Chesterton Tribune

 
 

Vote for up to 3 in County Council at-large race

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Voters in the county’s general election on Nov. 6 can vote for up to three of the six candidates running for the at-large seats on the Porter County Council.

On the ballot are the top three vote-getters in this May’s Democrat and Republican primary races. Voters in the general election can vote for up to any three candidates regardless of party affiliation.

Running as Democrats are incumbents Sylvia Graham and current Council President Dan Whitten. Robert Poparad, a former 1st District Council representative, is the third Democrat candidate. For the Republicans, the candidates are newcomers Mark Hoffman, Ralph Neff and Joe Wszolek.

At-large council races are voted on throughout the county. Early voting officially began this week.

The Chesterton Tribune invited all candidates to take part in a questionnaire. The Tribune set word limits for each question and reserved the right to edit for length.

1. Age, place of residence, occupation.

Graham: unanswered, Valparaiso, retired RN and family nurse practitioner

Poparad: 54, Burns Harbor, small business owner

Whitten: 46, Bankruptcy Attorney at Whitten and Whitten in Portage.

Hoffman: 62, Valparaiso, Retired athletic director, coach and teacher at Valparaiso High School

Neff: 53, Valparaiso, business owner

Wszolek: 58, Portage, Residential Real Estate Appraiser

2.To Poparad, Hoffman, Neff and Wszolek: What are your qualifications for joining the County Council? (50 words)

Poparad: I’ve served two terms representing the 1st district on the County Council. I was re-elected three times for Burns Harbor council. I’m well versed in county government.

Hoffman: I have been part of a team for most of my life, as a player and as a coach. I have been an assistant and I have been a head coach. We need to lead and we need to work together. That is what I am all about.

Neff: I started a union business 25 years ago which has prospered to over a $12 million a year corporation. I have negotiated union contracts and am a Trustee for Health & Welfare for a statewide union. I serve on numerous nonprofit boards and am very involved in our community.

Wszolek: I have been a leader in Northwest Indiana for more than 20 years, have been a small business owner since 1992 as a residential appraiser, have served on various boards and commissions, and currently serve as President of the Porter County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals.

To Graham and Whitten: What have been your accomplishments in office? (50 words)

Graham: Initiated the purchase of a state certified tax software system; assisted in procuring a five-year ambulance contract with Porter Hospital; supported TQM, served on PCACS, EMA and the Plan Commission; supported upgrades for emergency services; supported the Veterans and Child Support courts and made certain there were no new taxes.

Whitten: During my time as Council president, I have been instrumental in protecting the citizens’ health, safety and welfare by expanding public services such as the Drug Task Force, the Health Department and the Sheriff’s Department. I have fought to prevent unnecessary tax and spending and have kept Porter County solvent.

3. To Poparad, Hoffman, Neff and Wszolek: Why have you decided to run for office? (50 words)

Poparad: The County is not functioning the way it should because of too many special agendas of people who want to play politics rather than do their jobs. I will bring a fresh voice to the table along with experience.

Hoffman: I have been living in Porter County for over 40 years and I want to give back to this great county. My objective is to serve the citizens of Porter County to the best of my abilities.

Neff: Part of being a successful business person is giving back and improving our community. Right now I see a non-efficient, “What’s in it for me” county government. We need to get back to basics and do what is right for Porter County and its residents – “Positive Leadership.”

Wszolek: I am dissatisfied with the current Council leadership and the lack of professionalism and civility that I have observed over recent years. I will ensure that the council conducts business in an orderly and respectful manner that fosters confidence in our county government.

To Graham and Whitten: Why are you seeking reelection? (50 words)

Graham: Porter County is beautiful, diverse and undergoing changes. My education, healthcare career, active participation in the community and Council experience makes me one of the most experienced and committed candidates. I have the time, energy and the desire to serve another term.

Whitten: I want to continue to be the advocate of the hard working people of Porter County and to protect their hard earned money. There are many projects that I want to see to completion such as the drainage system upgrades, 911 consolidation, services for seniors and improving the Animal Shelter.

4. A financial advisor said the County can expect continual decrease in revenue due to the state tax caps. What would you suggest the County do to keep a balanced budget? (75 words)

Graham: Priorities must be set. The County now has the Umbaugh financial report and it states we are relying too much on property taxes to finance county government.  For the most part, county assessed values are falling. The report suggests CEDIT taxes that we are receiving be incorporated to support the county budget. This will take the cooperation of the Commissioners and the Council. 

Poparad: The County Council’s sole role is budgeting. It has to make sure all departments are funded adequately to operate. There is enough tax revenue to fund county government, but sometimes hard decisions have to be made.  

