Chesterton Tribune                                                                                   Adv.

Urbanik challenges Kopp in Democrat race for auditor nomination

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By KEVIN NEVERS

In the primary election on Tuesday, May 4, Vicki Urbanik is challenging incumbent Jim Kopp for the Democratic nomination for Porter County Auditor. The Chesterton Tribune invited both to respond to candidate questionnaires.

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

(1) Age, place of residence, and occupation.

Kopp: 65, Ogden Dunes, incumbent Porter County Auditor, licensed water system operator, volunteer firefighter, former business manager and owner.

Urbanik: 46, Morgan Township, journalist and community editor for the Chesterton Tribune.

(2) To Kopp: What are your accomplishments in office and why should the voters re-elect you to it? (150 words) I became Porter County Auditor in January 2007. It was immediately apparent that the county systems were in need of modernization. Tax bills had not been sent out on time since 2002 and bills were being paid in 90 to 120 days.

In 2009, the Auditor portion of the tax billing and collection process was completed in about 90 days. Settlement dollars were distributed to the taxing units by December 31, 2009, in conformance with state guidelines. A huge accomplishment.

Other innovations:

•Fuel cards for all county-owned vehicles tracking fuel use at discounted prices.

•In 2006, it took the county over 90 days to pay a bill. We now pay bills in about seven days.

•Long-standing violations of employment laws are being corrected.

•The GIS System is fully functional and used by the Surveyor, Plan Commission, and other county departments.

•Compilation of asset inventory over $5,000.00.

To Urbanik: What are your qualifications for the office of Porter County Auditor and why should the voters unseat the incumbent? (150 words) In my 23 years as a Porter County journalist, I have acquired a comprehensive understanding of local government finance. I hold Level II assessor certification. I have caught errors in county and state tax data and frequently have been asked by local officials to give input on tax matters. I have authored tax essays and led tax workshops because I strongly believe in helping the public better understand the tax system. I have attended 22 years of county budget hearings, giving me detailed knowledge of two decades of county spending.

Unlike the incumbent, I will not hold other jobs while serving as Auditor. I will stress accuracy and thoroughness in all tax reports issued by my office. I will ensure that information on the county webpage is accurate and useful, and I will work in a professional, bipartisan manner with the County Council and other county and local officials.

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

Kopp: Now that we have fixed the long-standing tax-billing problem, I intend to continue to modernize the other County systems under my jurisdiction.

Compliance with state and federal formats and regulations are the next challenge. The business contraction of the 90s coupled with assessing issues at the state level precipitated several problems. Computer systems and software were not updated. This is now happening. This automation also helps to offset staffing cuts by the County Council.

I believe the taxpayers of Porter County have a skilled manager with the education and experience needed to run the Auditor’s Office, which handle upwards of $600,000,000.00 annually. All county business touches the Auditor’s Office in some way. The Auditor’s Office requires a tested and proven manager.

I am that person.

Urbanik: We need improved efficiency in our county tax administration system, a taxpayer advocate approach, and enhanced dialogue with local taxing units.

For many years, our county has had problems in its property tax system, but recently the problems have compounded: We have seen repeated instances of erroneous tax rate charts, incorrect certified assessed values, miscalculated tax bills, failure to disburse tax revenues on time, and excessively late property tax bills.

The issue in this year’s race is not only which candidate has the most thorough knowledge of local government finance, but also which one has the commitment and passion to ensure that we never again repeat costly mistakes.

We need an Auditor who—not unlike a journalist—works for the public’s interest, knows how to produce accurate work under deadline, pays close attention to detail, and works well with people of differing viewpoints. I possess those qualities.

(4) What can you do to implement the timely issuance of property-tax bills? (100 words)

Kopp: It took Porter County government two and a half years to update the computers and software systems and fix data entry problems that had existed since at least the mid-90s, but the tax bills went out on time in 2010. My staff and I have worked tirelessly to bring our office into the 21st century. On-time billing, collection, and distribution of tax dollars gives schools, cities and towns the moneys they need to operate.

Urbanik: Our tax bills were late in every year since 2003, but only in the past three years were the bills so late that we missed the November installment. It is inappropriate to blame all the delays on software problems. To ensure on-time and accurate tax billing, I will take a deadline-oriented approach, working cooperatively with other departments and holding regular staff meetings. I will ensure that auditor employees in the tax division are fully equipped to handle complicated aspects of tax calculations. When problems arise, we will tackle them aggressively and not waste precious time blaming others.

(5) What can you do to ensure the accuracy of data provided to county and local officials? (100 words)

Kopp: My staff and I have spent hundreds of hours managing, verifying and balancing data conversion between the county’s three different computer software systems. With the exception of an isolated billing address change, I am confident that our systems are completely accurate at this time. This is the first time this can be said since the mid 1990s.

My staff and I are dedicated to “customer service.” We are more than happy to discuss and address any issues brought to our attention by residents. We do answer the phone and return e-mails the day received in most cases.

Urbanik: I am a stickler for thoroughness and accuracy, and I have caught mistakes in tax rate charts and budget orders. As Auditor, I will ensure a careful review before my office releases critical data. When errors are made, we will correct them immediately, without making excuses.

Open communication is also key. Some local officials have said they get more information from me as a journalist than they get from the county. I’ll keep taxing units fully updated, in such ways as hosting roundtable discussions and issuing reports. By working in partnership with local government, we will ensure accuracy.

(6) What new policies or programs would you implement? (100 words)

Kopp: In the short term, I will continue the integration of the geographic information system (GIS) with the Assessor and Auditor-Treasurer tax systems. Ultimately, this will result in real-time comprehensive data being available to county, city and town government offices throughout Porter County.

Enhancing and reinforcing the Porter County Wellness Care Program will achieve a substantial reduction in the cost for providing medical insurance to our employees.

Vendor ACH payments, which are currently being initiated, will save Porter County several thousand dollars per month.

Urbanik: I intend to greatly improve taxpayer outreach. From my tax workshops, I know taxpayers want accurate and well-rounded information to help sort through the sometimes-complicated tax system. I will make the Auditor’s Office that trusted and helpful resource. The current Auditor webpage is very lacking. We will update it with tax essays, forms, and links for tax deductions, credits, tax rates, and other information, presented in easy-to-understand terms. Taxpayers will be able to interact with the office through a blog or similar mechanism. I will also continue to publish tax brochures and host public tax workshops.

(7) Do you expect to ask the Porter County Council for additional funds or employees to fulfill your responsibilities? (75 words)

Kopp: The Auditor’s Office has lost two full-time positions in recent years, while the workload has continued to increase. The demand for timely and accurate data distribution and record keeping continues to increase. We have a request pending before the Porter County Council for an Assistant Director of Budget and Finance. Beyond this request, I have no intention of asking for additional full-time help.

Urbanik: I don’t foresee a need for additional employees. I disagree with the Auditor’s current proposal to add a new budget director position. I intend to reduce overall auditor spending, not increase it. Auditor overtime has skyrocketed, from about $5,000 in 2006 to more than $75,000 in 2009. By more equitably distributing staff duties, we will end such exorbitant expenses. By demanding accuracy, we won’t waste money later to correct mistakes.

  

 

Posted 4/13/2010

 

 

 

 

 

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