Chesterton Tribune

Vote for three: Six compete in Republican County Council atlarge primary

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Porter County Republican voters will have plenty to pick from in this year’s County Council at-large race in the May 8 primary.

Six challengers – Mark Hoffman, Ralph Iler, Ethan Lowe, Edward Morales, Ralph Neff and Joe Wszolek -- are campaigning for a seat on the seven-member Council. All three at-large seats are on the ballot this year. Voters in the primary elections may vote for up to three. The top three vote-getters will be on the November general election ballot.

At-large council races are voted on throughout the county. Early voting began on April 9.

The Chesterton Tribune invited all candidates to take part in a questionnaire. The Tribune set word limits for each question and reserved the right to edit for length.

(1) Age, place of residence, occupation

Hoffman: 62, Valparaiso, Athletic Director at Valparaiso High School

Iler: 48, Kouts, Criminal Justice Instructor at Wheeler High School and Ivy Technical College

Lowe: 33, Liberty Twp., attorney at Blachly, Tabor, Bozik & Hartman in Valparaiso

Morales: 43, Porter Twp., Managing Partner of an Insurance Benefits Group

Neff: 53, Valparaiso, Business Owner

Wszolek: 58, Portage, Indiana-certified Real Estate Appraiser

(2) What are your qualifications for this office? (75 words)

Hoffman: The County Council is the fiscal body of County Government charged with overseeing the budget. In addition to overseeing the budget, the Council must work together with other elected officials, especially the Board of Commissioners in order to govern effectively. I have spent my entire career as an educator, coach and now Athletic Director managing people, organizations, teams and budgets.

Iler: I worked for the county 12 years as a Juvenile Probation Officer and resigned after serving five years as Chief Probation Officer. As a department head I submitted and managed the budget to the County Council. I am currently the Republican representative of the Sheriff’s Officers on the Porter County Sheriff’s Police Merit Board. I have worked with many advisory committees within county government. I have a Masters of Public Affairs degree from Indiana University.

Lowe: I devote a substantial portion of my legal practice to representing units of local government in Northwest Indiana. The knowledge and experience that I have gained as part of my legal practice has left me uniquely qualified to represent the residents of Porter County as a member of the Porter County Council.

Morales: I currently serve as the Porter Township Trustee. It is the largest township in Porter County without a municipality. I am responsible for planning and managing the township budget which includes the general fund, township assistance, fire protection and public safety. I serve on the Northwest Indiana Plan Commission assigned to the Finance Committee and Transportation Policy Committee. In 2010, Porter Township was named Indiana Township of the Year.

Neff: As a successful business owner, I know what it means to meet a payroll, keep a budget, make appropriations, make sound financial decisions, and be accountable. This is exactly the requirement for Porter County Councilperson.

Wszolek: I have been a leader in the Northwest Indiana community for over 20 years. I have been a small business owner since 1992 during which time I managed my own successful appraisal practice. I have served on boards of zoning appeals, plan commissions, town councils, regional planning and steering committees - both as an elected and appointed official. I also serve on nonprofit boards and currently the Porter County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals.

(3) Why have you decided to run for this seat? (75 words)

Hoffman: I’ve always believed in giving back to the community. Porter County is a great place to live, work and raise a family, and more people should get involved in public service.

Iler: After years of working in and around county government, I have decided that the time has come to take a more active role in our community. I have always worked in the public sector and believe that it is now my turn to take a leadership role.

Lowe: I have decided to run because I believe that I will bring a unique set of qualifications that will benefit the council.

Morales: Because of past years of poor financial planning I understand the complex financial budgets of units of government. I have the experience to make the decisions that will have to be addressed by the council concerning E-911, the Animal Shelter and rising health insurance costs all of which will come before the council for future funding.

Neff: My decision to run can be summarized with three words: SERVICE ABOVE SELF. As a Rotarian for over 25 years, the words have special meaning to me. I have been very fortunate to serve as President of Hospice, make deliveries for Meals on Wheels and serve as a board member for the Porter County Community Foundation. I feel now is the time for me to give back even more to the community.

Wszolek: I am disappointed with the current council’s leadership and the lack of professionalism and civility that I have observed over recent years. I will ensure that the council conducts business in an orderly and respectful manner that promotes confidence in our county government. I will serve as the voice of reason to foster a spirit of cooperation and to create a unified sense of purpose among Porter County Council members.

(4) Why should the voters choose you over the other candidates in this race? (50 words)

Hoffman: I would ask the voters to consider my lifelong service to the youth of Porter County, my ability to lead an organization and I firmly believe in building bridges both within our county and regionally to work together to solve our challenges.

Iler: I have a working knowledge of county government. I believe that I am the only candidate that has worked within county government as an employee and as a department head. I worked for the Juvenile Probation Department for 12 years.

Lowe: Due to my experiences related to my legal practice, I am well versed in the issues currently facing units of government in Indiana. My knowledge of these issues coupled with my experience in tackling these problems has left me uniquely qualified to represent the citizens of Porter County.

