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County Council officially bars auditor from spending out of nonreverting fund, 5-2

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

The Porter County Council majority took the stand again that they do not want County Auditor Robert Wichlinski spending out of his non-reverting fund without their approval.

And this time it’s no ifs, ands, or buts.

All seven Council members were present for a special meeting Wednesday after Council member Dan Whitten, D-At Large, requested that the board meet to reduce the allocation for the non-reverting fund to $0. This follows an earlier vote on March 11 when five members of the Council voted to put $606,710 in an unallocated fund.

The same five voted Wednesday to minimize appropriations of about $583,000 in the non-reverting fund to $0. They were Whitten and Council members Sylvia Graham, D-At Large, Karen Conover, R-3rd, Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, and president Robert Poparad, D-At-Large. Members voting against were Jim Biggs, R-1st, and Jim Polarek, R-4th.

The non-reverting fund was set up to recoup homestead credit violations for the County and to ensure more efficient taxpayer service as a team effort between the auditor, assessor, treasurer and recorder known as the total quality management (TQM) program.

The balance had reached over $1.6 million which prompted the Council to seek a better understanding of how the money was being spent.

But Wichlinski argued that the Council’s March 11 vote to transfer monies to an unallocated fund was improper because the unallocated non-reverting fund did not exist, and he said that if the Council wanted to squelch the fund then it should have decided to advertise for a reduction of the allocation.

The Council decided that it would go that route if that meant stopping Wichlinski from making any subsequent expenditures and prevented the situation from escalating into a legal battle.

There was a difference of legal opinion between the auditor’s office and the County Council’s attorney Scott McClure. McClure said he is confident that the Council acted correctly the first time because the state statute does not refer to any method to de-appropriate money. When that happens, the Council has the authority to execute home rule which would have allowed the hold be put on the fund.

“Home rule says we have the power to do so,” McClure said.

But since there was a clash in legal arguments, McClure advised the Council to go ahead with a second vote.

Whitten and Poparad both became upset at the Council’s previous meeting on March 26 when the topic was brought up that Wichlinski had paid bills using money from the fund since March 11. According to the Council’s administrative assistant, the most recent figures on the County’s mainframe show that the auditor’s office has doled out more than $80,000 from the non-reverting fund without Council consent.

Biggs voiced his support for the TQM program and asked if one of the five Council members could explain to him why they felt they needed to restrict the fund despite the program’s success.

While others did not speak up, Conover answered “it is for public accountability.” She did agree however that “a lot of good things” have come out of the TQM program such as on-time and “pretty accurate” tax bills. She then requested the auditor to give her a thorough breakdown of how money in the non-reverting fund has been spent since this January.

Her remarks were then echoed by Whitten who said “I want a little more detail and accountability. I’m taking this across the board.”

Biggs expressed concern about how this reduction would affect the current contracts within the TQM program and asked how the County would continue its crackdown on homestead credit violations.

Poparad said the money is still in the fund and that Wichlinski can use the money as long as the Council approves the appropriation.

Wichlinski, who was present at that meeting and raised no remonstrations about the reduced allocation, put on the agenda a request for an additional appropriation of $225,250 in contractual services for a total of five contracts, including a contract with Hannon and Hannon of Valparaiso to continue collecting on fraudulent homestead credits.

Four of the contracts had been approved by the County Commissioners at their meeting last week with CEDIT funding that was restored to the Commissioner’s budget by the Council in March. The contracts, Wichlinski said, would be retroactive to Jan. 1 contingent on funding from the Council.

Before Council members could get deep into the discussion of the request, Whitten motioned to table the request until the Council’s next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, April 23. He said Wednesday’s special meeting was scheduled exclusively for reducing the non-reverting funds appropriation.

“We did it. We’re done,” Whitten said to Biggs as he contended that a vote should be taken on Wichlinski’s request since the Council has discussed the merits of funding for the auditor since the beginning of the year.

“I see no benefit on any of our parts in putting this off another two weeks,” Biggs said.

Polarek and Rivas also argued against delaying the vote since the item was on the agenda. Polarek made the point that Council members had voted 6-0 to restore CEDIT funding to be used for contractual services like these last month.

But Poparad said he did not want to want to drag out the conversation any further Wednesday because the Council needed to clear out of the Commissioner’s Chambers so the plan commission could hold its meeting at 6:30 p.m.

Council members will have time to ask questions at the April 23 meeting, he said.

A vote of 4-3 tabled the request for the additional appropriation.

Voting to table were Whitten, Conover, Graham and Poparad. Those against the motion were Rivas, Biggs and Polarek.

 

Posted 4/11/2013