Chesterton Tribune

Healthcare and environment highlight proposals for use of hospital interest

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“We’ve got some big decisions to make,” said Porter County Councilwoman Karen Conover, R-3rd.

She’s right; those decisions measure up to more than $9 million in interest money coming from the county’s sale of Porter hospital four years ago.

Last night began the first in a series of three public input sessions hosted by the Porter County Council on the potential use of interest money to improve the quality of life within the county.

“This is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Porter-Starke Services CEO and President Rocco Schiralli, one of the fifteen speakers who approached the council during the meeting.

In his opening remarks, Porter County Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, told the audience the purpose of the meetings was to get a dialogue going with “stakeholders” -- who he would define as everyone who lives and works in Porter County -- in order mull ways to enhance the county economically or physically.

“We’re going back to brainstorming and getting the ball rolling on this,” said Whitten. He repeated his original intention of putting off these conversations until construction had begun on the new hospital at the northwest corner of U.S. 6 and Ind. 49 in unincorporated Liberty Twp.

Pros for Healthcare

Schiralli was the first in a group of healthcare professionals who plugged the idea that a portion of the money should be used to boost both physical and mental health services for residents. Schiralli said nearly a quarter of the population suffer from behavioral health problems and would benefit significantly by having these healthcare services available to them.

“Nothing is more important to our community than the health care of our citizens,” said Schiralli.

Requests were made that the county keep the sale principle amounting to $160,909,512 untouched. One such request was made by Dick Wathen who was chairman of Porter Hospital Board during the time the hospital was sold to Community Health Systems. Wathen recommended half to be used for healthcare, since that is where the money came from originally, while a portion should be invested back into the principle.

Having heard speculation the council is considering purchase of more space and creating a human resource department, Porter Hospital board trustee and pharmacist Jim Spanopoulos said the money should not be used to create more government. He instead would like to see more focus on substance abuse programs, helping the North Shore Health Center, assessing homeless shelters and care for seniors.

Porter Hospital cancer specialist Dr. William Nowlin said the county has a higher number of cancer diagnoses than most. Last year, the hospital saw over 100 new lung cancer cases, 123 breast cancer cases, and about the same for colon/rectum cancer cases.

Nowlin hopes the county can look at finding services to get patients to the hospital sooner.

Environmental Improvements

Tying into health related discussions, a few speakers called for changes to improve air and water quality.

Walt Breitenger, president of the Valparaiso Chain of Lakes Watershed, echoed Nowlin’s comments that Porter County residents are at greater risk for cancer and believes it is linked to the high number of pollutants. “Indiana ranks 49th (in the nation) in environmental quality,” said Breitenger

Breitenger said providing clean air and water can also reduce healthcare costs for county residents.

Green initiatives could also result in more jobs, some speakers felt.

“I’d like to have a greener, safer Porter County,” said Dr. Christopher Wirsing, a trustee on the Porter Hospital board.

Cancer was not the only concern discussed. Pine Twp. Board member Tom Lipinski called for the county to provide warning systems for tornadoes throughout the unincorporated areas just as there are in towns and cities.

Many speakers said they would second the Porter County Parks Department’s request that money be set aside to improve park location sites north to south.

Porter County Parks Superinten-dent Walter Lenckos said he would appreciate if the council could restore the parks’ annual budget which saw a two percent cut made in 2008.

Lenckos hopes to use the additional money for youth-based programs and programs designed for older adults -- the county’s fastest growing population.

Economic Development

Speaking as “a private citizen,” retired Chesterton School teacher Ralph Ayres said Porter County government should appoint an economic development director to serve as a “go-to person” for those inquiring about jobs in Porter County, similar to those who exist typically in the municipalities.

Ayres felt his proposal would not be a huge expense to the county since it would essentially be done by one person rather than a department.

The Tipton County economic director is one example Ayres gave highlighting the benefits this person could bring. The individual would be useful in working with local chambers, he said.

“We’ve got a great place to live. We can make it a great place to live and work,” said Ayres. “It’s a great four letter word: jobs.”

Whitten said to Ayres there is a sub-committee taking shape now to look at the possible implications of creating a branch or position for economic development.

Future Investing Options

County Auditor Robert Wichlinski and County Treasurer Mike Bucko formally reported all the funds associated with the hospital sale.

Bucko said approximately $1.2 million in interest was made in 2010 but that is still locked away in investment. The total amount of interest available for use is $9,043,610.

Bucko explained further investment options to the council but added that interest rates have dropped in the years following the sale. However, Bucko said he will continue to look for more “robust” investment opportunities.

Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce member Rex Richards complemented the council on managing to be fiscally conservative and encouraged the council to leverage the funds to maximize the proceeds to bring additional dollars to the county instead of spending them.

Whitten took pride in the fact the council has been solvent and said he would like to keep the $160 million as a buffer to provide comfort.

Think Big

Whitten said he would consider a portion of the money put into investments but would prefer that some money be spent out rather than be used by the county for operating costs believing the county already has the ability to fund itself. Whitten asked the council to take a “global” perspective.

“We need to think bigger and larger and more creative than we have,” he said.

Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, said he would like to see a small portion go back into the principle and suggested requests should be submitted through a transparent application process.

Fellow council member Jim Polarek, R-4th, said if the money is given out, it should go to benefit the whole county.

All four council members present vowed not to tap into the principle, which cannot be done without a unanimous vote from both the council and the county commissioners.

Most speakers applauded that intention.

“It took many generations to build that asset. We hope that is preserved for generations to come,” said Barb Young, president of the Porter County Community Foundation.

Whitten said some interest money could also be used to improve the failing drainage systems and highway repair which could also improve life in the county.

The council will convene next on Monday, April 11 at Kouts American Legion to take more suggestions. Another will take place on May 9 at Portage City Hall. All meetings start at 6:30 p.m.



Posted 3/15/2011