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