Doug Ross has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 30 years, including more than two decades at The Times of Northwest Indiana, where he is the Editorial Page Editor.
Doug is an elder at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Valparaiso and is on the board of the Indiana Center for Evidence-Based Nursing Practices
Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin is running for re-election, but she's not running from controversy. Neither should Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
Elgin met Thursday afternoon with The Times Editorial Board to address criticism — by me, among others — over township spending.
Elgin was spotted using her township-owned vehicle to visit her campaign headquarters. That raised all sorts of questions about the township's fleet.
The fleet has shrunk dramatically since Elgin took office 11 years ago. But cutting spending remains urgent.
The township is under the gun to reduce spending on poor relief to no more than 12 times the state average. If not, Griffith could hold a referendum on seceding from Calumet Township. That would ease the tax burden in Griffith but exacerbate it elsewhere.
Between property tax caps and the incredibly low property tax collection rate, hitting that target is harder than it looks.
Calumet Township has to ask for twice as much as it expects to collect because the tax collection rate is so low. That's a rare problem in Indiana.
Elgin is suing Indiana to set aside this state law.
She makes a good argument in saying the township needs more guidance from the state in determining eligibility for assistance.
"The statute says every 30 days they're eligible, but the state says we do too much," she complained.
She said each intake interview with a client to determine eligibility takes 45 minutes. That's 60,000 man-hours a year for Calumet Township, she said.
It's also an opportunity for Pence.
Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels tried to streamline the welfare intake process by hiring IBM to handle it. It was a failure.
When IBM was gearing up, though, it turned to Calumet Township for advice, said Alex Wheeler, who heads the township's Job Search Works program.
Pence could capitalize on this situation. He should appoint a blue ribbon panel to study welfare in its various forms, including township assistance, with an eye toward making the process more efficient.
Daniels did that for local government reform. Not all of the Kernan-Shepard recommendations were implemented, and I'll keep reminding both elected officials and the public about the remaining reforms Indiana needs.
But that report did set the bar for reform, which is what welfare — everything from urgent rent and utility bill assistance to health care bills — needs.
One of the outcomes of a comprehensive welfare study should be to shift the township assistance tax burden from the township to the state. Calumet Township, with its concentrated poverty, is the poster child for this.
This blue ribbon, bipartisan panel could be Pence's opportunity to shape the future of welfare in Indiana for the next generation. What an appropriate way to honor the state's bicentennial in 2016.
We're all in the same boat when it comes to civil rights, but some of the passengers are paddling backward.
I'm referring to state lawmakers promoting pro-discrimination legislation.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed legislation Wednesday that would have allowed people to use their religious beliefs as a defense against discrimination claims.
In Indiana, state Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, attempted Wednesday to allow employers to use religion as a factor in determining who to hire.
That runs counter to everything I've heard about American employment practices, beginning with my undergrad business law class at Purdue North Central. There are certain questions that should not be asked at a job interview, and questions about religion are absolutely verboten.
What Boots proposed, what the Arizona legislators proposed, was to turn back the clock and allow discrimination that currently is illegal, not to mention unconstitutional.
If any of these proposals eventually become law, legal challenges will be inevitable.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged his state counterparts to not enforce laws that go against their beliefs. Holder, who is African-American, said he wouldn't have defended a "separate but equal" law in court.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller took the opposite tack, saying he defends laws he doesn't believe in. He cited capital punishment as an example. He's opposed to it, but his staff attorneys routinely make the state's case for applying the death penalty.
If Boots gets his way, Zoeller would be put in the position of defending an unconstitutional law that supports discrimination.
I'd like to think our society has come a long way since segregation was routine. I shudder at the thought of encouraging, rather than forbidding, businesses to discriminate against a group of customers based on their color, ethnic origin, creed or religion.
This isn't about religious ceremonies. That's different. This is about equal rights, not equal rites.
What our nation needs is unity, not division. The laws proposed in Indiana and Arizona and elsewhere must be denounced loudly.
It wasn't long ago that the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. We've come a long way since then. But for as much progress as we've made, there are still people like Boots who are paddling in the opposite direction.
Speaking of tolerance, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. used Twitter and Facebook as anti-social media Thursday morning.
Thursday's editorial on the city settling a lawsuit with ousted Hammond Housing Authority Director Maria Becerra prompted a classic unfiltered rant by McDermott on Twitter and Facebook.
The mayor's skin is awfully thin for someone who aspires to higher office.
McDermott's rant, while entertaining, was wrong about the diversity of The Times staff, both racially and geographically. We have staff members who live all across the region, including in the urban area.
Even as Chicago and Illinois talk about their legacy costs, meaning overly generous public pensions, Gary and Calumet Township are dealing with their own legacy of past poor decisions.
In her 2013 State of the City address, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson tried to put a good spin on the city, but she began by acknowledging what she inherited when she took office.
"Shortly after our first day, a number of federal agencies set meetings to tell us that the city was out of compliance with a variety of rules and regulations," the mayor said.
"At the Gary Sanitary District, representatives of the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management convened to talk about the Clean Water Act and convince me that I could not do what others had attempted to do for 20 years. At the Gary Housing Authority, HUD arrived to announce that they were prepared to take over the agency because our vacancy rate was too high and our waiting list too long," she said.
Some mayors' ideas of turning their cities around amounts to fine-tuning compared to what Freeman-Wilson faces with Gary. But she's working on it.
To her credit, she's also recruiting help. In this year's State of the City address, she had a strong message to those who sit on the sidelines instead of pitching in to help the city.
"What are you going to do?" she asked on Wednesday. "Will you continue to place side bets or do your part to get in the game?"
That's an inspiring attitude. How very different from what's happening with Calumet Township.
Township Advisory Board member Clorius Lay sued Trustee Mary Elgin to stop her from allowing certain employees to take home township-owned cars.
Elgin said there haven't been any take-home cars since she ordered four 2004 Ford Taurus cars parked last July amid criticism of township spending.
But why did the township have take-home vehicles in the first place?
