Chesterton Tribune

Judge orders Porter County to pay $3.5 million to RDA

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The order for Porter County to transfer the $3.5 million stored in escrow to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority by May 1 still stands, said Jasper County Circuit Court Judge John Potter.

After appealing Potter’s April 9 ruling that ordered Porter County to stay a member of the RDA with a 5-2 vote, the Porter County Council filed a motion last week to retain the money until the appeal process is resolved only to be denied by the judge later on Monday afternoon.

The court faxed the order to the office of County Attorney Gwenn Rinkenberger. Rinkenberger earlier said she believed the council’s notice of appeal could have maintained the “status quo,” freezing all orders including having the money in escrow be forwarded to the RDA. However, Potter ultimately decided that his ruling will remain in effect.

“Unless something changes between now and May 1, that money will definitely go to the RDA,” said Rinkenberger.

The judge also upheld his decision to have the county auditor and treasurer continue making the annual contributions of $3.5 million to the RDA as mandated by statute. The council is however allowed to go ahead with appealing the ruling that Porter County cannot legally withdraw from the RDA.

Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, said he was not “holding much hope” on appealing the judge’s decision but that the council will have to “chase” the money if they are victorious in their appeal.

Whitten said the judge’s denial for the county to keep the money in hand has no bearing at all on the appeal on which the council will remain focused.

“I think with the tight timeline we need to keep our eyes on the big issue and understand that this is a fight worth taking and don’t be diverted,” said Whitten. “If we do win this appeal, we will be going to get that money back.”

RDA Executive Director Bill Hanna said the RDA is pleased that the court has upheld its decision and that Porter County’s investment in the RDA will add value to the Northwest Indiana region, providing access to the Chicago job market and attracting businesses to the area by redeveloping the lakeshore.

Hanna said the projects funded by the RDA are long-term and will benefit future generations. The recent improvements along the lakeshore such as revitalizing areas with decaying industrial property is “prepping the grounds” for new markets to come in. The RDA aims to bring new technology and consolidation to those industries.

“It’s a legacy project just like the Bormann Expressway or the building of the steel mills in the first place,” said Hanna. “We have been a beneficiary of some pretty long-term work done in the past and this is our chance to move that forward.”

Hanna said Porter County has invested nearly $15.8 million in dues so far and has received $17.3 million in return.

Some of the projects the RDA is helping bring to Porter County include a regional trail at Burns Harbor and the Gateway to the Dunes Project in Porter, for which $1.8 million was approved for the first phase of development and possibly $17 million more for subsequent phases.

Completed is the $10 million improvement to the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Park which brought 80,000 visitors last year, Hanna said.

Hanna also said since January, five Porter County municipalities representing the majority of the population have formally recognized the value of the RDA through the passage of council resolutions.

Addressing allegations from council members that the RDA is in a deficit, Hanna said the entity is currently in the black and has made minor adjustments in its project planning that will prevent it from running in the red.

The RDA also receives $10 million in state funds per year and even more from federal grants that are accessible to its members which also include Lake County, the city of Hammond, the city of East Chicago, and the city of Gary.

Porter County voted 4-3 in May 2005 to pay its annual RDA contributions by increasing the County Economic Development Income Tax by 0.25 percent, $3.5 million going to the RDA while the funds left over are used as homestead credit for county homeowners.

Council Member Karen Conover, R-3rd, said the CEDIT tax can provide relief to taxpayers in a time when they really need it. Conover, who voted against the appeal with fellow councilman Bob Poparad, D-1st, argued that the collection of the CEDIT tax is not the county’s money and that it belongs to the taxpayers. She called the RDA an “economic development tool” and asked her peers to give it more time to accomplish its goals.

Conover also said she would agree to turning over the money as the judge ruled. “We have to be a law abiding county just like we ourselves have to be law abiding citizens,” she said.

Council member Rita Stevenson, D-2nd, said the legislation cannot single-out counties and felt it unfair that LaPorte County was given a choice to join in 2006 while Porter County was forced into its membership. She also said the council has the possibility to overturn what Potter has ruled.

“People are acting like this is Gospel. This is only one ruling. This is only one judge making a decision,” she said, believing that Potter misinterpreted the arguments. “Judges can be wrong, too. They’re not gods.”

Stevenson referred to a similar case in 2003, the Municipality of South Bend v. Kimsey. That case was appealed to the Supreme Court which ruled against special legislation.

Porter County Commissioners President Robert Harper, D-Center, this morning provided the Chesterton Tribune a copy of that 2003 ruling in which landowners in St. Joseph County were bringing remonstrance to prevent South Bend from annexing the land. A local superior court denied South Bend the right to annex based on a special state law which made it more difficult for cities in St. Joseph County to annex property. However, when the case went to the Supreme Court, the court declared the special law unconstitutional.

Harper said he supports the council’s appeal to fight special legislation made by state legislators that raises taxes.

“As long as I am here, I’m fighting it,” said Harper.

The council voted unanimously on April 16 for the county board of commissioners to ratify their vote to appeal. Attorney Mitch Peters of Chesterton was voted on by the council to represent them through the appellate courts at a flat rate of $16,000.



Posted 4/27/2010