Morales: My experience and my ability to work well with others. I will be available to my constituents, fellow board members, elected officials and department heads so that I can strive to make sound financial decisions to the best of my ability and accountability to the taxpayers of Porter County.

Neff: I have the business experience to understand how important workers and wage-earners are to our economic strength as a region. Porter County is in need of people who have the experience to create economic opportunities, union trade development, and stop the wasteful spending of career politicians. I am that person.

Wszolek: I possess the optimal balance of experience and innovation. I have served as a leader and always seek to improve the status quo. I have been able to make the best —although sometimes unpopular— choices for the benefit of the taxpayer. I listen to and will consider all viewpoints.

(5) What do you feel are the key issues in this race? (75 words)

Hoffman: We need more jobs in Porter County. The unemployment rate is simply too high. We need to focus on a balanced approach to spending (making investments) but balancing the budget with running as efficient a government as possible. We need a plan for the proceeds of the sale of Porter Memorial Hospital.

Iler: The key issues are always: Fiscal responsibility and forming strong working relationships with other governmental entities as well as local business to insure the growth and strength of the county; the funding and continued improvement of the 911 Center; the improvement of communication equipment for local fire and police; the proper use of the “hospital money” is on everyone’s mind. A final issue is that of employee management. The health care costs are skyrocketing.

Lowe: I believe that the key issues in the race are the use of the hospital sale proceeds, animal shelter and other budgetary matters.

Morales: Working to find responsible solutions to fund our financial obligations; a long term funding solution for E-911 which at the moment is running at a $2,500,000 annual deficit; the Animal Shelter; and at some point the County Commissioners will be coming to the Council to fund new building. The County health insurance program costs are spiraling out of control to a point we can no longer afford.

Neff: Employment and preservation of the quality of life in Porter County; 7.9 percent for Valparaiso and 9.6 percent for Portage unemployed is not acceptable. We need to stimulate existing businesses and bring new businesses into Porter County. I am in favor of any form of spurring the economy and economic development without directly relying on federal funds.

Wszolek: The overarching issue is that the leadership of the council has been reactionary as opposed to being proactive in its planning and decision making. We need a comprehensive plan to fund government into the future and need to refrain from approaching the budget in piecemeal fashion. This includes the funding of E911, health insurance, the animal shelter, the Expo Center, bridge and road construction/repair and public safety.

(6) What items in the county budgets do you feel could use increased funding and where would you argue cuts be made? (75 words)

Hoffman: Any investment in infrastructure spending I would favor not cutting. Our roads, sewers, and sidewalks are key to our future growth. It appears as if the animal shelter has been underfunded for many years. This needs to be addressed. The Memorial Opera House is a fantastic historic asset for the County but needs additional investment.

Iler: I am in the process of going over the entire budget and it is a complex budget with many funding sources and past commitments that must be managed. It would be premature to make any statements without first speaking with department heads and fully understanding the issues at hand.

Lowe: I would like to see all parts of the county’s budget reviewed in order to determine whether adjustments can be made to make County government more efficient and cost effective.

Morales: E-911 is one of them, a major role of county government is public safety; a number of years ago dispatch centers were consolidated and handed over to county dispatch with no long term budget funding in place. The Animal Shelter is another; when it became a no-kill shelter with no budget funding in place to accommodate that policy. I don’t think we can begin to discuss cuts until we define our current funding obligations.

Neff: Funding increases-- Health Insurance for full time County Employees, the 911 Communication Center, and the Porter County Coalition for Affordable Housing ”No Place Like Home initiative” to eliminate homelessness. When it comes to budget cuts “one-size-fits-all” is not the solution. Porter County is a diverse county. The needs in South Haven are not the same needs in Valparaiso or Chesterton. Too many reform efforts fail because too little thought is given to practicality or implementation.

Wszolek: First we need a sustainable plan to fund E911 beyond the beginning of 2013. Additional funding is needed for road and bridge repair, the gradual implementation of the comprehensive drainage plan and improvements to our infrastructure that promote a job creating, business friendly environment. We need to focus on the core duties and responsibilities of government, and carefully evaluate the cost of all services on a case by case basis.

(7) Some members of the current council have recently made the argument that part-time elected officials such as County Council members and Commissioners should not be eligible to receive health insurance as a benefit. Would you agree? Why or why not? (50 words)

Hoffman: I agree that part-time employees both elected and appointed should not be eligible to receive health insurance. I believe that it should be afforded to full time employees only, whether or not they are elected.

Iler: I believe that part-time employees whether elected or otherwise hired should not receive full time benefits. It is an extravagance the county can no longer afford to provide.

Lowe: I would like to see this issue studied further. If I am elected to the Council, I will not elect to receive health insurance from the county.

Morales: Part-time elected officials should be held to the same standard as private sector employees and part-time employees in most cases do not qualify for health insurance benefits.

