MARK KIESLING: Opera house needs structural, financial inspection

2012-12-12T00:00:00Z 2012-12-20T21:25:34Z MARK KIESLING: Opera house needs structural, financial inspection nwitimes.com
December 12, 2012 12:00 am

Two things have to be done before Porter County sinks any more tax money into its Memorial Opera House.

The first is to find out what former operations manager Brian Schafer did with $235,374 in tax money designated for maintenance which was spent on other things.

By a 4-3 margin, the Porter County Council in November 2011 allocated a quarter of a million dollars in tax money for the upgrades.

No one is saying Schafer personally benefited, and he was given authorization (by whom, we do not know) to spend roughly half the money on operations.

Instead, he spent only on operations and not on maintenance, necessitating emergency action by the county commissioners to issue a no-bid contract to fix water issues that should have been addressed with the 2011 allocation.

Of the original $250,000 he was given, only $14,626 remains in the account.

Why did he spend that $235,374 without fixing the building?

The second is to do a structural analysis to see if the building is safe to occupy and worth the money that's going to have to be spent to restore the building's interior and exterior.

It was built in 1893 as a memorial to soldiers from the Civil War by the Grand Army of the Republic.

A study done by DLZ five years ago suggested the Opera House would need $1 million in upgrades. Who knows what that figure is now?

Schafer left and was replaced by Michelle Smith, who said she was told (again, by whom?) to keep spending the income tax money on operational costs, partly to cover some $80,000 in bills she inherited from Schafer.

Smith confirmed nothing has been spent on maintenance.

So commissioners last week infused an additional $225,000 of tax money on an emergency no-bid contract to fix the building's roof and brick walls.

Some elected officials want the county to divest itself of the Opera House, saying the taxpayers should not be in the business of entertainment, but providing basic county services.

Smith, the new operations manager, says she sees no more need for tax money and that the Opera House will be financially self-sustaining through ticket sales, fundraising and grant writing.

For now, take the risk. But find out why money earmarked for maintenance wasn't used for that, and find out if the building can safely be occupied.

All the tragedy should remain onstage, Romeo, not in the audience.

The opinions are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at mark.kiesling@nwi.com or (219) 933-4170.

The opinions are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at mark.kiesling@nwi.com or (219) 933-4170.

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