CROWN POINT | The Lake County Council balked Tuesday at closing county parks, but voted to sacrifice $5.7 million in future highway bridge and flood control work and liability insurance coverage to begin balancing its 2013 budget.
County Surveyor George Van Til complained it would be not only illegal to eliminate the entire drainage board tax levy, but dangerous.
"We are jeopardizing many, many people and tens of millions of dollars in property," he said.
Councilman Michael Repay, D-Hammond, said the council has no choice because tax reductions have blown a $4 million hole in its next budget and councilmen haven't even begun to find money to accommodate criminal justice officials' demands for millions of more dollars.
He said a committee of three council members and Dante Rondelli, the council's financial director, came up with a series of economies that also include eliminating 13 county police jobs.
Council members said they are cutting the insurance, bridge and drainage levies with the understanding Van Til and other officials could borrow money next year while the council works on obtaining legislation to reduce tax revenue loss from property tax caps and levy freeze the state Legislature imposed on the county.
However, the special committee's plan ran into trouble when Repay moved to cut $1 million from the county parks department.
Parks CEO Robert Nickovich and Parks CFO Lawrence Klein said the cuts threaten the revenue they get from Bellaboo's Play and Discovery Center, a 23,000-square-foot facility for young children in Lake Station, which already has received a quarter of a million visitors, and the Deep River Waterpark in Merrillville, where more than 4 million have gone through the gates since 1995.
"We are the largest convention and visitor's bureau here. And you want to take $1 million from an economic engine for this entire county? You are talking about closing parks and laying people off," Klein said.
Councilwoman Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, said she and other council members had little advance warning of these proposals.
She withdrew her support for the park cuts. "We need to sit down with these department heads to discuss these matters," Cid said.
No one else would second Repay's motion or would agree to vote on police officer cuts before adjourning.
The council is set to hold two more budget workshops next week and cast a final vote on the budget Oct. 9.