Butler County economic indicators appear strong, but are they?

Auditor ‘cautiously optimistic’ about housing market.

There are any number of statistics that paint a picture of the economic health of a community. The Journal-News examined 17 indicators — everything from sales tax revenue to foreclosures — to gauge Butler County’s condition.

The numbers show sales tax, the county’s largest revenue source, rose 42.4% between 2014 and last year, and retail vendor licenses increased by the same percentage.

Commissioner Don Dixon said the sales tax numbers are deceiving because lots of people were online shopping during the pandemic lockdown — they didn’t have much else to do. So ecommerce numbers went “through the roof” and bricks and mortar establishments “tanked.” He said he thinks that trend might be reversing itself.

“I don’t think anybody knows what that real number is and what is the real strength of the consumer spender right now,” Dixon said. “A lot of people have spent a lot of their extra money, and their COVID extra money that they got, and the tax credit money they got on home remodeling projects ... a lot more so than ever. So that skewed the numbers even more, so all those dollars are kind of washing out right now.”

Liberty Center had struggled mightily even before COVID-19 descended two years ago, but General Manager John Taylor said “it’s been hopping” with six new tenant build-outs going on right now and they “are definitely in a better place than it was a year ago.”

“I’m always hesitant to speak too much about it because is it a bubble, is it the recovery bubble and then are we going to see a drop off,” Taylor said. “We are lucky we haven’t, sales have continued to increase and our tenants continue to do better, but at the same time I’ll be honest I keep waiting to look at it every month and see it’s gone away.”

A drop in some numbers is desirable, such as foreclosures, which went down 82% to 267 last year from 1,482 total filings in 2014 Liens were down 80% to 2,841.

Those numbers are also indicative of the pandemic, according to Butler County Clerk of Courts Mary Swain.

“While it is gratifying that the foreclosure and lien filings decreased significantly in 2020 and 2021, we attribute that decrease to the moratorium placed on such filings during the time of the pandemic,” Swain said. “It is our sincere hope that those filings do not increase to pre-COVID levels in the future.”

In the recent red-hot housing market, property conveyance taxes increased 78% to $8.27 million, new home permits jumped 20.7% to 727 last year, and the median home sales price increased 42.2% to $239,000. Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the housing market, but like many people said the future is unpredictable especially because of rampant inflation.

“What we’re seeing now and hearing is inflation continuing to skyrocket, there’s got to be a slowdown coming the big question is when and how bad will be,” Reynolds said. “What we would hope is that we see a little bit of cooling off of inflation and a soft reset but given the unknowns, there’s just a lot of unknowns. No one can predict if it will be a soft landing or if there’s a potential crash ahead of us.”

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