Chesterton Tribune



Porter County Council sets hiring 'frost'

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Porter County government is now under a temporary “hiring freeze” approved by the County Council Tuesday with a 6-1 vote.

But the Council debated if “freeze” would be the proper word, perhaps it should be thought of more as a “frost” said Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, as departments can still make hires as long as they meet the approval of the Council.

Council member Sylvia Graham, D-At Large, made the motion as a result of Sheriff David Lain’s request to use money in his budget left over from unpaid salaries due to vacant positions.

The Council’s budget specialist Vicki Urbanik said that what she saw from a recent payroll report that at least “six or seven” vacancies throughout the County departments whose salaries are paid out of the General Fund, including three for the sheriff’s police and a few in places such as the clerk’s office, the assessor’s office and in the courts system.

Once a position becomes unfilled, any part of a budgeted salary that is not paid out would revert back to the General Fund for next year as part of an “open balance” for departments. Urbanik said the same goes for all unused items in a budget and for this year the County had $2 million total returned to the General Fund.

With the Council taking better notice of the positions, it will be good to know what money is not being used, which Graham said can combat sinking revenues in the general fund.

“This is a motion we need to make to get our budget in order,” she said.

Formerly, department heads were able to fill vacant slots with new persons under their own will without obtaining Council approval while new positions always required it. Now all personnel changes will need formal acknowledgement by the Council.

Those voting to accept the hold on hiring were Council members Jim Biggs, R-1st, Karen Conover, R-3rd, Dan Whitten, D-At Large, Rivas, Graham and President Robert Poparad, D-At Large. Council member Jim Polarek, R-4th, was the lone “no” stating his reason as there are “too many unanswered questions.”

Poparad said all departments would be able to ask the Council for positions and the new system would increase efficiency.

“This will mean better communication,” he said.

Talk about the freeze seemed to unease a few department heads sitting in the audience who were looking to hire someone new in their offices for 2014 and had budgets approved this fall such as County Circuit Court Judge Mary Harper who insisted her office was in need of an increased work force to catch up with the work load. Similar requests were made by County Coroner Chuck Harris and Health Department Nursing Director Connie Rudd.

The Council allowed Harper and Rudd to go ahead with their hires, even with the freeze in place, and approved a new director of nursing for the County Jail and an assistant director for the Animal Shelter to replace the person who recently resigned.

Biggs said that there should be exceptions to the freeze for the Sheriff’s Department for public safety. Because there seemed to be some confusion among his colleagues as to what would be under the freeze, he motioned to have the freeze rescinded until January to allow for clarifications.

“We just need to make clear exactly what that means,” he said.

Biggs’ motion was shot down by a 5-2 vote. Voting to keep the freeze were Poparad, Conover, Whitten, Rivas and Graham. Voting with Biggs to accept the motion was member Jim Polarek, R-4th.

Lain will still be able to hire the nine officers needed for the jail’s third pod, which is progressing. The Council split 6-1 to hire the other jail officer handling nursing and to transfer $5,000 to overtime, with Graham dissenting as she opposes taking unused salary money for the new director’s salary and told Lain she is concerned with “getting a handle” on the County’s budgets.

“We are on a course that cannot be maintained,” Graham told Lain.

The Council shifted $60,000 total from unused salaries in the jail’s budget. Lain said those salaries can accumulate months at a time because it takes a while to train a replacement, but the money can be transferred for other needs such as overtime.

Hospital interest money goes to insurance shortfall

In another matter, the Council was divided 4-3 over using $1.5 million from the interest made on the sale of Porter Memorial Hospital to make up for the shortfall in the County’s health plan, but had no problem drawing from county income tax funds (CEDIT) for an additional $1 million with a 7-0 vote.

Making the request, the Commissioners had agreed to allow the Council to use CEDIT for the jail medical contract and E-911 as long as they would be allowed to collect the money needed for the underfunded employee insurance.

Rivas said he would have preferred if the shortfall could be addressed using CEDIT instead of interest funds, asserting CEDIT is becoming a needed revenue stream to make up for the gaps seen as property tax funds continue to shrink.

He, Biggs and Polarek voted against the motion to use the limited hospital interest money. Biggs reiterated his belief that creating a budget relying on reserve funds seems like a “slippery slope” to him.

The Council has talked of a joint meeting with the Commissioners regarding financial decisions, but nothing has been planned. Whitten suggested that if all officials can’t meet together, groups of Council and Commissioners can still meet informally to look at different options.

County Home improvements

While approving transfers requested by Animal Shelter Director Jon Thomas for new cat cages, Rivas asked if the Shelter was still using the vacant church building where the county home property used to be.

Thomas said he currently uses the building for storage. It has electricity and heat but no running water.

The City of Portage’s Animal Control is looking to the Shelter to house animals it takes in now that the Humane Society of Hobart has said it will charge Portage for providing shelter to the animals.

Council members suggested Thomas talk with the Commissioners about getting the county home property, which is near the current shelter on Ind. 2, upgraded with more amenities suitable for the animals while waiting to build a new shelter facility.

PACT program, etc.

Meanwhile, other requests meeting the Council’s approval included:

-- A $147,690 contract with Porter County PACT for the jail review program for new PACT employees, who are not considered County employees, to assess which inmates in the County Jail could be placed in home monitoring electronically while they await their hearings.

The program could release 30 inmates a year, creating an estimated savings of $290,000.

With the Council’s support, the request will go back to the County Commissioners for final approval.

-- A transfer of $165,000 in CEDIT funds to cover the costs of three projects -- the engineering work for the Calumet Trail project, the Brincka-Cross Gardens parking lot paving project and the feasibility study for the Expo Center.

-- A second payout of county employee longevity pay for this year, $172,000, which is to come from the County’s riverboat funding it receives from the state.

Also, the Council unanimously agreed to retain Mitch Peters as their representative on the County Convention, Recreation and Visitors Commission. Peters is currently president of that board.



Posted 11/27/2013