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Recent editorials published in Indiana newspapers

September 18, 2018

The (Munster) Times. September 13, 2018

Political baggage taints accountant used to probe misuse of Gary city funds

Independent reviews of government missteps demand untainted authorities, not politically tied cronies, to weed out problems.

Appearance means everything.

It’s a lesson Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson seems intent on ignoring.

Regular readers of The Times are familiar with the recent misuse of some $8 million in taxpayer money that was supposed to be earmarked for Gary’s Emergency Management Services fund.

Those public safety dollars were pillaged, allegedly by two city finance officials who no longer work for Gary, to pay for a litany of other expenses not associated with the intended purpose.

The city has reported $131,850.49 of the money is unaccounted for and needs to be investigated.

City officials have said this misuse of funds occurred without required authorization of the City Council.

After the public embarrassment set in, Freeman-Wilson hired private accountant Curtis Whittaker, and his firm Whittaker and Co., to perform a supposed deep-dive into what happened and why.

The decision to hire Whittaker was flawed from the beginning.

Whittaker, who also is pastor of Gary’s Progressive Community Church, has perennial political ties with Freeman-Wilson and other levels of Region government.

He contributed $11,000 to Freeman-Wilson’s campaign over four years and has been awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in lucrative city contracts in the past two years.

Whittaker also served as a defender and apologist for a torrent of wasteful spending practices exposed in past Times investigations of former Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin.

Elgin is now a federally convicted felon, having pleaded guilty to shaking down government employees for campaign contributions.

In the early 2000s, Whittaker performed accounting work for the defunct and controversy-laden Gary Urban Enterprises Association.

The nonprofit agency’s principal officials were convicted of embezzling about $1 million in public funds that were supposed to be redeveloping Gary.

Whittaker wasn’t accused of wrongdoing in the Elgin or GUEA cases.

But his association with the two entities leaves too many questions in the minds of the public. A better choice could have and should have been made to probe the misuse of ambulance fund money.

Now the matter is in the hands of the Indiana State Board of Accounts, as it should be. A state audit of the matter should be much more independent and less tainted in appearance.

Freeman-Wilson should have sent the matter to state auditors, or at least hired an accountant with less political baggage, to begin with.

When contacted by The Times earlier this week about Whittaker’s political baggage, Freeman-Wilson defended him, saying she was “absolutely comfortable with (Whittaker) as a licensed professional, who wouldn’t undermine his integrity.”

A better choice for an independent review wouldn’t have needed defending.

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South Bend Tribune. September 16, 2018

One down month has Elkhart’s RV industry watchful but not worried...yet.

It was a foggy morning in Elkhart, but that didn’t stop Douglas Luckey and his wife from showing up at Total Value RV early Friday morning to shop for a 28- to 30-foot towable trailer.

The couple from Cadillac, Mich., were out in the expansive lot with salesman Brett Yoder when more customers came into the office looking for a salesperson to help guide them through the buying process.

It was business as usual at Total Value RV despite some worries that we might be seeing the very earliest signs of a recession.

That story line gained some traction last week when the New York Times published an article highlighting some of the anxiety that is being felt in Elkhart that the good times — following the brutality of the Great Recession — could soon be coming to an end.

“As Elkhart, Ind., Goes, So Goes the Nation, and Elkhart Is Nervous,” the headline read.

Shipments of all RVs were down 11.4 percent in June compared to the same month in 2017, according to the RV Industry Association, and some companies have cut down on the number of shifts in order to get supply more in line with demand.

Additional concerns have been caused by aluminum and steel tariffs that have translated into somewhat higher prices — perhaps $2,500 to $3,000, according to one estimate — for models utilizing a lot of those materials.

If additional tariffs are imposed on goods coming from China and other countries, the effect on RV sales could be even more chilling as higher prices for those goods likely would be passed on to consumers through higher sticker prices.

With tens of thousands of local jobs dependent on the RV industry, its health is obviously important to the region, but it also gets the attention of economists and others across the country who are in the business of looking for leading-edge indicators of what’s to come.

That’s because the purchase of an RV is considered luxury or discretionary spending, which is usually the first thing consumers put off if they’re feeling even slightly nervous about the economy, said Michael Hicks, an economist at Ball State University.

