Chesterton Tribune

 
 

Evans bites back: 'They're playing Russian Roulette with our budgets'

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Monday’s disputes over setting the 2013 Porter County budgets still had County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, irked at Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting.

Pausing general business, Evans read a prepared statement denouncing Council members Jim Biggs, R-1st, Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, Jim Polarek, R-4th, Sylvia Graham, D-at large, -- a group Evans referred to as the No J’s and G -- who approved a $37.9 million budget for the County’s General Fund budget.

Evans called Monday’s final Council budget meeting “a circus” and accused the four along with County Auditor Bob Wichlinski of “hijacking the budget process by passing a budget that raided (the County’s) General Fund reserves, left out the highway department and left no capacity to address the medical services and staffing challenges at the Porter County Jail.”

He likened the situation to a game of “Russian Roulette” and said “the gun is squarely pointed at our County employees.”

Evans and the other Council members President Dan Whitten, D-at large, Karen Conover, R-3rd, and Laura Blaney, D-at large, worked with a consultant on a separate budget proposal which would commit $2.5 million in CEDIT per year with a stipulation that $1.65 million in hospital interest money be given to Porter Starke, Opportunity Enterprises, Family and Youth Service Bureau and the Council on Aging. The proposal, Evans said, would have provided a surplus of $4.2 million in the General Fund, a portion of which could have been used for a $500 across-the-board raise for County employees.

“Auditor Wichlinski, and Council members Graham, Biggs, Polarek, and Rivas have imprudently refused our offer to provide four years of CEDIT funds, the longest term that is allowed by State Law,” Evans’ statement said.

Evans concluded saying the action has jeopardized funding for employee health insurance and encouraged those affected to direct their opinions to those council members. As a result of passing their budget, Evans said those members “own the actions in draining the General Fund reserve” and among other things coming up with a way to staff medical and security staff at the jail without raising property taxes.

No J’s and G give views

The County budgets passed Monday either held bottom-line figures from 2011 or if the department heads had made reductions this year. However, the “No J’s” stated their intentions that they will continue looking for solutions they feel would be more responsible for the County. They agreed to some, but not all, items in Evans’ proposal.

Rivas told the Tribune the Council will work with department heads to look for every possible way to trim their budgets without cutting services. He wishes to work with the Commissioners to incorporate more CEDIT revenues to fund Enhanced 911 (which needs an extra $2 million per year starting in 2014), hire 24-hour medical staffing at the Jail and open the third pod, which is estimated at $1.5 million.

Rivas said according to analyst’s projections the funding gap for 2014 will come to a figure between $6 million and $7 million.

Biggs had stated that although he agrees the county should use more income tax (CEDIT) and less property tax revenue in the General Fund but he did not agree to Evans’ proposal since CEDIT is not permanent and the county is taking in less property tax revenue than what it spends.

The biggest concern for the third No J had to do with the proposed annual endowment of $1.65 million hospital interest money to human services groups. Polarek said the fund as of now is gathering interest of only about $1 million per year and, if the money is needed for something else, there may be no money left for those agencies.

“What do we do in eight years?” he said.

Polarek told the Tribune by phone Wednesday that the budget passed gave the Commissioners $12.5 million which they could use to fully fund employee insurance if they wish. Part of the reason he voted against the Evans’ proposal was because the cuts it was proposing included a $250,000 reduction in the auditor’s budget for fuel and $66,000 in licensing fees to mail property tax bills.

A budget of $37.9 million is something the County can afford for certain, both Polarek and Graham said and added that the alternative plan’s final figure was over $40 million. Revenues for the General Fund are yet to be determined, but are projected at between $34.5 million and about $37 million. The plan proposed by those who voted for the budget is to make up the difference using reserve money in the General Fund from when the County had a surplus a few years ago.

Graham said it was generous for the commissioners to offer $2.5 million in CEDIT, which would be a “big help” in addressing needs at the jail, but she would like if the total $4 million in unallocated CEDIT funds could be given.

CEDIT is controlled by the Commissioners but it is the Council which decides on budgets.

Evans lashed out at the group for having a $6,000 cut in its proposal for the Veterans Service department. Graham said “it was a mistake that should have never happened” and immediately voted to restore the funding on Monday as did all Council members with the exception of President Dan Whitten, D-at large, who walked out of the meeting offended by the cut.

The No J’s and G said they wish they could give raises for employees but don’t feel it is feasible because of next year’s projected $6 million funding gap, caused in part by the state’s tax caps.

“All of us feel our employees are valuable, but this is the reality,” Graham said.

 

 

Posted 10/17/2012