Chesterton Tribune

Biggs and Whitten call for county financial master plan to prioritize spending

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BY DOUG ELISH

County council member Jim Biggs and council president Dan Whitten left Thursday night’s budget meeting feeling as though progress was made.

And it only had a little to do with the actual budgeting portion of the meeting.

After completing the hearings for the offices scheduled in the first of four planning sessions relatively uneventfully, the council spoke briefly with county auditor Bob Wichlinkski about where it stood with regard to the general fund.

Biggs, Whitten and Wichlinksi used that opportunity to make a pitch for the county developing a comprehensive financial master plan.

Citing the nearly $8 million surplus the county has accumulated and the large number of big-ticket spending items facing the county in the near future, the council expressed its desire to formally make a plan on how it is going to approach these issues.

Whitten said the council has spent enough time being reactionary when problems arise that need instant attention; it’s time to create a plan to handle the problems before they become dire.

Biggs referenced the success the city of Valparaiso has had since creating its master plan saying that there the county should take note of the positives that has created. He said a prioritized list of major issues the county must address such as drainage, the 911 system operating at a large loss, the inadequate animal shelter and an aging infrastructure would help these problems be addressed efficiently.

“The negative effects that are growing due to the lack of a plan are obvious,” Biggs said. “All politics aside, Valpo’s master plan shows the positives that come with a plan. There is no reason the county, which has far more resources than Valparaiso, can’t do the same thing. But we need a plan to do that.”

The council has been in preliminary discussions all year about creating a master plan, but legally the county commissioners must make the decision to create and implement one. For that reason, the council formally stated they will address the issue when the commissioners have their budget hearing on Oct. 3.

In the meantime, the council unanimously requested that the commissioners create a rainy day fund for the surplus the county currently holds.

Commissioner president John Evans was unavailable for comment until Sept. 24. Calls this morning to commissioners Nancy Adams and Carole Knoblock were not returned in time for this story.

Aside from the inefficient use of the funds, council members were concerned that if the state takes notice of the large amounts of money the county isn’t spending and doesn’t have earmarked for projects, the county’s tax levy could be negatively altered. Wichlinksi said is a strong possibility even though the surplus was created by the county being fiscally responsible.

“It kind of falls under the adage that no good deed goes unpunished,” Wichlinkski said.

Biggs, who has been a strong proponent of creating a master plan since taking office, said the discussions at Thursday’s meeting should finally force the issue to the forefront.

“It think those five minutes with (auditor) Bob (Wichlinkski) were probably the smartest and best five minutes I have spent since coming into office,” Biggs said.

Raises on hold

At the onset of Thursday’s meeting, the council decided to hold off on the discussions of giving raises to county workers until the budget process is complete.

Aside from a few legally required exceptions, no raises for county officials or workers will be granted until after the fourth budget hearing on Oct. 11. The council did approve a $2,000 raise for county clerk Karen Martin’s chief deputy, but that was largely because Martin trimmed other areas of her budget to come within $47 of 2011’s number to accommodate it.

Biggs said the council wants to make sure it knows where the county stands financially before promising raises that might not be possible and wouldn’t want to be forced to rescind a raise that was initially approved.

Outside opinion

During the discussion of the county’s health care plan, Whitten formally requested that Wichlinksi compile a list of actuaries the county could hire to do an analysis of the current health care plan.

Whitten expressed concerns about the plan and said that an outside, impartial source could help assess whether changes should be pursued.

Voter registration

The only split budget vote on the night concerned the voter registration office.

Registration representatives Kathy Kozuszek and Sundae Kubacki asked the council to change the department’s two part-time positions to full-time. Kozuszek, who has approached the council with this request for three straight years, said the workload in the office is more than people realize and that with a major election coming in 2012, having more full-time staffers would be beneficial.

The council voted against the change to full-time employees 4-3, but did say they could revisit the matter at the conclusion of the budget process and that it would consider increasing the funding for hourly pay and overtime if necessary. Biggs, Jim Polarek, Jeremy Rivas and Sylvia Graham voted against the change, while Whitten, Laura Blaney and Karen Conover voted for it.

 

 

Posted 9/16/2011