Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Six vie for three Porter County Council seats

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

and KEVIN NEVERS

In the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, Democrat incumbents Sylvia Graham, Robert Poparad, and Dan Whitten will defend their at-large seats on the Porter County Council against Republican challengers Travis Gearhart, Jeff Larson, and Rich Parks. The Chesterton Tribune invited all to respond to a candidate questionnaire.

The Tribune set word limits for each question and reserved the right to edit responses for length.

Voters may cast ballots for up to three. But take note: straight-ticket votes in the Porter County Council races will no longer count. Instead, voters must now select each candidate they wish to elect.

(1) Age, place of residence, occupation:

Graham: 79; Center Township; family nurse practitioner, retired professional bass fisherman, previous 4-H leader.

Poparad: 58; Burns Harbor; small business owner.

Whitten: 50; Porter Township; attorney with wife, Stacey Whitten, at Whitten & Whitten in Portage.

Gearhart: 30; Chesterton; commercial fuel sales representative for Luke Oil.

Larson: 44, Liberty Township, retired Chesterton High School teacher and owner of Larson Contracting Services.

Parks: 56, Valparaiso, president of White Peterman Properties.

(2) For Democrat incumbents--Describe your achievements in office (125 words).

Graham: I participated in passing (soon to be) eight county budgets. Some past committee work includes HR Director selection, healthcare coverage for the jail, county simulcast towers and radios for first responders, rules for the Porter County Foundation, and the Lowe software tax system. I also got a common wage passed for local workers building Porter Hospital. I have served on the Plan Commission, Redevelopment Commission, NICTD, NIRPC, EMA, the Jail Bond Committee, PCACS, and have been a liaison for 11 county departments.

Poparad: The major accomplishment has been the establishment of a foundation for the hospital proceeds which will serve the needs of the county for generations to come. We also began construction on a much needed state-of-the-art animal shelter and have continued to lower taxes for the residents of Porter County while maintaining quality services. I am proud that during my tenure the county’s property-tax rate has decreased for three consecutive years.

Whitten: I’ve been involved in the planning and construction of the new animal shelter, and serve on the Shelter Advisory Board. Through smart budgeting, the county tax rate has declined over the past four years. We permanently preserved hospital sale proceeds and became the first Indiana county to create a foundation allowing for better investments. The first two quarters alone, our money earned nearly $4 million, more than doubling the entire year previous. The council voted to invest and slowly spend our Major Moves money, resulting in Porter County being the only Indiana county able to use these funds for the state’s matching road program. We’ve received our first $1 million already. We’re now the most solvent county in Indiana and will continue to be.

For Republican challengers--Describe your qualifications for office (125 words).

Gearhart: I believe that my time on Hebron Town Council, as well as my experience managing sales territories (which includes keeping to a budget, managing my time and resources, etc.) makes me more than qualified for this position. In my roles as both I have been able to find creative ways to help fill holes in budgets and make timely, responsible decisions. One has to be able to think on their feet, and not kick political cans down the road.

Larson: Successful business owner since 1984. Accomplished classroom leader at Chesterton High School since 1998. As a teacher I worked with several municipalities and Porter County organizations at paid and volunteered positions. Past member of local Labor and Carpenter Unions. Past board member of Porter County Park Foundation, Christmas in April, Rebuilding Duneland, Housing Opportunities. Current board member and trustee of Chesterton Cemetery. Current president of the Liberty Township Board. Education includes CHS, Indiana State University, Indiana Wesleyan, and Ivy Tech. Proud lifetime Porter County resident and part of five generations of business owners.

Parks: I am prepared and ready to move the county forward. I believe I have an in-depth knowledge of the financial operations of business/government. Any successful enterprise must have accounting knowledge and practices that are the foundation of a good fiscal operations. I know I have the fortitude to first make tough decisions that are for the good of our county. I have the knowledge to dig into issues that arise and learn the facts very quickly and advise in a direction that is helpful to all. Knowledge and the ability to advise is desperately needed on the County Council as we begin to move our county in the future.

(3) For Democrat incumbents--Why are you seeking re-election? (75 words)

Graham: Porter County has a bright future and my work is not done. I want to continue to give back to the community that has been so kind to me. I stand for good government and fair play. I want to continue to be a voice for the people.

Poparad: I was raised with a strong sense of civic duty and I would love to continue the good work we have started with the foundation and to help Porter County to continue to be a safe and prosperous place with a great quality of life for its residents.

