Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Law firm believes prosecutor lease void; County Council second to know

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By LILY REX

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.

A statement 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.

Chuck 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’ businesses.

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.”

 

Posted 10/19/2018

 
 
 
 

 

 

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