Chesterton Tribune

Technology and cooperation highlight look at the future of Porter County

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Porter County elected officials and department heads on Thursday got the ball rolling on what will become the county’s comprehensive vision for the next five years.

County Commissioner John Evans, R-North, organized the informal goal-setting meeting to hear officeholders’ ambitions as county government transitions to its next phase. Looming issues include economic development, natural resources, drainage and stormwater management plans, roads and infrastructure, and corridor studies.

“The county is set for change,” Evans read in his letter he wrote to the media earlier this week.

Joining Evans in the meeting were new council members Democrat Jeremy Rivas and Republican James Polarek, outgoing Council member Rita Stevenson, D-2nd, and current Council member Sylvia Graham, D-at large.

[UPDATED December 20, 2010: A story in the Friday, Dec. 17 edition of the Chesterton Tribune incorrectly reported the Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals meets regularly twice a year. The story should have said the PTABOA meets twice a month regularly. Also, the PTABOA is not limited to two meetings per month according to how many members it has. It can meet as often as it chooses. Each board member is paid per meeting by the county so having fewer members on the board could allow more meetings to take place. County assessor-elect Jon Snyder suggested reducing the five-member PTABOA board to three members so additional meetings can be held. ]

 On the county shoulders are roughly 6,000 property tax appeals stemming from 2007 on. Incoming County Assessor Jon Snyder said he will suggest to the county council to restructure the county Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals from five members to three.

Snyder said on a good day the PTABOA can get to 200 appeals but the appeals steadily come in making it hard to catch up. He stressed the need for better communication so that those who file an appeal can be present when their case is scheduled to be heard.

“The general public needs to understand that this is like coming to court,” said Snyder.

Snyder said that with reassessment completed in July, he hopes the assessments will be more accurate which would whittle down the number of appeals.

Evans would also like to see if the PTABOA can be allowed to include the changes on property record cards so the taxpayer will not need to make further appeals.

The county has paid out nearly $3.7 million in refunds so far. County Auditor-elect Bob Wichlinksi said he wants to create an interactive system that would monitor the progress of the auditor and the assessor with the appeals for county council and commissioners.

County Recorder-elect Jon Miller said the county should be willing to utilize more technologies in its operations as many county governments are making the effort to become more tech-savvy in the age of laptops and smart phones.

Miller, who referred to himself as a “computer geek,” said he would like to make documents from his office available online to that can be accessed with a small fee. He also called for the county to fix its broken Web pages so they can streamline information to the citizens.

Evans in his wish list cites the implementation for “e-government” and said if the county is to “remain on the forefront” it will need to keep up with current technologies.

Outgoing County Clerk Pam Fish said her department has seen a 22 percent increase in case filings in recent years but has not had to hire any additional staff due the technology they are currently using.

“Technology is the key. It will be the key to operating successful, smooth offices,” said Fish.

U.S. 6 Corridor/Damon Run

Plan Commission Executive Director Robert Thompson said he expects the areas along U.S. 6 are going to grow, citing the new hospital on the corner of Ind. 49 as a catalyst. Thompson mentioned the commissioners have already approved a corridor study that will include the east border of Portage all the way to County Line Rd.

Thompson said the Redevelopment Commission has pushed the study along and suggested an economic study also be done.

Drainage board member Edwin Gutt who lives on U.S. 6 said he knows development is coming and stressed that the plan commission and the county commissioners hear the public’s view and not just the developers.

Gutt also expressed a desire to maintain open spaces surrounding the road east of the North Calumet Rd. intersection.

Following up on Gutt’s comment, county plan commission member Tim Cole said the county needs to have some study to protect the Damon Run watershed and its water quality as development will inevitably take shape.

“It is going to overwhelm us,” he said. “We need to have a definite plan to commit too.”

Cole said it is a shame that cities and towns were not involved in previous corridor studies and hopes that is no longer the case.

“We are a big family and we got work as a family,” said Cole, who urged for cooperation with the county and the Damon Run Conservancy District.

Damon Run is one of the areas cited for major improvements by the county’s drainage management project team.

Further Wish List Items:

• Mike Jabo of DLZ Indiana presented the results on the countywide drainage study with project manager Dave Burrus. As reported at last week’s commissioners meeting, the cost to patch up the top ten areas most affected by floods would be close to $10 million with another $10 million being eyed for South Haven alone. The work will be done over a matter of years. Evans said he would like to resurrect the Technical Advisory Committee to work closely with the drainage board on the improvements.

• Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel and Superior Court Judge Julia Jent said the work of the courts system is becoming more relatable to social work. Part of the “master plan” process, Gensel said, may be to give further funding to detox programs. Jent said putting defendants in correctional facilities rather than jail would be cost saving. She asked that everyone be willing to work together and think creatively of how to address changes.

• Polarek and others addressed expanding the county parks system. He would like to see more opportunities in South Porter County where people can utilize the county park systems for canoeing or kayaking along the Kankakee River. Polarek also showed enthusiasm for ramping up the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center used by the Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitors Commission which is currently in talks with the National Lakeshore on the use of the building.

• PCCRVC Executive Director Lorelei Weimer says the county should continue to make efforts to draw Indiana Dunes visitors southward into the county’s downtown districts. Weimer also has ambitions to expand the Porter County Expo Center south of Valparaiso on Ind. 49 as the “second anchor” of Porter County privy to the Dunes.

• Evans also cited his desire to expand Willowcreek Rd. in Portage to U.S. 30, possibly using hospital interest money to fund the construction. He and Polarek are also considering reviving the CR 100S safety enhancement project.

• First District County Council member-elect Republican Jim Biggs, who was away on business Thursday, told the Chesterton Tribune by phone that a comprehensive plan is needed so the county won’t fall short of its goals. On his wish list, Biggs said he wants to see policies that give the county an operational strategy to attract a well-trained workforce and to address capital improvement projects that would allow the county to deliver its services more efficiently.

Upcoming Hospital Forums

One topic not heavily discussed on Thursday was how the county should use the interest earned on the sale of the Porter hospital.

Instead, at the suggestion of Council member Biggs, the county will hold three public input sessions to gather residents’ views on how the hospital money should be allocated.

The sessions will be rotated in different county districts. The first will take place at the Portage City Hall on Feb. 14 for residents living in North Porter County. The central meeting will take place at the Porter County Administration Building in Valparaiso on March 14, and the South county meeting will be held at the Kouts American Legion Hall on April 11.

The county has accumulated approximately $9 million from the interest since the sale in 2007. In 2012 when the new hospital is completed, the county may dip into the $161 principal, but not before.

Officials also agreed that citizens can freely address any concern they please during the sessions.

 

Posted 12/17/2010