Chesterton Tribune



Council cuts Commissioner budget $2 million; Sheriff reschedules

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In its first real dig into the 2014 county budgets, the Porter County Council Tuesday began whittling down the $46 million advertised total, by cutting more than $2 million from what the County Board of Commissioners requested.

According to figures estimated by County Auditor Robert Wichlinski and the Council’s financial and budget specialist Vicki Urbanik, there will be approximately $38.8 million of available revenue for 2014, which was about the size of this year’s budget.

Facing the challenge of balancing the funds for not only next year but also the years ahead, the Council spent the first half of a two and a half hour meeting mulling how it could invest dollars to see the most return, specifically the $160 million from the sale of Porter hospital.

The County has $10 million in hospital interest funds and the principal is generating less than $1 million a year under its current interest rate. Treasurer Mike Bucko, from the audience, said the County could invest 25 percent of its overall portfolio in a long-term plan at a rate of 2 to 3 percent a year over five years, which is the longest the state will permit.

County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, said putting the money into an endowment fund could see a larger return of 8 to 10 percent according to discussions he’s had with representatives of the Porter County Foundation.

“There doesn’t seem to be any drawbacks to it,” Evans said.

But County Council member Dan Whitten, D-At Large, said relying on generated interest would only be “a short-term fix.”

“We are already working against non-general fund money. We are already doing that. We’re going to find that we need those funds long term, but maybe there are ways we can reduce (our budgets),” he said.

Whitten has said the Council may be pressed to use hospital interest to fund County operations along with unallocated income tax funds. The Council intends to tap hospital interest to provide funds next year to the non-profit services, as was done this year, with $750,000 for Opportunity Enterprises, $370,000 for the Council on Aging, and $600,000 for the Family and Youth Services Bureau.

The Council is also contemplating what it should do about funding Porter-Starke Services, considering providing up to $1.8 million in hospital interest money which could make more funding available in the general fund, but members decided they would need to speak with Porter-Starke associates first.

County Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, said he believes a long term solution will need to include restructuring employee policies and benefits such as fewer available vacation days. While it may be an unpopular option, it could help avoid the scenario of having department heads lay off employees, he said.

“The problem directly or indirectly deals with personnel. If we don’t get smarter with that, we are going to seal our fate,” said Biggs, He said personnel costs make up the almost 75 percent of budgets.

Evans said the Commissioners are currently evaluating policy changes to the employee handbook and a human resource needs assessment is expected to be released sometime in the next three weeks.

Commissioners’ Budget

As talks progressed on how second readings shall proceed, Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, suggested a hiring freeze, while fellow Council member Sylvia Graham, D-At Large, said she would like to see raises for employees. Across the board raises have not been given since 2010.

Whitten suggested looking at budgets approved last year and consider all increases at the end of budgeting session, but Council President Bob Poparad, D-At Large, advised against the notion saying handling adjustments at the end would be like “starting over.”

Instead, the Council began checking each line item in the Commissioners’ general fund budget, how much has been spent of the 2013 appropriation and then decreasing the 2014 amount based on that.

For instance, the telephone system had been budgeted at $267,618 for 2013 and advertised at the same amount for 2014. However, only $117,475 had been expended for this year currently, so the Council set the budget at $200,000 for next year, a reduction of $67,618.

Others included a $193,000 reduction in power, a $35,000 reduction in water, a $20,000 in equipment, a $7,000 reduction in postage, and a $1,500 reduction in outside legal services.

Another reduction made was in gas and fuel, which was approved at $500,000. The commissioners will reimburse fuel purchases for County vehicles such as sheriff’s police, parks, and the plan commission. Individuals who use a county gas card will be asked to report purchases.

Some items will stay at their current level of funding. The $43,000 the Commissioners give for bedding at the jail will remain the same as it is required by statute. The Council kept the 4-H premiums at $32,694 next year because that was how much was spent for this year.

County Attorney’s salary was taken out of the Commissioners’ personnel salary line. She will be paid out of contractual services with a figure of $98,365.

As for the medical insurance, the budget for this year was under funded at $5.6 million. The Council agreed to increase it this year to $7 million although Anton Insurance advised last week that health insurance costs could reach $9 million this year.

The Council told the Commissioners they could ask the Council for more money if needed. The Commissioners fund medical insurance for employees under general fund budgets while non-general fund departments like the plan commission pay their own insurance.

Also, more reductions are anticipated in county budgets for office supplies. The Commissioners proposed moving its part-time administrative assistant to full-time status by being the county’s purchasing agent for office supplies meaning all requests would have to go through her.

Evans said the new arrangement would cut supply costs and bring savings beyond the cost of the assistant’s salary, which will be adjusted from $18,000 to $30,000.

The Council agreed to a pilot program proposed by Biggs in which the administrative assistant will receive her salary once the savings is reached or she will go back to her previous part-time salary.

The Council was able to shrink the Commissioner’s proposed total of $17,096,238 to $14,734,362 which the Commissioners also seemed happy with.

“That’s good, that’s realistic,” said Commissioner Laura Shurr Blaney, D-South.

The Council approved the budget on second reading 6-0. Absent from the vote was Whitten who had to leave the meeting early.

Poparad commended his peers on their ability to work through this budget meeting without tempers getting out of hand.

“I thank everyone for making progress. Nice to see we are all still talking,” he said.

Sheriff’s budgets moved

Second readings for the budgets associated with the Sheriff’s Police and the jail were scheduled Tuesday but were not heard as Sheriff David Lain has requested more time to make adjustments as he plans to add new jail officers and revamp medical care.

The Council will reschedule the Sheriff’s budget for a later date, possibly Wednesday, Oct. 2, or Thursday, Oct. 3 with the third and final reading anticipated for the week after.

The Indiana Department of Local Government Finance requires that all counties submit their budgets by Nov. 1.

Also tabled from Tuesday were the Commissioner’s CEDIT projects. Evans said his board will look at ways to reduce there as well as free up more funding for general fund projects.



Posted 9/18/2013