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Published: Monday, 4/4/2011

Lucas County officials probe budget for cuts' impact

Details reveal few services untouched by Kasich plan

BY CLAUDIA BOYD-BARRETT
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Gov. John Kasich proposes a $55.5 billion budget that includes a 50 percent cut in state payouts to local governments. He says it would close an estimated $7.7 billion gap. Gov. John Kasich proposes a $55.5 billion budget that includes a 50 percent cut in state payouts to local governments. He says it would close an estimated $7.7 billion gap.
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When Gov. John Kasich unveiled his budget plan in March, Lucas County officials balked at the proposed 50 percent cut in state payouts to local governments.

Almost three weeks later, as those officials continue to sift through the governor's 774-page proposal, they're finding a whole lot more to be concerned about. There are reductions in property-tax reimbursements, a revision of criminal-sentencing laws, cuts in adoption subsidies, and slashed funding for social services among myriad other changes.

Ultimately, it seems almost nothing is left untouched by the governor's plan.

To get a better grip on the proposal and what it would mean locally, Lucas County's budget department, the county administrator, and chief of staff have dedicated days to poring through the document page by page. It's tedious work but necessary, they say, to prepare the county for the situation.

"For us, this is probably the first time that we've actually gone to the level of reading every single page of the state budget," said Bridgette Kabat, the county commissioners' chief of staff. "In years past, there've been changes and modifications that we're aware of, but not to this extent. We know a couple of things that are out there on the face of it. … We're just so afraid of what else is in there."

Mr. Kasich released his $55.5 billion budget proposal on March 15. The budget covers the state's next two fiscal years and would begin July 1, although it still must move through the state legislature and is likely to undergo modifications before it can be approved. The governor maintains his plan would close an estimated $7.7 billion budget gap resulting largely from the loss of federal stimulus money and other one-time funds.

For county governments, the most obvious impact of the governor's proposal is to the Local Government Fund, which provides state funding to local jurisdictions. Mr. Kasich wants to cut those payments in half over the next two years. For Lucas County, that would mean close to a $4 million loss.

On top of that, the governor's plan would speed up a phase-out of property and utility tax reimbursements that counties, schools, and levy-funded agencies receive. Those reimbursements have helped local entities weather the loss of business taxes cut during reforms made in 2005. Under Mr. Kaisch's proposal, counties and school districts across the state would lose about $1.3 billion over the next two years.

But many other cuts are on the table too. Funding reductions for Children Services, the Department of Mental Health, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, and an array of other agencies would filter down to the local level.

Other proposed changes imply cuts in state support for adult parole officers and more responsibility placed on counties to deal with petty criminals.

"The devil's in the details of this [700]-page document. It was done quickly without much consultation and my question is, ‘Are they aware of the consequences?'" Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said. "As we read through this document, we're picking up more and more where they're shifting burdens from state government to local government when local government is already stretched."

A major concern for Lucas County officials is the budget's reliance on criminal-sentencing reforms. Mr. Kasich has banked on saving $27 million over the next two years by redirecting nonviolent, low-level felons to community correctional and treatment programs instead of state prisons.

The plan also would allow low-risk inmates to shorten their sentences by successfully completing treatment, education, and other programs.

Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said the state must provide enough extra money to counties so they can deal with more criminals. More funds would be needed for the local court system as well as programs that help rehabilitate people with drug problems and mental illnesses, or provide them with job training, she said. That support is unlikely, she said, given the cutbacks her office and social service agencies have endured and would continue to receive under the governor's plan.

"If you don't send [the felons] to prisons, that means you're handling them in your own community. If they're doing that, they're going to need somebody to check on them and look after them," Ms. Bates said. "But if you're cutting all the money that comes to the community, what are you going to do with them? How are you going to help these people? ... I don't think it's thought through."

Parole officer funds
County commissioners also have questioned a proposal to cut state funding for adult parole officers who prepare presentence reports for judges in Common Pleas Court. The budget indicates counties would receive some reimbursement to pay for this work themselves, but local officials fear the money won't be enough.

Social service programs and agencies also face reductions in the governor's plans.

The Ohio Departments of Job and Family Services would receive a 10 percent cut in state funding for many programs it administers in the community, ranging from transportation programs to legal services for the elderly to efforts for combatting teen pregnancy. That reduction is greatly exacerbated by an estimated $160 million loss in one-time federal stimulus money and other federal dollars used to provide subsidized child care and help for needy families, said Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors' Association. The cuts come at a time when community need is greater than ever because of the economic downturn, he said.

