Butler County commissioners, other elected officials and department heads met Thursday to discuss cutting the 2020 budget by 4.14 percent in anticipation of a projected $20 million general fund shortfall because of the coronavirus’ affect on the economy.
Officials said 2020 was a year “of celebration versus a crisis” just before the commissioners passed the budget for this year. The celebration was short-lived.
“We’re not trying to play Chicken Little, we really aren’t, we don’t want to run around with our heads cut off,” County Administrator Judi Boyko said. “We want to be very fiscally responsible in these projections.”
The commissioners passed a $109.4 million, structurally balanced 2020 general fund budget. It represented a 7.3 percent increase over the approved general fund budget of $101.9 million last year. The spending plan included and still includes the county’s final $10 million debt payment.
Boyko said the commissioners have agreed to empty the $12 million budget stabilization fund and use $1.5 million from a reserve fund that started the year with a $56 million balance to help close the revenue gap. She asked the office holders to cut 4.14 percent from their total approved budgets for the year.
Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said when the commissioners began discussing cuts during executive sessions the cut level was in the 20 percent range.
“I know that in each of the departments there are duties that you cannot shave, you cannot reduce the cost because those are the core duties, and in the justice system there’s no way to reduce because your caseloads are going up,” Carpenter said. “I don’t want to reduce any critical services.”
The Butler County Sheriff’s Department’s budget consumes the largest slice of the general fund at around $40 million and would take the biggest hit at around $1.6 million. During the Great Recession, Sheriff Richard Jones had to lay off more than 20 deputies, but he told the commissioners Thursday he doesn’t anticipate staff cuts.
“At the sheriff’s office we’re going to do what we’ve got to. We’re very fortunate we put on a hiring freeze when this first started, we knew this was going to happen,” he said. “What we’re talking right now, just from attrition we should be good without laying anybody off.”
Commissioner Don Dixon said that, in many respects, this downturn is worse than the Great Recession. He said the county can’t count on bailouts from the state or federal governments.
“We don’t know what those numbers are going to be. You know they gave out $2.5 billion but you had to have a population over 500,000, well we’re not there,” Dixon said. “I can tell you they (the federal government) can’t weather that kind of a storm, they can’t, we’re going to have to take care of ourselves. We’re not going to depend on those guys in Washington who get up one day and say one thing and go to bed that night saying something completely different.”
Commissioner T.C. Rogers said previously there has been talk at the state level that funding formulas could change, essentially penalizing counties that are financially sound.
“My sources are because this county has done well we’re going to have to fight to even get what we were getting,” Rogers said.
Boyko said she and the budget analyst tapped a number of resources to formulate the projections. Sales tax makes up about 45 percent of the general fund revenues and she is estimating a 30 percent drop this year; probably a 10 percent reduction property taxes due to delinquencies and a 20 percent decrease in property transfer taxes.
Sales tax receipts lag, so the county won’t see the first true impact on that revenue stream until mid-May.
She said the experts estimate the negative effects of a closed economy will reach into next year so as the office holders begin preparing their tax budgets for 2021 she asked that they reduce those requests by an additional 3.33 percent. She thanked the office holders saying while she wasn’t with the county during the last downturn and recovery, she has been a taxpayer for 17 years.
“I’ve appreciated the sacrifices you’ve made and the leadership of the board. Moving forward, I know that you’ll be partners again over these next couple of years,” Boyko said. “Hopefully we can construct a new reality for Butler County and right-size the operations so that we’re delivering quality services in a fiscally responsible manner.”