Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Vote for up to 3 in GOP County Council race

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

and KEVIN NEVERS

On Tuesday, May 3, Republicans Travis Gearhart, Jeff Larson, Ralph G. Levi, Howard O’Connor, and Rich Parks will vie for their party’s nomination for the three at-large seats on the Porter County Council.

Voters may cast ballots in this race for up to three candidates.

The Chesterton Tribune invited Gearhart, Larson, Levi, O’Connor, and Parks to respond to a questionnaire. The Tribune reserved the right to edit the responses for length.

(1) Age, place of residence, occupation.

Gearhart: 29; Chesterton; sales engineer, Midwest sales territory, Capital Refractories.

Larson: 54; Chesterton; teacher at Chesterton High School, owner of Larson Contracting Services.

Levi: 64; Jackson Township; retired Porter County Sheriff’s Police officer.

O’Connor: 58; Hebron, master technician, Whirlpool Corporation.

Parks: 56; Valparaiso; president, Hospitality White/Peterman Properties, Inc.

(2) What are your qualifications for serving on the Porter County Council? (100 words)

Gearhart: I have been involved in local government for several years. In addition to advising candidates and elected officials, I was elected to the Hebron Town Council in 2011 and served on many local boards, such as regional development and branding committees. I was also the Hebron Police Commissioner.

Outside of government experience, I have a double BA in public relations and political science and manage the sales of refractory materials and equipment for an international company across the Midwestern United States, where I'm actively involved in attracting new clients, making new sales, and managing resources.

Larson: Successful business owner since 1984. Accomplished classroom leader at Chesterton High School since 1998. As a teacher I have 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 Chesterton High School graduate, Indiana State University, Indiana Wesleyan, and Ivy Tech. Proud lifetime Porter County resident and part of five generations of business owners.

Levi: I was employed by the Porter County Sheriff’s Police for 33 years and worked with the County Council on budget matters numerous times. I am very familiar with grant writing and presentations, which seem to be commonly applied for throughout county offices now. I have small-business, employee-relations, and budgetary knowledge, which should be helpful too. In addition, I served five years on the local Alcoholic Beverage Board. I want to continue to serve my community and this is the perfect opportunity to do so. I also have the time necessary to be a productive and active Council member.

O’Connor: My qualifications are I am a concerned citizen that has lived in Porter County for over 20 years. I spent four years on the Hebron Plan Commission. State delegate 2013. Ran for Hebron Town Council.

Parks: My degree from Purdue University included many courses in strategic and fiscal planning. I work in national real-estate development and am responsible for planning, budgeting, and managing large complex projects. I rely on strategic and fiscal planning to make decisions, measure results against those plans, and believe in benchmarking our business against others. Our business involves hundreds of millions of dollars. I make daily decisions about maximizing revenue while controlling cost. I work with folks who don’t always agree with me and I’m not always right, so I listen. My experience makes me a natural fit for the seat.

(3) What in your view are the main issues in this race? (150 words)

Gearhart: Specifically, I want to work unilaterally with the rest of the County Council and the Commissioners to wisely put the uninvested portion of the hospital money into our county infrastructure--to invest in Porter County's future. There are a lot of different issues in this race, but I think the top issue is the fiscal solvency of Porter County, and that means responsible management of the hospital funds as well as responsible decision making in all aspects of county government. I think that we need to evaluate, as a county, where the uninvested portions can best help while simultaneously looking at the needs of the towns and asking for input. I think that supporting our county park system is also of the utmost importance, as it is instrumental in maintaining a high quality of life for Porter County residents.

Larson: Creating a safe and welcoming community environment; preventing illegal drug use; investing in our young people through education, parks, and community programs; expanding outreach programs to companies around the world, inviting them to invest in our local economy/ job creation; updating Infrastructure; and balancing budgets. Create an efficient plan for updating all services in the county. Form community and business partnerships to offset the cost of improvements in drainage, road, bridge, parks, sewer, water, and access to rural communities. Eliminate duplication of services. Evaluate every department and its efficiency or lack of. Qualify realistic budgets and operate within them. Label immediate community-wide needs and address them promptly. Use funds available to the county, i.e. grants, previous taxes, and proceeds.

