Porter County budget includes ARPA funds for nonprofits, raises

Porter County budget includes ARPA funds for nonprofits, raises

The Porter County Council Tuesday night finished appropriating the American Rescue Plan Act grant money, making it part of the 2023 county budget and settling on a compromise that gives to nonprofits while still funding pay increases, infrastructure needs and the brunt of the renovation work at the Memorial Opera House.

In a bit of reverse order the $18.6 million in county projects not originally planned for the money will go before the Board of Commissioners at its next meeting for approval.

Nonprofits recommended by the commissioners for a portion of the ARPA money will still get sizable funding, though the amounts have been reduced. Project Neighbors had originally asked for $1 million for its 18-unit efficiency apartment building to address the needs of homeless men in Porter County, but offered to accept $700,000 instead.

All other nonprofit awards will be reduced by 10%. These donations were appropriated by a six-to-one vote by the council. Andy Bozak, R-At-large, was the sole dissenting vote, though he did vote in favor of the final reading of the 2023 county budget of which the ARPA award will be a part.

These nonprofit awards will total $7.9 million.

Another $18.6 million was appropriated for seven county concerns. The Memorial Opera House renovation, which was originally slate to receive ARPA funds at the beginning of the project selection process but removed over opposition, will receive $5 million of the ARPA money in the end. The Memorial Opera House Foundation is expected to raise the other $2 million needed to meet the current $7 million renovation tab.

A $2.7 million contract with Rieth-Riley Construction Company of Gary to pave 14 miles of the county’s worst roads was next on the list, followed by $1.6 million to shore up the Porter County Health Insurance Fund that Porter County Auditor Vicki Urbanik has been warning is too low.

While the rules for disseminating ARPA funds might make it legal to allow for their use on county government line items, that didn’t make it ethical, said Rebecca Tomerlin of Valparaiso, who was on the subcommittee for small business and nonprofits.

“I don’t want ARPA money used to fill a gap in the budget,” Tomerlin said, adding people like her who were involved in the process had faith in it because it was well-run and the process was posted on the county website.

In other budget matters, wage supplements for county employees will cost $1 million.

Using the recent wage study as a guide the council has decided to ensure all its employees receive a wage in 2023 that is halfway to the midpoint of comparable external positions. All employees will receive at least a $4,000 increase.

A telecommunicator in the E-911 Department, for example, currently earns $46,723. In 2023 that salary will go up to $49,785, the external midpoint determined by the salary study. However, because that raise is only $3,062 those employees will receive a supplement of $938 to ensure their total raises are $4,000.

The minority of employees who are already at or above the external midpoint will also receive a minimum of $4,000 in increases.

“We were warned by several people: ‘Be careful what you ask for. You’ll never be able to afford it,’” said County Council Vice President Mike Jessen, R-4th District. “Not everybody is going to be satisfied. It has been a difficult task, an important task. We’re finally doing it right as far as wages first.”

He added that this is just a first step and it will take the county several years to get where it should be on wages.

The Porter County Sheriff’s Department will see a 5% increase to the salaries of its patrol officers, corporals and sergeants. Jailers will receive raises of 9% or 10%, depending on rank.

Porter County Sheriff David Reynolds was pleased.

“I think this is the first time since I’ve been sheriff that they’ve separated our salaries from everybody else,” he said. “We’ve had some inequalities in the jail that they’ve addressed and the jailers really needed some compensation for what they’ve been through the last two years. I’m happy it’s been addressed.”

The sheriff will also get full funding of his department’s $300,000 SWAT vehicle out of the ARPA money. Originally the sheriff’s department planned to pay half the cost from its seizures fund.

The Porter County Veteran Service Office Outreach Program will get $50,000 it intends to use to increase staffing, and the Porter County Parks Department was given back $50,000 it had voluntarily cut from its budget.

The council unanimously approved the 2023 budget of $45,171,113 which is a $1,448,593 increase over the 2022 budget, and right at the mark Urbanik had recommended.

She received a standing ovation from the packed council chamber during her last budget hearing and as her second term as auditor nears its end. Under state statute, Urbanik could not seek a third consecutive term in office.

“Vicki, thank you for what you do. You’re going to be missed,” said Council President Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd District.

Shelley Jones is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

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