Even as Elgin contends with Lay's lawsuit, she has filed one of her own. Elgin is suing Gov. Mike Pence in federal court to stop enforcement of a 2013 state law that requires the township to reduce the property tax rate supporting poor relief to less than 12 times the state average.
The township's tax rate has been as high as 22.6 times the state average for townships.
Calumet Township's administrative costs are 37 percent of of the total budget. Would you give money to a charity with overhead costs that high?
If Calumet Township doesn't bring its spending under control, it could lose Griffith, a major portion of its tax base.
It's fascinating, and instructive, to see how Freeman-Wilson and Elgin are responding to the legacy of excessive government spending. Freeman-Wilson is being creative in getting others to partner with the city on big projects while cutting city spending. Elgin has been cutting township spending since she took office, but she's giving up too soon.
It isn't easy, it isn't painless, but those cuts have to be made anyway.
The weather didn't reflect it, but Valparaiso had its own Arab Spring moment last weekend.
Shut down by the Valparaiso School Board, which didn't want to hear residents' concerns about a plan to send Chinese students to Valparaiso High School, the resident uprising took to social media to complain.
Those tweets, posts and other messages often contained inaccurate information, but that can happen when the official sources shut people out.
Here's how the story played out. Lumenus USA, a local company, already had received the School Board's blessing to place up to 30 Chinese students in the 2015 graduating class to get those students better acclimated to American culture even as they hone their English skills. The students then likely would enter Valparaiso University.
It was a good plan. It should be revisited after a new school superintendent is hired.
The school system would be paid full tuition by Lumenus and the Chinese students would be eligible to participate in all school activities except sports — and that was because the Indiana High School Athletic Association had not yet given its approval.
The Chinese students would benefit from interaction with Americans, and the Valparaiso residents would benefit from the exposure to the foreign students.
After the School Board approved the plan, with little notice, the public had many questions about it — especially about crowding at the school, the effect on their children's class ranking and access to advanced placement tests.
So students and adults attended the Feb. 6 School Board workshop to learn more and to express their concerns and fears, many of which could have been quelled with a frank recitation of the facts.
But the board didn't want to listen to them. Board President Mark Maassel said only comments about the superintendent selection would be accepted at last week's meeting. Comments about the Lumenus contract would have to wait until Feb. 20, he said.
That was the wrong thing to say. He effectively shut down members of the public who wanted to voice their concerns through the proper channels.
Complicating the matter is that the Valparaiso School Board members are appointed, not elected, and that Mayor Jon Costas owns an 11 percent stake in Lumenus. Costas doesn't appoint members, but his political influence on the City Council must be noted.
If the board members were elected, perhaps they would more easily recognize they are accountable to the public, rather than the City Council or Center Township Advisory Board members who appoint them.
Lumenus withdrew its proposal Monday morning following a weekend firestorm on social media.
If the School Board had listened, the residents wouldn't have had to throw a social media tantrum.
The Chinese students won't be learning at VHS, unfortunately, but it could still become a teachable moment for the School Board. Listen to the public before making decisions, and respect the public's concerns.
If you're worried about footing the bill for eliminating the personal property tax for businesses, your misery has company.
A new report by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute shows how much Lake County could be affected by this proposal.
Gov. Mike Pence has proposed eliminating this tax but left it up to the Indiana General Assembly to figure out the ramifications. And for Lake County, that impact could be huge.
Eliminating a tax is easy. Figuring out how to provide the services that tax previously funded isn't easy because it means figuring out who gets stuck with the tab.
Pence wants to eliminate the tax, but he also doesn't want it to be onerous for private citizens. I'm still trying to figure out how that could be accomplished.
As economists John Stafford and Larry DeBoer noted in the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute report, personal property is mainly business equipment used to produce an income. For a steel mill or refinery, that's close to the entire value of the mill.
Further complicating all this is the constitutional cap on property taxes. If property tax rates rise in Lake County and elsewhere to help businesses reduce their tax burden, more homeowners and others would hit those tax caps. That would make it even harder for local government to recoup that lost revenue.
Further complicating the issue is that the personal property tax burden isn't spread evenly throughout the state.
Lake, Allen, Marion and Vanderburgh counties by themselves account for 29 percent of all Indiana revenues from this tax, the report explains.
Eliminate this tax, and those counties are hit hardest.
Lake County alone would lose an estimated $109 million a year (17.5 percent of county property tax revenue). Porter County would take a $25 million hit (13.4 percent).
The burden could be shifted onto a local option income tax, but that's onerous for private citizens. Businesses aren't subject to that tax.
Separate House and Senate proposals to abolish this tax are moving forward, but the solution for replacement revenue still isn't palatable.
A better solution might be to offer long-term abatement for new personal property. That would have the effect of encouraging additional investment even as the state acknowledges concerns expressed by businesses, especially manufacturers, about this tax.
It also would avoid the necessity of making Hoosiers pay for a major business tax break.
Indiana is already business-friendly. It doesn't need to become business-intimate at the citizens' expense.
Mayor Jon Costas and his administration have brought significant improvements to Valparaiso by creating a business plan for the city, presenting it to the citizens, tweaking it as needed, and sticking to it.
In his State of the City address Tuesday, Costas spoke of his administration's past accomplishments.
Roundabouts, of course, are right up there on his list. Valparaiso was the first city in Northwest Indiana to adopt roundabouts as a solution to poor traffic flow at troublesome intersections.
Costas jokingly referred to roundabouts as "those ubiquitous circular shrines of vehicular tranquility." You either love them or hate them, and Costas has gotten an earful.
The new roundabout at the city's five-points intersection — where Vale Park Road, Roosevelt Road and Calumet Avenue meet — is the latest, but not the last, example.
"Now that the roundabout has been at work for almost two months, the only vocal complaint I've gotten is that there aren't enough lights on the big spruce that lives there," Costas said. "I have to admit I was a bit relieved to see it not just worked, but it worked very well."
The roundabouts are a symbol of the Costas administration, and not just because of the number of them installed during his tenure.
Driving in a roundabout is confusing to people who are accustomed to driving in a straight line, waiting for the stoplight to turn green, then proceeding. But not everyone is patient. Some are in a hurry to get where they're going.
