Butler County officials begin crafting 2021 spending plan with uncertain future

The Butler County commissioners begin meeting with other officials Monday to start honing spending plans for 2021 during budget hearings that will focus on an uncertain revenue landscape due to the coronavirus.

The commissioners meet with all of the office-holders, department heads and independent boards for full-day hearings every Monday for the rest of the month.

County Administrator Judi Boyko said the other officials submitted general fund expense budgets totaling $97.6 million with revenues about the same. The target was about $94 million, figuring projected revenue losses due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, Boyko said the figure includes $2.5 million the commissioners promised to contribute to pay for infrastructure for Hamilton’s massive Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill project.

The county is able to give the money because 2021 marks the first year there will be no general fund debt, and an extra $10 million will be available.

After the negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic began pressuring the county’s budget, the commissioners asked everyone to trim 4.14% from their 2020 budgets and wanted an additional 3.33% cut for next year. Boyko predicted the county could lose $20 million in general fund revenue because the economy came to a halt with the state’s shelter-in-place orders. As of Aug. 31, general fund revenues were only down $1.2 million, or 1.5%.

ExploreBudget cuts might close part of Butler County Juvenile Detention Center

However, she said the county is expecting to feel the ill effects of the pandemic for the next 18 to 24 months.

“Even though we’ve not experienced the reductions in the forecasted revenue sources there is a significant portion of the board of commissioners that still believes this pandemic will cause ripple effects to the economy which will negatively impact our revenue sources,” Boyko said.

When the tax budgets came in this summer Boyko reported “nearly all” of the offices have made the necessary cuts for this year. She said only about 25% have included reductions “close to” the commissioners' request for 2021, another 25% increased their budgets and the rest have taken cuts to some degree over the two-year period. The commissioners said the submissions were “unacceptable.”

Now Boyko said 70% of the offices and departments reduced their budgets “in some fashion” ranging from 0.67% to 21%. The Board of Elections, which is on the agenda for Monday’s hearings, 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.

Commissioner Don Dixon said the hearings are all about finding out the specific circumstances behind whether people cut or didn’t.

“We all knew that everybody won’t make it,” Dixon said. “Some of the offices just have different operating income and ways they can move money around, we’ll just take it on a case-by-case basis.”

Commissioner T.C. Rogers said revenues didn’t take the nose dive they projected but the coronavirus crisis isn’t over.

“We’re in a better position than we had anticipated in the summer,” Rogers said. “But we still have to determine the right size government and also how we’re going to address the huge variable I think is going to be in the first quarter of ’21.”

The Juvenile Court took the full cut and as a result would be forced to shut down one of the units at the detention center, Boyko said the commissioners will not approach these budget cuts “in a vacuum” and the Juvenile Court budget is “ripe” for discussion when they meet on Oct. 19, especially when core operations are on the line.

“The commissioners certainly don’t want to make adverse decisions on budgets that impact the quality of the services we deliver,” Boyko said.

Some of the bigger budgets are on deck for discussion tomorrow like the Water & Sewer Department with 92 employees and a combined 2021 budget of $26.8 million. This enterprise department does not use any general fund money, it relies almost entirely on fees for service.

County Engineer Greg Wilkens is also scheduled for a 45 minute chat with the commissioners. He told the Journal-News only a fraction of his budget — about $200,000 with the reduction he took — impacts the general fund but his budget has also taken a hit by the pandemic with a drop in gas tax collections which could impact road resurfacing next year. The Ohio Department of Transportation has estimated an 11% drop down from the original 30% estimate.

Before the virus crisis descended and people stopped driving, the state had approved a 10.5-cent per gallon gas tax hike in 2019, which has proven to mitigate the impact somewhat.

“It’s down, but the beauty of the new gas tax that’s on is we didn’t even get a start on spending that money as much,” Wilkens said. “So we’re working off the old budget, and that’s just what you’ve got to deal with. We’re down about 8% so it’s not a devastating blow, most of that money we’ve looked at to augment our resurfacing program.”

Next year was to be the first year the commissioners could invite other county leaders to share the extra $10 million it will have to invest in economic development endeavors. The debt-free plan was adopted by the commissioners in 2015. Prior to that commitment, the debt, which stood at $91.3 million in 2009, was scheduled for payments out to 2033.

Rogers said other than the Spooky Nook contribution they committed to two years ago, they will likely hold onto the rest for the foreseeable future.

“We’re going to be cautious until there is some element of certainty after the first of the year,” Rogers said. “To be able to speculate on anything now is just like going to Vegas.”

Dixon agreed.

“Until we can see our way through where we are with this COVID stuff and economy, we’re in great shape and we’re in a good position and we’re just going to stay there,” Dixon said.

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