Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Biggs, Cannon and Trout vie for Republican Commissioner nomination

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

and KEVIN NEVERS

On Tuesday, May 3, Republicans Jim Biggs, John Cannon, and Jeff Trout will vie for their party’s nomination to the North County seat on the Porter County Board of Commissioners, currently held by the retiring John Evans.

The Chesterton Tribune invited Biggs, Cannon, and Trout to respond to a questionnaire.

The Tribune reserved the right to edit the responses for length.

(1) Age, place of residence, occupation.

Biggs: 58; Chesterton; director of loss prevention and safety, Fagen Pharmacies.

Cannon: 48; Portage; store manager, O’Reilly Automotive.

Trout: 61; Chesterton; co--owner, Trout Mirror & Glass.

(2) What are your qualifications for office? (100 words)

Biggs: Porter County Board of Commissioners, 1992--99. Porter County Council, 2011 to present. Northwest Indiana District President of the Indiana Association of County Commissioners, 1997--99. Seats on various other county and district boards. Master of Science degree in public safety administration. Bachelor of Science degree in law enforcement management.

Cannon: Retail manager for more than 28 years. Portage City Council member since 2011. Portage Redevelopment Commission member since 2013.

Trout: Fifteen years of public service including the Chesterton Plan Commission, BZA, Redevelopment Commission, and seven years on the Chesterton Town Council. As a member of the Chesterton Town Council, I served on a body that was both the executive and fiscal branches of government. Like the Board of Commissioners, the Town Council is directly responsible for the day--to--day operations of the town, including the Street Department, Police Department, sanitation and sewers, and economic development. I have the proven ability to successfully work together with others to prioritize needs, reach consensus, and achieve common goals.

(3) Why are you running for County Commissioner? (100 words)

Biggs: Perhaps more than any other elected office in county government, the Board of Commissioners is expected to set the standards of how county government is to operate and what benchmarks it needs to achieve. If done with compassion, and professional and ethical standards, I have seen firsthand the good the Board of County Commissioners can have on the overall quality of life here in our county. These are the reasons I have decided to run for this office.

Cannon: I believe it is time for a change in direction for our county government. The county needs a Commissioner that can bring all sides together. I have learned a great deal in doing this in Portage. While in the minority party, I learned to work across political lines to get things accomplished for my district and the city. With the retirement of the current Commissioner, this is the time for a new face in county government. It is time for someone that has the leadership qualities that can bridge the gap that will allow all sides to be heard.

Trout: The groundwork has been laid for Porter County to see dramatic improvements over the next few years, including over $20 million in drainage projects and millions of dollars in road and bridge repairs. The implementation of those planned improvements requires someone with a steady hand and proven experience in project management and fiscal discipline. Because of my successful tenure on the Chesterton Plan Commission, BZA, Redevelopment Commission and Town Council, I can hit the ground running on my first day of office with every one of these important projects.

(4) What in your view are the main issues in this race? (125 words)

Biggs: I believe the biggest concern is balancing revenue decline with demand for services. County government must extend its planning horizons beyond one year. Our county’s ability to address future growth, crime, economic development, technology and innovation, maintenance and repairs to county buildings and roads, or swiftly respond to an extreme event, greatly depends on our ability to plan smarter and more long--term.

The popular answer is simply expand our commercial base to address the issue of declining revenue. Expanding our commercial tax base by attracting new businesses is only one part of the answer. The most significant and immediate action that we can take is to address those things which we already know are directly or indirectly contributing to the challenge.

Cannon: Drugs, jobs, hospital funds usage, infrastructure (drainage, roads, and buildings).

Trout: First, and one of the most basic responsibilities of county government, is infrastructure needs, including drainage, roads, and bridges. This will have a significant, positive impact on our residents and quality of life. Second, keeping property taxes low. Through investment of $147 million dollars through a government administered foundation, we can generate a higher return to offset budget shortfalls from property tax caps. This will assure that property taxes remain low. Third, supporting and finding increased funding for proven programs in our law enforcement and judicial systems to address the substance abuse problem, specifically the undercover narcotics unit, the drug courts, and drug treatment programs at the jail. Finally, to continue the expansion of economic development around Porter Hospital and the Porter County Airport.