I mean that figuratively, not just literally.
When I was younger, I was stymied as I was trying to exit the parking lot at the Arie Crown Theatre in Chicago. I wondered if the traffic rules had been suspended for the evening. Then I got great advice: Aim for a newer car, and you'll go forward.
That advice generally works for driving in a roundabout, too.
When you think about it, aiming for something new isn't such a bad way to lead a city.
I enjoy the new downtown park Costas' administration created. Valparaiso's downtown, in part because of the park, is vibrant again.
I'm looking forward to the park's expansion, beginning later this year. Costas, one of the best mayors in the region, is focused on continual improvements.
Linear thinking, and not just at intersections, goes only so far. It takes a creative spark to turn things around, which is why Valparaiso has so many roundabouts.
For Valparaiso, it all began with a business plan for the city when Costas first ran for mayor. He knew where he wanted to take the city, and he has taken it there.
Now it's time to look deeper into the future to see what else can be accomplished.
This time, though, the planning is being led by citizens. That's a smart move.
This is a model every city and town in the region should follow.
This week's theme, apparently, is taxes on businesses. Along with the continuing discussion in Indianapolis over personal property taxes for businesses, there has been discussion of other business taxes.
MONDAY: U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly urges lowering the corporate income tax rate to about 25 percent.
WEDNESDAY: U.S. Sen. Dan Coats also proposes lowering the corporate income tax rate as part of his 2014 legislative agenda.
THURSDAY: Rex Richards, president and CEO of the Greater Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce, says the tax burden on Indiana businesses has been increasing.
The top U.S. corporate income tax rate is 35 percent, said to be the world's highest. The reality, though, is corporations pay about 17 percent, on average, in part because of all the loopholes Donnelly and Coats want to eliminate.
Why would a business support a proposal that would increase its tax burden? Because then it'd know where it stands.
Donnelly spoke of AT&T's CEO telling him, "Look, what we want is certainty for a couple of years. Right now there's more cash on the sidelines with American businesses than in any time in history."
It's as if we were at a high-stakes poker table, and every one of the gamblers is afraid to place a big bet. Except in this case, that big bet isn't a stack of poker chips. It's a major investment in machinery, a new location or other business expansion, or some other business investment that translates into a lot of new jobs.
And jobs are what this economy needs to move the needle from slow to fast.
Coats, a Republican, and Donnelly, a Democrat, don't appear to be far apart on the numbers. Coats' 2011 legislation called for a flat 24 percent corporate income tax rate. Donnelly said he's flexible on the 25 percent. If they can convince their colleagues in the Senate and House, we could see some meaningful action on the economy coming from this Congress.
Even as this discussion continues in Washington, Indianapolis is focused on the business personal property tax. Richards put this in perspective.
If individuals paid this tax, they would be dunned for every toaster, microwave oven, washer, dryer, personal computer and snowblower — a timely reference this time of year — they own.
There needs to be a dialogue on how best to fund government. Not all individuals have the same ability to pay, which is why corporations are asked to chip in as well.
The key, though, is to offer not just tax reform, but also stability. Provide a stable tax structure that encourages business investment while generating the revenue the government needs for its own strategic investments.
There's a lot more action on tax issues right now, but hasn't your brain been taxed enough already trying to sort through all this?
A potpourri can be either a medley of miscellaneous items or a mixture of flower petals and so forth used to make things smell better. Considering the topics for this column, maybe it's both.
What do former Gary City Councilwoman Marilyn Krusas and Beanie Babies king Ty Warner have in common?
Krusas failed to file income tax returns for two decades and cheated the federal government out of an estimated $80,000 to $200,000. Her sentence: one year and one day in prison.
Warner, who squirreled away at least $25 million in an offshore bank account, agreed to pay $27 million in back taxes and interest and a $53 million civil fine. His sentence: two years of probation.
If you saw "The Wolf of Wall Street," which got five Oscar nominations Thursday, this might sound familiar.
In that movie, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) faces federal charges — but remember, the wealthy aren't treated the same as others.
Marry, marry, quite contrary
The battle over same-sex marriage and civil unions continues in the Statehouse in the Hoosier Holy Land. It looks like GOP infighting is heating up.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, who has said the referendum on the constitutional amendment isn't a priority, appears ready to replace members of the House committee hearing that legislation so it can move to the House floor.
That comes on the heels of a Chesapeake Beach Consulting poll for the Republican legislators that said Republican opposition to the amendment increases to 54 percent when they learn civil unions would be banned as well.
Same-sex marriages and civil unions already are illegal in Indiana.
So here's another issue where Republican candidates will have to be extremists to win in the primary but could lose to moderate candidates in the fall, when independents weigh in.
A Republican initiative from a few years back, the Common Core Standards for education, was approved by the Indiana State Board of Education and endorsed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels but is now under attack.
The business community likes the Common Core Standards because they put all students on an even footing for comparison.
As much as he likes to compare Indiana's business climate to other states when it comes to taxes, Gov. Mike Pence is following the Tea Party line in opposing Common Core.
"Hoosiers have high expectations when it comes to Indiana schools. That's why Indiana decided to take a time-out on national education standards," Pence said in his State of the State address Tuesday.
"When it comes to setting standards for schools, I can assure you, Indiana's standards will be uncommonly high, and they will be written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers, and will be among the best in the nation."
So much for Common Core as a way to make sure Hoosier students stack up well against their peers nationally.
A major report on Asian carp came out this week, but it was buried by snow — along with everything else.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report Tuesday suggests a number of options for dealing with the Asian carp and other invasive species creeping into the Great Lakes.
Among the ideas on the table — or in the water, in this case — are:
- Reverse the flow of the Chicago River (restoring it after all these years)
- Inspecting and cleaning watercraft before or after entering a waterway
- Set up nets with openings big enough to let smaller fish through but big enough to trap Asian carp
- Use locks to zap water around barges and other vessels on the Chicago Area Waterway System
- Apply herbicides and pesticides
- Use electric fences
Environmental groups quickly jumped on the idea of physically separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River as the most effective way. They're right, of course, but the collateral damage could be severe.