“Economists aren’t as good at predicting downturns,” he said. “So we start looking for signs like RV and boat sales or spending on vacations.”

Beyond the June decline in RV shipments, there are other caution signs blinking that the economy could be headed to slower growth or perhaps even a recession — which is defined as two consecutive quarters with negative growth.

Among other issues, home prices have softened a bit, and the impact of expanding tariffs could dampen holiday spending if prices for items from China and other countries are boosted to make up for the tax, Hicks said.

Since we’re already approaching one of the longest periods of economic growth in modern times, there also is a bit of psychology in play when people wonder if we’re due for a recession, said Hicks, adding that enough people postponing a purchase can cause a negative ripple in the economy.

Though RV industry leaders are aware of the threats from inflation, higher interest rates, tariffs and more, they don’t believe there is enough evidence to say a real downturn is in the immediate future.

To the contrary, RV shipments increased by 10.9 percent in July compared to the same month last year, and the RV Industry Association predicted at the end of August that annual shipments from factories could reach 505,900 units, making 2018 the best year ever for the industry and ninth consecutive year of growth.

Some of the slowdown in June shipments was the result of heavy orders placed by dealers at the end of last year and the beginning of this year that had to be cleared off lots across the country, according to industry insiders.

But dealers are also expected to be more cautious moving forward, and there is a natural slowdown that comes in the second half of the year as consumers turn their attention to the holidays instead of vacations.

Phil Ingrassia, president of the RV Dealers Association, said sales of motorhomes are up 0.3 percent through the first seven months of the year compared to last year and towable sales are up nearly 6.9 percent.

“Obviously, people are concerned with some of the tariff talk,” he said. “But retail sales have held up for the first seven months of the year.”

Since the Great Recession, the industry has shifted much of its production to light-weight units that are more affordable and can be towed by the popular crossovers and SUVs that are preferred by motorists these days. Prior to the Great Recession, motorized units had a larger share of all RV sales.

The shift to lighter-weight units is the result of studies indicating younger buyers have a lot of interest in the RV lifestyle but can’t afford the most expensive motorized units, said Ingrassia and other RV industry officials.

“Millennials and boomers and those in between are into RVs,” said Kevin Broom, a spokesman for the RV Industry Association. “The enduring appeal of the RV lifestyle spans all generations now.”

That bodes well for the long-term growth of the industry, which was hammered by the credit crunch that followed the last recession.

Though there are some caution signs, Broom and others feel it’s premature to forecast a recession, even if everyone acknowledges it has to happen eventually.

In the meantime, some industry officials welcome a respite in the breakneck pace that factories have been operating under for the past several years and the difficulty of finding workers in the Elkhart area, where unemployment was 2.6 percent in July, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We’ve had difficulty keeping up with demand for two or three years now,” said Dave Schutz, an executive at Dometic, which produces appliances and parts for the RV, marine and other industries. “Nothing is falling off the cliff.”

“We’re just back down to manageable,” he said. “We were running Saturdays and even some Sundays.”

If there is a pause or even a slight decline in the growth of RVs, industry leaders need to figure out how to sustain the growth of the industry as it has already been stretched, producing 500,000 units a year, Schutz said.

The long-term future of the industry has been affirmed in the shipments, continuing sales, attendance at RV shows and studies that indicate campers are increasingly turning to RVs of all sizes.

It can also be seen in the visitors to Total Value’s website, which was up about 24 percent last week compared to the same period last year and continues to expand, said Jeff Lemmon, sales and marketing manager at the business.

Total Value survived the Great Recession and is now the top motorized RV dealer in Indiana and number 14 in the nation.

Though no one wants to suggest a slowdown might be in sight, owner Hank Schrock said he is being a little more careful about what he orders and the inventory he maintains on his massive lot, which includes a $700,000 motorhome.

It’s also nice to know that the long-term trend favors the RV lifestyle across all age groups and demographics.

“We sell fun,” Schrock said. “This is a fun business.”

