Chesterton Tribune


County Council promises rough days ahead as budget crunch looms

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The lighthearted tone of this year’s budget hearings of the Porter County Council is about to end.

At the end of Monday’s meeting to wrap up preliminary reviews of department budgets, the dialogue took a turn south when the members began talking about a few elephants in the room — the $1.7 million expected revenue loss from the state’s property tax circuit breakers, the $1.5 million needed to open and staff the third pod at the overcrowded Porter County Jail, and the expected E-911 deficit of $2 million starting in 2014.

And that’s not including the staggering jump in employee health insurance fees.

“We’re looking at addressing a $6 million hole when you add everything up,” said Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st.

The council was told by Umbaugh & Associates last month that in order to keep its head above water, it would have to do more debt financing, dig into its cash reserves, cut department budgets or raise county income taxes.

Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, and fellow member Sylvia Graham, D-at large, told the Chesterton Tribune they have been approached by public safety personnel within the municipalities of the county to support a new county public safety income tax, but both said they will not vote on such a measure.

“Not under our watch,” Whitten said. “We cannot tax people out of Porter County. That’s why people move here.”

Graham said the county has plenty of other funding avenues to consider, but people also have to realize, the county “cannot promise every pie in the sky.” Both she and Whitten said that they do consider public safety to be the Council’s top concern and assured “it will get funded” without additional taxes.

Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, who is also against any new tax, added that even with the $2 million provision pledged by the county Board of Commissioners through unallocated county economic development income tax (CEDIT) funds, it would not be a permanent fix for public safety, as the commissioners themselves have admitted.

The services, Rivas said, would have to be funded annually and he has proposed having the E-911 budget absorbed by the county’s general fund.

Whitten said the council will also avoid using reserve funds as it would only be a temporary fix.

Biggs agreed saying, “That’s like taking your kid’s college tuition money and spending it on your monthly cable fee. It doesn’t make sense.”

So how will the council survive its 2013 budget year? While some residents and officials around the county have proposed dipping into the proceeds of the sale of Porter Memorial Hospital now that it is available, the council is trying to avoid that too; although it is likely some hospital fund interest dollars will be utilized.

The ultimate answer to make up for the losses will be to shrink the department budgets as much as possible.

“We’re going to have to trim the fat. And if there isn’t any, we’ll have to trim it anyway,” said Whitten.

The final budget readings where the Council will make reductions are set for Oct. 15 and could extend into a few more long nights. Budgets and the county employee salary ordinance must be adopted and submitted to the state by Nov. 1

Will all funding obstacles be resolved? Maybe, maybe not. But it will be “nothing shy of a wild west shooting match – a real hoot” as Whitten anticipates.

“Oh boy, it’s going to be an interesting final reading,” he said.

Biggs optimistically said there will be some good that will come out of it as it will also reveal the county’s many strengths.

“People will be pleasantly surprised about what we are able to accomplish,” he said.

The council will meet at least one time before final reading. Next Tuesday, Sept. 25, will be its review of the 2012 County Municipal Budgets with towns, township trustees, conservancy districts, and the much-talked about Valparaiso School Corporation, presenting their budgets at 5 p.m.

Budgets getting cleaned up

Earlier in the meeting many department heads presented their proposed budgets to the council without many problems.

Instead of increases, many of the budgets showed reductions this year. The prospective 2013 Expo Center budget indicates the facility will spend less on gas and power this year.

“The budget before was not realistic,” explained the Expo’s newly appointed interim director Ken Blaney, who added that he is in the process of bringing the books up to date after taking over for former manager Brian Schafer in the last three weeks.

The newly merged Emergency Management Agency and Hazardous Material budgets will bring the county a savings of $20,000 by sharing a part-time deputy, EMA Director Russ Shirley said.

No major changes were reported in the Health Department or Surveyor’s budgets, while the Plan Commission seeks to hire one more employee to replace a recent retiree. The ITS department proposed hiring one new staff member for next year.

Animal Shelter Budget

Porter County Animal Shelter Director Jon Thomas told the Council things are “going very well” even as the number of animals being taken in has soared since June. During that time, the Shelter saw 726 animals as a result of this spring’s mild temperatures prolonging the animal breeding season.

From that group, 52 were “humanely euthanized,” Thomas said, while others – more than 90 percent – found homes or were taken to other shelters.

The shelter relies on volunteers to assist in operations. Thomas said the Shelter currently houses 50 dogs and 80 cats and he and his staff spend four hours each morning cleaning the floors and cages before opening to the public at 12 p.m.

Talks are still continuing between the County Commissioners and the non-profit group Lakeshore PAWS about collaborating on a new Shelter for animal welfare, which complicates the issue of trying to budget for the Shelter next year.

County Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, who was in the audience said the negotiations are “still a work in progress” and was unsure of when a decision might be made.

Whitten said the council would need to hear more discussion on how the Lakeshore PAWS facility would operate as a no-kill shelter.

1100 N. Bridge

County Highway Superintendent Al Hoagland said the state is cutting highway funds this year, but the county should have enough saved up from last year’s mild winter to have enough salt through the upcoming cold and snowy weather.

He said Porter is one of the few counties in the state that bought salt supplies early enough last year to get a huge discount.

“The winter determines what we do in the summer,” Hoagland said.

Meanwhile, Hoagland said due to tax caps, reductions will be made to the department’s cumulative bridge fund. The state will make repairs to four bridges this year and the county will have the funds to do two of its own.

Hoagland said there is currently one bridge in the county for which replacement is “crucial” – the CR 1100 North bridge that crosses Coffee Creek just east of Ind. 49 in Westchester Twp. He said he is getting the proper permits from the state and the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers and hopes the bridge will get replaced this fall, but that depends on the weather.

It might be as late as spring before the work is finished, Hoagland said.



Posted 9/18/2012