Chesterton Tribune

County Council undoes six weeks of work, flatlines budget back to 2011

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By DOUG ELISH

After seven budget meetings spanning six weeks and totaling nearly 24 hours of time, the Porter County Council found itself with a 2012 budget in excess of $40 million.

It was an unacceptable increase from last year’s $35.8 million for all of the council members in attendance.

The solution was to flatline the budget to 2011’s figures. The measure, which was approved 6-0 with Karen Conover absent, erased most of the results from the second hearing sessions, including raises and the two percent bonus for county employees.

“It’s sad, but it’s reality,” council vice president Jim Biggs said. “We need to slow down and err on the side of caution. We need to get the strategic plan in place and get our arms around where all of this is going.”

The exact figures for the 2012 budget will still have to be calculated, but the total should be close to $37 million and just under the average growth estimate provided by the auditor’s office, meaning the county’s recurring expenses will not exceed the amount of money it expects to bring in.

Several council members acknowledged the healthy surplus Porter County has banked and didn’t use at this time, but refused to start on the dangerous path of budgeting in excess of the county’s income.

“I’m sure there is going to be a lot of backlash, but Porter County has always been a conservative county,” council president Dan Whitten said. “That’s how we have built this surplus. We take a lot of pride in that. And we are not going to have to go to department heads and tell them to lay anybody off.”

Two of the main culprits for applying the budgeting brakes were the huge rise in insurance costs and the E911 operational deficit.

With the 911 center running at a $2.2 million yearly shortfall and little hope for the state to provide significant relief, the council wanted to proceed cautiously. At the suggestion of councilman Jeremy Rivas, the council did create a $150,000 E911 budget in the general fund to begin to address the shortfall, which is currently being supplemented by a rainy day fund.

The county’s insurance costs, which were labeled as the “elephant in the room” on several occasions throughout the budget sessions, made a jump from just more than $5 million in 2011 to an estimated $8 million in 2012. The increase of more than 30 percent from 2011 and 227 percent since 2006 is the largest cause of the budget crunch.

The council reaffirmed its plan to hire an actuary in the near future to examine the county’s insurance situation.

Whitten said he wasn’t happy to see employee raises be cut, but said the county covering the insurance premiums without passing that cost on to the employees served as a raise in benefits.

There were a few departments spared from reverting to the 2011 budgets. Any department that decreased or didn’t change its bottom line was allowed to do any restructuring and give any raises that had been previously approved.

The animal shelter budget didn’t increase, but since it eliminated two control officers will have more money to use in 2012.

The voter registration office was also allowed to convert two part-time employees to full-time because budget decreases offset much of the additional insurance costs and 2012 is a big election year.

The council also preserved previously approved budget increases for three social services, Opportunity Enterprises, the Council on Aging and Family and Youth Services, using hospital interest money to cover the increases.

Two of the areas hit the hardest by Thursday’s decision were the Memorial Opera House/Expo Center, which was set to receive five new employees on a one-year basis, and the court system, which lost the new IV-D budget created to alleviate backups in child support cases.

“We can look at this as a glass half empty or half full,” Biggs said. “We are walking out of here making decisions very cautiously and because of that we could be sitting here next year in a real good situation.”

 

Posted 10/28/2011