Joe and Mindy Smith are retiring on Dec. 31, having have served in the Jefferson Township trustee’s office for 20 years. Photo by Bob Hansen

Joe, Mindy Smith built social services of Jefferson Township office

Joe P. Smith is stepping down as Jefferson Township Trustee on Dec. 31, having served 20 years. Those who’ve worked with him in helping residents of the Hagerstown area say that he’s fulfilled far more than what the role requires.

Indiana’s 92 counties are subdivided into 1,005 townships. The trustee’s function in each is different depending on location and population. The basics in small, rural townships such as Jefferson — with under 3,500 residents — include providing township assistance (formerly called poor relief), fire protection and upkeep of abandoned cemeteries.

But out of an unimposing office at 47 E. Main St. in the center of town, Smith and his wife Mindy Smith have used a combination of taxpayer funds, donations, community contacts, personal effort and their personal motivations to expand that role. They operate a food pantry, run a Christmas program in which the community makes sure every child who needs it gets clothing and a gift, operate a back-to-school supply program, help people plan their personal finances, and find work for unemployed people who need the help.

“He’s the most conscientious, caring person,” said Everett Hampton, who has served more than 20 years on the Jefferson Township advisory board. “He’s just been a sparkplug; he and Mindy have done so much that people don’t even know about.”

Hampton illustrates the point by telling of a time when Joe and Mindy were eating lunch. Someone came in and said a visitor needed to see Joe at the office. He went, found a man from out of the area who had almost run out of gas and needed to get to Richmond. He took the man to a local station and bought gas for him.

“He’s just that kind of guy,” Hampton said. “And he won’t tell you about those kinds of things.”

According to the Jefferson Township financial report for 2021, Joe Smith worked as township trustee for less money than many would consider for a part-time job: $22,500. The township paid Mindy Smith $9,750 to supervise the township assistance funds.

Joe Smith came to the trustee’s job after working 40 years for Dana Corporation, where he was a manager at the manufacturing plants in Hagerstown and Richmond. The former trustee, Bob Burroughs, and his wife, Harriet, retired.

He thought the main part of the job would be accounting for all of the money expended by the township, more than $200,000 a year. When he assumed the role on Jan. 1, 2003, financial records had been kept by hand in two wide ledger books. The office had an old computer that wouldn’t run up-to-date accounting software. Smith replaced it. Now, the state requires computerized recordkeeping. Financial reports are posted where anyone can see them on the Indiana Gateway website,

Property tax assessments also had been part of the trustee’s job. Within his first two years as trustee, Smith took the necessary training to qualify as a certified assessor, but then the state transferred that responsibility to the county.

But, said Smith, he had not taken the trustee’s job to keep books and calculate the values of land and property.

“If you follow a set of guidelines in life, you become bored with life and you don’t help your community,” he said.

Early on, “When I would go to training, I would hear trustees say ‘When I see them (people seeking assistance) come in, I look at those deadbeats and see how I can not help them.’ That’s not what we should be doing.”

Smith is pleased that the Jefferson Township office has been able to help people without having to put a financial strain on the township budget. He says that by listening to what people say they need, he and Mindy can often find help for them through other agencies and even personal counseling.

“People come in for help but can’t qualify financially. We look at what help they need and give them a place to vent. And sometimes it pulls your heartstrings to hear it,” Joe Smith said.

As a result, he has helped people plan their budgets. He will ask a client what they most want. The next step is to make a plan for getting it within existing income.

“One man said he needed a computer but he was only making $650 a month. We made a plan and within a year, we had a new computer and a printer for that person.”

In another case, a woman had grown up in a household where there was never enough money. When she became an adult, she began coming in for assistance. Smith sat with her and developed a budget. “I told her ‘Don’t think you’ve got all this money at the first of the month and spend it.’” When he showed her how much she spent on various expenses, “She was mesmerized. She has not been back for help.”

In other cases, knowing what services are available elsewhere can be helpful. In a recent case, a woman asked for rent assistance. Smith found out she was married to a veteran and put her in contact with a veterans service agency, which paid the bill.

“If you can institute some things like that to help people without spending taxpayer money, that’s rewarding,” he said.

Another case in point might be the township food pantry, which the Smiths started. Joe Smith became a certified food handler so that it can operate. They get some supplies from Gleaners Food Bank. But Smith also worked out an arrangement with Dollar General stores. He personally visits stores from New Castle to Richmond and they give him food they have taken off their shelves because it is close to the expiration date. During a recent renovation of the Hagerstown store, “we received 106 gallons of milk along with pizzas and an abundance of other frozen food.”

Volunteers help during food distribution. From October to March, the office distributes food on Tuesdays and Fridays. From April to September, there is a mobile distribution in the parking lot of Hagerstown First United Methodist Church, in which volunteers load food into vehicles.

Joe Smith says the food pantry serves about 100 families a month. The financial report states that food assistance provided through the township office amounted to $248,635 in 2021 – but only $36 came from township funds.

The Smiths also started a donation fund about 15 years ago to help pay for Christmas and back-to-school, publicizing the fund through area churches and the schools. In 2021, donations totaled $13,755, with expenses at about half of that.

This year’s Christmas program will provide gifts for 150 local children. Each child will receive an outfit and a pair of shoes, and at least one special gift they have said they want. Shoppers deliver gifts to the township office. Parents are then invited there to pick up the gifts and wrapping materials to take home. “We want Mom and Dad to come in, hide the gift and wrap it. Let their kids see that Mom and Dad took some initiative,” Smith said.

Like many townships, Jefferson has worked out an arrangement to split costs for fire protection with a local town. Jefferson Township and Hagerstown each own half of the fire department’s trucks and they split operating costs.

Smith also has taken a special interest in the township’s five abandoned cemeteries. These are graveyards where there is no cemetery board. The township is required to repair and straighten the tombstones, fence in the cemetery and keep it mowed. Smith personally visited each cemetery and has had them repaired. Smith can tell stories about the people buried in each: where they came from, their service in the American Revolution, what they did for a living.

Joe Smith believes that local government exists to serve its community. He opposes the idea of the state – or even the county – taking over services provided by township trustees.

“If we don’t have local controls, no one else is going to be interested in our community like we are. They would have to make laws that cover all situations, and the needs of our townships are all different. They don’t have respect for the smaller offices,” he said. “A lot of people have the idea that one size fits all. I’ve always fought that idea.”

Of the Smiths, Hampton said, “I don’t think we will ever have a trustee like him again. I can’t say enough about their concern for the town and our area.”

The Smiths plan to continue serving the community when they leave the trustee’s office. Both are very active in the Methodist Church. Joe Smith also serves on the board for the Historic Hagerstown Museum and hopes to spend more time helping archive the vast collection of local treasures housed there.

Chris Lane becomes the new township trustee, having been elected in November. He has hired Allison Ullery to work with him.

The township advisory board also will have two new members, with Hampton and Marvin Culy retiring. That board, which reviews township finances, will include Max Soliday, who has served many years, along with newcomers Anne Smith and Gary Keesling.

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Bob Hansen is a reporter for the Western Wayne News.