Chesterton Tribune

Judge rules that state law forces Porter County to remain in RDA

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Jasper County Circuit Court Judge John Potter issued a ruling on Friday saying the Porter County Council cannot legally leave the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

The council voted 4-3 to end its partnership with Lake County in the RDA one year ago on the assumption that the county could depart the agency, which they joined in 2005. Potter said that current state law prohibits the council from doing so.

“The council did not elect to join the RDA. The enacting (legislation) created the RDA and made Porter County a member,” Potter said in his order, meaning the county was required to join under state law. The legislation also included Lake County and the municipalities of Gary, East Chicago and Hammond as permanent members.

“There was no implied or clear right to withdraw,” said Potter.

The Indiana Attorney General’s office, which represented the RDA in the court proceedings, issued an opinion last September that the General Assembly did not create an “opt-in” or “opt-out” decision for RDA members. The Attorney General’s opinion came just a few days after the council filed a lawsuit seeking a declaratory legal ruling.

LaPorte County was given the choice to join the RDA, but no such option was given to Porter County in the language of the legislation that created the RDA.

The council voted 4-3 in May, 2005 to join the RDA, with several members indicating that the county could leave the RDA in the future if the agency did not meet expectations. Potter echoed the Attorney General’s office opinion by saying that that May, 2005 vote was not to join the RDA but merely to decide a method for the county to pay its annual dues of $3.5 million.

The council decided in 2005 to pay for its membership in the RDA by increasing the County Economic Development Income Tax. Potter said in his ruling that the council did not take any action to eliminate the CEDIT fund when it voted to withdraw from the RDA.

The judge ordered that Porter County continue to pay its annual dues of $3.5 million as stated in the RDA statute and that all the county’s contributions that had been deposited into an interest-bearing escrow account must also be forwarded to the RDA by May 1.

The council will meet in executive session this week to discuss whether it will take action to appeal the judge’s decision. Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, said he cannot speak for his fellow council members, but feels it is imperative to appeal the ruling.

“I’m just absolutely astounded by the (ruling). The RDA has stunk for Porter County,” said Whitten. “They are saying we have no voice in how we spend our hard-earned money. We cannot let that stand. There has to be an appeal.”

Whitten called it an “outrage” that the state is basically forcing the county to fund projects in Lake County.

“It is time for the taxpayers of Porter County to wonder just how long do they want to remain the cash cow,” he said.

Council member Rita Stevenson, D-2nd, who originally voted in support of the RDA in 2005 but who voted to opt out last year, said the council was lobbied to join the RDA on the basis that the agency would create job opportunities for Porter County residents while providing tax relief to property owners. Stevenson said her opinion of the RDA changed because the RDA has not fulfilled its promises of expanding runways at the Gary/Chicago International Airport or extending the South Shore line into Valparaiso and Lowell.

“Nothing happens overnight, but the point is where are the jobs? Where are the airlines? Where is all of this stuff?” she said.

Stevenson, who was present at the court hearing in Jasper County last January, said both the council and the RDA indicated then that they would be willing to appeal if the judge ruled against them.

Addressing concerns that the council’s attorney fees, which are paid with county tax money, are increasing, Stevenson said the fees in possible appeal proceedings will be substantially less since the research work has been completed. Whitten before has said the attorney fees are only a fraction of what the county would have to pay in membership fees to the RDA.

Another council member “disappointed” in the ruling is Sylvia Graham, D-at large, who said it is important for people to make good selections when electing state representatives and senators who pass laws down to county government.

“It’s a sad day when local government and people in communities have no control of what goes on in their area,” said Graham.

Council Vice-President Karen Conover, R-3rd, one of three council members who voted not to withdraw in 2009, said she would respect her peers’ decision to appeal if a consensus to do so is reached, but still believes in the potential of the RDA’s vision to attract businesses and create jobs in the region.

“Economic development is really important to our citizenry and our workforce. We need to be progressive and RDA is our vehicle to be progressive,” said Conover. “Let’s give it a chance.”

Conover said she believes the RDA has brought “feel-good” projects to the area like the Lakefront & Riverwalk park in Portage.

“Business is regional. What’s good for Valparaiso or Portage is good for the county,” she said.

Porter County has so far invested $10.5 million into the RDA in annual dues to the RDA. The state had also invested $20 million from the lease of the Indiana Toll Road in 2006 and had given an additional $25 million in 2007. The agency also receives funds from federal matching grants.

The RDA said in its 2009 annual report that it has invested $169.9 million in 16 projects through 2011 and for every dollar invested, it returns an additional $1.57 to go to its primary projects.

The RDA board of directors also released a statement on Friday afternoon saying the agency is pleased with the court’s decision and hopes to include Porter County in future efforts.

“People have recognized the value of the RDA and we look forward to focusing our mission in Porter County,” the statement said.

The RDA pointed out it has received strong support since January from the cities and towns in Porter County with Portage, Valparaiso, Chesterton, Burns Harbor, and Porter councils all passing resolutions in support of the agency.



Posted 4/12/2010