That would shut down the shipping industry, a bad idea in an area whose economy is heavily dependent on transportation.
The report hinted at another idea, but it wasn't explicit. But first you should know why Asian carp are in our area in the first place.
They were in fish farms in the Deep South, then escaped the farms when the Mississippi River flooded some years back. Who can blame them for exploring new territory?
If they spread to the Great Lakes — and they're right on the doorstep — the Asian carp species could dominate, threatening the existence of other species in the lakes.
These fish are menacing, too. Just ask Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, who took a boat trip on the Wabash River and came face to face with Asian carp. Zoeller wants an Indiana hearing on the Asian carp issue before Congress settles on a strategy.
By the time Congress acts, it might be too late to fight the spread of Asian carp to the Great Lakes. But even if the Great Lakes can be protected, what about the waterways they have already invaded?
The image most people have of the Asian carp is of giant fish leaping into boats. Or maybe they've seen the electric fences zapping the fish, thinking about what that might do to a swimmer.
That got me to thinking. If you're going to fry the fish anyway, why not dip them in batter first?
Here's my suggestion: Create a market for these carp by inviting top chefs to create recipes for them and make them a delicacy in top restaurants. Whether this is through a Food Network show or a Chicago restaurant contest, the aim is to make the public crave this fish.
That would create market-based incentives for commercial fishing of those species and boost sport fishing as well.
If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.
The Christmas Day death of a pregnant Calumet City teen in Dolton is not an isolated tragedy but part of a long string of bad decisions with tragic consequences.
As happens so often when a child is shot and killed, Eva Casara, 17, was described as an innocent victim. But a closer look at this case is warranted.
Casara was 5 1/2 months pregnant when she was shot. Her child, Leilani Paris Casara, survived. That baby is a victim of this crime, too.
The baby's father, along with two other young men, have been charged in connection with the crime.
Dolton police and Cook County state's attorneys allege Casara herself was right in the middle of a convoluted scheme that turned fatal.
They said Casara set up a fake drug deal so her boyfriend, 16-year-old Anthony Lee, and his brothers Diante Coakley, 21, and Darius Marshall, 19, could rob the alleged drug dealer.
A prosecutor said Thursday all three fired at the vehicle in which Casara and the alleged drug dealer, a Hammond man, were sitting. Casara was struck by a bullet in the back of the head.
The intended victim of the crime, the alleged drug dealer, fled the scene and dumped Casara in an alley, police said. She was still alive. A passer-by found her Christmas night.
Coakley and Lee allegedly drove to Gary to look for Casara, not realizing the intended robbery victim lived in Hammond and not Gary.
If the police and prosecutors are right about this chain of events, it's one dreadful decision after another.
In cases like this, police and prosecutors come in after the fact to investigate the crimes involved. They seek to apprehend the criminals and bring them to justice.
But who's going to look at this crime to try to figure out where Casara, her boyfriend and his brothers started to go wrong? And how can those lessons be applied to help others avoid the tortured route those young people allegedly took?
Baby Leilani might or might not survive. If the baby does grow up, it will be without the mother and perhaps without the father as well.
Casara and Lee should have avoided pregnancy. They shouldn't have been having sex in the first place. Early sexual activity is a precursor to all sorts of troubles.
Even if there hadn't been another crime involved, the baby's life would have been difficult, and so would the teen mother's.
In the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," George Bailey gets to look at consequences before making an important life choice. He then makes the right decision.
If only Casara, her boyfriend and his brothers had that same opportunity when their lives started to go off the rails.
But now Casara's life is over at age 17, and the young men face potential legal consequences as well as the loss of a friend.
Talk about this tragic story with your kids. Make sure they see what bad decisions can lead to.
December isn't the normal time to talk about parks. But this is the season of giving, and this column is about giving back to the community by cleaning up parks.
Parks are a sign of vitality — or lack thereof — in a community. A well-groomed park shows people have pride in their community, in their neighborhood, and consider quality of life a priority.
What do you look at when you're shopping for a home? The schools, the nearby homes, the parks and other amenities.
So now that we're nearing the midpoint of Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson's four-year term, remember her plan to get people to help clean up the city's many parks.
The first to pitch in was Neighborhoods Inc., led by Keith Speaks.
In late April 2012, the mayor mentioned a new adopt-a-park program. Speaks promptly volunteered to clean up Rees Park by the end of May.
"I could just read their minds, thinking who is this nut?" Speaks said. But he and his staff had done their homework, looking carefully at the park near the intersection of Grant Street and Fifth Avenue.
Neighborhoods Inc. cobbled together a team of volunteers, including a Lake County work release crew.
"It looked like the A-team," Speaks recalls. "The van doors spilled open, and these guys just started spilling out of there like a bunch of busy bumblebees, started picking up tools." The work Speaks thought would take four hours was done in half that time.
A total of more than 1,000 hours of labor were needed to clean up that park.
The nearby McDonald's restaurant adopted Rees Park so it would continue to be maintained.
Neighborhoods Inc. also cleaned up Borman Square Park near the Cathedral of Holy Angels, and the cleanup spread to the surrounding neighborhood. Three groups cleaned up 23 empty lots, Speaks said.
One man, whom Speaks referred to as "Chain Saw Bill," was helpful in cutting down trees growing in vacant lots.
Neighbors saw what was happening, came outside, and offered food and water.
The park, near the city's water tower, is getting more use now that it has been cleaned up, Speaks said. That will translate to taking better care of the park.
Neighborhoods Inc. was an early adopter, but not the only one.
The Bridgette Kelly Foundation and the Northwest Indiana Green Vision Project, led by the Times Media Co. and former Lake County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura, pitched in last year, along with other local organizations.
The key to making these cleanups successful is to involve the neighbors in the cleanup and deliver a park they will be so proud of that they will help the city maintain it.
"I've got neighbors over there — two guys, and that's been one and a half years now — who said they would come over and mow that park," Speaks said. "They don't even know each other."
But they know the value of a well-maintained park, and that's important in a city like Gary that is struggling to right itself.
