Chesterton Tribune

County Council puts aside 49 corridor decision to Monday

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

On what would have been the night that told the tale on whether Porter County would agree to the Town of Chesterton’s offer on a project to bring utilities down the Ind. 49 corridor into unincorporated Liberty Twp., the County Council ultimately opted to delay their decision a few days more.

After an hour of discussion and some debate Tuesday, Council member Karen Conover, R-3rd, made the motion to approve the $742,409 request to upsize Chesterton’s new sanitary sewer pipes with another favorable vote by Council member Laura Blaney, D-at large.

The measure was one vote away from being shot down as Council persons Jim Polarek, R-4th, Sylvia Graham, D-at large, and Jim Biggs, R-1st cast negative votes, but abstentions from both Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large and member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, prevented any final action.

“I like the idea. I’m just not ready to vote on it yet,” said Whitten.

Rivas said he felt that all stakeholders should be present to offer their input at a special meeting. The council agreed to schedule a joint meeting for next Monday, July 30, at 5:30 p.m., inviting back the Town of Chesterton, the City of Portage, representatives from the Damon Run Conservancy District, the Porter County Commissioners, members of the county’s new Jobs Cabinet and Redevelopment Commission, and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, which at one time had mentioned kicking in funds for the project.

“If everyone comes back to the table, we could solve some things,” said Rivas.

Chesterton Town Council members Sharon Darnell and Jeff Trout said that the absolute last day to finalize the contracts would be Aug. 6, or else the town would be in danger of facing lawsuits.

“We cannot sit on this. We cannot ask them (to wait) another 45 days. That’s what was agreed to,” Darnell told the council.

Whitten said he initially favored partnering on the 49 corridor project when it was first proposed by the town in November, but recently has grown wary of the possible ramifications partnering with Chesterton could have on customers of the Damon Run Conservancy District. Those in the district could see additional tax relief if residences and businesses in the corridor were to hook on.

“This is an important vote to me. I have given this a lot of thought. I don’t want to divest the Damon Run their opportunity if some relief is coming,” said Whitten, who said he has been inundated with information, along with his peers, on items such as water capacity numbers from Portage and how it relates to the DRCD’s potentially servicing the Rt. 49 area. “I’m just confused. I haven’t gotten any definitive answers yet.”

With the new hospital using an estimated 40,000 gallons of water a day, the DRCD heads now say they would be running at 26 percent of their capacity instead of the 16 percent they reported earlier. Board chairman Jack Barko said that in its contract with the City of Portage the district has the ability to get an additional allocation to upgrade their flow and service more customers. Portage is the sewage treatment provider for the district.

Both Rivas and Whitten met with city officials on Monday who advised the town is making plans to expand its limits southward and may be more restrictive over use of its sewer lines. Damon Run also services Sunset Hill Farm County Park and Liberty Twp. Schools. Whitten questioned if the DCRD would be able to expand to another large development without burdening Portage.

Barko said he would have liked to discuss with the county how these matters could be handled but had never been given the chance and the only individual giving out information to the county is Trout, whose veracity some have questioned.

Trout said his public comments about the Damon Run not having the ability currently to service development east of the hospital have all stemmed from testimonies recorded by the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor.

He held his ground that the town would be the best utility provider for the corridor as OUCC official Scott Bell reported that Damon Run’s monthly rates make it one of the most expensive water and utility providers in the state. Trout said high costs could deter developers’ interest in coming to the 49 corridor.

Meanwhile, Darnell said that in spite of concerns expressed by Biggs, the county would not incur reoccurring costs on the sewer lines as the town has approved a contract that would allow the county to recoup costs through a special connection fee. The fee would be charged by Chesterton to anyone in Liberty Twp. connecting to the system and the town would immediately reimburse the county.

Darnell said the money could be put right back into the county’s CEDIT funds and said the council would merely be approving the $742,409 as a “loan” rather than an expenditure. As part of the agreement, the town is also willing to bear all soft costs related with the project including engineering, legal and financial consultants and permit fees.

Biggs, however, was not swayed and gave a statement explaining his position. He said according to Umbaugh & Associates’ findings on the county’s finances, the county must exercise great caution when approving new expenditures; otherwise it will face having to reduce services, cutting programs and jobs, or increasing public taxes. The report shows preliminary estimates that the county is running in the red by $2 million a year.

“I see little sense in solving a little problem while greatly contributing to another,” said Biggs, who said funding should first go to emergency services like the county’s Enhanced 911 system and the ambulance contract.

Polarek echoed Biggs’ comments, saying the county would be dependent on unallocated CEDIT funds, which are generated through income taxes, to continue its services.

Blaney, who advocated for the commissioners to use CEDIT money for the corridor project earlier this month, said county government should seriously consider strategizing for economic development.

“We’ve got to grow our tax base. This is what this is all about,” she said.

Biggs subsequently said he may warm up to signing off on the measure if the funds used would not adversely affect the county’s operational budget.

Trout said the big economic engine is the hospital, which has brought approximately 200 new health care jobs to Chesterton.

Should the county decide not to accept the offer, Trout and Darnell said it’s no skin off the town’s back and they are anxious to begin putting in sewer pipes.

“If it doesn’t work, that’s okay,” said Trout. “We appreciate your time. We’ll just pack up our marbles and go.”

Trout said the Chesterton Redevelopment Commission will not meet at the town hall Monday night as originally planned since the members will be at the county’s joint meeting.

Patriot riders honor sheriff’s department

At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, several members of the Indiana Patriot Guard presented a plaque for the cooperative spirit shown by the Porter County Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff David Lain accepted the award on the department’s behalf.

“Without you guys, our job would be a lot more difficult,” said Charlotte Sills, ride captain of the Guard.

Lain asked all present to join in a moment of silence for the fallen Spc. Sergio Eduardo Perez and Spc. Nicholas Andrew Taylor of the 713th Engineer Company, who were both killed while on tour in Afghanistan on July 16.

Polarek chosen for Redevelopment Commission

In other business, the council made its own member Polarek the citizen appointment to the new county redevelopment commission over another nominee, John Shepherd.

With the appointment of Polarek, the five-member commission is now complete. The commissioners announced their two citizen appointments last week, Dave Burrus and Ric Frataccia. Whitten and Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, will be the other two voting members.

Also, the council agreed 7-0 to budget changes for the Emergency Management Authority and the Hazardous Material office. The two will be merged and overseen by Russell Shirley, who took over for retired EMA director Phil Griffith. The merged offices will save the county $20,000 annually.

The council officially granted its unanimous approval to allocate $985,520 of hospital interest money for the purpose of constructing new stations to receive and transmit radio signals for 17 county fire departments.

“I thank you and the fire departments on that channel really thank you,” said E-911 Communications Director John Jokantas.

 

 

Posted 7/24/2012