Merrillville residents ask legislators about veterans court, unequal treatment
By Karen Caffarini Post-Tribune correspondent February 23, 2013 5:02PM
Updated: March 25, 2013 6:44AM
MERRILLVILLE — A proposed bill that would establish a veterans court in Lake County dominated discussion at a legislative forum Saturday, with veterans urging its passage and representatives of not-for-profit agencies asking that their funds not be diluted in the process.
“A lot of veterans in the area are worried about House Bill 1016. We hope you guys support the bill in the Senate,” said Pat O’Donnell, vice chairman of the Northwest Indiana Veterans Commission and host of a WJOB veterans program.
O’Donnell was one of many Northwest Indiana residents who packed the Merrillville Town Hall Saturday for a forum with several state legislators and local officials. Many of the legislators voiced their support of the bill.
“I totally agree with the veterans court. It’s something we owe them and should give them,” said State Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond.
The proposed bill calls for a problem-solving court that would provide three benefits for veterans, according to Lake County Sheriff John Buncich: law enforcement, intervention and prevention.
Michael Sparber, chairman of Northwest Indiana Veterans Action Coalition, said there are five such courts in the state, including one in Porter County. He said they would take veterans who have committed misdemeanors and Class D felonies out of the regular court system and into the veterans court.
Sparber said many of these veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder or suffer from homelessness, domestic abuse and other transitional issues.
“This would be a fail-safe way to get them back on their feet,” Sparber said.
However, the proposed bill calls for the cost of running the court to be supplemented with not more than 50 percent of the funds in the county’s drug-free community fund. And that is what some other agencies objected to.
Sister Peg Spindler, director of Sojourner Truth House in Gary, said she is in favor of Bill 1016 except for the part that it takes money away from the Lake County Substance Abuse Council.
“We really need that funding. Our clients are going through trauma, too. You’re taking money from one group and giving it to another,” Spindler said.
Amanda Morrison, Lake County Substance Abuse Council coordinator, said the 50 percent cut would come on top of funds that have already been cut.
State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said they shouldn’t be fighting over $400,000, the amount the 50 percent comes out to. And State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, pointed out that the grant the council received was competitive and there was no guarantee it would receive any money.
“There is zero dollars going to veterans now. This is a compromise. There is no perfect world,” Reardon said.
A proposed casino bill that would shift some casino tax revenue away from local governments to the state, education and the unequal way state officials treat Northwest Indiana communities were also discussed.
Smith said he tried to get two bills that would help Merrillville on the floor, but both were rejected.
One would have allowed a one-time tax increment financing district to help fund public safety and the other would have allowed the town to institute a 1 percent food and beverage tax. He said he was told no community would get an individual tax.
“Then this past week Cloverdale, a Republican community, was allowed a 1 percent food and beverage tax. I went ballistic. It’s unfair to do for one community and not another,” Smith said. “It’s difficult waters down there.”
Merrillville Councilman Shawn Pettit, D-6th, said the town has been seeking local fiscal home rule in order to pass either a hotel/motel tax or food and beverage tax.
“We just ask to please give us the tools to fund our district,” he said.
Merrillville resident and retired teacher, Ann Collins, said Indiana never put its heart into education.
“First there was the addition of charter schools, now private schools. The state is saying we can’t educate our children, we need to try something else. Isn’t that a disgrace,” she said.