Ohio’s counties serve as the primary agent of the state. Shelby County and all other Ohio counties are responsible for conducting elections, securing justice and public safety, delivering human services, developing public infrastructure, and generating economic development. That’s why it’s important for candidates running for office 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 results 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.
At the same time, exploding costs associated with the opiate epidemic have found their way into every county office, causing a ripple effect much bigger than anything we’ve seen before.
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. And while the state cut taxes, many counties were forced to raise taxes to continue their state mandated services.
While we have not raised taxes in Shelby County we have had to change how funds are allocated. Prior to 2013 Shelby County allocated a portion of sales tax revenues directly to our roads and bridges. When the recession hit, the former commissioners were forced to halt improvements to our building infrastructure in order to maintain services to our residents. In order to maintain our county buildings half of the road and bridges money now goes into the Capital Improvement Fund and has paid for improvements in HVAC, roofs, etc in the jail, courthouse, annex, Ag Center and others.
Unfortunately infrastructure is not our only concern. Our prosecutor’s office handles almost double the number of cases as our adjoining counties. Our juvenile judge has seen a dramatic rise in the number of permanent custody hearings. Our children’s services agency has experienced more children being removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect. Our coroner has seen the number of required autopsies double since the opiates crisis began. All of these issues and more eat up precious county resources.
Ohio’s next governor must make 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. Using Shelby County’s experience, we have seen a decrease in our sales tax revenue over the past year in excess of $530,000.
Since 2008, our county’s support from the Local Government Fund (LGF) has fallen from $ 1,329,011 in 2008 to a projection of $662,500 for 2018. That’s a 50 percent reduction over 10 years. Ohio should restore its support for the LGF to its 2008 level.
Counties and their citizens are devastated by the chaos that addiction has caused. The state should establish and fund a special line item that would help counties pay for a portion of the 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. Shelby County spends approximately $250,000 annually on this expense.
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.
Shelby County recognizes the magnitude of the issues listed above, and we know the revenue losses and rising costs experienced by counties cannot be addressed completely in one state budget. The first step is a conversation that inspires a new awareness of how critical the state-county partnership is and guides us toward action. A stronger partnership is critical to the quality of life and prosperity of Ohio and its citizens. We firmly believe a stronger partnership will result in stronger counties and a stronger Ohio.
The writers are the Shelby County Commissioners.