If the much-ballyhooed Porter County Jobs Cabinet report had a soundtrack, it most likely would include "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas. Just change the lyrics to "Dust on the Shelf."
I occasionally accuse Porter County government of being dysfunctional. The response to this report is a good example.
On Wednesday, the Porter County Economic Development Alliance hosted a breakfast meeting to revisit the Jobs Cabinet's final report, issued a year earlier.
The report easily could have been reissued with only a one-keystroke difference — to change the date from 2012 to 2013.
"We gave a list of recommendations, and it's really a menu. It's not prescriptive at all," Jobs Cabinet facilitator Bill Hanna said Wednesday. Hanna is president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
In the year since this report — commissioned by Commissioner John Evans — was released, the Porter County Council has not officially heard the recommendations.
That should be easily rectified. The council should swiftly schedule a presentation by Hanna and others, then review the recommendations.
Among the advice was to create a Porter County Department of Economic Development. It need not be a big agency. The executive director, with any necessary staff support, would report to the commissioners.
But the department can't be created without funding, and that's the council's bailiwick. This executive director wasn't included in the 2014 budget approved by the council this year.
The danger for Porter County is to look around and see signs of the improving economy, then conclude nothing needs to be done.
The county needs to do something before another economic downturn, Hanna said, because by then opportunities would have been lost.
Porter County sold the government-owned hospital, which created an enormous nest egg growing interest that could be tapped for some of the Jobs Cabinet's recommendations. The remaining large asset is the county-owned airport in Valparaiso.
There's already some development near the airport. Planning well could attract additional business investments without limiting the airport's ability to grow.
The county's proximity to Chicago is another big selling point. Improved access to the rest of the Chicago metro area would allow the county to better tap one of the world's largest economies.
There are many other recommendations in the report for the council to consider.
Even focusing on two or three for now would be better than continuing to ignore the report.
Recommendations like this that gather dust are signs of government negligence and dysfunction. Worse, they discourage continued engagement and trust in government by major stakeholders.
Lake County residents know what I mean. Just say Good Government Initiative, and they'll talk of missed opportunities.
Porter County is headed that same direction. It's up to the County Council to make sure that doesn't happen. Dust off this report.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. threw his weight around Thursday, but it didn't land where he wanted.
McDermott wanted a weighted vote on the Illiana Expressway proposal at the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission meeting, but it ended up backfiring on him.
The final vote was 76-20, with the vote weighted by population. Hammond, for example, has 11.2 percent of the population of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, so McDermott's vote against the Illiana was more than half of the "anti" vote.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson controlled nearly 13.9 percent of the vote, with NIRPC using 2000 Census data instead of 2010 to determine the weight of each vote.
Had it been a straight show of hands, rather than a weighted vote, the project would have won by a mere two votes.
Freeman-Wilson spoke eloquently in a carefully crafted speech about the need to think regionally, not parochially. That's what it's all about.
There will be people inconvenienced by Thursday's vote, some more than others. Everyone feels sympathy for their plight.
Lowell Town Council member Craig Earley has spoken passionately about the potential strain the expressway could put on the volunteer EMS and firefighting services in that area. It's an issue that needs to be addressed.
Earley isn't happy about the NIRPC decision.
Personally, I'm thrilled by the results of Thursday's voting. It means the Illiana will qualify for federal funding. There are other hurdles yet for the expressway, but the big ones have all been cleared.
What doesn't thrill me is the number of communities not represented in this vote.
Three municipalities in LaPorte County — LaCrosse, Pottawatomie Park and Westville — haven't filled vacant seats on the commission yet. Dune Acres, in Porter County, also hasn't appointed anyone to NIRPC.
Admittedly, these are small towns, with as few as 213 residents, so there are fewer potential representatives to choose from. Still, this is an important position.
On top of those vacancies, there were six municipalities that have representation, but those people were no-shows Thursday on what might be the most important NIRPC vote of the decade.
Kingsbury, Kouts, Michiana Shores, the Pines and St. John weren't represented there. (Ogden Dunes representative Tom Clouser attended, but was out of the room when the crucial vote was taken. His vote would not have affected the outcome.)*
You'd think St. John, at least, would have had a representative there. The town is relatively close to where the expressway will run and could feel the effects of that development.
To me, it all comes back to what Freeman-Wilson said. We need to come together as a region, not be focused on individual parochial thinking. The no-shows and vacancies reflect the latter, not the former.
* This column has been changed from the original, to reflect Tom Clouser's attendance during most of the meeting.
Watching the reactions to former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til's guilty plea has been interesting. The comments I've read and heard say a lot about people's outlook on life, not just their political views.
Van Til admitted using county employees and resources to campaign for office. He submitted his resignation as part of his plea bargain.
In a statement Van Til sent to The Times, he noted the good he accomplished as well as admitting he did wrong.
Van Til was surveyor for 20 years, nearly half of his 42-year political career. In that time, of course he accomplished some good things.
On the day that news broke that Van Til would plead guilty, he received a letter from a state official commending the surveyor's office for its implementation of a robust GIS system.
Some observers have a harsh view of politicians — in this case Van Til — and see only black and white.
I see Van Til in shades of gray, noticing his accomplishments as well as his crimes.
Make no mistake. What Van Til did was wrong, and he should be punished for it.
I've known Van Til for years, and I see a beaten man. Removing him from office, head hanging in shame, is real punishment for him.
Van Til could have to pay up to $20,000 in restitution. That's not much. The real question is how much time Van Til will serve behind bars. That will be determined when he is sentenced.
How long should that sentence be? It depends on your political persuasion, to some extent, but even more so on how you balance justice, mercy and practicality.
Many Republicans want vengeance — not just for what Van Til did, but for the Democratic Party's grip on Lake County. But Van Til, not the party, is on trial here. In this country, people are prosecuted for their actions, not their politics.
From a practical standpoint, Van Til would be an expensive prisoner to house. His health isn't good, and the government pays for health care for prisoners.
The people who want Van Til sentenced to a lengthy prison term might not be thinking of the financial ramifications.
