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Unfinished business drives Portage mayor

Written by Mike Siroky. Posted in Uncategorized

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Published on January 25, 2011 with No Comments

by Mike Siroky

As she wraps up her first term as mayor of the city of Portage, Olga Velazquez can look back with satisfaction on lessons learned and look ahead on work yet to be done.
Even as she plans her run for a second term, she is confident in her community and the part she plays in that community. The call to public service is not something she takes lightly.
ìThere are leaders among us all,î she said. ìI have been blessed with leadership qualities, a talent I need to give back to my community to effect positive progress.î
Her husbandís family moved to Portage in 1965 and she has been a city resident for two decades. They have raised their children there through the public schools.
Velazquez started in politics as a member of the city council and realized her higher calling was to serve as mayor.
After a contentious primary and regular election, the real fun began. Velazquez came into office just as the Indiana General Assembly announced less funding for cities and towns, when the economic downturn started.
ìHouse Bill 1001 took effect six months into my first year. It was a new mandate for tax appropriations and it meant a reduction in revenue. ìIt wasnít unexpected, not a shock but something we had to implement,î she said.
ìThese financial constraints affect not only family budgets but city budgets as well. People have come to expect a level of service, for calls to be answered. And weíre doing it with less money.î
Portage is, of course, part of the greater family of Northwest Indiana that had been rocked in the 1980s by the downturn in the steel industry, the safety and tax net which allowed towns and cities to first get established.
ìOur business community is stable,î Velazquez observed.
ìWe do have new growth, with new businesses coming to town. We are still a community that businesses can and are willing to invest in. We have focused on diversifying the tax base, showing other businesses the viable opportunities here.î
As an example, the AmeriPlex at the Port business park is still growing, with yet another company now building a new headquarters there.
Graycor Industrial Constructors has picked Portage as the location for its operations center. With occupancy planned for this summer, the facility will have 44,000 square feet of office and operations support space on approximately 10 acres of land in the AmeriPlex. It is estimated to be a $6 million investment.
ìWe have several other types of businesses interested, thatís positive,î the mayor said. ìOur retail community is well. And we have jobs in the health care industry.î
An important part of any hometown is safety. With Gary and other rust-belt cities adjacent, with I-94 and the 12/20 corridor part of the well-known drug trail between Chicago and Detroit, policing Portage has never been more important.
ìCrime has decreased in different categories,î Velazquez said. ìThe statistics are being compiled for the State of City address, so I have been studying them.î
Last year the mayor was able to cite decreased crime as well. Something as simple as a tripling of traffic stops has made a real impact.
ìIt makes us safer,î she said. ìIt doesnít translate into more tickets. It is a well-known police statistic that people who may be wanting to deal drugs or do other crimes are usually driving a stolen car or they donít have a valid driverís license. It also helps keep drunk drivers off the road.î
One of Portageís policemen has been cited for making the most DUI arrests in the state. The whole department won an award from Calumet College for being the best in the area. The Portage Police Department is comprised of 61 sworn officers, 15 reserve officers and eight civilians.
ìThere is a level of expectations and Portage Chief of Police Mark J. Becker and Assistant Chief Larry Jolley have done a great job,î she said. ìIt has been a focal point of Chief Becker to communicate to increase the level of collaboration with neighboring law enforcement.
ìWe are vigilant as to whatís going on in fighting crime.î
She also keeps in mind the office affects many lives through decisions. When the city consolidated 911 services with the county, she made sure none of the city employees lost their jobs in what turned out to be a smooth transition.
Likewise, with any job openings, she goes through the state and WorkOne after internal postings make jobs available to part-time city employees.
Of all the initial department heads she has chosen, there has been only one who chose to move on, so the city has had a stability of administration.
She sees the same stability of family life everywhere in the city. Two of her daughters are now in their 20s.
ìAnd the kids I watched grow up, well some of them are teachers here now,î Velazquez said. ìI remember when they were in grade school and now they are teaching grade school.î
So her satisfaction of a life lived in a community drives her to seeking a second term.
ìI guess I had always thought ñ if my family and friends approved ñ in terms of a goal that it would be two terms,î she said. ìIn a first term, there is planning and goal-setting. To be able to see those through does take a second term.î
A prime example started with a phone call from a school bus driver pointing out traffic problems when trying to exit the school onto busy Airport Road.
ìItís a safety issue,î she said.
ìBy the time you get grant opportunities, by the time you make plans, let bids and fund it all Ö it took a couple of years. We worked with NIRPC to get grant dollars. We started working on it in the summer of 2008. But construction on that project will be this summer.î
As a woman mayor, she is something of a rarity in community politics.
She has gotten past the idea some folks are still surprised a woman can be mayor. And she can revel in the moments like when a family with three daughters came to her office recently.
ìI enjoyed showing those three young ladies they too can aspire to elected office,î the mayor said.
ìOne of my messages is public service is a noble calling. You have to embrace the idea of public service as a wonderful opportunity.î
Mayor Olga Velazquez is extending an invitation to the public to join her at her Annual Charity Ball. This yearís event is themed ìSweet Home Portageî and will feature music by Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues. The event will take place on Feb. 19 at Duneland Falls Banquet Center, 1100 N. State Road 149 in Portage with cocktails (cash bar) from 6-7 p.m. and dinner beginning at 7 p.m. The cost is $60 per person and proceeds from the event will be donated to local charitable organizations. There are a limited number of seats available so RSVP to Norma Laboy, at 219-734-6782.

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About Mike Siroky

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All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the above excellent column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Chronicle. Mike Siroky is a writer and editor. He is a native of Northwest Indiana. He has worked in media from coast to coast. To contact Mike, email mikel@the chronicleNWI.com

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