Monday, December 22, 2008

The 2009 Budget: Painful, Responsible, Necessary

Today, we passed our 2009 County budget.

For media summaries of what we did, go here, here, and here.  

For the actual budget documents, go here (passed unanimously), and here (statement).

It’s safe to say that it was the toughest budget I’ve faced of the seven I’ve been a part of. It was difficult and challenging for all. But it also was an important, and necessarily tough, budget, given the times we are in.

Most important, at a tough time, County leadership came together across party lines and agreed to a fiscally prudent, economically competitive budget—with some very tough and unpleasant short-term pain, but one that positions us to make medium- and long-term gains. I commend the County's elected and appointed leaders, all of whom stepped up at this difficult time to cooperate and make tough choices. I also appreciate the very hard work of our elected representatives in Columbus--who enacted a number of items at the last minute that will have, long-term, millions of dollars in positive impact to all the governments in Hamilton County. This budget was all about bipartisanship.

Key points of our budget:

No tax increase. We resisted the temptation so many other governments are falling for to ask taxpayers to pay more—saying no to a sales tax increase and a property tax increase. In this economy, when families and businesses are already struggling to make ends meet, and we need to position ourselves to compete economically, raising taxes was the last thing we should do.

Dramatic reduction in spending. As a result of declining revenues, and without new taxes, the 2009 budget will be the most fiscally tight budget passed in decades in this county. Usually, government spending increases every year. Instead, we are reducing spending by more than $30M from the 2008 level, and will fall to a level of spending the County was at in 1999! People want government to live within it's means, and that is what we are doing.

Reforms and sacrifice—beginning at the top. We heard calls that sacrifice should start at the top, and that’s what exactly we are doing. In addition to having dramatically reduced a bloated commissioner and administrative budget that we inherited from the prior majority, we instigated 10-day furloughs for top management, our own staffs, and ourselves (although I will work the 10 days of the furlough, I will not be paid for them). Other items--such as no more free parking for elected officials, the Sheriff getting rid of many take home cars, and other reductions in administrative budgets--will all take place. These measures won't balance the budget, but they are critical to send the right message.

No phantom dollars. We are not allocating dollars we are not certain we will have. Some of the most costly mistakes made before I arrived at the Commission arose from budgeting with rose-colored glasses: committing to pay millions to Butler County, with no source of revenue locked in; or proposing vague cuts or new revenues, with no certainty they would lead to real savings—and then spending those possible savings before they ever came in. Call it the “red light camera” problem. Instead of relying on phantom revenues or cuts to get through a tough time, we refused to budget on anything but the most fiscally conservative projections, and the most certain savings. It made life more difficult in the short term, but far better in the long-term.

Priorities: Safety and Economic Growth. To the best of our ability, (since we have so many mandates we must meet), we prioritized two things—public safety, and economic growth.

Public safety. We delayed technology investments and made other cuts totaling close to $1 million, and reprogrammed those dollars to public safety priorities: such as the Sheriff’s department (for patrols and corrections--his discretion), Prosecutor’s Office (Project Disarm--federal prosecution of violent criminals), and our Hazardous Materials and SWAT training efforts. And we will allocate future revenues and savings to similar goals—particularly corrections and other core public safety needs. After hearing from many communities at our hearings, we also successfully lobbied for state legislation that 1) allows us to reduce the proposed 911 fee increase in a way that allows each jurisdiction to spend more of their dollars on core public safety; and 2) will allow some townships to access TIF dollars for public safety expenditures (including patrols) if they so desire.

Job and economic growth. We are continuing to invest, and are committed to improve, the County’s economic development efforts, because long-term, the only way we’re going to solve our budget problems is to grow our way out of them. We must compete for every job, every business, every development, and every resident we can—and we must be well-positioned to do that.

County workforce. No doubt, the most difficult part of this budget has been that some public servants will lose their jobs. While our goal has been to do everything possible (vacant positions, furloughs, other cuts in spending, etc.) to avoid actual layoffs, the sad reality is that too many people will be losing their jobs—and some already have. (We won't know the final number for some time). Of those affected, while I understand how little it helps, we deeply thank them for their service to the county, and our thoughts, prayers and best wishes go to them as they seek other opportunities. We also will be generating recall lists should opportunities arise for rehiring in the future.

Finally, we also know just how much those employees who remain are laboring under the current tight budgets of the County--and we understand their concern and frustration over what they have been asked to shoulder. As soon as the revenue picture improves, we hope to be able to improve this situation.

