Porter County Council candidates differ on issues
By Amy Lavalley Post-Tribune correspondent October 13, 2012 11:58AM
Ralph Neff. | Provided Photo~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 15, 2012 6:37AM
Voters will select three of six candidates for at-large seats on the Porter County Council in the Nov. 6 general election.
The candidates are incumbents and political newcomers whose pledges include protecting the principal from the sale of the former county hospital and working with the Board of Commissioners to tackle the issues facing the county, such as opening the third pod at the county jail and increasing medical staff there.
The sale of the former Porter Memorial Hospital generated about $160 million for the county in principal, which has accrued about $11 million in interest. Spending the principal requires a unanimous vote of both the council and the commissioners.
Republican candidates are Mark Hoffman and Ralph Neff, both new to the political arena, and Joe Wszolek, who served a term on the Highland Town Council.
Hoffman, 62, of Valparaiso, recently retired as the athletic director at Valparaiso High School and is the school’s former football coach. He worked for 40 years as a teacher and coach, and said that experience helps him bring a team approach to county government.
“My main priority, I really think, is camaraderie and working with the commissioners and working with the municipalities and the rural areas in the county,” he said.
Public safety is also a focus for Hoffman, and that includes seeing a new animal shelter move forward under the direction of Lakeshore PAWS, and opening the third pod at the jail to alleviate overcrowding, as well as adding the necessary medical staff there.
“That is money we have to look at,” he said.
Wszolek, 58, of Portage, is a real estate appraiser and president of the Porter County’s Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals. He feels like the county hasn’t been sustaining long-term plans.
“The thing that’s first and foremost in my mind is a long-term fiscal plan of what’s most important in county government,” he said.
“There hasn’t been any one person who’s said, let’s get our heads together and decide what needs to be funded first, second and third, and at what level.”
Wszolek said the council, which serves as the county’s fiscal body, and the commissioners, the county’s executive body, need to work together to come up with a strategy for the future.
Included in that strategy, he said, should be how to tackle the county’s many drainage projects, and what to do with proceeds from the sale of the hospital.
Neff, 53, of Valparaiso, has owned a commercial heating, air conditioning and plumbing business for 24 years. He sits on a number of not-for-profit boards, and takes a pragmatic approach to the county’s challenges.
The county’s budget is a main factor for the council, Neff said, and with the economy down and state tax caps in place, the county needs to look for more efficiency in government, including possibly consolidating some departments.
Interest from the sale of the hospital also could be used to open the third pod at the jail.
“I’m not saying spend the money you got from the hospital, but if it’s a public safety issue, you’ve got to spend and get it fixed,” he said.
The Democratic contenders for the at-large seats are incumbents or previously served on the council. Sylvia Graham is seeking her second term on the council; Dan Whitten, the council’s president, is running for his third term; and Bob Poparad previously served two terms representing District 1 on the council.
Graham, of Center Township, is a retired registered nurse who has said she would not remain on the council for more than two terms.
“The budget is a big concern. I think we need more of a plan on what our financial future should be,” she said, noting a recent report by Umbaugh and Associates that said the county is relying too heavily on property taxes and should be using more county economic development income tax funds for operating expenses.
Financial challenges facing the county include county drainage work, E-911 consolidation, and the issues at the county jail. Graham said. County officials also have to decide how to spend the interest — but not the principal — from the sale of the hospital.
“I think we will have to spend some of the interest money on a one-time expense,” such as readying the third pod of the jail to reopen, she said.
Whitten, 46, has served as council president for the past six years. He lives in Porter Township, and is a bankruptcy attorney and former Lake Station police officer and councilman.
The county has sufficient funds to pay for health insurance, resolve the issues at the jail, and handle E-911 consolidation without raising taxes, Whitten said.
Whitten, who said he is a fiscal conservative, is against tax increment finance districts, which keep tax money out of the county’s coffers, and using the principal from the sale of the hospital, which he described as the county’s nest egg.
“You can plan and develop and do all these wonderful things with the interest, but I’m never going to tap that principal,” he said.
Burns Harbor resident and longtime small business owner Poparad, 54, previously served three terms on the Burns Harbor Town Council. His, focus, too, is protecting the principal from the sale of the hospital.
“I think it should be put in an irrevocable trust, where it cannot be touched, for future generations, and use the interest for economic development, like infrastructure and job creation. Maybe a small part of that, maybe 20 percent, could be used for public safety,” he said.
Poparad warned against spending all of the interest or relying on it, because of how interest rates fluctuate.
He also noted that the tax caps will require the council to make some cuts, and the council will need to work in harmony with the commissioners.