Butler County: We learned from past budgetary disasters

Gone are the days when the Butler County commissioners had to slash millions from their budget or contemplate raising taxes, but officials vow there will be no return to free-wheeling spending that nearly catapulted the county off the fiscal cliff.

A common thread ran through budget hearings this year, namely commissioners acknowledging other elected officials and department heads have made sacrifices to help the county weather deficits in excess of $6 million through The Great Recession.

“You have to give credit to our office holders,” Commissioner Don Dixon said. “They really have gotten on board, helped us manage the financial part of it. You can’t point to one person or one thing, this was a team effort.”

The recession was not the only culprit that sent the county into a downward spiral. In 2008, before the worst of the economic free fall was actually felt, the county was operating under a $94 million general fund budget. Today the commissioners are considering an $84 million budget for 2015.

County Administrator Charlie Young wasn’t at the helm seven years ago, but he said he believes big capital projects and bloated payrolls were to blame for the bulging budget. He said today lessons have been learned.

“The worst thing we could do when we’ve got a little bit of relief, would be to return to the free-spending ways of the early 2000s,” he said.

Twice, sometimes three times a year pay hikes and increases in the double digit range were normal back then. In 2009 Commissioner Don Dixon and now Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy, who was the domestic relations judge then, convened a summit of office holders, department heads and business leaders, to deal with what was dubbed a “perfect storm.”

“We have the equivalent of a Category 5 financial hurricane headed our way, and if we choose to ignore that reality, our county will be in financial ruin,” Dixon warned at the time, after his fellow commissioners unilaterally cut $2.6 million in July 2009 as a stop-gap measure. “We cannot continue with business as usual. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

The county stopped short of imposing a sales tax hike but massive layoffs — largely in the sheriff’s office — ensued. Chief Tony Dwyer said they had to layoff more than 100 full-and-part-time people and not only that, because of the rank structure, some people were bumped grades lower — like from sergeant to patrol — which carried its own brand of hardship and consternation.

“It was pretty traumatic…,” he said. “It was really tough but we fought through it.”

Dixon said but for the “blueprint” drafted by the budget group and adopted by the commissioners, that is still an active document today, the county would have defaulted and its finances likely would have been taken over by the state.

“Not only did it get us through the bad times to where we are today, which is a lot better, it also deals with if we have a downturn again,” Dixon said. “What gets cut first, what gets cut next, so if we follow the blueprint we should never be in the same situation we just came through.”

Cash balances that had dipped below $10 million in 2010 should round out to around $18 million this year and Dixon said they also plan to sock away $1.5 to $2 million into a new budget stabilization fund as an insurance policy of sorts. The commissioners have also been able to wrestle the county’s debt down from over $100 million to about half that.

Young said sales tax — the county’s main revenue source — is looking to come in about six percent higher than projected but they must remain vigilant and continue to grow cash cushions to be on the safe side. Dixon, who usually says he is cautiously optimistic about the state of the county’s finances, said his confidence continues to grow.

“I’m more than cautiously optimistic,” he said. “I’m really satisfied with where we are and look forward to getting to making it even better.”