(5) What is your strategy for drainage issues? The new mandatory fee hits all property owners in unincorporated Porter County regardless of their contribution or vulnerability to drainage problems. Should conservation organizations and other property owners who are helping to store runoff in wetlands be exempt from the fee? (100 words)

Biggs: Porter County’s stormwater drainage system encompasses every square mile of unincorporated area, so it will take a county--wide effort to address this issue responsibly. I believe that a fee exemption should be available to property owners who can clearly demonstrate that their land is not contributing to the problem.

Resolving our stormwater issues directly benefits our homes, roads, and businesses. Putting off repairing it only makes the problem larger and more expensive to address. The current Board of Commissioners has already taken steps to address this issue, and the county is well on its way to implementing the plan.

Cannon: Fee credits are an option that should be on the table.

Trout: The county has previously identified over $20 million dollars in critical drainage projects. That list needs to be updated and prioritized, and should serve as the roadmap for improvements as funding is available. As Commissioner, I would serve on the Stormwater Board, which is accountable for their implementation and requires understanding of drainage, engineering, project management, and fiscal discipline to assure successful results. My experience on the Chesterton Town Council, Plan Commission, BZA, and Redevelopment Commission has given me the “hands on” experience and proven track record. I would support exempting or reducing the fee for conservation organizations and property owners who contribute to runoff storage, on a case--by--case basis, through the appeals process already established by the Stormwater Board.

(6) Would you make any changes to the county’s employee healthcare plan? Do you support wellness programs as a way to reduce the cost? (100 words)

Biggs: The costs associated to the county’s health insurance plan run into the millions of dollars each year. County government has always been self--insured. Because of this, we are exposed at a much higher risk in the event that more claims than expected need to be paid. This is why it is paramount that this plan be aggressively managed. The employee wellness program has always had very anemic participation levels. It is for this reason, and other factors, that the Commissioners need to consider replacing it with a program that may produce better results, or discontinue the program altogether.

Cannon: No change is needed at this point. Health wellness programs are best.

Trout: The county has made progress in reducing healthcare costs with the new Referenced Based Reimbursement program, already saving over $1 million this year, if not more. This model requires constant monitoring to assure continued success. Wellness programs are critical in reducing costs. Currently, only about a third of employees are participating in wellness programs. The data from those who are participating reflect issues that could increase costs relating to hypertension, pre--diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiac problems. Unless participation increases, I would support the implementation of higher premiums and deductibles for those who do not participate.

(7) The Commissioners have agreed with the County Council to invest proceeds from the sale of Porter Memorial Hospital in a foundation endowment fund. Proposed uses of the proceeds from the fund include a new animal shelter, a Sunset Hill Park activity center, and other capital projects. What are your priorities for the fund? (125 words)

Biggs: My priorities for the foundation endowment fund are to protect the $150--million principal from ever being spent down. Whatever benefits are derived from the investment proceeds should not be disbursed until the county has officially identified suitable long--term funding sources for our E--911 dispatching system, and the Sheriff’s Department pension plan.

Our County Council and the Board of Commissioners made the absolute best decision to ensure that this money will be here for the benefit of future generations. Their decision provides assurances that our county is not likely to ever be anything but financially solvent.

Cannon: Porter County hospital funds. . . There must be a fiscal plan to tackle three Infrastructure issues: roads, building maintenance, and drainage. A study must be conducted. The study must conclude two things: (1) Cost of the needs in year one, then a plan for the upkeep of the plan for the next 10 years; (2) How much interest off the funds can be generated each year. After concluding the study, If the funds do not match up with the needs then a new plan of action will need to be researched. Possibility of principle of funds be used for the year one of the fiscal plan.

If the funds do match the needs, a budget must be adhered to.

Trout: Let’s be clear. At this point in time, the investment process has not even begun. There is no reliable track record on what the actual return is going to be. To make spending commitments for money that doesn’t yet exist is neither prudent nor fiscally responsible. For the first few years, I believe the investment return that is generated should be used to shore up the budget shortfalls which have resulted from the property tax caps. During that time, while we establish a reliable track record based on the actual return on investment, we must formulate a prioritized capital expenditure plan based on that track record.

