Chesterton Tribune

Split votes and marathon meeting yield $39.5 million Porter County budget

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By DOUG ELISH

It took seven public meetings, concluding with Monday night’s five-hour session, but the 2012 Porter County budget is ready for final reading.

The budget, which as it stands around $39.5 million is about $1 million more than the council was recommended to allot by the auditor’s average year growth formula, will be made official during final reading on Oct. 27.

After delaying decisions on important issues such as the ambulance subsidy, the E911 system, drainage problems and county employee raises to gather more information, the council tackled all of those during Monday night’s marathon meeting.

The result of a night with many more split votes than the previous budget hearings seemed to be something no board member was thrilled about, but leaves the county in good standing going forward, according to several council members.

“I am not completely comfortable with what happened here tonight, but if you ask me if the county will be fine, yeah, we will be fine,” council vice president Jim Biggs said.

The council did come up with at least temporary solutions for the county’s public safety issues, which were identified as the top priorities.

A reluctant unanimous vote decided to fund an ambulance service tax subsidy contract for five years out of the proceeds from the sale of the hospital. Any funding coming from the principal of the hospital sale is required to be approved unanimously by the council and commissioners with the exception of the subsidy because it was written into the original contract that way, council woman Sylvia Graham said.

It’s more than likely the commissioners are in agreement anyway, however, as they are the board that negotiates and signs the contract. It’s believed the contract will be renewed with Porter Hospital at costs of $650,000, $650,000, $750,000, $750,000 and $1 million over the next five years as was previously presented by commissioner president John Evans.

“We are in the 11th hour and 59th minute with the contract expiring and all of the leverage is in the hospital’s court,” Biggs said. “Now, we really don’t have any alternatives.”

Another pressing issue during this budget session was the shortfall of the county’s E911 system. With the system operating at a $2.2 million deficit, the council ensured funding through 2013, but didn’t address how to handle the recurring cost beyond that.

The temporary solution, which passed 5-2 with dissenting votes from Jeremy Rivas and Jim Polarek, was to move $2 million from the general fund’s surplus to the existing E911 Rainy Day Fund. Those funds should allow the center to remain fully functional through 2013 with the hope that the state comes to the aid of struggling centers around the state by increasing the surcharge tax on cell phones.

“I feel like we are just kicking the can down the road,” Polarek said.

Rivas, who proposed absorbing at least $1 million of the shortfall into the general fund where he believes the burden needs to fall eventually, said it’s unlikely any state aid would eliminate the shortfall completely so it should have been addressed now.

As the tax stands today 50 cents is charged to cell phone users monthly, while $1.50 is charged to landlines. With landlines disappearing daily, every dispatch center in the state is going through the same problem according to county financial advisor Jim Bennett.

The final public health and safety issue from Monday night was the drainage problem. With a list of the county’s top 10 drainage issues expected to cost at least $20 million to remedy, the council decided to try to fund $2 million a year to tackle the problem.

At an earlier budget hearing, the council took $2 million from the general fund for the 2012 contribution, but after learning about going over the target budget figure decided to go a different direction Monday.

The final decision was to use $1 million from the hospital interest money, which grew about $1.1 million last year, and $1 million from the commissioner’s CEDIT fund as was previously offered by the commissioners.

Employee Raises

The other major decision to be made Monday night dealt with employee raises. With a budget figure above the recommended number by the auditor of about a $1 million increase over last year, the council decided against across the board raises.

“We simply cannot afford it,” council president Dan Whitten said. “We would love to give raises but we just aren’t in a position to do it. They didn’t get an increase but we are helping them by covering the insurance increase without them getting hit by that.”

The council did however increase the pay of several employees, mainly chief deputies, and then provided a two-percent, one-time bonus to the rest of the employees.

The bonus, which passed by a 5-2 vote with dissenting opinions by Whitten and Karen Conover, excludes employees who received raises and elected officials.

The council gave raises to most of the department chief deputies to bring them into line with one another. With the exception of the clerk’s office, which has three deputies, they were brought to the $45,000 level.

“We need to make sure we keep the best and the brightest in the county,” Biggs said. “You get what you pay for.”

The council also allowed department heads to give small raises within their staffs if the bottom line of the budget was either unchanged or lowered from 2011 levels. Several department heads were able to secure raises for their employees using this method.

Only a few raises were given to budgets that increased including the director of the EMA department, as the current director is retiring and wants to make sure the underfunded position will be taken by someone after he leaves.

Another was the county’s building commissioner, who received a $10,000 raise to $57,000.

“That seems like a big jump, but I believe that a building commissioner in a county this size making less than $60,000 a year is more than reasonable,” Biggs said.

The animal shelter director and employees in the Portage Township Assessor’s office were also given raises.

Two departments were given the authority to turn two part-time positions into full-time positions by split votes. The voter registration office will now have four-full time employees after a 6-1 vote approved the additions, Biggs voted no, and the health services department will make two part-time nurses full-time after being approved by a 4-3 vote with Rivas, Whitten and Laura Blaney dissenting.

 

Posted 10/18/2011