Chesterton Tribune



County Council passes budgets at eleventh hour

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Riding close to the state’s deadline, the Porter County Council approved final reading of the 2015 budgets Thursday with the anticipation they will be in the black when the levy is set.

A narrow majority of Council members passed the County’s general fund budgets, in a 4-3 vote. The final figure was $36,555,207. That’s in between what the Auditor’s office and County Financial and Budget Specialist Vicki Urbanik had forecast in property tax revenue coming from the state. Estimates were in the range of $36.3 million to $36.8 million.

“It is within our projections, which is good,” Urbanik said.

Budgets in the general fund as they were initially submitted to the Council totaled about $41.2 million. The Council worked to reduce budgets to reach their goal of $36.5 million. The largest adjustment was to the County Commissioners budget, which started at $16.1 million and was cut down to $11.2 million.

The Commissioner’s general fund budget contains a little more than $4 million for employee health insurance. Using a combination of hospital interest, CEDIT and non-general fund money, the health insurance is expected to be fully funded at about $9 million.

The Council split on the motion to accept the budgets at $36.5 million, with Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, Council Vice-President Karen Conover, R-3rd, members Sylvia Graham, D-at large, and Robert Poparad approving. Votes of “no” came from members Jim Biggs, R-1st, Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, and Jim Polarek, R-4th.

Following, a vote of 6-1 on the non-general fund budgets saw Polarek voting no. The total amount for those funds came to $42.1 million.

Whitten was curious why those dissenting were opposed to an otherwise balanced budget. Polarek said he wouldn’t agree to pass a budget not knowing if there would be enough to cover health insurance. Biggs said that for the last five years, the County has spent more money than it has taken in. He said he saw nothing from the Commissioners “that assures we are going to run cleaner and smarter.”

Rivas said he could not give his blessing because the Council would be taking away from reserve funds that are drying up. “We’re at the end of the road. My vote is symbolic of that,” Rivas said.

During the meeting, the Council found itself contemplating whether employee raises could be given next year. There was still an issue though of how to fund for longevity pay now that the once healthy Casino Revenue fund no longer can support the two installments.

Biggs said he wishes employee raises were feasible, but advised it would be better to wait since the Council is taking big steps with the insurance and creation of a human resources department. He said he felt greater concern for finding enough funding for the Sheriff’s Department pensions and the E-911 Communications Center.

Changing employee work policies and bidding out the health insurance carrier could make an impact but that won’t be seen until next year, Biggs said.

Whitten added that more revenue could be available in the next 12 months if the County gets going on establishing the Foundation to invest proceeds from the sale of Porter Memorial Hospital.

Third time is a charm for Auditor

A few salary increases were approved however for the restructuring of the Auditor’s office, even though they had been denied twice before at earlier meetings. County Auditor Robert Wichlinski proposed paying his deputy auditors equally at $37,000 each now that they’ve been crossed trained and are equally sharing the workload.

That meant beefier salaries for six employees, including a GIS director.

Wichlinski asserted that the changes “are working” even with five fewer employees. He cut his total salaries from $743,000 approved last year to $598,000 for next year.

The Council approved the streamlined salaries with a 4-3 vote. Voting in favor were Whitten, Biggs, and members Rivas, and Polarek. Against were Poparad, Conover and Graham.

Rivas steered the discussion back to where the Council would find money for the longevity pay. The first installment in June was at $179,250 and the second installment is usually in December. The Council also uses the casino fund to pay out $250,000 to help fund undercover drug task units in the County and municipalities.

Poparad suggested Urbanik comb through the general fund budgets to find money sitting in funds that could be allocated to longevity.

“We’re going to find the money. It’s only $150,000,” Poparad said.

Urbanik after the meeting said money is available with savings in the general fund and she will talk with department heads about what unexpended money they can put toward longevity pay.

Council attorney Scott McClure advised the next step to take is to make appointments to the seven-member advisory committee with the County Commissioners.

Foundation on fast track

Before adjourning, the Council directed its secretary to set up a joint meeting with the County Commissioners next month to continue the process of establishing the Foundation for investing hospital sale funds.

The County Treasurer had told the Council that $100 million of the hospital sale principal will be available to invest at the end of this year.

Council attorney Scott McClure advised that the Council and the Commissioners make the seven appointments for the advisory committee. The next step after that would be to decide how much they want to invest, he said.

Whitten believes the interest accrued should be enough to overcome budget shortfalls.

“It’s not a pie in the sky. It’s not dream world. We’re going to earn more money with longer investments,” Whitten said. “We need to get our asset working for us because we don’t want to push this county into income tax.”






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