"It's bad enough with the state budget situation, but the federal budget situation is having an equally devastating impact," Mr. Potts commented. "These aren't just statistics, these are people that we're serving and we're real worried about how we're going to continue to provide services for them."

For Lucas County Job and Family Services, federal and state losses combined would add up to $5.4 million in 2012. That's on top of cuts suffered in the past, local director Deb Ortiz-Flores said.

Such large reductions in funding force county departments to focus resources on the services they are mandated to provide, such as cash assistance to families in need, Ms. Ortiz-Flores said. That means even less money for efforts that assist those same needy people in getting help such as job training so they can get back on their feet, she explained.

Cuts also negatively affect the community because the agency has less money for contracting with local organizations that provide services and help people work, Ms. Ortiz-Flores said.

Widespread effect
"If the child-care providers in the community are taking cuts, that's less income for them to run their businesses. And if our clients don't have opportunities for job placements, they're not working," the director said. "It will definitely affect the whole economy of Lucas County."

The Department of Mental Health Services, meanwhile, would receive a 10 percent cut, or $1.1 billion, during the first year of the budget and a 49.4 percent cut in the second year. These cuts include the loss of federal stimulus dollars.

Scott Sylak, who heads the Lucas County Mental Health Services and Recovery Board, said he is unsure how all the proposed cuts and changes in the governor's budget would affect the agency locally. The changes could be both positive and negative, he said. However, he is concerned that local boards will be asked to take over funding for programs previously paid for by the state.

"At this point, we're basically holding pat on ‘we don't know,'?" Mr. Sylak said. "We're doing what we can do to mitigate any loss of service, but in the end, we do believe that there will likely be people who will get less service or there will be less people served."

Intervention services
David Kontur, director of Lucas County Family and Children First Council, said his agency would lose a significant chunk of state support for intervention services it provides for young children with disabilities and at-risk parents.
What he and other agencies are trying to figure out is how all the cuts together would affect the community.

"Sometimes one agency may take a bigger cut than other agencies, but then you may end up having a push-down, pop-up effect," he said. "You cut this agency's ability to service these families and they then pop up somewhere else. So it's not like the demand goes away."

That's an issue that concerns Dean Sparks, chief of Lucas County Children Services. If other service providers are cut, Children Services will have a hard time referring families to counseling and other help they need, he said.

In addition, Governor Kasich's budget would slash the state's contribution to adoption subsidies for special-needs children by $20 a month per child. Children Services is locked into paying those subsidies to families and would have to pick up the tab, Mr. Sparks said. The state also would eliminate incentive money used to help relatives take care of at-risk children and keep them out of foster care.

"It is money that we are not necessarily going to be able to make up on a local level, so what it means is those families are not going to get the kind of support they had expected or been promised," Mr. Sparks said.

"Clearly this budget from the state of Ohio impacts directly kids and their families."

In neighboring counties, officials said they also are concerned about cuts they likely will have to make although they have yet to get a clear picture of what the effects would be. Most were primarily concerned with the proposed cuts to the local government fund and property tax reimbursements.

‘Weather the storm'
Wood County commissioner Tim Brown said his staffers are evaluating the governor's proposals and their potential impact on the county, and hope to present their findings this week.

"I think we'll be able to weather the storm, hoping that the economy starts to ramp up," Mr. Brown said.

In Fulton County, Commissioner Paul Barnaby said he understands the need for cuts because of the large budget hole, and said he supports Mr. Kasich's efforts. His county would lose close to a half million dollars from the Local Government Fund, a big hit to its general fund budget of just more than $9 million, he said.

To ease the effect of the financial loss, Mr. Barnaby said, he wants the state government to help by letting counties do away with mandated services for which they receive no or little state funding. As an example, he cited legal defense for those unable to pay for it.

Ottawa County Commissioner James Sass said his county had prepared for the cuts projected for the Local Government Fund so that hasn't taken them by surprise. Nevertheless, county staffers have endured a squeeze on county funds for three years, receiving no wage increase and higher health-care premiums, he said. One of his greater concerns is the proposed sentencing reforms and any other cuts that could shift more costs to the county.

"We're the delivery point for the state services and we will still be required to provide the services — courts and corrections being and example," Mr. Sass said. "We have to still deliver the services with less dollars to work with."

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: cbarrett@theblade.com, or or 419-724-6272.



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