Chesterton Tribune

 

 

$30 million bond issue called historic day for Porter County

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Porter County Government officials took a giant step forward in the effort to accomplish much needed capital improvements when the County Council approved 6-0, on first reading Tuesday, an ordinance to issue a bond for up to $30 million for building renovations and infrastructure improvements.

“We are literally about to embark on creating history in this state,” said Commissioner Jim Biggs, R-North.

The bond, if approved on second reading by the Council next month, will be paid back over a period of 20 years using $2.1 million annually out of the interest earned from the investment of the proceeds from the sale of the county-owned Porter Memorial Hospital, said County Attorney Scott McClure.

The Commissioners will also create a rainy day fund to hold some of the interest earned. If neither the interest nor the rainy day fund can pay the $2.1 million in a certain year, the balance will be paid with the County’s distribution of local income tax.

History in the making

Biggs said he doesn’t believe that something like this has ever been done before, that a County can take on a $30 million bond to fix its properties without having to create a new tax or fee.

“I can’t think of a better way to use the people’s money and that is to spend it on the properties that people own,” said Biggs.

Council members Dan Whitten, D-at large, and Sylvia Graham, D-at large, said they are proud to be a part of this decision. Whitten recalled the steps it’s taken to get to this point since the County sold Porter Memorial Hospital in 2007. The most important was the creation of the Porter County Government Nonprofit Charitable Foundation, done through a change in state statute that allowed the County to earn a higher interest rate on its $150 million investment of hospital sale proceeds.

“We’ve come down a long road to get here with a lot of twists. All of these things have been done with the goal and end vision of maximizing the return on this money to the benefit of Porter County residents,” Whitten said.

Where other county governments have had to lay off employees including police officers or have had to pass income taxes to sustain operations, Whitten said this county has managed to avoid that with the proper steps taken.

“I hope people in Porter County realize that we are head and shoulders above that. We’ve planned, we’ve worked hard, we’ve taken the challenge and you, the residents, are going to reap the benefits. I am tremendously proud of that,” he said.

Graham said the bond is going to create jobs and be a solution for “a lot of problems.”

“I’m very happy to be a part of this,” she said.

Six projects

The projects the bond will go toward, as presented by the three County Commissioners at the Council’s June 27 meeting:

-- Purchasing and remodeling the former County Jail building at 157 Franklin. St. in Valparaiso. The Commissioners plan to move a number of offices there that need additional space such as the courts.

-- Repair or replace three bridges -- Bridge 126 on CR 700N over Salt Creek east of Ind. 149, Bridge 84 on CR 800S west of Hebron over Cobbs Creek, and Bridge 135 on Old Porter Rd. west of Ind. 149 in the City of Portage.

-- Reconstruction of the front entrance of the Porter County Administration Building in Valparaiso.

-- Upgrades for the Porter County Expo Center at Ind. 49 and Division Rd.

-- Building improvements and additional rooms and parking at the North County Complex on Willowcreek Rd. in Portage.

-- Improvements to the courtrooms and offices of the Porter County Courthouse located in downtown Valparaiso.

Making the motion to approve the bond issuance on first reading was Council member Karen Conover, R-3rd, who said the last time the County borrowed money was when it was decided to bond for the construction of a new jail facility nearly two decades ago.

“We made the right decision 20 years ago and I think we are making the right decision now,” Conover said.

Request from Portage

Later in the discussion, Council member Andy Bozak, R-1st, asked the Commissioners if they had seen the proposal from City of Portage officials sent the previous night asking the County to consider partnering with them to build a new building on Central Ave. instead of renovating the North County Complex.

Commissioner President Jeff Good, R-Center, replied they did receive it and said that his board wishes to move forward with the plan they have already proposed.

“We did look at the location (at Central Ave.). We have the numbers. Let’s be clear. There have been things in the City of Portage administration that are questionable. I don’t think we are in a position to commit,” Good said, adding that its the Commissioners’ job to “steer clear of these things.”

Biggs said that if the Commissioners did want to relocate their building in north Porter County, they would consider a more central location for the all residents, including those who live in Duneland, such as the corner of U.S. 6 and 149 or closer to Porter Regional Hospital.

“We are looking at what the most cost-effective approach we can take is and that is renovation,” Biggs said.

Commissioner Laura Shurr Blaney, D-South, said having to bond for $40 million to honor the Portage request instead of $30 million would mean larger annual payments and the County would have to tie up more income tax revenue or interest from the hospital sale investment.

Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, who represents the City of Portage asked if the Commissioners would study the plan again as it could benefit the residents there and talk over with city officials what can be done with the North County Complex property once it is vacant.

But Good and Biggs shot down Rivas’ request saying they don’t believe the proposal fits the interests of the overall body of constituents.

“This is nothing but a sideshow (by Portage officials),” said Good.

Biggs after the meeting told the Chesterton Tribune that he hopes the residents of Portage and Portage Twp. realize that the Commissioners are sensitive to their needs and that they are investing $10 million in improvements at the North County Complex and a $20 million bond by the Stormwater Management Board also approved Tuesday to fix the drainage woes in the Twin Creeks Conservancy District and South Haven.

Rivas said he “didn’t agree 100 percent” with the proposal, but said he would vote in support of the bond issue as he sees the need for projects to get done, such as the plaza renovation for the County Administration Building.

Public comment

Meanwhile, the Council opened the floor up for public comments.

Liberty Twp. resident Ed Gutt spoke in favor of the bond. “I would like to see hospital money go to these projects because it is for the people who paid into that Porter County hospital over the years and it’s giving back to the people who live here.”

Valparaiso resident Candace Shaw said “it’s almost magical” that the Council stated a few months ago they had no mechanism for allocating money earned from the Foundation when The Caring Place came to request support for a new building that serves county residents, and now it is approving something that would use those same funds. She said the Foundation money should not be used for government “pet projects” as the Foundation is a separate nonprofit entity.

Shaw said the County should seek a legal opinion from an independent counsel on whether it can legally move money from the Foundation into government coffers.

Whitten replied that the Government Foundation is “a creature of first impression” and was created under a new statute.

Council member Jeff Larson, R-at large, said he thought it was wrong to use the term “pet project” because these are needed improvements and not done for political gain.

“These buildings have been neglected for 20-plus years. If we don’t maintain them, we won’t be able to use them,” Larson said.

Unanimous support

Council President Mike Jessen, R-4th, lauded the Commissioners for their hard work and time to come up with the plan that gained unanimous support for as large as it is.

“It’s not a perfect plan. I don’t know what a perfect plan would look like. You could argue it a lot of ways but we’ve made a lot of progress and I think it’s important to keep the progress moving forward,” said Jessen.

All Council members voted in favor of the bond issue except for Whitten who left the meeting prior to the vote.

 

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