Butler County government in 2019: Debates, projects, big buys and more

Butler County officials dealt with some pressing issues in 2019, including hiring a new county administrator, ratifying several union contracts and investing in major projects.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest stories in Butler County government this year:

Commissioners hire new county administrator

The commissioners hired new administrator Judi Boyko in February, and she took the helm in March.

“I have worked with a number of administrators and top people and in my opinion she is the top, she is an ‘A’ player,” Commissioner Don Dixon told the Journal-News previously. “I’ve personally talked about hiring her in different roles for the last number of years. This is a huge positive step in Butler County’s organization. It’s all good news for Butler County residents.”

Boyko is the highest paid county employee with an annual salary of $172,000, which is less than what she was earning as an assistant county administrator in Hamilton County.

Boyko is responsible for a total county budget of $423 million, the 600 employees and 14 departments under the commissioners’ direct control and communicating and interacting with 15 other elected officials and seven independent boards.

Butler County sheriff, prosecutor fight over EMA takeover

The Butler County sheriff and prosecutor traded pointed remarks earlier this year after Prosecutor Mike Gmoser thwarted an attempt by the sheriff’s office to take over the county’s Emergency Management Agency.

Gmoser told the county commissioners that Sheriff Richard Jones’ plan was flawed and he was trying “to save (the sheriff) from himself,” and Jones, when contacted by the Journal-News for comment, said that, “I believe this was all prejudged before this.”

Gmoser declared Jones’ plan unconstitutional, and Jones said the prosecutor gave him a “template” he can take to the legislature to make a new law that will pass constitutional muster.

Jones has tried the takeover previously, but Gmoser would not allow the transfer because it was not legal under Ohio law. Sen. Bill Coley inserted a clause in the state budget bill that would allow the transfer.

Gmoser said there are multiple issues in the law and the sheriff’s proposal:

• Because the bill is specific about the size of the county that is allowed to transfer power to the sheriff, it applies only to Butler County and possibly Stark County, which he said is unconstitutional.

• The law limits the sheriff’s power to four years and doesn’t provide for extensions of the contract between the commissioners and the sheriff.

• Many of the jurisdictions in the county that provide half the EMA’s $400,000 budget would lose their voice in EMA decisions. The sheriff proposed an “advisory board” must smaller than the EMA board.

• Jones would have a conflict of interest as head of two agencies where grant money and allocation of funds are concerned.

County engineer delays road projects because of “scary” bidding season

The cost for two critical road projects in Butler County ballooned, leading the county engineer to delay widening Tylersville Road and increase the estimate for the Union Centre Boulevard interchange by $6 million.

The project to widen Tylersville Road at the Interstate 75 interchange — where about 50,000 drivers travel daily — was delayed again because bids jumped $1 million over the estimate.

The project to ease congestion and enhance safety came in over the $2 million estimate, so Butler County Engineer Greg Wilkens deferred the work to next year, hoping bids will be more favorable in the fall. The highest bid was $3.37 million and the lowest $3 million.

“They’re not as hungry right now because a lot of them have a lot of work on their plates,” Wilkens said at the time. “And it’s got a risk and reward, because that job has got some very tight and contentious areas to work in, so they’re just bidding it high.”

The labor shortage was another factor at work this bidding season.

The estimate for the UCB interchange jumped $3 million to $17 million and then again to $20 before the job was awarded.

County health insurance hike halved

The Butler County commissioners agreed to renew the county’s health insurance plan with an estimated $1.5 million increase for next year, an increase that was halved from original projections.

The county’s health insurance costs this year are estimated to be about $20 million, although the final data are not yet available. The hike for next year was estimated at 14 percent originally but dropped to about 8 percent. The commissioners also removed some incentives.

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said the county discontinued the premium credit incentive because the necessary programs were “minimal” and not helpful in reducing the number of claims.

“We need to revamp our engagement strategy,” she told the Journal-News. “It will be disappointing that employees can’t gain discounts on their premium, but that was an initiative we took to drive down the cost of claims and it didn’t drive down the cost of claims. It didn’t pay off.”

The county went to a self-insurance model in 2017 after several years of double-digit percentage increases for insurance coverage, caused in part by several large claims. They had a single $5 million claim in 2013 and a month with $3 million in claims in November 2014.

County negotiates deal for new voting equipment

The commissioners bought a $7.5 million voting machine system this year, but the bulk of it is state-paid, and software and licensing fees will be paid out over 10 years.

