- Denise G. Callahan Staff Writer
Butler County Commission meets Monday for its annual organizational meeting, and its 2017 includes a full slate of projects — from economic development to tax levies.
Here are seven key projects on the to-do lists of Butler County commissioners:
1. Lay groundwork for regional economic development fund
Butler County plans to begin establishing this year a regional fund that will help finance economic development projects throughout the county.
“The county is going to put up a substantial amount of money for economic development and cities can apply for it,” Commissioner Don Dixon said.
A few years ago, Butler County embarked on a path to completely erase the general fund debt by 2020. That financial freedom, Dixon said, will allow commissioners to help cities and townships with various economic development efforts.
“We’re looking at somewhere between $25 (million) and $50 million and that’s all because of the financial shape we have been working towards,” he said.
The debt that stood at $91.3 million in 2009, was projected to be $43 million by the end 2016 and zero by 2020 under a debt reduction acceleration plan.
The framework for the program will be built this year, County Administrator Charlie Young said. The program will be operate like a revolving loan fund all Butler County jurisdictions can tap into, hopefully by 2020, he said.
“The intent would be to make strategic investments … in our communities,” he said. Those investments “would cause development that would lead to either a direct or indirect repayment or replenishing of the money,” he said.
2. Explore combining water service with Middletown
Butler County commissioners have an interest in partnering with the city of Middletown on its water systems, which could mean lower water bills for residents and businesses and more money for the city to complete infrastructure improvements.
“We can deliver water cheaper than they (Middletown) can deliver it to themselves now,” Dixon said.
The county has had “periodic talks” with Middletown, according to Young, who said any future deal would be expensive.
“Moving water is expensive,” Young said. “It’s heavy, you have to pump it, and it consumes energy.”
But any initial hurdles would pay off in the long run, he said.
”As development kind of grows our system up toward Middletown it will make it more and more likely,” Young said.
The two entities had some talks years ago about sharing water systems, Middletown Mayor Larry Mulligan Jr. said, adding that he would have to have more information before endorsing anything.
Hamilton would not be part of any talks to combine water systems with the county because they have weathered the Recession well, Dixon said.
“Hamilton has gas and electric and water and their utility funds have been the basis for Hamilton to find the financial wherewithal to hang on and start to come back and do improvements,” he said. “Middletown doesn’t have that … we have to be proactive in helping them.”
3. Finalize monument restoration decision
Several projects started in 2016 will continue throughout the coming year, including the finishing phase one of restoration of the Soldiers, Sailors and Pioneers monument in downtown Hamilton. Decisions about how much more restoration the county can afford will also be made this year, according to Young.
The county awarded NR Lee Restoration a $360,900 contract for restoration of the monument. The bids ranged from $156,000 to $816,000, and the architect’s estimate topped $1 million.
The bid that was awarded to NR Lee Restoration did not include some things needed to fully fix the 112-year-old building that houses historic artifacts and war records.
4. Rebid automation of parking garage
The Government Services Center parking garage project stalled last year after equipment bids for automating the five-story, 600-space garage at the corner of Court Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. ranged from $100,000 to $400,000 for equipment and $50,000 extra per-transaction fees.
The garage currently operates as a cash-only, pay-at-the-gate facility. Proposals were submitted last year to automate the garage, making it more user friendly and allowing the county to generate revenue from community event parking.
Young said the fate of the automation project rests on the rebidding process that will be take place this year. Commissioner T.C. Rogers said the project must enhance customer service.
“We’re only going to automate it if it’s still responsive to the customers,” he said. “Automated means there’s no people there. If we can do that fine and still have customer service then we will. If not, we’ll have to have some blend of the people and the machines.”
The county spent between $8,000 and $10,000 to replace one of the entrance gates that frequently broke down last year, causing traffic back-ups during high volume times.
If the county goes through with the automation project, the new gate should be compatible with a new system or can be sold, Young said.
5. Instill changes at Care Facility so it is financially viable
The county’s nursing home is another project that could be concluded this year. The Care Facility’s finances have been in terrible shape for years, mainly due to changing Medicaid rules and reimbursement rates.
In December the county commissioners approved an additional $225,000 loan to the facility so it could make payroll. The total outstanding debt is now about $750,000.
The commissioners hired a consultant last year to examine the facility and offer recommendations for making it solvent. Implementation of many of the suggestions has improved the bottom line at the home, Young said, but there is still a $600,000 to $700,000 budget gap to close.
“We have begun to see some light at the end of the tunnel,” Young said. “Some of the processes we had implemented last year, it has taken a little longer than we had hoped, but we did see late in the year some financial improvement there …”
6. Make Butler County Regional Airport a tool that attracts development
Butler County Development Director David Fehr, who is in charge of the Butler County Regional Airport, said he has a long list of items to accomplish this year, all designed to attract new development, like corporate and manufacturing hangars, to the underutilized Hogan Field.
“I think we found some funding to redo that entrance road, it’s not in very good condition,” he said. “We want to kind of dress that up as the front door to the airport. We’re going to get some better signage out there and there’s a couple of old airplanes that are sitting out there… so basically we’re going to clean up and dress up the facilities out there.”
7. Place Children Services renewal levy on November ballot
One county-wide levy is likely to be on the ballot this year — a renewal of the 2-mill Children Services levy, which Young said would be asked of taxpayers in November.
Last spring, BCCS Director Bill Morrison was concerned he would have to ask commissioners to approve a higher levy amount in order to deal with the burgeoning opiate epidemic.
The levy details have yet to be finalized, but Morrison indicated a higher levy amount may not be sought, citing changes in processes that have created efficiencies and a drop in the number of children in paid foster care.
The number of children in the agency’s custody rose to 420 in April, but was down to 389 in mid-October and 338 at the end of December. The average for 2015 was 424 children in custody.
“It’s not that we’re licking the problem or anything like that, but we are managing to deal with the problem successfully,” Morrison said. “We continue to work all the non-heroin cases largely without removing the children and placing the children in foster care, so our in-custody numbers continue to fall.”
The Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services Board broached the subject of asking voters to approve a levy for addiction services, due to the explosive heroin epidemic.
The MHARS board has determined it needs about $3.5 million more a year to deal with addictions in the county. Taxpayers already agreed to fund more mental health services by approving a five-year, 1-mill mental health levy on March 15, but dealing with the county’s opiate epidemic will require more funds, officials said.
Executive Director Scott Rasmus said there is still a great need, but “as it stands now there is no levy slated to be on the ballot in 2017.”