Levi: Budget planning to avoid departments’ returning to the Council for additional funding, some as soon as February and March of the fiscal year. County buildings must be repaired and we must work with the Commissioners to get this done.

O’Connor: I would like to see health care for the county go out for bids. Need to continue working on drainage issues. I would like to bring both sides together and work as one for the people of Porter County. Need to get a balanced budget.

Parks: Uncertainty. I have had the opportunity to make presentations in many counties and cities across the country. The ones that seemed to be the best managed and able to make the most informed decisions were those that had both a short term and longer term strategic and fiscal master plans. I believe there are more opportunities for our community if we were more proactive rather than reactive in these uncertain times. It’s hard and takes effort and time. I am willing to dedicate the time to lead and be held accountable.

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

Gearhart: To start, I would like to ensure that every community in Porter County is involved in the decision via an advisory committee made up of representatives of each section of Porter County. Ultimately, the people that live within the communities know their particular towns better than anyone and I think it would take some real hubris to assume otherwise. Investing in infrastructure needs, along with other capital improvements and projects, would help not only those that live in those areas but the region as a whole as these projects create work in a dismal economy. People from all over the county were patrons of that hospital (both of my own children were born there) and those proceeds should be put to work for the people.

Larson: First off, I think the forming of the foundation was long overdue. The money belongs to the residents and should be used with the greatest impact to specifically benefit them. That said, the money invested has been used as a rainy day fund. I believe 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. Porter County residents have waited too long to reap the benefits of these funds.

Levi: My priority for this fund is to fix all the county-owned buildings in need of repair. Eight out of 12 reportedly need fixes. Other projects are important but if the county employees cannot function because of a building problem, that repair should be first on the list. We must be careful with this fund. I would like to see mandatory employee immunizations and more funding to the Health Department for programs there. Both will save us money later on. I do not wish to touch the principal and we should only tap a percentage of interest each year so this fund grows.

O’Connor: I would like to see some of the money go to Union and Boone townships to help with developments. Hebron could use it to replace the aging infrastructure, which then they could start to work on bringing in development on their west and north sides of town.

Parks: I believe we need to invest in infrastructure where the return on every dollar spent is much greater than one for one. The county has many infrastructure needs. Many of these infrastructure needs will lead to business creation. Some of the best economic engines Indiana has are a conscientious and dedicated workforce, a surplus budget, and Illinois tax rates. Porter County needs to improve its position to support growth and prosperity taking advantage of the opportunities that will continue to come our way. The second place is in public safety. We need to make sure that our first responder systems are adequately funded and equipped when compared to like communities. We should be looking for ways to drive efficiencies in this area.

(5) Should the Council continue the practice of freezing budgets at the previous year’s levels, thereby forcing department heads to submit additional appropriation requests during the budget year as shortages develop? What can be done to improve the budget planning process? (125 words)

Gearhart: Departments should present and seek approval for a realistic and accurate budget that reflects the specific funding needs, keeping in mind that the expectation should be that the department is doing all it can to minimize expenses while maintaining a high quality of workmanship. The Council’s responsibility is to scrutinize and approve budget proposal requests and make a determination on what funding individual departments will be allocated, based on projected revenue for the county. If expenses exceed revenue, it is the Council’s responsibility to determine how to move forward from there. To improve this process, appropriate time, effort, and financial stewardship must go into the budgeting process to strive for the fewest requests for account transfers and additional funds as possible.

Larson: The freeze ties the hands of department heads and forces them to ask for additional appropriations typically before mid-year. The Council should mandate a review of every department and require a full disclosure of services provided by each. Each department should work unilaterally with other departments to combine resources and material requests, thus avoiding duplication errors. Department heads will review staffing requirements and alternative employee scheduling. Departments should disclose sources of additional funding and all such funding should be included in the common budget. Data-driven department surveys combined with community input will provide final appropriations. With these practices the Council will be able to work from a balanced budget.

Levi: I do not mind freezing budgets to have a controlled starting point. Returning for more funding within a month or two of the start of any fiscal year shows poor planning by departments. I do understand a few of them, such as Coroner, Sheriff, and Highway, do have unexpected expenses and some are mandated, but overall better planning is needed before the Council is approached. Do they include in new budgets the additionals they needed last year? More discussion is needed and perhaps the word “no” needs to be used.