County officials have been concerned about the cost for new voting equipment for a couple of years now. The actual local spending is $1.38 million, and the state is picking up $3.2 million for the new iPad-like machines. It will cost the Board of Elections about $2.9 million over 10 years. The Board of Elections already pays around $200,000 for software and licensing, and under the new deal those costs will go up to just more than $100,000 a year.

The Board of Elections recommended a $8.2 million, direct record electronic (DRE) voting machine system to the commissioners in March. The commissioners balked at the high price. After county Administrator Judi Boyko and the Board of Elections went back to their vendor, Dominion, the price dropped almost $700,000.

Commissioner Don Dixon said having Boyko and the Board of Elections take a hard line with the vendor paid off.

“If they want our business they’re going to have to deal with us. I think it was a group effort, they did a good job,” Dixon said. “They always start out asking retail and then when they get down to counting the real dollars, you can usually get their attention.

More Butler County unions moving to performance pay

Butler County taxpayers will pay an estimated $777,900 extra now that all six of the sheriff’s unions have agreed to new three-year deals, and those contracts contain some unique incentives.

The commissioners approved new contracts with the dispatchers, corrections officers and paramedics, jail supervisors and clerks. The deputies and their supervisors ratified their deal in May.

Major Mike Craft said a “worst case scenario” cost estimate for all the contracts for three years is highly dependent on whether individual employees take advantage of the incentive pay that was built in the contracts.

“With the different sick leave incentives and the different things that are built into this contract, if certain people don’t meet certain obligations or they miss work or somethings this is the worst case scenario each of these could be reduced,” Craft said.

The highest outlay of new money is $300,000, going to the deputies and their immediate bosses. Union President Jeff Gebhart said the union voted 130-7 to accept the contract terms. They also negotiated the highest rise at 3 percent. The other unions were in the 2 to 2.5 percent range.

There are many new aspects to these contracts, most in the form of additional monies the employees can earn for things like extra physical fitness training and new this year is an attendance provision.

For the first time, the Butler County Job and Family Services union bought fully into the commissioners’ pay-for-performance program, a move that will cost about $122,000 annually.

Last summer the commissioners ratified a new three-year contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union that mirrors the merit pay plan for non-union employees under the commissioner’s control. The plan awards base pay and lump sum bonus increases based on performance evaluations. If employees are at the top of their pay range, they can only receive the lump sum bonus portion of the pay plan.

The Water and Sewer Department also recently ratified a new deal after a 10-month negotiation. The 74 union workers agreed to the commissioners’ plan, which annually provides up to 2 percent raises and an additional lump sum payout, up to 2 percent, both based on merit. The new three-year contract will cost an estimated $394,440, according to the county’s Human Resources Department. It is retroactive to the end of January, when the old deal expired.

County engineer secures more funds to fix problematic Liberty Way interchange

The estimate to fix the problematic Liberty Way and Ohio 129 interchange over Interstate 75 has dropped almost $6 million to $23.6 million, and federal money will cover about half, officials said.

“The $30 million originally was just kind of big planning number,” said Butler County Chief Deputy Engineer Dale Schwieterman. “We always start out big and hope that we’re high when we do those, sometimes we are, sometimes we’re not.”

“But as they’ve figured out locations for some of the ramps, I think it has brought the cost down a little from what we were afraid it might be.”

The project involves extending Ohio 129 to a new multi-lane Cox Road roundabout and modifying the Interstate 75 ramps, so there won’t be weaving or crisscrossing traffic.

Wilkens has secured $11.5 million in federal grants through the OKI Regional Council of Governments, and the county will pay the rest. The project can’t begin until 2021, when the OKI funding becomes available.

Butler County officials debate homeless issue

Inadequate sober housing for recovering drug addicts and housing for the homeless were identified as significant problems by several Butler County officials during budget hearings.

One part of the equation will be addressed by the mental health and addiction board next year with an estimated $300,000 investment in recovery housing.

Scott Rasmus, executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services Board, said roughly 20 to 25 percent or county residents — up to 100,000 people — suffer from mental health or substance abuse issues. There are approximately 100 sober living beds in the county now.

Commissioner Don Dixon told the Journal-News the issues with housing, a mental health crisis drop off center and drug addiction are global problems that require help from stakeholders in the county’s cities.

Dixon said any money the county would receive from its part in a large lawsuit against drug companies over the opioid epidemic can be put toward a solution. The county, Fairfield and Hamilton all joined the thousands of other communities that have sued the pharmaceutical industry.

About the Author