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Commissioners opposing 'outrageous' proposed utility rate hike

Staff Writer

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La PORTE — La Porte County officials are pushing back against a potential rate hike that several Indiana power companies – including NIPSCO – may impose on customers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, the La Porte County Board of Commissioners authorized attorney Shaw Friedman to formally file an intervention before the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission opposing a possible rate increase from NIPSCO, Indiana Michigan Power Company and several other utilities, which are looking to recoup lost revenue due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The board is responding to a petition that the group of 10 investor-owned power companies submitted to the IURC on May 8.

In the document, the companies requested a deferral of COVID-related expenses, which include the loss of revenue from lower electric demand and suspension of disconnects for customers who are delinquent on payments. To make up these costs, the utilities are seeking permission from the IURC to impose additional costs on customers.

Commissioner Vidya Kora said it was “outrageous” that the utilities would consider placing the burden of recouping their lost revenue on their customers, many of whom are already having trouble paying for rent and other bills due to the ongoing economic crisis the pandemic has created. Instead, these companies should consider making up the shortfall by reducing dividends for their shareholders, who reap the rewards during good times but never bear any responsibility during a crisis, Kora said.

“Their first instinct should not be to stick it to the ratepayers in the middle of the worst economic crisis we have had since the Great Depression,” Kora said.

Commission President Sheila Matias joined her colleague in condemning the companies, saying it was hard to imagine why they would choose to take advantage of their customers in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime emergency.

“Writing off revenues is just a cost of doing business when you’re in the utility business,” she said. “Trying to stick taxpayers with any costs relevant to the pandemic is not fair, it’s not right, it’s not ethical.”

The county commissioners are the latest to join a growing chorus denouncing the utility companies’ request, with organizations such as the Citizens Action Coalition and NAACP also issuing statements attacking the petition.

Wednesday’s vote marks the second time in two years that La Porte County has intervened against a proposed rate hike from NIPSCO. The county was among the many entities across the region who fought against an 11 percent increase the utility had requested from the IURC, which the commission lowered to a little less than 7 percent in a decision last winter.

Speaking to the board remotely on Wednesday, state Sen. Mike Bohacek clarified that the companies will again need IURC approval before enacting any new rate hikes on customers. The public will have a chance to remonstrate or provide other comments about the proposal throughout the process, something the lawmaker encouraged residents to take advantage of, he said.

“We just need to make sure that we have all of our citizens weigh in on this,” he said. “It’s a united effort.”

Also on Wednesday, the commissioners:

Approved a three-stage plan to reopen county facilities to the public, which have been closed since early March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the proposed timetable – devised by a committee of senior county officials, chaired by Judge Greta Friedman – the county will continue its current coronavirus operations policy, which allows only essential employees to work inside county facilities, through June 1. The county will then enter a second phase, in which most nonessential employees will gradually return to their offices, though the buildings will remain closed to the public. Beginning June 15, the county will initiate the third and final phase of the plan, which will open county facilities by appointment only. Before entering buildings, members of the public must clear a COVID-19 screening, which will include a questionnaire and temperature check. Guests will be required to wear a face mask while inside county buildings – the county will provide masks to those who not have one with them at the time of their visit. The proposed timetable will be presented to the county council for its approval as well.

Received an update on the Michigan City Courthouse renovation and expansion project, which the board restarted earlier this month. According to an updated timetable from Tonn and Blank Construction, the firm overseeing construction, the company has resumed the bidding process for the $22.5 million project, which will update and modernize the 111-year-old structure. Bids should be ready for commissioners’ approval by mid-June, which, upon authorization from the county council, will allow the county to issue a bond to help finance construction. Once the bond sale is completed, contractors can break ground on work, with Tonn and Blank anticipating a start date of early September. Construction is expected to span nearly two years, with the expansion finished in December 2021 and remodel of the main structure in August 2022.


