Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Tight state budget puts squeeze on counties

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A tight year for state government means local governments across Southwestern Ohio will have to tighten their belts.

        Gov. Bob Taft has proposed a budget that would spend an additional $1 billion on schools, prisons and services for poor and disabled people, cut Medicaid payments to counties and reduce the amount of money sent to public defender offices.

        All that will send ripples — in some cases, shock waves — through county budgets.

        In Hamilton County, state contributions brought in more than $40 million in 2000 — a $5 million increase over 1999. If the governor's budget is passed as is, there will be no increase next year.

        Hamilton County Administrator Dave Krings said it's impossible to know exactly how much the county stands to lose, but it could “easily add up to many millions of dollars.”

        Likewise, Butler County Commissioner Courtney Combs said his county stands to lose $2 million to $3 million.

        “We have a core business of county government to run, so this would say that we have very little discretionary spending,” Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin said. “Will we have to cut some of our core services? At this point I don't really know.”

        State Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Cincinnati, said the state has been spending at more than twice the rate of inflation for years. It's time to cut back, especially since the state is under a court mandate to spend more on education — potentially more than $800 million over the next two years.

        Mr. Brinkman said counties such as Hamilton, which have taken on enormous debt in the boom times of the 1990s, could be harder hit than others.

        “This isn't a one-size-fits-all problem,” Mr. Brinkman said. “Counties that have overburdened themselves — such as ours has with special levies, stadiums, a high level of bureaucracy — have set themselves in a far worse position than others.”

        The state budget must be passed by June 30. But the House wants an approved budget by mid-April to pass on to the Senate.

        Mr. Combs said typically the contributions from the state to local government funds increase about 6 percent every year.

        “We, and most counties, have passed resolutions in opposition to this freeze,” Mr. Combs said. “It will be a burden to our finances.”


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