Monday, February 18, 2002

Children's services strapped

Taxpayers might be asked to approve another levy

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Unexpected cash from the federal government allowed Hamilton County to refund $23 million in taxes collected to provide services for abused and neglected children in 1998 and 2001.

        This year, the federal cash has dried up and the county may need some of that refunded money back.

        The county's Department of Job and Family Services is estimating the children's services levy will have annual deficits of $20 million beginning next year.

        Voters just passed the levy in November — when it got 65 percent of the vote. It will raise $200 million over the next five years, paying for programs to protect children.

        But the county may ask voters to tax themselves for children's services again in November if they can't find another way to plug the hole in their budget.

        The county is in the jam because it lost two key pieces of funding that helped support the levy:

        • About $40 million in federal welfare reform money that was reduced to zero.

        • An additional $40 million from the state in money not used by rural counties that is redistributed each year to urban counties. Hamilton County will get $3 million toward its $40 million claim this year.

        “It's too early to throw in the towel,” Hamilton County Administrator Dave Krings said. “I'm still spending a lot of time and effort trying to convince the state government that sending the county nothing is really not a very good partnership.”

        Mr. Krings said a decision will be made this summer about whether to put the levy back on the ballot this year.

        Counties have been told by the state that they will not receive any redistributed dollars next year.

        “You can add them up or take any one piece, they're all really big hits,” Mr. Krings said. “So to get through this year, we made significant program cuts and we're spending every penny of reserve we have.”

        The county is also fighting for every federal and state dollar in sight.

        Commissioner John Dowlin said the county has been negotiating with the state to get some of that money back. This week will be critical in those discussions, he said.

        “We are in the midst of all kinds of conversations,” Mr. Dowlin said. “Putting the levy back on the ballot would be the last choice. There are all kinds of other avenues that should be explored first, and that's what we're doing.”

        Placing a levy on the ballot just one year after one passed would be unprecedented, said Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes.

        “It wasn't that long ago they were giving that money back and taking bows,” said Mr. Rhodes, who added that the fall ballot could be crowded with special levies for the public schools, parks and, possibly, children's services.

        “We may have a real train wreck here if all these levies go together,” Mr. Rhodes said. “They (would be) endangering their mission and their work because there's always the possibility of overreaching.”

        Commissioner Todd Portune agreed that placing the tax back on the ballot would be a tough sell.

        “Before the commission would ever consider that, we'd get into their work plan and take a hard look at their finances,” Mr. Portune said.


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