(8) The Commissioners make five appointments to the Porter County Convention, Recreation, and Visitor Commission (PCCRVC)----commonly referred to as the Tourism Board----which in turn spends the proceeds from the innkeeper’s tax. Do you share the PCCRVC’s priorities, including its support of Pavilion Partners’ proposed banquet center at Indiana Dunes State Park? What changes, if any, should be made in how the innkeeper’s tax is spent? (150 words)

Biggs: Our county’s Alcohol Beverage Commission voted twice to deny the license to sell alcohol at the Dunes Park. In addition, approximately 10,000 residents signed a petition opposing the idea.

Given the importance that most of our residents place on the Dunes, the PCCRVC should have expected this degree of angst for a project of this type. The fact that one of their own board members is a key investor in the Pavilion Partners group should have dissuaded the PCCRVC from ever taking official board action to endorse this project. It is not the role of the PCCRVC to endorse a proposed business. If it is, then someone needs to explain to our existing businesses why this same benefit was never being afforded to them.

As with all county tax moneys, the County Council should continue to keep a close eye on how the innkeeper’s tax is being disbursed.

Cannon: Tourism Board is a vital way of promoting the greatness of Porter County. Promotion of our beauty and promise is very important. I do support the Pavilion Partners’ proposed banquet center. The innkeeper’s tax could be split up for the municipality use as well. Fifty percent each year should go to the County Tourism Board, 50 percent should go to the municipalities that collect the tax in that portion amount. The funds must only be used for tourism promotion.

Trout: The PCCRVC is the primary driver for the continued expansion of the county’s $386 million tourism industry, which supports almost 5,000 local jobs. I understand the concerns about their support of the Pavilion Partners project, and absolutely support the rights of those who are opposed to the project to express those concerns. But PCCRVC’s track record of year--over--year gains in out--of--county visitors, and increased spending in our local communities by those visitors, is indisputable. I do support the one--time increased marketing allocations this year to the Expo Center, Museum, Opera House, and Parks, because that will help draw more tourism dollars “beyond the Dunes.” Requiring wholesale changes to the PCCRVC allocations and priorities, which have been so tremendously successful, could cause irreparable harm to our growing tourism industry.

(9) Do you support the creation of tax increment financing (TIF) districts in unincorporated Porter County? What is your philosophy regarding the diversion of TIF revenues from other governmental units? What limits, if any, should be put on the use of public funds to directly assist private developers? (150 words)

Biggs: Modest use of TIF districts can have a positive effect toward the support of economic development if managed sensibly. However, I think that there are other more proven methods of encouraging new businesses to locate to a county, such as well--maintained roads, bridges, great schools, low crime rates, well--maintained parks, as well as other assets that help define the quality of life in any community.

There are legitimate reasons for offering incentives to businesses. But not if those incentives are being diverted from local units of government. New opportunities will present themselves as long as we continually support and care for what we already have here, and engage in only those opportunities which are clearly in our county’s best interest to pursue.

Cannon: TIF districts have been very successful for our cities. For example many areas of the county do not have street lights. A TIF district would help in this case. I would be in favor of a five--year TIF to spur economic growth. The diversion of funds from other units could be supplemented back to those units from the TIF.

Trout: TIF districts can be a useful tool in promoting economic development when used correctly. In most cases, they should be limited to direct infrastructure development or improvement within the district that is necessary to attract or retain businesses, not ones that are wide ranging in scope and often serve as a “slush fund” for uncontrolled spending. To the extent possible under state law, TIF districts should not divert property tax dollars from schools, township governments, or fire departments. A prime example of what I consider a proper TIF district is the one that I helped establish to attract Urschel Laboratories to Chesterton. Likewise, tax abatements for private businesses should be the tool of last resort and only when it is absolutely necessary to retain or attract desired businesses that will have a substantial impact in retaining or creating sustainable, livable wage jobs.

 

 

 

Posted 4/6/2016

 
 
 
 

 

 

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