Ohio’s counties serve as the primary agent of the state. Counties are responsible for conducting elections, securing justice and public safety, delivering vital human services, developing public infrastructure and generating economic development. That’s why it’s important for elected officials and the public to understand the current predicament that exists for county government.
Over the last two decades, counties have been forced to balance unprecedented revenue losses with escalating costs. Much of this is the result from policies enacted by the state. Changes to sales tax policy, severe reductions in the Local Government Fund (LGF) and the phase-out of the tangible personal property tax (TPP) have eliminated $351 million per year in county revenue.
The state’s revenue policy decisions, coupled with growing costs, created the perfect storm. The aftermath is an environment where many counties have had to deplete reserves, delay capital projects and struggle to provide the services that Ohioans need. Moreover, while the state cuts taxes, many counties were forced to raise taxes to continue their state-mandated services.
In Seneca County, we have managed our resources without raising taxes; the county has not seen a sales tax increase in more than a decade. However, with a continual rise in expenses and demands from the state on regulations related to families, the opiate crisis, the strain on the county jail and never-ending county facility needs, we cannot continue to tread water without a solid partnership with the state. Counties can no longer be expected to balance the state’s budget on their backs by taking the brunt of financial responsibility via unfunded and underfunded mandates.
Here in Seneca, we have built a $15 million justice center facility, completed several major renovations on county buildings and put $1.3 million in the bank all while growing our carryover. We have continued to practice fiscal responsibility while facing significant cuts from the state.
Our story is one of putting money away for the unforeseen and planning for the future. The current board has a strong commitment to addressing facility needs and maintaining buildings without increasing the burden to county residents.
It is paramount that Ohio’s next governor makes alleviating the turmoil at the local level a top priority. Counties need the state’s financial commitment to ensure that county revenue streams correspond to the services they are mandated by the state to provide. A stronger state-county partnership is needed.
This stronger partnership should address the $166 million annual loss counties experienced when the Medicaid managed care organization sales tax was eliminated last year. That equates to a $670,000 yearly loss for Seneca County.
Since 2008, our county’s support from the Local Government Fund (LGF) has fallen from $ 1,439,052.17 per year to $714,710.46 per year. That’s a 50% reduction over ten years. Ohio should restore its support for the LGF to its 2008 level.
There has been an increase in the cost of sheriff cruisers, health insurance and a rise in competitiveness for labor. These issues coupled with the current opiate addiction crisis has put pressure on the justice system.
A lack of funding has exacerbated the state prison population problem. Increasingly the state of Ohio has looked to fix its prison population problem by sending criminals back to the county. Most recently it has forced many counties to take criminals convicted of fifth-degree felonies in the county jail. The state must address this problem without utilizing the county jail, thus further degrading the county General Fund.
The state also should increase funding for mental health and recovery services. The adverse effects of the opiate addiction crisis have rippled through the county budget. Sadly, there were 5000 overdose deaths last year in Ohio. In Seneca County, there have been 37 since the beginning of 2016. These deaths coupled with the 29 suicide deaths in the county since 2016 are indicators that mental health is underfunded at the state level. The state should establish and fund a line item that would help counties pay for a portion of these increased costs.
In 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the states have a constitutional obligation to provide an attorney for defendants who cannot afford one. Ohio assigned this responsibility to the counties. The state should accept this responsibility and stop requiring its counties to help bear the cost. Our cost has been more than $3.2 million in the last ten years providing and paying for something outside of the county’s responsibility.
Finally, it’s time for a serious conversation about county government reform. The legislature should provide commissioners with greater budgetary control and management tools to better allocate resources to meet demands. The partnership will work best if the state fully funds its priorities at the county level, allowing the county to focus on delivering vital services to its local constituents.
Seneca County recognizes the magnitude of the issues listed above, and we know the revenue losses and rising costs experienced by counties cannot be addressed entirely in one state budget. The first step is a conversation that inspires a new awareness of how critical the state-county partnership is. The county and the cities of Tiffin and Fostoria already have shown an increased level of cooperation and collaboration, leading to unprecedented successes, an increase in the quality of life for residents and enhanced government efficiency. We hope this can set an example, as we strive to have a better relationship and partnership between counties and the state. This collaboration is vital to the quality of life and prosperity of Ohio and all of its citizens.
A better partnership equates to strengthening county services, which consequently improves the lives of county residents. It is essential to reform county government, further enhancing our ability to improve the quality of lives of residents. The state has increasingly asked the counties to generate revenue locally to fund the services they mandate. It is vital that we continue to foster a robust, diversified 21st-century economy and tax base to meet these funding challenges. We can’t do this alone; we need a reliable partner at the state house.
Seneca County Board of Commissioners
Mike Kerschner, Holly Stacy and Shayne Thomas
This editorial was printed in the Dec. 18 edition of The Advertiser-Tribune