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Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Mercer County budget gets 1.4% trim from 2010

Commissioners fear state will cut funding

By Shelley Grieshop
Although sales tax revenue is climbing, the fear of vanishing state funds later this year prompted Mercer County officials to make cuts to the 2011 budget.
Commissioners this week appropriated $9.3 million to the general fund, which represents 1.41 percent drop or $133,000 less than last year. The decrease is slim compared to 2010 when nearly $1 million (9.6 percent) was chopped from the previous year's budget.
The biggest fear haunting officials is the possible loss of local government money from the state.
"It's the biggest unknown," county auditor Mark Giesige said.
The county received about $800,000 from the state for the fiscal year July 2010 through June 2011. But with Ohio facing an $8 billion deficit this year, officials worry the distribution expected this summer could be skimpy or worse - nothing at all.
"If that happens, we'll be in trouble," Giesige said, adding the county should know the state's intentions by April or May.
The 2011 budget was crafted to handle the possible funding loss, he added, but warned that drastic measures would have to be taken in 2012. Some of the departments the county isn't mandated to fund - such as soil and water, the fair board and the airport - could be hit hard, Giesige said.
Department cost-cutting measures are ongoing and the county froze employee salaries for the second consecutive year to help keep revenues above expenses.
Commissioner and board chairman Bob Nuding is worried, too, but understands the state's predicament.
"I'm not going to bad mouth the state; they've got problems to work out," he said.
Both men agree that without solid numbers from the state, all Ohio counties, cities and schools have been left to draft budgets in the dark.
Another issue affecting the county's coffers this year is the rising cost of public defender fees. The county is mandated to finance the department, which offers attorney representation to the indigent. Appropriations for the department this year are up almost 14 percent over last year, with funding set at $335,300.
Prior to 2008, the state reimbursed counties up to 50 percent for public defender fees but has dropped the amount to 35 percent or less.
The weak economy has contributed to an increase in the number of indigent defendants in the court system, which has burdened many Ohio counties, officials say.
"There's just not much we can do," Nuding said.
Also affecting the county's bottom line is the continuing increase in group medical and liability insurance for employees. Commissioners were forced to add nearly 10 percent to that fund this year to keep up with rising premiums. They blame "Obamacare," the administration's national health care plan, and its new mandates such as a condition that allows dependents up to age 26 be on their parents' medical insurance plan.
Overall, appropriations for insurance this year are $1.69 million - up $151,000 from 2010.
On a positive note, the county's general fund had a carry-over into 2011 of $1.5 million, which is higher than the previous year's $1.275 million. Also, sale tax revenue has shown solid increases since July and finished the year $180,000 above 2009 figures.
The total sales tax revenue for 2010 was $3.8 million, which doesn't include the nearly $1.9 million collected for the new adult detention facility in Celina.
"And January's figures are up 4 1/2 percent over last January," Giesige said.
But despite the encouraging signs, he's estimating a $100,000 drop in sales tax revenue this year. He's being cautiously optimistic for the future, he said.
"I'm a little shy ... I'm just being a little conservative," he added.
Giesige will retire in March, as announced last year, but is confident he's left the county in good financial shape for at least another year.
Nuding said he hopes the new budget - approved this week by him and fellow commissioners Jerry Laffin and John Bruns - will see the county through what could be another tight year.
"I hope we don't have to go back and tweak it again later," he added.
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