However, letting Van Til off with just the restitution, the forced resignation and a suspended sentence would not be enough. Other elected officials need to see this crime has serious consequences. Van Til needs to serve time.
The question should be how much, not whether.
Keeping in mind this is a federal crime, look at what the Indiana General Assembly accomplished with sentencing reform. The state's criminal code was overhauled to make sure each punishment fits the crime.
What Van Til did was basically theft. He stole county resources, by appropriating them for his use. He should be punished accordingly.
But he also stole a portion of what little trust remains of Lake County government. To me, that's his worst crime, and the entire county will be punished for that.
With Thanksgiving fresh on our minds, this seems the perfect time to discuss immigration and related issues.
You'll remember from those pageants in grade school that the first Thanksgiving was held after the Pilgrims survived a year in the New World. It was a harsh year, and many of the settlers died.
The ones who did survive thanked God for their lives, but they invited the natives to join them for that feast.
My, how the tables have turned since that first Thanksgiving dinner.
Now some of the descendants of immigrant want to shut the door to newcomers, not extend the same help their ancestors received.
But perhaps there's another way.
The Midwest has some of the best universities in the nation. They draw students from far beyond the Midwest.
In fact, Purdue University's main campus in West Lafayette drew 9,509 international students from 126 countries in 2012-13, according to the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, co-published Nov. 11 by the U.S. State Department.
Purdue ranked second in the nation in terms of foreign students at public universities, the report said. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ranked No. 1, with 9,804 students.
With all due apologies to the leftover turkey, there's a lot of red meat in that report:
- Indiana's 24,389 foreign students brought the state more than $775,000 in foreign spending, creating 11,122 direct and indirect jobs.
- Of those, 756 students were at Purdue University Calumet and 492 at Valparaiso University.
- Illinois had 39,047 foreign students, bringing nearly $1.1 billion in foreign dollars to the state and creating 5,257 direct jobs and 11,974 indirect jobs.
- China sends almost as many students to U.S. colleges and universities than the next four leading countries combined.
Why bring Thanksgiving, immigration and foreign students into the same column? Because they were all present at that first Thanksgiving.
The reason the Native Americans were invited to that first feast is because the newly arrived immigrants would have perished without their instruction.
Now we're the natives educating the foreign newcomers at our universities. We're teaching them American ways of life.
There's a lot of yakking about immigration reform in Washington, D.C., and out here in the land beyond the Beltway.
But just for a moment, remember that first Thanksgiving and what the Americans of European descent owe to the Native Americans -- the ones who arrived first and decided to help the newcomers instead of clamoring for them to be sent back.
Now you've got another reason to be thankful on this day after the celebration of that first feast in the new land -- and food for thought, too.
Where were you when you learned President John F. Kennedy was assassinated? That's assuming you were old enough to remember, of course.
I was with my mother, watching a grainy television in a gas station.
It was a pivotal moment on which the world suddenly turned.
I was young, just 4 years old, and this is one of my earliest memories. But it's still vivid.
Fifty years later, it's an appropriate time to look for perspective.
JFK is considered the best president of the modern (as in post-World War II) era. Is it because he was martyred? Or is it because of his actions in the Bay of Pigs and other tests of his leadership?
On Tuesday, we marked the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Compared to other speeches of its time, Lincoln's 272-word speech was practically a tweet. But it offered a positive message that focused the nation on the reasons for fighting the rebels in the Civil War.
JFK, too, offered memorable oratory. Who can forget the stirring message, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
It was a time to serve others, not a time to serve yourself.
And look what has happened to our society in the 50 years since Kennedy was suddenly taken away from us.
In 1968, the American political world turned bloody once more. Martin Luther King Jr., the famed civil rights leader, was shot to death in April. Two months later, JFK's brother, Robert, was killed.
Today, the Camelot years are long gone.
Wealth has become more concentrated, and fewer Americans believe the next generation will have a better standard of living than their own.
The haves often look at the have-nots with scorn, wondering why they reach out for public assistance. And the have-nots have become addicted to public aid, finding it difficult to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, a term popular in the 1960s.
We have become a nation so polarized over access to health care that our federal government was partially shut down for weeks. Political feuds, rather than collaboration and compromise, have become the order of the day. Faith in government has sunk to new lows.
When JFK was running for president, his book "Profiles in Courage" wasn't a fawning autobiography but the story of eight U.S. senators who exercised the courage of their convictions and not the party line. It's a book worth reading today.
I think President Barack Obama was elected because Americans want a charismatic leader who can unite the nation. That hasn't happened.
What will it take to pull the nation back together again?
Fifty years since JFK's assassination, and 150 years since the Civil War, it's an urgent question. Please share your thoughts.
Thursday's nwi.com Political Roundtable discussion dealt with Obamacare and K-12 education in Indiana. You might think of those two topics as completely separate discussions, but I see some parallels between them.
In each instance, political ideology has hampered decisions on sound public policy.
There are so many things happening on the education front — so much political sparring — that it's safe to say this battle is going to continue for months, if not years.
There's no love lost between Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence. Ritz took a jab at Pence in her op-ed Wednesday, and today's op-ed by Pence shows deference to Ritz without backing down.
I'd hate to be an educator today in Indiana. There are essentially two departments of education, and it's hard to tell which one will ultimately hold sway over education in the state.
Ritz's agency, the Department of Education, traditionally has been in charge. The Indiana Constitution even requires the state have a superintendent of public instruction.
But Pence, a Republican, is doing an end run around Ritz, a Democrat. He set up the Center for Education and Career Innovation.
Ritz was so upset with the State Board of Education's plan to have Pence's agency, rather than hers, coordinate the board's review of Common Core education standards that she abruptly adjourned the board meeting Wednesday and walked out.
Ritz and Pence are far apart, ideologically, and any hope of getting them to see eye to eye is faint.
The same is true of the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives and the Democrats in control of the White House and U.S. Senate. And the issue they love to fight over most is the Affordable Care Act.
