Chesterton Tribune

 

 

County Council approves prosecutor raises 4-2

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Tuesday the new Republican majority on the Porter County Council approved nearly $40,000 for the County Prosecutor’s office for raises for three senior felony court deputies.

After an hour discussion on whether to act outside the annual county budget process, the Council voted 4-2 on a motion by member Karen Conover, R-3rd, to give a $11,818 raise to deputy Cheryl Polarek, a $11,654 raise to deputy Mike Drenth and a $11,666 raise to deputy Tammy Gregg.

Beginning April 1, Polarek’s salary will be $85,912, Drenth’s will be $84,926 and Gregg’s will be $69,996. The increases will be drawn from the Prosecutor Deferral Fund, which currently has a balance of $166,000, and not the tax levy supported general fund, although the latter makes up a portion of the deputies’ salaries.

Making the request, Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel said the three deputies work on major felony cases which have been seen frequently over the past year and a half, including four murder trials.

“It requires a lot of experience and a lot of overtime,” Gensel said. “The real complex cases where the defendants are dangerous to our community, you need qualified and experienced people to be handling those.”

Gensel said last year he was told by a few Council members that some raises would be considered for the prosecutor’s office, like the officers in the Sheriff’s Department which made its case at the fall budget hearings to make salaries comparable to what municipalities are paying their police. He said prosecutors are part of law enforcement, too.

“The buck really does stop with us,” he said.

Matt Frost, Gensel’s chief deputy, provided the Council with information on what prosecutor salaries are in other counties in the state similar in size to Porter. Tippecanoe County has a lower salary average than Porter’s, but they have more deputies. Elkhart County, with a somewhat larger population, has a significantly higher salary for their top deputy, over $100,000, Frost said.

Gensel said he understands the Council’s preference to address salaries in the fall but given the disparities with salaries in other counties, it’s “important enough” to make this “unusual” request. A positive vote would “go a long way in showing appreciation” for the prosecutors who give service to Porter County when they could be making more money elsewhere, he said.

“I think it’s the right thing to do at this time. These are valuable people,” Gensel said.

Council member Andy Bozak, R-1st, asked if Gensel planned on using discretionary money to supplement current salaries. Gensel said he anticipates discussing ahead of budget hearings on the funding structure for the long term. He has had to use the discretionary funds to supplement salaries to keep staff but those accounts have been strained too.

The deferral fund was originally designed for capital improvements like new computers or special initiatives in the community, Gensel said.

Conover said Gensel has helped the County through hard times over the years by freeing up some of the general fund by using discretionary money and “has been a good steward that way.”

Democrats in Opposition

Democrats present Tuesday, Council members Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, and Sylvia Graham, D-at large, both said they do not think now is the time to give pay raises and feel it will spur more requests from other departments.

Graham said it bothered her that the boosted salaries would need to be absorbed in the budget next year but the County does not know what is levy will be for 2018.

Rivas said he wished Gensel had spoken up last fall so raises could be addressed for the entire staff. Gensel said it was not communicated to him to “make a wish list.”

“There’s a reason why this should be done during the budget process because we are budgeting against the money we are getting for the following year,” Rivas said, adding that the County has had to draw money from interest made off the hospital sale principal to sustain operations.

Conover agreed that she would rather have done this at budget hearings as “there are so many unknown variables with this.”

Council President Mike Jessen, R-4th, said he also appreciates the commitments Gensel has made to put less burden on the general fund but feels not addressing raises will delay a “long overdue problem” even further. He would like to see a comprehensive report of what value each employee in County Government brings to the table and have discussions on how to reward that.

Council member Jeff Larson, R-at large, who acts as the Council’s liaison to the Prosecutor’s Office, said if someone does a great job, they should be rewarded for it. He criticized his peers for not taking the time to address salaries adequately.

“Shame on us as a Council for not addressing those wage increases. We still have to address it, whether its budget time or not,’ said Larson, who was elected to his first term in November.

Rivas motioned to table the matter, saying he didn’t want to have to vote no on a salary request since he sees value in every employee. The motion was defeated 4-2 with Rivas and Graham voting to table. Absent from the meeting was Council member Dan Whitten, D-at large.

Next, Conover made a motion for increases, but reduced Polarek’s and Drenth’s increase by $3,000 from what was asked for. She left Gregg’s increase the same because “she is so far behind the other two.”

Conover said she hates to hear of Porter County having lower-paid prosecutors.

“I don’t like that. It doesn’t make me feel good. It doesn’t make me feel good for our constituents,” she said.

Her motion prevailed with supporting votes from Larson, Bozak and Jessen. Voting against were Graham and Rivas.

The full Council however voted 6-0 on other salary requests the prosecutor presented, including a $2,000 reduction in the deferral fund for one court deputy and a $450 increase for another deputy. Also approved was a $2,500 raise for a domestic violence prosecutor in the pre-trial diversion fund, which is a grant fund.

At the conclusion, Jessen said all departments looking for an increase or decrease should be sure to bring it up at budget hearings and “we will handle it appropriately.”

Jessen said he has a set time where he will be in the County Council office, Tuesday mornings from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., where County employees or the public can come talk to him and encouraged his peers to have a regular time they can be accessible.

Jessen also asked that departments get their funding requests in by the first Friday of the month from now on so Council members can have time to ask questions.

WPL Board appointment

In other business, the Council reappointed Michael Livovich to another term on the Westchester Public Library Board of Trustees.

 

Posted 3/30/2017

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

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