Chesterton Tribune



Raise the Barn funding caught in the crossfire in jail funds dispute

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It may have been because only five of seven Porter County Council members were present Tuesday, but the 3-2 vote in favor was not enough to approve the County Parks Department request for $1.5 million for the design and construction of the Raise the Barn project, an education and administration center at Sunset Hill Farm County Park.

But it may succeed next month as County Council member Karen Conover, R-3rd, told the Chesterton Tribune this morning she is willing to vote yes on the project.

“It has been in the works for 13 years and it is something that needs to get done,” Conover said.

She and Council member Dan Whitten, D-At Large, were not able to attend the Tuesday meeting.

The request from Parks Superintendent Walter Lenckos came up one vote short after Council members Jim Biggs, R-1st, and Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, said they would not say yes until the ongoing issues about hiring additional medical personnel at the County Jail get resolved. Both said they are in support of the project, however.

“It shouldn’t be seen as a ‘no.’ It should be seen as ‘not yet,’” Biggs said to Lenckos.

A few minutes before, the Council heard Sheriff David Lain’s pleas for moving forward with placing more nurses at the jail to mitigate the huge liability issues the jail currently faces (see related story).

Seeing $1.5 million as a big investment, and also the largest outlay of hospital sale interest money yet, Council members grilled Lenckos about what his plans are for picking up the rest of the $2-3 million tab the construction would require and how ongoing costs would be met.

Lenckos said once the Commissioners and Council put their support behind the $1.5 million request, the parks will have a more concrete goal they can aim for in raising funds from private groups. The Parks Foundation has committed $200,000 to the project and there is close to $200,000 in the parks’ share of County Economic Development Income Tax funds remaining for Raise the Barn after the department purchases land for a county park in Morgan Twp., he said.

As for the maintenance and upkeep of the barn, Lenckos said that will be funded with the revenues collected from the programs that Raise the Barn will host and he is “absolutely confident” there is enough demand to sustain it. He said the department has doubled its program attendance since 2010 and continues to grow.

A survey of the county showed residents rate parks and trails the same as public safety in terms of importance, he said.

“If the demand wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be here before you with this request,” Lenckos told the Council.

Council President Robert Poparad, D-At Large, asked what would happen if the parks department fell short in reaching its fundraising goal. Lenckos said plans would be reshaped to fit whatever amount he can secure.

Once the final design is completed, Lenckos estimated that construction would take “eight months” or so. He would like to see the center finished next year sometime as that would coincide with the celebration of Sunset Hill Farm’s 80th anniversary.

Before voting no, Rivas said the County needs a comprehensive finance plan of priorities so it can avoid adding on a new income tax.

“We need to make sure we would not go back to the taxpayers. They are taxed enough as it is,” Rivas said.

He and Biggs voted to deny while Poparad and two other Council members Sylvia Graham, D-At Large, and Jim Polarek, R-4th, voted in favor of the request.

Rivas told Lenckos to try the request again at the Council’s May meeting after the jail funding dispute may be worked out. Lenckos said he would be back.

The Council did however vote 5-0 to dip into the hospital sale interest fund to put $197,104 toward a grant match to purchase radio equipment for a number of fire departments in the county.

To allocate hospital sale interest money, majority votes must come from both the Council and the Commissioners. The Commission-ers last week signed off on the measure by a 2-0 vote.

County Commissioner John Evans, R-North, told the Chesterton Tribune this morning the amount for the barn is a one-time expense and it should not be tied up with the matter involving the jail.

Salary requests

In a separate Parks matter, with a retirement and three departures this year, the Council members present approved a transfer of $8,000 from hourly to salaries to increase Lenckos’ Communication Director and Program Director salaries from $29,000 to $33,000 per year. He said he had lost employees this year because the original salary amounts were not enough for a professional position.

A transfer in salaries totaling $1,400 to a deputy clerk IV-D court as requested by County Clerk Karen Martin was granted while a deputy accountant salary was lowered by $3,650.

The Council split 3-2 in a failed motion to hire another Server Administrator in the ITS Department. Director Sharon Lippens said she is requesting a new employee be put in her office because it has not been able to keep up with requests for service as technology is being used more by all departments.

The salary would be set at $52,000 annually and $39,000 would be paid out to cover the rest of this year. Part of the salary would be reimbursed by the Court IV-D funds that come from the state.

Council members typically frown on raise requests but the growth of technology was big enough in Biggs’ eyes that “adverse effects” would take place if the board doesn’t act on it.

“If we don’t invest in (technology), we are literally going to break down,” said Biggs.

Rivas said he felt greater concern for the future funding of basic services such as enhanced 911. Graham said approving a new position would yield more requests like it.

Both Rivas and Graham voted no to ITS’ request while Biggs, Poparad and Polarek voted yes.

Auditor discussion withdrawn

Meanwhile, one of the more recent hotly debated issues will be taken up at the Council’s May meeting.

County Auditor Robert Wichlinski withdrew his request for an additional appropriation for $225,250 to contractual services Tuesday and moved it to next month’s agenda. The contracts included in the request will help fund accounting support and homestead credit fraud services, among other things.

Contracts such as these had been paid out of the Auditor’s non-reverting fund ,which the Council minimized the allocation for to $0, at a special meeting two weeks ago.

County Treasurer Mike Bucko pushed a request Tuesday for the Council to approve an additional $25,000 in his budget to pay for upgrades to the County’s tax site and improve customer service in his office.

The $25,000 is an additional because it has been paid not from the Treasurer’s budget but from the Auditor’s non-reverting fund.

Council members voted to deny Bucko’s request after he said it was okay that it would be considered as part of the Wichlinski’s requests next month.




Posted 4/24/2013