The only thing both President Barack Obama and the House Republicans agree about is that it should be called Obamacare. The GOP considers it a pejorative term, but to Obama it's a compliment — proof that beauty is in the eye, or maybe ear, of the beholder.
In Indiana, Inspector General David O. Thomas filed a complaint Thursday with the Indiana State Ethics Commission, accusing former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, a Republican, of using state resources to campaign for re-election.
That sideshow to this battle over the future of education has made Bennett's education reforms even more controversial than they were at the time. The progress he made while in office is threatened.
Lest we forget, Indiana students weren't keeping pace with their peers abroad. That's why there was a big push to align state education standards under Common Core and why schools and educators were beginning to be held accountable.
And remember, too, that Obamacare was intended to address problems with access to health care in the United States.
Even as the political battles are waged, whatever side you're on, don't lose sight of the underlying need for education and health care reform.
Everyone knows Congress is dysfunctional. U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, knows this well. He offered his insights Monday to The Times Editorial Board and on the nwi.com Political Roundtable.
The collapse of the committee structure is a symptom of that congressional leadership failure. And by leadership, I mean both sides of the aisle.
The leaders in Congress have set up a series of crises by not following the rules of Congress, and this has only made the problem worse.
Consider that October deal that ended the partial shutdown of government.
"That was an appropriations bill," Visclosky said. "Our committee had nothing to do with it."
Visclosky fought for several years to get on the powerful Appropriations Committee, only to see that committee ignored by House leadership hammering out deals that bypass the committee. The same thing happens in the Senate.
"The committee system has completely atrophied and has been for 20 years," Visclosky said.
Trouble is, most members of the House haven't experienced anything but the current dysfunction.
"More than half of the House has been there for less than four years," Visclosky reminded us. They don't know any better.
What's it going to take to fix this? Elect more moderates. They're an endangered species in Congress.
"Moderates are just a dying breed on both sides because they get picked off," Visclosky said.
Here's how that works. Extremists target moderate incumbents in primary elections, when they're most vulnerable. Political activists know the ones most likely to vote in primary elections are the zealots, not the moderates. So that's where the zealots work hard to thin out the ranks of moderates.
This has become so common that the term "primaried" has come to describe how incumbents get taken down this way.
Former U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar offers an example close to home of how this process works.
The resulting polarization in Congress sets up these fierce partisan battles, fueled by the leaders struggling to hold on to power in the face of their members' extreme views. And that has harmed the committee process.
Big deal, you say? Yes, in fact. It is a big deal.
Continuing resolutions keep government functioning, but not functioning well.
Committees make decisions that reflect current priorities, whereas continuing resolutions reflect past priorities.
Visclosky stood on the House floor earlier this year and read a list of items his committee wants to cut, but the continuing resolutions circumvent the committee's decisions.
Even programs the Pentagon brass want to eliminate or reduce are kept alive by congressional dysfunction.
Want to end this? Elect moderates. And vote in primary elections, not just in the general election, to weed out the extremists at either end of the political spectrum.
All things in moderation, our parents and grandparents used to say. That applies to politics, too.
You might still be on a Halloween sugar buzz, but I spent this week thinking about Christmas. Specifically, I had a lot of memories of the movie, "A Christmas Story."
I couldn't resist attending Wednesday when Scott Schwartz, who played Flick in the movie, helped unveil the statue in his likeness at the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond.
It's quite a sculpture. Go see it. Just don't lick the aluminum flagpole if it's cold outside.
Sculptor Oscar Leon told me it took about 600 to 800 man-hours to create the bronze sculpture. It already was roughed out, Leon said, when the bottom half had to be redone after Warner Brothers wanted the boy in the sculpture to lean into the flagpole more, along with a few other changes.
Schwartz has become an icon because of the scene in the movie reflected in the statue, in which Flick's tongue gets stuck to the flagpole after a "triple dog dare."
Every winter, Schwartz said, reporters call him for a comment after some kid's tongue gets stuck to a pole. His response: "What can I say? He's a schmuck."
Didn't that kid see the movie during the TBS marathon?
The sculpture is appropriate for Hammond because that's the hometown of Jean Shepherd, who wrote the book on which the movie is based.
It's a sentimental movie for me, and not just because it was the first VHS tape I ever bought.
On Dec. 24, 2006, The Times printed a long story the late Mark Kiesling wrote about the movie and its Hammond roots. I talked Mark into writing that story.
That gave me the privilege of a trip to the Hammond Public Library to see its Jean Shepherd collection, with a photo of the original Warren G. Harding Elementary School, where the legendary flagpole was located.
Mark also drove me around Shepherd's old haunts, seeing his boyhood home at 2907 Cleveland St. in Hammond's Hessville neighborhood, along with other locations. It was a real treat.
The story took Mark more than a week of research.
Accompanying the story was my column suggesting Hammond and the tourism bureau capitalize on the movie's fame. Create a festival, perhaps.
It prompted a call from Bill Wellman, who is now vice chairman of the South Shore Convention & Visitors Authority board. Wellman, a consummate showman, said he loved the story and column and the idea of making a big deal of the movie.
Wellman said he wanted to create a series of statues featuring characters from the movie, starting with Flick's tongue stuck to the flagpole.
The expense delayed the implementation of his idea. The Flick sculpture cost almost $40,000, but Wellman pushed for it. He even chipped in the first $1,000 for it.
There's more at the Indiana Welcome Center than the flagpole. On Nov. 9, the popular annual display of "A Christmas Story" scenes from Macy's windows will resume. And yes, there will be festival-style events there.
Shepherd is long gone, but his embellished boyhood memories live on in Hammond.
If you were looking for passion Wednesday night, you could have found it at nwi.com.
Because if there's one thing Lake County folks are passionate about, it's E911 consolidation.
Wednesday's lively live chat between Times columnists Marc Chase and Rich James drew 75 visitors and a lot of pointed remarks.
The consolidation law was designed with Lake County in mind. Lake County has far more units of local government than any other Hoosier county.
And just as it has many communities, Lake County still lacks a sense of community. Infighting continues to plague Lake County.
That's especially evident in the E911 consolidation controversy.
