INDIANAPOLIS | State lawmakers are seeking a different funding source for a proposed Lake County veterans court after a plan to pay for the program with drug use prevention funds was met by spirited opposition in an Indiana Senate committee Wednesday.
Leaders of the Lake County Substance Abuse Council told senators allowing the Lake County Council to divert up to half of their $375,000 in annual revenue to the veterans court, as envisioned by House Bill 1016, would make it impossible to continue funding local drug prevention and treatment programs, including programs used by veterans.
"While the council does support the establishment of the veterans treatment court, we do not support the funds coming from the Drug-Free Community Fund because ... it would eliminate vital services that all of our citizens require," said Amanda Morrison, coordinator of the substance abuse council.
In 2012, the council awarded 22 drug prevention and education grants to county social services groups, 10 grants to drug treatment or intervention providers and 16 awards to Lake County law enforcement agencies.
Hammond Police Lt. Patrick Vicari, a combat veteran and vice chairman of the substance abuse council's law enforcement subcommittee, said council grants have paid for equipment that has improved drunken driving enforcement, enabled police to collect expired prescription drugs and trained officers in accident reconstruction techniques.
State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, sponsor of the House-approved plan to use drug prevention funds for the veterans court, said she will work with Senate committee members this month on a compromise funding proposal that doesn't harm the important work of other agencies.
"I'm confident that we'll be able to do that," Candelaria Reardon said. "But we are failing our veterans, and this is an opportunity for us to step up and help them."
A veterans court is a type of problem-solving court where the judge works closely with veterans accused of low-level felony or misdemeanor crimes to provide access to treatment or other services that help resolve the underlying causes that sometimes drive veterans to break the law.
More than 45,000 veterans live in Lake County.
Several Lake County officials and leaders of veterans groups told the Senate committee they support a Lake County veterans court including: Marty Dzieglowicz, past commander of East Chicago American Legion Post 369; Michael Sparber, chairman of the Northwest Indiana Veterans Action Coalition; Patrick O'Donnell and Ernie Dillon of Hammond American Legion Post 168 and hosts of the "Veterans Views" radio program on WJOB-AM; Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Sheriff John Buncich.
Another supporter, state Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, said simply, "It's the right thing to do."
Porter County is one of five Indiana counties that currently operates a veterans court. It is funded with county revenue. Cook County, Ill., also has a veterans court.