Chesterton Tribune

Council split 4-3 on funds for Opera House rehab

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

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 Enhanced 911.

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 county.

“It’s a Porter County venue. We want to see Porter County support this,” said Schafer.

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 bookkeeper.

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.

“Actuary”

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 plans.

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 Conover dissented.

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.

 

 

Posted 11/23/2011