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La Porte County Habitat for Humanity begins 2020 build

MICHIGAN CITY — It’s not often that a knock on your front door can prove life-changing, but it did for the Jackson family of Michigan City – Habitat for Humanity is building them a new home.

“Hey, you’ve been approved!” read a sign that La Porte County Habitat for Humanity executive director Sophia Coleman held to announce the successful application.

“I was just as excited as they were,” she said. “We all cried, but we couldn’t hug! It was truly an honor to let them know.

“This will be the 54th home built for a local family and the Jacksons deserve this result,” Coleman said, adding that construction will start this month.

The Jacksons, a family of 6, worked hard for two years to meet the requirements for a Habitat home, Coleman said.

“Homes are a ‘hand up, not a hand out,’ The family ‘partners’ with Habitat to build alongside volunteers from the community and local businesses,” she said.

An affordable 0 percent interest mortgage allows low repayments which are “recycled” and contribute toward the cost of the next Habitat home.

This will the largest home La Porte Habitat has built, Coleman said.

“I appeal to local business to come forward with donations of new materials and for individuals to contribute time and money. This is a big project. We need your support now more than ever”

“This year’s build will be different. We make building a house into a team-work-social event so the next few weeks are unknown; we take the safety and protection of our volunteers very seriously.”

But despite strict on-site social distancing restrictions, she said, “Our dedicated volunteers are already keen to show up.”

Habitat for Humanity has been building homes in La Porte County for more than 30 years.

Prospective homeowners must demonstrate a need for safe, affordable housing; have an income and sound credit history.

It is challenging to find affordable, quality housing in the community, Coleman said.

“We are the only organization in La Porte County offering this opportunity of home ownership for families; it is a life-changing event.

“Our families say they have made at least one trade-off in order to cover their rent or mortgage – take a second job; cut back on health care and healthy food; or move to less-safe neighborhoods,” she said.

“We provide an opportunity to break this struggle and provide a decent place our families can call home.”

If you want to give-back to your community, Habitat welcomes volunteers with all levels of skill, Coleman said.

“Step up and come for a day – bring your friends. Everyone has something to offer. This is one way to help a family in-need and improve your community at the same time.”

La Porte County Habitat for Humanity is an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, the largest non-for-profit private home builder in the nation.

To donate or to volunteer, visit laportehabitat.org

– From staff reports


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Cop convicted of raping mentally disabled woman could be out in 20 years, instead of 36

INDIANAPOLIS – A former Michigan City police officer convicted of repeatedly raping an intellectually disabled woman appealed his 36-year prison sentence and had it reduced.

Thomas K. Jackson, now 54, was convicted in La Porte Superior Court 1 in 2018 of three counts of rape when the victim is mentally disabled or deficient.

Despite the prosecution’s request that he be sentenced to the advisory 27 years – 9 years per count, Judge Michael Bergerson imposed an enhanced sentence of 36 years – 12 years per count.

And although the state deferred to the court’s decision as to how much of Jackson’s sentence should be served on probation, Bergerson ordered it be fully executed in prison.

But the Indiana Supreme Court said in its May 19 decision: “… [We] find that exceeding the 27-year sentence the prosecutor recommended, absent more significant aggravating factors is inappropriate under the circumstances of this case.”

In an unsigned 4-1 opinion, the high court reduced Jackson’s sentence to 27 years, with the last 7 to be served on probation.

Justice Geoffrey Slaughter dissented from the ruling, saying the case never should have been transferred to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals decision should stand.

Jackson initially appealed his sentence and convictions to the Indiana Court of Appeals, which upheld both.

When he petitioned the Supreme Court, Jackson asked only that his sentence be reviewed.

The court acknowledged that Jackson, who worked in law enforcement for 28 years, had led a “law-abiding” life prior to the rapes and that he was considered a “low-risk” offender with no prior criminal history.

Under his original sentence, Jackson’s earliest possible release date would have been Dec. 3, 2045, when he will be 79 years old.

Jackson’s release under the amended sentence could have him out of prison in 2033 at age 67.

