Chesterton Tribune

Porter County Council disagrees over unspent CEDIT project money

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Confusion over money that had been allocated for projects using county economic development income tax dollars caused the Porter County Council to table the appropriations for at least another month.

The council will now move into its third month of reviewing budget complications brought on by flat-lining this year’s budgets at their 2011 levels. Every additional funding item the council approved in 2011 would have to be re-approved in order to be included in the 2012 budgets.

Although the council is through the largest chunk of bookkeeping items, there are still questions surrounding more than $5 million total in requests for CEDIT projects, including whether the items should have been on the council’s agenda.

Council president Dan Whitten in January commissioned council attorney Scott McClure with the task of researching the 19 funds listed by the auditor’s office to be carried over.

On Tuesday, McClure said he was unsure of whether the items needed to be on the agenda after receiving an opinion from county attorney Gwenn Rinkenberger that they did not need to be since all the appropriated CEDIT money had at one time been approved by the council. However, when he checked with the Indiana State Board of Accounts, they were not able to say how the appropriations should be handled.

CEDIT projects are initiated by the county commissioners and the money approved can be continuously used for a particular project until the commissioners declare it complete. The money in that fund then reverts into unallocated CEDIT money.

A dispute broke out amongst a few council members and the county commissioners over who should have the reins over the unspent money or what the ramifications were of a favorable vote. Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, made the motion to deny the appropriations saying he was not comfortable with having unspent money in the funds.

Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, agreed to Rivas’ motion but said to Commissioner John Evans, R-North, the vote would not be to deny the commissioners the money but to “deliberate the purpose” of it. He asked Evans if he could specify which projects have contracts tied up with them.

Evans said all of the projects are active or else the commissioners would have declared them finished. He stood by Rinkenberger’s opinion saying that items “should not be on the agenda.”

Backing Evans’ position was Council member Karen Conover, R-3rd, who asked why even consider an appropriation when the money has already been approved by the council.

Voting against a motion to deny were Conover, Whitten, Sylvia Graham, D-at large, and Laura Blaney, D-at large. For the motion were Rivas, Biggs and Jim Polarek, R-4th.

A vote to table the motion to table the matter until next meeting prevailed with another 4-3 vote. Voting to table were Polarek, Rivas, Whitten and Biggs.

Whitten asked McClure to look at the funds a second time to determine whether the council is the body to make the appropriations.

“I’m not comfortable with the dueling opinions,” said Whitten.

In a related matter, all council members did approve re-appropriating 2011 funds in the county highway’s cumulative bridge fund for active bridge construction projects.

County Highway Superintendent Al Hoagland said it is important to have these funds appropriated since the Federal Highway Department has decided not to hand out grants this year, which means little will come from the state as well.

Two county bridges are deemed “structurally deficient” and need work done this year, he said.

Raises for Portage

Assessor Office

The council members fulfilled their promise from last year of granting raises to deputy workers of the Portage Twp. Assessor’s office.

Assessor Millie Arocho’s chief deputy will get a hike in salary from $30,658 to $38,500 while five other deputies will see smaller raises. Arocho’s salary itself would rise from $36,991 to $44,000 but since she is an elected official, the raise will have to wait until Jan. 1 of next year.

All council members but Conover voted yes to the salary bumps. Arocho will also get a $35 per diem for reassessment work.

Changes were also approved for the county assessor’s office. County Assessor Jon Snyder eliminated three members of his staff and hopes to create a new director position.

Under a separate request by Snyder, a majority of council members cast votes to approve a new per-day stipend for members of the Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals. Snyder proposed giving board members all $250 stipends. He said all PTABOA members in his opinion do the same amount of work and should get equal pay regardless of whether that member has a Level 1 or a Level 2 assessor certification.

Five members agreed with Snyder – Whitten, Blaney, Biggs, Polarek and Conover – while Graham and Rivas voted to deny.

The council did not however approve a new position for a systems support worker for the county’s ITS department, despite ITS Director Sharon Lippens’ claim that the salary would be mostly out of her department’s Enhanced Access fund and the remaining expense can be reimbursed by 66 percent since the position would be applied to the county’s IV-D court.

Lippens said her staff is only half the size it was 10 years ago even as the work has increased with Internet and software upgrades. She said the ITS department is short one staff member 88 percent of the time.

E-911 Committee to Meet

with Municipalities

After unanimously approving over $1 million of rainy day fund money for the county’s Enhanced 911 System, also tabled from January, to cover employee salaries and insurance, the council held a discussion with E-911 Communications Director John Jokantas, who said the state’s proposed changes to the surcharges may actually hurt counties rather than help them.

One bill proposed by State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, would have given counties the power to raise a monthly $2 on cell phones, but the bill had “stumbled” in a house committee, Jokantas said. The $2 rate would have brought the county close to the figures it would need to sustain its E-911 system.

Another bill would place a $.75 surcharge on all phones and would cause a $5 to $10 million loss to counties across the state.

A council subcommittee consisting of Whitten, Rivas and Biggs decided it will need to reach out to cities and towns to seek ways to generate funding.

“This is just as important to them as it is to us,” said Whitten.

TQM Team Adds Fifth Member

One year ago, only a slim majority of county council members voted for a $490,000 investment in the first stage of the county’s Total Quality Management team. Now, all council members showed their faith in the system by allowing the county auditor to launch the second phase which will now include Arocho and Recorder Jon Miller.

The council approved a $500,000 request from the auditor’s non-reverting fund to pay for the program’s additional contractual services.

County Auditor Bob Wichlinski said TQM II will consist of the recorder storing documents digitally. The auditor, assessor, treasurer and recorder’s office staff would be able to retrieve documents simultaneously.

Arocho’s role will include identifying and keeping track of personal property mobile homes.

From the floor, Pat Pullara, of the Greater Northwest Indiana Association of Realtors, read a statement from her organization’s CEO thanking the council for their continued support of TQM as it has helped area realtors conduct business, finding their clients the right home or business.

The letter also complemented the “bipartisan relationship” among the office holders, making Porter County an example for surrounding communities.

“It makes everything so much better working for the common goal,” Pullara said.

As in the first phase, Wichlinski said he will complete a scorecard each month to track the progress for the council. The overall goal for the project is accurate and timely tax bills with exceptional customer service.

Also on Tuesday, Rivas suggested the council hold another joint meeting with the commissioners in the upcoming weeks to discuss the funding plan currently being developed with H.J. Umbaugh and Associates. Other Council members said they would like to work with the commissioners on making changes to the county’s insurance plan.

 

 

Posted 2/29/2012