Chesterton Tribune

 

 

County facing $1.4 million deficit; Sheriff's jailers request fails

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Approving the last of the 91 County budgets for 2014 on Thursday, the Porter County Council found itself in the red by $1.4 million.

And that doesn’t take into account the $450,000 still needed to hire nine additional sheriff’s officers for the Porter County Jail.

The running total on the general fund kept by the Council’s budget and financial specialist Vicki Urbanik stood at $39,454,989 at meeting’s end, while the number aimed for was $38 million, the estimated amount available next year in property tax draws and miscellaneous revenue.

“We’re in real trouble. We’ve got to scratch our heads some more,” said Council member Sylvia Graham, D-At Large.

The Council talked of having to make additional cuts at its final reading scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 22, which may mean layoffs as the Council has trimmed budgets in all places but personnel.

But that would not solve many problems said Council member Dan Whitten, D-At Large, because department heads have already complained of being understaffed.

Fellow member Jim Biggs, R-1st, said he feels it is “imperative” that the Council holds meetings on how to invest the Porter Memorial Hospital sale proceeds from the sale of the public county hospital to shore up funds for the future as property values continue to slip. He also reiterated the need to develop a comprehensive funding plan.

Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, had pitched the idea earlier this year of placing a portion of the $160 million hospital sale proceeds into a protected endowment fund that would generate a higher rate of interest than other investment options, producing $5 to $10 million a year of additional revenue for the County.

The Council and Commissioners have yet to meet jointly to discuss the endowment but Council President Bob Poparad, D-At Large, said he will schedule a meeting once budget sessions are over.

Meanwhile, in attempts to balance the budget, Whitten said the Council should look to use more county economic development income tax money for operations.

“I think we need to put all of CEDIT on the table,” he said.

The Commissioners have already offered the Council $2 million of CEDIT to cover the jail medical staffing and the shortfall for Enhanced 911 Communications Center for the next three years.

Urbanik said she suspects there may be inaccuracies in figuring the cumulative total since nearly all the budgets approved on second reading were lower than the 2013 versions. The Council chopped $2 million out of the Commissioners’ budget alone at the start of the budget meetings.

But there were a few major increases, Urbanik noted, such as the $500,000 additional to the Election Board for the 2014 countywide elections, $173,000 more in maintenance costs, a hike in employee insurance, and mandatory raises to the adult probation department.

Urbanik, at deadline this morning, told the Tribune she added the numbers again and while she found a minor correction, the budget still has the roughly $1.4 million deficit. The Council has whittled down the proposed budget figures by more than $6 million so far, she said.

Whitten said he still hopes the Council can find some way to give pay raises to county employees.

Jail hires not approved, yet

Earlier in the meeting, the Council approved the Sheriff and Jail budgets at $3.9 million and $2.9 million respectively but never were there enough votes cast on several motions to hire the nine officers required to staff the third pod at PCJ, leaving Sheriff David Lain, and a dozen or so PCSP officers in attendance, crestfallen.

The jail budget started out with $1.2 million taken out of medical and hospital as it will be paid for with CEDIT. But the issue arose of where the long term funding would come from, since the Commission-er’s offer is only good for three years.

“If we don’t have the money to put back into this budget, what would we do?” said Whitten. “Until we’ve generated some positive money from the interest, we are not solid.”

Lain said the jail remains overcrowded and understaffed and has been that way since it opened more than a decade ago, as recent studies by the Department of Corrections and the National Institute of Corrections have indicated.

In those studies, the agencies have suggested hiring as many as 12 or more jailers, adding to the current 52, Lain said. However, nine new hires would the “bare bones” minimum needed to staff the third pod, with 109 more beds.

Lain brought with him the executive director of sheriff and county jail operations for the Indiana DOC, Kenneth Whipker, who said it would be his recommendation not to open the third pod until the County has those additional staffers in place. Nine are needed “to safely and securely man the additional pod,” he said.

If the County fails to make the hires, it faces the possibility of a takeover by the U.S. Department of Justice, where the County would be forced by federal mandate to fund salaries for how many jailers the agency feels is necessary, Whipker said. The same type of situation occurred in Lake County a few years ago, he said.

Should an incident arise where liability is concerned, the state or federal courts would not accept the excuse from the County of not having enough funding to hire jail officers, Whipker said.

PCJ isn’t the only jail in Indiana facing the overcrowding issue, Whipker said, which affects nearly 75 percent of counties.

Council member Jim Polarek, R-4th, made the motion to hire the nine officers, with Biggs seconding for discussion; but four of their colleagues were not ready to make the jump yet, saying they want to first make sure funding is available.

Voting for the motion were Polarek, Biggs and Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, while Poparad, Graham, Whitten and Karen Conover, R-3rd, were opposed.

“I can’t vote for something if I don’t know where our budget stands,” Graham said.

Poparad and Conover said they don’t disagree with hiring the new jailers but they’d rather vote when the Council is ready to adopt the final 2014 budgets.

Whitten said even if the new jailers are brought on, it will not solve the problem of overcrowding and said the County should be taking a longer view of how to reduce the inmate population. As Lain mentioned, the jail is so overcrowded that there will not even be enough beds with the third pod open.

“We could do that and still have the problem. We need a bigger plan of how we are going to solve this,” he said.

Biggs agreed this is a “two-chapter book” and the County needs to get more aggressive with implementing ways to lower the number of inmates.

“There is no magic bullet here,” Biggs said. “We are delaying the inevitable. Not making a decision now is going to be far more expensive. We know we have to come up with the money.”

From the floor, Evans made the suggestion of putting together a blue ribbon panel of Council members, Commissioners, and County Corrections officials to develop measures to keep more low level offenders out of the jail and in home monitoring and similar programs instead.

As for opening the third pod physically, Evans said the money is available from a jail refinance bond fund.

Lain said after the vote that he had hoped the Council members would have done more due diligence, since the issue of what is needed at the jail has “been studied to death”, adding for years he has been making them aware of the overcrowding situation.

Safety at the jail is becoming a more pressing issue for both inmates and staff, Lain said. He showed the Council a picture of a written note by one of the inmates threatening to throw urine at the jailers.

“This is what we are faced with every day,” Lain said.

Rivas, near the end of the meeting, made a second motion to hire the additional jail staff. That motion also failed, yielding the same results as the previous.

CEDIT

As for the other budgets Thursday, the Council approved each individual CEDIT plan from the Commissioners which often resulted in split votes.

One of those splits was over the CEDIT plan for capital improvements, which traditionally include $200,000 for land acquisition for the County Parks each year. The Council stripped the line item for land acquisition as the Parks Dept. currently has over $600,000 in its account to make land purchases.

Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, said the Parks department is looking to purchase land somewhere in the southern part of the county and said that $600,000 should be adequate to make that purchase.

The Council voted to approve the fund minus the parks item 5-2. Dissenting were Polarek and Rivas.

Drainage projects out of CEDIT were also reduced from $900,000 this year to $720,000 for 2014.

 

 

Posted 10/4/2013