An extra $1M could soon be available to help Butler County projects

Projects throughout Butler County could soon benefit from an economic outlet that would have seemed impossible several years ago: A $1 million excess in the county port authority’s budget.

Development Director David Fehr told county commissioners during his recent budget hearing the port should end the year with more than $1 million in available funds. He has directed Port Authority Executive Director Mike McNamara to find a good use of the funds.

“That money can’t just sit there,” Fehr said. “It could be a donation, revolving loan, infrastructure, support the land bank. But my goal to Mike is we just can’t have that money sitting there, we’ve got to make it useful and get it out into the community.”

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Fehr told the Journal-News the decision rests solely with the autonomous port authority board, but “we’re going to throw out a lot of ideas for them and then let them pick what makes sense.”

Commissioner Don Dixon said the excess funds would provide another outlet to benefit county projects along with the commissioners’ 2020 debt-free plan. The general fund debt will roll to zero at the end of next year, freeing up about $9 million per year.

The commissioners will use some of the money for capital improvements but also want to offer countywide economic development assistance to other jurisdictions. Hamilton will be the first recipient in 2021 with the commissioners’ $2.5 million contribution for infrastructure at Hamilton’s Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill project.

“Whatever is out there that comes up to create jobs and economic development,” Dixon said. “That’s what the port authority is all about.”

Port authorities are funded by fees for services, so they are dependent on a steady flow of transactions for funds. McNamara told the Journal-News officials still have to close on the mega Spooky Nook sports and convention complex under construction in Hamilton, but he expects an estimated $770,000 fee from that deal. Phase three of NorthPoint Development’s West Chester Trade Center is also scheduled to close this year and will bring in about $148,000.

Since McNamara took over in 2015, the port has closed 10 deals for a total of $875,364 and ongoing annual fees for all port deals totaled $133,924 this year. Those fees are for leases and bond maintenance, so they do fluctuate. For example, the annual fees for Liberty Center were $68,400 this year but gradually drop to $42,434 in 2025.

A few years ago, port finances were bleak, deals were dormant and the former executive director was let go.

“In about 4 1/2 years we’ve gone from almost zero in our account — except for some operating funds — to having almost $1 million in our investment account,” McNamara said. “And then we have our operating account on top of that.”

Under Ohio law, port authorities can own, finance, construct and lease real estate including land, buildings and equipment. A port authority that buys or owns property for an expanding business, construction materials and other construction costs are tax-exempt. Also, ports can issue taxable and tax-exempt bonds, offering borrowers longer-term, fixed-rate financing than the terms of a commercial loan.

MORE: Butler County Port Authority still afloat

Some officials said the port “blew up” in April 2014 when former executive director Mike Campbell was placed on unpaid administrative leave and a board member abruptly resigned.

Financial documents showed the port would have been almost $30,000 in the red by the end of May that year. Campbell’s $85,849 salary, $6,720 annual car and cell phone allowance and other expenses made up the bulk of the bills.

The commissioners approved $40,000 to keep the port afloat on top of a previous $15,000 loan. By mutual agreement between the commissioners and the port board, Fehr briefly took over as executive director after Campbell left.

McNamara said that when he became executive director in 2015, his first priority was visiting local elected officials, chambers of commerce and others to let them know the services his agency can provide.

“I began meeting with all the local governments in Butler County in an attempt to build trust and also help them understand what we can do, what we can offer, because even though we’ve existed since 2004 not everyone knew what the port authority offered,” he said. “I think just … building trust and communication was a big step in the right direction.”

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