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Council defers budget approval

Star Managing Editor

CROWN POINT -- The County Council on Tuesday deferred a vote on the year 2000 budget until today, when it hopes problems with a new computer system will be resolved to the point that accurate accounting numbers are available.
    County staff and employees of the computer firm that provided the new financial system are working around-the-clock to try to balance the county's books from December, council financial advisor Dante Rondelli told members.
    Computer consultant Mark Pearman said every receipt and payment is being reentered into the system.
    "We've had to reconstruct November and December transaction by transaction," he said.
    RondelIi said he then has to review the transactions to make sure they have been entered correctly.
    The council has to reapprove the 2000 budget
because of errors in the approval process last year.
    RondelIi said he needs the numbers staff members are entering into the computer system to create accurate financial reports for state overseers.
    "I believe there will be a deficit in the general fund," he said, "but I don't have the numbers yet."
    All of the county's other budget funds should be okay, Rondelli said.
    Without an approved budget, the county's elected officials and department heads are not able to use any of their discretionary funds.
    Also, if there is a deficit, Rondelli pointed out that the sooner the budget gets approved, the sooner officials can begin addressing budget concerns to eliminate the deficit.
    The council will meet at 2 p.m. today in hopes of approving the budget, though neither RondelIi nor Pearman could guarantee the number-crunching would be complete.
    In other business, the council approved an increase in the maximum amount it will pay each
month in health insurance claims without a special appropriation.
    The maximum was increased from $850,000 to $l.2 million, which is just over the average total claims per month, Councilman Larry Blanchard (R-Crown Point), said.
    With the $850,000 limit, payment of some claims was being delayed for months.   Blanchard said increases in prescription drug claims made up most of the increased costs in recent years.    

Teachers picket board
Both sides voice concerns over contract negotiations

Star Managing Editor

CROWN POINT -- About 150 teachers picketed Monday outside the School Board meeting to show support for their union negotiating team. Teachers have been working without a contract since August.
   "Our spirits have been buoyed by the wonderful turnout," said Crown Point Education Association lead negotiator Michael David, a high school science teacher.
    Teachers carried signs with such slogans as "10 percent for you, 2 percent for us?" and "How about breaking ground on a new contract?"
    An association "crisis committee" had announced last week the union's intention to picket. They stated that other school corporation employees have received raises ranging from a low of 2 percent for support staff to a high of 10 percent for some administrators, and teachers around the state have received raises averaging 3.5 percent.
    The administration has offered "significantly less" than the state average, the teachers' negotiators said.
    The crisis committee's statement also noted the school corporation's shrinking cash balance, and said "the teachers' association believes that the administration plans to recover the lost cash balance by continuing the reduction of personnel, delaying the resolution of the teachers' contract, refusing a suitable salary increase, and changing insurance practices."
    Negotiators met Monday, and were scheduled to meet again Tuesday. 
    "We've made some progress but there are still issues to settle," David said. 
    The administration responded to all this at Monday's board meeting.
    Assistant Superintendent for Operations Thomas Dabertin said the school corporation is offering teachers a compensation package that could lead to a total compensation increase of 17.26 percent over a two-year period for teachers at the bottom of the salary scale.
    The administration's proposal includes 3 percent salary increases each year and institution of a bonus system that would deposit money in teachers' 401(a) or 401(k) accounts.
    The bonus amount would be based on the school corporation's cash balance. If that balance is above the amount needed to fund two payrolls plus a 5 percent margin, then the excess would be split among teachers, Dabertin said.
    The cash balance is currently down to $730,000, but the administration hopes it will be up to $2.5 million by the end of the year, meaning $229,600 will be available for the teachers' bonus, he said.
    Growth of the cash reserve depends on getting tull funding for parochial students, an issue under consideration by the General Assembly, and shifting to a self-funded health insurance program, Dabertin said.
    Insurance costs have increased 30 percent over the last two years, and the school corporation is spending $60,000 per month on insurance from its cash balance, he said.
    Going to a self-funded system would reduce costs for individual teachers and the corporation while keeping the same benefits and network, Dabertin said.
Administrators objected to the teachers' claims that the administration is trying to recover financial security on teachers backs.
    "We had no intention at all of playing a shell game and making the union guess where we were," Dabertin said.
    Superintendent H. Steve Sprunger said the school corporation is "committed to a competitive salary schedule" for its teachers.
    "It's imperative we come to a fair agreement," he said.



TIF district plan passes first hurdle
Merrillville officials ask Crown Point to retire northeast side TIF district

Star Managing Editor

CROWN POINT -- City officials took the first step last week in expanding a Tax Increment Financing district to include the 165 and U.S. 231 area, with hopes of having sewer and water utilities to the area this fall.
    At a Feb. 23 meeting, the Redevelopment Commission approved a resolution expanding the TIF district from its current 480 acres at the city's northeast corner to 1,500 acres, extending down the city's east side to the interstate interchange.
    "If we don't do this, development will not happen," City Engineer Jeff Ban told the commission.
    Ban said about $4,350,000 in infrastructure work needs to be done in the area, including extension of sewer and water service and roads. Major developers won't come unless the improvements are undertaken by government, he said.
    There are "customers and developers that are ready to begin turning dirt as soon as utilities are available," Mayor James Metros said.
    "We need sewer and water no later than Oct. 1," Ban said.
    While no one at the meeting objected to instituting a TIF district at the interstate interchange, officials from the Merrillville schools and Ross Township told the commission that expanding the current district was unfair.
    In a TIF district, property taxes that result from new development go into a special fund that is used to pay for infrastructure improvements in that area.  
     Initially, bonds are sold to pay for the infrastructure projects, and the bonds are paid off using the taxes that collect in the TIF fund.
    Merrillville School Board President Marc Lucas and Ross Township Trustee John Rooda argued that the necessary infrastructure improvements have been done in the northeast side TIF district, so it should be retired.
    "The purpose of the TIF when it was initiated has come full cycle," Lucas said. "We're asking you to remove the Ross Township portion from your TIF as soon as possible."
    Doing that, they pointed out, would mean all property taxes in the TIF district would go to regular governmental funds, like school and township budgets.   The added revenue sources would mean tax rates in those jurisdictions could go down.
    Merrillville Assistant
Superintendent Ron Price said retiring the Ross Township TIF would lower property taxes in the Merrillville School Corporation by six cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
    Metros said city officials are considering retiring the TIF in phases, starting with the residential areas in the current TIF. He said he could not give dates for this.
    Redevelopment Commission Chairman Patrick Schuster said the city would "work with" the Merrillville schools on the issue.
    The next step in the process is for the city's financial consultant, Greg Guerrettaz of Financial Solutions Group, to create a tax impact study. A public hearing will be held on that in April, and the Plan Commission and City Council must also consider the TIF expansion.
    Ban said the infrastructure projects need to be put to bid in May, and construction should take about four months.
    The work would include installation of a 16-inch water main at an estimated cost of $900,000; an 18inch gravity sewer at $1.2 million; stormwater drainage and road improvements at $750,000; and construction of an elevated water tank at $1.5 million.
    A representative of a property development company working with the city said the area's first occupant could arrive by the beginning of next year.
    "This is a 'Fortune 100' company,'' said Angie Rendina of Opus North Corp. of Rosemont, Ill.

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