Chesterton Tribune

 
 

Porter County Council will not decide raise requests until final budget adoption

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Last night’s Porter County Council budget hearing recessed before 6:30 p.m., not even running up one hour on the clock.

That might seem unusual – or relieving– for some who remember years when meetings would stretch far into the evening, sometimes past 10 or 11 p.m.

The reason behind the breezy, shorter meetings is – and no, hell didn’t freeze over – the Council has initiated a new system this year of setting the 2013 county department budgets.

Instead of voting on each budget in piecemeal fashion, the Council will hold off on any approval on any budget until all items have been discussed and it is ready to move on to final budget adoption.

That meeting – set tentatively for Oct. 15 – will probably extend to epic length as the council considers all raises in one big package.

As Council member Jim Polarek, R-4th, explained to the Chesterton Tribune, the Council “wasted hours” last year when it mulled department requests, approving some increases – a virtual promise to those employees expecting raises – and then nullifying those actions by ultimately flat lining all budgets at the eleventh hour.

Even with the budgets set and adopted, the council spent months earlier this year appropriating necessary items such as the county’s CEDIT projects.

In order to avoid such an imbroglio, Polarek said nothing will be finalized until the end.

“We’re looking to do it right this time. No false impressions,” he said.

Thursday’s meeting was blanketed with requests for minor increases – a $1,000 for contractual services here, $500 for office supplies there – as costs on daily operations continue to move upward. The agenda consisted of various departments keeping the budget amounts as close as possible to last year per request of the Council.

County Recorder Jon Miller was among the department heads who requested permission to give a few workers a slight boost in salary. He said the employees had not received any raises for several years while his 1st deputy was given one last year.

“With the economy (as it is), our people deserve raises,” said Miller.

Some of the salaries would come out of the Recorder Perpetuation Fund, Miller said, which is not part of the county’s General Fund. He said he is also eyeing more funds for software upgrades to move forward with digital scanning and data storage, part of the Total Quality Management program.

Another member of the TQM team, County Assessor Jon Snyder said his budget decreased this year due to reduced staffing and efficient use of contractual services. That seemed to impress the Council.

“Keep moving in that direction,” Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd told Snyder.

“He (Snyder) has done more with less,” added fellow Council member Karen Conover, R-3rd.

More staff at Portage complex

A frequent advocate of making services more available to taxpayers, County Treasurer Mike Bucko pitched the idea of putting more of his staff at the county’s North Complex in Portage.

Bucko said he has heard taxpayers have complained about having to go to Valparaiso to pay tax bills and asked if they could do so at the county’s Portage location. Many of these taxpayers are mobile home residents who live in Portage Twp., Bucko said.

Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, and Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, advised costs could stand in the way but they would not rule out the request. It all depends on the totals when the Council goes to adopt the final budget.

“We are all about making services easier for the taxpayer. We just have some budget constraints to work with,” Whitten said.

Biggs asked Bucko to provide the Council with further information.

Bucko said he is not pushing “to reinvent the wheel,” but to have staff in Portage during the days of the year when his office collects the two installments for property tax in May and November.

Treasurer making more on investments

Meanwhile, Bucko told the Council that the new option for the county to invest a portion of it reserves is beginning to pay off.

A bill spearheaded by State Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, passed the Indiana General Assembly that would allow counties to invest funds for up to five years instead of three.

Just recently, Bucko invested $12.8 million into a five-year plan with an aggregate interest rate of 3.85 percent and is looking to put in a lot more.

“We could come out smelling pretty good with this,” said Bucko.

Whitten said he would like to take a hard look at the possibility of investing the monies from the sale of Porter hospital. He said at the start of next year, the Council will hold sessions to outline how the hospital money will be used.

County services funding undecided

The full Council also saw representatives from Porter-Starke, Family & Youth Services Bureau, the Porter County Aging and Community Services, and Opportunity Enterprises.

The latter is seeking an additional $45,000 this year which according to OE interim director Ellen DeMartinis would preserve a few of its children programs and job placement programs that are at risk as the non-profit organization faces a “break-even point” in its budget.

Whitten sympathized with the request and said shake ups in the state funding formula have forced county governments to kick in additional funding for similar organizations.

“There are people on the end of these funds that definitely need services,” said Whitten.

The county too is expected to have a smaller levy for 2013 – at least $1.7 million less – due to circuit breaker losses.

The other groups said they would be grateful for any amount the County could give them and are asking for the previous year amounts. The Council on Aging received $120,000 last year from the county and $100,000 was allocated to Family and Youth Services.

Biggs instructed them to give breakdowns of their funds to the council.

“We have to have this in our county. It fills a big void,” he said.

DLGF: County must approve Valpo school budget

Earlier on Thursday, the Council received final word from the Department of Local Government Finance that it has no choice but to accept the responsibility for adopting the budget and tax rates for the Valparaiso Community Schools.

This is contrary to a memorandum sent by the State Board of Accounts last week that the Valparaiso City Council would be the sole body responsible, but DLGF Commissioner Brian Bailey ruled the SBA has no authority in the matter and the county is obligated by statute to sign off on VCS’s budget.

The law says if the assessed value of a school district with an unelected board like Valpo is not contained within the incorporated areas of a city, “then the appropriate body to adopt is the county council.”

Whitten told members of the media he will take the responsibility seriously.

“I’m not interested in politics. I’m not interested in gamesmanship with this,” he said.

The Council has contracted Crowe Horwath of Indianapolis of up to $10,000 to assist the council in deciphering the budget which will have a public hearing on Sept. 25 at 5:30 p.m.

 

 

Posted 9/14/2012