Neff: When elected I personally will NOT accept insurance coverage as a County Councilperson.  I feel that Commissioners or Council Members could receive insurance only if it is paid for by themselves, and not at the taxpayers’ expense.

Wszolek: I am not running for Porter County Council to receive health insurance benefits and I will decline them if offered. I feel this expense is disproportional to the services being performed - especially in a tough economic time and a time of state-imposed fiscal discipline.

(8) With the sale of Porter Hospital, the county has approximately $9 million in interest to use at their discretion. Would you recommend the county spend this money? If so, how should the council appropriate the funds? Should the $161 million principal of the sale be spent once it becomes available? (75 words)

Hoffman: We need to engage a lot of different stakeholders and have a comprehensive plan for both the proceeds and the interest.

Iler: The interest from the hospital should be put into the general fund but should not be used to add ongoing costs such as employees. It should be used for purchases that may be needed. The decision whether to spend the principal could be handled much like a foundation. A committee of various elected and local citizens would review requests and ideas then make recommendations to the council. This money should be used for growth projects.

Lowe: If elected, I will encourage the County Council to develop a strategic plan concerning how the Hospital sale proceeds, including both the principal and interest, will be spent. I would prefer that such a plan be developed prior to Council electing to spend any more of the proceeds, absent emergencies arising. Once the plan is developed, I would like to see an emphasis on using the Hospital sale proceeds to leverage federal and state funding.

Morales: One thing this interest money should not be used for is to cover short falls in the budget. This is not a reliable source of funding and to rely on it to fund our budget deficits is a recipe for disaster. Too often CEDIT money is used for everything but economic development. The $161 million principal should be invested in a way that we can maximize our return of interest.

Neff: Porter County appears to be in strong fiscal shape; the $161 million principal should be kept in a rainy day fund and not appropriated to purchase any more buildings. Interest generated from this fund should be allocated with a “bipartisan relationship” among the officials. One third of the funds should be used for education, our youth is our future. The balance could be allocated for CEDIT projects, county highways, E-911 communication, animal shelter, etc.

Wszolek: The principal from the Hospital sale should not be touched and should be protected under all but the direst of circumstances. It should be preserved for the safekeeping of Porter County’s future. The interest, however, could be used to fill the holes in long term budget planning, for essential government services only. Simply because this money exists does not mean that we should create places to spend it.

(9) How would you suggest the council play a role in the overall growth of the county’s economy? Would you favor the use of Tax Increment Finance (TIF) districts? (75 words)

Hoffman: TIF is one of the best economic development tools available; I would support the County using a Redevelopment Commission to fund infrastructure and redevelopment projects.

Iler: The use of TIF districts can be a great tool to help develop areas but needs to be used sparingly. The council currently is seen as a burden to work with by many local agencies and businesses. This needs to change. The council should be an open organization that focuses on working with other agencies to find solutions to the complex problems facing our community. This will encourage economic stability.

Lowe: Porter County is in a unique position for economic development with the sale proceeds of Porter Hospital. I would like the County to develop a strategic plan governing its use of the sale proceeds including expenditures for economic development. If the issue is properly evaluated, I have no objection to the County’s use of TIF districts. I believe TIF districts should be used sparingly to avoid the county competing with cities/towns to incentivize economic development.

Morales: The Council needs to be more receptive to economic planning in the future, something it has not been in the past. TIF districts can have a profound ability to divert property tax revenue from schools, libraries, public safety and other local public services. County government needs to understand the impact of these limitations as well as other local units of government before enacting on these types of districts.

Neff: Supporting communities with their individual economic development will be a key issue in my campaign. TIF districts are just one example of a possible solution. If TIF districts are used, I would insist on projects approved with complete transparency, and that programs (such as school districts) that rely on tax funding are considered before approval is passed.

Wszolek: The overriding concern with TIFs is that they hurt funding to our local schools and municipal governments. I would carefully employ a “but-for” test in determining whether a TIF is appropriate: namely, a TIF should only be considered if, but for the implementation of the TIF, the economic growth would not occur. Jobs and economic growth should be a priority, but not at the expense of the local school districts.

(10) Do you regularly attend Porter County Council or County Commissioner meetings? Why or why not? (25 words)

Hoffman: I haven’t regularly attended meetings; however I do read the minutes and keep up with county matters as much as I can.

Iler: Previously, I had attended many Council meetings and recently began attending again. The commissioner meetings are at inconvenient times but I follow them in newspapers.

Lowe: I have previously attended both County Council and Commissioner meetings. If I am elected, I will strive to attend all of the Council’s meetings.

Morales: As an elected official I have attended both including County Planning and BZA meetings representing my constituent’s on various issues that affected my township.

Neff: I try to be present at many meetings as possible but when I cannot, I follow the issues through the newspaper and online meeting minutes.

Wszolek: Yes. I have attended many in order to be an active and informed citizen.



Posted 4/17/2012