MARC CHASE: Porter County windfall requires compromise

2014-02-04T00:00:00Z 2014-02-04T12:14:05Z MARC CHASE: Porter County windfall requires compromiseMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
February 04, 2014 12:00 am  • 

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.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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