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Porter County Council takes early vote to approve Opera House budget

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Porter County Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, raised a few eyebrows on Tuesday from his own board when he asked for a motion to vote on approval for the 2013 budget for the Memorial Opera House.

The council has been holding off votes on second readings during its budgeting sessions this year until the end for the purpose of deciding budget changes once the council gets a public look at all budgets. This approach is to avoid last year’s hubbub when the council ultimately flattened budgets even after approving several raises during second readings.

But the case with the Opera House was apparently important enough for Whitten to make an exception, a show of support for the arts.

The council clashed 4-2 approving the motion with members Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, and Jim Biggs, R-1st, dissenting as they both contended the board should follow its set protocol of handling budgets. Those saying “yea” were Whitten, Laura Blaney, D-at large, Karen Conover, R-3rd, and more reluctantly Sylvia Graham, D-at large, who felt protocol should not be broken but attributed her vote as an endorsement for the arts.

Absent from the meeting was Council member Jim Polarek, R-4th.

A growing tension surrounding the opera house unfolded from news stories reporting the Indiana State Board of Accounts cited in an audit inconstancies within the 2011 budget when it was manned by its former business manager Brian Schafer. Council members said they had received an abundance of e-mails this week from supporters of the Opera House asking them to keep the facility open, even though no county official has made any remarks that it will be closed.

Before the vote, the venue’s new interim director Michelle Smith presented the Council with her proposed budget that included many reductions. The Opera House had been scheduled for a review by the council on Sept. 17 but Smith was absent.

The budget shows reductions in the amount of full time staff from four to two (just manager and creative director), advertising, contractual services and costumes. The total budget estimate is $420,000 or $96,000 less than last year.

Smith had told the Tribune earlier she plans to use volunteers to help with theatrical productions and is reactivating the Opera House’s Foundation to get grants and donations for maintenance and purchasing equipment.

The Council in the past has split on payments to the Opera House, a 4-3 vote in November for $250,000 on building maintenance and another in January for two new staff positions. Each included a lengthy discussion of whether or not the county should fund the facility as an entertainment business in a time when the county faces funding issues such as operating its 911 communications system and health insurance for employees.

One of the critics, Biggs, said he had met with Smith earlier on Tuesday and said he was “very impressed” with the new direction. He and Rivas said they would support the budget at final reading.

Whitten after the meeting said his peers would be apt to change their feelings about the Opera House budget if they waited until the eleventh hour. The final budget night will be “nothing less than a Wild West show,” he said.

“There is a going to be lot of discussion. We have 90 some budgets to go through,” said Whitten.

Biggs, Graham, and Rivas said they are “doing their homework” in thinking about how to fund measures such as the third pod opening at the Porter County Jail and operating E-911 while working with less in the General Fund which is largely generated by property tax. The group feels it can do more with the available county economic development income tax (CEDIT) money as suggested by the financial consultants Umbaugh & Associates.

“Although it might not seem so to some, we are light years ahead of where we were this time last year,” said Biggs.

Final Budget reading is scheduled for Oct. 15.

ADA transition plan

In other business, up to $150,000 in CEDIT could be paid to American Structurepoint of Indianapolis for completing a preliminary stage of updating every piece of county property to meet the requirements of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

County Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, said it has been mandated for all local governments to comply with putting forth a plan by the end of the year to ensure that every county building, sidewalk and roadway meets ADA standards.

The risk of non-compliance is losing eligibility for federal highway money, she said.

The commissioners sought bids about two months ago and chose American Structurepoint because their offices were closest to the county.

Hesitant to commit to such a large amount off the cuff, Council members asked if representatives from American Structurepoint could attend an upcoming Council meeting to discuss how they will perform the study, but approved the measure because of a time crunch.

“That’s a lot of money,” Rivas said. He and other members expressed frustration with the Commissioners for not letting the Council know of the costs sooner.

Adams said the new regulations have been talked about for a few years but it wasn’t until recently that the county found out the upgrades had been mandated.

“All counties are scrambling to get this done,” she said.

The actual cost of the project would be closer to $120,000 or less as the county plans to do some of the work in-house, Adams said.

School Budget public hearing draws no comments

Tuesday was also the Council’s night to give non-binding reviews to the township trustee and civil town 2012 budgets which they passed quietly.

Three of the budget were however binding – the Porter County Public Library, the West Porter Twp. Fire Department, and the newest budget to come under County Council scrutiny, the Valparaiso School Corporation.

The latter has been the subject of much discussion among the Council, but it seemed no one else wanted to discuss it. Although many Valparaiso City Council and School Board members sat in on the meeting, no one spoke up when the council opened a public hearing.

A new state statute requires that the county fiscal body sign off on any budgets of an appointed board.

The Council will however will be given a presentation of the school budget by the Valparaiso School Corporation at a special meeting next Monday at 5:30 p.m. at the Porter County Administration Building.

In another matter, Biggs asked for County Auditor Bob Wichlinski to make reports available to local units of government regarding the impacts of the state circuit breakers and property assessment appeal refunds. He asked that the reports be made available on the county’s website, www.porterco.org

 

Posted 9/26/2012