Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Jim Biggs: Planning and experience will propel Porter County forward

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Jeff Chidester: Priorities include County health insurance fix, drainage, election reform

 

By JEFF SCHULTZ

Porter County will elect a new North District County Commissioner for the next four years as Republican Jim Biggs will vie with Democrat Jeff Chidester on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8.

In an interview with the Chesterton Tribune, Biggs said he is eager to work as a team with the two holdover members of the Board of Commissioners -- Jeff Good, R-Center, and Laura Shurr Blaney, D-South -- to continue progress in county government.

The Commissioners set the benchmark for how County government should operate and in doing so, they can enhance the quality of life for the communities, he said.

Biggs, 59, is in his sixth consecutive year as the first district representative on the County Council, where he has represented Duneland since 2011.

A lifelong county resident, he resides in Chesterton and works as director of loss prevention and safety at Fagen Pharmacy and is president of Verify LLC Drug Testing.

Biggs served previously as North County Commissioner for two terms in 1992 to 1999. A few of his accomplishments then were helping to create a comprehensive employee manual, initiating the first spending practice policy for Porter County government, providing oversight to the completion of the Juvenile Detention Center, renovation of the old courthouse and he was instrumental in building the new jail and the creation of the Twin Creeks conservancy district.

When Biggs decided to not to rund for a third term in 2000, John Evans took over as North District Commissioner and has held the seat since.

Evans has decided not to run for a fifth term.

Plan for foundation

If elected, Biggs said he intends to move ahead with a five-year comprehensive operations plan, addressing the needs of County Government and what’s in store for its future. “Each year government becomes more expensive to operate and we have to think out of the box. We have to think smarter and more long term,” he said.

Biggs said an operations plan is more critical than ever with the County generating an extra $3 million to $5 million per year in interest from the non-profit charitable foundation, set up by the Council and the Commissioners to invest $148 million of the sale proceeds from Porter Memorial Hospital.

In order to use the interest money, there will need to be a consensus from both the Commissioners and the Council.

Biggs said he believes that both bodies should have discussions on possible uses for the money by the end of this year and generate a list. If there are any new Council members elected in November, they should also have the chance to weigh in at the start of next year, he said.

Future projects

On his wish list, Biggs said he would like to plan for major improvements to the front entryway of the County Administration Center in Valparaiso. The concrete needs to be replaced, he said, as it has “been an eyesore for some time now.” The new design should be safer, less expensive to maintain and be upgraded to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act standards, he said.

With the County enacting a stormwater user fee to fund drainage projects countywide, the county income tax funds that traditionally had been used for drainage can now be appropriated for improvements to County venues in bad need of them, Biggs said.

Further in the future, Biggs said he would like to see the County 911 Center be moved to a location of its own and free up more space in the County Jail building where it is now.

“This is why a comprehensive plan is so needed,” Biggs said. “If we can plan for these things now, we can have better government and more ways to subsidize programs for services like Porter-Starke which has an increasing demand for treatments. We can meet growing needs in this county.”

Biggs said he would like to see the majority of the Foundation money go toward quality of life in the county. It would be na•ve, however, to say that the money would be used to operate government, he said

Capital projects have been discussed as a potential use by some County officials, such as the educational center at Sunset Hill Farm County Park. Biggs said he supports the project, adding that it would be “an absolute boon for the County Parks,” but asserts that if the Park Board wants to make building the center a priority, it should take a look at its inventory and properties and decide what it should eliminate to free up more funding for it. Construction costs are estimated at $3 million.

“If that’s the thing they want the most, they have to plan it,” he said.

The best thing the County can do is use the Foundation in a way that keeps it from having to create new tax revenue. He also said he’s in favor of having money available that can be loaned out to local governments and school districts at low interest rates, pointing out that Valparaiso Schools, the Town of Chesterton and the City of Portage have all borrowed money.

On TIFs

By having the ability to let schools borrow money, the Commissioners can help the county grow by attracting residents and businesses with properly funded schools, which is something they look for when locating, Biggs said. If the County ever started a tax increment finance (TIF) district of its own, such as one discussed for U.S. 6 near the hospital in Liberty Twp., Biggs said it should be done in a way that it won’t drain resources away from schools.

Tax incentives are “one of dozens of options” the County can use to bring new businesses to the county, Biggs said.

Transparency/Communication

As for the inner workings of the Commissioners’ Office, Biggs said he’s been pleased see the current board become more transparent over the last two years and the progress made by forming the Human Resources department which has aided in worker’s policy. The County has been able to bring in more qualified people, he said.

Communication is important for elected County officials, Biggs said, and that is something that has also improved recently. Biggs recalls a year or so ago when the Commissioners and Council were in “a tug-of-war” over the health insurance plan for County employees.

With the Commissioners taking the health plan in a new direction as was urged by some Council members, the County has been able to lower the budget for insurance and the savings continue, Biggs said.

Biggs agrees that to help keep costs down, insurance service agreements should be put to bid at least every two or three years.

Communication with conservancy districts is also key to helping the County with drainage projects, Biggs said, giving Twin Creeks Conservancy District as an example to fix flooding problems in South Haven.

For the County’s ambulance services contract, communication among officials is vital for the future of that contract with the recent news that Community Health Systems has plans to sell Porter Regional Hospital. The County is currently in a five-year contract with Porter.

“To be a great commissioner, you have to be patient. You have to be a good listener. And you need to own a good pair of rubber boots,” said Biggs.

Biggs said that unlike his opponent Chidester who has never been a Commissioner or County Council member, his experience on both boards will give him the benefit of not having to go through a long learning curve and he will be “ready to serve from Day 1.”

Endorsements

Biggs has been endorsed by Operating Engineers Local 150 and the Porter County Farm Bureau.

 

 

Posted 10/18/2016

 
 
 
 

 

 

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