Most county departments unaffected by budget debate

2012-10-21T21:00:00Z 2012-10-22T12:50:04Z Most county departments unaffected by budget debateBy Bob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345 nwitimes.com

VALPARAISO | While last week's final Porter County budget hearing erupted into a raucous dispute and left a trail of ill feelings, most department heads walked away with pretty much what they asked for in 2013 -- or at least the amount of money they received this year.

The few exceptions include the Porter County Council and Porter County Board of Commissioners, who were at the center of last week's debate.

The county coroner's budget also took a big hit, but County Councilman Jim Biggs, R-1st, said the reduction was the result of an error that will be corrected.

The $38 million proposed budget approved Monday by a 4-3 bipartisan vote among council members does not include funding to address some big ticket items facing the county. Those included rising employee health insurance costs, round-the-clock medical service at the jail, the opening of the third pod at the jail and long-term funding for E911.

Council member Laura Blaney, D-at-large, said the alternative $39.9 million budget she proposed along with Council members Dan Whitten, D-at-large and Karen Conover, R-3rd, and Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, would have covered the cost of those additional items.

The insurance and E911 costs were in the rejected budget and the $4.1 million in reserve funds could have been used for the needs at the jail and provide a $500 across-the-board raise for county employees, she said.

This alternative budget proposal called for a $2.5 million contribution of local income tax revenues to ease reliance on shrinking property taxes, while the approved version relies on reserve funds.

Porter County expects to take in an estimated $31.6 million next year in property tax revenue, minus $2 million lost to tax caps, in addition to $6 million in miscellaneous revenue and $3.2 million on hand in reserve funding, according to the county auditor's office.

Evans has said Auditor Bob Wichlinski and Council members Biggs, Sylvia Graham, D-at large, Jim Polarek, R-4th, and Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, "have imprudently refused our offer to provide four years of CEDIT (County Economic Development Income Tax) funds, the longest term that is allowed by state law." He said he does not support dipping into the principal or interest from the sale of the county hospital.

"So they now own the impossible task of finding the funding for the jail staffing and medical needs without raising property taxes," he said.

Biggs, who pitched the successful budget along with Graham, Rivas and Polarek, said he did not reject the alternative proposal of using income tax revenue for the big costs facing the jail and hopes Evans puts the offer back on the table.

"He pulled it back," Biggs said.

The Board of Commissioners are charged with proposing uses for the income tax, which are then voted on by the County Council.

Biggs said he would also like to see income tax revenue used to fund the E911 and health insurance needs.

Graham, who was seen as a swing vote in the budget debate, said she voted the way she did because the $38 million budget was smaller and the alternative budget called for reducing money for fuel by $250,000. The alternative version also relied on $1.6 million in hospital interest money, which concerned her as a permanent use of that funding.

"It was a budget I knew Porter County could afford," she said. "It wasn't kicking a can down the road."

Graham said she supports the employee pay raises proposed in the alternative budget and suggested income tax revenue be used for those increases and the needs at the jail.

Whitten said the budget he backed not only secured long-term funding and the cooperation of the Board of Commissioners, but also had enough money for the big costs facing the county.

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