A third-party law
firm has communicated a preliminary verbal opinion to the Porter County
Board of Commissioners that the problematic lease for the Prosecutor’s Child
Support Division at 15 N. Franklin Street in downtown Valparaiso has been
void since 1999.
Who was the first
to know, besides County Attorney Scott McClure and the Commissioners? Not
the County Council, but Chuck Williams.
received in an email from Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, says that
Porter County Attorney Scott McClure received a preliminary verbal opinion
from LaPorte-based Newby, Lewis, Kaminski & Jones, that the original 1999
lease for the Child Support office may be void based on a 1993 ruling by the
Indiana Court of Appeals. The statement continues to say that all subsequent
renewals and extensions of the lease thereafter would be void as well if the
original agreement wasn’t proper.
The statement also
reveals that Commissioner President Jeff Good and Blaney agreed that a
meeting with the lease management company, 15 Franklin LLC, was in the best
interest of the Child Support office: “The negative impact of the
preliminary opinion created an urgent need for the Commissioners to identify
options that may be available to assure that the Child Support office, and
their ability to provide services for the collection of child support for
women and children in need would not be interrupted.”
Good is quoted in
the statement as saying the realization that the lease is invalid could mean
a “crisis” for the office. “We don’t have time to play politics. We have a
huge problem not of our making that must be resolved quickly or real people
and real children may be hurt,” Good further said in the statement.
Blaney is quoted in
the statement as saying the meeting was necessary because the County Council
requested the Commissioners develop a plan to move the Child Support office
in case of the lease being found invalid. “We had to act quickly to be able
to create the plan that they requested,” she said.
They acted so
quickly, Commissioner Jim Biggs, R-North, was informed by others that
McClure and Good met with Williams on Wednesday.
Biggs declined to
comment on the legal opinion due to the possibility of litigation, but
offered that he had no knowledge of the meeting between McClure, Good, and
Williams before it happened. He was not there, not invited to attend, and
hasn’t yet had the chance to speak to Good about what exactly was said at
the meeting, though he was in touch with McClure yesterday.
Blaney said in an
email that though she knew the meeting was taking place, she did not attend.
The lease on the
Child Support office has been in question since the Commissioners, McClure,
and the County Council were surprised to learn it was extended at a 2014
Commissioners meeting where Blaney, the only current Commissioner who was on
the Board at that time, was absent, the lease was far from expiration, and
the item was not on the meeting’s agenda.
The discovery of
the lease put a hitch in the Commissioners’ plans to move a host of County
offices, Child Support included, into the old jail building at 157 Franklin
in Valparaiso, which they acquired in April for $3.6 million as part of
their $30 million capital improvements plan.
The lease extension
was signed by Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel a week before it was
presented to the Commissioners, and appears to have been secured at an above
market value rate. The owner of the property has also benefited from a tax
exemption since 2009. The tax exemption has saved the building’s owner more
than $80,000 in property taxes over its life, according to Porter County
Auditor Vicki Urbanik. A third party assessment professional also determined
that the true square footage of the space does not match up with either the
application for tax exemption or the lease agreement itself.
Williams--Valparaiso businessman and Treasurer of the Indiana Republican
Party--used to own the company that managed the property at 15 Franklin,
Courtney Morgan LLC, until he sold the property to 15 Franklin LLC in
mid-2014, shortly after the questionable ten-year lease extension went
through. It is unclear who managed the property under 15 Franklin’s purview
since. The Porter County Assessor’s office, in the process of examining
compliance with the tax exemption, has been in contact with Williams,
Valparaiso Attorney William Ferngren, who is the registered business agent
for 15 Franklin LLC according to the Indiana Secretary of State, and another
player, Sharon Allen, whose job title is unknown, but provided the
Assessor’s Office with an email address connected to one of Williams’
The discovery of
the lease, and each subsequent red flag associated with it, raised the ire
of the County Council, who approved the money for the jail purchase
expecting to save money on the lease for Child Support by relocating its
office and hasn’t appreciated the lack of transparency surrounding the
extension. Council member Sylvia Graham, D-At-large, who made the motion to
approve the jail purchase back in spring, especially said her stance had
hinged on the potential savings.
Graham said the
lease has been a thorn in Porter County’s side, noting that the approval of
the County’s budget has been on hold until Oct. 30 as the Council considers
whether or not it wants, or has the legal obligation, to fund rent for the
Child Support office to stay in its present location next year.
Graham said she was
disturbed to learn that another secretive meeting took place once Newby,
Lewis, Kaminski, & Jones released their findings. “I feel that the Council
deserved to hear that first-hand, before anyone else,” she said. “That was
disturbing. It should have never happened.”
Graham said the
Commissioners and the Council are set to discuss the formal legal opinion
and the potential for litigation Tuesday in a joint executive session that
will be closed to the public, per Indiana law.
Graham said, “We’re
ready to make a decision for the people of Porter County. We’ve been paying
too much money.”
She added, “Porter
County’s people deserve better than this” and emphasized that the County
needs to protect the Child Support office from the fallout, ensuring no
interruption in services. “That is the number one priority.”