As you likely know, the Hamilton County Council is the fiscal body of our county government. As such, the Council is wholly and exclusively responsible to ensure taxpayer money is spent wisely. The Board of County Commissioners is the executive body, responsible for the execution of the funding we approve, and the day-to-day operation of county government. There are literally thousands of requests for money that come to the Council each year – many of them for worthy causes.
For that reason, it is very important for the Council to exercise discipline and oversight on every project, and consider the impact to taxpayers for years down the road. In government or business, oversight is important. A lack of oversight creates an imbalance of power, misplaced priorities, and – inevitably – financial mismanagement. As your County Councilman, and President of the County Council, I take seriously my job to protect your tax dollars. Our oversight function includes a requirement that we conduct an exacting and inquisitive approach to funding requests from the Commissioners, just like we do for others who come to us requesting county funds. Because when it comes to spending money – the buck stops with us.
Cooperation with the Commissioners is critical to success. We need to work together. We work with the Commissioners closely and always attempt to align our priorities during budget time. This past March, we met with the Commissioners and agreed on a group of projects that needed to be funded in 2017/2018. Those projects included the Logan Street pedestrian walkway for approximately $2 million, expansion of the judicial center at approximately $25 million and the highway 37 project which cost is yet to be confirmed. We also discussed a previously agreed upon priority of expanding the jail at approximately $10 to 12 million.
During that March meeting, we agreed with the Commissioners that the courthouse and jail expansions were a priority and would cost between $10 to 12 million for the jail and $25 million for the judicial center. Our Council Finance Committee took these estimates and worked with our financial consultant to find a way to fund these projects without raising your taxes or depleting our reserves. The first step to each project was an architectural/engineering design – which came to a cost of $500,000 for the courthouse and $700,000 for the jail.
After having released that $1.2 million for the architectural/engineering plans and not having final numbers yet to finish either, the Commissioners sprung a new set of funding requests onto the Council. One of those new requests is an $8 million request for the installation of solar panels on county property as an experiment in lowering the County’s electric bill. While a worthy motivation, it is troubling that the Commissioners have asked us to fund new priorities outside of the budgetary priorities we agreed upon just six months ago – and without the benefit of the final cost on the cost of the courthouse and jail expansions.
The Commissioners presented the solar panel project as an “emergency” that could not wait until budget time next year because a state credit on how energy can be stored would expire at the end of the year. But this “emergency” could have easily been avoided had the project been presented in March along with the others, but it was not. This type of spending, outside of our budgetary priorities, is inconsistent with the disciplinary and resolve we have shown over the past several years to maximize the county’s financial standing. It is easy to say “yes” to projects, but it’s our job to “hold the line” on spending and stick with the contours of our budget even when the winds of spending blow and bluster.
As one vote out of seven, I have concerns with the solar projects outside of its absence from the budgetary talks. First, it is unclear whether it will create the savings that has been represented. The contract, in sum, makes savings promises but then provides multiple exceptions to those guarantees. Second, I worry how funding this project will impact our current tax levy when funded in conjunction with other projects like the courthouse and jail. In other words, if the courthouse and jail come in at steeper costs than predicted (which we all know is possible), we could find ourselves in a position where we must raise your taxes for the first time during my tenure on the Council. I refuse to be placed in that position.
Currently County Government is the only government body in Hamilton County that has seen a decrease in the amount of property taxes that we extract from our citizens over the past 4 years. This is due to fiscal responsibility which is driven by discipline and oversight. It is imperative that we await final numbers on the courthouse and jail before we consider anything else. That is what was agreed upon between the Council and Commissioners in March, and that is how I am going to proceed with my vote.
Bottom line, we should concentrate on finishing and funding the priorities we agreed upon in March before we begin additional “pet projects,” as worthy as they may be. That is why I was elected, and that is the course I intend to pursue on your behalf.