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2 Butler County agencies lauded for fiscal transformation

The Butler County commissioners had high praise for two agencies that were floundering a few years ago and are now flourishing but frugal.

During budget hearings last year Lisa Guliano warned commissioners the Board of Developmental Disabilities would be on the ballot with a levy question this year. Monday she announced the department is in sound financial shape and likely won’t need to seek a levy until 2022, meaning the department will have been off the ballot for 18 years.

“The transformation is just amazing,” Commissioner Don Dixon said.

RELATED: Butler County developmental disabilities board won’t seek 2018 levy

The last several years have been a struggle for the Board of DD. Just two years ago, it was operating with a $3.6 million deficit. The board presented a budget for next year that shows a 2.7 percent drop in expenses from the adopted budget this year to $27.9 million. On the revenue side they are projecting a 4.5 percent increase — largely due to increased property tax collections and state reimbursements — to $26.1 million with a $28 million carryover.

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The board has taken several steps to reduce spending over the past few years. When the budget was looking bleak in 2016 it initiated a buy-out program, and 23 employees participated and 12 positions were eliminated. The Board of DD also got out of the business of providing transportation and adult daycare services directly. This has resulted in a 23 percent reduction in staffing from 198 to 152 employees.

Several years ago, the federal government decided it was a conflict of interest for boards to provide case management and direct services. The Board of DD had until 2024 to close the Liberty Adult Center that served 125 mentally disabled adults, but it transitioned clients out to private providers and closed the center in late 2016. It also consolidated three of its community team locations into one.

The agency relies heavily on local funding through two tax levies, projected to bring in $21.3 million next year. The remainder — $4.8 million next year — comes from state and federal sources.

County Administrator Charlie Young said the Board of DD has been very mindful of who pays their bills.

“It’s amazing what you can do when you are committed and thoughtful,” Young said. “They have been committed to finding a way to provide the services in a way that’s affordable. They understand that the taxpayers can only do so much and they are finding a way to make these dollars last.”

Board President Tony Yocco told the Journal-News the Board of DD’s financial team deserves all the credit.

“There’s been a couple of developments with property taxes and the increased revenue from that,” Yocco said. “And just really the good stewardship that our finance team has been exhibiting. We’re watching the expenditures and being very prudent about how we spend our money. We recognize it’s a responsibility to the taxpayers.”

Similarly, the county’s Children Services agency has made strides in recent years, according to Young.

MORE: Butler County Family Drug Court marks one-year milestone

“With the Children Services levy, instead of being broke and can’t make payroll as they were four years ago, they now have a healthy reserve, they do not have to ask for more funding,” Young said. “At the same time they have weathered this incredible storm of the opioid epidemic which everywhere else is creating havoc in their ability to serve in their budgets.”

In the summer of 2014 Finance Director Barb Fabelo — during the three-week social worker strike — told commissioners the agency was facing a $2 million to $2.5 million deficit for the remainder of the year. That number doubled by year’s end. In response, the commissioners threatened to have the county finance office take over the BCCS books.

At that time the county had more children in foster care — about 500 when the average had been 430 — and they were staying in custody longer. Many placements were out-of-county also, which is more costly. There was also an issue with delayed reimbursement from the federal government.

The proposed 2019 BCCS budget shows expenditures of $25 million, revenues totaling $23.7 million and a carryover of $9.5 million. The reserve in 2014 was $5 million.

During a budget hearing last week, Commissioner T.C. Rogers asked how BCCS has been able to deal with the opioid crisis without breaking the bank.

BCCS Director Julie Gilbert said it takes advantage of a plethora of services designed to help people break down barriers to success.

“Our team works tirelessly to front-load services, engaging families and getting them hooked up (with services),” Gilbert said. “Utilizing family whenever possible just to avoid placements altogether.”

She said however sometimes that can’t happen.

“When that can’t occur we understand that kids do have to come into care because of this issue, and we have programming such as our family drug court that is designed to help support families very intensely and to get kids reunified more quickly,” she said.

The average number of children in BCCS custody this year has been 397 compared to 448 in 2014. The average number of children living with relatives as opposed to foster care — because they were deemed unsafe at home — is 166 (January-September) compared to 140 in 2014.

“So it’s like more empathy, less expenses,” Rogers said about the agency’s efforts.

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