Marc Chase is a veteran investigative reporter and editor of more than 15 years, including 10 years at The Times of Northwest Indiana, where he is the investigative editor.
Marc is the founder of the Calumet Region Civil War Preservation Project, working to preserve the grave sites and stories of region men and women involved in America’s bloodiest war.
As the mayor of the region's biggest city eyes a run for higher office, he might want to consult a neighboring school district on social media etiquette.
In 2009, Portage's school athletics program adopted a social media policy, prohibiting its athletes from slinging trash talk or inappropriate euphemisms.
With his regular social media diatribes — sometimes resembling chatter in a boys' locker room — Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. could use a copy of the Portage policy, like right now.
McDermott acknowledged he is eyeing a run for the governor's office, an idea he's also entertained in the past.
But if McDermott, who also chairs the Lake County Democratic Party, is serious about making a run beyond his power base, he might want to rethink his social media strategy.
I don't just write this because McDermott made fun of Times Media Company Publisher Chris White's name recently in an effort to paint the company as lacking diversity. Such blunt shots on Twitter and Facebook are nothing new for the mayor, and they've certainly been more raw and inappropriate in the past.
Last May, McDermott displayed a photo on Facebook of region tourism official Speros Batistatos and Indiana Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann facing each other during a visit of the lieutenant governor to a local business.
The post opined Ellspermann was "looking at Spero like a schoolgirl in love!!"
It then suggested Batistatos should "take one for the team" and "make da Region proud," perhaps using this supposed affinity to help rebuild the Cline Avenue bridge.
McDermott told me earlier this week he intended humor with that post but understands why some people may have considered it inappropriate. He also acknowledged he would need to tone down his social media commentary if he wants to appeal to more conservative downstate voters.
Good for him for admitting it, though he makes no apologies for speaking his mind in other instances.
Until now, I've avoided giving the locker room-esque chiding any ink. I'm involved in a volunteer partnership with Batistatos' government agency, the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, to tell the stories of region Civil War veterans. I didn't want my commentary being construed as favoritism.
But the mayor's anti-social media comments continued beyond the May 2013 Facebook post.
Sometimes folks on the opposing side of McDermott's arguments find their heads superimposed on clown-like bodies on his Facebook page. Granted, these are typically done by someone commenting on the mayor's posts and not the mayor himself.
But the mayor has the ability to remove such material if he chooses. After all, it's his page.
My head might end up in such a post following this column. Perhaps I can use it as my new profile photo.
As McDermott eyes a run for statewide office, he might want to hire a handler specifically for social media, someone to protect him from himself.
Otherwise, the conservative downstate voting base — the one typically holding sway over the fortunes of statewide electoral success — might "unfriend" him in a heartbeat.
Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin keeps driving home the need for the very state law she seeks to relegate to the scrapyard.
As Elgin attempts to thwart — via pending lawsuit — a 2013 state law requiring her to cut spending and bring her township's exorbitant tax rate down to more reasonable levels, she's still tooling around town in a taxpayer-funded car, by her own admission on errands of personal business.
Some of you probably saw the report last week of a Democratic Gary precinct committeeman snapping a shot of Elgin's township car — government plates and all — parked outside her campaign headquarters.
Some wondered if she was mixing government resources with her campaign efforts, a legal no-no that has landed some Lake County politicians in hot water with the federal courts.
Elgin claimed she and her son, township employee Steven Hunter, drove to the campaign headquarters — using the government vehicle — during her lunch break so she could drop off a key. She claims no campaigning took place, and The Times has found no evidence to the contrary.
But even the hint of impropriety should be avoided. So should the use of taxpayer money for any personal errands.
I lauded Elgin last year after she announced her office parked four of eight take-home cars — vehicles some of her office employees could take home with them — to save money. Such cars inevitably become vehicles for personal use of taxpayer-funded resources — a wasteful luxury.
It seemed like a responsive move to the Indiana Legislature's demand she bring her poor-relief tax rate from 22.64 times the state average — the highest of any township in the state — to a more reasonable 12 times the state average. The clock is still running on that demand, and Griffith could elect to secede from Elgin's township and join another if the demand isn't met by 2015. If it's not met by 2014, a state-designated emergency manager could take over the township.
So when Elgin parked the four cars, I read it as a sign of moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, the luster of responsibility dulled last month when Elgin's office filed a lawsuit against the state, attempting to avoid the spending reforms.
Now Elgin is creating more questions with her personal use of a township vehicle.
Elgin receives about $89,000 in annual compensation as elected trustee, more than enough to purchase her own set of wheels to drive to lunch, her campaign headquarters or other personal errands. Her pay is more than three times the U.S. Census-recorded median household income in Gary, where the majority of her constituents reside and where most people pay for their own wheels, ride the bus or go without.
Elgin needs to exercise better judgment when using taxpayer-funded property. She also needs to purge take-home cars from her township entirely and stop fighting to stay beyond reform.
Get the chip off your shoulder, Region Rats. Many of you sorely underestimate the meaningful roles your forefathers played in one of our nation's most pivotal eras.
The scripts of some of those region players of history will be on display in a special exhibit at Hammond's Indiana Welcome Center through April 30, and I hope you give them an audience.
I've nearly always had a thirst for knowledge about key historical players and events — particularly our nation's history, and even more specifically our nation's bloodiest and perhaps most defining period.
So when The Times Executive Editor William Nangle approached me more than three years ago — on the eve of the Civil War's 150th anniversary — about researching and telling the stories of Northwest Indiana's role in the war, two things immediately came to mind.
In a sense, it was a dream assignment, getting paid to research a time in history always captivating to my heart and mind. But I also struggled to conceive of links between this region — where no actual battles occurred — and the 1861-1865 conflict still measured as our nation's bloodiest war.
How could Northwest Indiana — seemingly no one's favorite stepchild — have much of a tie to the bloody but proud era of blue and gray? Surely, not much at all, I originally thought. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Three colonels from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties each commanded regiments of 1,000 Hoosiers — hundreds of them local boys — in some of the hardest fighting of the Civil War. Each of those three colonels took bullets — and two of them died — on the front lines of fighting in far away places with names such as Gettysburg, Murfreesboro and Chickamauga.
Two sons of Merrillville namesake Dudley Merrill marched off to war in separate regiments. One distinguished himself in major engagements. The other came home in a pine box.
Hundreds of men from the south shores of Lake Michigan answered President Abraham Lincoln's call to arms in 1861, volunteering to fill the fighting ranks of a Union Army that ultimately would ensure the United States would remain so. Local men helped put Indiana on history's map as the state with the second-highest percentage of its male population to serve in the war.
So many region men died in battle, or of horrific wartime camp diseases, or returned home minus limbs. Many more survived and continued to define the state and region.
If any of this has your attention, stop by the Welcome Center between now and April 30 for the Region United, Nation Divided: Following Lincoln historical exhibit. Let hundreds of photos, artifacts, battle flags and narrative text be your guide to the significant role our region ancestors played in this most pivotal of eras.
To know places in history of Civil War-era men and women is to be filled with an insatiable urge to know them as people.
Come meet them.
If pictures truly say a thousand words, a photo from Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson's State of the City address last week should generate enough verbiage to fill this column — and region political reform advocates — with hope.
Some of you probably saw it on Thursday's front page: Lake County Councilman Jerome Prince, a staunch Gary Democrat, in a near embrace with Portage Mayor James Snyder, an equally staunch Porter County Republican.
It all happened without the opening of fiery chasms or the planet reversing rotation.
The grip-and-grin moment carries more meaning than casual observers might surmise. It's a sign of real efforts to remove false barricades throughout our region and nation.
Snyder was honored Wednesday at Freeman-Wilson's annual State of the City address. He was toasted for his neighborly lending of Portage snowplows to help dig out Gary in last month's deluge of snow.
I previously wrote about that act — and the considerable sour flavor some Portage City Council critics of the mayor's generosity created by chastising Snyder for dedicating Portage resources to help out neighboring Gary.
On Wednesday, Snyder was rightfully greeted with applause at Gary's Genesis Center.
The ensuing photo of Prince embracing and thanking Snyder is now an icon we all should put on wooden stick signs and hold up when partisan and geographical boundaries obstruct region progress.
Snyder's decision to help a neighbor isn't the only example we can tout.
Since his election as Lake County recorder in 2012, Democrat Mike Brown has been reaching across those very same political and geographical boundaries to better the operations of his office.
Porter County Recorder Jon C. Miller, a Republican, said the younger, less politically seasoned Brown immediately began soliciting Miller's advice regarding office operations, software and other techniques two years ago.
Now the two are in regular contact, comparing notes without regard for boundaries once seen as uncrossable.
As fine as these examples are, they're obviously not enough to cure the plethora of political ills running like thick sludge through our region.
A revolving door between some Lake County elected offices and Hammond's federal criminal court hasn't stopped spinning.
Taxpayer dollars continue to disappear into wasteful patronage and corrupt political dealings leading to criminal indictments and convictions. Those ills are spawned by politicians far more interested in personal rather than regional enrichment.
So print off a few copies of the photo of Prince and Snyder. Hold them up at public meetings when partisan or intra-party squabbling takes over.
Let's mail several more to our congressional leaders, holding court in that pit of nonsensical gridlock known as Capitol Hill.
Anger at government ineptitude is getting the best of many of us these days. Just look at congressional disapproval ratings so low they're in the underground Capitol crypt, which originally was supposed to be Washington's tomb.
Examples of cooperation in our normally obstructionist region might be an antidote with far-reaching healing properties.
Who knew doing the right thing actually pays off? It happened in Lake County this week to the tune of about $1.3 million in taxpayer savings, according to government estimates.
Several months ago, some local law enforcement officials were hot and heavy on a push for Lake County to immediately jump into bed with communications tech firm Motorola for the equipment needs of the state-mandated emergency dispatch consolidation.
A collective howl went up among Motorola advocates when some folks — advocating a more fiscally responsible form of government — called instead for a competitive bidding process. You know, where a government entity asks various firms to compete for the county's business to ensure the best bang for the taxpayers' buck.
Those two factions verbally duked it out, but the logic of a competitive bidding process prevailed in the end. Lake County Commissioners Gerry Scheub, Roosevelt Allen and Mike Repay deserve praise for holding fast to competitive bidding rather than folding to the pressure cooker some local law enforcement and elected officials were trying to put them in for what really amounted to a proposed no-bid contract.
The Motorola advocates played a shell game with their verbiage, arguing they weren't pitching a no-bid contract. They claimed the state had Motorola listed as an already-vetted preferred provider.
But other emergency communications vendors also were on that state list, and you don't get the best price by signing on with the first one who shows up to the dance.
Scheub, Allen and Repay knew this and did the right thing. The competitive bidding process brought three potential vendors to the table, resulting in the approval Wednesday of a $13 million contract for E-911 radio equipment.
No one should be shocked Motorola won the bid in the end. It's a quality company with a proven track record for this type of equipment.
But the county's E-911 Director Brian Hitchcock — the guy they're paying $112,000 per year to make the tough decisions on dispatch consolidation — estimated the bidding process brought the equipment price tag down by $1.3 million.
Some of the folks who wanted to rush into the Motorola deal — sans bid — argued the bidding process would have been too long and arduous. They said it would potentially put the county behind from meeting the state-imposed deadline of a consolidated emergency communications dispatch by Dec. 31, 2014.
The argument never held water. This consolidation of the county's 17 police, fire and ambulance dispatches into one integrated facility was mandated by the Indiana Legislature five years ago. It's not the taxpayers' fault local government is running behind in its response.
The $1.3 million in savings, if that's what it ends up being, might just be a drop in Lake County's more than $100 million annual budget bucket. But we have to celebrate small victories of fiscal responsibility wherever we can, and this is one of them.
Sometimes failure creates the perfect opportunity to get back to one's roots — to discard the distractions of ill-advised ventures.
