County set for rainy days

LISBON — The amount of surplus money being set aside by Columbiana County commissioners to offset the loss of future funding continues to grow.

Commissioners on Wednesday placed $2 million into one of two escrow accounts already containing a combined $5.2 million, which is in addition to a third escrow account holding $2.4 million.

The $2 million represents additional revenue the county has received in excess of what was originally given commissioners to spend for the year. The county budget commission certified that commissioners would have $18.6 million in revenue to budget in 2017, but actual revenue received to date has exceeded that figure by $5 million.

Since commissioners had no immediate need for all of the additional revenue, they transferred the $2 million into an escrow account created several years ago for that purpose. The account had $2.2 million in it from previous years.

Commissioners on Wednesday also transferred another $1 million in excess funds into the county’s self-funded employee health insurance program due to higher than expected claims this year, according to county Auditor Nancy Milliken.

Commissioners are stockpiling cash because the county is entering an uncertain period in regard to sales tax collections. The federal government has told Ohio it can no longer charge state and local sales taxes for Medicaid managed-care provider services, which is expected to result in the loss of $2 million or so a year in county sales tax revenue.

To help local governments cope with the funding loss, the state legislature is providing the county with $4.9 million in “transitional aid.” A $2.4 million down payment was received in November and placed in another escrow account, with the remaining $2.5 million in transitional aid expected to be transferred to the county in early 2018.

There is also $3 million in a third escrow account, which includes $1.5 million in gas lease money and repayment of $1.5 million commissioners loaned the Buckeye Water District to resolve its lawsuit with East Liverpool.

This brings the grand total in the three accounts to $9.6 million.

Commissioner Mike Halleck has maintained that while they are in a good position to absorb the funding loss for now, the county should prepare for the future by setting aside excess funds in the escrow accounts, and Milliken agrees with this approach.

“We may have to get through some lean years in the future,” she said.

Halleck was in Columbus earlier in the week as the county’s representative to the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, and he said there is still a chance the state legislature and the Kasich administration could reach an agreement on providing additional transitional aid to counties impacted by loss of sales tax revenue.