Chesterton Tribune

New county council ready to hear citizen suggestions on use of hospital money

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

As was said more than once during last fall’s campaign season, the Porter County Council is pushing the concept that the money earned off the sale of Porter hospital belongs to the citizens.

During Tuesday night’s reorganization meeting, the council invited the public to three meetings where the subject will be what to do with the $9 million in interest so far accumulated from the sale.

“Now that the hospital has broken ground, it’s time to move on to the next chapter,” said Democrat at-large member Dan Whitten, who was once again elected the council president Tuesday.

The first meeting will take place at the Portage City Hall sometime in February. The original meeting date announced for Feb. 14 was dropped.

A second meeting is scheduled for Monday, March 14, at the Porter County Administration Building in Valparaiso while a third forum will run on Monday, April 11 at the Kouts American Legion located on Route 8.

All three meetings will start at 6:30 p.m.

The council invited the county commissioners to join hosting these events. Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, asked that the county extend an invitation to surrounding town governments like Chesterton, Porter, and Burns Harbor to attend the Portage meeting to let them know what the county’s plans will be.

Whitten remarked that the council will not consider groups strictly asking for donations, saying it would not fit the council’s goals “philosophically.”

The council’s new vice-president, Jim Biggs, R-1st, said the discussion is “long overdue” and encouraged the group to look first at the county’s current financial resources before spending outward. Whitten agreed and said the fundamental purpose of the meetings is to start a dialogue.

Assessor Office Reorganizing

Council member Jim Polarek, R-4th, invited newly-elected County Assessor Jon Snyder to share with the council his insights on whittling down the bottleneck on property tax appeals.

Snyder told the council he believes the total number of standing appeals hovers around 7,000 although he wants to get an accurate count.

With his chosen chief deputy Daniel Timm, Synder gave council members an outline of his staff and their roles, six of which will act as hearing officers for the Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals. The three rooms where deputies work will need extra space set aside to accommodate those filing appeals of their assessments.

The setup is similar to Allen County which Snyder said has been very successful.

Snyder convinced the commissioners earlier on Tuesday to reduce the PTABOA from five to three members, saying the board will be able to meet three times a month instead of twice. He hopes the change will facilitate a quorum more frequently, which had been struggle during the summer months.

Snyder asked the council if they would set aside money for legal expenditures for the PTABOA which would include attaining an attorney. The purpose would be to set up rules “encouraging” appellants to be present at the time their case is to be heard.

Many times an appellant will end up delaying his or her case for whatever reason, causing the county workers to use up more time rescheduling cases.

“Continuing hurts us financially,” said Snyder.

Council members suggested using $15,000 left over in the assessor’s contractual funds to use for enlisting legal assistance and said they could revisit the matter if more money is needed.

Snyder also said the county has doled out roughly $4 million in refunds just in the last few months alone and there are a few larger appeals that could be a tremendous cost for the county.

Larger appealing properties include various steel mills and the current Porter hospital facility in Valparaiso.

Despite the payout figures, Snyder said it is important for the county to reimburse taxpayers on what is due to them.

“If the taxpayer has a right to this money, we need to get it to them as quickly as we can,” said Snyder.

Snyder said once the appeals are under control, he plans to discuss the salary issues with the council who decided during the previous budget hearings to equalize pay for all assessor employees minus the chief deputies. He would next provide the council with new job descriptions for each employee.

Council Mulls Reviving Economic Development Commission

Aside from the hospital interest, Polarek offered the idea of establishing a county commission or department specifically to promote economic development.

The entity, he said, would be active in working with towns and cities within the county to learn what each of their goals and priorities are and determine if any would overlap with county.

An expletory committee was formed during the meeting to research what a county EDC would require. The committee consists of council members Polarek, Laura Blaney, D-at large, and Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, along with local hotelier Jeff Good who was recently chosen by the council to fill its seat on the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority board. Redevelopment Commission Director John Shepherd will also be asked to help out.

Councilperson Sylvia Graham, D-at large, said if an economic development commission is created, it should be a non-taxing body.

Appointments

As part of its annual reorganization, the council announced its citizen and council appointments.

Rudy Sutton will keep on as the council appointee for the Alcoholic Beverage and Drug Commission. Chesterton Tribune reporter Vicki Urbanik will join the PTABOA board as the Democrat member. Blaney and former county clerk Pam Mishler-Fish will be the two council appointees for the Porter County Redevelopment Commis-sion.

The council renamed James McGee as their appointment to the Burns Harbor Economic Development Commission. The council’s appointment on the Chesterton EDC will be kept by Paul Shinn.

For its own appointments, the council approved Polarek to sit on the Northern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, Biggs will be on the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District board where he had served on previously for eight years. Sylvia Graham, D-at large, will fill former council member Rita Stevenson’s seat on the county plan commission, council member Karen Conover, R-3rd, will keep her spot on the Recycling & Waste Reduction District board. Graham and Polarek will also sit on Emergency Management Advisory Council. Graham will also serve the Porter County Council on Aging and the Museum Advisory panel along with Blaney.

Notable liaison appointments include Whitten and Polarek for Animal Shelter, Polarek and Graham for Assessor, Polarek and Whitten for Auditor, Blaney and Rivas for County Recreation and Visitors Commission, Biggs for Health Department, Whitten and Conover for all county courts, Whitten and Biggs for Jail, Biggs for Juvenile Detention, Rivas and Blaney for Parks, Whitten and Rivas for Opportunity Enterprises, Whitten and Graham for Porter-Starke Services, Polarek for Recorder, Biggs and Rivas for Sheriff, Polarek and Biggs for Treasurer, and Rivas for Welfare/Family Children.

In another note, the council agreed to retain Scott McClure of Rhame and Elwood as its attorney for 2011 and renewed the contract with him.

Next Meeting

The council decided it would be best to hold another meeting at the end of this month, setting Jan. 25 as the meeting date.

At that meeting, the council plans to hold further discussion on its recent decision to give full Workman’s Comp to county sheriff officers injured on the job. The council was informed in November several officers have encountered problems with their pay since the change was made.

Evans said he also wants to continue speaking with the council on hiring a facilities engineer to regularly perform maintenance inspections and repairs, eliminating the expense of hiring consultants.

 

Posted 1/5/2011