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Council says no again to Auditor restructuring and raises

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

The Porter County Council denied 5-2 Auditor Robert Wichlinski’s request to approve staff and payroll changes in his office.

Wichlinski made the same requests before the Council in February but was told to come back when council members could get a better idea if the restructuring was working.

In the meantime, Wichlinski reduced his staff from 19 to 14 employees and changed the structure so the remaining employees could be cross-trained and perform tasks more efficiently, he has said.

The new set-up has freed up $178,356 in the County’s General Fund so far, Wichlinski said.

Council members compared the savings to how much Wichlinski is spending on consultants.

Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, asked Wichlinski how much is being paid to Hannon and Hannon for tracking homestead exemptions and what is the nature of the work.

The contract is not to exceed $90,000 annually, Wichlinski said, and the consultant calls companies and individuals around the country to find out if their property in Porter County is in violation of an exemption by asking specific questions.

Rivas asked why Wichlinski didn’t have his staff do the work in-house. “They couldn’t pick up the phone and ask questions?” he said.

Wichlinski said having the consultants allows the staff to work on other tasks and the crackdown has brought in $2.4 million.

That money has been deposited in the Auditor’s non-reverting fund created specifically for collecting back taxes and to streamline the County’s spring and fall property tax billing process.

Wichlinski said the current balance in the fund is $300,000. The fund is also utilized by the Assessor, Treasurer and the Recorder to improve services in their offices, he said.

In addition to Hannon and Hannon, Wichlinksi is paying another consultant, Jim Bennett, with a contract not to exceed $90,000 annually, to help train employees.

Council member Robert Poparad, D-at large, asked if there were any savings with Wichlinski spending up to $180,000 on his two consultants. He suggested rolling the $300,000 in the non-reverting fund back into the General Fund and hire back the let-go employees.

“A lot of knowledge walked out the door,” Poparad said, which garnered a round of “thank you’s” from employees sitting in the audience.

Biggs came to Wichlinski’s defense saying that in the wake of the County’s current budget dilemma, the Auditor is taking a leading step by cutting staff.

“We’ve told departments to come back with cuts or we will make cuts for them. (Wichlinski) has done that. We’re not going to get this straightened out by saving on paper and pencils. It’s personnel,” Biggs said.

Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, asked Biggs if he was okay with Wichlinski paying consultants $180,000 a year instead of using staff to which Biggs replied in the affirmative because they are performing a role in the office.

Council member Sylvia Graham, D-at large, said she wanted the record to reflect that she “did not tell any department head to fire people.”

Biggs added that no one the Council has said that. But Graham stated, “it has been insinuated as such.”

In regards to how well the restructuring has held up, Wichlinski said that even with fewer staff, the tax bills were mailed out one week ahead of time.

In the end, Wichlinksi’s requests - which carried salary increases totaling $34,000 - were rejected with a 5-2 vote.

Voting to deny were Whitten, Poparad, Graham, Rivas, and Karen Conover, R-3rd. Voting to approve were Biggs and Jim Polarek, R-4th.

Hospital Sale Funds

Meanwhile, McClure reported there were three responses to the Council’s request for information related to the creation of a charitable nonprofit community foundation to hold an endowment fund for the investment of the proceeds of the sale of Porter Memorial Hospital.

The Council issued the RFI last month after a joint meeting with the Commissioners on how to set up an endowment that would provide a higher return on investment of the hospital money.

Responding were the Porter County Community Foundation, the Unity Foundation of LaPorte and the Bison Financial Group of Valparaiso.

Poparad expressed disappointment over such a low number of responses and asked McClure if the deadline could be extended to the next meeting and the RFI be advertised not just locally but nationally to attract more endowment firms.

McClure said he would do so as other council members agreed.

In other business, the Council is looking at ways to control spending by holding department budgets at their 2013 levels, which was recommended by Conover. The Council’s budget specialist Vicki Urbanik prepared a detailed document explaining steps the Council could take.

The Council approved many other requests from departments such as grant funding for the Children’s Playground at Sunset Hill Farm, use of donations to purchase stainless steel cages for the County Animal Shelter, and highway funds to repair snow plows.

 

Posted 4/23/2014