County finances remain on even keel

LISBON –Columbiana County commissioners engaged in a Christmas tradition of their own last week by adopting a 2019 general fund budget that will bear little resemblance to what officeholders actually spend.

The budget set spending at $18.88 million, an increase of $270,400, or about 1.5 percent, over 2017 and 2018, when budgets were frozen at $18.61 million after being cut by 6 percent because of anticipated financial shortfalls that never materialized. Next year’s budget is based on estimated revenue of $19.13 million, as certified by the county budget commission.

By law, commissioners cannot appropriate a penny in excess of what is certified by the budget commission, which is always extremely conservative with its estimates to ensure the county ends the year with a cash balance large enough to fund operations for the first several months of the year.

For example, the budget commission told commissioners they only had $18.6 million in revenue to work with for 2017, and by the end of the year actual revenue taken in and spending exceeded $23 million. The county still ended the year with a record $4.8 million carryover balance.

Toward the end of each year, commissioners take the additional revenue that has come in and spread it among the offices they underfunded from the start. For example, the sheriff’s office was budgeted $2.5 million in 2017 but ended up spending $2.9 million after commissioners gave an additional $400,000 needed to make it through the year without having to lay off any deputies.

Commissioner take this approach of deliberately underfunding offices because it is the only way they can control spending, but is also comes at a price. Sheriff Ray Stone said the practice of being underfunded at the beginning of the year and receiving additional appropriations during the final two months makes it nearly impossible to plan ahead.

Still, commissioner Mike Halleck, who drafts the budget, was pleased with how things worked financially in 2018, noting they can expect to end the year again with another healthy carryover balance. He said this was due in large part to some good luck and the cooperation of officeholders, who helped by keeping new spending as low as possible.

Commissioner Tim Weigle agreed, saying, “Everyone pitched in.”

Each department should find a bit more in its budget because the county’s workers compensation claims were extremely low in 2018, so much so that there is enough of a balance in the account to pay the combined $197,000 cost rather than requiring each office to pay its share.

Halleck credited Weigle with saving the county $100,000 in 2019 by helping devise a plan to cut costs at the Multi-County Juvenile Attention System, which provides state-mandated juvenile treatment services for member counties.

Weigle praised their two-person office staff — clerk Sherry DeSarro and assistant clerk Callie Sowards — for scrutinizing bills. “They do a great a job of letting us know when there are bills that just don’t look right,” he said.