Chesterton Tribune

Seeking fiscal plan: County Council members not ready to approve buying office building

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By DOUG ELISH

Having just struggled to complete the 2012 budget, which will run at almost a $1 million deficit, several members of the Porter County Council are concerned government spending is still going in the wrong direction.

Reacting to the results of a Needs Study on the Porter County Administration Building and the subsequent desire of commissioner president John Evans to purchase an additional building across the street from the current facility, councilman Jeremy Rivas said buying a new building doesn’t seem prudent with so many major projects looming right now.

The issue isn’t whether the county has money for the capital portion of any project, between a general fund surplus, Major Moves, various unallocated funds and hospital interest money the county has around $30 million, not even considering the $160 million in hospital sale principal money, but it’s the recurring costs that concern the councilman.

“I think we are going in the wrong direction,” Rivas said. “We just approved the budget and next year we will be operating it in the red with the general fund and eating up our surplus. We still have no permanent funding source for 911 and (the commissioners) want us to build three new buildings. I am not saying we don’t need a new animal shelter or a police garage or some more meeting rooms and offices, but when can we afford all of these additional operational costs?

“We can’t even afford to operate what we have right now.”

Councilman Jim Polarek said his stance is that the county should wait to purchase anything until the results of the master planning process are known. His belief is that the county has maxed out its operational budget without even considering the $2.2 million needed yearly for E911, the costs of a bigger animal shelter or a new sheriff’s garage.

“At this point in time, I just don’t think it’s a very good idea to purchase something you can’t afford to run,” Polarek said. “Our priorities should be funding 911 and the projects we are working on now. We received a list of six major items from the planning committee last week and a new building (across the street from the administration building) wasn’t even on it. There is not much planning going on. They just want to keep buying things.”

For council vice president Jim Biggs, it’s the lack planning and communication between the commissioners and council that is frustrating.

That frustration has led to several public outbursts between various council members and the commissioners and has been counterproductive.

He noted the formation of a master plan subcommittee without the entire board’s knowledge and bringing in of H.J. Umbaugh & Associates to do the master plan without consulting the council, to go along with past instances of poor communication, as obstacles that are keeping both bodies from functioning as well as they should.

“The commissioners are right, as executive members, it is their office that determines what needs to be created with buildings and it’s the fiscal body that will decide how that is funded,” Biggs said. “But right now, it’s like the left hand doesn’t understand what the right hand is doing from week-to-week. That’s why a plan needs to be written. That’s why I don’t appreciate certain statements like when John (Evans) said, ‘they are smart guys, they will figure it out.’ I take offense to that. It is that type of arrogance that breeds discontent and it has from the very beginning.

“This isn’t me against John Evans. I can’t stress that strongly enough. This is about asking the fiscal body asking the executive body to clearly define where it wants to go and how we are going to get there.”

Another concern Biggs has because of the effect of the tax caps, the reassessments and the economy is that the expansion of the operating budget is going to create a situation where taxes need to be raised, something he said “this council will not do,” or department heads will be forced to cut their budgets, which is something Porter County hasn’t done since the Bethlehem Steel bankruptcy.

Rivas, Biggs and Polarek all want to avoid both of those situations.

“Now is the not the time to be expanding government,” Rivas said. “Now is the time to keep things tight. We are still talking about nine percent unemployment and things might not be getting better. I don’t see how now is the time to expand.

“We have some tough decisions just to continue doing what we are doing now.”

 

 

Posted 10/21/2011