Whitten: It’s exciting to be solvent and moving forward with quality-of-life improvements. We’ve made great strides, but there’s more to do. We need to create and implement planning for the millions of interest earned. I’d like to see construction and capital investment including upgrades for our buildings and projects like the parks, Museum, Expo, and Memorial Opera House. We need an application process for grants to our local non-profits and possibly a scholarship fund.

For Republican challengers--Why are you seeking election to this office? (75 words)

Gearhart: My interest in running for council stems from my time as a 4-Her. The 4-H mantra is “To Make the Best Better,” and I truly believe that I can do that as the next Porter County Councilman. I want to stay involved in my community, in whatever capacity that ends up being, and will continue to work towards the goal of keeping this county a place where I can raise my children.

Larson: I want to improve our county residents’ quality of life by being fiscally responsible, maintaining an open-door policy in county government, meeting constituents in every area of our county, asking those typically without a voice how the county can better serve them, uniting the offices across all lines, involving our young residents in programs that keep them here as adults and exciting them about their community, providing better infrastructure, and creating high quality jobs.

Parks: We need new ideas and new energy to face this county’s monumental tasks. Now that finally the Foundation has been formed after years of talking about it, the table is set to start discussions of the new and bright future for our citizens. We need stable and consistent decision, not knee-jerk decisions or in-fighting that have plagued this county for too long. I am and will be part of this new direction.

(4) In your view, what are the biggest challenges facing the Porter County Council? (125)

Graham: Porter County is growing. We need to ensure the safety of our residents. We must meet the needs of our Sheriff's Department, our Highway and Maintenance departments, and continue to address drug and rehabilitation problems. Drainage problems exist, but are being addressed with the development of the Stormwater Management Board. We are blessed having the Porter County Foundation. The Foundation interest money could be used to help fund job-growth capital projects as well as community projects in the county.

Poparad: The biggest obstacle we will be facing in the future is the ever increasing cost of healthcare and the cost of doing the county’s business. Every year we strive to maximize the tax dollars to ensure quality services without adding additional tax burdens to the residents. This is a challenge.

Whitten: With the returns on our money from the foundation, county officials will be challenged in creating and implementing a clear process for use of the funds. This will include the construction of capital projects for Porter County. Additionally, it will include an application process for non-profits to request endowments from the funds. But, we should continue to think outside the box for driving economic development such as using a portion each year toward scholarships and educational partnering to give our youth additional opportunities. I would encourage the County Council to continue its conservative budgeting, to ensure county departments are living within the respective budgets

Gearhart: I think that the biggest challenge facing us is the ability to keep our infrastructure sound so that we can keep Porter County a place where people want to live and work. Without infrastructure needs being met that isn’t a possibility. I believe that it is a quality-of-life issue, and we must make smart financial decisions and not kick cans down the road for years. We need people who can make up their minds, for example, when it comes to what to do with funds from the sale of a hospital. Instead of sitting on that money, we could have invested it earlier, starting the process and making sure that we had funds available for necessary infrastructure needs.

Larson: Create a safe and welcoming community environment, preventing illegal drug use, invest in our young people through education, create a countywide development plan, expand outreach programs to companies around the world and invite them to invest in our local economy, update infrastructure including the South Shore double rail proposal, and balance budgets. Create an efficient plan for updating all county services. Form community and business partnerships to offset the cost of improvements in drainage, road, bridge, parks, sewer, and water. Eliminate duplication of services. Evaluate every department and its efficiency or lack of. Qualify realistic budgets and operate within them. Label immediate communitywide needs and address them promptly. Use funds available to the county i.e. grants, previous taxes, and proceeds.

Parks: The biggest challenge facing the County Council today will be convincing the various departments in county government that we need to find more efficient ways to run departments. The status quo is very alive and real and will take the financial arm of local government to enact changes towards efficiencies and trying to reduce the deficient spending we currently experience and get the County back in the black. We need to discuss incentives with departments that do give money back to the general fund to assist in reducing our deficit. The current process in place does not reward creative thinking in reducing operating costs. The County Council sets the direction for this to happen.

(5) The Porter County Commissioners recently heard of switching to a statewide intermobile emergency communication system for County 911 Center and local police, fire, and EMS. The county would have to make an investment worth $9.8 million for the equipment, but the state has agreed to cover the costs of systems upgrades for the next 20 years. Do you think the county should take action on this plan? If so, how would you recommend funding it and do you think the municipalities should contribute? (75 words).

