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Published: Friday, 12/28/2001

Lucas County tightening its budget for '02

Lucas County commissioners have warned for months that the succession of budgets that allowed for more employees and new programs was about to end.

They showed those warnings were not an idle scare tactic yesterday when they signed off on a tight budget that increases by just 1.8 percent in 2002. The county's general fund budget is $134.3 million next year. “Each great run has a dip, and this is our dip,” said Sandy Isenberg, president of the board of county commissioners.

As indicated when the tentative budget was released last week, Children's Wonderland, the popular exhibit at the Lucas County Recreation Center that has been open since 1963, fell under the budget ax.

But the commissioners seem far from resolved that the exhibit won't open next year.

They hold out the possibility that sales tax revenues will increase enough to cover the $100,000 that will be saved by the cut, or, better yet, that sponsors will come forward to save the day.

Ms. Isenberg said she's received a few phone calls about prospective sponsors for Children's Wonderland.

“It's really improved over the last few years, and I would hate to mothball it,” she said.

Other cuts include closing the Rec Center's pool, which has become a headache for the commissioners because of repairs required yearly. The closing is expected to save $130,000.

The county sheriff's office experienced a setback in the budget, losing $1 million for overtime. This year, the office spent $3 million on overtime, said John Zeitler, the county budget director.

Commissioner Harry Barlos said cooperation by the county's other elected officials is crucial to making the budget work.

He said he's not confident the financial situation will turn around enough next year to ease the financial pain the budget will inflict. About 51 percent of the county's general fund comes from sales tax revenue. This year, the county expects to collect about $66.6 million from sales taxes, a drop of $1.9 million from 2000. Next year's projected sales tax revenue is $67.9 million.

“The other shoe may not have fallen yet, so I'm taking a very conservative view,” Mr. Barlos said.

Commissioner Bill Copeland had a different view of the budget. He repeated his belief that the frequent talk about how bad the economy is and may continue to be doesn't show effective leadership.

“To keep talking about gloom and doom week in and week out is not good for the citizens we're trying to serve,” he said. “Whatever happens, we're going to do the right thing.”

Putting more pressure on next year's budget, in addition to the expected modest sales tax revenue, is a 22 percent increase in the cost of health insurance for employees.

Ms. Isenberg said the budget cycle is going to be tough. “We all want to be optimistic, but when you look at the numbers, it kind of gets you down,” she said.



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