By Ryan Berry
GREENVILLE — As announced earlier this month, the county is debt free except for a non-repayable EPA loan. But, with discussions nationwide revolving around inflation, possible recession, supply chain difficulties, etc. was 2022 a good year for Darke County?
Commissioners Matt Aultman, Mike Stegall and Larry Holmes agreed it was. Aultman said, “We keep going back to paying off our county debt this year. Being that financially responsible as a county, having conservative elected officials that are working with us every day, we are in a good place financially as a county.”
Although they have been able to pay off the debt early, the commissioners don’t believe it came at the expense of anything else. They have been able to keep employment levels steady and have changed their approach when it comes to building maintenance.
Holmes said, “That’s been something, the last two years, that has been stepped up – preventive maintenance – being proactive instead of being reactive.” As the county became more financially stable, which occurred over the last six years, they turned their attention from putting out fires to “let’s plan for the future.” The county hired an architectural firm to look at their facilities so they can plan their maintenance.
The commissioners in 2018 were faced with a tight squeeze on their budget and were forced to make some difficult decisions. Some of those decisions included streamlining the county’s employment levels. Aultman said the county “got away from some of the unnecessary, I guess that’s what we deemed them at that point. But we’ve also tightened some of the skills and cross-trained employees, stuff like that. We found efficiencies in 2018.”
Aultman believes the county will never have a robust pool of employees. “You’re just going to steal them from another business,” he said. He also stressed the county is in a good place with its employees and meeting the needs of the community.
One area where the county has a need is at the Sheriff’s Department. However, commissioners believe the new contract for employees at the sheriff’s office will help. “The sheriff’s dept is always short-handed – because there is a smaller pool of employees available,” said Aultman.
Although the new contract with the deputy’s union doesn’t take effect until January, they are beginning to see the benefits. They’ve had two employees that have come back. The commissioners believe the new contract will convert the department from being a training county to a retention and growth county. Previously, the county was teaching them how to become an officer or work in the jail and then they would leave for more money in another county.
According to Commissioner Stegall, the new contract puts them on the same level as the surrounding counties. Stegall said, “I’d say we’re probably even and maybe a little ahead of some, which is good. We don’t want to overpay. We don’t want to go crazy and lead the pack because we have to sustain this. There will come a day when you say, now what are we going to do if you do too much. I think we’ve hit a good spot.”
As for revenue, Darke County was in a good spot in 2022. Aultman shared, “Sales tax (revenue), in general, was up for the county for the year, but nowhere near where it could have been because the vehicle inventory wasn’t there.” He explained that the people continued to purchase tangible goods, but car dealerships were having issues with getting vehicles to sell.
The county will also benefit from paying off its loans early. Commissioner Holmes shared the county will save approximately 1/2 million dollars between principal and interest which means cash flow is strong. However, the county will need to be vigilant. Holmes said, “You like what you see, but you have to always be aware that that can turn fairly quickly because if inflation doesn’t abate, it will put a lot of pressure on our budget. We were able to do some good things for our employees and for the county this year because of the strength of the financials – sales tax and revenue. But it might not always be that way.”
The commissioners were also asked about sportsbook gambling and how that will fit in. The county currently gets some funds from the casinos and sportsbook gaming will also go into the pot that is split between the counties.
Commissioners Aultman and Stegall stressed that Darke County always underestimates the amount of funds they receive from the state’s gaming industry. When those funds exceed the county’s expectations, they become carryover funds and that has helped the county pay off its debts early.
What’s next for the county, Aultman said Commissioner Holmes will continue to lead the way on moving the internet project and the commission will also take a look at the two-decade old land use plan.
They will also be keeping an eye on factors outside their control that have a potential to derail some of their plans. Aultman believes health insurance could be a crippling factor in the future because it continues to grow with seemingly no top. He also agreed with Holmes that inflation “is going to be a thing we’ve got to keep in our frontal lobe.”
To contact Daily Advocate Editor Ryan Berry, email [email protected]