Graham: Any upgrades needed for our first responders are a priority. The Foundation interest money might be a source for funding this project. Communication with our state legislators should begin immediately to ensure that state funding for this project will not end in 20 years. Local governments pay tax money to the state. The state must remain a partner in this expensive project, along with the cities and towns in the county.

Poparad: We have not been presented with any information regarding 911. We do look forward to productive dialogue with the Commissioners and any stakeholders involved in this process. Unfortunately, I can’t answer this question without more information.

Whitten: Public safety is paramount and an essential priority. We need to look toward state-of-the-art tools for our public safety employees. However, I do believe that the cities and towns should contribute a pro-rata share toward that expenditure.

Gearhart: I absolutely believe that the county must invest in the intermobile emergency communication system for our 911 system and police and fire departments. Public safety must remain a top priority for our county and for our citizens. I would certainly look at all funding opportunities and want to work very closely with our municipal partners in achieving a true funding solution to cover the costs.

Larson: We should purchase the equipment immediately. The current system is struggling and outdated. We risk the chance of dropping or losing emergency calls. LaPorte County is already installing the system. Porter County should fund the infrastructure. The amount of personnel hardware and costs should be the responsibility of each municipality or department to finance. Township volunteer departments will need additional funding and we can look at many creative ways to help finance their needs.

Parks: I support opting into the State of Indiana’s 911 system. The Commissioners are gathering data to present to the Council with the options for discussion. I support the concept that municipalities should contribute a portion of this investment but fairly and equitably. I do not support the notion of a county public-safety tax. A collaborative effort between all parties will accomplish the task at hand.

(6) Should the Porter County Council hear and/or enact the shelved Jobs Cabinet plan? Are there other actions the Council can take to encourage local economic growth? (100 words)

Graham: The Jobs Cabinet never came before the council. Will this add another layer of government? I support the Porter County Alliance and Economic Development. I voted to build the animal shelter. I supported the new airport runways and expansion. I am in favor of building the South County Park, as well as the “Raise the Barn” project at Sunset Hills. It was reported, in three months, $1.56 million of interest has accrued from the Porter County Foundation. The Foundation will be a game changer for creating jobs.

Poparad: I would love to hear the Jobs Cabinet report; however, it has never been reported to the council. I encourage any discussion that will encourage economic development in the county.

Whitten: I was not aware that it had been “shelved.” The council can and has been willing to hear the jobs cabinet report. The council and County Commissioners should entertain all discussions that might brainstorm toward the creation of jobs and economic growth. Capital projects being done by the county, the airport improvements, construction of county buildings, all create jobs. Renovating drainage problems, improving public safety, lowering tax rates, and improving venues such as the Opera House, Museum and Expo Center improve Porter County’s quality of life, which brings and keeps families in our county and therefore leads to increased jobs.

Gearhart: For myself, I’ve always believed our top priority has to be economic development. This issue is right up there with public safety. Good-paying jobs in our county are key to keep this the wonderful place it is to live and raise your family. I believe that we should use all the tools at hand, including the jobs cabinet report, as well as working with our municipal partners to achieve a common goal of bringing good-paying jobs to Porter County.

Larson: The Jobs Cabinet was created as an advisory arm to county government. The current council refused to hear the report and failed to take any advice or enact policy that would have benefited the county directly from research that was completed. All such community liaisons have enormous value looking at the community as a whole. The council has a duty and responsibility to its citizens to hear all information available. Several areas for improvement were mentioned in the report. A large issue was collaboration between elected officials. A countywide development plan. Creative project funding including infrastructure.

Parks: The Jobs Cabinet Study has aged in time and really had no direct input from the County Council or Commissioners. I believe with the long overdue formation of the Foundation, the Council and Commissioners can start the discussions needed to create a new direction with these new moneys to help the county in whatever direction agreed upon by these two bodies.

