Chesterton Tribune

County Council votes 5-2 to partner with town on 49 corridor

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By KEVIN NEVERS

The Porter County Council has agreed to pony up $740,409 in CEDIT funds, to upsize the sanitary sewer pipe about to be put in the ground by the Town of Chesterton and make it sufficiently large to serve property along Ind. 49 in unincorporated Liberty Township.

But that money is going to come from the Porter County Commissioners’ own special CEDIT account, a large portion of which has already previously been allocated for drainage projects.

In fact the idea to use the Commissioners’ own account, rather than to allocate a brand-new CEDIT line-item, was County Council Member Jim Biggs’, in a move which put Commissioner John Evans—a vocal supporter of the project—squarely on the spot. Biggs’ message to Evans, in essence: put up or shut up.

Evans, for his part, initially objected to the use of the Commissioners’ special account, quibbled with Biggs over its current balance, and noted that something like $460,000 of it has already been allocated for drainage.

But the tide was against Evans.

The vote: 5-2 in support of the partnership.

Voting for it were Biggs, R-1st—who changed his nay vote last week to a yea; Laura Blaney, D-at large, and Karen Conover, R-3d, both of whom voted yea last week; and President Dan Whitten, D-at large, and Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, both of whom abstained last week pending the receipt of further information.

Voting against the partnership were Jim Polarek, R-4th, and Sylvia Graham, D-at large, both of whom voted nay last week.

Biggs justified his change in vote in this way: “All of this is about prioritization,” he said. “We can’t afford everything we’d like to do. If this proposal . . . is that important, shouldn’t we consider taking moneys that are already allocated? We could say this: ‘We were going to do that. But we believe this is more important. We’re about jobs. We’re about economic development.’”

Rivas, on the other hand, after keeping his powder dry for a week, voiced his belief that the partnership would in no way discommode the Damon Run Conservancy District, whose reps have said that the district not only is capable of serving the unincorporated area in question but is depending on serving that area in order to grow. “There’s enough room for Damon Run to grow and enough room for the Town of Chesterton to grow,” Rivas said.

Conover made the same point as Rivas. “I think there’s enough business there that everyone can share it,” she said. “Damon Run is not going to be cut out. This is Phase I. If this doesn’t happen, there won’t be a Phase II.”

Whitten, after receiving assurances from Town of Chesterton officials that forced annexations would not be the ultimate result of the partnership, said that he looked at this as an “opportunity for the Redevelopment Commission not to TIF the area,” that is, not to designate the area a tax increment financing district. “CEDIT was designed for economic development,” Whitten said. “I know that’s been bastardized downstate. But I’m old school and feel like it should be used for economic development. And this fits into economic development.”

Graham voted nay—again—on the ground that voting for the partnership would set a precedent. “Every city and town would be here with their favorite project,” she said.

Polarek also voted nay—again—because, he said, the county’s CEDIT moneys are meant to be “used for unincorporated folks.” Or as Polarek put it, “Why should the county’s CEDIT dollars go to a municipality?”

Evans did extract something of a pledge from the County Council: “I want the council to promise it will re-allocate, because I don’t want some contractor to hang because the fund has been depleted,” he said. “I just want your word that you won’t hang me out to dry. Because I’ll send (those contractors) to you.”

“I’ll give you my word, if (this) depletes that (account) to such a point that you can’t address things that need immediate attention, then yes, come before us,” Biggs replied to Evans.

Everybody’s Two Cents’ Worth

The meeting went around 80 minutes, long enough for nearly everybody to get in—again, one last time—his or her two cents’ worth.

Whitten spent some of that time probing the views of the two chief antagonists: the Town of Chesterton and the Damon Run Conservancy District. He began with the former. Would the project ultimately lead to forced annexations?

Chesterton Town Council Member Sharon Darnell, D-4th, was adamant that it would not. “Forced annexation is not part of this,” she said. “We don’t even touch these properties. They have no contiguity with the town.”

“We’re not trying to take anything away from the City of Portage”—whose wastewater treatment plant has allocated capacity to Damon Run—added Chesterton Town Council Member Jeff Trout. “We’re just trying to help the county be prepared.”

Whitten then invited comments from the Damon Run reps and Jack Barkow, chair of the district, read a prepared statement. He repeated statements which he’s made in the past—namely, that the Town of Chesterton “has spread disinformation” about the district and “cast the district in a negative light.” He reasserted that the district has the capacity to serve “considerable numbers of new customers.” And he said that the partnership in question “would limit the district’s ability to grow” and that “it’s in the best interests of our customers to serve this development area.”

Why, Barkow wondered, would the county even consider paying for the upsize on spec, when there’s no guarantee that the unincorporated area along Ind. 49 is ever going to see any development. “Our customers want to know why ‘we’re giving up an area of growth’ that could reduce their taxes,” he said.

“Stop bashing the district,” Barkow concluded his statement. “It does no good to the district, no good to Chesterton, no good to the county.”

There was one question in particular which Whitten wanted answered: why didn’t the Damon Run Conservancy District annex its biggest customer, the new Porter hospital, when doing so would have significantly increased the district’s assessed value and—potentially—could have helped reduce customers’ rates?

Or as Whitten expressed his befuddlement, “I don’t understand the negotiations with the hospital. You didn’t annex this? I don’t get that at all.”

Bill Ferngren, attorney for the Damon Run Conservancy District, replied that the policy is to annex the district’s customers. Except in the case of the new hospital. Except in the case of Liberty Elementary and Intermediate schools.

“Wouldn’t it have been better for the homeowners” in the district if the hospital had been annexed? Whitten pressed.

The hospital, Ferngren finally allowed, just didn’t want to be annexed. Instead, the hospital pays “a fee similar to a tax,” equivalent to what 145 single-family homes in the district pay. “Those dollars are pulled in and pooled with the tax dollars,” he said.

Meanwhile, Liberty Township Board President Ed Seykowski also objected to the partnership. “It makes sense for us to plan our own community, not some county bureaucrat,” he said. “We have an excellent fire department. We’ve got some high-end homes. We don’t want it to turn into Merrillville. We feel Damon Run can handle the capacity.”

One last person to speak: Bill Hanna, executive director of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. Hanna voiced support for the partnership, saying that “we recognize it to be very important for job creation and economic development,” and while in no way committing the RDA to investment in the Ind. 49 utility corridor, did say that “there may be a role for the RDA to play.”

“But we’ll need more information,” Hanna said.

Chesterton Redevelopment

Commission to Meet

The Chesterton Redevelopment Commission will meet at 12 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2, for the purpose of awarding the contract for the Ind. 49 utility corridor project.

 

 

Posted 7/31/2012

 

 

Posted 8/1/2012