First stab at Lake County budget mess ‘just scratching the surface’
By Carrie Napoleon Post-Tribune correspondent September 25, 2012 6:50PM
Updated: October 27, 2012 6:16AM
CROWN POINT — In what officials called a starting point, dramatic first steps were taken Tuesday in an effort to shore up the county’s $4.1 million budget deficit and find up to $17 million more for additional considerations in 2013.
A multifaceted six-step plan that incorporates cuts, borrowing and legislative action was revealed to mixed reviews from council members. Officials took some of the recommended steps but stalled when it came to slashing $1 million from the Lake County Park Department’s budget.
Also on the chopping block but not yet considered is the elimination of 13 police positions that were created in January.
“We are just scratching the surface. Everybody will be hurting by the end of the day if we do everything that is recommended,” said Councilman Michael Repay, D-Hammond. Repay was among the councilmen on the committee tasked with formulating a possible way out of the county’s financial crisis.
Along with the cutting phase of the plan, recommendations call for enacting ordinances to establish a borrowing policy and committee to oversee the county’s borrowing efforts to fund capital projects and create a payback plan. The recommendation also includes calls for action to create an enforce civil unit tax cap control, support legislation to remove the punitive 0 percent growth quotient and remove the supplemental school levy.
Committee members also suggested creating a strategic plan to prioritize activities and investigate additional revenue sources available to the county.
Council President Jerome Prince, D-Gary, said the plan is dramatic but it is the only one that has come before the council in the last three weeks of budget sessions. Prince said council members until this point have not made suggestions, offered solutions or set priorities.
“There are a number of suggestions here. If we aren’t going to accept the plan, does anybody have a plan? We need to move on,” Prince said.
Councilman Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said the council has already cut the park department’s budget by more than $1 million in the last two years and he would not be willing to do it again.
“This could very possibly put them out of business. It scares me,” Bilski said.
The cut represents $240,000 from the department’s capital project fund and $760,000 in operating expenses, about a third of the department’s operating budget, said Bob Nickovich, CEO of Lake County Parks.
“What type of quality of life are we offering people here in Lake County … are we just going to shut all this down and route everything to criminal justice?” Nickovich said.
Officials agreed on first reading to displace the $2 million cumulative bridge fund and $2.1 million liability insurance fund as well as eliminate the $1.6 million drainage levies, the first recommended step of the plan. The levies for those funds will be returned to the general fund.
The move was not without dissension. Councilmen Rick Neimeyer, R-Lowell, and Daniel Dernulc, R-Highland, voted against raiding the drainage levies.
Surveyor George Van Til said the council is making a two-fold mistake by stripping the drainage levy. First, he said, the move is prevented by law. Van Til said when the law establishing the drainage levy was created, a provision prohibiting the council from completely eliminating it was created.
Van Til said the move also would prevent his office from maintaining the 600 miles of drainage ditches within the county putting at risk the more than $14 million invested in various projects since he took office.