Butler County justice system budgets to be scrutinized in hearings this week

The Butler County commissioners changed venues for their annual budget hearing to the ninth floor of the Government Services Center so they can socially distance.

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

The majority of Butler County’s justice system will be on the docket Monday when the commissioners convene the second round of 2021 budget hearings during uncertain pandemic financial times.

The commissioners have asked all offices, departments and independent boards that rely on the general fund to cut 7.4% over two years due to a projected deep drop in revenues from the coronavirus pandemic.

As a whole, the general fund expenses presented for the commissioners' consideration are down about $12.3 million, or about 11.2%, between the adopted 2020 budget and spending requests for next year. The commissioners projected a $20 million general fund revenue tumble early in the pandemic, but through the first nine months of the year, actual revenue collections from all sources are down 7.6%, or $5.1 million.

County Administrator Judi Boyko said 70% of the offices and departments reduced their budgets “in some fashion” ranging from 0.67% to 21%. The Board of Elections had the highest reduction because there is no presidential election next year. Of those who complied, about 35% met the cumulative goal of a 7.4% reduction over this year and next.

Sheriff Richard Jones has the biggest general fund budget by far and cut about $1.5 million out of the 2020 spending plan. He has submitted $40 million in expenses for next year, which is $708,448, or 1.8%, over the adopted budget for this year.

Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer said the commissioners depend on his operation to generate the third-highest general fund revenue source, which is boarding of prisoners. He said they can’t deliver if they don’t have staff to guard the inmates.

“It comes down to this, they across the county asked for huge cuts and we were able to make what they asked for 2020. We won’t be able to make what they are asking for 2021 and continue to provide the same services and jail revenue,” Dwyer said. “So it’s a Catch 22, there’s a cost associated with that $10.5 million in revenue... there’s just a reality of that we’re bringing that money in and it does cost money feed the prisoners, watch the prisoners, all the amenities that go with running a jail.”

As of Sept. 30, the boarding of prisoners revenue projection is 7.3% below proceeds from a year ago. The revenue budgeted is $8.5 million, but Dwyer said he expects the revenue to be closer to $10 to $10.5 million. He said history shows they always exceed projections. Between 2017 and 2019, they projected revenues at a total of $20 million and delivered $28.2 million.

The Juvenile Court has the second-largest budget the commissioners will consider in this second of three rounds of budget hearings this month. The court made the requisite cuts for this year and has warned if further cuts are required, they will be forced to close down a unit at the detention center.

The court’s budget is split between court operations and the detention center for a total of $6.6 million proposed for next year, a $348,220 or 5% decrease. Court Administrator Rob Clevenger said officials sliced from the court operations side to comply with the first wave of cuts, to meet the budget reduction guidelines they must eliminate two vacant full-time youth leader positions, shutting down one unit — 12 beds for male detainees — in the 48-bed detention center.

“We can’t go any deeper on the court side so then the only other thing we’ve got is we’ve got detention,” he told the Journal-News. “With detention all you have there, because of standards and bed capacity and all of those kinds of things, all we have then is the elimination of a unit.”

The Common Pleas Court presented a 4.67% reduction over two years or a total $267,725 drop from the $5.7 million budget for this year. While the future in this pandemic world is beyond anybody’s control, the court’s budget for next year might be hiked by as much at $100,000 if the death penalty trial of Gurpreet Singh is held next May. He was supposed to stand trial for allegedly murdering four family members in September but it was continued.

Court Administrator Wayne Gilkison told the Journal-News he did not plug an amount for the trial into his budget because it could be delayed again or settled, but it will be expensive. The county is obligated to pay for expert witnesses, sequestering and feeding 12 jurors and four alternates and possibly some of the defense costs, if Singh’s retained lawyers are let go because he can’t afford it.

“What we traditionally do is we let them know we have this pending and instead of allocating funds into our budget that we may not need, the court has always just said we’ll notify you that we have this,” Gilkison said. “If we run into costs that cost us a lot of money in our budget, you guys know you need to replace that money.”

The commissioners will also be meeting with the Area, Domestic Relations and Probate courts, the Vet Board their Development Department and Developmental Disabilities Board. After one final set of hearings next week the commissioners and staff will finalize the budget for approval at year’s end.

CONTINUING COVERAGE

The Journal-News has been following the hours of budget hearings by the Butler County commissioners as the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic affects financial plans throughout the county. We’ll continue to use reporters in our communities to cover the news most important to taxpayers.

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