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
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
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
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
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.
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
The boards talked about funding drainage at $2 million per year for the next
10 to take care of the problems.
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.
The council will address the issues of giving county employees raises and
the soaring cost of county health insurance during tonight’s meeting as
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
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.
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
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