Chesterton Tribune

Whitten reelected to lead County Council; budget challenges expected

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

The Porter County Council got off to a smooth start this year despite the fact that financial challenges loom in the days ahead.

Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, said he will plan for earlier budget hearings this year to adequately address all big-ticket funding items facing potential shortfalls, more notably Enhanced 911 and county employee insurance. Budget sessions traditionally have started in mid to late September.

“I will strive to do a better job than last year,” said Whitten, who was elected by his peers to lead the group for a third year in a row. Elected vice-president was Karen Conover, R-3rd, who will take the reins from fellow council member Jim Biggs, R-1st.

To get the ball rolling on figuring out funding solutions, the council at their reorganizational meeting Thursday spoke of scheduling future meetings to commence urgent discussions regarding insurance and E-911.

Insurance costs jumped from $7 million to more than $10 million in 2011. The county has been using reserve money to fund E-911 which is expected to dry by 2013 incurring shortfalls of more than $2 million per year if a remedy is not in place.

While the council is slated to meet for its routine meeting Jan. 24, members will be using that meeting to conduct business fixing payroll snafus and Biggs felt it would be best to hold a special meeting exclusively on the topic of insurance at a time convenient for the stakeholders, presumably in early February.

Whitten asked to have representatives from Anton Insurance give the council a three-year breakdown and explanations on the number of claims. More input will be sought from an actuary who will also be invited to weigh in on the discussion.

Also in the works is a collaborative meeting between the county and its two largest municipalities, Portage and Valparaiso, to hear the needs of their E-911 centers which were consolidated with the county’s in recent years.

“That conversation has to be bigger than us. We’ve got to have everybody come to the table,” Whitten said.

The chances for the state legislature to raise surcharges on mobile phones are getting dimmer due to a shortened state assembly, Whitten said, but the council is planning at their Jan. 24 meeting to sign off on a resolution to local state officials explaining the urgency.

Biggs cautioned that more must be done, saying that even if cell phone surcharges are raised, the sum of money will “not even come close” to the funds needed to run the center.

He mentioned all counties in the state are facing the same dilemma with their E-911 centers. Conover said the counties are doing nothing but what the state has mandated.

Council members Jim Polarek, R-4th and Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, said they would like to know from the county commissioners if they will be using Cumulative Capital Development funds to help fix the radio problems plaguing emergency response stations around the county. The commissioners in December heard a proposal for $895,000 to purchase new equipment that would be compliant with federal regulations.

Rivas also pushed to develop a timeline for funding the $15 million to $20 million in county drainage projects over the next five years.

“Let’s get some things done,” said Rivas.

Appointments

In other reorganizational business, council members chose citizen appointments to fill seats on several county boards. Rudy Sutton will remain on the Alcoholic Beverage Commission; attorney Mitch Peters was reappointed to the county’s tourism commission; Chesterton Tribune reporter Vicki Urbanik was selected again to serve on the Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals.

The Porter County Parks and Recreation board will receive a new member, Craig Kenworthy of Morgan Township (see related story).

For appointments to local economic development commissions, the board named former council member Bob Poparad to the Burns Harbor EDC, Paul Shinn to the Chesterton EDC, Mike Sarver to Portage EDC and Curt Gill to the Valparaiso EDC by recommendation of Mayor Jon Costas.

For their internal appointments, the council selected Polarek to serve on the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission. Biggs gave up his seat on the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District which was picked up by Council member Laura Blaney, D-at Large. Council member Sylvia Graham, D-at large, will continue to serve on the county’s nine-member Plan Commission. Conover was willing to continue her position on the Recycling and Waste Reduction District Board. Blaney will serve on the Museum Advisory Board and Biggs will be the representative on the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board.

For the revived county animal shelter advisory board, Blaney will carry on as the council’s appointment.

Biggs and Rivas will jointly serve on the newly-formed E-911 Policy Board.

Council members went down the list of departments to choose who will serve as liaisons to the offices. Blaney and Whitten will be the council liaisons for the animal shelter, Polarek and Rivas for the assessor, Rivas and Conover for the auditor’s office and Polarek and Graham for the Treasurer’s office.

The council also unanimously voted to retain Scott McClure of the law firm Rhame & Elwood as their legal counsel this year.

 

Posted 1/6/2012