Butler County officials begin debating $495M budget

Starting Monday, commissioners will preside over three day-long budget hearings with 27 entities that provide services using tax dollars.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

It’s the time of year when Butler County officials begin fine-tuning the spending plan for next year, and everyone is keeping an eye on the uncertain financial future when crafting general fund budgets that preliminarily stand at $123 million.

County Finance Director Dave McCormick sent out a directive to all elected officials, department heads and independent boards in August, asking them to continue the conservative approach to spending.

“The county’s 2023 General Fund budgeted and actual to date expenses have remained conservative, further solidifying the county’s General Fund reserves,” McCormick wrote conveying the commissioners’ directive. “As you know, this approach is always very important to county governance, but is especially critical at this time due to the residual economic effects of the pandemic, ongoing inflationary pressures and the continued possibility (some would say likely and some would say certainty) of an economic recession.”

The commissioners for many years have insisted on a structurally balanced budget, meaning they only budget expenses within expected revenues and don’t use reserves to make ends meet. As the general fund stands today, expenses exceed revenues by nearly $1.4 million but County Administrator Judi Boyko said they are “still finalizing numbers.”

Starting Monday, the commissioners will preside over three day-long budget hearings with 27 entities that provide services — using tax dollars — to Butler County residents, like the sheriff and Job and Family Services.

Commissioner Don Dixon told everyone during the hearings last year there could be hiring freezes, which never materialized. That won’t be the message this year, but the bottom line will be conveyed,” try to do more with less, have a smaller government, and take less dollars from our taxpayers to run our operations.”

“I don’t know what the economy is going to do obviously, smarter minds that mine say the next couple years could get rocky,” Dixon said. “We expect that to happen, that’s the way it always works, history repeats itself, it’s up and down and up and down. My message is going to be pretty similar, I want to keep the constraints as much as we can on the expenditures.”

Boyko said it appears everyone has heeded the commissioners’ wishes.

“I think the departments and the agencies and the elected offices especially have been very conscious of the volatility of the economy and have heeded the commissioners’ request to be mindful as they draft their budgets and request funding,” Boyko said.

The general fund is the main operational fund, but there are a number of entities that rely on outside resources such as state and federal funding, service fees like water and sewer and independent tax levies. All combined, the total budget for next year amounts to $495.3 million.

The general fund budget is 6% higher than the $116 million worth of expenses budgeted for this year. Boyko said inflation has bloated the cost of supplies, materials, utilities and other ancillary expenses and personnel — the largest expense by far — costs are up.

There are always raises governed by 10 union contracts and the commissioners have asked everyone to keep their two-part performance pay program raises at 3% for each. Deserving non-union employees can receive a percentage increase to their base wage and an equal percentage in lump sum increases.

The commissioners also recently approved a new health insurance contract with a 4.5% increase, that the county is absorbing instead of passing onto employees. That adds another estimated $900,000 to the expense budget.

Adding to the county’s team

A big goal for next year is to finally round out the administrative team. Boyko has been operating with a depleted management team for years. The budget calls for hiring a new assistant county administrator, director of assets and purchasing, economic development director and assistant JFS director.

The county had an assistant county administrator for only six months before Scott Timmer returned to Fairfield as its city manager last year. The asset and purchasing role has been vacant since the summer. There hasn’t been an economic development director for many years and the assistant JFS director has been vacant since former JFS Executive Director Bill Morrison retired two years ago.

All three commissioners say beefing up the directorship level is a high priority. Dixon said hiring a second in command is the highest of them all and they are going to hire a recruiting firm to help.

“One person can’t do it all and it’s always helpful to have an extra set of eyes working on different problems,” Dixon said. “A county of our size, you have to have an assistant administrator, you just have to. It’s not fair to Judi to have her do that kind of work by herself.”

The sheriff has the biggest general fund budget by far at an estimated $55.3 million which is a 3.8% increase. Finance Director Vickie Barger noted there are six unions with built in wage increases between 3% to 4% and step increases of 3% to 9.25%.

They also had to stomach a 37% increase for inmate meals but she has lowered other line items to lessen the budget impact.

When the pandemic descended three years ago, the commissioners 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. The sheriff eliminated 14 positions, froze hiring and overtime and took other steps to comply.

The office is budgeting 406 full time staffers for next year which is up two from this year, but Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer told the Journal-News they are never at a full complement, because jail deputies and dispatchers come and go all the time. He said they have recovered from the COVID-19 cuts.

“It’s always a moving target,” Dwyer said. “I’m okay with the budgeted numbers that we have, we haven’t been increasing people and our numbers have gone up but I’m comfortable with the number of the people we have staffed to run the agency.”

On the revenue side of the ledger sales tax — the largest dollar driver for the general fund — collections through October are nearly $3 million more than a year ago at $49.1 million and they budgeted $47.5 million for the whole year. As of the end of August there was $119 million in unincumbered cash on hand.

Weathering the economic storm

Commissioner T.C. Rogers told the Journal-News they are in good shape, even with the prospect of an uncertain economy next year.

“The economy has some storm clouds so we’ll see how we get through those,” he said. “But knowing our financial condition and our reserves we are prepared for just about any crisis.”

Also built into the budget is the $16 million budget stabilization fund and $6.5 million for capital projects. The commissioners also set aside $15 million in a capital reserve fund last year — that hasn’t been touched yet — to help fund recommendations from the space study designed to right-size the county’s facility footprint.

The first two projects that are underway as a result of the space study are consolidating Coroner Dr. Lisa Mannix’s operations — she has offices in the Government Services Center and leases space for the morgue — and expanding the sheriff’s 911 dispatch center.

Several years ago budgets were extremely tight and the hearings were tense affairs. Commissioner Cindy Carpenter told the Journal-News there are many projects she would like to see tackled this year and it is much easier given their enviable financial position.

“It is significantly easier when you can fund the best government possible,” she said. “I think that’s our goal, is to look at are we funding the best practices, are we doing the best maintenance on our buildings are we doing the correct projects. There are some things that haven’t been completed that need to be discussed at the budget hearings.”

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