(7) The Porter County Council and Board of Commissioners have invested proceeds of the Porter Memorial Hospital into a community foundation endowment fund. Proceeds generated from this fund could be large enough to help county officials afford large capital projects, help fund public safety and other areas of county government. What are your priorities for this fund? (125 words)

Graham: Some of my priorities include that the Porter County Foundation interest funds be used on county projects that will improve the safety of our county, promote job growth and economic development. The south county park is a project that will not only bring a park to south county, but will facilitate the East Porter Schools with their school sports activities. This is an example how our quality of life will continue to improve in Porter County. Anything above a 5-percent yearly interest earnings from the Foundation proceeds should be returned to the Foundation endowment fund, creating perpetual growth. We must be open-minded to new thoughts, but remain frugal.

Poparad: Capital projects and the non-for-profits would be my top priorities when discussing how these proceeds should be utilized. For example, Raising the Barn at the Park is a great example of a quality capital project that the proceeds could help fund.

Whitten: We hit the ground running on the foundation. It was created, by-laws written, investment consultants interviewed and selected, and money invested all within months. As such, we’ve earned more in the last quarter than previously would have been available in an entire year. A priority is updating our county facilities, including government buildings, and improvements to our venues, including the Memorial Opera House, County Museum and Expo Center. We must also invest into public safety. We purchased land for a south county park. So along those lines, improving the parks for our Porter County families to enjoy is a priority as well. Basically, that the money should be used toward the improvement of quality of life and reduce taxes within our county.

Gearhart: Investing the proceeds of the hospital sale into an endowment is the best thing for our county in the long run. I believe the moneys, interest earned, will be a great help in funding much needed infrastructure repairs on county owned facilities. My personal priorities are to balance our operations budget and use the interest earned from the endowment to fund infrastructure repair of county-owned facilities, provide funding for capital projects that provide for economic development that bring good-paying jobs and facilities that make living in Porter County even better than it already is.

Larson: The forming of the foundation was long overdue. The fact that it took almost nine years to create a mechanism to oversee the funds cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in delayed project funding. The money belongs to the residents and should be used with the greatest impact to specifically benefit them. With the current council, the money invested has been used as a rainy day fund. The foundation has a responsibility to vet each investment opportunity. It should not be used for budgetary makeup. The foundation should rate each opportunity on a scale of community benefit. Large scale projects should seek voter approval. Public safety and infrastructure are top priorities. Porter County residents have waited too long to reap the benefits of these funds.

Parks: I believe we first need to look at all county assets and evaluate and upgrade where appropriate. When doing this, we need to be cautious and keep in mind that the operating budget of the upgraded facilities will bring operational cost savings which year over year are the biggest liability the county will face. This in itself will be a large task as so many of our buildings need attention. I understand that the many of the departments and other government units have eyes on this money, we need to make sure the county is taken care of first. Once these issues are dealt with, then other discussions can take place to expand out help as needed and as the County Foundation sees fit.

(8) Would you suggest any changes to the way the council conducts its budgeting processes? (75 words)

Graham: State statue dictates much of our budgeting process. New steps have been taken to improve the process with the auditor initiating internal control budgeting classes with all county departments. Technology is constantly improving. Transparency in county government is a must and the council must remain flexible to change.

Poparad: No. I have sat through years of budgets and the current system in place is very transparent and gives ample opportunity for both department head and public input. We always welcome and encourage public participation in these open hearings.

Whitten: The conservative council budgeting has resulted in lowering the county tax rate and living within budgets. Additionally, we have managed to preserve reserve funds received from Major Moves. As such, the county was able to obtain the $1 million matching money from the state to be used in paving of county roads and highways. Our budgeting process has been working very effectively.

Gearhart: As a former Town of Hebron councilman, I understand and appreciate the budgeting process. As anything, looking for synergies, efficiencies, and better processes is of the utmost importance and I look forward, should I be elected, to working with the other members of the council to find those synergies and efficiencies that make budgeting easier and more transparent.

Larson: Eliminate mid-year borrowing. Council should mandate a review of every department and require a full disclosure of services provided by each. All departments should work unilaterally to combine resources and material request thus avoiding duplication errors. Department heads will review staffing requirements and alternative employee scheduling. Departments will disclose sources of additional funding and all funding should be included in the common budget. Data-driven department surveys combined with community input will provide final appropriations.

Parks: We need more detailed budget workshops to ensure a “deep dive” is taken every year and any waste cut. This way real discussions can take place without so much uncertainty about budget approval. Several budgets don’t need a “deep dive,” but the bigger departments do. The implementation of new accounting software in 2017 will give us the tools to track and analyze costs in real time.

 

Posted 10/21/2016

 
 
 
 

 

 

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