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Porter County commissioners summoned to council meeting to address ‘Garage Mahal,’ ambulance service

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The Porter County Council is asking a member of the Board of Commissioners to answer questions about the future of the county’s ambulance service and the cost of work at the highway garage in Center Township.

Councilman Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, a former council president, expressed concerns about the “Garage Mahal” project, as he termed it, during the council’s May 28 meeting.

“We have a lot of buildings out there,” Rivas said, and spending $18 million for replacing the dilapidated highway garage leaves just $6 million for work at the jail, based on a $25 million bond. The other $1 million would be for financing and related costs.

“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about $200,000 payouts, but we’re not talking about a $25 million bond,” Rivas said near the end of the meeting.

The county has a new facilities director who is assessing needs at all the buildings. Will the commissioners engage Skillman Corp. to look at needs at the Juvenile Detention Center, he asked.

Rivas was president when Skillman oversaw a massive overhaul of the downtown Valparaiso courthouse, renovation of the old jail at 157 Franklin, construction of a new building at the North County Government Complex and related work.

The bond for the work at the highway garage and jail is pegged at $25 million. The county won’t have to raise taxes to pay for a new bond when the old bond from building the jail is paid off.

“I think there’s a lot more work to do for the jail,” Rivas said. It needs a new roof and interior work, he said, adding, “$6 million for the jail is not going to replace the roof.”

Councilman Ronald “Red” Stone, R-1st, asked whether Rivas shared his concerns at a meeting regarding the highway garage.

“We shared our concerns that we were not getting any information at a public meeting,” said Councilwoman Sylvia Graham, D-At-large.

“Are we not to talk about this stuff, $25 million, at a public meeting?” Rivas asked.

Council President Mike Brickner, R-At-large, offered to request Board of Commissioners President Jim Biggs attend the next council meeting, to be held later this month.

Rivas also wants answers about the future of the county’s ambulance service, following news that more than 30 ambulance workers expressed a lack of confidence in the ambulance director.

Northwest Health Porter provides the service under contract with the county to areas where fire departments don’t provide ambulance service.

“I don’t agree with contracting out public safety at all,” Rivas said.

“Something’s going on that all those employees signed a no-confidence. Why?” Rivas said.

“I’m not saying we don’t have an interest, but we don’t have a say in that,” Brickner said. “We do not hire that employee. I feel reluctant to stick our nose in something that he’s not our employee.”

When he became president of the Board of Commissioners last year, Biggs, R-North, set up a public safety commission to examine public safety needs in the county.

“Some of us are fortunate to live in municipalities where we have professionals on standby,” Rivas said. “Emergency services and public safety is pretty high up on my list.”

Councilman Andy Vasquez, R-4th, whose district is in south Porter County, said the Morgan and Kouts fire departments have good ambulance services,

What about creating fire territories so every area is covered by a full-time professional, Rivas asked.

Fire territories are separate taxing districts. The Valparaiso Fire Department is part of a fire territory that includes the city and unincorporated Center Township.

Vasquez said he and Councilman Andy Bozak, R-At-large, tried to have this conversation. “I didn’t go very far. Commissioner Biggs didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” Vasquez said.

He suggested getting the fire chiefs of departments in unincorporated areas to attend a meeting. Hear them out and try to explain to them why a fire territory is in the best interest of people in unincorporated areas, he suggested.

“It will be an uphill sale, I’ll tell you right now,” Vasquez said.

Graham praised the Valparaiso fire territory but said she was skeptical when its creation was still under discussion. The late Gary Nondorf was the fire chief then. “I’m not in favor of taxes going up because I’m not a senior citizen,” Graham said, but the increase was minimal.

Chesterton and Burns Harbor formerly paid for ambulance service but have now handed that over to the county, Rivas said. “Our cost is going to skyrocket.”

“With that increased price tag when it comes, where is the money coming from?” Rivas asked.

Even if fire territories were created to generate money for ambulance service as well as fire protection, that’s a big step and wouldn’t happen overnight, Vasquez pointed out.

“It’s incumbent on us to make sure everyone in the county has good ambulance service,” Stone said.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us when it comes to some things coming down the pike,” Brickner said. “We have a lot of other issues at hand as well that are our responsibility.”

Doug Ross is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

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