O’Connor: I believe all parties need to sit down and cut out what waste there is to have a balanced budget. Sometimes you have to do without.

Parks: Freezing the budgets is kicking the can down the road. The citizens of Porter County deserve a government which is well thought out and visionary. I have been at the meetings where appropriations are discussed and it is always reactionary and quite often dramatic. There are emergencies and they do need to be dealt with but each department should be challenged to operate in a strategic and fiscally responsible manner. We are not the only county of 170,000 plus citizens and benchmarking against like counties seems appropriate.

(6) What is your philosophy regarding funding for the County Park system? Do you favor the proposed Sunset Hill Park activity center, the proposed youth sports park near Kouts (Aukiki Park), and/or development of the proposed youth sports park in Liberty Township (Brookdale Park)? (100 words)

Gearhart: My philosophy regarding funding for the county park system is simple: it must be funded appropriately. I think that all of the proposed development plans have a good argument why they should be built/improved upon. The question is does the funding coincide? I favor all of the aforementioned projects personally, and if there is a way to make it work I am certain that with some creative thinking and concessions from all involved we can come up with an amicable solution.

Larson: I was a member of the Park Foundation for several years. That said, the park receives many donations from various resources. We need full accountability of those funds and a realistic approach to expanding our park system, which will generate further revenues. I feel the communities without developed park facilities should be top priority. We have funds available and they should be developed immediately. The remaining parks should be developed on a greatest impact/benefit basis. We have incredible park properties and with solid leadership, business, grant, and local investment, we can meet all of the Porter County citizen’s needs.

Levi: I favor all of the current projects going on, or currently under review for our parks. I do not, however, believe every dream can come true. Did anyone question why we are spending $13,000 on a dock for a pond in one of our parks? Grant or not, are we expecting the Queen Mary to berth there? No grant is free, there is a cost to us someplace.

O’Connor: I am glad to see the County Park System is investing in parks for our youth. We have some of the most beautiful parks in Porter County. Glad to see a park down south near Kouts.

Parks: All planned funding should be allowed keeping in balance social needs and fiscal responsibilities. Looking at the specifics in the question. There is a next question, which is fiscal sustainability. Youth parks are very important and program usage provides a means of fiscal sustainability. It is important that with each planned expenditure there is a way to make as much of the upkeep financially neutral.

(7) The Council approves the budget of and makes one appointment to the Porter Convention, Recreation, and Visitors 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? (125 words)

Gearhart: I think that that the Tourism Board has done a good job over the years of bringing people to Porter County and putting a friendly, inviting face on our community. Overall they’ve spent the innkeeper’s tax effectively. In regards to the Pavilion, I am happy to see that there will be some badly needed renovations on an aging structure; whether or not the banquet center should be part of the solution to this problem is difficult, as the lakeshore is not within the County Council’s scope or ability to do anything other than posture. I won’t play politics with something that I will have absolutely no control over, but I'll say that I hope that the natural beauty of our lakeshore is maintained.

Larson: I spent almost every summer day at the State Park and Porter Beach as a child. Some of my fondest memories were going to Johnson’s Inn and getting a drink and a hot dog. Later in life I had many friends employed as lifeguards at the State Park. I fully support the Pavilion’s re-creation and the addition of the beautiful restroom facilities. As a local resident I have a different feeling about the banquet center. The tax, like any other, should be reviewed yearly with an emphasis on local community benefit. Data should be provided to the Council on how the moneys were spent and whom they benefited the most. I’d like to see more of the tax revenues specifically benefit county residents.

Levi: I do not share the Tourism Board’s support of Pavilion Partners. I was a member of the ABC which held hearings on the permit application. At our last hearing, for reasons I gave at the time, I voted to deny the alcohol permit. The Tourism Board’s support troubled me and still does. Suffice it to say my name will not be listed on any paperwork that allowed such a unique place to be altered and I will object if the County Council is approached for any funding for this project, its advertisement, or emergency response because of problems that might occur and were not addressed. As far as other innkeeper’s tax expenditures, I am happy they promote our county but every budget needs a review.