A constitutional gay marriage ban failed Thursday to clear the Indiana Senate hurdle necessary to be placed on Hoosiers' November ballots. The failure opens a window for conservatives to get back to what they do best: keeping their hands off.
It was a political football — a distraction from more pressing state needs — this attempt to chisel morals into our state's constitution.
And it was excessive. Indiana law already defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Indiana Republicans — with whom I agree on so many fiscal issues — really got it wrong when they sought to spike the football by seeking a constitutional ban via voter referendum.
Let's not mince words here. Attempts to ban gay marriage are largely based in religious beliefs.
I respect and honor all who take their religious convictions seriously — who strive to live what they preach via the Old or New Testaments, the Torah or any other religious doctrines that seek the best for mankind.
This includes respect for those who — by their own doctrines' teachings — believe gay marriage is wrong.
Teach your children these lessons. Hold them dear. But don't force them on someone else.
The most conservative of our forefathers realized this country could find one of its greatest strengths by keeping one moral power from unduly infringing upon or oppressing another. The forefathers chose to keep church separate from state, in part for this very reason.
An attempt to carve such values — even if held by the majority — into our state's most important government pact smacks of one moral side attempting to compromise another.
What motivates this, beyond one ideological group attempting domination?
Gay people pay taxes. They work. You can find pleasant, ornery, giving and selfish folks in the gay community, probably at the exact rate as in the circles of straight folks.
Traditional marriage works great for me. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I suspect that has something to do with not being gay.
But I know plenty of people who are gay, some dear friends and some members of my extended family.
They don't parade their gayness or perform victory dances.
They treat me with respect. And so I must remember the moral code with which I was raised: Treat others as you would have them treat you.
Indiana conservatives have every opportunity to continue this constitutional marriage ban quest through future legislative attempts.
Or they could return to the true roots of conservatism — and our nation's greatest founding principles.
The right side of government is not the one seeking to further cram an existing law down the throats of others who don't share their same moral beliefs.
The right side is the one keeping its hands off people's personal lives and seeking fiscally responsible government.
Growing up, did you ever call your parents mean or heartless for buying you off-brand shoes or jeans instead of a pair of Nikes and Levi's?
I remember feeling left out at school when other kids were walking around in the name-brand stuff, and I was branded a nerd or slob because the combined salaries of a barber and a schoolteacher demanded more frugality in the clothing budget. But I never felt anger toward my parents for making more responsible spending choices. I knew they were doing the best they could — the right thing by our finances.
Unfortunately, critics in Porter County are giving County Auditor Bob Wichlinski an earful, dubbing him all kinds of evil for making tough and uncomfortable — but necessary — choices to keep his office operating in a fiscally responsible manner.
Wichlinski recently restructured his office, eliminating five employees and their positions from his payroll with a reported savings of $250,000.
Though the decision followed calls from the Porter County Council to rein in spending in a fiscally tight budget year, Wichlinski said he had been eyeing the changes for some time. Just before the restructuring occurred, Porter County Council President Dan Whitten noted a budget shortfall of $5.3 million for this year and as much as $8 million for next year.
Rather than waiting for some fiscal crisis to force belt-tightening, Wichlinski, who is heading down the final stretch of his first term in the elected office, took action now to slim down his corner of local government.
Wichlinski, who was elected in 2010, said he opted to take his time before making the cuts, getting a feel for how the office operates and which tasks were most essential or could be consolidated.
He made this serious — and potentially politically damaging decision — as he prepares to seek a second term in office. But that sort of fiscal responsibility and honesty, regardless of political fallout, should be admired, not shunned.
No one wants to see people lose their jobs, but tax caps and other growing fiscal restraints on local government are forcing tough choices. Voters throughout Northwest Indiana should be demanding elected officials willing to make the hard calls, regardless of how painful or distasteful.
Local government can no longer afford to be an employment agency for the masses.
Some of Wichlinski's critics are criticizing his cutting of office staff when tens of thousands of dollars is spent on outside consultants. I agree too many tasks of government these days are being contracted out to high-paid consultants — often buddies of the elected. This is a particular problem in Lake County government.
But so are bloated government payrolls that can no longer stand upon pillars of increasingly shrinking dollars.
In the end, Wichlinski decided bloated patronage is a luxury for which his constituents shouldn't be unnecessarily paying. He decided taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook to outfit county government in designer jeans and name-brand sneakers.
Perhaps Lake County Republicans aren't endangered species after all. Maybe it's time to retract the characterization I've made in past columns of a minuscule number of conservatives wandering the region.
I said as much to a number of Lake County's GOP leaders Saturday as more than 400 people packed the Halls of St. George in Schererville for the 2014 Republican Lincoln Day Dinner fundraiser, some fronting as much as $250 each for dinner and VIP reception tickets.
Event attendance left me with optimism at least a shadow of a viable two-party system is possible in a region of tax-and-spend liberalism often characterized by graft and political corruption. Typically feuding members of the local GOP were breaking bread en masse at the event, and the red party will need this unity to gain any ground in this county of blue.
But let's not take the optimism too far.
This was just one party fundraiser, and Lake County Democrats will likely hold the upper hand for some time to come. Palpable excitement at a gathering of like-minded folks isn't enough to sway the electorate.
And the numbers were no doubt boosted by the keynote speaker, national GOP strategist and former presidential adviser Karl Rove.
The Republican Party's platforms are by no means infallible. Some state party leaders are amplifying social issues to the detriment of more pressing policy, and national GOP and Democratic leaders are more often daring each other to schoolyard fights than getting down to the public's business.
But what we have now in Lake County is a largely one-party rule, and it's been this way for generations. It's an exceptionally unhealthy condition fostering a sense of entitlement within the party firmly in power. It creates the climate under which seeds of corruption and graft flourish into thick foliage.
While neither party is immune from these negatives -- and while there are good, conscientious Democrats holding some offices in the county -- Republicans need to seize on the kind of momentum present at Saturday's dinner to better all of our chances of a true two-party county system.
Rove brought his no-nonsense, conservative Texan message to bear during Saturday's keynote. He pointed out that even if local GOP candidates don't win office — and state and national candidates don't win Lake County — a healthier GOP voter turnout in the county can divide the Democratic vote and hasten GOP success in higher offices.
But the local GOP should want a whole lot more. The numbers and excitement at Saturday's dinner should serve as the launching point for uniting and discussing methods of bolstering relevance in local government races — ways of reaching out to the electorate.
Relevance isn't achieved when one political party relinquishes races for local government offices without a fight. Of the state, county and municipal seats up for election in 2014, 122 Lake County Democrats to the GOP's 68 filed to run for office by Friday's deadline.
You can't win ground if you don't take the field, and reform won't come from an uncontested party of power.
Have you validated your children's feelings lately? Do you listen to them, speak with them about what they're doing at school, with friends or during hours when you're not around?
If you believe Patrick Sabaitis on this issue, you better start having answers to these questions — especially if you live in the region's urban core. If you don't, there's a good chance your children will be indoctrinated into a local terrorist organization.
Sabaitis, of Hammond, knows all too well. He used to prey upon kids who lacked engagement at home, who felt dejected or even hated their parents. He would offer them a place in the world by recruiting such kids into the Almighty Latin Kings street gang.
In a recent column in The Times, Sabaitis very aptly described street gangs as terrorist organizations, in which children — our children — are taught to steal, kill, sell drugs and evade police.
Take a look at the Hammond federal court docket, and you'll see just how real these terrorist organizations have become in Northwest Indiana, with their guns, drugs and body counts.
Sabaitis left gang life years ago and now uses his street knowledge to help reform gang kids — or keep them away from gangs in the first place.
But there was a time when he harnessed that knowledge into the recruitment of gang members —actively seeking out city kids from the weakest or most vulnerable or turbulent family structures.
Most parents — urban, rural, white, black or otherwise — can be counted among the guilty in parental blunders.
Sometimes we don't listen to our kids. Sometimes we're too busy, tired or annoyed. I've blown off my 10-year-old sons before at the end of a busy day or in the early morning hours sprinting to get ready for work. I always feel badly about it later.
I can only imagine the distractions parents living in the urban core face, sometimes wondering from where the next meal, paycheck or general source of survival will come.
It's under conditions like these that Sabaitis' former self thrived. It's where countless recruiters for today's street gangs continue to do their finest work, luring children into the fold of gang families that will listen to them — provided they shoot dead whomever they're asked to kill or peddle drugs upon whichever street corner they're ordered.
It's an absolute wake-up call to all region parents — but especially those in the urban core. At the very least, listen to your kids. Don't blow them off. Know what they're up to. Give them purpose in the family.
Otherwise, street gangs may train them to do a whole lot of things, including dying for their street families.
You don't have to take it from me, a south Lake County white guy who resides about as far from the region's urban core as possible without leaving the county.
Take it from Sabaitis. He's been there and done that. He knows the problem is more urgent — the consequences more imminent — than any foreign act of terrorism.
This is a remedy beginning in the home, not with the intervention of some government social service agency but with parents caring enough to engage their children.
For most people slogging along an economic landscape wrought with tar pits, a healthy cash windfall would be welcomed with cheers, not apprehension.
This should be the case for the $159 million garnered by Porter County government in the 2007 sale of the old Porter hospital. Porter County's elected council and commissioners surely clicked their heels in delight and made clear plans for putting this money to work, right?
Unfortunately, half a decade has passed, with petty political squabbles blocking a spending or investing plan.
Granted, a contract prohibited county officials from spending the principal portion of this money until a new hospital facility was completed. But the new hospital opened 18 months ago, and a plan moving forward has yet to be forged.
The good news is the often feuding Porter County Council and commissioners have agreed to a March 12 meeting — an attempt to hash out how the money will be handled.
Compromise and fiscal responsibility should be key themes at this meeting, and it's good officials have avoided an all-out spending spree up to this point.
Some good ideas exist — at least in theory — for dealing with the behemoth treasure. One is placing some or all of the money into a nonprofit foundation to be controlled directly or indirectly by county government. Another proposal is to place the money in the stewardship of the existing Porter County Community Foundation.
Potential benefits and pitfalls come with using nonprofit foundations to dole out public money.
In East Chicago, hundreds of education and social service programs have thrived off grants from the Foundations of East Chicago, a nonprofit agency responsible for distributing a portion of the gaming boat revenue received by that city.
It's hard to argue with some of the benefits gleaned by East Chicago over the years in the Foundations' good works.
But foundations sometimes come with unnecessary costs. Millions in gaming revenue over the years funded administrative overhead, not community development grants, in the Foundations of East Chicago. If the Porter County Council and commissioners go this route, a volunteer board of directors could ensure a maximum amount of the dollars go back into the community.
Public officials also should avoid using the hospital sale proceeds as a fall-back for budget shortfalls. Porter County recently used interest collected from the hospital money to fund $1.1 million in needed E-911 emergency dispatch upgrades. This proved a good tool for bridging a gap without dipping into the main pot of cash.
But at least one official has mentioned using hospital sale funds to help make payroll. Those types of everyday expenses are better managed with sustainable budget practices — even cuts when necessary — rather than using an emergency Band-Aid approach.
Before any of these ideas or theories matter, however, Porter County's elected leaders have to come to the table with open minds and willingness to compromise. Don't make your constituents wait any longer without realizing a return on this massive windfall.
Using claims of racism — a true scourge on society — as a shield against good fiscal governance is deplorable. So is wasting taxpayer money to legally defend the waste of the same taxpayer money.
Unfortunately, that's just what seems to be happening in a lawsuit filed by Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin's office against the state of Indiana.
Last year, the office fired off verbal claims of racism when Griffith town leaders and Indiana House Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, proposed legislation to curb long unchecked and out-of-control spending by the trustee's office.
That measure, known as HB 1585, became state law in the last legislative session. Now the trustee's office is suing the state, claiming the law unconstitutionally singles out Calumet Township and is motivated by tax relief for predominantly white Griffith at the expense of predominantly black Calumet Township.
