Chesterton Tribune

 
 

County Council splits 5-2 over accountability for efficiency fund

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Following a contentious change in its leadership Tuesday, the Porter County Council found one more thing to disagree over.

The board voted 5-2 in favor of transferring 16 line items in the County Auditor’s non-reverting fund totaling $606,710.35 in its cash balance to “unallocated” funds.

Voting for the transfer were Council members Robert Poparad, D-At Large, Dan Whitten, D-At Large, Sylvia Graham, D-At Large, Karen Conover, R-3rd, and Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd. Members who voted to leave the fund under its current status were Jim Biggs, R-1st, and Jim Polarek, R-4th.

The Council at its previous meeting on Feb. 26 tabled a decision to move money out of the fund as Council member Robert Poparad, D-At Large, raised questions about using the fund to pay for space leased at the Portage University Center. Members of the County’s Total Quality Management team (TQM) were negotiating with the Portage Redevelopment Commission to use part of the center as a satellite location for the auditor, Portage Twp. assessor and treasurer’s offices combined into one space for a two-year pilot program at a lease of a little more than $7,000 per month.

Poparad said then the funds should be transferred to the Council’s budget so it could monitor how the non-reverting fund money is being spent and said the pilot program was the “springboard” for his concern.

The non-reverting fund was created by the Council in the spring of 2011 for the Treasurer, Assessor, Recorder and Auditor for the purposes of collecting fraudulent homestead credits and delivering on-time tax bills and services with more efficiency.

Wichlinski said the fund has generated $1,634,574.02 in its first two years. At Poparad’s request, Wichlinski furnished the Council Tuesday with a list of expenditures made by all members of the TQM team.

In discussion, most of the Council felt the move would be a step toward having more accountability.

“This is what we want and we’ve got to start somewhere,” Rivas said. “This is a process we’ve been asking for so let’s go with it.”

Biggs resisted, saying this would be a “shutdown” of the largest program in County government designed to encourage efficiency in those offices and to capture millions in lost revenue from homestead credit violations.

“There are other ways to go about this than jerking the fund away from (the Auditor),” said Biggs.

Poparad, who at the start of the meeting was voted as the Council’s new president, said “the money is not going away” and the Auditor is welcome to decide how he wants to use money by first asking the Council.

But Wichlinski after the meeting said he will not likely to request any the funds, calling the program “dead,” despite its success.

In part of the packet he gave to the Council, Wichlinski named some of the accomplishments of TQM including software enhancements to support e-Gov, integrated document management between the offices, making sure tax bills were compliant with state tax caps, TIF neutralization, mailing address reconciliation, and “Let’s Talk Taxes” meetings with the public.

“The program was working,” Wichlinski said.

Wichlinski said he is worried that the Council’s action would set a precedent that the Council can “yank” funds from any department with a single vote.

Also, Wichlinski added that he disagrees with the Council’s motion to transfer the funds saying “there is no such thing as an unallocated non-reverting fund.” What the Council should have done was advertise reducing the fund’s allocation from $700,000 or so to $0.

He said he would be checking with the State Board of Accounts and the Department of Local Government Finance today to determine if the Council’s action was permissible.

Poparad told the Tribune the Council had verified with the state before the vote that they could perform the transfer.

While not saying if the Council will continue with the objectives outlined through TQM, Poparad said the members of the Council who voted for the transfer did so to keep in check the many consultants and other services hired through program.

“When government grows, you can’t stop it,” Poparad said.

Biggs posed the question why now is the time for the Council to initiate this level of accountability when it could have done so when the program was started.

“We are the fiscal body of this County and we’ve got to start somewhere,” Whitten responded.

 

 

 

Posted 3/12/2013