O’Connor: I believe having a banquet center at the Dunes can be a good thing to bring in tourism dollars and people that have never seen the beautiful area of the Dunes. Since there is alcohol sales they need to provide proper security.

Parks: I use the Indiana Dunes State Park and consider it a treasure within our community. In the past there was a lodge in the park as well as an active Pavilion. The State of Indiana has been attempting to activate additional uses for years in many of the State parks. I had thought that the use of alcohol in the Pavilion was settled locally in an appropriate manner. I do support activating state parks for appropriate uses. PCCRVC should plan and budget based on community input related to the innkeeper’s tax.

(8) What can the Council do to promote economic development in Porter County? (100 words)

Gearhart: The continued support of our parks programs, investing time/money into infrastructure, and the support and funding of our local police forces are just three very important strategies that all work together to help ensure that Porter County remains a community moving forward. Businesses want to come to an area where there are people, and people want to come and, more importantly, stay, in a county where there is a high quality of life. By focusing on this, while simultaneously creating a business friendly atmosphere, we can promote a strong economic climate in Porter County.

Larson: The Council can work with the Commissioners to create a comprehensive development plan that meets community needs. They can review and process requests for TIF districts faster. They can invest in infrastructure providing local jobs and promote shovel-ready projects. The council can look to local suppliers and contractors for products and services. They can present fiscal responsibility by balancing budgets and promote our excellent schools and the tremendous workforce they provide. The council can work on eliminating drug use in our community, through targeted programs, some already in place, some needed, and promote a drug free work force.

Levi: Check, check, and double-check budgets and speak to those that prepare them. I favor TIF districts if, as in Liberty Township, the school funding was not changed. Efficiency, discussion, and review can create a great atmosphere to attract businesses and home owners.

O’Connor: I believe the Council can promote economic development by helping the communities that need funds to upgrade infrastructure, to be able to bring in new building projects that will in turn help them with their tax base in the future.

Parks: In a pure sense, not much as the Council does not administrate. In a macro sense, the Council can build a relationship with the Commissioners allowing for the continued shakeup of the status quo. The Council can foster team work with the departments, not as an administrator but rather as a financial supporter of their strategic and fiscal planning efforts. All of this leads to effective efficient government and complements the effort to attract new businesses and jobs to our phenomenal workforce.

(9) How would you promote cooperation between the Council, the County Commissioners, appointed boards, department heads, and employees? If named as a liaison to an appointed county board, would you commit to regularly attend meetings of that board? (100 words)

Gearhart: I think the biggest problem is that people from opposing parties aren't able to sit down and work towards real solutions to the immediate problems confronting them anymore. When I was on Hebron Town Council, I was the only elected Republican. Despite that, we were able to do so many things for the town. I want to work with everyone to make the best county even better. Actually listening to those voicing concerns with a sympathetic ear goes a long way. I would absolutely commit to regular board meetings; being present to hear the problems first hand is essential.

Larson: Cooperation’s main component is respect. When you listen to others’ ideas and act on them people come together and work. When others see you as a servant to the community and not a self-promoter they will become part of what you are doing. Open lines of communication, respect, and honesty are always the best ways to promote unity. If named as a liaison the people and I expect nothing less than a solid commitment to attend meetings. The board and the community depend on the participation of the appointee.

Levi: Discussion and not confrontation would work. I have no agenda and therefore no reason to attack other elected officials. We all need to be heard and listen much better than we have in the past. I would attend every meeting of any county board I would happen to be the appointed liaison to. That would help us all function better.

O’Connor: I believe the Council, Commissioners, and boards need to be on the same page. We need to drop the D & R, work as one body. This is why they were elected, to work for the people. If I am a liaison to a board I would attend as many meetings as possible depending on my regular work schedule.

Parks: It is hard to manage people. People need to be led by good leaders. It takes good transparent processes to manage people. With this transparent concept in mind it is easier to build trust and with trust comes cooperation. The word communication is under-used when it comes to building a cooperative team. Porter County has much opportunity to build better functioning government and I believe it is happening now. I would attend associated meetings and keep my elected responsibility.

 

 

 

Posted 4/7/2016

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

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