“We’ve got some big decisions to make,” said Porter County Councilwoman
Karen Conover, R-3rd.
She’s right; those decisions measure up to more than $9 million in interest
money coming from the county’s sale of Porter hospital four years ago.
Last night began the first in a series of three public input sessions hosted
by the Porter County Council on the potential use of interest money to
improve the quality of life within the county.
“This is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Porter-Starke
Services CEO and President Rocco Schiralli, one of the fifteen speakers who
approached the council during the meeting.
In his opening remarks, Porter County Council President Dan Whitten, D-at
large, told the audience the purpose of the meetings was to get a dialogue
going with “stakeholders” -- who he would define as everyone who lives and
works in Porter County -- in order mull ways to enhance the county
economically or physically.
“We’re going back to brainstorming and getting the ball rolling on this,”
said Whitten. He repeated his original intention of putting off these
conversations until construction had begun on the new hospital at the
northwest corner of U.S. 6 and Ind. 49 in unincorporated Liberty Twp.
Schiralli was the first in a group of healthcare professionals who plugged
the idea that a portion of the money should be used to boost both physical
and mental health services for residents. Schiralli said nearly a quarter of
the population suffer from behavioral health problems and would benefit
significantly by having these healthcare services available to them.
“Nothing is more important to our community than the health care of our
citizens,” said Schiralli.
Requests were made that the county keep the sale principle amounting to
$160,909,512 untouched. One such request was made by Dick Wathen who was
chairman of Porter Hospital Board during the time the hospital was sold to
Community Health Systems. Wathen recommended half to be used for healthcare,
since that is where the money came from originally, while a portion should
be invested back into the principle.
Having heard speculation the council is considering purchase of more space
and creating a human resource department, Porter Hospital board trustee and
pharmacist Jim Spanopoulos said the money should not be used to create more
government. He instead would like to see more focus on substance abuse
programs, helping the North Shore Health Center, assessing homeless shelters
and care for seniors.
Porter Hospital cancer specialist Dr. William Nowlin said the county has a
higher number of cancer diagnoses than most. Last year, the hospital saw
over 100 new lung cancer cases, 123 breast cancer cases, and about the same
for colon/rectum cancer cases.
Nowlin hopes the county can look at finding services to get patients to the
Tying into health related discussions, a few speakers called for changes to
improve air and water quality.
Walt Breitenger, president of the Valparaiso Chain of Lakes Watershed,
echoed Nowlin’s comments that Porter County residents are at greater risk
for cancer and believes it is linked to the high number of pollutants.
“Indiana ranks 49th (in the nation) in environmental quality,” said
Breitenger said providing clean air and water can also reduce healthcare
costs for county residents.
Green initiatives could also result in more jobs, some speakers felt.
“I’d like to have a greener, safer Porter County,” said Dr. Christopher
Wirsing, a trustee on the Porter Hospital board.
Cancer was not the only concern discussed. Pine Twp. Board member Tom
Lipinski called for the county to provide warning systems for tornadoes
throughout the unincorporated areas just as there are in towns and cities.
Many speakers said they would second the Porter County Parks Department’s
request that money be set aside to improve park location sites north to
Porter County Parks Superinten-dent Walter Lenckos said he would appreciate
if the council could restore the parks’ annual budget which saw a two
percent cut made in 2008.
Lenckos hopes to use the additional money for youth-based programs and
programs designed for older adults -- the county’s fastest growing
Speaking as “a private citizen,” retired Chesterton School teacher Ralph
Ayres said Porter County government should appoint an economic development
director to serve as a “go-to person” for those inquiring about jobs in
Porter County, similar to those who exist typically in the municipalities.
Ayres felt his proposal would not be a huge expense to the county since it
would essentially be done by one person rather than a department.
The Tipton County economic director is one example Ayres gave highlighting
the benefits this person could bring. The individual would be useful in
working with local chambers, he said.
“We’ve got a great place to live. We can make it a great place to live and
work,” said Ayres. “It’s a great four letter word: jobs.”
Whitten said to Ayres there is a sub-committee taking shape now to look at
the possible implications of creating a branch or position for economic
County Auditor Robert Wichlinski and County Treasurer Mike Bucko formally
reported all the funds associated with the hospital sale.
Bucko said approximately $1.2 million in interest was made in 2010 but that
is still locked away in investment. The total amount of interest available
for use is $9,043,610.
Bucko explained further investment options to the council but added that
interest rates have dropped in the years following the sale. However, Bucko
said he will continue to look for more “robust” investment opportunities.
Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce member Rex Richards complemented the council
on managing to be fiscally conservative and encouraged the council to
leverage the funds to maximize the proceeds to bring additional dollars to
the county instead of spending them.
Whitten took pride in the fact the council has been solvent and said he
would like to keep the $160 million as a buffer to provide comfort.
Whitten said he would consider a portion of the money put into investments
but would prefer that some money be spent out rather than be used by the
county for operating costs believing the county already has the ability to
fund itself. Whitten asked the council to take a “global” perspective.
“We need to think bigger and larger and more creative than we have,” he
Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, said he would like to see a small
portion go back into the principle and suggested requests should be
submitted through a transparent application process.
Fellow council member Jim Polarek, R-4th, said if the money is given out, it
should go to benefit the whole county.
All four council members present vowed not to tap into the principle, which
cannot be done without a unanimous vote from both the council and the county
Most speakers applauded that intention.
“It took many generations to build that asset. We hope that is preserved for
generations to come,” said Barb Young, president of the Porter County
Whitten said some interest money could also be used to improve the failing
drainage systems and highway repair which could also improve life in the
The council will convene next on Monday, April 11 at Kouts American Legion
to take more suggestions. Another will take place on May 9 at Portage City
Hall. All meetings start at 6:30 p.m.