According to court documents, Jackson engaged the woman in vaginal, oral and anal sex on multiple occasions when she was between the ages of 21 and 23.

However, because the state claimed the woman has an IQ of 8 and the mental and emotional capabilities of a child between the ages of 10 and 12, a jury found that she could not legally consent to sex.


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La Porte Hospital construction suspended after workers test positive for COVID-19

La PORTE – Work has been suspended on construction of the new La Porte Hospital after several workers tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

“Robins & Morton, our general contractor, has made us aware that individuals who work at the new La Porte hospital construction site have tested positive for COVID-19,” Kelly Credit, hospital spokeswoman said.

That includes a total of 10 workers so far, according to Joe Forsthoffer, spokesman for Robins & Morton.

“We temporarily suspended work on the project after 10 workers tested positive among the crew. We are still testing all of the other workers so we expect that number to go up.”

The site will be cleaned and sanitized, and all workers tested before work resumes, Forsthoffer said.

“We’ll return to work as soon as we know we can do it safely,” he said.

“We are having a third party come in and clean the building under CDC guidelines, and La Porte Hospital has offered to test all of the workers.”

There are about 200 workers during the current phase of the project, scheduled for completion late this year.

After a cleaning service is hired, it will take “a matter of days” to clean the entire site, Forsthoffer said. “And then we will need time to have all the screening done before we restart work.”

There is no timetable for work to begin, but it is “not a long-term issue,” he said.

“We don’t see this as anything that will have a significant impact on the completion date of the project.

“We know that people want to get back to work, and we want to get back to work too, but we want to do so safely.”

Getting back to work has become an issue for hundreds of thousands of people in Indiana.

The state saw about 30,000 more people file for unemployment benefits last week as business struggles continue despite the easing of restrictions.

Job losses have slowed in recent weeks, but roughly 670,000 people have sought jobless aid in Indiana over the past nine weeks, U.S. Department of Labor statistics announced Thursday showed.

The number of initial unemployment applications submitted in Indiana last week was about the same as the week before and well below the 100,000-plus received for three straight weeks in late March and early April.

Indiana has also processed nearly 69,000 applications for a separate federal program set up for self-employed and gig workers.

Federal statistics show Indiana was paying unemployment benefits to about 285,000 people during the week ending May 2, while only about 13,000 people received those payments a year earlier.

Nationally, more than 2.4 million laid-off workers applied for unemployment benefits last week as April’s unemployment rate reached 14.7 percent, the highest since the Depression.

Gov. Eric Holcomb said because health indicators remain positive, most of the state will advance to phase 3 of the Back On Track Indiana plan on Friday, though local governments may impose more restrictive guidelines.

“We continue to remain vigilant about protecting Hoosiers’ health while taking responsible steps to further open our state’s economy,” Holcomb said. “Moving to stage 3 is possible because Hoosiers across the state have worked together and made sacrifices to slow the spread.”

The governor said he has used data to drive decisions since the state’s first case of the novel coronavirus in early March and will continue to do so as the state contemplates a sector-by-sector reset.

The state will move to reopen while monitoring and responding to four guiding principles:

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients statewide has decreased for 14 days

The state retains its surge capacity for critical care beds and ventilators

The state retains its ability to test all Hoosiers who are COVID-19 symptomatic as well as health care workers, first responders, and frontline employees

Health officials have systems in place to contact all individuals who test positive and expand contact tracing

As more people return to work, visit stores or restaurants, and participate in more activities, “the number of COVID-19 cases will increase,” Holcomb said.

“If these principles cannot be met, all or portions of the state may need to pause on moving forward, or may need to return to an earlier phase of the stay-at-home order.”

If health indicators do remain positive, the state will move to phase 4 in mid-June, Holcomb said.

Until then, he reiterated that those 65 and over, and those with high-risk health conditions should remain home as much as possible.

Face coverings in public places are recommended; and Hoosiers who can work from home are encouraged to continue to do so.