Chesterton Tribune

Joint meeting eyes county financial future; e911 deficit unresolved

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By DOUG ELISH

There were no motions.

There were no votes.

There were no decisions made.

But there was some progress.

In a rare public meeting between all 10 members of the two branches of Porter County government Wednesday evening, the commissioners and council members believe they took steps toward creating a three-year plan for addressing a number of “big ticket” items with unallocated funds from CCD and CEDIT funds along with the hospital interest money and some other various funds.

The process will now go back to the four-member master plan committee, which has already met several times, for at least two more meetings and then possibly end with another joint meeting between the boards at 5:40 on Nov. 2. If the plan isn’t completed on that date, the two boards are set to continue meeting until one is created.

The special committee consists of commissioner president John Evans-R, council president Dan Whitten-D, council member Laura Blaney-D and council member Karen Conover-R.

“I think (Wednesday’s meeting) will give all of us a chance to go back and think about things more clearly and then report back,” commissioner president John Evans said.

Council member Jeremy Rivas, who presented the boards with a prioritized list of his own, said he wasn’t sure how much actually was accomplished during the 90-minute joint meeting, but did acknowledge the open dialogue was a positive step.

Conversations between the two boards have become heated on several occasions in the past months, most recently during the commissioners’ portion of the 2012 budget hearings when discussing how to fund the “big ticket” projects, but despite their differences the boards know they must work together for the good of Porter County.

“Oh, we have to,” Evans said. “There isn’t any other way. If we don’t work together we can’t get anything done.”

The consensus among the group is that public health and safety is the top priority going forward. That means funding an E911 center that is hemorrhaging money, figuring out the best plan for the ambulance service subsidy and tackling drainage issues that will cost at least $20 million.

Some other major expenditures that will occur either next year or in the next three years are health insurance for county employees, raises for county employees, the creation of a Chesterton Utility Corridor to go with the new hospital, a new animal shelter, a new sheriff garage and possibly opening the third pod at the county jail.

The issue of funding the recurring costs that will come with some of those issues is another major concern.

“I heard a lot of positive things tonight,” council member Jim Biggs said. “It’s a starting point. But we can’t just let this fade away. With every passing day, these problems are going to continue to grow.”

Below are some of the major issues the board discussed Wednesday in more detail.

E911

Since the consolidation of Valparaiso’s dispatching in 2007 and Portage’s dispatching in 2009, the county’s dispatching center has been running at a massive deficit. This year’s price tag will be $2.2 million above what the county receives from the phone surcharge tax.

Both Whitten and Evans expressed hope that the state will address the outdated surcharge tax that costs $1.50 per month per landline and just 50 cents per cell phone, but that can’t be relied on and could be a few years in the future.

In the meantime, the E911 service has been funded by a rainy day fund that will expire at the end of 2012 if not sooner. The council seems to be favoring letting the fund pay for the shortfall through next year and then addressing the issue again, hopefully, with some additional state money.

Rivas suggested an alternative calling for the $2.2 million to be paid from  the general fund and leaving the remaining $3.4 million in the E911 Rainy Day Fund for capital projects. That suggestion came a day after E911 command center director John Jokantas suggested that an overhaul of the center’s technology and radio communication isn’t too far on the horizon and could cost between $20-40 million.

Jokantas did say a large portion of that project would likely be funded by federal grants, but the county would still have to pay a significant portion.

Ambulance subsidy

A major source of contention between some members of the council and the commissioners is what to do about the ambulance tax subsidy that is expiring at the end of 2011.

Biggs and council member Jim Polarek have been especially vocal that another contract with Porter Health Services shouldn’t be just a formality. They both suggested short-term contracts and then a comprehensive look at other options, such as local fire stations or other private services, to see if the county is giving too big of a tax break to the hospital.

“I would be in favor of a two-year contract and then creating a committee to see if this is the best plan,” Polarek said. “If it is, great, but I think we need to do our due diligence.”

Evans and some of the council members, including Sylvia Graham who told a story about Porter’s service for her husband possibly saving his life during a 911 call last year, believe that Porter provides the best service and that should be the priority.

“This isn’t something where we should be looking for a bargain,” Graham said.

The commissioners are in charge of signing the contract with Porter and Evans believes “we are giving a value” to Porter County residents. Evans said the tentative agreement for a new plan is a five-year contract totaling $3.8 million. The subsidy would be for $650,000 the first two years, $750,000 the next two and $1 million in the last year.

Drainage

The council already took the first step in a budget hearing two weeks ago of allocating $2 million in 2012 to start taking care of the top ten drainage problems that was created earlier in the year.

Conservative estimates have the cost to fix drainage issues throughout the county around $20 million dollars, $10 million of which would be for South Haven.

The boards talked about funding drainage at $2 million per year for the next 10 to take care of the problems.

Animal shelter, sheriff garage

Two projects that Evans’ plan lumped together would be paid for out of the $9.6 million in hospital interest money.

The need for a new animal shelter is something that has been discussed by both boards at length and will be addressed at tonight’s council budget meeting. Evans estimated the project at $1.5 million.

Evans also said the sheriff’s garage is in poor shape and proposed buying land near the station and constructing a new garage. Going off the standard of the new Highway building, that cost $1.2 million, Evans believes the land purchase and construction would cost the county another $3 million.

County employee raises, insurance

The council will address the issues of giving county employees raises and the soaring cost of county health insurance during tonight’s meeting as well.

Evans’ plan called for $1 million in raises and the increased insurance cost to be paid out of the general fund, but the council holds the authority to make that decision.

The council has been listening to the raise requests by all the county department heads throughout the budgeting process, but has held off on making a decision on whether to grant them until tonight.

The insurance costs have been a shock to council members throughout this process. Some budgets have shown increases of more than 100 percent over 2011 figures.

The figures the council received Wednesday from Anton Insurance, which handles the county’s insurance plan, is that in 2007 the cost per employee for insurance was $8,444. In 2012, it’s projected to be $17,701.

Other topics

Some other topics on Evans’ plan included opening the third pod of the jail that hasn’t been open since its construction with the $1.3 million left in the Rainy Day Jail Fund. Evans said the state will likely force the county to open it soon, so the county might as well do it now. Doing so will increase the yearly operating cost significantly though.

Evans also proposed using $2 million in CEDIT funds to develop a Chesterton Corridor along US 49 toward US 6 where the new hospital is being constructed.

The council meets at 5:30 tonight to discuss the remaining budget items and then will meet on either Monday or Tuesday for the final reading of the 2012 budget.

 

 

Posted 10/13/2011