Chesterton Tribune

 
 

Vicki Urbanik to be County Council's first full time financial advisor

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

The Porter County Council was told on Tuesday it will not escape its budget woes for the next few years yet, but a few of its members said they feel some comfort from creating the position of a County financial specialist.

Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals member and former Chesterton Tribune reporter Vicki Urbanik was hired by a 5-1 vote near the end of the council’s meeting for the full-time spot. In her new role, Urbanik is to keep Council members apprised of how the budgets are functioning so that they can make their decisions more carefully. The financial specialist salary was approved at $40,000 a year.

Council member Sylvia Graham, D-At Large, said this action “does not replace the County auditor in any form” as Urbanik will be working out of the Council office.

“This person will be a great asset,” Graham said.

Agreeing was Council member Dan Whitten, D-At Large, who said Urbanik has extensive knowledge of county budgets and revenue sources.

Karen Conover, R-3rd, also made positive comments and added that “there were a lot of good applicants” who were screened and interviewed by the Council last month. She said Urbanik “brings a lot of talent and a lot of skill sets.”

One Council member who was not as impressed was Jim Polarek, R-4th, who voted no saying, “I personally feel there were more qualified candidates.” He did say however that having a financial specialist would be “extremely helpful.”

Urbanik has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Indiana University and a post-baccalaureate certificate in accounting from IU Northwest where she has also been a tutor.

After nearly 25 years as a reporter on Porter County government, Urbanik ran for County Auditor on the Democratic ticket in 2010, losing to Republican candidate Robert Wichlinski. A related story on the Council's dispute with the auditor is here: http://chestertontribune.com/PorterCounty/county_council_battle_with_audit.htm.)

Despite her earlier political ambitions, Urbanik said she will remain unbiased in her new role and is willing to work with all county employees.

Absent was Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, who was away on business.

Umbaugh report

Earlier on, in other budget matters, the Council received an updated report on the County’s financial standing from Bob Clifford, principal from H. J. Umbaugh and Associates.

Umbaugh delivered a preliminary report prior to last fall’s budget hearings detailing the County’s “fiscal health.” A new draft was completed a few days ago and the Council asked Clifford to lead the discussion.

Drawing many of the same conclusions as earlier, Clifford said the trends indicate that the 1-2-3 state property tax caps have shrunk revenues in all counties and by $2 million in Porter County for 2013 and 2014. The impact on the General Fund, which pays for the vast majority of County operations, is projected at a $1.7 million shortfall per year.

“You are losing revenues due to the circuit breakers. That’s not going to come back, the circuit breakers are here to stay,” said Clifford.

The biggest challenges the County faces, Clifford said, are the funding of the County Jail, the drainage improvement plans and the rising costs of health insurance, each involving price tags in the millions.

More bad news is that the county economic development income tax collected has also suffered loss because of the recession, he added. The fund is now producing just over $4 million for the County per year while on the same scale four years ago estimates are the amount could have been over $7 million.

Clifford said it could be years before the real estate market turns around and interest rates will hardly have any effect on money that is invested.

“It’s a great time to be a borrower. It’s not a great time to be a lender,” Clifford said.

Clifford outlined options the County has for short-term and long-term fixes. One thing he advised the Council to do is to openly address the budgets in front of the public at its’ meetings.

“Try to communicate and strategically use the funds you have now,” he said.

Another step Clifford discussed is “restructuring” CEDIT. Right now, a portion of it is being used for homestead credit while $3.5 million annually is used in dues for the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

He said the County has the option of exploring other forms of income tax but he remembers the Council had said it was “not very interested in that.”

Other ways to offset costs entail creating an advisory board for the Information Technology department to help offer services online. Seventy percent of the budgets are personnel related, he said, and short-term fixes, such as freezing salaries each year, could have adverse effects because the County could lose their best employees to other jobs.

More remedies, large and small, include creating a “user fee” for stormwater utilities, providing goals for department heads, establishing a bond bank, building a consensus on what to do with Porter Memorial hospital sale proceeds, and continually looking at fund balances to see if “more funds could fill other holes,” Clifford said.

Council President Robert Poparad, D-At Large, and Whitten both said the County is not in bad shape financially given the County’s current assets such as the sale money from Porter Memorial hospital.

“We’re not destitute by any stretch,” said Poparad.

Whitten said the County is set up for growth and denounced using TIFs so that the County can receive the tax revenue benefits.

Clifford said that compared to other counties of similar size, the county’s spending is in line with the average. But Porter County has managed to stay ahead of the game by holding on to its hospital sale proceeds and Major Moves money, along with building up fund balances over a span of a few years.

“You should be proud of your county,” he told the Council. Porter County, he added, ranks fourth in the state for per capita income and is below the state and national averages for unemployment.

Poparad commended Umbaugh on the report saying “it’s a nice road map” for the next three to five years.

“It’s not pretty but I think the recession of the last four years will end and people will get back to work which will mean more income revenue,” said Clifford.

 

 

Posted 3/27/2013

Revised and corrected 3/28/2013