News: A Crisis Budget

Hamilton County finds money for social and civic emergencies through a leaner rainy day fund

Jymi Bolden

Communications Director BIll Hinkle's department got funding for new radios for fire and police use.

While the City of Cincinnati has eliminated or reorganized entire departments, Hamilton County has managed to avoid layoffs — so far.

The county's $2.2 billion 2003 budget sets aside money to pay for a radio system that connects fragmented fire and police departments, for early childhood development, for increased pay for jurors and for a variety of special events and programs.

County Commissioner Todd Portune didn't get everything he wanted in the budget, but he got a lot of it. After County Administrator David Krings proposed the budget in mid-November, Portune responded by proposing $15.6 million in spending while tenuously balancing the budget.

Commissioner John Dowlin wanted none of it; his concern about potential state cuts led him to vote against the entire budget Dec. 30.

"All we're doing is adding, adding, adding to our budget as if it's just business as usual," Dowlin says.

Commissioner Tom Neyer Jr. was again the swing vote during his last days in office. He shared Portune's concern for social services and, to a lesser extent, agreed with Portune's ideas to improve the county's ability to respond to emergencies.

"All we can do today is adopt a conservative, proactive budget," Neyer says.

Krings, Portune and Neyer had basically one thing to say about potential state cuts of millions of dollars, which Dowlin thought might be announced as soon as the governor's State of the State speech in late January.

"If they cut us, we will deal with it when it happens," Krings wrote in his Nov. 20 budget memo.

Neyer responded by summing up the heart of his political philosophy.

"You can't conserve your way to prosperity," he says. "You have to invest your way to prosperity."

Mostly handcuffed
Although the county has a $2.2 billion budget, it doesn't have nearly as much financial flexibility as Cincinnati or any other city. Most of the county's spending — such as in the court system — is state-mandated and can't be changed much, if at all. Most of the flexible spending is in the $254.8 million general fund, according to Krings. But the county must also keep a 10 percent reserve on hand, which this year is $26 million.

"This is an enormously difficult budget year," Neyer says. "It is far and away the most complex in my six years that I have seen."

Their work enabled the addition of the equivalent of almost three full-time employees while setting aside $4.1 million for a rainy day fund.

The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati received a 7 percent rate hike and Krings recommended a 1.0-mill increase in the real estate transfer tax, which would have brought the tax to 3.0 mills. Property buyers pay the tax after closing sales, which is also when many first learn the tax exists. Typically 1.0 mill raises $3.2 million a year, according to Eric Stuckey, assistant county administrator.

In an ironic twist, the Republicans on the county commission, Neyer and Dowlin, were comfortable with the increase because last year's re-introduction of the tax didn't seem to affect the real estate market. However, Portune, a Democrat, fought it because he thought property owners already pay too much in taxes. In the end, Portune won.

The add-ons
Portune had proposed $15.6 million in spending, including $2 million to implement the Eastern Corridor transportation plan, a $2 million economic development fund, $60,000 for the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce and even $53,000 for the Coalition for the Homeless, which publishes the monthly Streetvibes newspaper.

None of those proposals won approval, but those that did led Dowlin to reject the entire budget; he wanted more money for the rainy days his friends in Columbus are forecasting.

The Dec. 30 compromises were possible because of Krings' $4.1 million rainy day fund, which was reduced to $630,000.

Dowlin was skeptical the additional warning sirens, special event funding and near tripling of juror pay to $19.50 a day will do what they're supposed to. Weather radios are a better investment than warning sirens, Dowlin says.

Only 5 percent of the county's jury pool cites financial hardship as a reason not to serve, so the county commission needs to look at other ways to boost minority jury participation.

"I will go along with that, but I don't think it will affect the minority participation (in juries)," Dowlin says.

Responding to Portune's proposal to spend $100,000 for infant mortality, Dowlin said most of the problem is in Cincinnati, so the city's health department should handle it. In the process, Dowlin raised a question that's one of the constant sources of friction between him and Portune: Does the county serve residents inside and outside the city equally, or should it favor non-city residents?

While Dowlin is hesitant to pay for much of anything in the city, Portune says Cincinnati residents are also county residents and some county money should go where it's needed most.

"If we can't agree on anything, I hope we can at least agree that too many infants are dying in Hamilton County," Portune says. "There are people who believe that everything is somebody else's problem. I just don't understand that way of thinking." ©

The 2003 Hamilton County budget, approved Dec. 30, includes:
· $30,000 for the Hamilton County Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, a group of specially trained firefighters and rescue personnel from Hamilton County departments

· $100,000 to reduce infant mortality, which Portune says is 30 percent higher in Hamilton County than nationwide

· $360,000 per year to increase juror pay from $7.50 a day — the lowest of Ohio's 88 counties — to $19.50 a day. In comparison, Butler County pays $10 a day, Clermont County pays $15 a day, Warren County pays $12 to $25 a day and Cuyahoga County pays $40 a day, according to Tim Burke, co-chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party

· $500,000 for the Family and Child First Council, likely to be spent on the council's Help Me Grow Project. This is a state-mandated program to help slowly-developing children from birth to age 3

· $500,000 for special projects and events in 2003, including a tentative $75,000 for the Mobile Skatepark Series, a repeat of the week-long skateboarding and BMX competition at Sawyer Point last summer. Portune also expects to spend $50,000 to keep the USS Cincinnati submarine museum project on the Ohio side of the river.

· $1.8 million to help cover the entire county with warning sirens. Right now 85 percent of the county is covered, but 86 percent of those sirens have no battery-powered backup, according to Portune. The other two-thirds of the $5.5 million project is expected to come from local jurisdictions and the state.

· $19 million set aside with the intention of paying off remaining debt from a $30 million 800 MHz emergency communications system, which includes radio towers, radios and other equipment. When finished by mid-2003, all or nearly all of the 45 affected municipalities will talk to each other during emergencies. (Cincinnati is pursuing its own system, but it will be compatible with the countywide system.)

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