Whitten: Each budget session must be an opportunity to prioritize our expenses and capital projects. We have to take a stand against creating another income tax, improper TIF districting and pet projects in order to promote balance and economic prosperity in the county. Between increased development along the hospital corridor, continued commercial growth and holding the line on unnecessary spending, we can continue to provide the county with services, create new jobs and keep taxes down.

Hoffman: We need to work together and develop a plan. We have options to explore, however we must consider what our priorities are. Working with the other community agencies we will determine where the money should be appropriated.

Neff: Keeping a county budget is no different than keeping a business budget or even a house budget just on a larger scale. You cannot spend more than you are taking in. Obviously the economy is the biggest factor in our decreased revenue. We need to attract economic development. Until then the County needs to continually advocate better efficiency through all departments. Consolidate where possible and provide the same if not better service.

Wszolek: Cutting the size of county government has to be an element of any comprehensive solution, but there is no single answer. We must significantly reduce the long term operating costs of county government. Some officeholders have demonstrated by example that it is possible to accomplish a greater mission with fewer employees and less spending on contractors without sacrificing services. This should be the model for how county offices operate.

5. With the Porter Regional Hospital in operation, the County Council and the County Commissioners have access to $163 million in principal as long as there is unanimous consent from both boards. Should the principal preserved? Why or why not? (75 words)

Graham: Preserving the hospital principal is Porter County's future. I will not vote to spend this. I also feel we should reinvest a portion of the yearly hospital interest money back into the hospital principal money. To get a better return on the principal money, a county bond fund might be considered as well as an endowment county fund. The principal money will remain safe on my watch.

Poparad: The principal should never be touched. It should be placed in an irrevocable trust where no politician can get their fingers on it. This is a onetime infusion of funds. Up to 20 percent can be safely budgeted to fill the gap, i.e. 911, jail, public safety. The remaining interest should be allowed to accumulate for large capital projects. This will eliminate bonds and interest on those bonds. It will also require planning from elected officials.

Whitten: We absolutely need to preserve the principal because it is the county taxpayers’ nest egg. Once the principal has been depleted, the taxpayers will lose the benefit of the interest. We should live within our means and strategize the use of interest earned for county projects and creation of new jobs. We are solvent and should remain so. If we go on a spending spree, we will force this county into an unnecessary income tax.

Hoffman: Unanimous consent from both boards is a key. To have this we need collaboration. We have a gift; this gift of $163 million belongs to our citizens of Porter County. We could use the interest to help take care of some of our budget shortfalls. If there is a project that could better the lives of our citizens, increase jobs and help to influence people to move to our county, this should be explored.

Neff: Absolutely YES. By no means should this money be squandered. If managed correctly, the county has a great source of interest income that is not taxpayer generated. Just recently this little nest egg generated interest of $11.8 million. It’s money that we will not have to generate. I am open to any suggestions that would allocate a windfall and keep our taxes down with the use of these funds

Wszolek: The principal from the Hospital sale should be in safekeeping for the benefit of our children’s grandchildren. Porter County’s future is bright. There are very few uses to-date that are important enough to justify the use of these funds, despite decreases in revenue. The sale proceeds are not burning a hole in Porter County’s pocket any time soon. Prudently investing these proceeds for tomorrow should be the question—not how to spend them today.

6. This year the County formed its own Redevelopment Commission with the ability to propose tax increment financing (TIF) districts. Would you recommend using TIFs as a tool for economic development in unincorporated Porter County? (75 words)

Graham: I understand the advantages of forming TIF districts. However, developing a TIF district in the area of the hospital is ill-timed. For job growth and economic development, the hospital was granted a tax abatement and every year it pays the County a higher portion of taxes. Until this obligation is completed, this area should be excluded from TIFs. TIF districts can be a successful way to stimulate economic development and build infrastructure if used properly. 

Poparad: NO. TIF zones deprive the school general fund. The state has already tied the hands of the schools by taking over the general fund. TIFs deprive them and all other taxing units of new revenue. There are other ways to fund worthy projects.

Whitten: TIFs have been utilized unnecessarily. Instead of being a tool for developing depressed areas, they have been used as a money-grab from taxpayer pocketbooks. They’ve been used improperly to divert dollars away from the tax levy. If this continues, it will force the county into another income tax, which is completely unacceptable. Members of both parties in the Legislature have tried to repeal legislation for these same objections.

Hoffman: Yes. The first question that I will consider dealing with TIF is what is best for our county and our citizens of the county. We must be aware of why people move to Porter County: Education and Safety. We must make sure we do not sacrifice either one with TIF.

Neff: As I have mentioned thoughout my campaign, TIF districts are just one example of a possible solution for economic development. TIF districts can be very effective if properly executed. The only caveat I would insist on is complete transparency and that programs that rely on tax funding such as school districts are considered before approval is passed.

