Chesterton Tribune

 

 

County Council adopts budget with raises, more jailers, deficit

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

You never quite know what next year’s county budgets will look like until the final minute. The Porter County Council closed the books this budget season with nine new jailers hired, $1,000 across-the-board raises and a deficit of more than $500,000 for 2014.

In a final vote Tuesday, the Council voted 5-2 approving a general fund budget of $38,538,570. The two members voting against were Jim Biggs, R-1st, and Jim Polarek, R-4th.

According to County Auditor Bob Wichlinski, the “conservative estimate” for revenue the County is expected to receive is in the neighborhood of $38 million, meaning the County Council may face a deficit next year.

Going into the meeting, the budget sat in the red by $1.5 million, not including raises for employees or salaries for the new hires at the Porter County Jail.

The Board of Commissioners approached the Council with suggestions based on a proposal made last week by Council members Karen Conover, R-3rd, Sylvia Graham, D-At Large, and President Bob Poparad, D-At Large, along with Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, that aimed to use leftover county economic development tax funds and included $1,500 employee pay raises.

Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, said he and his board were also willing to allow the Council members to slash their health insurance line from $7 million to $4.5 million to give them “the number they need to balance,” but it is likely the Commissioners will come back in the middle of next year to ask for more insurance funding.

The Commissioners already plan to ask the Council at their next meeting for $3 million in additionals to cover the shortfall in the insurance for this year, Evans said.

Salary Increases

An initial motion made by Conover to approve salary increases of $1,500 for all General Fund employees, excluding elected officials, was rejected by a 2-5 vote. Dissenting were Poparad, Biggs, Polarek and Council members Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, and Dan Whitten, D-At Large. Favoring the motion were Council members Graham and Conover.

Biggs said he is against approving the budget with raises because it would mean taking on additional recurring costs while there is a deficit, especially since the Council members voluntarily cut their own salaries by $1,000 to help close the funding gap. “I think it insults the process,” he said.

Biggs said deepening the debt by shelling out raises will add pressure to cut personnel or increase taxes.

Evans said employees deserve the extra pay since their out of pocket costs for health insurance will increase next year.

Whitten said he is a proponent of giving employees salary hikes but he wished to hear all options the Council has to balance the budget.

Invest for the future

Meanwhile, the Commissioners laid out suggestions of ways the County could invest and grow its existing revenues, particularly the interest accumulated from the sale of the Porter Memorial county hospital.

Blaney said that from discussions with the Porter County Community Foundation, putting part of the $159 million of the hospital sale proceeds into an endowment fund will provide an interest rate of at least five percent, meaning if the County puts in $100 million it could generate $5 million annually, which is more than what the County is receiving now, roughly $1 million per year.

“Most importantly, moving the money into the endowment the clock starts ticking right away and we start making some money,” Blaney said.

However, she said that locking the money into an endowment fund will prevent County officials from being able to touch it. She also spoke of a small percentage that would be paid back to the Foundation for managing the money.

Currently, the County has the power to spend the sale principal with unanimous votes from both the Council and the Commissioners.

Graham said she likes the idea and said “you have to invest money in order to make money.”

“It will be there for Porter County, 50 years from now, 100 years from now,” Graham said.

Whitten said he’s cautious about locking the money up and said he thinks more information is needed from the Foundation.

“We are talking about a lot of money and we are having this sprung on us,” he said. “I just don’t want to make the wrong decision. We should look at all options and determine what’s best for the taxpayer.”

Biggs echoed Whitten’s comments saying the Council needs to be “crystal clear” on what placing the money into an endowment would mean and what will be guaranteed.

“I’m hearing it’s irrevocable. That makes me nervous,” he said.

Poparad said he will see about scheduling a meeting next week to have Foundation Director Barb Young answer questions.

Polarek said he would like to hear from the Indiana Attorney General’s office if the County can legally proceed with this. Evans said his board has already checked with a law firm in Indianapolis who affirmed they would have the statutory ability.

Evans also talked about creating a “bond bank” with the hospital proceeds to loan money to other governments in the County.

“We could have had a lot more money than we do now. We need to get the investments going,” Evans said.

Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, said the Commissioners’ move to create a stormwater management board will also ease the funding crisis by initiating an equitable fee for drainage projects countywide, similar to what cities and towns have already. The new board will be able to bond for projects and free up more funds that could be used for the County’s general fund.

CEDIT tug-of-war

The discussion involved some heated exchanges between the Council and Commissioners when a few members talked about using what is sitting unallocated in the Commissioners’ CEDIT funds, which is about $7 million according to Wichlinski, for funding the operations of County government in 2014 and beyond.

“I think we are going to need it all,” Whitten said. “We are going to have to put all the cards on the table and see what comes of it.”

The Commissioners offered the Council $2 million in CEDIT over the next three years for medical costs at the jail and for Enhanced 911, but have held on to other funds for various projects.

Other members such as Graham and Poparad also surmised that further CEDIT funds will need to be considered now that the County will come close to hitting the property tax caps.

Biggs criticized the Commissioners’ management of the funds and Evans fired back saying the Indiana Statehouse voted 97-0 this year affirming that the board of commissioners is the body which develops CEDIT projects and it is the Council which appropriates the money.

“It’s a system of checks and balances,” Evans said.

Conover defended the Commissioners saying they have been “conservative,” which is why there is a large amount of unallocated CEDIT.

Rivas said the County should look for ways they can ease CEDIT spending such as leasing the Memorial Opera House. He was told however by the Commissioners that improvements to the facility have been paid out of CCD funds.

Whitten acknowledged that even though the County is in need of more revenue, the Commissioners have a duty to provide services and protect the quality of life.

Vote

Factoring out the $2.5 million for insurance, the Council’s budget and financial specialist Vicki Urbanik said the budget totaled $37.6 million.

Conover tried another motion adding the amount for the nine jailers and $1,000 in raises for all current county employees, not elected officials, which prevailed 5-2 at a budget figure of $38.5 million.

Approving were Rivas, Poparad, Graham, Whitten and Conover and dissenting were Biggs and Polarek.

The Council unanimously approved all non-general budgets except for CEDIT funds where Biggs and Polarek dissented again.

Among the budgets approved 7-0 was use of $2.02 million in hospital interest money. The breakdown includes $1 million for E-911, $50,000 for Opportunity Enterprises, $600,000 for Family and Youth Services Bureau, and $370,000 for the Council on Aging and Community Services.

To get its maximum levy, the Council had moved $700,000 of the subsidy to Opportunity Enterprises into the general fund budget.

Opening date for third pod

Later during the Council’s regular meeting, following the final reading, Sheriff David Lain thanked the Council for approving the new jailers for the jails’ third pod and said he anticipates the pod will be ready by Jan 1.

This will ease the overcrowding conditions at PCJ which the Council had been told by several agencies put the County at risk for lawsuits.

“The addition of the jailers will go a long way and protect the County from unspeakable chaos,” Lain told the Council.

 

Posted 10/23/2013