A plurality of Porter County residents taking part in a poll support the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, and a majority support the goal of regional cooperation.
However, the majority are not comfortable putting their tax dollars behind regional efforts, saying they fear a loss of control over local issues and leaders charged with spending their tax dollars.
The findings were contained in a survey of county residents conducted by Valparaiso University on behalf of The Times.
Seventy-five percent of respondents agreed, "It is a good idea to cooperate with other cities and counties in Northwest Indiana to address issues and possibly save tax dollars." About 15 percent disagreed with that statement while 10 percent answered, "Don't know."
When asked, "Do you think residents of Porter County should support the RDA?" 41.8 percent said "yes," 36.3 percent said "no," and 21.8 percent were "not sure."
But when asked, "Do you think tax dollars from Porter County should be used to support the RDA?" 45.4 percent said "no," 31.8 percent said "yes" and 22.8 percent are "not sure."
Porter County Council member Karen Conover, a Republican and RDA proponent who opposed the council's attempt to withdraw from the agency, believes a disconnect among the survey findings could be due to a lack of clearly defined economic benefits the county experienced during the RDA's first five years.
She suggested the first step in addressing the disparity in views is for officials to fill Porter County's vacant seat on the RDA board.
East Chicago, Gary and Hammond along with Lake and Porter counties each pay $3.5 million a year as members of the RDA. The RDA was formed by the Indiana General Assembly to undertake major, transformational projects in Northwest Indiana.
RDA Executive Director Bill Hanna said Thursday projects initiated by the authority have produced 1,900 trade jobs with $115 million in salaries, which has been calculated as a $430 million infusion to the local economy.
Hanna attributed Porter County residents' hesitation to commit tax money to regional projects to a misunderstanding of the funding process, from the property tax deduction provided by the county income tax that is used to cover the RDA dues to the long-term tax benefits of economic development.
He said the survey makes clear the need to promote greater awareness of these issues.
The Community Research and Service Center at Valparaiso University conducted the survey of 499 county residents for The Times. It found respondents most support the RDA's goals involving commuter rail, followed in descending order by development of the Gary/Chicago International Airport, development of the Lake Michigan shoreline and, lastly, regional bus service.
According to the survey, the longer respondents lived in the county, the less they support the RDA. Support also dwindles the more a respondent claims to know about the regional group, the survey shows.
Hanna questioned the importance of the latter finding by questioning the accuracy of information respondents claim to know. He said a lot of misinformation and personal perspectives have clouded the facts about the RDA.
The survey also found uncertainty exists around the RDA's accomplishments, especially as to whether money spent by the RDA in Porter County exceeds the amount contributed by the county.
Hanna said the county is already ahead and will have received $34 million by the end of 2012 as compared to its $24.5 million contribution.
Porter County Council President Dan Whitten, who has backed legal efforts to withdraw the county from the RDA, disputes Hanna's claims, arguing the county lost $15 million in Toll Road lease money when it was included by state lawmakers in the regional group. That loss, Whitten said, is never figured into the equation.
"Regionalism is a big word for your money going somewhere else," he said.
Similarly, while 41 percent of respondents said they believe the RDA ultimately will cost the county more than it receives, 45.6 percent were unsure. Another 43.3 percent were unsure whether RDA projects will lead to new jobs.
Underscoring the concerns and uncertainties voiced by survey respondents, 34.2 percent said they favor withdrawing from the RDA while 43.4 favor Porter County staying a member of the RDA.