The Government Services Center in Hamilton, Friday, Aug. 7, 2015. GREG LYNCH / STAFF

Why Butler County offices could get biggest budget bumps in 2020

A decade ago, the county faced a $7 million budget gap and reserves that had dropped below $9 million in 2009, which impacted the ability to borrow money. Officials seriously considered a 0.25 percent sales tax increase.

Requests from the departments, office holders and independent boards totalled $108.6 million in the tax budget, and Finance Director Tawana Keels made adjustments to reach the structurally balanced general fund total of $106 million.

Including all of the other revenues and expenses, from individual departments that operate on their own levies and or state and federal funding or revenue generators like water and sewer, the total tax budget revenues are $628.5 million, and expenses are $408.8 million. The total unencumbered fund balance is expected to be $219.7 million at the end of next year.

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The largest general fund revenue comes from sales tax. County Administrator Judi Boyko said in the first three quarters of this year the county collected $33.3 million, about 3.7 percent higher than the same period last year.

Property taxes are up almost 4 percent from last year, to $14.2 million, through Sept. 30. Carryover is projected to be about $62 million, including $10 million in the budget stabilization fund. The county also was able to reduce an anticipated 14 percent health insurance increase to 8 percent, which is an estimated $950,000 savings.

Following budget hearings last month, the finance department is still finalizing the 2020 budget, but Boyko is cautiously optimistic they can accommodate some of the budget increase requests, even those that sought funds and raises outside of the usual guidance.

The sheriff’s office has the biggest budget at just shy of $40 million. In her tax budget submission, sheriff’s office Finance Director Vickie Barger requested 11 additional full-time staff, which would boost the total to 410. She noted having three jails in operation prompted the need for additional staff.

Public Defender Mike Weisbrod said his office needs to hire seven part-time public defenders and five full-time support staff to be compliant with state public defender guidelines. The new hires will add $602,847 to the budget next year for a total of $2.7 million. However, the state’s reimbursement rate is supposed to double to 90 percent next July.

Prosecutor Mike Gmoser is looking for $162,283 to give raises above the 2 percent county guideline for 22 employees, who make up 37 percent of his staff. The request range is 4 to 11 percent. For the past several years, the county commissioners have approved raises up to 2 percent added to an employee’s base salary and another bump of up to 2 percent in lump sum raises.

“That’s always a concern, that somebody is going to leave my office and go into the private sector where they can make so much more money, really,” Gmoser said. “But they are dedicated, so I want to get as much for my staff as I can. Not beyond the norm and what is being paid out there, I’m a least trying to bring them up.”

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said the county survived the Great Recession because everyone sacrificed, and now the commissioners are in a position to grant requests to restore staffing and other needs.

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“We had depleted our cash reserves so the 2010s were focused on building up those cash reserves. Therefore all our office holders had to keep tightening their belts for the past nine years,” she said. “Now we’re at a place where we can kind of cut loose a little bit.”

Commissioner T.C. Rogers said the county is in a stable position and commissioners can consider approving some of the requests.

“I think as our county has gotten larger, to be the seventh largest in the state, that we need to address personnel issues,” he said. “The facts are you either hire someone or you pay someone who is already in the employ to take on more responsibilities. If they do they’ll be compensated higher. That’s what I think has happened in three or four of these situations.”

Next year’s plan will also finish erasing general fund debt for the county. The debt-free plan was adopted by the commissioners in 2015. Prior to that commitment, the debt, which stood at $91.3 million in 2009, was scheduled for payments out to 2033. Once the debt is erased, the commissioners plan to offer financial assistance to other jurisdictions countywide for economic development endeavors.

Boyko said the county will address many capital improvements that have been deferred. She penciled in $3.3 million for 2020 on the new five-year capital plan.

“It’s really difficult to make change happen in government, and I think we can finally say we see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Commissioner Don Dixon said previously about the budget. “Not that we’re not concerned and not that we won’t keep our eye on the finances of the county and where we are. This is a result of literally years of staying focused … That’s why there are no disastrous issues this year in the budget.”

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