Butler County office holders and department heads have asked to spend $101.5 million from the general fund next year, which means the county must slice $2 million to get to a structurally balanced budget.
The county commissioners are beginning their annual budget hearings. County Administrator Charlie Young warned these will be challenging again.
“This is shaping up to have some difficulties as we have for the last several years,” Young said. “We have requests that are coming in that are thoughtful and balanced, but they exceed the revenues we have to fund them.”
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Some of the biggest challenges for 2019, according to county officials, are:
• A 14.3 percent, $2.5 million health insurance hike
• The $3 million loss of Medicaid Managed Sales Tax
• Estimated $3 million for new voting machines
• Increased jail costs to house felony offenders who can no longer be sent to prison
• Repaying loans for the new $8.5 million Motorola emergency communications system
Sheriff Richard Jones has the biggest department budget and has the largest staff. His budget request for next year is almost $37 million, representing a $1.3 million increase over this year. He is also projecting $1 million more in revenue from housing prisoners.
The old Court Street jail was reopened earlier this year in part to cope with a state law that now requires judges to keep low level, non-violent offenders out of state prisons. The law doesn’t generate income for the county — early estimates were it would cost about $3.8 million — but by having more jail space the sheriff can house more contract inmates.
In her budget submission the sheriff’s Finance Director Vickie Barger noted that from when the new law first took effect on July 1 through August 31 felony-five offenders spent a total of 1,265 days in the jail. At a daily rate of $72 the county spent $91,080 in two months housing those inmates.
Commissioner T.C. Rogers said his biggest concern in the budget is that some people are submitting budgets with raises that go beyond the 2 percent ceiling.
“Basically compensation to department and office holder budgets above our targets…,” is what Rogers said concerns him. “We’ve seen requests that are much more than (2 percent).”
The commissioners instituted pay-for-performance several years ago, whereby up to 2 percent can be added to an employee’s base wage and up to an additional 2 percent given in lump sum, based on performance.
The batch of budgets turned in for the first round of budget hearings for the most part adhered to the 2 percent target, but some, like the Veterans Service Commission, is seeking 5 percent raises. Young said that is frustrating.
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“There are a lot of people that are complying,” Young said. “But it is a concern with those that aren’t, it makes it tough for the ones that are sticking to the two percent to continue to do it, when you have veterans services putting in 5 percent.”
Since that agency is governed by its own board the commissioners can’t force compliance. When vet board Executive Director Caroline Bier presented her tax budget she said blanket raises will not be given and no one has received a 5 percent increase in the agency that she can recall. She said the commissioners wanted some flexibility.
“The board chose to put that 5 percent across the board, so that when it does come time for pay increases and incentive pay, they have the option and we have the funding to do that,” she said.
The county has had a structurally balanced budget since 2012. Two years ago Finance Director Tawana Keels outlined a plan to erase all the general fund debt by 2020. Officials say they are still on that track. The accelerated debt repayment plan is expected to save the county about $2.1 million.
The county was about to go over a fiscal cliff just a few years ago but measures such as reining in expenses and most departments ending double-digit raises pulled the county back from the brink.
Commissioner Don Dixon said he has no doubt their budget will be structurally balanced again but that he’s worried about is the economy. He said when things are going well financially it is hard to keep people from wanting to spend. There is another economic downturn in offing, Dixon believes, and they have to keep that in mind.
“I want the county to be in a position that we don’t have to do those massive layoffs, we don’t have to cut programs, we don’t have to cut hours, we don’t have to close buildings,” he said. “If we can stay on track we’ll be okay… We have to keep focused, we have to do what government needs and we don’t need to have all the bells and whistles we’re not required to do by statute.”
Office holders in the rest of justice system like the courts and prosecutor, Job and Family Services, the Board of Developmental Disabilities and others are on the schedule for Monday. The commissioners have budget hearings schedule for each of the next three Mondays.