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Blaney and Heinold vie for County Commissioner seat

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Laura Shurr Blaney

By JEFF SCHULTZ

You may know her as one of your at-large County Council members but, after six years of keeping watch over the County’s finances, Democrat Laura Shurr Blaney believes her talents are better suited for a new office.

Blaney is a candidate this year competing for the South District County Commissioner seat. She faces Republican newcomer Mike Heinold in the Nov. 6 election.

“I’ve got some ideas. I feel that making policy is one of my strengths,” Blaney explained her ambition to seek the Commissioner seat during an interview with the Chesterton Tribune. The duties of a commissioner involve executing effective management over many county departments, conducting the day-to-day business of the county, and providing guidance for economic development, she said.

Blaney, 44, cites her experience in business, education, and her years on the County Council as her qualifications.

As a councilwoman, Blaney’s proudest accomplishments include establishing a satellite site in Portage for the Health Department, netting funds for the Veteran’s Court, improving conditions at the Animal Shelter, working with state officials on finding more funding for the County’s Enhanced 911 center, balancing the County’s budget each year, and supporting the partnership with the Town of Chesterton to provide utilities for the Ind. 49 corridor project.

Before entering politics, Blaney graduated from Purdue University with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Science and taught Biology and Chemistry at Purdue North Central.

She and her husband Ken are small business owners operating “One Guy with Tools” and are very active in the lives of their four children. The couple, along with Ken’s parents, had owned Kelsey’s Steak House located in Valparaiso and Portage and recently sold the business.

A Porter Township resident, Blaney also has a Duneland connection. She coached cross country and track at Chesterton High School during the early to mid 1990s assisting coaches Larry James and Steve Kearney and occasionally crosses paths with CHS alumni who remember her as “Miss Shurr.”

Job development

A top item on Blaney’s to-do list if elected is job creation, which is why she is a proponent for the Ind. 49 corridor project.

She also favors working with all municipalities in similar projects in whatever way possible to attract businesses and help them realize their strengths.

“If we support each other, it’s good for everybody,” Blaney said.

Cooperation she said will ensure that growth is planned and done in an orderly fashion.

For the Ind. 49 corridor and the area around the new hospital, Blaney prefers the types of business to locate be those that can provide residents with sustainable incomes.

“We don’t need the minimum wage jobs. This county needs jobs with good paying wages,” Blaney said.

The County should also realize the growth potential around the Porter County Municipal Airport, another potential hotbed for development, Blaney said.

Located north of U.S. 30 near the 49 bypass, the airport is one area officials are eyeing for a tax increment financing (TIF) district. Another area named is around the new Porter hospital.

Blaney said TIF districts “can be a great tool for economic development” as long as they are written in a way that school districts get the property tax dollars that are owed to them.

“But there has got to be a way to put in the infrastructure,” she added.

Planning for hospital sale money

Another possible tool for economic development is the County’s roughly $180 million nest egg in money related to the sale of Porter Memorial Hospital.

Now that Porter Regional Hospital has opened, both the County Commissioners and the Council can access the $163 million sale principal with a unanimous vote from both boards.

Blaney said she is in favor of coming up with a plan for the approximately $12 million in interest money. Some of that could go to capital projects as long as it does not incur any additional operating costs.

“I don’t think the interest money should be sitting there earning interest at a rate less than the inflation rate when we have significant needs,” Blaney said. “I feel like we are at a point where we could do great things for the county and not just squander the money.”

As for the principal, Blaney said the County should leave that alone for now with the idea that interest rates will increase.

Jail issues

In regards to public safety, the “backbone of what we do,” Blaney said the County needs to look at all options and think outside of the box on opening the B pod at the Porter County Jail. The County also needs to first make sure medical needs at the jail are covered before hiring additional personnel.

To mitigate the overcrowding issue, she said the county should attempt to implement more early release programs. All vested parties – judges, the probation dept., sheriff, County Council and Commissioners -- will need to be involved in the discussion, she said.

The current board of commissioners announced their intention recently to review private firms who may be able to perform jail security more cost-effectively than the County. Blaney said she would be for private-public relationships if they can provide a savings and are appropriate for the County’s needs, like the current partnering discussions with Lakeshore PAWS to manage the future Animal Shelter.

Little things

While ready to tackle the County’s largest challenges, Blaney also talks of “little things” she would like to accomplish to improve the quality of life for her constituents, which includes supporting the arts and wellness programs.

Following the City of Valparaiso’s Fit City model, Blaney would introduce a similar program at the county level for both children and adults. That could also create the opportunity to find some corporate sponsorships.

A “fit county” initiative could also reduce the County’s insurance costs, Blaney said.

She supports updating county services through technology and would like there to be a Porter County cell phone application available to give citizens meeting schedules, answer some of the questions they may have and promote events throughout the county.

Blaney said she would like to see the community more engaged in the affairs of county government, especially its younger citizens.

“Not enough people understand what county government does or realize the impact it has on their lives. It has great impact, maybe more so than the federal government.”

Blaney remembers spending a day working in the County recorder’s office as a high school student which prompted her appreciation for county government and said she would like to see those school programs reintroduced.

A full time commissioner

Blaney acknowledges she and her opponent Heinold hold similar views on many of the issues at hand, but what she believe sets her apart is her six-year involvement on the County Council and her pledge to be the County’s only full-time commissioner if elected.

Overcoming challenges like the jail overcrowding, funding E-911 and keeping up drainage improvements will require bipartisan efforts and Blaney said she is adept at reaching across party lines.

Despite all the talk over budget crunches in this year’s County Council budget hearings, Blaney would like to assure residents the County is very healthy financially. She said the County should stop making decisions on the worst case scenarios and take a look at more positive scenarios.

