CINCINNATI -- Hamilton County voters could be asked this November to consider a property tax increase to cover the growing costs of caring for a record number of children entering foster care locally.
More than 3,500 children were in protective services custody at the end of 2017 -- with 1,518 of them entering the system in that year alone, according to Hamilton County Job and Family Services. The agency says the number of children in custody and available for adoption has doubled, with 400 kids waiting for a new family on any given day in the county.
The numbers are the highest the agency has seen in nearly two decades.
Fueling the spike is a record number of children being removed from homes of drug-addicted parents: 50 percent of children being taken into custody across Ohio have a parent with a drug abuse problem, according to the latest data. At least 28 percent are kids whose parents were using opioids at the time they were removed from their home.
"By the time we get the call, there's been so much trauma happening in the home," said Moira Weir, director of Job and Family Services.
Resources and funding to care for at-risk kids are drying up.
"The system is strapped. We are all stretched," Weir said. "Sometimes we have eight kids in our office, and we're trying to find homes. We're sadly putting up cots and having them sleep there."
Since 2007, Hamilton County Job and Family Service's budget has been slashed by 36 percent, from about $321 million to $206. That hit stems largely from the impact of the financial crisis and recession on local property values.
And other hits are on the horizon. The agency is forecasting:
- A $13 million cut in federal funding by 2019
- A loss of up to $10 million as Medicaid shifts how it pays for certain services
- Up to $10 million more in expenses should Ohio extend foster services to continue to the age of 21, rather than 18
All this adds up, officials say, to a projected budget deficit of more than $10.2 million as early as 2019. By 2020 that deficit is projected to jump to more than $24.9 million.
As the budget has been squeezed, the agency has had to cut back on some services. Not only that, but turnover among workers continues to be a major concern, Weir said.
"Our average caseload is above the national average," she said. "We've always struggled with turnover. A child welfare worker is no different than a first responder. There's a lot of secondary trauma."
The agency relies heavily on a county-wide property tax levy which, combined with other local dollars earmarked for the agency, brings in about $47.6 million annually. That funding allows the agency to bring in another $37.6 million in federal funding. Ohio -- which is last in the nation on spending for child protective services -- contributes about $5.2 million.
Hamilton County voters approved a property tax levy renewal in 2016 for the agency's services. The 2.77 mills costs about $57 a year for every $100,000 in property valuation. That millage has remained the same since 1996.
"Our costs continue to go up," Weir said. "Local money is so critical in the child welfare system, because you can use those dollars to leverage more federal funding."
Ultimately, Hamilton County's Board of Commissioners must sign off on putting any tax levy proposal on the ballot.
For now, a consultant is reviewing the agency's budgets and financial forecasts. By May, those findings are expected to be shared with the county's Tax Levy Review Committee, which makes a recommendation about whether a levy should be pursued.
In a review of the 2016 levy proposal, the committee suggested that any levy increase for Job and Family Services should be offset by a levy decrease somewhere else.
Top priorities for new funding for the agency, Weir said, include offering more support to local foster families and those who are caring for a relative's child, as well providing more services for children who have experienced severe trauma.
"If our caseloads continue, we'll see a 33 percent increase in the number of kids coming into our care," Weir said. "This is a community-wide problem."