Broader public safety concerns. We also know that with some cuts, there remains real concern about public safety in this County, and we share those concerns. While the citizens have made it clear (twice) that they don’t want to pay more to operate our criminal justice system, we are working hard to find additional cuts, generate new revenues (without raising taxes) and take other steps to assure we have sufficient funding to provide top-notch public safety services in the long run. And through the Criminal Justice Commission, we will continue to work to assure we have the most cost-effective criminal justice system possible. And we are exploring process improvements and other reforms that will save money, improve the system, and improve public safety.

Potential savings and revenues. And finally, while we will not “bank” on the savings until they come in, we are exploring a number of other reforms, efficiencies, and revenue options that might help us in the coming years, such as:
- Requiring “pay to stay” in our jails, for those who can afford it, to offset the costs of jail stays
- Continuing to reduce our spending on everyday commodities such as office supplies, energy, consultants, travel, subscriptions—last year we saved more than $1.5M by applying spending caps to such items
- Using internet advertising for some of our websites—which has generated $100,000s for other governments
- Encouraging the state to more effectively collect revenue from private auto sales, which could lead to millions
- Finding an alternative way to fund the Hillcrest Youth Center (relieving the County taxpayer from this burden)
- Continuing to pursue managed competition and shared services opportunities, that could save millions of dollars in the long-term
- Continuing to lobby the state to reduce or reimburse more for mandates we can not afford—such as the public defender services that almost all other states cover.

Along with our economic growth efforts, these initiative all carry much promise to generate real revenues and savings in the coming year.

Finally, although he supported our Budget Consensus Motion, Commissioner DeWine also brought in, at the last minute, a motion to make additional cuts and to reallocate all the dollars we had committed to the Sheriff's budget.

I personally could not support this motion because: 1) it would have gutted our core economic development efforts, 2) would have inevitably led to layoffs of some Sheriff's deputies that our budget helped reinstate, and 3) it would have reallocated those dollars and committed them once again to a jail rental situation (with Campbell County, this time), without any forethought or deliberation. 

The County's seen this trick before!  The last thing we need to do is rush headlong and overcommit to renting jailspace elsewhere--that lesson has already been learned, at an incredibly high cost, with Butler County, and we're not going to do it again, particularly if doing so means we lay off our own deputies and end our own economic development efforts. (EMUs, Cambpell County, and other options do exist, and we will consider them over time--but we should only commit to them when we have identified real funds to support them.)

That's the 30,000 foot summary of a very challenging budget that we put to bed today.


Bob Baylor said...

Excellent way of providing additional insight to importnat issues! Is there any thought to creating to regionalizing fire/EMS service? There are, I believe, 42 fire departmens in Hamilton county alone. There is duplication of capabilities in many cases. Combining and/or elinating redundant capabilities could be a way of saving additional dollars.

David Pepper said...

Good point, Bob, on the need to explore sharing services. We are actually exploring that very approach right now, and are committed to it to generate significant savings in 2009. Here's an update on that:

Anonymous said...

I don't like the reinstatement of 600K to the sheriff. Despite your kind words of cooperation from all depts - it isn't true. The sheriff refused and still refuses to be held accountable for his spending, his excesses of administration, and largess. I think, as commissioners, it is your job to stand up to him once and for all. If you guys can't do it now while you have the support of the electorate outside the sheriff's office, and with a Democratic Governor - then who will, ever?
Where's the courage? This waste has to be called out once and for all.
(I'm not trying to be mean - but we all know the problem and somebody has to do something about it)

Anonymous said...

Former comment is right. When is someone going to get the courage to stand up to Sheriff Leis and the other county officials to get them to do the right thing?

Anonymous said...

Comments 3 and 4 ---- you must be joking! The Sheriff's budget got cut a ton.

Anonymous said...

The Sheriff's budget needed to be cut "a ton" and it is still top heavy. While I welcome the jail being closed because it will provide an opportunity for a social experiment to see if these nonviolent misdemeanor offenders require jail time to be held responsible for their conduct, I'm disgusted by the fact that the Sheriff refused the BOCC inquiry into what services were mandatory and which wren't, saying something like, "I'm not going to participate inyour little experiement" (or something like that. Then saying something like, just give me my budget and I'll decide how to spend it. Well Leis decided to thwart law and refuse to operate a county jail (a mandatory service) in order to maintain his executive administration and wasteful patrols (how many times do you see one cop car passing another on the street - it happens all the time in Colerain)despite the law saying they are optional and the research saying they are a waste of money and time.
I sympathize with the great officers who have served me and my community well, but they are unnecessary and a huge drain on taxpayers for the return on the buck. (Just read A LITTLE on effective policing to know this).
Leis' budget is what, 1/3 of the whole county budget??? And it is excessive. It is a political machine not a policing machine that our elected officials are too afraid to confront.

Anonymous said...

It makes me sick to know that Simon Leis gets away with his little games of wasting county dollars when is the BOCC gonna stop HIM!!!! why don't Simon retire and go fishing.

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