"HB 1585 fuels the flames and passion of prejudice to encourage and pit one community against another," the recently filed lawsuit claims.
What the lawsuit doesn't state are the facts leading to this appropriate law — that the only thing feeding flames in Calumet Township are tax dollars shoveled into a blast furnace of patronage and waste.
The new law seeks to compel fiscal responsibility, a truly foreign concept to the trustee's office.
The township's poor assistance tax rate has been a whopping 22.64 times the state average, or about three times higher than the next highest Indiana township. Elgin told The Times last year about 43 cents for every dollar of poor assistance distributed by the office went to administrative costs — a ridiculously high proportion.
A Times investigation of the office's financial records between 2001 and 2009 revealed it spent $42 million on patronage employee salaries and benefits and $23 million in payments to business vendors for services. In that same time, $65 million went to actual poor assistance, a 50-50 split.
The law demands a more reasonable tax rate, no more than 12 times the state average. It also allows an emergency manager to take over any township if the rate isn't reduced to that level by 2014. Under the same law, Griffith could leave the township and join another if the rate isn't reduced to 12 times the state average by 2015.
So what's happened in the heat of the flames fanned by this new law?
Well, we learned in the summer Elgin had parked four of her office's take-home cars — vehicles previously funded at taxpayer expense that employees were allowed to take home with them. It was a small step, but a good one.
We don't know yet how close Elgin is to complying with the new tax-rate limits, but let the law do its work. Hopefully a judge will see Elgin's lawsuit for what it is — a frivolous claim of racism hurled in an attempt to preserve a status quo of waste.
Plenty of government blunders in the region deserve bitter-cold responses.
So when public officials do the right thing, shouldn't it provide a little warm comfort? Apparently not in all corners of Northwest Indiana -- a revelation brought to us by some embittered members of the Portage City Council.
In Lake County, elected officials on the take regularly put a nasty taste in our figurative mouths.
But what about when a Porter County mayor realizes a need in a neighboring Lake County city, decides he has the ability to help without putting his own constituents in the hole, and then acts accordingly?
Portage Mayor James Snyder recently did just that, and the negative response he received from much of his City Council was about as inappropriate as the owner of a snowblower ignoring the snow-packed driveway of the elderly widow next door.
When snows last week had much of northern Lake County locked in a polar wasteland, Snyder -- a conservative Porter County Republican, for those keeping score -- took note.
Portage's roads were clean, and neighboring Gary couldn't keep up with 20 inches of snow choking out the city's transportation routes.
Some of those routes, by the way, lead to areas of commerce in Portage -- businesses where folks in Gary shop and spend money. That is, when they can get there.
Snyder knows that. He also knows ambulances, fire trucks and police cars don't move through 20 inches of snow.
So Snyder contacted Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, a Lake County Democrat for those keeping score. Snyder then ordered four of his city's snowplows to help dig out his neighbor's streets.
By Snyder's accounting, it cost Portage a whopping $642 -- not even a ripple in the city's finances.
None of these sound reasons for doing the right thing kept some Portage City Council boo-birds away, though.
Councilman Mark Oprisko, under the guise of "fiscal responsibility," questions whether the mayor had the authority — without council permission — to send city resources to aid Gary's snow removal. Democrat Oprisko has said he wants an inquiry, including to the State Board of Accounts, and possible legal action regarding the mayor's actions. Some council critics also argue there was no imminent emergency justifying Snyder's helping of a neighbor.
Most reasonable people realize the inability for emergency vehicles to traverse snowed-in roadways constitutes an emergency. I suspect Oprisko and the other council naysayers would be sounding all manners of alarm if Portage streets were rendered impassable and the city couldn't effectively respond alone.
Fortunately, many residents — who hopefully also vote — seem to see it differently. City Hall has seen a number of pledged public donations in recent days to cover the cost of the good will plowing in Gary.
They realize what Oprisko and other naysayers fail to grasp. Snyder — a conservative Republican, God forbid — did the right thing, reaching across what are often seen as irreconcilable political and geographical boundaries.
Conventional wisdom dictates rampant political corruption radiating from certain members of a county political party — coupled with excessive government taxing and spending — should create the perfect environment for fresh faces to sweep into elected offices.
But Lake County is anything but conventional, with its solid blue Democratic foothold in an otherwise purplish-red conservative state.
So how can the local GOP build inroads with voters in upcoming election cycles? This week, I turned to an expert "architect" for answers.
National GOP strategist Karl Rove — dubbed the architect for his sturdy construction of the successful George W. Bush presidential campaigns — weighed in on Lake County's political climate. Rove spoke to me in advance of his Feb. 8 keynote address scheduled for the Lake County Republican's Lincoln Day Dinner.
The first bit of advice Rove had for the local GOP was simple: Be active.
Rove pointed out Republicans can and typically do win majorities and major offices in Indiana without the benefit of Lake County support. However, he said staying politically active — despite the uphill odds in Lake County — can help divide the local vote, ultimately aiding in GOP success in state and national races.
Rove also is up on his Lake County political specifics. He noted last year's freshman political successes of Indiana House Reps. Hal Slager, R-Scherverville, and Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, helped put the Lake County GOP on the radar of the state party.
In his first term, Slager, successfully pushed through legislation forcing spending reforms in Calumet Township, a stronghold of long-unchecked fiscal bloat.
"Those things help a lot to build credibility among Republican colleagues elsewhere in the state," Rove said.
They also show real fiscal conservative reforms on the local level, something sorely lacking in much of Lake County.
I also asked Rove to weigh in on the statewide GOP's strategy to make the possible addition of a gay marriage ban a part of the Indiana Constitution.
I agree with a number of local Republicans who feel this inflammatory social issue should have been left on the cutting room floor, regardless of individual viewpoints. After all, state law already defines marriage as a union between a man and woman. What political football needs to be spiked to drive the issue any further home?
Rove wasn't biting on the issue, though, steering clear of this statewide debate.
The state GOP should have left that social issue alone as well, placing more emphasis on sensible fiscal policies.
Rove cautions state, local and national Republicans to keep the focus on upcoming 2014 elections — particularly congressional races — rather than looking too far ahead to the 2016 presidential race.
A loss of focus has plagued the party recently, whether through divisions over the federal government shutdown nationally or the county GOP spat over a replacement for late County Assessor Hank Adams.
Maintaining focus on the here-and-now is sound advice given the recent counterproductive infighting.
Few words inspire such a literal holding of noses as the word "landfill."
Few cities, towns or even unincorporated areas want any form of a dump within their borders -- though most have no problem creating the refuse that goes into landfills.
But what if a landfill already exists just outside town? And what if it's not your average stinky dump but a landfill for largely odorless construction debris?
If it's already sitting on your border — and you're getting zero financial benefit from it — wouldn't it make sense to at least explore annexing such a privately owned facility's land to increase municipal revenue?
This is an issue facing Lowell, where at least three of the five Town Council members favor the exploration of annexing the land upon which Republic Services — a trash hauling and disposal company — operates a construction landfill.
The landfill is on unincorporated Lake County land on Ind. 2 — the main drag running right into Lowell.
Call me crazy, and many in Lowell probably will, but it might be time for longtime landfill naysayers to consider bringing this facility — and an additional 80 acres Republic Services recently purchased adjacent to the landfill — into the town's fold.
Many in town never wanted the landfill to open next door to begin with. But Republic Services has been operating it for years, accepting drywall, concrete and other construction waste.
I've toured the landfill on a couple of occasions, and it appears to be as advertised. There is no stink there. It doesn't accept toxic waste — or even the smelly garbage from the waste cans in your kitchens and garages.
So if the landfill already exists as Lowell's neighbor, and an annexation opportunity exists that by some estimates could generate between $75,000 and $200,000 per year in host fees for the town, why wouldn't it be worth exploring?
Many people are turned off by any kind of landfill. Mention the now-closed Feddeler Landfill — also located just outside Lowell and directly across the street from the construction debris facility — and collective shudders emanate from townsfolk.
A few years ago, some believed toxic or other harmful waste was in the landfill — something EPA testing later contradicted. Even so, a construction landfill is far from the same animal.
Lowell Councilman Don Parker makes sense in his push for the exploration of landfill annexation.
In an era of shrinking municipal budgets, all possible new revenues that don't come on the backs of taxpayers — or through the burdens of borrowing — should be considered.
Parker also believes annexation would give the town more control over future expansion issues — or in determining a use for the land when the landfill inevitably closes someday. Though it could end up costing the company more in host fees to the town, Republic Service officials have said they're not opposed to Lowell annexation.
Due diligence — under the watch of all five council members — is in order to ensure annexation makes financial sense and wouldn't create undue liabilities. But Lowell shouldn't be closing its eyes to the possibilities.
What if state excise police conducted a gambling raid at a business in your town within the past year, that gambling case remained pending, and the same business sued your town within the past two years regarding a separate contract dispute? Would you expect the business owner would be named to a town commission seat?
If you answered yes, you're all-too familiar with Lake County's political landscape.
Two lone Republicans on the Schererville Town Council said they recently balked at the appointment, by the council's Democratic majority, of local business owner David "Spike" Jaroszewski to the town's Plan Commission. The town confirmed he will earn $2,400 for the year, or $100 per meeting for the 24 scheduled meetings.
In general, small-business owners make good appointments to such municipal commissions, particularly ones that help shape economic development. Jaroszewski also works as a bailiff in Schererville Town Court, helping fulfill a requirement that at least three of seven Plan Commission members come from the ranks of town employees.
But GOP Councilmen Kevin Connelly and Jerry Tippy were right to question Jaroszewski's appointment, given recent history.
Those in Schererville unfamiliar with Jaroszewski's name are more likely familiar with his mainstay downtown bar and restaurant, Spike's Lakeside Inn 2.
Aside from running the business, which is a popular hangout for a number of Lake County politicos, Jaroszewski, by his own admission, is very active in the local Democratic Party. He lost a Town Council bid in 2010, and Jaroszewski said he has helped run multiple campaigns for local political offices.
His business also was the site of a 2013 gambling raid by state excise police, who alleged an illegal Super Bowl gambling pool involving more than $200,000. That case has not yet been resolved.
And in a separate case in 2012, Jaroszewski sued the town in Lake County civil court, alleging its Park Board had improperly discarded a contract he had to run a festival beer garden. That case was settled out of court, with the town paying Jaroszewski $9,000.
Alone, the civil case probably shouldn't keep Jaroszewski off the commission. But with the gambling case pending, I question the judgment of naming him to a municipal government board.
When I spoke to Jaroszewski this week, he argued the excise raid was over a Super Bowl gambling pool — something common in offices and other businesses. But he conceded it was gambling and said he takes responsibility. I credit him for that.
He also said his longtime business history in Schererville makes him a qualified appointment to a board holding sway over future development in town.
I can't argue with that. But I question the council appointing Jaroszewski to a town board while we await a final resolution in the gambling case.
Late last year, the gambling issue was enough to prompt Schererville's Fraternal Order of Police to cancel a turkey raffle scheduled at the business. It should have been enough to hit the pause button on Jaroszewski's appointment.
Last week's polar vortex threw a stone-cold uppercut into the region's chin, shutting down schools, roads and snarling any traffic caught in the middle of the snowy deluge.
It can be hard for public services to counter such devastating punches of nature, and it wasn't always pretty last week. But at least one municipality deserves some praise for working to make right a situation that in the eyes of many received an initially wrong response.
The winter storm chaos became particularly acute for Lakes of the Four Seasons resident Don Honeycutt. Our phones and emails lit up in protest after The Times reported last week that towing company Midnight Blue essentially charged Honeycutt $100 on Jan. 5 to pass through an area of 109th Street hemmed in by other snow-stranded vehicles.
