MANSFIELD -- Richland County Auditor Pat Dropsey advised county commissioners Tuesday morning it's too soon to begin making budget cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We don't know what's going to happen. We're just going to have to be patient and and somewhat conservative in our spending," Dropsey said during a public conference call session that included other county elected officials.
The hour-long session included a wide range of discussions related to the county's 2020 finances. Richland County began 2020 with a $4.8 million budget carryover and also has a $1.3 million rainy day fund.
"I've advised the commissioners in our discussions that you really can't do anything right now because you have no idea what the COVID effects are going to be and/or what the economic effects are going to be," Dropsey said.
The county's general fund relies heavily upon local sales taxes and many businesses in the county have closed their doors due to a statewide stay-at-home order.
The auditor said he understands Gov. Mike DeWine's quick call for budget reductions during the statewide shutdown, since the state operates on a fiscal year that ends June 30. The county's budget cycle is based on the calendar year, ending Dec. 31.
"All I have asked the commissioners (to do) is keep in mind that we have different (budget) cycles than the state does and that we should at least be somewhat patient to see how the next month or two with revenue affects the county's coffers before they start discussing or at least worrying about cuts, if any cuts need to be made," Dropsey said.
"What some counties have done in this state ... where they've reacted and they've cut ... I know a couple of counties already cut 20 percent off their budgets and that makes no sense to me," Dropsey said.
Treasurer Bart Hamilton said investment income will likely suffer, though revenues were actually slightly ahead of estimates for the first quarter.
"We'll see if (interest) rates stabilize. I think we can make (investment revenue goals), but I don't know of rates are going to stabilize. I think they're going to continue to go down," Hamilton said.
The treasurer also said he is concerned about property tax collections for the second half of 2020, especially in the commercial sector.
"We've never had a problem in commercial (property tax collections)," Hamilton said. "I'm not as concerned about individual property owners. I think that they're going to be okay and I think we can work through those.
"But I think you're going to see, you could see some real big players not pay and not be able to pay until those businesses opened back up," the treasurer said.
"I mean, if you take a little ride out into Ontario, there are a number of those shopping centers that are just basically closed. And I'm not sure what their cash reserve is. I'm not sure what their ability to pay is going to be for that second-half payment," Hamilton said.
County commissioners agreed it was too soon to plan on budget cuts.
"Ther are some counties that have put hiring freezes in place," Commissioner Marilyn John said. "At this point, that's not something we feel like is necessary in Richland County. However, I do think that we all need to be cautious on our spending," John said.
Richland County Engineer Adam Gove said his department will lose about $100,000 each month in gas tax revenue during the stay-at-home order.
"We're definitely gonna see a hit to our gas tax collections. Those are typically about three months in lag time, so we won't see March's numbers until next month or June. We won't know what the total financial hit is until somewhere in the middle of summer. But we are expecting at least a 30-percent decrease in gas tax revenue during the time we are shut down," Gove said.
One potential area of savings could from the county jail operations. Maj. Joe Masi said the inmate population has been reduced to 172 from 290 at the beginning of the year. It costs the county about $85 to house an inmate per day, Masi said.
"So we should see some savings next quarter," Masi said.
Richland County Prosecutor Gary Bishop and Common Pleas Court Administrator Tammy Wurthmann both said their departments are working to operate safely while still meeting justice requirements.
Bishop said his office has "drastically reduced" the number of cases it presents to a grand jury each month. He cautioned, however, it could take 18 months to work through the backlog of cases when the stay-at-home order is lifted.
"Those cases are not going away. They're not indicted. They are not charged. No one is just sitting in jail. One of my concerns is going to be when we do open up, when this crisis is ended, we're not going to be able to just jump in and take those 400 or 500 cases we've been sitting on and just indict them all at once," Bishop said.
"We're going to have to phase those cases in gradually. The estimate it may take us 18 months to get back to normal in the courts and jury trials is probably a conservative estimate," Bishop said.
Wurthmann said the county has a significant criminal caseload.
"They all have a right to a jury trial unless they waive the right. It's going to take us a year to recover if this goes on much longer, to resolve all the cases," Wurthmann said.
She said the current situation puts a burden on all departments, including the jail staff and probation officers doing pre-trial supervision.
"We have a huge number of people out of jail who we probably wouldn't normally have out," she said.