By JIM MAURER
Hancock County Common Pleas Court Judge Reg Routson met with the county commissioners Thursday afternoon with lots of questions and concerns about the county budget.
The commissioners provided few answers, but they were certain on one thing. Money generated from sales tax revenues specifically designated for flood-reduction efforts is off limits to cover any financial shortfalls within county departments.
The county budget commission recently recommended a 10 percent reduction in county expenses to offset an expected drop in sales tax revenue due to the pandemic-related lockdown.
The commissioners informed the departments of the directive and approved appropriation decreases Thursday for the following department: public defenders’ office, $90,000; Hancock Regional Planning Commission, $17,193; and Soil and Water Conservation District, about $7,046.
Routson said some of the more than $13 million in the flood-reduction account could legally be used to “fill the gaps” in department budgets.
Commissioner President Mark Gazarek said the county expects to receive federal money to help with expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the commissioners don’t know the amount or when it might arrive.
Gazarek also said there are additional flood-reduction projects to complete, including more “benching” of the north side river bank east of the Main Street bridge. Widening west of the bridge was recently completed for about $6 million.
Other potential projects include a diversion basin along Eagle Creek south of Findlay, raising main transportation corridors to allow emergency and law enforcement personnel to travel unimpeded through Findlay and surrounding area during high water conditions, and replacement of the Norfolk-Southern Railroad bridge over the Blanchard River west of the Main Street bridge.
Commissioner Tim Bechtol also opposed the idea, saying the ballot issue to provide the funds was designated for flood-reduction projects.
Gazarek said comparisons with the Great Recession which began in 2008 aren’t fair because that was a gradual decline in funds, while the pandemic is like the economy “fell off a cliff,” quick and sudden with businesses, schools and manufacturing firms being shut down statewide.
There are no casino funds, far less sales tax revenue and no restaurant tax from eat-in diners, he said. The budget commission has indicated a possible 20 percent decline in sales tax revenue.
He called it “unprecedented” and the economic fallout was over days and weeks, not months.
“Nobody’s been through this before in this lifetime,” Gazarek said.
The sales tax situation is expected to bottom out by July.
On whether the county court building, to be constructed next to the post office on West Main Cross Street, will be delayed is unknown, the commissioners said, but the design work by Garmann/Miller architects, Minster, will be done. That work has been paid for as a requirement of the $7.8 million the county borrowed to cover the majority of the estimated $9 million construction expense.
The commissioners won’t know whether construction will proceed until bids are opened and reviewed, said Commissioner Tim Bechtol.
As part of the borrowing agreement, the county had to spend 5 percent borrowing agreement, which would be this month. The commissioners met the deadline by moving ahead with building design.