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County Council rejects funding Raise the Barn, IT administrator

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

The Porter County Council continued to tighten the county’s purse strings Tuesday, in a meeting filled with tabled votes, including one for the Raise the Barn center, and talk of need for a comprehensive operations plan for funding “big ticket” items.

Talk of money matters began prior to a 5-2 vote to table the Information Technology department’s request for an additional server administrator with an appropriation of $39,000 to salaries.

IT director Sharon Lippens had made the request previously in April, explaining that up to 66 percent of the new employee’s salary would be reimbursed by the state as he or she would be helping the IV-D court system. Lippens said her office has had a difficult time keeping up with requests as new computers are being implemented at county venues, along with telephone system upgrades at the jail.

“We just can’t take on the magnitude of projects,” Lippens said.

Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, inquired what the balance is in the County’s general fund. County Auditor Bob Wichlinski said that “on paper the County is $14 million in the red,” but said that does not factor in the tax levy draws which will be received shortly.

County Treasurer Mike Bucko, from the audience, said that according to his figures, he expects the draw to be about $104 million but had not yet determined how that will be dispersed among the County and other taxing units.

Wichlinski said he would also need to calculate what the impact would be from the state tax caps and the settlements of the thousands of property tax appeals. He said he could get reports to the Council by its meeting next month.

Nonetheless, Council member Dan Whitten, D-At Large, said he would be uneasy about granting Lippens’ request as he felt “with deep concern” the Council needed to get a handle on money moving in the General Fund.

“We really need to start prioritizing like we’ve never done before,” he said. “There are hits to the General Fund coming in all different directions. We all have to be on top of our game.”

Adding to Whitten’s comments, Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, said the County needs a finance plan which he has argued for two years. He made a motion that Lippen’s request be delayed, at least until next meeting when the Council can get a better picture from Wichlinski of what its finances will be.

The matter was tabled with votes from Biggs, Rivas, Karen Conover, R-3rd, Jim Polarek, R-4th and Council president Bob Poparad, D-At Large. Voting not to table were members Whitten and Sylvia Graham, D-At Large.

Conover said that she would be in favor of hiring the new worker as it seems “almost an emergency.”

Graham said requests to hire more personnel are often reserved for budget hearings. Lippens said she budgeted for the new position in last year’s session but it was never approved as budgets were frozen.

Raise the Barn still grounded

For reasons similar to the IT request, the Council opted not to approve $1.5 million in hospital interest money just yet for the Parks Department for construction of the Raise-the-Barn education and administration center.

The department was just one vote short of approval for the funds at the April 23 meeting and had hopes a majority vote would prevail this time with all seven Council members present.

But instead, all seven voted to table.

Polarek who had supported the request the last go-around said he couldn’t this time after reading in the newspaper that a portion of the barn construction would be aided by County Economic Development Income Tax funds. This he said “got under his skin” because he felt the $1.5 million would be enough taxpayer money to go to this project.

Whitten said that despite his hope for Raise-the-Barn to be completed, the hospital interest money is “an asset to the taxpayers” and use of that money requires much consideration.

If he were to receive the $1.5 million, Parks Superintendent Walter Lenckos said he would be able to advance the plans for the center and set a target amount for the parks department to do its own fundraising. With a specific amount as a goal, it is easier to raise funds, Lenkcos said, and there are some large private organizations that have shown interest in giving towards the project which has been in development limbo for the past 13 years.

Lenckos said “it’s not the end of the world” not having the $1.5 million but said the parks department is in need of more building space as it has had to turn away parents who want to sign their children up for summer camps.

Biggs said that he thinks the project is “a good idea” but it “doesn’t make sense” for the Council to give to the parks department after turning down the IT request. He said he still feels he cannot give his support in fear of “jeopardizing” items in need of funding, such as the jail medical staffing and the E-911 Communications Center.

“I’m asking the parks department to be patient and let us find out what we’re going to do,” Biggs said.

Graham said she feels that Raise the Barn “is a big asset” worthy of using hospital interest funds and would be widely used.

Rivas and Polarek said they would like for the parks department to furnish a plan giving “black and white” details of how funds for the barn will be used. Lenckos said he would try to get that accomplished with the park board by next month.

Auditor’s request approved

Something that the Council did approve, although narrowly, was a bundle of consultant contracts totaling $225,250 for the Auditor’s office to resume its crackdown on homestead deduction violations.

Wichlinski said the majority of the 800 or so properties suspected of violations are multi-unit dwellings. An owner can only receive a homestead credit for the unit they primarily reside in and including the entire space on the deduction claim form is a violation and thus they would owe back taxes to the County.

The contracts would help with the investigation and legal representation if owners chose to appeal their new assessments, Wichlinski said.

The request prompted a discussion from the Council on how reliant the County should be on consultants. In a split 4-3 vote, those approving the request were Polarek, Biggs, Rivas and Conover. Those dissenting were Whitten, Poparad, and Graham.

In other business:

-- The Council did not vote for the $171,000 slated for employee longevity pay which is taken out of casino revenue funds received from the state. Poparad said the state has not yet given the County the full amount since revenues have been down this year. The Commissioners have offered to set aside CEDIT dollars to make up the difference, Poparad said.

-- With money available in the CCD fund, the Council approved the Commissioners’’ request of purchasing two new vehicles for animal control totaling $100,000.

-- Sheriff David Lain introduced the board to an executive member of Correct Care Solutions, the firm picked by him and the committee formed to help with the search which included Poparad, Graham and County Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center. Answering a few members’ questions, Lain told the Council the new medical staff is likely to be paid initially with existing contractual service funds and unused payroll funds.

-- The Council made a unanimous decision approving an additional $29,000 in its own budget to cover the salary of its new budget specialist Vicki Urbanik for the rest of 2013. The Council had hired Urbanik in late March with a 5-1 vote (Polarek voting against) and agreed to pay her a salary of $40,000 per year.

-- Poparad said he would like for 2014 budget hearings to begin after Labor Day and suggested meeting two days a week in September.

 

 

Posted 5/29/2013