Chesterton Tribune

 
 

Valpo Schools budget casts shadow over 2013 county budget sessions

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

A week ago, the Porter County Council was told it faces financial challenges going into 2013 with decreased revenue to its General Fund and higher operating costs.

However, little was said Tuesday on how the Council proposes to overcome the budget crunch as it officially commenced its yearly budget sessions with a first reading.

Instead, the Council is sweating over its new state-given duty of reviewing and appropriating the Valparaiso Community Schools budget which is also expecting a substantial shortfall of $3 million.

Leading the discussion with a full council present, County Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, said the council has given plenty of consideration to citizen concerns with a matter he said was “dumped in his lap” by state lawmakers. A law passed this year mandates that fiscal bodies of a county or city approve budgets of non-elected school board. Since a portion of the Valparaiso school district is unincorporated, the County Council must act on the budget.

The Council on June 26 passed a resolution 5-1 in support of the Valparaiso School Board becoming an elected body, which met serious opposition from Council member Karen Conover, R-3rd.

Conover, who is the Council district representative for Valparaiso, was strongly against the Council taking the stand and said the matter should be decided by the city and its citizens.

Other Council members did not feel up to the task of reviewing the school budget since none of them, with the exception of Conover, live in the school district, nor do they have experience working with school budgets.

Moving ahead, the Council on Tuesday expressed a desire to have an independent firm make an audit of the budget, but it would not be finished in time. The Council will still seek the assistance of a financial advisor and will formally invite two firms to speak at its next session on Thursday, McMahon & Associates of Munster and Crowe Horwath of Indianapolis. Also considered is Umbaugh & Associates, the same firm which is completing the comprehensive report on the county’s current finances.

“Quite frankly, we’ve got an issue here that is very complicated,” Whitten said and mentioned he and Council member Jim Polarek, R-4th, have been in contact with Valparaiso school officials. “We better understand it. There is a lot at stake with this budget.”

Conover for her part stood opposed to an audit and made mention an audit was made in February that found a few questionable items typically found in a government audit but “no improprieties.”

The Valparaiso School Corporation budget is included in the County Council’s review of 2012 municipal budgets which will be at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 25.

A petition has been circulating, with the push of some Valparaiso residents, for an elected board. Some attended Tuesday’s meeting.

While some citizens believe the question for an elected school board should be posed on an election ballot, Kevin Cornett, one of the leaders in favor of the petition, said it doesn’t work that way.

A petition, he said, “merely starts the conversation.” In order to start the process, Indiana law requires a petition to collect up to 10 percent of signatures belonging to registered voters in the school district or about 3,000.

The signatures would need to be verified by the circuit court and from there go to the city council which has the power to accept it or reject it, or do nothing with it. The city council is also the same board which appoints four of the five school board members. The other is appointed by the Center Township board.

Cornett said there would still be options for the petitioners to pursue even if the Valparaiso City Council rejects the measure. The petitioners could pressure state legislators to change the law, Cornett said, but, “It’s a long drive.”

Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, said that the law does not give the Council the authority to increase items in the budget but does however grant it the power to decrease them. Instead of passing the budget right along after the school board presents it, Rivas said the Council is to act as a checkpoint, making sure the budget is fair and holds no discrepancies – a responsibility he said he and his peers take seriously.

“We want to do what’s right for the children,” he said.

Commissioners seek more CEDIT

Tuesday also served as the Council’s regular August meeting, which moved quickly with the council approving many of the agenda items unanimously.

The Council however denied a motion to approve the County Commissioners request for a $400,000 additional to the commissioners’ county economic development income tax (CEDIT) fund for capital improvements.

Last month, the Council took $742,409 out of the fund that will go to the Town of Chesterton for the 49 corridor infrastructure project, leaving a few projects running in the red.

Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, said what remains in the fund is $275,000 to be used for drainage projects in the county’s south district, and the $400,000 needed would go to projects already started in the north and center districts.

Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, said the Council will ensure all bills get paid, but suggested the commissioners first look into using Cumulative Capital Development (CCD) funds instead of tapping CEDIT.

Replying, Adams said using CCD monies would not be feasible in this case. “They (CEDIT and CCD) have special purposes. You can’t intermingle the two,” she said.

Biggs and Whitten said the council will appropriate the CEDIT money after it takes a close look at the budgets in the next few days, identifying projects where CEDIT is most needed. They plan to hold discussions this week with Commissioner President John Evans, R-North.

Adams said it would be all right to delay the matter for a short time as none of the projects would be compromised, including the 49 corridor project with Chesterton. The town, she said, will receive its payment.

Jail questions

The first reading budget session opened the floor for public comment, which saw one lone speaker.

Ralph Levi, a retiree of the county sheriff’s department, asked if any repairs had been done at the Porter County Jail in the last year, and if so, who performed them and who paid for them.

Whitten said the question would be answered in the ensuing budget sessions. The jail budget and the County Sheriff’s budgets are slated to be reviewed this Thursday.

Although no one else came forward to speak, Whitten requested that public comment remain open for now should anyone else have something to address.

Budget hearings are starting a few weeks earlier than normal for the council to give more time to consider each budget more carefully, a process Whitten warned will be “a little more time consuming.” With stunted CEDIT revenue and circuit breaker losses, Biggs hinted last week that cuts will be coming this year.

Whitten, who had been absent from the special meeting with Umbaugh & Associates, told the Tribune he expects a few cuts but says there will be a few increases to go along with them. He feels there is no reason why the county can’t remain solvent as in years past.

“I’ve been in this rodeo before,” he said.

The council reports back to work this Thursday at 5:30 p.m. inside the county administration center at 155 Indiana Ave. in Valparaiso.

 

 

Posted 8/29/2012