High winds piled 15 inches of snow into even higher drifts on 109th as Honeycutt was making his way home after picking up his son from a job at the YMCA in Crown Point. Though Honeycutt's vehicle never physically became stuck, the towing company called in by Crown Point police to help remedy the situation ended up demanding $100 from Honeycutt to pass through.
Many readers we heard from sided with Honeycutt, dubbing the charge he received as circumstantially predatory.
I don't fault Crown Point police for calling in Midnight Blue trucks to clear the road, nor is there fault in Midnight Blue charging to dislodge legitimately snow-stranded vehicles. According to Chief Pete Land, the company had tow and plowing trucks that were closer and better able to deal with the snarl that night on 109th, which is the major route linking Winfield and Four Seasons to the rest of the county.
But, like many of you, I did take issue with the requirement that Honeycutt pay. His vehicle didn't spin off the road, didn't end up in a drift and didn't require towing. And the plowing service Midnight Blue provided to the route was part of the city's liability — not Honeycutt's.
A tow truck even blocked the lanes of 109th near Iowa Street, and Honeycutt said someone threatened to tow his car if he didn't pay the $100 fee. The whole thing smacked of impropriety.
On Monday, however, Land reported Crown Point made it right, at least as far as the Honeycutt family is concerned.
The city, which holds responsibility for keeping its roads passable, plans to reimburse Honeycutt the $100 fee and is working through changes to its policies for such future situations, Land said.
Chaos can lead to mistakes that never should have occurred. Land said in the postmortem debriefings of the winter storm chaos from last week, he and other city officials realized a mistake had been made.
He said officers who had been on the scene acknowledged Honeycutt never should have been charged — that his vehicle was far enough back that it wasn't technically stuck.
It's in our nature to pounce — often rightfully so — on public entities that make mistakes. But we should be equally ready to note when reason rights the ship.
It's pretty hard to find humor in the deep-freeze winter deluge burying us Regionites recently, but a state employee deserves thanks for thawing some of the agony with a little laughter.
That my family and I just returned to this freeze fest Saturday from a holiday trip to Florida — where 36 hours earlier we literally were poolside with palm trees — seemed a lot more tragic than funny. And I was doing more cursing than laughing when my snowblower's control cable broke as I attempted to clear the driveway for my wife's nursing shift at 4:30 a.m. Sunday.
Once I shoveled the south county snow drifts off my drive, the laughter did come, though — via the Indiana Department of Transportation's Facebook page, of all places.
Don't get me wrong. There was plenty of urgency and emergency in the tone of INDOT's winter storm Facebook posts, warning against driving on Northwest Indiana's treacherous roads for anything but emergencies.
But the state highway department's information and social media guru for Northwest Indiana, Matt Deitchley, helped us find a laugh or two in the midst of very important road condition updates he provided around the clock for the past several days.
On Saturday, as the ascent of snowmageddon appeared imminent, Deitchley, 35, took to Facebook, warning that even 170-plus INDOT crews wouldn't be enough to keep up with the snow and ice expected.
It was a frank message to keep off the roads Sunday if at all possible. But at the end of the same post came some hilarity:
"If you don't *have* to go out, then maybe you should hang out at home for the next day or two. Hot chocolate and some Dick Van Dyke Show reruns sound pretty awesome to us. But if you're more of a Munsters fan, feel free."
We've received a number of calls and emails from readers about several similar INDOT Facebook posts during this frozen nightmare. Some who have contacted us were humored by the posts and wanted to know the personality behind them.
Well, that person is Deitchley, a South Bend resident managing the marriage of serious information with humorous punchlines despite working around-the-clock to keep the Hoosier Facebook world informed. INDOT credits Deitchley's informative and funny posts with boosting its Facebook page "likes" by more than 24,000 within three days.
Deitchley was snowed in like many of us and provided his information releases while working from home with a 20-month-old son having the run of the house.
As someone who worked from home Monday with a 19-month-old and twin 10-year-olds, I can relate to that challenge.
And many of us could relate to — and possibly even better heed — the nicely crafted road condition posts Deitchley provided. The humor drove the message of road safety home in a memorable fashion — and very well might have kept a number of motorists off snow- and ice-slicked roads.
It may not seem like much to some, but Deitchley's info-comedy act of the past several days deserves a standing ovation.
Every now and again, my broader industry needs a good jolt back to center after stepping over the line of decency.
Occasionally, we in the news media even apologize when we’ve inserted collective feet into mouths. In the case of a recent MSNBC host, the foot went darn near down her throat. To her credit, she apologized, but the racially charged words at the center of the controversy beg broader questions of the moral limits needed in dealing with the family members of political figures.
It was bad enough when MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry poked fun on her Dec. 29 show at former Republican, conservative presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s family photo. For those who missed the story in the blur of the holiday season, the butt of the joke was Romney’s adopted black grandson who was sitting on famous grandad’s lap for their family Christmas card photo.
Professionalism took a dive when Harris-Perry chanted the Sesame Street ditty, “One of these things is not like the other,” and another guest on the show noted that the one black child in a sea of white Romney family members demonstrated the diversity of the Republican Party.
Full disclosure: This one hit close to home. Anyone who reads my column with any regularity knows I lean conservative on many issues, particularly fiscal ones. I’m also the proud father of a little adopted princess who happens to be black.
I’ve never been a big Romney booster, but I applaud him and his children for welcoming an adopted child into their home based on love – not skin color. This is something to be celebrated, not chided. So the apology by the MSNBC commentator, who also happens to be black, was necessary and welcome.
I would expect similar apologies from the more right-leaning Fox News if one of its hosts made an off-color comment about President Obama’s lovely daughters.
But put aside for a moment the racial issue – and the apparent cave-dwelling mentality of some supposedly socially liberated folks who can’t fathom conservatives embracing diversity in their families. We really need to ask why the host thought the photo was fair game for commentary at all.
Romney is no longer running for any office. And his adorable grandson has absolutely nothing to do with the man’s past, present or future politics.
This should be a wake-up call for all of my news media colleagues. Let’s stick to the issues and the people at the center of the issues. There is plenty of public domain material to break down, critique and even spin into satire without targeting a little adopted boy sitting on the lap of his proud grandfather.
I’m not a fan of the song, but the tune “Blurred Lines” was a viral hit in 2013. The MSNBC host showed why as the year was expiring.
Anyone who's ever undertaken the operations of a small business knows the figurative land mines scattering the path to success.
Taxes, competition from big-box superstores and the colossus of Internet sales warehouses make small storefront businesses fortunate to survive their first six months, let alone half a century.
But that's nearly what Valparaiso Hobby — a downtown staple of model trains, remote control vehicles and the like — has done.
Under the business leadership of Joe and Sharon Henley, the store has been a Washington Street staple since 1968. Now in their 70s, the couple expect to retire from the business in the next few months. But their example of resilience and survival is something all aspiring business owners — and the public at large — should note.
I visited with Joe and Sharon at their 6,000-square-foot downtown story on Christmas Eve, amid the bustle of loyal customers grabbing last-minute train cars, model paints and other hobbyist goodies for themselves and others. The stories of what they've weathered are pure inspiration.
In 1986, in their 18th year, a fire in a temple next door to their store wiped out most of their inventory to smoke and water damage. At the time, the hobby shop also sold pets, and most of the furry critters died in the smoke.
But their loyal customers arrived to help with the same urgency as emergency responders. In droves, customers took water-filled bags of the shop's tropical fish to their own tanks at home.
Those customers held on to those fish as the Henleys rebuilt. They returned the fish nine months later in a show of customer loyalty that went far above and beyond.
It was a testament to the kind of loyalty good, honest, customer-driven businesses foster in our communities.
Valparaiso Hobby also weathered economic fires as well, including the recent economic downturns and layoffs of many customers when the steel mills went south decades ago.
Through tough times, the business stayed afloat because of the diversion it provides its customers — the fun its hobbyists glean from the products and the personal touch they get from Joe and Sharon when they shop there.
The business owners know how to retain loyal employees as well, including store manager Phil Borth, who has worked there for 30 of the shop's nearly 46 years. Or Andrea Bambrick, a 36-year-old register clerk from Wanatah whose mother also worked for the business for 28 years.
Though it's taken a toll, the shop also appears to have held its own against the emergence of big-box hobby stores and overhead-free Internet stores, which Joe notes can undercut his business on big-ticket items.
But Joe and Sharon are ready for other opportunities in life, and after decades of 60 to 80 hours per week at the store, they've earned it. If you're a hobbyist, get there while you can. They plan to either close or sell within the next few months.
And if you're a small business owner — or aspire to be one — introduce yourself and glean all you can from this solid model of mom-and-pop success.
Though all the moves haven't resonated as popular with the predominantly left-leaning government leaders of Lake County, it's hard to argue with the taxpayer-friendly streamlining Indiana has witnessed under fiscally conservative leadership in Indianapolis.
So it's fitting a Hoosier U.S. senator is helping lead the charge in bringing a piece of Indiana's commonsense efficiency to the federal government level.
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., deserves praise for attacking a portion — albeit a small one in the grand scheme — of wasteful and redundant government in our nation's capital.
A bill he is co-sponsoring to consolidate the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor into one agency — with one pool of shared resources — won't eliminate the obscene amounts of waste to which we've grown accustomed in Washington. But it's absolutely a step in the right direction.
By themselves in 2012, the Commerce Department had 35,013 employees and the Labor Department another 15,705 employees.
The Department of Commerce's fiscal year 2014 budget request is $8.6 billion, while the Labor Department is seeking $12.1 billion.
To be fair, both agencies perform important functions in our society. The Labor Department, among other duties, seeks to enforce laws pertaining to fair workplace practices, conditions, pay and overtime rules.
The Commerce Department is charged with promoting job and economic growth and development, improved standards of living for U.S. workers and other economic benchmarks.
But these two agencies have goals that should never be mutually exclusive. About 100 years ago, these functions were all part of one agency, created in 1903 under then Republican President Theodore Roosevelt.
President William Howard Taft — responding to union criticism that the goals of promoting business interests while also ensuring fair wages and working conditions somehow should exist in separate vacuums — divided the agencies in 1913.
Today, it's a division of duties and resources we can ill afford. Coats and the newly drafted bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., propose to keep the duties of the two separate agencies independent of one another in the new consolidated agency.
Duplicating administrative and support offices and overlapping programs, however, would fall to the ax of fiscal responsibility.
I suspect billions could be saved on the federal level if fiscally minded leaders in Washington explored the similar veins and possibilities for consolidation among other agencies as well.
I'm sure the push won't be easy for Coats and Burr. Indianapolis has been trying to push better government on the bloated government bastions of Lake County for years with limited success. And that's a much smaller push than federal fiscal reform.
But it's a move in the right direction. It would be all the more fitting if such reform occurs first with federal agencies that oversee the nation's business and labor climate.
Have you ever met a person whose purity of heart and sense of sacrifice literally rivals belief? My skeptical personality often denies the existence of such people.
But it shouldn't. I knew one such person well, and I hope his example inspires all of us.
I was in the third grade when I first met Tewolde Asgedom, a boy my own age whose family moved to our country from Ethiopia through a church mission. They fled danger from warring factions in their homeland.
Neither Tewolde nor his three younger siblings spoke a word of English. His father, who had been a physician in Ethiopia, developed severe sight impairment. Between that disability, and steep differences in medical qualifications of our country versus Ethiopia, Tewolde's father only found work in menial jobs.
Years later in high school, Tewolde and I became best of friends. By that point, this young man and his siblings were honors English students excelling in school. Tewolde also schooled our group of friends on a regular basis in pickup basketball on my folks' driveway.
He had grown very pure at heart, always listening and giving what little he had to others who had less.
As the oldest child in his family, Tewolde also was doing something none of his financially privileged classmates grasped. He was about 16 when he started his own housecleaning business — working this job into a schedule already busy with after-school studies — to aid his family's meager means.
