VALPARAISO | The Porter County Board of Commissioners declared an emergency last week that allowed them to bypass the bidding process and hire a contractor for up to $225,000 to address water infiltration problems threatening the 119-year-old Memorial Opera House.
The county is now in a race to beat the winter weather because major maintenance work approved last year as part of a disputed $250,000 infusion of income tax revenue for the Opera House was never carried out, according to financial records requested from Porter County auditor's office.
That work, which is again targeted with the latest batch of tax money, includes roof and brick wall repairs at the building at 104 East Indiana Ave. in downtown Valparaiso.
Brian Schafer, who headed up operations at the Opera House and County Exposition Center at the time the $250,000 appropriation was approved by a 4-3 vote by the County Council on Nov. 22, 2011, said Friday he spent about half the money before he left in July for operational costs as it was designated.
He said he was in the process of gathering quotes for the maintenance portion, but finding qualified contractors was tough because of the historic nature of the building and its materials, such as the interior plaster work.
Michelle Smith, who replaced Schafer at the Opera House, said she was directed to continue spending the income tax revenue on operational costs, in part, to cover the estimated $80,000 in unpaid bills she inherited from Schafer.
"I had to bring everything up to where we could function," she said.
Smith said she has spent none of the income tax revenue on maintenance.
Just $14,626 of the funds remained as of last week, according to county records.
County Councilwoman Laura Blaney, D-at-large, who made the motion last year in favor of the special appropriation of the income tax money, said last week she was disappointed more of the targeted maintenance work has not been done.
Blaney said she had been in contact with Schafer and knew he was securing quotes for the needed work.
Blaney, who will gain more oversight at the Opera House when she takes over in January as South District county commissioner, voiced high hopes for Smith.
"We've got a good person there," she said.
Smith said the entire $225,000 in property taxes approved last week by the commissioners will be spent to correct water problems that are threatening the aging Opera House. Work will include tuckpointing brick; repairing the roof, plaster and foundation; and replacing three-quarters of the doors.
She does not expect having to come back next year for any additional funding for operations and her goal is to cover all future maintenance costs as well. The facility will support itself with money generated through ticket sales, venue rentals, fundraising and grant writing by the newly up and running Opera House foundation, she said.
County officials said at the November 2011 County Council meeting that an estimated $1 million in repairs are needed at the Opera House, yet the extent of the structural needs was not yet known.
Porter County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, said a key difference with the latest infusion of tax money is that a contractor was hired up front.
Berglund Construction, of Chesterton, was chosen from a list of three interested firms.
Evans said he believes Schafer was overwhelmed with his responsibilities of overseeing the Opera House and Porter County Expo Center.
The jobs have since been split between two people.
One of the targeted maintenance projects completed at the Opera House is a boiler repair, which was funded through another batch of money as part of related work at the nearby county museum, he said.
Funding for the Opera House has been at the center of an ongoing debate over the role of county government. Some members of the County Council have argued to keep the focus on basic government functions.
Blaney believes in a broader view of county government.
"It's a great place," she said of the Opera House. "We have to take care of it. It's our responsibility."