The Porter County Council continued to tighten the county’s purse strings
Tuesday, in a meeting filled with tabled votes, including one for the Raise
the Barn center, and talk of need for a comprehensive operations plan for
funding “big ticket” items.
Talk of money matters began prior to a 5-2 vote to table the Information
Technology department’s request for an additional server administrator with
an appropriation of $39,000 to salaries.
IT director Sharon Lippens had made the request previously in April,
explaining that up to 66 percent of the new employee’s salary would be
reimbursed by the state as he or she would be helping the IV-D court system.
Lippens said her office has had a difficult time keeping up with requests as
new computers are being implemented at county venues, along with telephone
system upgrades at the jail.
“We just can’t take on the magnitude of projects,” Lippens said.
Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, inquired what the balance is in the
County’s general fund. County Auditor Bob Wichlinski said that “on paper the
County is $14 million in the red,” but said that does not factor in the tax
levy draws which will be received shortly.
County Treasurer Mike Bucko, from the audience, said that according to his
figures, he expects the draw to be about $104 million but had not yet
determined how that will be dispersed among the County and other taxing
Wichlinski said he would also need to calculate what the impact would be
from the state tax caps and the settlements of the thousands of property tax
appeals. He said he could get reports to the Council by its meeting next
Nonetheless, Council member Dan Whitten, D-At Large, said he would be uneasy
about granting Lippens’ request as he felt “with deep concern” the Council
needed to get a handle on money moving in the General Fund.
“We really need to start prioritizing like we’ve never done before,” he
said. “There are hits to the General Fund coming in all different
directions. We all have to be on top of our game.”
Adding to Whitten’s comments, Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, said the
County needs a finance plan which he has argued for two years. He made a
motion that Lippen’s request be delayed, at least until next meeting when
the Council can get a better picture from Wichlinski of what its finances
The matter was tabled with votes from Biggs, Rivas, Karen Conover, R-3rd,
Jim Polarek, R-4th and Council president Bob Poparad, D-At Large. Voting not
to table were members Whitten and Sylvia Graham, D-At Large.
Conover said that she would be in favor of hiring the new worker as it seems
“almost an emergency.”
Graham said requests to hire more personnel are often reserved for budget
hearings. Lippens said she budgeted for the new position in last year’s
session but it was never approved as budgets were frozen.
Raise the Barn still grounded
For reasons similar to the IT request, the Council opted not to approve $1.5
million in hospital interest money just yet for the Parks Department for
construction of the Raise-the-Barn education and administration center.
The department was just one vote short of approval for the funds at the
April 23 meeting and had hopes a majority vote would prevail this time with
all seven Council members present.
But instead, all seven voted to table.
Polarek who had supported the request the last go-around said he couldn’t
this time after reading in the newspaper that a portion of the barn
construction would be aided by County Economic Development Income Tax funds.
This he said “got under his skin” because he felt the $1.5 million would be
enough taxpayer money to go to this project.
Whitten said that despite his hope for Raise-the-Barn to be completed, the
hospital interest money is “an asset to the taxpayers” and use of that money
requires much consideration.
If he were to receive the $1.5 million, Parks Superintendent Walter Lenckos
said he would be able to advance the plans for the center and set a target
amount for the parks department to do its own fundraising. With a specific
amount as a goal, it is easier to raise funds, Lenkcos said, and there are
some large private organizations that have shown interest in giving towards
the project which has been in development limbo for the past 13 years.
Lenckos said “it’s not the end of the world” not having the $1.5 million but
said the parks department is in need of more building space as it has had to
turn away parents who want to sign their children up for summer camps.
Biggs said that he thinks the project is “a good idea” but it “doesn’t make
sense” for the Council to give to the parks department after turning down
the IT request. He said he still feels he cannot give his support in fear of
“jeopardizing” items in need of funding, such as the jail medical staffing
and the E-911 Communications Center.
“I’m asking the parks department to be patient and let us find out what
we’re going to do,” Biggs said.
Graham said she feels that Raise the Barn “is a big asset” worthy of using
hospital interest funds and would be widely used.
Rivas and Polarek said they would like for the parks department to furnish a
plan giving “black and white” details of how funds for the barn will be
used. Lenckos said he would try to get that accomplished with the park board
by next month.
Auditor’s request approved
Something that the Council did approve, although narrowly, was a bundle of
consultant contracts totaling $225,250 for the Auditor’s office to resume
its crackdown on homestead deduction violations.
Wichlinski said the majority of the 800 or so properties suspected of
violations are multi-unit dwellings. An owner can only receive a homestead
credit for the unit they primarily reside in and including the entire space
on the deduction claim form is a violation and thus they would owe back
taxes to the County.
The contracts would help with the investigation and legal representation if
owners chose to appeal their new assessments, Wichlinski said.
The request prompted a discussion from the Council on how reliant the County
should be on consultants. In a split 4-3 vote, those approving the request
were Polarek, Biggs, Rivas and Conover. Those dissenting were Whitten,
Poparad, and Graham.
In other business:
-- The Council did not vote for the $171,000 slated for employee longevity
pay which is taken out of casino revenue funds received from the state.
Poparad said the state has not yet given the County the full amount since
revenues have been down this year. The Commissioners have offered to set
aside CEDIT dollars to make up the difference, Poparad said.
-- With money available in the CCD fund, the Council approved the
Commissioners’’ request of purchasing two new vehicles for animal control
-- Sheriff David Lain introduced the board to an executive member of Correct
Care Solutions, the firm picked by him and the committee formed to help with
the search which included Poparad, Graham and County Commissioner Nancy
Adams, R-Center. Answering a few members’ questions, Lain told the Council
the new medical staff is likely to be paid initially with existing
contractual service funds and unused payroll funds.