Chesterton Tribune

E911 deficit, animal shelter funding to take center stage as County Council takes up Commissioners budget

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After getting through its first two 2012 budget hearings fairly smoothly, the county council’s most important meeting is upon it.

At 5:30 p.m. on Monday, the council will hear the budget requests from the county commissioners and discuss issues that will affect everyone in Porter County.

Aside from the commissioner’s normal operating budget, which is the largest of any county entity, issues such as a new animal shelter, how to address the E911 shortfall and the creation of a fiscal master plan will be deliberated.

With the appropriation of millions of dollars on the line, the discussions at this hearing will have a great impact on the financial future of Porter County.

Creating a master plan for the county to efficiently spend an $8 million surplus and future monies it attains has been a topic for much of the year by county officials. At the first budget hearing of this session, the council formally stated it would bring the matter to the forefront when it met with the commissioners because it wasn’t moving forward quickly enough.

Commissioner Nancy Adams and commissioner president John Evans have since stated they fully agree some foresight into future spending on major issues, such as those that will be discussed Monday along with drainage and an aging infrastructure is important and that they have been working on such a plan. On Thursday, Evans said that he sent a plan to the council members to examine over the weekend and is ready to collaborate for a more detailed solution.

One of the biggest expenses in that plan was the construction of a new animal shelter. The problems with the current building have been a major point of contention all summer as the structure has proven to be inadequate. The recent $20,000 renovation and clean-up project brought the building, that wasn’t intended to be a shelter, to a level of temporarily acceptable, but without a dedicated facility animal control by the county would not be able to continue.

The possibility of outsourcing animal control to a private business was brought up at a county council meeting over the summer, but county officials have backed off that as the focus has turned towards a new facility.

Council president Dan Whitten, the most outspoken critic of the old shelter, stated on Monday that he would fully support construction of a new shelter as long as the commissioners and council worked together to make it a financial reality.

Evans and Adams, who took the lead this summer in rehabbing the old shelter, both expressed their desire to leave the old building for special animal control circumstances and house the animals for adoption in a new location.

While the shelter construction would be a one-time expense, the $2.2 million deficit for E911 service is in need of a long-term solution.

After years of running at a surplus, a variety of factors have led to a deficit. A major factor that is out of the county’s control is the shrinking funding it receives from the phone surcharge tax.  Residents are still charged $1.50 per month for their landlines, but with more and more people foregoing landline service for cell phones, the county is losing a major source of income. There is a 50 cent tax on cell phones, which the state takes 11 cents of, but it isn’t enough to make up the difference.

Evans said he has been trying to work with state representatives to correct the problems with the surcharge and is hopeful that something will happen in the near future.

Even with more surcharge income, however, Porter County’s dispatching service is in need of new revenue because of the consolidation of the Valparaiso and Portage dispatching centers into the county’s control.

The Indiana Legislature did pass a law that requires counties to consolidate emergency dispatching services by 2014, but that law doesn’t apply to standard police dispatching, which is a vast majority of the calls a dispatch center receives.

The county assumed all of Valparaiso’s dispatching duties in 2007 and then Portage’s in 2009 at no cost to the municipalities. About half of the dispatch calls the Porter County center receives are from those two cities. Since the moves, the county had added 21 full-time dispatchers with no new source of revenue. Before consolidating, the county had built up more than a $1 million surplus. This year it will spend $3.8 million and bring in just $1.6 million, a $2.2 million deficit.

The only reason the deficit hasn’t been a major problem sooner is the infusion of $4 million of rainy day cash assigned to the problem. The current situation can only run through next year, however, before than money runs out.

“We don’t have a long-term solution,” councilman Jim Biggs said. “The 911 service is the backbone of everybody’s public safety.  It is the heart and soul.

“Will we get the money? Yeah we will find it, but we are not just going to pull it out of the air. It is going to have to come from something that is already being funded. It means less funding for someone. And this problem is only going to grow as this county grows. That’s why it is imperative that everyone get under one roof and discuss this as a county and come up with a fair and equitable solution.”

Evans acknowledged a solution needs to be found quickly, but said trying to get money from the municipalities is unrealistic.

“That’s going to be a tough sell,” Evans said. “The municipalities have the same budget strain that the county does and in some cases even worse.”

It is not uncommon for dispatching services to be consolidated, the city of New York has just one center, the problem is how to fund a center that is continually growing and expanding. How Porter County will handle the situation might be the most important topic of conversation Monday night.


Posted 9/30/2011