Chesterton Tribune

Crunch time in county budget hearings; cuts likely Monday

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Thursday night’s budget hearing started with the realization that the Porter County Council has tentatively increased the 2012 budget by more than $3.6 million dollars over the 2011 figure.

Because of that fact, with the exception of the ensuing animal shelter discussion, most of what followed that Thursday night was a mere formality.

When the council decided during its first budget hearing almost a month ago to approve all department budgets without raises, Thursday night was a target to decide whether those raises would be granted.

Then, with all of the county’s department heads in attendance and some having already spoken before the board, the council announced that decision as well as other important budget conclusions would be made Monday night after a weekend of meetings and conversations between board members to decide how to trim that budget figure.

The problem, according to council president Dan Whitten, is that allocating $3.6 million more than last year’s budget would be irresponsible. His fear is that the county’s growth won’t match the expenditures and surplus money would have to be used to balance the yearly budget. Eventually that money would run out, he said.

Whitten said that every budget that has been approved, including several heard Thursday, will be revisited to see if items need to be cut or reduced.

Using the standard formula for determining the budget growth for the following year, the council would be able to raise the budget just more than $1 million without having to tap into hospital, CEDIT funds or other funds than the general.

Using those figures, more than $2 million would have to be cut from already approved budgets to avoid a shortfall.

However, many council members said the situation isn’t as dire as it appears. The next step in finishing the budget is determining how much of the money allocated for next year’s budget is for capital expenses and how much will be reoccurring costs.

Board member Jeremy Rivas said he and other board members are willing to tap into the surplus money, which is a combination of hospital interest money, some general fund money as well as CCD, CEDIT and other various funds, for capital projects.

“I think this just shows how badly we needed the strategic plan months ago,” councilman Jim Biggs said. “But we will be fine. This was a learning experience for all of us.”

Biggs said he doesn’t believe Porter County is in a bad situation because the plan the council and commissioners have begun work on should be able to secure funding from the surplus and the struggles in forming this year’s budget won’t happen every year. Besides trying to hit a moving target because of the lack of a solid plan, Biggs said a combination of a weak economy, the tax caps and the reassessment hits have made this year tougher than most.

Whitten agreed with Biggs’ assessment.

“We will be fine,” Whitten said. “We all just need to realize we do have limitations.”

The board announced it will hold its final budget hearing at 5:30 on Monday at the Porter County Administration Building. The board will decide on cuts, county pay raises, hear the claims by department heads and have the final reading of the budget all on Monday night.

“I will buy the pizza,” Whitten said.



Posted 10/14/2011