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Lawmakers consider draining some members to improve effectiveness of Kankakee River Basin Commission

Former state Rep. Scott Pelath, now the executive director of the Kankakee River Basin Commission, at podium left, speaks Tuesday to the Indiana House Committee on Government Reduction about a proposal to reduce the commission's size to 9 members from 24. House Bill 1270 was unanimously approved by the committee and next will be considered by the full House.

INDIANAPOLIS — The eight-county commission tasked with minimizing the impact of Kankakee River flooding in Northwest Indiana may be slimmed down in the hope of improving its effectiveness.

House Bill 1270, which won unanimous committee approval Tuesday, would shrink the current, 24-member Kankakee River Basin Commission to a 9-member panel, with each member required to have experience in construction, project management, flood control or drainage.

One member would be appointed by the county commissioners in each of the eight counties whose water drains into the Kankakee River, including Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. The ninth member would be appointed by the governor.

State Rep. Doug Gutwein, R-Francesville, the sponsor of the proposal, said his goal is to streamline the commission because right now "there's just too many people on that commission," he said. "They don't get anything done."

The commission's shortcomings were made clear last February when historic flooding along the Kankakee River washed out roads, a bridge and caused millions of dollars in damage to public and private property.

A study is underway to identify potential remedies. Gutwein said he wants the new commission in place by July 1 and prepared to act on those recommendations once they're finalized later this year.

"We'll never stop the flooding, but we can control it better," Gutwein said. "We can flood the right spots and so forth, but that's not what's happening — it's going everywhere now."

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Gutwein's proposal does not address how the revamped commission would pay for flood control improvements.

He said that likely will require a future assessment be imposed on properties served by the commission, similar to the extra property tax charge paid by land owners living near the once flood-prone Little Calumet River in Lake County.

Former state Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, who now serves as the commission's executive director, said funding will be key to determining whether the new commission is any more effective than the current one.

"If we go from 24 people down to nine people and there's no resources to do the major work that needs to be done, then it's just a smaller group of people having coffee," Pelath said.

State Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, who previously represented Porter County on the commission and served as its chairman for two years, said changing the commission will help bring in more federal, state and local dollars for flood mitigation efforts.

"I strongly support the idea of reducing the commission members down to one per county," Aylesworth said. "It's a process that needs to happen."

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