His brother Mawi recalled Wednesday how Tewolde sent $20 of those proceeds every month to an impoverished child he was sponsoring overseas.
By this time 21 years ago, Tewolde was doing all of these things while garnering offers of full-ride college scholarships.
I remember speaking with him, 21 years ago yesterday, about his plans to drive to Montana the next day — the beginning of our Christmas break — to meet with a former youth pastor regarding upcoming summer missionary work.
It was the last time I would see him. On Dec. 19, 1992 — 21 years ago today — a drunken driver traveling the wrong way on a South Dakota highway slammed his vehicle into the front of Tewolde's car. At the age of 17, an embodiment of pure kindness was dead.
My feelings blended deep sorrow and rage. In my mind, severe punishment — retribution — was warranted.
But what happened next was truly extraordinary. A short time after Tewolde's death, his sister — a couple of years his junior — wrote to the culprit in her brother's death, forgiving him.
The kindness of Tewolde's heart, the pureness of his example, did not end on that South Dakota highway. It lived on through his sister and brothers.
So did his drive for excellence.
Younger brother Mawi graduated high school with a full-ride scholarship to Harvard. When he graduated Harvard, Mawi was voted by his class to speak at commencement, just before then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
Mawi is now a motivational speaker and author, taking the message forged by his brother to young people all over the country.
As we approach the holidays, I hope the example of Tewolde continues to inspire us to fill our own lives with extraordinary kindness and a drive to excel for the good of all.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul makes for a poor fiscal model, leaving Peter poorer and less apt to sustain a financially healthy populace.
It's a model being discussed in the quest of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to cut $1 billion in property taxes to Hoosier businesses.
At issue is Pence's desire to eliminate the business property tax, a move that in principle would enhance the state's attractiveness to businesses. It's a tax heavily relied upon by many units of local government, including municipalities and school districts, as a major revenue source.
Pence knows this and has expressed willingness to work with local government to identify other revenue sources.
The disturbing part to many came last week when Pence, a Republican, left the debate open to increasing the local option county income taxes to replace the business tax revenue.
In that scenario, Peter, the earning taxpayers of Indiana, would be robbed of more tax money to pay Paul, the Hoosier businesses that would receive major tax cuts.
To be clear, this model isn't as disturbing as the typical taxing model in Lake County, in which Peter is robbed and the money pocketed by patronage and waste before Paul sees a dime.
But Pence -- and the Indiana Legislature -- should think long and hard before they shift additional tax burden onto the working taxpayers and their families.
Much has been made of Indiana's generally good bill of fiscal health, punctuated by a $2 billion surplus the state has amassed under Republican leadership.
But the reality someone should help Pence and our lawmakers understand is the vast majority of Hoosier taxpayers continue to struggle to maintain their ways of life.
Few private employers adopt cost-of-living raises. Individual and family health insurance costs continue to rise, and most Hoosier families struggle with the reality of having to do more with less.
In Lake County, a newly adopted local-option income tax already is lightening the paychecks of local taxpayers, sucking the funds into a local government system that has done little to show it can responsibly handle the tax money it already was receiving.
Working Hoosiers, in general, don't seek or receive government handouts. So why should Hoosier businesses be afforded tax breaks on the backs of struggling taxpayers?
I absolutely support the desire of Indiana's leaders to make the state a preferred destination for businesses, but most corporate leaders understand doing business within set borders means paying a certain portion of the freight.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, also a Republican, may have voiced the best idea I heard on the topic last week, suggesting counties should be able to decide whether to eliminate the business tax to increase their attractiveness to the business community or stick with the current model.
But robbing Peter to pay the Pence political agenda will only make it more difficult for the voting tax base.
Do you want to see multiple competing political interests — the ones typically bent on ripping out each others' throats — join hands in a semblance of harmony? Just propose an interstate tollway through the serene rural area of an otherwise industrial county.
Some people might be stunned to know the proposed Illiana Expressway, which certainly created plenty of divisions between competing interests in Lake County, also unified some particularly strange bedfellows.
There are plenty of great initiatives upon which I wish more competing factions in the region could agree. In this case, though, it's gratifying to see some key north county, urban political heads of state marry their interests with the rural, south county Illiana naysayers in Lowell.
The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission is slated to vote today on whether to include this controversial road in its long-term plan — a move that would open the doors for federal funding and make a future Illiana much more likely.
Regardless how that vote goes today, some key urban leaders have agreed to help rural Lowell Illiana opponents place tire spikes in the pathway of the plan.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who leads the county's most populace city and sits on the NIRPC board, told me Tuesday he would be "a staunch advocate" for the interests of south Lake County residents who live in the path of the proposed tollway.
The mayor, also the county's Democratic Party chairman, said he will be voting against the proposal today, and he believes other north county colleagues will be joining him. He said he was moved by video interviews he watched of residents who could lose their "rural dream homes" if the road went through.
McDermott also pointed out the Illiana would encourage sprawl by diverting traffic and business away from his city's urban core. Our views are often at odds, but I agree with the mayor on this salient point. McDermott is showing courage by bucking the labor unions, key supporters of his party who are pushing hard for the Illiana and its promise of union construction jobs.
The impassioned statements of McDermott, typically a fierce partisan Democrat, came no less than an hour after the Lake County Council adopted a resolution opposing the Illiana — a move sponsored by County Councilman Eldon Strong, a staunch south county Republican who has consistently opposed the tollway.
Joining this chorus was County Councilwoman Christine Cid, an East Chicago Democrat who has been brutally at odds with McDermott this year on hot-button political issues including the newly adopted local-option income tax.
The unification of these often-competing voices in their opposition to the Illiana is beginning to resemble the fictional "Who" characters in Dr. Seuss' famous Grinch story. You know, the ones joining hand-in-hand to sing away the evil deeds of the green monster who stole Christmas.
Can this sort of unity last?
Maybe not. But in this fractured county, we have to congregate upon whatever common ground presents itself.
Adoption is one of the most magical things one can experience. It enriches the lives of adopted children and adoptive parents in profound ways.
But the side of adoption lacking luster — keeping it from the reach of some otherwise worthy would-be adoptive parents — is the price tag, often in the tens of thousands of dollars in the Hoosier state.
For a family earning $100,000 a year or less, expenses associated with a typical adoption can equal a third or more of its annual income.
That's why a recent legislative proposal from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence — aimed at softening the blow of the exorbitant legal expenses of adoption — is so worthy of lawmakers' support.
Those who read my column with any regularity know I speak from experience. My wife, twin sons and I welcomed a beautiful baby girl into our home in June 2012 through adoption. My little Izzy and the happiness she carried with her are worth every penny we spent on the process.
Sadly, other less fortunate families abandon this dream because of the often prohibitive costs.
Some financial help for adoptive parents exists in the federal tax code through a 2014 tax credit of up to $13,190 for families earning $197,800 or less. The credit is for adoption-related expenses.
I don't agree with all of Pence's platforms, but I have to laud his proposal heading into 2014 for an Indiana adoption tax credit in line with the federal credit.
The proposed Hoosier adoption credit was obscured by his other plans for new business tax breaks and funding sources for future state roads.
I agree with the spirit of creating a business friendly climate in Indiana. But adoption is crucial to the success, happiness and well-being of so many children in this state, and Pence deserves praise and support for pursuing a climate equally friendly to potential adoptive parents.
The benefits of such a credit go beyond the adoptive parents and the children involved. Birth parents making the selfless and responsible decision to place their unborn or biological children with loving families also benefit.
Birth parents today take increasingly active roles in selecting the adoptive homes through which their children find the love and future all children deserve. An additional adoption credit on the state level equal to the existing federal credit would likely increase the pool of worthy choices for placement of children.
In full disclosure, the governor's plan would have no financial benefit for me. Our adoption is complete, and the hugs, kisses and laughter I'll experience from my 18-month-old daughter when I get home this evening will justify the expense.
But of all the challenges facing many would-be adoptive parents, the prospects of starting a family $30,000 or more in the hole looms large. Legislative approval of the governor's plan would keep more of this money in the hands of adoptive parents for the good of the children for whom they seek to provide.
Take care who you dub an extremist. Sometimes seemingly extreme political positions bring about the middle-of-the-road compromises most of us desire.
Never was this more true than in recent concessions made in Lake County's ever-evolving plans to consolidate 17 police and emergency dispatch centers into one central county hub.
Government leaders in St. John and a few other region municipalities were branded by some as extremists — even racists — in August when they proposed creating two county dispatch centers instead of one after seeing some outrageous price tags and funding strategies proposed by the proponents of a single dispatch center.
The county is five years into a state-mandated consolidation of its emergency dispatches, and it appeared the whole plan had skidded off the road with St. John's late summer secession push.
There's no doubt St. John leaders pushed the envelope in drafting a funding blueprint for separate emergency dispatch centers for the crime-laden urban north section of Lake County and the suburban, largely southern portion of the county. Some folks howled that St. John was motivated by intentions of segregating affluent from disadvantaged communities.
But St. John's supposed extreme approach has brokered a compromise to which Lake County municipalities now seem to be flocking in droves. St. John has abandoned its push for a two-dispatch plan, but it's not a defeat. It's actually a win for the whole county.
Earlier this year, St. John officials — and this columnist — criticized the expenses and proposed financing for the project. The county wanted $56 million over eight years in income tax revenues from cities and towns in addition to all of the property tax revenues that were going to the 17 individual dispatch centers.
St. John pushed for a second dispatch center, promising to lower the costs for suburban municipalities. St. John's desire to see a lowered price tag for the consolidated dispatch center was understandable. Consolidation, after all, is supposed to bring about efficiency and cost savings in government.
Proponents of the single-dispatch blinked first, offering a newly drafted interlocal agreement for the consolidation in which municipalities hold on to that $56 million in public safety income tax revenues. The compromise also drops operational expenses by more than $1 million per year.
So St. John scored a victory that ultimately benefits the rest of us.
Emergency dispatch consolidation remains a bit of a moving target, though. Not all communities have signed on, and the county and municipal leaders still owe it to taxpayers to negotiate competitive, cost-saving contracts with equipment vendors.
But St. John leaders can celebrate a success here. It seems we owe these "extremists" our thanks.
Hoosier state education officials are providing quite the example these days for our children. It's a relief teachers -- not politicians -- are the ones dealing directly with our kids.
A power struggle between the majority of the Indiana Board of Education, loyal to GOP Gov. Mike Pence, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, is truly out of hand.
Unfortunately, most of us have come to expect this type of behavior in government and politics -- the same way we expect a couple of pre-teen siblings to squabble in the backseat during a long road trip. But it crosses the line when the players in this childish game toss out ethics and just barely skirt one of the most important laws protecting the public from potential government insidiousness.
Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, appointed to that office by Pence, recently issued a legal opinion about the behaviors of the Board of Education where public access to their decisions and gatherings are concerned. Though Britt found no violations of law, he concluded the education board created a perception of violating the public trust by operating in the shadows rather than an open public forum.
Britt's recently issued opinion takes on a tone of friendly advice, and all education board members -- Republican, Democrat and independent -- would be wise to follow it.
In October, Superintendent Ritz, apparently tired of being marginalized by the Pence-loyal GOP majority on the board, filed a lawsuit alleging the board, which she chairs, held an illegal meeting. The suit contended the board violated Indiana's Open Door Law by drafting and submitting a letter, without her knowledge or public notice, requesting that a legislative agency calculate the 2011-12 school grades instead of Ritz's office, which typically is charged with the task.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, a Republican, challenged Ritz's ability to file a lawsuit without approval from the attorney general's office, and a Marion County judge agreed, tossing the lawsuit last month.
But that didn't stop former Merrillville schools chief Tony Lux from filing a complaint with the state's public access counselor, leading to Britt's recent legal opinion.