“We have to remember what makes this county special. But there is more to do, that’s for sure,” Blaney said.

 

Mike Heinold

By JEFF SCHULTZ

Local businessman Mike Heinold will be the new kid on the block if he wins the bid for the Porter County South District Commissioner but he is ready to take the best ideas the County has and make them better.

In order to keep the county going forward, it must learn to “synergize”—which Heinold describes as combining two separate ideas to form a better one, or to say it another way – “two heads are better than one.”

Heinold, 45, who is running as a Republican, said he knows the effectiveness of this strategy directly from various management roles he’s held over the last 25 years. After working for the family-owned Heinold Feeds, he became a division manager and executive vice-president for Chester Inc. in Valparaiso where he worked for ten years.

Heinold says his years as a consultant and sales director at the Franklin Covey Company gave him a strong understanding of management and fiduciary responsibility, which he says would be his benchmarks as a commissioner.

“Everybody wants better services but not new taxes, so you have to make better use of your money,” Heinold said.

Heinold is also the co-owner and managing partner of Iddea Group, which offers IT consulting and services, and he feels his expertise can aid the County as it looks for ways to make its services available online.

This is Heinold’s first run for public office although he has had experience behind the scenes campaigning for his dad Vic Heinold, a former state senator. Heinold said after the 2010 elections, he had been encouraged by several people to run for commissioner given his management background and his natural ability to build relationships.

If you build it, they will come

Of all the things he hopes to do as a commissioner, Heinold said job creation is one of his top ambitions. He said having more jobs and businesses is a potential solution for the County to overcome its funding challenges with the loss of revenue from the state’s tax caps.

The County, Heinold said, can gain more revenue from commercial properties as their property taxes are capped at three percent as opposed to residential properties which have a one percent cap and farmland and rental properties both capped at two percent.

But in order to bring the jobs here, a county has to have low taxes, good schools and, foremost, infrastructure, Heinold said, which is why he favors projects such as the recent Ind. 49 Utility Corridor project. The project was approved in order to increase capacity from the Chesterton water and sewer pipes to give the County the option of bringing those utilities to the east of Ind. 49 between the Chesterton town limits and U.S. 6.

Heinold quotes the famous line from the film Field of Dreams to explain why having resources ready is so crucial to economic development – “If you build it, they will come.”

600 jobs x 4

Heinold said that before the recession hit in 2008, Porter County had an unemployment rate below 5 percent, compared to the latest figure of 7.7 percent. The county could see those pre-recession figures again if 2,400 of the 8,000 residents looking for jobs are hired. Heinold said he aims for the creation of 600 new jobs for each of the fours year he would be in office if elected Commissioner.

To accomplish goals like this, Heinold said officials must work towards them continuously.

“The players work harder when you are keeping score,” he said. “You got to have a goal in mind in order to work towards it.”

Heinold said he is anxious to see the final report released by the Porter County Jobs Cabinet later this year and assess the best methods to grow jobs for each section of the county.

He sees tax increment finance (TIF) districts proposed through the county’s new Redevelopment Commission as a viable option to build up infrastructure and “not just roads, curbs and highways” but just as important the availability of high bandwidth Internet connection in those areas.

Heinold said TIF districts can be implemented in a way that pass-throughs ensure that school districts receive their money and in the long run the money from TIF districts will come back as revenue for the County.

Hospital Funds

As county officials mull what action to take with the $180 million resulting from the sale of Porter Memorial Hospital, Heinold contends that the sale proceeds of $163 million should be preserved as a “great resource” and a “safety net” for the County and the interest it generates can be looked at as an endowment to create new economic projects.

Another option for the principal would be to use the money for loans, he said.

If a project does come along that gets enough support from all County Council members and Commissioners, Heinold said he would agree to tap into the principal if it can serve the citizens.

“It would be irresponsible of us not to do it that way,” he said.

Service to all citizens is one of three points Heinold calls the imperatives of holding public office.

Another is to exercise fiduciary responsibility by improving customer value, or in this case the taxpayer.

The third imperative is to set egos aside and synergize your ideas with those of other public officials.

Cooperative Spirit

Heinold said a key for the County to meet its many goals is to maintain an atmosphere for open dialogue to share ideas.

“Every opportunity is unique. If you don’t agree on something, it makes sense just to have an open conversation,” he said.

One situation that suffered because leaders were not included in discussions was the County’s merger with the Valparaiso and Portage 911 dispatch centers, Heinold said. He said he hopes to work with municipal leaders, police and fire departments on how to improve E-911 operations since it is a “Porter County issue” and public safety plays largely into a county’s quality of life.

Other topics Heinold brings up for the county to discuss openly is preserving the county’s landmarks like the Memorial Opera House, how County Economic Development Income Tax dollars should be utilized, overcrowding at the Porter County Jail, finding a centralized site for the new Animal Shelter, working on a long term strategy to add additional office space inside county facilities if necessary and exploring options for the County employee health insurance.

Health insurance is the largest part of personnel costs which make up the most of the County’s operating budget, Heinold said. He contends that the County is obligated to explore all options for both traditional and self-insured insurance options to ensure the best quality coverage and affordability for employees.

Heinold vs. Blaney

Heinold is vying with Democrat Laura Shurr Blaney for the Commissioner seat in the Nov. 6 elections.

Blaney’s platform also has a heavy focus on job creation. Heinold points out that his opponent was one of the County Council members who voted to drop out of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority which was created by state legislators with the intention of bringing more jobs to the region.

He further differentiates himself by highlighting his experience as a longtime leader in business, sales and organizational development. Blaney operates a small business with her husband and has served on the County Council for six years.

Heinold resides in Morgan Twp. with his wife Beth and their three sons.

 

Posted 10/9/2012