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"Bridge" Levy For Children's Services On November Ballot

Bill Rinehart
Commissioner Denise Driehaus (far right) makes a case for an additional property tax levy for children's services.

Hamilton County voters will have a new tax levy on the ballot this November. Two of the three commissioners approved a "bridge" to aid an existing children's services levy.

If it passes, it would mean an additional $69.30 a year for every $100,000 of  property value.

The original 2.77 mill levy started in 1996, and has held steady since then. It was renewed most recently in 2016 and is on a five-year cycle.

Tax Levy Review Committee Chair Gwen McFarlin says a review started in 2016 indicated "threats" in the near future. "And the reality continues to be an increase in caseload for those individuals providing care professionally through children's services."

Other threats included reductions in state and federal funding and increases in the level of care needed for children.

Hamilton County's Senior Policy Manager Lisa Webb says an independent group, PCG Consultants, found the potential of threats identified "had nearly all become a reality in Hamilton County and the current levy would not support even the minimum service levels needed for the number of children in care."

Webb says since the services are mandated, anything not funded by the levy would have to be paid for by another source, most likely the general fund.

The committee recommended the bridge levy in May 2018 as a stopgap measure until the full levy is revisited by voters in 2021.

The lone vote against the levy, Republican Commissioner Chris Monzel says he wanted to put off a decision. He says children's services is a state responsibility, and there will be a new governor and new legislature in 2019.

"Being able to work with the new administration and the new legislature next year, we can hopefully get some support and help, but if not, we'd still have time to go on the ballot next year because we wouldn't have depleted our reserves," Monzel says.

He says putting the new levy on the ballot would be risky because "it runs the risk of further frustrating the taxpayers of Hamilton County with more tax fatigue. It would put children's services in a negative light, and that's the last thing we need to do right now."

Monzel says some trends show a decrease in the number of children served by Job and Family Services. He says the agency also has a $65 million surplus from a state settlement that should be used before asking taxpayers for more money.

Commission President Todd Portune says when that $65 million became available, he suggested using it to address critical needs of children's services. "Instead, the decision was made by the majority to simply allow a status quo levy to move forward relying on the reserves. We have seen how that strategy has played out."

Portune also says he hasn't seen anything to indicate the legislature will change how the state funds children's services.

The board's decision to put the levy on the ballot comes less than a week after a sales tax for the general fund was rescinded under threat of a lawsuit. Hamilton County Republicans collected enough signatures to put the sales tax on the ballot, but commissioners pulled it before the petitions were verified.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.