Because education board members made the decision to usurp Ritz's authority via email -- and not through a public vote -- and because the law is ambiguous on whether such an act would constitute a open meetings violation, Britt concluded no law was violated.
However, he also rightfully concluded that even through email, the board created a public perception running counter to "openness and transparency."
"I encourage all public agencies to be especially attentive to the purpose of public access laws to avoid ambiguous situations and arousing suspicions of prohibited activities," Britt wrote.
Education board Republicans and Ritz need to work this out in the light of day -- in public meetings, not through emails and lawsuits.
Perhaps with more eyes watching, the board would be less inclined to play politics with our children's education policy.
Do what is right. Avoid what is wrong.
In the laws of good citizenship, it doesn't get boiled down any simpler. Add to that rule a credo of always seeking and filling a need, and you have the words by which 77-year-old Highland public servant Larry Vassar lived.
Larry knew the importance of passing this ethic on to his four children. His example is something for which we all should be thankful today as we gather around our holiday tables.
Those closest to Larry remember him as an engine of service that never seemed to run out of fuel.
"When he saw a need, he met it," Larry's son Tim told me last week. "And nothing got in the way of that. If somebody needed help, he just did it. He didn't wait to be told."
Larry's children watched his example through volunteer work at their church, St. James in Highland, and eventually through Larry's three decades of service on the Highland School Board.
Larry Vassar's engine never quit. School Board member, father, husband, eucharistic minister, church food drives, Little League coach, cubmaster, Highland Park Board member: For decades, he just wouldn't stop.
Larry always had an affinity for children living with disabilities, Tim recalls. He won his first term on the Highland School Board at a time when it was common practice to place disabled children together in one facility, isolated from the other public schools.
Larry didn't believe it was right. He saw a need. He helped change it.
Larry was on the forefront of what is now known as the inclusion movement, incorporating disabled students into the public schools rather than herding them together in one facility. Today, it's part of the public education fabric.
Outside of the School Board, Larry's other volunteer work continued at a tireless pace. Even a massive heart attack during a schools conference in Florida in 1987 couldn't slow him down. Not even subsequent open-heart surgical repairs in 1996, or the defibrillator and pacemaker inserted in his body to keep his heart beating properly.
No, that just showed him more voids that needed to be filled. He became president of the Munster Mended Hearts chapter, a group offering support for heart patients and their families.
Everything he did influenced his children. Larry's daughter Kim became a nurse. Eldest son Tim became a special education teacher and now serves as principal of Crown Point's Col. John Wheeler Middle School. Larry's son Dan is a Highland Town Council member, and son Patrick is Highland's assistant police chief.
Time catches up to everyone — even the most driven among us. Three weeks ago today, Larry's heart physically quit, and he died at home.
More than 2,000 people attended his visitation, recalling the legacy of a man who lived to serve.
Today, Tim plans to honor his father's memory by bringing Thanksgiving dinner to a Highland family whose patriarch is jobless — a family that otherwise wouldn't have much holiday bounty to celebrate.
It's the best possible Thanksgiving tribute for someone like Larry. Find a need. Fill it. Do what is right. Avoid what is wrong. Find a way to serve.
At least five people should be giving extra thanks during their Thanksgiving dinners for newly approved, lucrative Lake County government contracts that further carve into taxpayers' wallets.
The five stand to make hundreds of thousands in county taxpayer dollars for collecting delinquent property taxes — essentially performing the work of the Lake County treasurer's office. Taxpayers should demand an end to this gravy train.
Delinquent county tax collections put fat turkeys on the tables of politically connected hired guns year after year.
Some of those folks, like former tax collector Roosevelt Powell, haven't exactly fostered confidence we're spending our money wisely. Powell was convicted in 2007 in Hammond federal court for defrauding taxpayers in a Gary land deal.
Powell's crime aside, county officials need to begin explaining why they require so many third-party tax collectors — and other outside consultants — to perform work required of government offices.
Last week, the Lake County commissioners rubber-stamped tax collection contracts with five perennial hired guns, each of whom stands to pocket 10 percent to 15 percent of any delinquent property taxes collected.
Four of the five — Jewell Harris Jr., Ronald Ostojic, John Stanish and Alexander Lopez — collectively made $465,000 last year and netted $107,585 thus far in 2013.
Harris alone received $180,518 in 2012 and collected $73,393 this year to date.
Thanks to new 2014 deals, the tax collectors will have a chance to do it all again. How exciting for them and disappointing for the rest us.
The county treasurer is quick to explain delinquent taxpayers end up funding these third-party collectors through late fees. But wouldn't that money be better used in the county's general fund — you know, the one so economically malnourished that county officials passed a new local income tax earlier this year to fatten it up?
The treasurer's office boasts 37 employees and a $1.8 million budget.
Are any of these folks capable of collecting taxes without the additional expense of a group of virtual bounty hunters?
Delinquent taxes are a hindrance to efficient government. But why must the county so frequently answer inefficiencies with more inefficiencies? If the county staff already receiving government pay and handsome health care and other benefits aren't capable of handling these tasks, perhaps it's time to restructure how the office does business.
The five recently approved tax collection contracts are just a small example of a much larger problem in Lake County. The common denominator is county leaders of nearly all offices farming out millions of dollars in county work each year to third-party vendors to perform government tasks. And it adds up dramatically over the years.
A Times investigation of county spending published in 2010 found $16.9 million spent on third-party consultants over 10 years.
When will the 1,600 full-time county employees, more than 500 part-time employees and their 19 elected bosses actually do the county's work without expensive hand-holding from their private-sector friends?
Last week, I wondered if a particular region government planning agency's board would give any weight to the concerns of south Lake County constituents regarding the proposed Illiana Expressway.
Going forward, some folks are wondering if the agency plans to truly listen to anyone at all.
To be sure, there are some conscientious leaders on the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, a group charged with forming transportation planning and policy for the region. But some of NIRPC's decisions lately to curtail public comment -- and make certain members of the public feel most unwelcome at public meetings -- should leave us all puzzled.
As 2013 wanes, whomever ascends to the NIRPC chairmanship in 2014 needs to consider a more public-friendly approach.
The most recent example came last month when Crown Point Mayor David Uran, who chairs NIRPC, chose to limit the public comment section of the commission's meetings to topics contained on the agenda. Traditionally, public comment sections -- in meetings ranging from NIRPC to city and town councils -- are a forum through which constituents share views or voice grievances.
Uran told The Times he adopted the rule to prevent a meeting takeover, or "filibuster" in his words, of NIRPC business by certain members of the public, including the often vocal and sometimes abrasive leaders of local disability advocacy group, Everybody Counts.
The anti-filibuster rule followed an even more misguided move earlier this summer to call in Portage police to stare down several wheelchair-using, walker-using, elderly and blind folks who carried signs of protest into a NIRPC meeting -- but did so in an orderly, non-disruptive fashion, by the accounts I've heard.
The logic of Uran, who in many ways has done good things for his city, is flawed where the public comment decision is concerned.
Good policy dictates public comment periods be open to anyone who wants to civilly take the floor and respectfully communicate an issue or concern -- and not just an issue drafted by elected leaders. Good leaders listen.
Periods of public comment often occur at the end of a meeting, after agenda items already are discussed or acted upon. That makes it difficult for any one person to "filibuster" during the business portion of a meeting.
Many public boards, councils and commissions adopt time limits into their rules, limiting each public comment to a set number of minutes. Adhering to such rules prevents the hijacking of a meeting without restricting civil discourse.
Much of the motivation behind NIRPC's recent attitude toward the region's vocal disabled community seems to be based on personality -- namely that of Everybody Counts Director Teresa Torres. Some region public officials view Torres as an abrasive malcontent in her quest for accessibility.
But here's another important lesson Uran and other NIRPC officials should learn: Putting up walls, even figurative ones, won't silence determined folks like Torres. It will only make them scream louder.
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion ..."
The words are from an immortal speech — one of the briefest of any great oratories but exceptionally long on brilliance and meaning. I wonder if we still take these words — and the sacrifice they eulogized — to heart.
Arguably the greatest president in our history, Abraham Lincoln spoke these words 150 years ago today, consecrating a cemetery for fallen warriors on the grounds of what remains America's bloodiest battle.
The speech, which became known as the Gettysburg Address, should remind us all of the heroism and bloodletting that forged a foundation for the lives we enjoy today. It's also a reminder to our government leaders not to muck it up any further.
Lincoln, a boyhood Hoosier, followed a two-hour speech by Edward Everett, a Harvard professor and a 19th century oratory rock star, with the two-minute Gettysburg Address. All in attendance on Nov. 19, 1863, were awestruck at both the brevity and power of Lincoln's words, including Everett.
"I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes," Everett wrote to Lincoln in a note of praise after the dedication.
Are we still in awe?
Multiple cases of local government officials on the take, federal government shutdowns prompted by unwillingness to find common ground and misguided federal plans that are high on promises and short on delivery should make us all wonder how deeply we're actually appreciating the sacrifices of our forefathers.
Continuously re-electing the folks who perpetuate these things is more than an about-face on the ideals embodied in Lincoln's century-and-a-half-old address. It's a blatant insult to those who sacrificed for our future.
In July, our nation commemorated the 150th anniversary of the July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg. The nearly 8,000 American lives lost in that Pennsylvania battle of the Civil War led to the consecration of hallowed ground attended by Lincoln that November.
Hundreds of men from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties fought on those fields of sacrifice. Some, like Crown Point's Col. John Wheeler, died at Gettysburg.
I wonder how these men would feel today, looking over the dilapidated landscape of our modern-day government.
Of course, the people of Lincoln's time saw more than their share of factionalism and government disruption. It was a time when half the nation was fighting the other half in what is still America's bloodiest war.
But Lincoln — with his still and steadfast hand — led our nation to victory and reunification.
We can only hope leaders with a fraction of Lincoln's ability still exist to ensure "a government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth."
Certain elements of our society, usually "progressive leaders," dub some naysayers to particular government projects NIMBYs.
For those not up on their alphabet soup, it's an acronym for "Not In My Back Yard." Movers and shakers in policy circles love to slam the heck out of NIMBYs for being shortsighted, selfish and uneducated enemies of progress.
But take a close look at the haters of the NIMBYs, and I'll bet you'll find the project they're pushing doesn't go through their own backyards. It goes through somebody else's.
We've been seeing it for decades in the region's grand quest for an Illiana Expressway.
From the way supporters of this would-be new major south Lake County interstate speak of the plan, one would think it akin to the elusive Northwest Passage. You know, the waterway long sought by early explorers to link the Atlantic and Pacific through North America — the waterway that has been mostly unnavigable because of arctic pack ice and, more recently, international right-of-way disputes.
I've yet to see evidence of overwhelming merit the Illiana, proposed as a toll road, would bring to our region.
In fact, the only thing the proposed Illiana holds in common with the ancient notions of uncharted spice routes and sea-to-shining-sea waterways are their elusive paths to reality.
I've been hearing about this proposed roadway for the decade I've lived in Northwest Indiana, and I'm assured by older, grayer colleagues its discussions far exceed my time here.
I realize plenty of otherwise brilliant transportation planners believe in the merits of the expressway, which would connect Interstate 55 in Illinois and Interstate 65 in Indiana.
Republican Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Democratic Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn — political oil and water, if I've ever seen it — both think it's a great idea, too.
But they haven't made their case to me — and certainly not to a number of Lowell-area and south suburban residents who would literally have the new expressway running through their backyards.
The Illiana would run considerably farther south than the region's established industrial and transportation corridors, in my view making it impractical.
If the prospects of a future third regional airport in Peotone, Ill., weren't so laughable, I might argue — as other Hoosier Illiana opponents have done — that an Illiana Expressway would help make that project a reality, flying in the face of Northwest Indiana's personal interest in seeing the Gary airport achieve such status.
But the proposed Peotone airport is still a series of farm fields, and I don't see that changing anytime soon — if ever.