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The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette. September 11, 2018

The first step

There are four dozen newly registered voters in Allen County this week, thanks to the Fort Wayne Area League of Women Voters. Students at five high schools in the East Allen County Schools district had the opportunity to register over their lunch break Friday. Encouraging them to follow through and vote is the next step: In 2016, nearly 6 million people ages 18 to 29 were registered but did not vote, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Early registration is key in Indiana, where the deadline to register for the November election is just four weeks from today. If you aren’t yet registered, take the lead from the students who stepped up last week.

Sarah Kindinger, who coordinated the voter drive for the League of Women Voters, registered students at New Haven High School, where a dozen students were so eager to sign up that they approached her table at the start of the lunch hour. She’s coordinating another registration event at South Side High School on Sept. 25 and hopes to schedule one at Northrop High School. Last spring, students at Wayne, New Tech and Canterbury had the chance to register through a League-sponsored event. Homestead High School has a well-established registration program, thanks to a recent graduate.

At New Haven, Kindinger said she advised the first-time voters the midterm ballot is long, with offices for federal, state, county, township and school board contests, as well as judicial retention questions and a statewide referendum requiring a balanced budget.

“It can be intimidating to adults,” she said. “I tell younger people, ‘Relax - we don’t expect you to vote for everything.’ If you haven’t researched it, don’t vote for it.”

She acknowledged most young voters will be tuned into congressional races, given the high profile of the U.S. Senate contest between incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican challenger Mike Braun.

“That’s the one they are hearing about. But there are so many online resources to help prepare,” she said. “There are websites for young voters to see who their views align with. As a nonpartisan representative for the League, I don’t want to influence them. It’s unfortunate Indiana is still one of the few states where you have to declare a party in the primary election.”

The general election requires no such declaration, of course. While Indiana allows voters to cast a straight-party ticket in November, a provision in effect since 2016 requires voters to mark candidates in multi-candidate races.

That will affect votes cast for township board members, where a straight-party vote for Democrats or Republicans won’t count without votes cast specifically for township candidates.

Indiana’s registration policies are strict compared with other states, some of which allow for same-day registration or automatically register voters when issuing a driver’s license. But Indiana has stepped up in making it easy to register or update an existing registration online.

The key is to make sure you are registered by Oct. 9.

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Kokomo Tribune. September 12, 2018

Good news for voters

There was good news Wednesday from the Indiana Debate Commission.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly and challengers, Republican Mike Braun and Libertarian Lucy Brenton, have agreed to meet in two debates. The first will be Oct. 8 at Purdue University Northwest in Westville; the second will be Oct. 30 in Indianapolis. Because of the significance of Indiana’s Senate race, both debates will be broadcast nationally on C-SPAN as well as on channels throughout Indiana.

Such meetings can prove difficult to arrange, particularly at the state level, which is why the Debate Commission, a private, nonpartisan group of journalists and educators, came into existence a few years ago. Too often, an incumbent, especially one who appears to be leading in the polls, is reluctant to give a challenger “equal billing” on a debate stage.

Cynics might say Donnelly’s willingness to agree to two face-offs is tacit acknowledgment he is in a tough race. We would argue that organized public debates should be part of every senatorial and congressional race, and every candidate who agrees to the process should be applauded for his or her contribution to our democratic system.

Which brings us to the 3rd District race between U.S. Rep. Jim Banks and his opponent, Courtney Tritch.

Shortly after she won the Democratic nomination this spring, Tritch, a marketing consultant, proposed a series of debates with first-term Republican Rep. Banks. Banks agreed in principle. Last month, after she urged Banks to hurry and settle on some dates, his campaign responded: “Unlike Ms. Tritch, Congressman Banks has a family and a job.”

Reaction to that churlish remark shouldn’t distract from the continuing need for 3rd District congressional debates this fall. The election in November is as crucial as any modern midterm. Banks and Tritch are both informed, articulate candidates with strongly contrasting views.

Voters deserve to hear them challenge each other to defend their positions on such key issues as health care, trade and foreign policy. We deserve to know more about their views on President Donald Trump and the right way to heal the rifts between left and right in America.

In Indiana, which had the lowest percentage of eligible voters in the nation cast ballots in the last midterm in 2014, congressional candidates need to encourage voter engagement and turnout. That includes getting serious about scheduling debates in time to make them happen.

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