The deadline for implementation is 14 months away, with a $2.6 million carrot hanging at the end of the law's stick. That's how much money from 911 surcharges on Lake County phone bills the county would lose if the deadline isn't met.
And yet some in Wednesday's web chat said they'd rather give up that $2.6 million than obey the law. They'd rather fight than switch.
That's how passionate people are about this issue.
Some say they'd rather seek additional bids -- not just the ones already received by the state -- on new equipment than push hard to meet the deadline.
Lake County needs new radio equipment for easier communication among agencies, but some say that's unnecessary spending.
St. John's plan for dual call centers, as explained by Town Manager Steve Kil, doesn't call for new radios. "We're preparing to use existing technology," Kil said during a meeting with The Times Editorial Board last Friday. That's an additional expense down the road.
Under Kil's plan, the cost per community would go down in south county but up for the urban communities in the north.
Kil's main beef is with the amount the town is expected to contribute under the countywide consolidation plan. So where did that number come from? That $308,001 is how much the town is already spending on dispatch services.
"I think there is a complete lack of respect for cost and savings," Kil said.
I'll agree the numbers are high on the countywide consolidation proposal. But I'd rather see costs overstated and actual prices lower.
I'd also like to see the consolidation completed not on Dec. 31, 2014, but early enough to ensure there are no major glitches when the switch is flipped.
Kil said he would be open to a single call center if his cost concerns, and those of his fellow rebels, are addressed.
So justify each expense spelled out in the countwide interlocal agreement. Make sure money isn't wasted, but don't sacrifice quality.
And stick with a single call center for the sake of efficiency.
Could a single call center build a sense of community in the county? That's the subject of yet another passionate debate.
How many times have you heard people use the cliche, "Give it the old college try"? For college graduation rates, perhaps a new college try is in order.
"Less than a third of Indiana's four-year college students graduate on time, and only slightly more than half graduate after six years," according to the Indiana Commission on Higher Education. "Only 12 percent of the state's two-year college students graduate within three years."
That's a very big issue facing Indiana. But built into that measurement are some big assumptions about college students.
The stereotype says a student goes through 13 years of school — if you count kindergarten, and you should — and then goes on to college. But that stereotype should be broken.
"These days, only one in five or one in six college students fit that description that everyone carries around of a 19- to 22-year-old living on a campus somewhere," Purdue University President Mitch Daniels told The Times Editorial Board on Wednesday. "The other four or five out of six, we have to have great options for them, and our regionals are a great choice for that."
Daniels is no ordinary university president. He's also a former two-term governor of Indiana.
"There's no candy-coating the fact that our regionals, ours and IU's, have very low success rates, and we have to become much more skillful, not simply at recruiting students but at helping them over the tough spots and so forth," Daniels said.
I suggested to Daniels, as I now do to you, that Indiana should measure college students differently for graduation rates that makes more sense today.
Keep the current measurement for students right out of high school and attending the main campus. But create a separate measure for part-time students who must balance education with career or raising a family.
"Across the whole spectrum, we need the evaluation system to catch up," Daniels said. "It's even true on more traditional campuses. One in six West Lafayette students do graduate in a reasonable time, but it's from a different school."
Factor in continual progress, rather than simply stalling.
"I used to think, and still like to find, that taking courses without going all the distance but not finishing still gave them certain advantages," Daniels said. "They were really not very friendly to that idea. What really matters is finishing an achievement."
So perhaps there's a different way of looking at education. Consider throwing up some milestones along the way for specific measurable achievements.
The Center of Workforce Innovations would be quick to mention the WorkKeys program developed by ACT which does this sort of thing.
Those milestones could help measure progress, if not completion.
"We do need a better and more appropriate metric" for graduation rates, Daniels said. "It probably needs to have something about, they call it persistence ... the person you describe who is chipping away at it all the time."
Let the Indiana Commission for Higher Education know how you feel about this. And by all means, be persistent. Let's see what the commission can achieve.
When Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson asked Gov. Mike Pence for immediate assistance from the Indiana State Police, she didn't get what she expected.
She got valuable recommendations on shaking up the Police Department, but the city's immediate need of extra manpower in the midst of a rash of homicides wasn't met.
There's precedent for sending state police troopers to Gary. Evan Bayh did so when he was governor.
When I last talked to Bayh a few months ago, we discussed Gary's crime problem and the need for help from the governor's office. Bayh was all for sending the state police back in so Gary police could focus on those homicides.
So why didn't Pence send troopers to help?
I've heard a lot of speculation about political reasons for Bayh's decision to reinforce the Gary police with state troopers and for Pence's decision to review Gary Police Department operations instead.
The basic argument goes like this: Bayh, of course, is a Democrat, so naturally he would help Gary. Pence is a Republican, so why should he help a city that didn't vote for him?
I don't buy that theory. Pence is a political animal, as are most elected officials, but he also knows he was elected to represent all of Indiana, not just Republicans.
Politics has played a role in a number of Pence's decisions, but I can't see it tainting his response to a serious public safety concern.
He's a process guy, focused on long-term solutions. It's just that the long-term solution he offered — a scathing report urging big changes in the Gary Police Department — will take time to implement, and the homicides continued in the meantime.
It's interesting to see how Pence and Bayh responded differently to the situation in Gary. It might be cue up a future rivalry between the two.
There's been a lot of speculation about Bayh running for governor in 2016. His sons would be settled by then, and he could return to his Hoosier roots. It would be a race between a moderate Democrat and a fiscally and socially conservative Republican.
Bayh was a popular governor. He has a million-dollar smile and shows a lot of empathy. He told me he misses public service.
Bayh dropped out of the U.S. Senate after being disgusted with how polarized Congress had become, and it has only gotten worse.
The Hoosier Holy Land has become highly polarized, too, with a Republican supermajority in the General Assembly and a very conservative governor, treasurer and attorney general.
Is that the atmosphere Bayh would want to avoid, or will he run for governor and try to put moderates back in control in Indiana?
We'll have to wait and see. 2016 is still far away. But maybe the differing responses to Gary's plea for help is a hint of what to look for in the next gubernatorial race.
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