In the end, neither my protests nor those of the Lowell-area residents will likely matter. A major Illinois transportation planning agency already has added the Illiana to its long-term plan. And it would seem the deck is stacked for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission to do the same.
That is, unless NIRPC leaders listen to some of their south county constituents.
But why should they? After all, the proposed Illiana probably won't run through their backyards.
My Grandad could drink, smoke and swear like a sailor -- probably because from 1942-1945 he was one.
He spoke very little about his service as a lieutenant on a U.S. Navy troop transport ship during World War II. So this past Veterans Day, I focused on remembering the man I knew, trying to connect the dots between that person and his military service.
I'm not sure how successful I was, but the jaunt down memory lane was fantastic. So was the reminder how imperfect the heroes in our lives can be.
Like many of us, Grandad could make some pretty bad decisions in life. These decisions contributed to his divorce from my grandmother when I was 6 years old.
He also could be very abrupt and impatient.
I swear the line in the movie, "A Christmas Story" -- pertaining to Ralphie's father working in profanity the way other artists worked in oils and clays -- was written about Grandad.
But just as he could cuss a fly off a post at 50 yards, we all knew he would walk through fire for any one of us.
In the years before he moved away, I remember waking on Christmas mornings to a man sipping coffee at the kitchen table of the small apartment I shared with my Mom and older brother.
"Merry Christmas, Polo Fella," he would say, using the informal version of my Marco Polo nickname growing up.
The living room would be adorned with presents -- none wrapped and all assembled the night before while we slept. I grew up thinking Santa repetitively swore at the convoluted assembly directions for G.I. Joe airplanes and Star Wars spaceships.
Despite the sometimes biting profanity -- which could be both hair-raising and hilarious -- he also could be the kindest, most generous of men.
He was my Grandad, but also a father figure for the first decade of my life without the presence of an actual dad.
I remember long walks on the beach when I would pay him summer visits in South Carolina after he moved away.
He loved the ocean. You could tell it by the way his breathing changed -- deepened -- when we hit the sand and watched the surf.
Occasionally on these walks and hunts for fossilized shark teeth, he would remember something aloud from his Navy service.
Once or twice, he recalled his nights at sea -- in both the African and European theaters -- wondering if his ship would survive the German submarines lurking in the black abyss.
His eyes would drift from the shoreline out to the crashing waves of the Atlantic. He would fire up a cigarette, and then we would move on.
I miss those times, the waves and sands of boyhood and the quiet, deep moments during which so much was communicated with so little actually said.
Grandad died in 2006, going the way of so many from that great generation.
The differing elements that made him who he was help remind me today that heroes -- men and women of service -- exist in all forms, even imperfect ones.
Indeed, those imperfections make the hero qualities all the more astounding.
Happy Veterans Day, Grandad, and to all the perfectly imperfect heroes everywhere.
Think you've got it rough, do you? Then you haven't heard about the life of Merrillville's Israel Pierce.
The true tale of this hardened combat veteran should be enough to give us all pause as we consider so many tragic heroes of our nation's past and present this coming Veterans Day Monday.
Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking details is the profoundly horrible job our government did of assisting Pierce after his debilitating Army service was over.
But his military service also began with the most painful of tragedies a parent could imagine. Two months before enlisting, Pierce and his wife, Mary, lost their infant son to sickness.
They had no sooner buried little Major Pierce at the Merrillville Cemetery on 73rd Avenue when Pierce joined a number of his friends in arms, riding a wave of patriotism that often swells when our nation is threatened.
Personal tragedy wasn't enough to keep Pierce, a salt-of-the-earth farmer by trade, from his nation's call to duty.
For nearly four years, Sgt. Pierce threw his body into the service of this country, suffering wounds along the way of both body and spirit. Bullets grazed his flesh, friends died around him and the rigors of war took his healthy body and replaced it with an arthritic shell.
At the end of his service and the great war of his time, Pierce returned home. It should have been to adoring cheers, but it wasn't.
The rheumatism infesting Pierce's joints made working his Merrillville farm exceptionally difficult and painful.
The government he had served didn't do anything to cushion the blow. For the better part of two decades after returning home, Pierce petitioned unsuccessfully for a government disability pension.
Several of his fellow veterans testified and filed affidavits on his behalf.
But the government wasn't biting.
Twenty years after leaving the service — his body used up and put away wet and the demons of war still plaguing his psyche — Pierce tied a rope to the rafters of his barn and hanged himself.
The horrors of some veterans returning from service and taking their own lives have been documented in modern news accounts. But it's a tragic side of patriotism — a black stripe in the otherwise red, white and blue bunting — that has been part of our nation's fabric for generations.
Pierce served in the American Civil War. He was a combat veteran of the 99th Indiana Infantry, a regiment that lost 178 of its 984 members to disease or fatal battlefield injuries through the course of the 1861-1865 war. So many more came home robbed of limbs or normal function.
The tale of Pierce's fight for post-war government benefits is well documented in military pension files still maintained by Crown Point's Alice Smedstad, Pierce's great-great granddaughter.
Those documents are more than 100 years old.
Let's keep that in mind as we honor the living veterans of more modern eras and consider their needs for both physical and psychological care after they have risked their lives for us. Stories of neglecting the nation's finest shouldn't be etched in our history.
Lake County Republicans took steps both forward and backward last week in their caucus election of a new county assessor, and time will tell if it’s a shining party moment or a colossal failure to achieve unity.
It all depends on the crucial next move of party leadership, but Lake County GOP party Chairman Dan Dernulc took a step in the right direction Monday night.
On one hand, the party precinct committeemen chose Jolie Covaciu to replace the late assessor – and local party hero -- Hank Adams. Just as Adams’ election in 2010 made history with the ascension of the first GOP candidate to a county-wide office in 50 years, Covaciu’s caucus election Friday marked the first woman ever – from either party – to hold the assessor’s office.
In that sense, Covaciu’s victory in caucus election was a big step forward for the local GOP – often associated with the same old men’s club stigma of the national party. A qualified woman capturing an office that always had been occupied by men is a victory for Lake County politics in general.
But Covaciu’s success also revealed some of the deep fractures that persist in the local party. She was not the party leadership’s pick to carry forth the legacy of reform created by Adams, who died recently after a long fight with cancer.
Dernulc and other party leadership had anointed another woman, assessor’s office employee Debra Johnson, to become Adams’ successor. Adams’ widow, St. John Township Trustee Jean Shepherd, also endorsed Johnson as the person Adams would have wanted to succeed him.
Another faction of the local party, however, including former Chairwoman Kim Krull, favored Covaciu over Johnson. That faction got its way in a very close vote, with some Johnson detractors questioning her last-minute establishment of property ownership in the county – a requirement for assessors in the Hoosier state.
So what does all this mean?
It shows first and foremost that local Republicans aren’t nearly as united as they will need to be to achieve goals in forthcoming elections against highly entrenched Lake County Democrats.
So sure was Dernulc that Johnson was the right candidate, he certified her as a Republican even though she had a partial voting past as a Democrat. It was the right thing to do for an office that required certain certifications and experience that Johnson possessed. I lauded him last week for reaching across party lines in this decision.
But he declined to certify Covaciu as a Republican ahead of the caucus, which was a misstep. It inflamed some in the party and emboldened their decision to contradict Dernulc’s choice at the caucus.
Dernulc made that right Monday night. He said he met with the victorious Covaciu and certified her as a Republican, even though Covaciu, like Johnson, has voted in past Democratic primaries.
A party that constantly is several votes behind in achieving its political agenda can’t afford to ignore opportunities for finding common ground within its own ranks. It’s up to party leaders to decide if Covaciu’s election becomes a gaping wound for the party – or a source of unity and strength.
We hold police to higher standards of ethics and conduct for good reason. They carry guns, are trained to make life-and-death decisions and are expected to exercise good judgment in the process.
This higher standard doesn't dissipate when officers are participating in activities of their fraternal groups. Image is everything, something the Schererville Fraternal Order of Police forgot recently when selecting a site for its annual turkey raffle.
Schererville residents should be crying -- well -- fowl.
The fraternity of Schererville cops was all set to stage the raffle at Spike's Lakeside Inn 2 -- the same business stormed by Indiana State Excise Police earlier this year in an alleged illegal Super Bowl gambling raid.
What were police thinking when making this decision -- presumably with full knowledge of the bar's background in the publicized February gambling raid?
At the time, the bar was cited with three violations of the state's Alcoholic Beverage Code: maintaining a public nuisance, failing to maintain good character and a violation of gaming endorsement. The violations involved about 400 people and more than $200,000 in illegal gambling proceeds, excise police said earlier this year.
The excise police agency did not return calls this week seeking comment on the disposition of the case and investigation that ensued. Spike's attorney, Paul Stracci, confirmed Wednesday the civil code violations are pending before the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, though no criminal charges have been filed in the mattter.
Schererville police Officer Steve Burton, president of the local fraternal order, said the original decision to have the November raffle at Spike's was based on tradition. The bar has hosted the raffle for the past 24 years, he said.
The raid earlier this year and an investigation into gambling allegations should have prompted a break with tradition.
But the Schererville FOP went ahead with the decision, much to the chagrin of some officers in its ranks who didn't want that kind of association. The FOP printed and hung posters advertising Spike's as the host of the fundraiser.
What happened next is embarrassing.
Turkey raffles are considered gambling activities, requiring the blessing of the Indiana Gaming Commission via permit. So the FOP applied for its permit to hold the raffle at Spike's.
But the commission denied the permit at that location, Burton acknowledged.
Perhaps Gaming Commission officials realized what evaded the FOP, even if commission officials won't say it directly. When I contacted the commission Wednesday, it confirmed talks are ongoing with the FOP for a new location.
So the FOP is looking for another site at which to host its raffle, which Burton says raises $3,000 to $5,000 every year to cover the group's insurance.
That search should have occurred at the beginning. Northwest Indiana is nothing if not home to banquet halls and meeting sites galore, including a brand new $2.3 million Schererville Community Center.
In the future, the FOP should try to look more like a fraternity of upstanding cops rather than a good old boys' poker club.
Desperate times indeed call for desperate measures in some cases. But a sign of good leadership in politics is tackling a desperate measure with thoughtfulness -- acting in the best possible interest of taxpayers.
Lake County Republicans have been up against the wall lately trying to pick a successor for late county Assessor Hank Adams. Adams scored a rare GOP win for a countywide office in 2010, and his recent death created a party dilemma.
Most Republicans and Democrats agree -- privately if not out in the open -- that whomever the Republican caucus picks to serve out the remainder of Adams' term very well could be a sacrificial lamb for the November 2014 general election. Democrats in this Democratic county are seen as a near-lock to win back the assessor's seat.
To find a qualified candidate to endorse -- and have the slimmest of prayers to carry forward Adams' many reforms -- Lake County GOP Chairman Dan Dernulc thought outside of the box.
Dernulc is endorsing current county assessor's office employee Debra Johnson for the seat, to be decided in a Republican Party caucus Friday.
Cedar Lake resident Jolie Covaciu also said she is throwing her hat into the ring for the GOP nod, which ultimately will be decided by the county's Republican precinct committeemen.
I make no judgments here about the value of one candidate over another, but I do appreciate the sentiment of Dernulc's endorsement of Johnson.
You see, Johnson has not always voted as a Republican. In a recent election cycle, Johnson voted in the Democratic primary.
But she appears to have been a favorite employee of Adams and worked in the past for former GOP Center Township Assessor Martha Wheeler.
Dernulc, the region's Republican General Assembly delegates and the state party leaders -- all of whom Dernulc said blessed Johnson's candidacy -- deserve praise for looking beyond the party line in choosing their candidate to replace Adams.
Any candidate for county assessor requires what is called a "level three" assessor's certification from the state. Johnson has that already.
