Chesterton Tribune


County Council using income tax funds to help Portage; rejects loan for Lake County

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Tuesday’s Porter County Council meeting had the makings of another tense episode in the wake of the October 15 split vote for the 2013 county budgets. Instead officials agreed now is the time to work together for the good of the county.

“We’ve come to a fork in the road,” said Council President Dan Whitten, D-At large, of whether the Council could continue on its course of what he referred to as “a case of dysfunctionality” or do what the public has asked it to do, which is put aside differences and get serious about solving the challenges at hand.

Whitten requested joint meetings with the Board of Commissioners to work through the issues of hiring additional staff for the Porter County Jail, funding the E-911 communications center, building a new animal shelter, and keeping budgets in the black while tax revenues dwindle.

A frequent player in debates, Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, blamed “growing pains” as the chief factor in the quarrels spanning two years, which have been compounded by the effects of the state caps on property tax. “I’m as tired of it as the public,” he said.

With a renewed sprit of cooperation, Whitten said that even though he will not be president of the Council next year he feels “very good” the choice has been made “to cross the bridges together.”

But earlier in the meeting, the Council did have a minor scuffle surrounding a last minute request made by County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, and Portage Mayor James Snyder for roughly $60,000 in county economic development income tax, to help the City of Portage pay two school resource officers.

Snyder said the City pays half the salary for the officers, one monitors Portage High School while the other services Fegley and Willowcreek Middle Schools, while the other half comes from the coffers of the Portage School District. Even with letting go of nearly 20 employees this year, Snyder said there was no place left in the City budget where he could draw $60,000 for the officer’s salary and “due to dire circumstances” knocked on the County’s door for help.

“We don’t have anywhere to go,” Snyder said and added that this is the first time he has gone before the County to ask for a disbursement. He stated he does not anticipate making the request again next year as Portage has its budget planned for next year.

Evans asked the Council if it was willing to create a new CEDIT project to honor the request, but Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, advised that the commissioners could take the amount from untouched funds in CEDIT projects already approved by the Council.

Evans fired back saying that funds in existing CEDIT projects are allocated for specific purposes and cannot be used differently.

The request educed memories of last summer’s proposal by the Town of Chesterton to upsize new sewer pipes for the Ind. 49 corridor project. The Council agreed by a 5-2 vote to help pay for the project using CEDIT funds from the Commissioners’ own special account. And, just as she did at that time, Council member Sylvia Graham, D-At large, wondered if the Council would be setting a precedent by approving Portage’s request, assuming other schools would look to the Council for funds.

“I don’t think it’s a Council problem,” she said.

Agreeing with Graham, Whitten said even though he backed the 49 corridor project believing it was for an economic development project, he did not feel Snyder’s request had the same merit. “I see this a little bit different,” Whitten said, adding he personally felt the County should not shore up Portage’s budget with CEDIT funds.

Snyder said he approached the county since 20 percent of the student population at Portage Schools live in unincorporated Portage Twp.

Biggs and fellow Council member Jim Polarek, R-4th, said they would vote “yes” on the request since it is pay for a law officer and agreed with Rivas’ suggestion that allocated CEDIT money should be used for it.

Council member Karen Conover, R-3rd, she said she would not weigh in on the request because she only knew about it a few minutes before the meeting started.

Absent Tuesday was Council member Laura Blaney, D-At large.

The request wasn’t on the agenda but Evans brought it before the council for a straw vote to see if Council members would consider it at their next meeting.

Meanwhile, Evans read a statement questioning why the 2013 budget has been shrouded and said that it should be made available for anyone who wants to see it.

He asked that the “games” stop so the County can address its challenges and be ready “to get a jump start” on economic development when the County Job Cabinet releases its final report in the next few weeks.

“We need to be in a position to act on their recommendations,” Evans said.

Lake County loan rejected

While funding for Portage appeared to have a split reaction, the Council was unanimous, 6-0, in nixing the idea of lending $15.5 million to Lake County Government even though the intention would be to gain a higher interest rate on the funds for Porter County than what banks could offer.

Treasurer Mike Bucko, who was not present during Tuesday’s discussion, has been in discussions with the Lake County Council about “purchasing municipal debt” which he said he would only do if Porter County stands to benefit. Previously Bucko loaned money to the City of Hammond with average net earnings being as much as 3.85 percent.

Conover made a motion to encourage Bucko not to loan out money, saying that she does not favor moving the funds to cover Lake’s operating costs. Biggs seconded the motion saying that Porter County has its own needs to attend to.

The Lake County Council cast a split vote 5-2 on selling $15.5 million in bonds which signaled to Whitten they do not have a strong consensus on whether or not they can pay back the money.

Animal Shelter, E-911

The Council sailed smoothly in approving end-of-the-year transfers for departments including a 6-0 vote for the Parks Department for a utility connection at Sunset Hill Farm and removing and transporting the covered bridge on the Calumet trail.

A unanimous vote was also given to pay out $160,000 of employee longevity from the Riverboat Money/Casino fund.

Part of the request for funds to pay hourly workers at the Animal Shelter was denied. While the council approved two separate requests of $6,300 and $7,500 in transfers, $5,000 in additionals to the General Fund were denied 6-0.

“We’re trying to get spending under control,” Biggs told Shelter Director Jon Thomas.

But it was agreed earlier this year that the Shelter could get funds for hourly pay from the County Auditor’s non-reverting fund set up to collect payments from homestead violations. Thomas would just have to present the bill to the Auditor.

Thomas said the part-time workers have “been the backbone” for the shelter as volunteer hours have taken a sharp dive compared to a year ago when “the place was a disaster.” Many of the part-timers are responsible for cleaning the cages and walking the dogs daily before the shelter opens. Council members told Thomas they were pleased with the progress.

Meanwhile, the Council approved 6-0 in transferring $14,000 to cover some unforeseen costs associated with the new radio systems purchased by the E-911 Communications Center for Fire Departments around the County. Communications Director John Jokantas said equipment has been purchased with the $985,520 approved in June but engineering costs cropped up for preparing two new communication towers, one which will be at U.S. 20 and Ind. 49 and the other near Shorewood Forest.

December meeting

Contrary to what had been reported in the Chesterton Tribune earlier this week, the Council will formally meet again by this year’s end. A short meeting will be held on Monday, Dec. 17 at 5:30 p.m. to conduct business and make recognitions.




Posted 11/28/2012