VALPARAISO | The Porter County Council voted 5-2 on Monday to fund the county's portion of the Ind. 49 corridor utility extension project.
After an intense discussion, the council approved a motion by member Jim Biggs to fund the project using CEDIT fund 251, which was created for county commissioners’ immediate needs in their districts, rather than establishing a separate line item.
County Commissioner John Evans objected, saying there was not enough money in the fund because it already was allocated, largely for drainage projects, and could not be reallocated. Evans received the council’s affirmation that if additional money is needed for that fund, he could return to seek approval.
Council members Sylvia Graham and Jim Polarek voted against spending $742,000 on the project, which will extend sanitary sewer and water lines south from Chesterton along Ind. 49.
Polarek said the county's share of county economic development income tax dollars should be used for residents of unincorporated areas. He didn’t vote for the measure because part of the project takes place within the boundaries of Chesterton, which already receives CEDIT funds, he said.
Graham said she voted against the project because she felt it would set a bad precedent.
Council President Dan Whitten said he had many conversations with officials about the benefits and drawbacks of the project before voting for the measure. He understood the concern about spending CEDIT funds within a municipal boundary, but said the project was calculated to benefit the region with growth in unincorporated areas.
“It’s not as if we are going to build a new clock tower in Valpo. We are investing in the future of what is currently unincorporated Porter County. That said, I don’t want to hurt the people of unincorporated Porter County and force them to annex,” said Whitten, who added it was a struggle for him to come to a decision.
Whitten asked Jeff Trout and Sharon Darnell, Chesterton Town Council members, what the project would do to Liberty Township. Trout and Darnell said the project wouldn't result in forced annexation.
Whitten said it would be an opportunity for the county to not create a tax increment financing district in the area and asked about the impact on the Damon Run Conservancy District, which serves residents of Liberty Township and the new hospital.
Damon Run Chairman Jack Barko read a statement saying people have been spreading misinformation to cast the district in an unfavorable light. The district can accommodate “a considerable level” of new utility customers, he said.
“The district is a logical provider for the area. Limiting the opportunity for the district to serve this area will inhibit the district’s ability to grow. The district is not attempting to be an obstacle to growth,” Barko said.
Whitten said Portage officials were invited to the meeting, but no one from the city was in attendance. Whitten read a letter from Portage that said the city's utilities ran at 86 percent capacity last year and officials sought a grant to expand.
“In our agreement with Portage, there is an element that says we can add allocation. As long as we have allocation and the ability to grow, we can work with the county if a suitor comes in,” Barko said.
Council Vice President Karen Conover said she felt there would be enough demand for both Chesterton and Damon Run to grow.
Damon Run attorney William Ferngren said the agreement with Porter hospital did not require the hospital to be annexed by the district, but that all other customers will have to be annexed.
Whitten said he didn’t understand this agreement, which would have reduced cost for township residents.
“I just don’t see the loss to the homeowner. They have a pretty hefty assessment to Damon Run," Whitten said. "I see the loss to Damon Run, but from the homeowner’s point of view, I don’t see the loss.”
Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority Executive Director Bill Hanna anticipated there may be a role for the RDA to play with the county in the future. However, the RDA would need more information to determine return on development, he said.