Dernulc said Johnson also is the person Adams would want to replace him. Adams' widow Jean Shepherd, who is St. John Township's trustee, backed that up with an endorsement of Johnson.
County assessors need to own property in the county they represent. Until a few days ago, Johnson, of Crown Point, was a dwelling renter, not a county property owner.
But she's serious about taking the job and appears to have satisfied the ownership requirement last week by purchasing land in Lake Station.
Johnson may have no chance at all to defeat the Democratic assessor's race nominee in the November 2014 general election.
But there is some great symbolism here we all should note. Dernulc has considered credentials and track record, not strictly party affiliation or voting record, by endorsing Johnson.
Given recent federal government shutdowns induced by partisan extremism on both sides, we can only hope this local example spreads to other levels of government.
Don't let the facts get in the way of a bad lawsuit. That's what we're being asked to swallow in a civil lawsuit pending in Hammond federal court.
Crown Point taxpayers — and all of us, really — likely will be paying in the case of the two Siberian huskies that city police shot dead in July as the dogs aggressively circled the officers and property owners in the Liberty Park subdivision.
The owners of the dogs — which were running around free on someone else's property, collarless, leashless and sinking their canines into a neighbor's cat — have filed a civil rights lawsuit in Hammond federal court against the city and the Crown Point police.
All taxpayers should be livid.
The lawsuit filed by dog owners Bradley Nitz and Lindsay Schild claims their Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the shooting of the dogs constituted an illegal seizure.
Had the police stormed onto the dog owners' property and actually seized or shot the dogs there, I would be inclined to agree.
But that's not what happened here. The police shot the dogs on a plot of land that did not belong to the dog owners. The dogs had broken free while being watched by a friend of the dog owners.
When police came upon the scene, the dogs already had dragged a cat around like a rag doll and were aggressively encircling the cat owner, who was trying to protect his cat. The dog owners, who weren't present at the scene when this was going on, deny in their lawsuit their dogs were acting aggressively.
But the police account was backed up by at least three witnesses, plus five responding police officers.
Nevertheless, the dog owners want us all to pay. Crown Point — and its police — will have to pay to defend themselves against this lawsuit in federal court.
Unfortunately, so many of these lawsuits against municipalities end up with an out-of-court settlement — a payout to the plaintiffs that would be cheaper than litigating the case. Let's hope that doesn't happen.
Meanwhile, the rest of us taxpayers outside of Crown Point are paying, too. Our income tax dollars fund the federal court system providing the venue for this lawsuit. It's an important venue of justice that sadly often is used for very unimportant, frivolous purposes.
The lawsuit also claims Crown Point officers weren't properly trained or disciplined in the matter. The suit claims the officers were "trigger-happy."
It overlooks that police are supposed to operate under one main premise: to serve and protect people. Officers attempted to subdue the dogs with pepper spray. It didn't work.
In the news business, we've all heard the sarcastic phrase, "Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story." In this case, we're being asked not to let the facts get in the way of a bad lawsuit.
A major government plan five years in the making shouldn't feel like the kind of high-pressure sales pitch one would face on a used car lot.
But that's really what it feels like right now in Lake County's quest to adopt a consolidated emergency 911 dispatch system prompted by state mandate.
In principle, consolidation of the county's 17 police, fire and ambulance dispatches into one shared system is a sound idea with potential to enhance efficiency -- and therefore safety -- while saving taxpayer dollars.
But we have been told by the Lake County bean counters and bookkeepers the price tag actually will be higher in the long run -- even though the county's municipalities will be sharing a presumably smaller number of dispatchers than currently exist across the 17 individual centers.
With a looming deadline of Dec. 31, 2014, some local police chiefs and other sitting on the county's 911 commission are pressuring local government leaders to act now.
They want an interlocal agreement to participate in the plan signed yesterday, and they want the county commissioners to approve Motorola as the provider for tens of millions of dollars in communications equipment. A competitive bid could lower the final rate, but the Motorola proponents feel the state already has vetted Motorola as a preferred provider.
To date, the County Board of Commissioners have wisely pushed forward to seek competitive bids for the communications equipment, in spite of this high-pressure sales tactic.
Motorola is on the state's preferred list, but that doesn't mean the county couldn't get a better deal -- even from Motorola itself -- by forcing competition for the county's business. Most of us understand the laws of capitalism in which competition forces more competitive (lower) prices or better services for our buck.
Real evidence shows competitive bids work for this very purpose. Following years of simply renewing contracts with existing major vendors, the county recently opened up for bid its contracts for the administration of employees' insurance, information technology and building climate control.
The bidding process already prompted the county's existing insurance administrator to drop its future rate by at least $400,000 per year.
The commissioners feel they have time to run an open bid for the E-911 communications equipment and still meet the state's deadline. They owe it to their constituents -- and the spirit of good government -- to try.
I don't fault the town of St. John, and other Lake County municipalities, for questioning the existing estimated costs of the 911 consolidation or for demanding that proposed costs be cut.
That discomfort has led St. John and some other local officials to propose two consolidated dispatch centers -- literally to separate urban from suburban dispatches.
This concept would fly in the face of the good government the state seeks to install here and should be avoided. But so do high-pressure sales pushes and crusades against those who seek fiscal responsibility.
If you lock someone out after he or she already paid admission, an angry protest is sure to follow.
In a way, that's what we saw over the weekend in Washington, D.C. -- but in a so much more important way.
Thousands of veterans toppled barricades at the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and other temples of patriotic sacrifice in our nation's capital Sunday in protest of this ridiculous government shutdown.
We've also seen it in the groups of hikers, campers and other National Parks enthusiasts who have crossed barricades in recent weeks, refusing to allow a shutdown fueled by childish political one-upmanship to keep them off the land their tax dollars and citizenship have purchased.
But what the veterans did in a Sunday march on Washington resonates in a far more powerful manner.
Our veterans have paid for all of us to access these monuments through more than just tax dollars. They've done so by putting their lives on the line in the name of country, charging up hills or storming beaches in a driving rain of lead. So many have paid in blood.
Griffith Clerk-Treasurer George Jerome is one of those veterans, a Marine who served in the Vietnam War.
George was among the scores of vets who pulled down barricades at some of our nation's key monuments Sunday. It was a worthy act of peaceful, civil disobedience -- something upon which so many important things in our country have been founded.
I know George, and I've seen him irked before -- usually when he thinks taxpayers are getting hosed by political scams. But the federal government shutdown leading to barricades in front of these monuments made him angrier than most Lake County flim-flam scams ever could.
Not far from the World War II and Lincoln memorials where George and other veterans gathered in protest is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- commonly referred to as "the Wall."
George has friends whose names are inscribed in stone on that wall -- men who died for the very government whose players have hijacked all of us in this shutdown and debt ceiling debacle.
In addition to facing off with U.S. Park Police -- who, to their credit, respectfully stepped back and allowed the vets to protest -- George took time to visit the wall.
He found the name of his class of 1966 Griffith High School classmate Dave Bryant inscribed there. Bryant paid with his life in a war that wasn't exactly embraced by the populace at the time.
George was protesting with men like Bryant in mind.
He and countless other veterans question whether the government is spending more time and money putting up barricades than dealing with the root of the diseases plaguing Washington.
We have relied so often on the bravery of our military men and women to keep our nation safe -- to protect our interests with their lives. Perhaps now we should look to them again -- this time for wisdom.
We all should be demanding the removal of such barricades -- both the physical ones from in front of our monuments and the figurative ones prohibiting civil discourse and compromise in our government.
"Why is your daughter black?"
It was an innocent enough question asked of me on a recent Saturday at Collins Park in Crown Point. A little girl -- about 7 or 8 years old, I'm guessing -- licked an ice cream cone and asked me about my daughter, Izzy, as we headed toward a kingdom of play equipment.
But the innocence of the inquiry didn't keep this pushing-40 white guy -- usually not short on things to say -- from staring speechless for a few seconds. A bead of sweat began forming just below my hairline. I had never faced such a question before.
When I regained verbal balance, I tried to keep the answer simple.
"Because she was born that way," I said. "Isn't she beautiful?"
Without missing a beat, the inquisitive little girl then asked, "So her mom must be black then?"
My wife, with her Irish heritage, is whiter than me, I said to myself, finding it difficult to repress a chuckle.
"No, her mommy is white too," I actually said. "We adopted her. She's our daughter."
The concept of adoption must have been foreign because I could see confusion set in on the girl's face just before she ran off to another section of the park.
Izzy is only 16 months old, just discovering she too can run, so she didn't leave me much time to ponder the dialogue I just had with the other little girl.
But later that day, in a rare quiet moment, I realized the answers to the little girl's questions might be more complicated than what I could coherently provide to a child. I shouldn't have felt uncomfortable earlier in the day, but I did.
Someday, I'll have to provide these answers to Izzy when the differences in our complexion become more apparent to her. They're answers that force me to stop and think about the diversity issues in our entire region, not just my own family.
Our daughter is black because she was born that way. We have a black daughter because I proudly have a wife who agreed skin color makes no difference in the ability to love and be loved.
We have a black daughter because a black birth mother chose a white couple from a diverse set of potential adoptive parent profiles.
Most importantly, we have a black daughter because the child truly born of our hearts happens to be black.
I've come to learn when you truly love a person, you forget about skin hue.
More than a year into being a daddy to a wonderful little girl with an infectious smile, hilarious faux-evil laugh and a budding vocabulary, I realize more now than ever that skin color makes zero difference when considering matters of the heart.
It doesn't make a difference in other matters either -- not in determining intelligence, ignorance, propriety or human decency. It's a shame how important skin color remains to so many people of all colors -- how uncomfortable the issue can make us feel.
The little girl who asked me why my daughter was black was indeed white. But does it matter?
I hope if I'm ever asked such a question again, I remember to say I have a black daughter -- not just because she was born that way -- but because skin color truly doesn't matter.
Lake County government — including most of its municipalities — is an absolute master at inventing excessive layers of bureaucracy, furthering inefficiencies and encouraging gridlock by way of foot dragging.
So the Indiana Legislature — most of whose downstate leaders are well versed in our dead-end politics and processes — should have thought better of it when tossing another dead-weight layer atop an already rotund system.
Some of you might have heard recently when county leaders were partaking in the most futile of annual functions: reviewing the budgets of city, school and town units of government.
Every year since 2008 — when the leaves start thinking about taking on an autumn hue — the Lake County Council follows a state edict to review all local government budgets before sending the ledgers on to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance for final approval.
To be clear, all Indiana county councils must do the same thing under a law enacted by the Legislature that year. But why?
The review by county officials is nonbinding. In fact, one county finance expert likened it to a game of cut-and-paste in which the county just mimics the same numbers requested by the municipalities and school boards — void of any critique or input.
The bite in the law is less than a toothless man gumming a rare chuck steak.
Perhaps to their credit, the Lake County Council tried to take it seriously back in 2008, giving some nonbinding input to local government leaders regarding their budgets. A red light meant something was askew in the numbers, a yellow meant problems could exist in the numbers, and a green light meant the dollars and cents all added up.
But the Department of Local Government Finance put the kibosh on that process, instructing Lake County leaders to avoid input or feedback.
Before going further, let me acknowledge that the historic wastefulness and bloated patronage spending of Lake County government made the advice given somewhat dubious — or even laughable. But hey, at least they were trying.
And what's the point of a budgetary review that lacks teeth for any kind of enforcement, remediation or even basic financial input?
Too many laws in Indiana already lack the incisors to be effective. We have open records laws that lack any true bite unless a wronged party takes it to court — and wins — after legal expense. Drunken driving charges — in Lake County, at least — are frequently pleaded down to lesser reckless driving charges, carrying much lighter penalties.
This mandated county budget review belongs in the same general category.
The Department of Local Government Finance, which already holds the binding thumbs up or down for local government budgets, is check-and-balance enough.
The Legislature should revisit this meaningless process — and use the real teeth it possesses to remove it.
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