Butler County’s major to-do list includes some firsts in 2020

Construction continues at Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill Monday, Dec. 2, 2019 in Hamilton. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Construction continues at Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill Monday, Dec. 2, 2019 in Hamilton. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Butler County officials have plenty on their plate this year as preparations are made to implement the long-awaited countywide economic investment plan that will boost development and benefit taxpayers everywhere.

The Butler County commissioners have been calling it their “2020 Plan” for years, but now it is time to lay the groundwork for how the county can invest about $10 million annually.

By year’s end, the general fund debt balance will roll to zero, freeing up millions. Commissioner Don Dixon said the county will address some overdo capital needs but also will reach out to other communities to gauge how to best invest the money for the good of the county as a whole.

“We’ll reach out to some of the larger entities out there that would consider using it and get their input too, so we can all get on the same page where we think we can have the most impact,” Dixon said. “It’ll be a lot of fun but it’s going to be a lot of work. But for the first time we’re investing money that we have to create jobs, rather than not having the jobs and borrowing money to create jobs, that’s a huge difference.”

The city of Hamilton will be the first recipient of the new initiative with $2.5 million the commissioners pledged to help pay for B Street road improvements for the massive Spooky Nook sports and convention center complex. The pledge makes clear the money won’t be available until 2021.

RELATED: Support for Spooky Nook: What other agencies are doing to fund Hamilton’s giant sports complex

Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller’s comments, when he formally thanked the commissioners last May, epitomized the goal of the “2020 Plan” saying the $140 million investment is going to be a “game-changer.”

“It’s going to be amazing,” he told the commissioners while thanking them for their contribution.

“It’s going to lift up this city, it’s going to bring this region to even higher heights, we’re at pretty high heights right now, things are going well. This is truly a game-changer, not only for a year but decades and decades.”

County Administrator Judi Boyko and Development Director David Fehr are tasked with developing the plan. Fehr said one thing the plan is not is a hand-out. Providing local match funds for grants would be a good use of the money he said.

“Clearly the commissioners want this to be a strictly strategic plan, they want a return on investment, where there is some type of a payback, we’re not just going to hand checks to folks, ” Fehr said. “We want to be part of projects that maybe communities have had on the back burner but maybe haven’t had quite the funding to get past the finish line. A lot of grant opportunities require local match which sometimes communities can’t come up with.”

Liberty Twp. Trustee Steve Schramm said he has already been nudging the commissioners to back the estimated $79 million Interstate 75 interchange at Millikin Road project, one that just got the green light from the state to proceed.

“I’ve had my eye on that money before they even said it was available,” Schramm said, noting the next stop in the interchange project involves “several million dollars” for studies.

“I’d like to think we can get queued up for some of the cash to help us on the front end of Millikin. The upside to them is they the get the money back,” Schramm said pointing to the Union Centre Boulevard interchange as a model that these interchange projects are “cash generators” mainly in terms of the sales tax the county collects.

What else is on the county’s to-do list?

The commissioners are reviving their hunt for a new second in command for Boyko and searching for the first time for a new assistant finance director.

Boyko has been at the helm of the county for almost a full year now and she said she sees some areas where her office can do an even better job of ensuring the residents are given the best services possible.

“There are business systems that need to be enhanced in order to develop an organization that can deliver government services effectively, efficiently and expeditiously,” Boyko said. “I’m not at all implying the current operation is not robust and very effective, I’m simply implying because the organization has been so lean for so long, there are areas from a delivery of service perspective that need attention.”

There are two executive-level positions in the commissioners’ budget for this year totalling $152,883 in salary. Boyko said she is still developing titles and job descriptions, but both will be advertised within and outside the county.

The county went hunting for a new assistant county administrator in 2017, and almost 250 people — including two former pro football players, a bartender, an aircraft inspector, many administrative assistants and the county’s finance director — applied for the new position.

MORE: Butler County: new administrator good investment for residents

After more than a year, and no consensus by the three commissioners, the search went on hiatus.

Commissioner T.C. Rogers said the administrative office has been “thin for years” and they want their top people free to focus “on the bigger picture items.”

Capital improvements a priority this year

The commissioners received capital improvement requests from various departments, elected officials and independent boards totalling $3.6 million, not including the sheriff’s $2.5 million wish list.

Automating the “Stone Age” parking garage, fixing elevators and escalators and a number of technology purchases are all on the list, to name a few. The sheriff has his own list but Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer told the Journal-News most of the items are not immediately critical.

“The $2.5 million is what we’ve put in but clearly that is a place-marker to let the commissioners know our future needs,” Dwyer said. “It’s not something that we’re looking at expending in 2020 at all, if at all, and a lot of that comes down with our financial health and if we can keep it limping along.”

The commissioners have yet to approve the capital spending plan for this year, but notably absent is an estimated $1.3 million in renovations at the Historic Courthouse. It needs a roof, stair replacement on the Court Street side of the building and other repairs.

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter, who has fought for courthouse restoration for years, said they are going about it deliberately. A $35,000 needs assessment is the first step.

“My project obviously is the courthouse, where we have money in to get the needs assessment done so when we put money in the courthouse we’re doing it according to an approved plan,” she said. “We have to take care of what we have.”

Shore up infrastructure

Dixon said it is time to look at the water and sewer rates, that haven’t changed since 2009. He is not suggesting a rate hike to possibly fund capital projects right away, but said they need to study how much capacity they system can handle in the future and if expansion will be required.

“I’ve been through that when the county couldn’t issue building permits because it didn’t have the utility infrastructure to handle it,” Dixon said. “So we;re got an “A” grade system and we want to keep it that way. All that takes a lot of time and that’s not even anticipating the unexpected, which happens every time you turn around.”

Water and Sewer Director Martha Shelby said as far as day-to-day operations go she doesn’t anticipate raising rates for another three to five years.

Social service initiatives

Last year the homeless, dealing with the opiate crisis, a crisis drop off center and other social service issues were hot topics. Dixon said he is not certain anything concrete will be done on these issues this year but the dialogue is still open.

Carpenter said there are many efforts on-going countywide on all of those fronts and she is optimistic.

“This is the right people at the right time to address these needs,” she said. “Sometimes you see that you know, and maybe things happen.”