Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Evans rips 'Chicken Little' group in Porter County budget debate

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Porter County Commissioner John Evans, R-North, has a brighter outlook about the County’s financial health than a few members of the County Council.

That was apparent in a statement he read during Tuesday’s County Commissioner meeting wherein he accused a “Chicken Little” group of spreading “untruthful financial information” to make the public believe that the County is facing crippling losses in its budgets.

While not naming any specific Council members, he said that the constant negativity exhibited has prevented the County from moving forward with a number of things such as the Raise the Barn activity and administration center at Sunset Hill Farm.

Evans said the County has put away enough in its reserve funds to cover cash flow and the prudence taken has made it “the envy of almost every other local government.

“I believe it is necessary to assure the taxpayers that the sky is NOT falling,” Evans said in his statement. “We do not have to borrow money. The ability of County Government to manage through this time does not demonstrate a problem with our finances. Instead, it demonstrates our strong and solid financial position.”

Evans contended that the “Chicken Little” group has made incorrect assumptions in recent news headlines, including one that claimed the County would lose $1.6 million in county economic income tax funds with the advent of a new income tax for Lake County when it turned out the CEDIT fund available to the Council and Commissioners would be reduced by only about $250,000, according the Indiana Department of Revenue.

Other instances of what Evans calls misinformation was a shortfall existing in the General Fund of $14 million. What is happening, Evans said, is that this time of year the County, as does every county in the state, awaits the distribution of the May property tax payments to replenish the fund.

“The County does not have a $14 million budget shortfall. We have a property tax cash flow challenge,” Evans said.

Evans also criticized the group for repeatedly crying out for a strategic funding plan for capital needs when, he says, a plan was already made up last year by Umbaugh & Associates. The Council members, he said, did not accept Umbaugh’s figures when they didn’t meet their expectations.

In response, two of the Council’s biggest advocates for planning, Council members Jim Biggs, R-1st, and Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, told the Tribune that the information Umbaugh gave was a first step, a status report of the County’s funds.

“The Umbaugh report on budgets was just the numbers. It was not the operations plan that we still need,” said Rivas. He said he would like for the Council and/or the Commissioners to meet with all department heads to put together a comprehensive spending plan.

Evans mentioned in his statement that Umbaugh had completed a facilities plan and rhetorically asked how many times the same plan must be prepared.

In spite of Evans’ reassurances that Porter County government is in good shape money-wise, Biggs and Rivas said they are unsure if the Council will even have the ability to balance the 2014 County budget due to the impact of the tax caps and, among other things, pending property tax refunds. Rivas said he will continue to exercise fiscal conservatism to avoid having to raise the County income tax.

“My constituents want small government. They want to keep the services they have without having to pay more,” Rivas said. “We can’t just be going by what’s the status quo. We’re governing in different times so we need to govern differently.”

Biggs said he doesn’t understand Evans’ “kill the messenger” approach or the name-calling as it pushes away from the goal of working on solutions together.

Biggs said he does not agree that the County should rely on reserve funds, including the hospital sale money, because those funds will never come back once they are used up. He said that better planning and efficiency is how to avoid that.

“There are problems but ignoring them is not helpful. They are not going to go away,” Biggs said.

Council President Bob Poparad, D-At Large, said he does not deny that challenges exist but believes they can be addressed and dealt with during the Council’s budget hearings which will start in September.

“We are cognizant of our finances,” he said. “It is what it is. We can’t change the numbers.”

Poparad said County officials will know more about where they stands when they receive the distribution numbers from the spring tax draws, which are currently being calculated by the county auditor’s office.

Council member Sylvia Graham, D-At Large, believes the Council has been “very diligent” in addressing its struggles. “I am happy that we have been able to do that,” she said.

The budget this year is going to be more challenging, Graham said, with the new medical staff at the County Jail and the new state mandate to raise the salaries of officers working in the County’s probation department. But she remains optimistic as she feels the County is moving ahead with many projects and hopes there is a chance to give pay raises to County employees next year.

“All problems can be solved with planning,” Graham said. “We will be certain to meet the challenges as they come forward, and we are looking beyond this year.”

Evans said he wishes the Council members to join with the Commissioners in “aggressively implementing” the recommendations of the County Jobs Cabinet to expand the tax base and increase annual revenues.

“Porter County is poised for a boom in economic development and job creation,” he said. “We face a very bright future.”

 

Posted 6/6/2013