RENSSELAER | A Jasper County judge ruled Friday the Porter County Council overstepped its legal bounds when it voted a year ago to withdraw from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
The county cannot vote to leave the regional group because rather than electing to join, it was required to join by state law, Jasper County Circuit Court Judge John Potter said.
"The only option Porter County had was whether or not to utilize the option of a (county economic development income tax) increase to fund their financial requirements to the RDA," Potter said.
The judge said the only county given an option to join the RDA was LaPorte, which has not taken that step.
Porter County was ordered to resume paying its $3.5 million in annual dues and turn over by May 1 all overdue payments that have been held in an escrow account since the county initiated the legal challenge on Aug. 28.
The RDA board of directors released a statement that it was pleased with the ruling and pointed out that five communities in Porter County have passed resolutions this year supporting the regional effort with Lake County.
"People have recognized the value of the RDA, and we look forward to focusing our mission in Porter County," the group said in the statement.
While there was not yet a consensus Friday among council members on whether to appeal the decision, member Rita Stevenson and others said they were surprised to learn that they were already part of the RDA when asked to vote on the issue May 24, 2005.
"We were under the impression that our vote counted," said Stevenson, who cast a favorable vote in 2005, only to join a slim majority in April 2009 to withdraw from the RDA.
Stevenson said she and other council members were heavily lobbied to join the RDA both ahead of the vote and during a lengthy public hearing held the evening of the 2005 vote.
Former council member Jim Burge, who was pleased with Friday's ruling, said he too was under the impression that his vote to double the local income tax was a decision to join the RDA.
"If we had voted no, we would not be part of the RDA," he said.
RDA attorney David Hollenbeck, who had represented the County Council at the time of the 2005 vote, declined comment Friday when asked whether he had made it clear to members the county was already part of the RDA.
Minutes from the May 24, 2005, council meeting, which are available at the county's Web site, have former council member William Carmichael making a motion for the county to participate in the RDA and fund the move by adopting an ordinance doubling the income tax.
Council member Dan Whitten called Friday's ruling dangerous and asked what is to keep state lawmakers from deciding to increase the county's RDA dues or come up with another reason to send money to Lake County.
"We cannot let this stand," he said.
Council member Karen Conover was pleased by Friday's ruling and said her peers voting to leave the RDA had not given the effort enough time.
She hopes the RDA will yet succeed, despite this "black cloud of controversy."