Butler County commissioners set priorities, conduct ‘eulogy’ session

Hired facilitator helps administrator, elected leaders plan for the future.

The Butler County commissioners and their administrator participated in long-range strategy planning Monday to set priorities for the future, an exercise that even included a “eulogy” session on what could doom the county.

The county hired Mike Hinnenkamp with Strategic Agora Advisors LLC for $17,000 to lead them through a series of exercises to help them draft a plan for the future. They met for five hours a week ago in executive session because it involved personnel matters. Monday’s meeting was about strategy.

“We’re trying to say: What is our direction for the future, as long as this board is intact, what is sort of our mindset, for instance on affordable housing, what is the county’s role and position going to be on affordable housing?” Hinnenkamp told the Journal-News prior to the meeting. “What is the county’s role going to be on economic development? What is the county’s role going to be on environmental issues? What is the county’s role going to be on enterprise?”

Hinnenkamp started them off by asking whether they believe the county is “below, at or above” where they want to be in terms of attracting residents and businesses and key staff, plus where the local economy, housing and infrastructure stand, among other issues.

They all felt the county is at or above the mark in most areas, but Commissioner Don Dixon said while they are good at attracting new commerce, how the county as a whole cares for the existing businesses is lacking.

“This really kind of sets me off sometimes: we lose businesses like everybody else loses their old businesses, because the new businesses we give incentives to or the townships give incentives to, they give tax breaks, they give employees wages for a while,” Dixon said. “You can’t offer that to old businesses, there’s not a tool that lets you do that. Somehow you have to help them, you’ve got to remember who got you there and try and keep them.”

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Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said she believes they are below where they should be in the social services realm, in terms of serving people who need food stamps and other assistance in the outlying areas. The Job and Family Services offices are all located in Hamilton, except OhioMeansJobs, which is in Fairfield.

“We do not reach Oxford and we do not reach Middletown, and you hear it all the time,” she said, later adding, “It’s so hard to get to us, we are so bureaucratic, with so many forms and things that we need, we could definitely do a better job.”

Dixon disagreed, “Can we be better? Yes. Are we below? No.”

Hinnenkamp then asked them what they think their biggest accomplishments were in the last five years. They listed the fact they erased all general fund debt a couple years ago; gave property taxpayers an $18.5 million tax break last year; invested $20 million worth of federal coronavirus relief funds into three new higher education facilities; have the lowest number of children in foster care; hired County Administrator Judi Boyko, among other positives.

They also pointed out the county has a low crime rate, good roads and the lowest sales tax rate — at 6.5% — in the state.

The next exercise involved listing the county’s strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats. Hinnenkamp had them create lists and then put colored dots to indicate what each thinks is the top issue in each category.

Fiscal solvency, a “robust, diversified economy” and location ranked highest in the strength category. As for weaknesses, the top vote-getter was the opioid epidemic and resources to deal with it. Aging neighborhoods and young people switching their political beliefs were also a concern for some.

Some of the opportunities included the proposed Interstate 75 interchange at Millikin Road in Liberty Twp., developing a system for addressing addiction and mental health issues with local officials and the One Ohio Region 14 board — that is charged with disbursing as much as $54 million from opioid lawsuit settlements — and leveraging relationships with state legislators.

The biggest threat, which was tagged as a priority by all four, was retaining employees who are being poached from other departments and communities. “Archaic” state laws, like those regarding property valuation the commissioners have launched a crusade to change, was another big one.

Hinnenkamp then asked them to consider things that could cause the county to die in five or 10 years.

“The county’s is dead, the county doesn’t exist, it died,” Hinnenkamp said. “You’ve been asked to get up and do the eulogy for this dead county you were once a part of. It died, what killed it?”

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The responses were too many taxes, failing to embrace diversity, failure to respond to young people’s technology focus, they “gave away too much money to the people who weren’t in need of it,” and they didn’t go to areas where services were needed, among others.

“We failed to pull the communities together and collaborate, coordinate, share resources,” Dixon said.

Assuming the county isn’t going to be dead in a decade, Hinnenkamp asked them what they want for the county.

“To grow Butler County into the most efficient county government in the state through community collaboration and fiscal superiority,” Commissioner T.C. Rogers said. “That’s one of the biggest things we’ve done well is we finally got the other jurisdictions to trust us.”

To do that the commissioners said they need to create a smaller, more efficient government operation, lower taxes and provide excellent customer service that is responsive to their citizens’ needs. They all agreed fiscal responsibility is key.

Boyko said they want to provide excellent services but “efficient to what the taxpayer wants to afford, we can only provide what they’re willing to pay for.”

The group will meet again in a couple weeks to discuss more fully what issues, like affordable housing, enterprise opportunities — taking advantage of the aquifer instead of just providing water and sewer utility services — the opioid and mental health problems and others they want to tackle.

Boyko told the Journal-News she urged the commissioners to undertake this exercise because she has used this technique before. She said it was “an amazing opportunity” for the board to acknowledge the positive things about the county and “opportunities to enhance.”

“I think the positive thing is that they were vulnerable, they took the opportunity to engage in these conversations in the best interest of Butler County’s future,” Boyko said.

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