Chesterton Tribune

Council tables budget fixes; strategic fiscal plan on fast track

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

A long and arduous task stood before the Porter County Council Tuesday as members prepared to act on an extensive list of funding requests totaling more than $7 million.

The requests from county department heads poured in over the past month as a result of the council’s decision last fall to freeze virtually all budgets at their 2011 levels, meaning the 2012 budgets would not include additional personnel or new programs.

Rather than proceeding with the requests item by item, council members said more information is needed and tabled nearly all of them to the next council meeting in February.

“We have a bunch of issues that need to be addressed,” said Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, who asked the county auditor’s office to help put together a detailed report “budget by budget” in order to “get a handle on” how each department is operating within their respective budgets.

County Auditor Bob Wichlinski said the report, which would detail all activity from January 2011 until the budget hearings commenced in September, could be ready in advance of the council meeting scheduled for the end of February.

Items tabled included numerous CEDIT project funds totaling over $5 million, which were referred to the council attorney to study more closely. Also tabled were various highway bridge projects some of which highway superintendent Al Hoagland said some may have been approved already.

All raise requests or employee structural changes were also put on hold during the meeting.

Approved

Items that were approved fell mainly into the categories of law enforcement, courts and public safety. The council voted 7-0 on items requested by the Juvenile Detention Services for $2,500 for consultants, $11,200 for contractual service and $5,000 for toxicology. Juvenile Justice Services Director Alison Cox said funds will allow youths to take their GED exam at the Juvenile Center rather than having two officers escort them to take the test in Portage.

The center will save money on the measure by saving the costs involved in transporting a juvenile, Cox said.

Warning sirens recently purchased by the county’s Environmental Management Agency received an additional $35,000 from the council for continued maintenance this year. Money for a total of four EMA grants was also approved 7-0.

The entire council voted a final time to approve the use of $270,000 in interest money earned on proceeds of the sale of Porter Memorial Hospital for local non-profit groups struggling financially due to state budget cuts – Council on Aging ($120,000), Opportunity Enterprises ($50,000) and Family and Youth Services Bureau ($100,000). The County Commissioners voted to approve the expenditures in December.

Wichlinski said he is devising a new process to help streamline budget requests and give the council a better understanding as to why requests are being made.

Fiscal Plan Getting Underway

In other actions, the council finalized discussions with consultant Todd Samuelson of H.J. Umbaugh and Associates to work out an agreement to deliver a comprehensive plan of the county’s financial future.

The county has been in talks with Samuelson over the past few months seeking a three-year plan projecting a cash flow model of all major funds in the county. The model would not only include the county’s “big ticket” items such as health insurance benefits, Enhanced 911 services and operational costs, but potential capital expenditures such as roads, bridges and asset acquisitions.

Samuelson said his firm would also strive to consider many factors that could influence revenues such as property tax caps and growth in the county’s tax levies.

“It’s going to be as realistic as possible,” said Samuelson.

Data gathering from the county’s accounts would be the first phase of the project before moving ahead with the actual plan development phase.

The process is expected to take six to eight months now that authorization has been received.

All seven council members voted to approve authorization and the consultants would be paid on an hourly basis. The contract states the rate can be expected to be approximately $180 per hour and not to exceed a total of $75,000.

Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, who has been adamantly pushing for the county to draw up a finance plan, was happy to hear the consultants could start work right away. “This is a very critical moment in our time,” said Biggs.

Polarek asked Samuelson to show up at each council meeting to keep the board abreast on the plan’s progress.

Drainage Fee Voted Down

Lastly, the council unanimously voted down a request from Porter County Surveyor Kevin Breitzke and the county drainage board to charge a $150 filing fee for residents petitioning the county to resolve their private drainage issues.

Breitzke said state statute authorizes the county to remove obstructions in private or mutual drains after a landowner petitions them to extricate the blockage if the owner of the land where the blockage occurs fails to remove the blockage over a certain period of time.

The county sees about a half dozen of these requests each year and the fee would help the drainage board start the work, but the council voted 7-0 against the fee.

 

Posted 1/25/2012