposed town have agreed that at least six (6) of the following municipal services should be provided on an adequate basis:
    • (A) Police protection.
    • (B) Fire protection.
    • (C) Street construction, maintenance, and lighting.
    • (D) Sanitary sewers.
    • (E) Storm sewers.
    • (F) Health protection.
    • (G) Parks and recreation.
    • (H) Schools and education.
    • (I) Planning, zoning, and subdivision control.
    • (J) One (1) or more utility services.
    • (K) Stream pollution control or water conservation.

The place where people want the town can’t be within 3 or 4 miles of an already incorporated place (otherwise there are several neighborhoods that would’ve seceded from Bloomington long ago).

Any town that opts to may upgrade to a city, which gives the place more privileges and abilities. It starts out as a third-class city, at which time it gets divided into five districts, and its council grows to seven members, two of whom are elected at-large (to serve the whole city), and one elected from each district. Third-class cities also elect a clerk-treasurer and a mayor, who presides over council meetings and breaks tie votes.

If a city reaches 35,000 people, it can opt to become a second-class city. The duties of treasurer move to a position appointed by and reporting to the mayor, while the city clerk loses her “treasurer” label. The mayor no longer presides over council meetings or breaks ties, but gains the ability to veto legislation. Second-class cities elect a nine-member council. Six represent districts and three are at large.

It is remarkably difficult to find a definitive list of second-class Hoosier cities, so as a public service, attached to this post is the most definitive such compilation that is easily Googl-able. Bloomington is one of 24 second-class cities in the state; the newest are Fishers, Carmel, Noblesville, and our rival college-town, West Lafayette.

Here’s an editorial from 2004 about a Hoosier city considering the change from third- to second-class status itself: Portage should be wary of second-class status

Portage hit the magic population number in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2004 estimate that would elevate the city to second-class status. But that status isn’t worth acquiring yet.

There is only one “first-class” city, which used to be defined simply as being more than 250,000 population. That city is Indianapolis, also the state capital. It has a mayor and a 25-person city council, thanks to Unigov, then-mayor Richard Lugar’s idea to consolidate services in the early 1970s. The law used to say that a city which reaches that population automatically becomes a first-class city. By the time another city — namely, Fort Wayne — grew close to that figure, Republicans decided they didn’t want Democrats consolidating power in a county as they had decades earlier, and so in 2004 passed a change to IC 36-4-1-1, the law for first class cities:

  • Sec. 1. (a) Municipalities are classified according to their status and population as follows:
    • Cities of 250,000 600,000 or more: First class cities
    • Cities of 35,000 to 249,999 599,999: Second class cities
    • Cities of less than 35,000: Third class cities
    • Other municipalities of any population: Towns
  • (b) Except as provided in subsection (c), a city that attains a population of thirty-five thousand (35,000) remains a second class city even though its population decreases to less than thirty-five thousand (35,000) at the next federal decennial census.
  • (c) The legislative body of a city to which subsection (b) applies may, by ordinance, adopt third class city status.

See what they did there? It’s not like Fort Wayne — or Bloomington, for that matter — couldn’t apply to become a first-class city and unite with its home county, but it would require approval from the statehouse, which is unlikely anytime soon.

There you have it. Now you know why my office is the way it is, and how to grow a Hoosier town from scratch. Soon I’ll talk about the competing theories behind states giving cities power to do things.

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Indiana's First- and Second-Class Cities

City2010 census2015 estimate
East Chicago29,69828,699
Fort Wayne253,691260,326
Michigan City31,47931,459
Muncie 70,08570,087
New Albany36,37236,732
South Bend101,168101,516
Terre Haute60,78560,825
West Lafayette29,59645,550
Cities which were above 35,000 population at time of their accession to second-class status. Indianapolis is the state's only first-class city. Fishers became second-class as of 2015; Carmel, Noblesville and West Lafayette became second-class as of 2016. All other cities were second-class or higher before 2010. (West Lafayette's dramatic intra-decade growth comes from having annexed Purdue student housing.)



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