(La Porte County, IN) - The race for the District 1 seat on the LaPorte County Council pits a longtime police officer against a member of the LaCrosse Town Council since he was 18.
Democrat Mike Kellems and Republican Justin Kiel are vying for the seat now held by Terry Garner, who’s not seeking a sixth consecutive term.
Kellems is a former 32-year member of the LaPorte County Sheriff’s Office and is currently a police officer at Purdue University Northwest outside Westville.
Kellems, 57, of LaPorte, is also a security officer transporting offenders for the U.S. Marshal’s Office in South Bend and Hammond. He previously served four years on the LaPorte School Board.
Kellems said he entered the campaign after the party asked him about his interest in running for the seat.
“I enjoy public service, and I decided to give it a shot,” Kellems said.
If elected, Kellems said his priorities include putting money aside for potential major projects like a new La Porte County Jail and replacing the Franklin Street draw bridge in Michigan City.
Kellems said he also wants to begin identifying other sources of revenue that might be available to help pay for what will likely be tens of millions of dollars in costs.
“We need to make sure we’re budgeting for those so that we don’t get hit with a massive bill and have no way to fund it and avoid at all cost raising taxes,” Kellems said.
Kellems said he’s also in favor of raising the salaries of emergency responders until they reach a level that stops them from leaving for higher pay elsewhere at what’s been an alarming rate.
The dollars would come from revenue generated from a hike several months ago in the local income tax rate from .0095-percent to .0145-percent.
“That employee drain is hurting us. We got to catch that up,” Kellems said.
Kiel was 18 when appointed to fill an opening on the town council. He’s been council president since 2016.
Kiel is also the owner and publisher of the Westville Indicator and The Regional News, weekly newspapers covering primarily the southern part of the county.
Kiel said he’s running to provide a strong voice for the entire district and ensure areas like Wanatah, Westville, and LaCrosse receive fair representation.
“Sometimes, I think our rural communities get forgotten or left behind a little bit,” Kiel said.
Kiel said his other priorities include competitive pay for all county government employees and the council using its fiscal authority to play more of an active role in setting policy and reducing wasteful spending.
He also sees a need for a better long-term plan for major capital purchases.
Kiel said a good strategic plan allows enough dollars to be set aside for buying new trucks and other costly equipment when the time comes for replacement.
“Right now, there isn’t a written solid plan in place, and I’d like to see that created,” Kiel said.
Kiel said he also wants the government to be better than just average at being an open book, so the public is better informed on where the county stands financially and what was involved in decisions on spending.
“I think transparency is something that you can always do more to improve,” Kiel said.
Kiel, who lost four years ago in the primary to Garner by less than 100 votes, already owned the newspapers when he took his first step into the public service arena.
“I’m always filled with ideas, and I’ve always had a passion for government. It just seemed like a natural fit,” Kiel said.