Chesterton Tribune

 

 

County Auditor office denied 'raises' again by County Council

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Porter County Auditor Bob Wichlinski was one of the department heads to cut his budget by more than ten percent as requested by the County Council, but was not able to persuade a majority of the Council to approve of how he altered his budget for 2015.

Wichlinski reduced his staff by five full-time members in February saying he was “restructuring” his office which included cross-training and equalizing pay for deputies at $37,000.

That brought the Auditor’s budget in the general fund down by $146,000 but it carried with it a total of $30,000 in salary increases for those remaining employees.

The Council blocked a request earlier this year to approve the changes for 2014 and told Wichlinski he could try again at fall budget hearings after the Council could decide if the restructuring was effective.

A motion to accept the budget with the raises Thursday was defeated by four “no” votes from Council members Sylvia Graham, D-at large, Karen Conover, R-3rd, Robert Poparad, D-at large, and Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd. Those voting yes were Jim Biggs, R-1st, Jim Polarek, R-4th, and President Dan Whitten, D-at large.

A new motion without the raises passed with only Polarek voting against.

Biggs said he switched his vote because the Auditor had to have money “in order to operate.” He told his colleagues he did not think the change in salaries should be seen as raises as it is Wichlinski’s right to structure his office the way he sees fit.

“You can’t cut the budget and staff and call that raises,” he said.

Consultant fees heavy?

The Council also split on Wichlinski’s proposed $432,000 amount in the Auditor’s non-reverting fund which has been collecting its money recovering tax revenue from property owners with homestead fraud over the past three years.

In the fund, $200,000 would be budgeted for three consultants, $155,000 for maintenance agreements on software, and $75,000 for attorneys in the Auditor’s office and on the Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals.

Council members Whitten and Poparad questioned if the Auditor should be giving that much to consultants when the auditor’s office staff has had the power to go after homestead exemption violators.

“What some of these consultants are getting in money is heavy, and I’m not saying whether it’s right or wrong. I’m just not okay with the amount of money they are getting,” said Whitten.

Wichlinski said since he’s been in office, over $1.6 million has been recouped in homestead violations and $222,460 has been brought in so far this year. He said the consultants he’s hired “specialize” in going after the violators. Former County adult probation chief Neil Hannon, who has been paid $160,000 over two years from the non-reverting fund, has captured $414,000, Wichlinski said.

Poparad asked what would happen if all of the homestead violations were reconciled. Wichlinski said he does not expect that will happen next year considering the frequency of the violations.

“They happen every day. It will never completely dry up. There are always people trying to circumvent the law,” Wichlinski said.

Wichlinski said if the Council voted to hire employees to do the same work that would mean they would have to fund those salaries plus a benefits package. They then would be faced with the decision of keeping those employees on if the homestead violations do stop, he said. Earlier this year, Wichlinski calculated that County employees earn at least $29,000 in benefits per year on top of salaries.

A motion by Polarek to approve the fund at $432,000 failed by a 2-5 vote. Voting in favor were Polarek and Biggs. Against were Poparad, Rivas, Graham, Conover, and Whitten.

Conover said she wouldn’t approve because the amount was more than what is in the fund now.

The budget was approved 4-3 with the current fund balance of $342,000. Voting in favor were Polarek, Biggs, Graham and Conover. Against were Rivas, Whitten and Poparad.

Poparad said he dissented because he didn’t think the budget should be approved without set line items now that the funding will be changed.

GIS

In another matter, the Council decided it will hold second reading for the GIS mapping budget until after it sees the Plan Commission budget.

Whitten said he heard the County Commissioners would like to move the GIS system out of the Auditor’s office and possibly into the Plan Commission budget, but added he had no opinion on the matter.

 

 

Posted 9/19/2014

 
 
 
 

 

 

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