As cities and towns throughout the U.S. and the federal government struggle with growing deficits, leaders in Warren County in southwestern Ohio feel like they’re sitting pretty.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that it’s the only county in the region with no general obligation- limited tax debt as of Dec. 15, according to an analysis of financial data from the Ohio Municipal Advisory Council.
A municipality can raise taxes to pay general obligation-limited tax debt without a public vote.
Including Warren, only nine of the state’s 88 counties are without it, or about 10 percent. The others are Ashland, Athens, Carroll, Hardin, Morgan, Noble, Pickaway and Shelby.
Warren County, which is generally more urban than the other eight counties, pays cash for big-ticket expenses, including $12 million for a new administration building in 2001.
The median debt for Ohio’s counties is just under $7.3 million. Hamilton County, for instance, has $76 million in general- obligation debt.
Warren County has $30.2 million in other types of debt for such things as road, water and sewer projects.
Former Commissioner Mike Kilburn, who served 28 years on the board before leaving office two years ago, said the county has a long history of making smart financial moves.
He said that many times he and other commissioners would look at a potential expense or debt and ask, “Can we afford it?” and “Do we need it?”
“And many times the answer was ‘no,’” he said. “We just ran that budget like it was our own company [and] like it was our own money.”
The frugal governance has allowed the county to have the lowest property-tax rate in southwestern Ohio, consistently give raises to employees, avoid layoffs, maintain a sizable reserve fund, and have a higher bond rating.
But being so careful with money comes with consequences.
Its local court building has employees working in hallways because of overcrowding, the county jail also is overcrowded, the county has fallen behind in vehicle replacement for the sheriff’s office and costs for capital projects will inflate as the county waits to save money.
The biggest challenge for Warren County will be staying debt-free as it continues to grow.
But Warren County Commissioner Dave Young said he has no intention of borrowing money for daily operations and is against raising taxes.
“We live within our means,” he said. “The most successful thing we do in Warren County is having the ability to be able to tell people ‘no.’”