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Published: Saturday, 11/13/2010

Red ink, black ink

Budget miseries are forcing some departments of Lucas County government to lay off workers and slash spending on vital services such as public safety. At the same time, other county departments and agencies are sitting on huge surpluses of tax dollars. County officials need to make these numbers add up better.

The paradox reflects the absence of centralized budget authority in the county - just one product of a fragmented and wasteful system of government that demands change. That lack of accountability can lead to a poor distribution of county tax and fee revenue. The county also lacks a permanent finance director, and the Board of Commissioners majority is in no hurry to name one.

The board majority and other county elected officials have made clear their disdain for long-term reform proposals. In the meantime, though, individual agencies that are hoarding big surpluses at least should be required to show why that money is neither getting spent on needed services nor returned to taxpayers.

The Blade has reported that Lucas County Children Services and the county's Board of Developmental Disabilities have been running surpluses that are the equivalent of more than one-third of their annual budgets.

The county Recorder's Office, which has an operating budget of $757,000 this year, has squirreled away $1.1 million in an "equipment fund." The Dog Warden's office has a surplus of nearly $1 million in its "dog and kennel fund" - about two-thirds of this year's budget - while adoptable animals are killed because of a lack of proper facilities to house them.

Other county agencies and departments maintain slim reserves, by choice or necessity. Overall, though, the county had more than $200 million left over in various accounts at the start of 2010. That sum is more than half again as large as this year's county general fund budget; the comparison is only suggestive because of the wide array of county funds that have specific purposes supported by dedicated tax levies.

No one would reasonably suggest that county government should spend down its surpluses just for the sake of getting rid of them. Maintaining adequate budget reserves might seem no more than prudent fiscal policy during a stubborn recession.

Officials argue that healthy surpluses help the county maintain both immediate cash flow and its bond rating, thus limiting its cost to borrow money. They note that the state and federal governments are likely to address their own budget problems next year in part by cutting aid to local governments. So holding onto cash now can help prevent big shortfalls later, while enabling agencies and departments to make long-term plans.

All true. But the broad variance in county fund balances suggests an excess of unchecked discretion in the collection of public money. At the very least, it would seem reasonable for all county bodies to use common budget standards for projecting revenues and assessing likely spending needs.

It's equally reasonable to expect agencies that are holding onto big pots of money, which they plan to apply to capital projects or expected growth in service demands, to show progress on those efforts. Otherwise, the money should be reprogrammed or returned wherever that's feasible.

These days, whenever government at any level runs a surplus rather than a deficit, that's man-bites-dog news. But given the size of some of the surpluses in county government, officials need to show it isn't a case of bureaucracy-bites-taxpayer.



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