Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Hamilton Co.: Return on investment

Property tax relief

The plan by Hamilton County Commissioners Phil Heimlich and Todd Portune to demand independent performance audits of levy agencies and county departments is a welcome reform.

Levy revenues from 1991 to 2001 surged 80 percent to $210 million - three times the rate of inflation. County emergency reserve funds have shrunk, Ohio is slashing county funding and the stadium bond fund is sinking toward red ink.

Heimlich and Portune call their plan ACT - Accountability to County Taxpayers. New Jersey-based A.T. Hudson & Co. predicts ACT reviews countywide could produce savings of $10 million a year for the next three years. Hamilton County has little to lose and everything to gain.

Levy groups would have to submit to performance reviews by outside management experts or kiss any ballot request goodbye. County departments under commissioners' control also will undergo reviews. Heimlich hopes independently elected officials - the treasurer, auditor, recorder, engineer, sheriff, prosecutor and judges - will volunteer their departments. He said County Engineer Bill Brayshaw, new Clerk of Courts Greg Hartman and zoo officials (a levy group) have endorsed ACT.

Hudson guarantees savings at least equal to its $2 million-$5 million fee for the three-year project. The idea is to equip Hamilton County's volunteer Tax Levy Review Committee (TLRC) with better resources to evaluate levy requests. Outside consultants have audited levy agencies in the past, but seldom to the degree that Hudson proposes. Do the services provided give the most bang for the public buck? TLRC members say now they often are rushed and "outgunned."

A single outside review company is more likely to spot duplication in services between levy agencies. Hudson already has reviewed eight Hamilton County departments since 1997 and claims savings of $26.5 million.

Hudson doesn't do gotcha-type audits. It works with front-line supervisors to show them how they can do their jobs more efficiently. The county should adopt the audits to rein in levies, manage better and rebuild reserves.

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