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
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
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
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
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.