Next year’s budget means one big thing: No more debt for Butler County

Butler County’s revenues are expected to climb 4.5 percent to $106.5 million next year, the year the county is planning to drop its general fund debt to zero.

Finance Director Tawana Keels gave the commissioners a glimpse of the spending plan Monday during a public hearing on the 2020 tax budget. She noted requests from the departments, office holders and independent boards totalled $108.6 million, so her department made proposed adjustments to remove any difference.

“We have consistently presented a structurally balanced budget to you in tax budget season, so that’s what we’ve done, we have made reductions in order to balance,” Keels said.

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The general fund has been structurally balanced for eight years, meaning officials don’t dip into reserves to balance. 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 proposed tax budget revenues are $628.5 million, and expenses are $408.8 million. The total unencumbered fund balance is expected to be $219.6 million at the end of next year.

Also by the end of next year the general fund debt ledger will be zero. The county does have non-general fund debt that will continue to be paid through special assessments, tax increment financing and other sources.

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.

One of the bigger general fund debts was the $37 million Government Services Center that was built 20 years ago. It was scheduled to be paid off this year.

“I think people understand when you don’t have a mortgage on your house anymore,” Commissioner T. C. Rogers said of the impact of such a debt removal.

This is the first time in many years the commissioners are not going into budget season with major financial challenges looming. Huge health insurance hikes, new voting machines, the continued sting from the loss of $3 million in Medicaid Managed Sales Tax and the $19.2 million Motorola communications system replacement worried officials in the past few years.

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The proposed tax budget calls for a 14 percent health insurance increase for next year, and Keels said a consultant advised it could go to 16 percent, but no one is issuing dire financial warnings. Commissioner Don Dixon said it has been a collaborative effort between all the office holders and employees to get the county to this point.

He noted they didn’t raise sales taxes, the largest general fund revenue source, to get to this financial state either.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Every year, the commissioners have also lamented cuts and unfunded mandates from the state and federal. Those worries are absent this year as well.

Full funding for indigent defense appears will be approved in the state budget, which would bring an additional $1.5 million to $1.7 million to the county. The expansion of internet sales tax collection could be big for the coffers, but the exact amount isn’t known at this junction.

That is why Keels didn’t put any of it in the tax budget.

“There are components in the new budget that are a positive for Butler County,” she said. “We’re just waiting on the budget to be passed and then an explanation on how it will be distributed to us. We’ve been trying to work through what does that mean. They’ll give us a big number, this is what it means to counties, but they don’t get down to the granular level of this is what it means to Butler County.”

The commissioners will approve the tax budget in July, and the final budget will be approved in December after budget hearings in October.

Butler County 2020 Tax Budget by the numbers:

General fund revenue: $106.5 million

Requests from office holders, departments and independent boards: $18.6 million

Amount cut to structurally balance the tax budget: $2 million

Total all funds: $408.8 million

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