Portage County Board of Commissioners to cut spending, balance the budget

Michael Lewis

Economic downturn in Ohio reached the Portage County Board of Commissioners as they seek to balance a $3.6 million deficit in next year’s budget.

Nearly 70 county employees may face layoffs in the coming months as commissioners compensate for the loss in revenue.

“Now is the time to get together with our elected officials,” said Commission President Maureen Frederick. “Now is time for them to come to the table.”

Last week, elected officials discussed ways to reduce costs and increase revenue. One idea to reduce costs involved trimming weekly work hours from 40 to 35, as well as cutting some employee compensation. Other ideas included consolidations within departments and cutting annual monetary support to Townhall II, the airport, the park district and several other organizations.

“We know we can’t maintain our current levels of staffing,” said Portage County financial management director, Audrey Tillis. “We know there will be reductions. It could affect me. I could lose my job. You just don’t know.”

Employees in Portage County are paid from funds generated by sales and property taxes. In November, residents will vote on a levy to increase the sales tax by half a percent.

Portage County Auditor Janet Esposito, who used to be a commissioner, said a sales tax increase from what it is now, 6.75 percent, back to 7.25 percent, could bring in $3.4 to $4 million depending on the growth.

“Our population is rising, which is good,” Esposito said. “Our county is definitely growing, even in the commercial, industrial and residential areas. The trade-off is we’re losing farmland.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Ohio Department of Development, Ohio’s economy is below the national average and slipping as the seventh-largest state economy. The loss of jobs would raise Ohio’s 5.7 percent unemployment compared to 5 percent nationwide, and it could prevent the county from finding new avenues of growth.

In a newsletter to county employees, the Board of Commissioners said high insurance rate increases and lower than expected investment returns have created an “extremely bleak financial outlook for Portage County.”

Esposito said revenues in the county have gone up, but not as fast as costs. Her office has cut their budget down to the “bare bones.” On the other hand, she said the County Commissioners’ Office have tripled its employees from 11 to 31.

“I think the commissioners need to look at the departments they have added in the last five to 10 years,” Esposito said. “These are areas that need to be looked at to see if they are getting efficiency on the scale of the tax dollars going into them.

“I just hope the commissioners work as hard as other officials,” Esposito said. “They hold the pocketbook.”

Esposito has some ideas where to trim, including the economic development, human resources and budget departments, as well as an internal auditor in the County Commissioners’ office and security officers with no power to retain or arrest.

County commissioners were not available for further comment on these remarks.

John Lehman, head of Commissioners’ Finance and Budget Information Office, said other counties across the state are facing the same problems. The projected budget deficit could be lowered to $1.7 million if the original 2005 budget figures are used.

Consequently, those figures do not take into account anticipated increases in utility costs, retirement system payments or health insurance costs. Of the county employees that will keep their jobs, they could end up making more money this year than next year if they do not receive a raise.

“Have you received a raise?” asked Lehman. After answering yes to a 25-cent increase, Lehman said, “Well that’s more than I’ve got in the last three years. I just attended a professional conference and paid for it myself, as well as the gasoline.”

As for slicing their budget, Lehman said, “We’re beyond the bone. We’re in the bone.”

Contact public affairs reporter Michael Lewis at [email protected].