Fans of the county’s Memorial Opera House cheered at Tuesday’s Porter County
Council when a small majority of council members made a close vote to secure
$250,000 for renovations.
The costs will go to purchasing a new boiler for the 118-year-old facility
and repair the roof and cracked ceiling.
About a dozen supporters turned out for a vocal debate amongst the council
members who made it clear they were split in supporting the arts in a time
of financial crunch.
Council Vice-president Jim Biggs, R-1st, was the most vocal member in
challenging the request to use county income tax revenues when the county is
facing funding obstacles such as the $2 million projected shortfalls for
Biggs got Opera House Business Director Brian Schafer to admit the budget
for the venue has increased each year since 2007. With the total budget now
set at $411,185 for 2011, it even tops the money set aside annually for the
animal shelter ($356,101) and general courts ($303,994).
Schafer said the budget has increased but the venue has made back the money
each year through ticket sales and revenue. He expects the facility to be
self-sufficient again in 2012.
Due to the size of the request, Biggs felt the venture was too risky to give
his consent even though the opera house has proven successful each year.
“I’m not going to take public money and gamble it on a hunch,” said Biggs.
Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, said he is for small government and in
his opinion the county should not be running an entertainment business.
On the other side of the table, Councilwoman Laura Blaney, D-at large, who
wrote a column this week touting the benefits that arts bring to the
community, said the Opera House has been a strong economic tool for the
county and patrons have given their business to local restaurants and shops
in the downtown Valparaiso area.
Schafer said 45 percent of the ticket holders are non-residents of the
“It’s a Porter County venue. We want to see Porter County support this,”
All council members expressed confidence in Schafer’s managing ability. He
also oversees daily operations of the Porter County Expo Center.
The $250,000 taken from CEDIT funds for renovations will alleviate the
pressure in the Opera House’s general budget to hire three full-time
employees: a marketing and group sales director, a house manager and
Schafer announced the positions in June and won approval from the council
originally in the first half of the county’s budget hearings for 2012 but
were rescinded when budgets were ordered to be flatlined.
Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, said $1 million in renovations
were made to the Opera House and the sealer used on the brick has caused
further structural damage. Evans suggested using part of the grant to
further decide what upgrades are needed for the facility.
“We’re going to have to keep this in check or we are going to lose this
gem,” said Evans.
In the final 4-3 vote, Blaney, Conover, Council President Dan Whitten, D-at
large, and councilwoman Sylvia Graham, D-at large, agreed to the grant while
Rivas, Biggs and Jim Polarek, R-4th, cast dissenting votes.
Biggs requested the Opera House supply a sheet giving the breakdown of how
the CEDIT money will be spent.
Council members also gave the same 4-3 vote to the $1.5 million additional
needed to cover this year’s insurance costs for county employees. Prior to
the vote, members discussed the need once again to consult an actuary on why
costs have escalated and what direction the county should be taking its
Insurance costs spiked more than 30 percent, and members believe it’s linked
to a high number of claims filed this year.
The council has compiled a list of names for potential consultants but said
it would be wise to make sure the actuary sought is not someone who also
sells health insurance.
Polarek said he held a phone conversation with one of the men from the list
and believes him to fit the criteria of what the council is seeking, but had
not completely confirmed the man’s status as an actuary.
Biggs, Rivas, and Graham agreed with Polarek to proceed in using the
individual approach on behalf of the council while Whitten, Blaney and
All members agreed, however, to another name on the list that has affirmed
to being an actuary and not an insurance salesman.
In other news, E-911 Communications Director John Jokantas reported the
money needed to implement a new radio system in parts of the county will be
significantly less than what he originally thought.
The center has received an $895,000 price tag from Motorola to purchase the
system and equipment.
Next Meeting: The council will not be meeting in December. It will hold
its reorganization meeting Jan. 5 at 5:30 p.m.