CINCINNATI -- Nobody disputes Hamilton County’s Children’s Services agency is cash-strapped.
But now that the agency caught a financial break and is free to spend an extra $78 million, a tug-of-war has launched over how to use that money.
The funds became available late last month when the county settled a decade-long dispute with the federal government that questioned how Children’s Services spent funds.
While the issue worked its way through the courts, Children’s Services saved about $100 million in levy funds to prepare for the settlement’s outcome. But the feds agreed to take a $22.5 million payment in late March.
That leaves Children’s Services – the agency tasked with caring for the county’s abused, neglected and abandoned children – a $78 million surplus. The organization’s annual budget is $80 million.
Some fear that between impending state budget cuts and increasing demand for Children's Services the extra funds will evaporate quickly. Others worry the timing of the large surplus could be damaging when the agency asks voters to approve a levy in the fall.
“We might not have that much money,” Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel said in an interview last week. “With future cuts coming, that (settlement) money gets smaller and smaller. It’s kind of like your savings account at home. You’ve saved all of this money but all of the sudden your kid gets sick and you need to go pay your hospital bills.”
How Would You Spend $78 Million?
From funding preschool for area toddlers to beefing up treatment for children hailing from opiate-addicted homes, there’s no shortage of opinions on how to spend the money.
The two Republican commissioners that make up the majority of the Hamilton County Commission have both cautioned against writing checks just yet with the surplus funds.
“It’s not like we won the lottery,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Dennis Deters, a Republican who was appointed to the job in January. “We’ve got to be really cautious with how the money is spent.”
The money could be used to restore programming and staffing that’s been reduced in recent years thanks to state and local budget cuts, according to a letter Job and Family Services Director Moira Weir wrote commissioners last month.
She suggests the county hire extra caseworkers, offer more trauma counseling for children, and provide more financial support to families who take in displaced children.
Weir also warns of impending state funding cuts and a continued increase in the number of abused and neglected children the county is caring for.
“I encourage you, in the wake of a resolution of the (settlement), to allow our agency to stabilize its funding, re-establish spending levels for needed services and then re-examine how we move forward from that point,” Weir wrote.
Ultimately, commissioners will have the final say on where the $78 million goes.
And one of those commissioners – the county board’s lone Democrat Todd Portune – argues the county should take advantage of the cash and find new ways to spend it.
Portune believes if Children’s Services needs more money for daily operations, the agency should ask voters for more funding in its levy this fall. He wants to give some of the surplus to Children’s Services but also believes the county should fund new initiatives with the cash.
He suggests the county should spend between $10 and $20 million from the surplus on funding two issues: childhood poverty prevention and preschool programs.
The funding, he said, might reduce the number of kids Children’s Services must care for every year.
“I want to put (Children’s Services) out of business,” Portune said. “We have kids that are abused and neglected; what’s one of the root causes of that? It’s the fact that they’re living in poverty.”
He’s asked childhood poverty and preschool advocates to write the other commissioners letters, urging for the money to be spent on such initiatives.
Ultimately, however, Portune said he wants the county to hold a public hearing for residents to suggest how the money should be spent.
How much money is on hand for the county to spend is still unclear.
After paying the settlement, Children’s Services will have an extra $78 million on hand. But, some county officials say the agency needs to roughly $20 to $30 million saved to pay bills and available to match state or federal grants. In addition, as much as $30 million of the surplus is believed to be state funds, which can only be spent on certain programs.
Commissioners have asked the prosecutor’s office to weigh in on legally how the county can spend the surplus.
“We don’t want to go down the road of improperly spending that money,” Deters said. “That’s how we got into this situation in the first place.”
No Need For Levy Increase?
Behind the scenes, another battle is brewing over the $78 million.
Commissioners are asking: What, if any, impact will that money have on Children’s Services levy request in November? The board is expected to decide in July how much money Children's Services can ask from voters
The agency relies on funding from the levy as well as state and local grants. The owner of a $100,000 home pays $56 every year to fund Children’s Services. That amount hasn’t changed in two decades.
The surplus could make some Hamilton County voters believe the agency has plenty of money and a levy increase is unnecessary, said Mike Wilson, the chairman of the county's tax levy review committee.
“There’s a public perception that there’s excess money out there,” Wilson said last week during a review of the agency's levy needs. That committee is tasked with telling the commissioners how much money Children’s Services needs to operate.
Already, because of the surplus, one commissioner believes Children's Services might be able to stave off a levy increase again this fall.
“From all indications, Children’s Services, with the cuts they’re seeing, are either going to have to scale back their services or find other revenue sources,” Monzel said. “Is this settlement money an opportunity to fill that gap for the next four years so we don’t have to go for an increase in property taxes?”
Portune fears the surplus will allow the board’s conservative commissioners to avoid asking taxpayers for a needed levy increase.
“There will be a move to say that because of the levy surplus that we either don’t need to change the (levy) or we might be able to reduce the levy,” Portune said. “We would really paint a false picture of what the issues are confronting kids in the county.”