Butler County to hire finance director in midst of coronavirus crisis

Butler County Administrator Judi Boyko is predicting a $19.3 million general fund budget deficit due to the coronavirus pandemic, but she finally found a new finance director who can help figure out how best to patch the hole.

The commissioners are expected to formally approve hiring Angel Burton on Monday with an annual salary of $111,500. She will start May 18. Burton has 16 years of experience in government finance and is coming to the county from the Cincinnati Health Department where she is the division manager for business operations.

Former Finance Director Tawana Keels left the position on Feb. 7 after seven years leading the county’s finance department.

There were 50 applicants for the top fiscal management job and while her credentials are crucial. Boyko said there was something more about Burton.

“Her personality, her demeanor I think will serve the county well as we embark on this challenging time of reduced revenues and high unemployment,” Boyko said.

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Burton grew up in Okeana and went to Ross High School. She is expected to graduate with a Master’s of Public Administration degree from Northern Kentucky University next year, and has a bachelor’s in business administration and finance from Wilmington College. She told the Journal-News it’s good to be coming home to Butler County, and is up to the challenges she faces.

“I bring a lot of government experience to the table that I am very confident in,” Burton said. “I’m looking forward to working with Butler County, I know this is a challenging economic time, however, they have been so well run financially that I believe that they will weather this storm. Not without some boat rocking and some difficult decisions that will have to be made, but I think they will come out on the other side but in a better position than many of their surrounding jurisdictions.”

Boyko posted the position with a salary range of $84,219 to $124,800.

“Although in today’s time with financial impacts of COVID-19 I do understand that it is a very robust salary,” Boyko said. “Though talent that leads the county’s finance department is critical in managing the budget of the seventh-largest county in the state of Ohio.”

The county finance director manages the $416 million budget and this year will oversee the elimination of all general fund debt by year’s end, despite the fact finances are now threatened by depleted sales tax and other revenue streams.

Boyko insisted on having autonomy in hiring her management team when the commissioners hired her last year. All three commissioners say Burton is an excellent choice.

“She has a significant amount of knowledge in government finance, so I was very, very happy with that,” Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said. “I’m really pleased with her.”

Burton has held the position of finance director for the cities of North College Hill and Harrison in Hamilton County. She served as the fiscal officer in the village of Bethel and treasurer for village of Batavia in Clermont County. She was a project manager and software developer for Landrum & Brown, Inc., a global aviation planning and development firm.

“I’m pretty excited about it, I have seen some of her work, she’s very detailed and precise and I think she’s going to be great for the team,” Commissioner Don Dixon said. “I’m glad we waited until we got the right person who I think is going to be good for us for the long term.”

Boyko is estimating a 17.7 percent drop in revenue from all sources, such as investment interest, property tax, building permit fees, recorder/transfer fees to name a few, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sales tax accounts for 40 percent of the county’s general fund revenues. The county commissioners passed a structurally balanced $109.4 million general fund budget and $394 million revenue total for all funds this year. Between reserves and the budget stabilization fund the county has about $70 million it can tap into.

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“I hope I’m wrong,” Boyko said. “Of all things I hope my estimates for revenue reductions are wrong, but the staff with the information that we had, with the trends and the knowledge we are observing, these were the best assumptions that we could integrate into determining what the revenue forecast will be.”

Actual sales tax receipts from March, when the governor first issued the stay-at-home order, will be in after May 10, so she said they should have a better idea then if the projections are on target.

Commissioner T.C. Rogers said he is glad they found Burton, especially now when some tough decisions need to be made.

“We have those (reserves) plus we have a budget stabilization (fund) that’s what that’s for,” Rogers said. “But we’re not just talking about this year. We’re not going to make decisions for just this year, we’re going to make decisions for what we believe is going to happen next year and maybe the year after that.”

A decade ago the county faced a $7 million budget gap, reserves that had dropped below $9 million in 2009 — which impacts the ability to borrow money — and seriously considered a 0.25 percent sales tax increase. In 2009, Dixon and now-Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy, who was then a domestic relations judge, convened a summit of officeholders, department heads and business leaders, to deal with what was dubbed a “perfect storm.”

“We have the equivalent of a Category 5 financial hurricane headed our way, and if we choose to ignore that reality, our county will be in financial ruin,” Dixon warned at the time after his fellow commissioners unilaterally cut $2.6 million in July 2009 as a stopgap measure. “We cannot continue with business as usual. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

But for the “blueprint” drafted by the budget group and adopted by the commissioners — that is still an active document today — the county would have defaulted and its finances likely would have been taken over by the state, according to Dixon. He said people were routinely getting double-digit raises and some got multiple salary bumps in a year and spending had gone unchecked. He said the group did a deep dive into the actual debt and spending levels and how people were being paid.

Dixon said time will tell how bad the economy gets, but the situation is manageable.

“We’ve been preparing for this, not knowing what it was, for the past five years,” Dixon said. “We’ve been preparing for some kind of event that we would have to scramble around and try and figure out who’s on first, and how much the economy is going to be hurt and how we were going to get through it. We have an outline of that, and more importantly, we have the reserves to help us get through it.”

He said during the Great Recession they had massive layoffs because they had no choice but that is not happening now, “we are going to be able to find our way forward without a lot of turmoil.” He is not anticipating staff cuts but there will have to be reductions somewhere.

Carpenter, who was the clerk of courts 2009 and had her budget slashed, said times have changed.

“We will need cuts but we are going to work with the offices to see where they have reduced personnel budgets and where they can cut nonessential programs, “Carpenter said. “Not necessarily to get rid of them, but perhaps postpone some things that aren’t necessary….”

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