Updated Nov. 19
Budget hearings are set for Dec. 3 at 1:15 p.m. and Dec. 10 at 6 p.m. Both will be held virtually.
Hamilton County commissioners are reviewing the 2021 proposed budget. County administrators outlined the proposal Tuesday.
County Administrator Jeff Aluotto says the $290.7 million proposed budget is structurally balanced. That's thanks in part to the board's decision last year to levy a quarter cent sales tax to shore up the budget for five years. (The tax was a continuation of the now former Union Terminal restoration levy, which expired March 31. Collections for the county's levy began April 1.) Aluotto suggests the county would have faced a $36-40 million gap without the tax.
Commission President Denise Driehaus calls the spending plan the "the most optimistic budget" she's seen in her time on the board, adding it's "a pretty good news budget in a pretty difficult time."
Aluotto said in October the current budget was doing better than projected at the start of the pandemic, and "we did not see the sales tax reductions we thought we would," he told commissioners Tuesday. Federal CARES Act dollars also helped shore up 2020 expenditures.
The county made cuts earlier this year and furloughed employees because of revenue losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 proposal includes a one-time payment of 1.5% of salary to reimburse furloughed employees. It also allows for a 3% general wage increase. Since 2010, Driehaus says there were five years with no salary increases.
The proposal lists five goals: stabilizing county finances in the wake of the pandemic; addressing the 2021-2022 Policy Agenda - this is the document that guides how budget priorities are decided; enhancing internal operations; allowing for infrastructure investments; and maintaining a personnel strategy.
Aluotto says departmental budget requests were trimmed by about $20 million in order to balance the spending plan.
The plan includes funding for public safety programs that prioritize alternatives, treatment, diversion and reentry. This includes completing a 90-bed treatment oriented program within the Justice Center, completing the new Crime Lab, funding for remote monitoring technologies and reentry programs, and reducing the 911 detail rate by $5, which Aluotto says should help communities save some $3 million. There's funding, too, for expanding Quick Response Teams, which are dispatched to assist with people experiencing drug overdoses and the aftermath.
Earlier this year, the board declared racism a public health crisis in Hamilton County. In reaction, the proposed budget includes funding to expand the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, establish a Office of Family Voice to help families navigate the children's services systems, supporting an economic disparity study, and provide additional training - specifically active bystander training - for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
Some departmental specifics: the Board of Elections sees an 18.5% decrease, reflective of an increase in 2020 for presidential election operations; more money is being put toward the county Communications Center in order to allow a $5 decrease in 911 fees for communities; the Coroner's Office shows a half million dollar increase as it ramps up to opening the new Crime Lab; and the Public Defender's budget reflects increases in hourly rates as recommended by the state, along with three new positions to focus on youth involved in the justice system.
While the spending plan is optimistic, Aluotto warns it is not without risk. He notes if the pandemic begins to negatively impact the economy, it could have negative consequences for the county budget, too. It's not all rosy, either, for other county funds. For example, the hotel/motel tax paid primarily by visitors has been significantly affected, he says.
"It's very gratifying to know we're going to pay our employees well," Driehaus says. "We're going to get to some capital budget items; we are also going to be able to do more by way of economic development, economic inclusion. There's quite a bit in this budget that is building on the recommendations of this board by way of our policy objectives."
Commission Vice President Stephanie Summerow Dumas likes the proposed spending plan, and called the decision to continue collecting the former Union Terminal restoration tax to support county operations a good one.
"We would have been in a $40 million deficit (without the tax)," she says. "Now we're structurally balanced and we have some more in the coffers to be able to do some additional hiring and strategies for the community and the county, and be more inclusive with the agenda goals that we have."
Commissioner Victoria Parks, whose tenure ends when newly elected commissioner Alicia Reece takes office in January, also praised the plan, making a nod to leaner years in the recent past.
"It's such a joy for me to see from where we came to where we are now," she says. "I remember us really being totally stressed out about the deficit, and so we've done the work to put this county on a more solid foundation."
Two virtual public hearings on the proposed budget are set for Thursday Dec. 3 at 1:15 p.m. and Thursday Dec. 10 at 6 p.m.
The administration is asking the board discuss the budget during its meetings on Dec. 8 and Dec. 15, with a planned vote on Dec. 17.