Wszolek: The overriding concern with TIFs is that they hurt funding to our local schools and municipal governments. I would carefully employ a “but-for” test in determining whether a TIF is appropriate: namely, a TIF should only be considered if, but for the implementation of the TIF, the economic growth would not occur. Jobs and economic growth should be a priority, but not at the expense of the local school districts.

7. The Commissioners are considering the possibility of allowing private groups to handle the operations of a new animal shelter and security at the jail. Do you think the County should privatize some departments? (75 words)

Graham: I am skeptical about privatizing county government. However, I do believe the Animal Shelter may be an ideal opportunity for this. Each case must be looked at individually.      

Poparad: I have no history on privatization. I’ve not seen any facts or figures on the subject therefore I do not have an informed opinion.

Whitten: I am typically not a fan of privatization. Without oversight, the expense to the citizens can be unbridled. However, with respect to the Shelter, I am open to a partnership that ensures that it remains no-kill, but continues to improve the treatment and adoption of the animals. I am open to options in that regard. We need to look at different staffing at the jail before making a move to privatization.

Hoffman: We must work with the commissioners to accomplish what we need to do in our county. Safety is very important on my list. If this is the best for our county, then I am all for it. Cost and jobs created or jobs lost is another faction that we need to make sure is not affected by privatizing some departments.

Neff: I do agree Porter County desperately needs an Animal Shelter and a review of the jail and a few other departments. If privatization does not increase taxes and lower the competencies of that particular department then the county should consider this option. However each county department is unique. Before allowing a private group to solicit their operations, a board of experts should be established and ensure accountability for the agency’s qualifications.

Wszolek: Public-private partnerships are a powerful and efficient way to provide services while significantly reducing the financial burdens upon the county budget. That being said, these types of partnerships when in the area of public safety, such as the jail, critically affect the core function of government and must be more highly scrutinized. These determinations are complex and need to be handled on a case-by-case basis in order to balance safety with efficiency.

8. The Council split 5-2 to partner with the Town of Chesterton on the 49 utility corridor project. Do you support collaborating with municipalities with projects of this type? (75 words)

Graham: I voted no on this project because the council was setting a precedent. This point is now moot. I will have no problems in considering other collaborative projects that promote job growth, economic development and safety in the county.  

Poparad: Economic development does not stop at city/town limits. There should be more cooperation between the county and its cities and towns. I think there has to be good communication. I look forward to spearheading that cooperation as we are all residents in the County; whether it is a city or town, everybody benefits.

Whitten: I am open to shared and joint efforts. I voted yes to the project because I strongly believe that it opened options to the unincorporated area families while improving the system for Chesterton. It is important to look toward cost savings through joint projects and shared costs. Planning is the key. With more stakeholders in the discussions, the better for the future of our county.

Hoffman: We all need to work together! I support working with municipalities, townships, etc. Porter County is a great place to live and we must maintain this at all cost.

Neff: I totally support collaborating with municipalities if it is in the best interest of the taxpayers. We have to come together as a group and provide the most efficient and best service we can for the residents of Porter County and not just our own little world. If that means we may have to invest a little money now to offset a substantial amount of money in the future, then we should get it done.

Wszolek: It absolutely makes sense for the County to partner with municipalities to support the infrastructure, to enhance the local economy and encourage job creation. This is the type of expense that either the County or the municipality would ordinarily have to bear alone, or risk lost opportunities to create jobs. These partnerships minimize the risk to each entity, and foster the necessary support for future economic growth and jobs.

9. What actions can the County Council take to preserve the quality of life in Porter County? (50 words)

Graham: We incorporated E-911 into county government and are in the process of making all county government complexes ADA compliant. We support human services with PCACS, OE and Porter-Starke. We are blessed with an excellent sheriff department and highway department. Infrastructure is being addressed. We must strive to maintain these services.

Poparad: Maintain public safety to the high standards we have now. Keep taxes low to spur companies and business to relocate. Good paying jobs will follow and that is the key to good quality of life.

Whitten: We need to promote the health and welfare of our county. We can do this by creating jobs from the hospital interest money as well as funding services we need in order to keep the county a safe environment where people want to raise their families and educate their children.

Hoffman: We need a County Council that has a purpose to work for the citizens and to do what is right for them. We need to work with the Commissioners and the other agencies of our county. The County Council can do this and we must do this!

Neff: “What’s in it for me” government has to stop. Working together with the entire county, municipalities, and cities should be the goal. As a public servant if I am going to take your tax money I better have a good reason to spend it as well as possible.

Wszolek: Quality of life has a direct relationship with responsible and limited government. Porter County’s future depends on stable property taxes, which requires fiscal discipline. The Council needs to make decisions based upon a long term comprehensive plan—NOT simply handing out money on a first come, first serve basis.

 

Posted 10/11/2012