5 years ago, this township had just $40K in its account. Here’s how it got off state fiscal emergency status.

St. Clair Twp. officials celebrated an end to more than four years of state fiscal emergency status on Tuesday while noting they need to remain “cautious” despite the improved financial standing.

The Butler County township of 6,908 people was placed in fiscal emergency in May 2014, when three funds dropped to a $190,159 deficit the prior year. Officials improved that standing from a $40,000 checkbook balance five years ago to $1.6 million today, although they even recently weren’t certain they would escape the state emergency status.

“Even a year ago we had a list of like 31 items we needed to complete and be in compliance with,” said trustee board President John Snyder. “We’ve worked hard to finish those and show not only the Butler County Auditor but the state auditors we’ve got our act together and financially we’ve got all of our ducks in a row.”

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Snyder said the township has been able to renew fire and EMS levies and reinvested its portfolio — it was yielding about $400 a year when he took office last year and now has turned a profit of about $27,400 in annual interest — among other moves..

Snyder said the fire, life squad and cemetery funds are all stable, but the general fund — projected to be about $80,000 at year’s end — is still relatively weak.

“We still are very cautious as to what we spend … ,” he said. “We’re doing the right things.”

Township Fiscal Officer Doug Wheelright said when he took office in 2012, the township’s financial status was grim, so the trustees asked the state to take a look at their books. Wheelright found that the township’s former fiscal officer failed to pay some bills, including electric payments and payments owed to the Internal Revenue Service, among other issues.

Coupled with a slow economy and dwindling tax collections, the township was forced into a deficit. Wheelright said with the help of the state auditor’s office, the township reconstructed expenses, bills and payments from 2011 to understand what was paid or unpaid.

“The finances, because your ends are controlled pretty much by what taxes you get, what revenues you get, you have to adjust your spending,” Wheelright said. “But the methods and procedures, that was another huge issue that we had to have checked off and in place.”

The township’s change of fortune could be further bolstered — and the city of Hamilton’s crimped — if the Ohio Supreme Court finds in its favor. The high court said last summer it won’t dismiss a lawsuit St. Clair filed against Hamilton in 2017, over a law the township saysentitles it to 12 years of compensation for money lost due to annexations through the years.

“The city is in financial distress, the city estimates the limited reserves it has will be depleted by 2020,” Tom Vanderhorst, Hamilton’s executive director of External Services, wrote in a high court sworn affidavit. “The city anticipates it will be required to reduce employees in the next several months in its continued efforts to reduce its expenses below its revenues.”

Snyder said it “could be tremendously huge” if the township wins. He said he and township officials wanted to negotiate with the city but “they walked out of talks about it.”

RELATED: St. Clair Twp. v. Hamilton annexation lawsuit will proceed

State Auditor Dave Yost identified several things the township did to pull out of the emergency, including generating an additional $32,000 in annual revenue by increasing the special assessment rate for street lighting, reducing general fund spending by $62,000 each year by reallocating salaries and benefits to different funds and negotiating with Duke Energy to lower the electricity rate for township buildings by $2,000.

“Many local governments struggle to find a healthy balance between revenue and expenses,” Yost said. “I applaud the citizens and leaders of St. Clair Twp. for making the sacrifices necessary to achieve that balance.”

Since 2011, 21 cities, villages and townships have slipped into fiscal emergency. In the same period, the auditor’s office has released 31 local governments from the status.

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