Standing at close to $1 billion, Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp's first budget since his inauguration in September is intentionally nondisruptive.
"Our goal was continuity," Wamp told Hamilton County commissioners during a presentation Wednesday. "It was to build trust with department heads through this process, to build trust with members of the commission through this process. Though I care deeply about many of the priorities in this budget, I have described it as a boring budget — one that's meant to get us all started on the right foot together."
Wamp gave a preview of his spending priorities in his State of the County address in late March, and the County Commission will vote on the proposed fiscal year 2024 budget June 21. The county's fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.
The $995 million proposal, $313 million of which is dedicated to general government, would not raise property taxes. It includes a 4% across-the-board pay raise for county employees at a cost of $4.1 million and offers $1 million in new funding for county parks, including improvements to fishing access at Chester Frost Park and modest investments at McDonald Farm in Sale Creek to open the recently acquired homestead as a park.
The budget boosts compensation for emergency medical services staff by an average of 13% to bring online a 17th ambulance. The county recently approved a 10% increase in ambulance billing rates, which is its first such rate hike in about 12 years.
The budget would also reserve dollars to convert the old Harrison Elementary School into the county's first community and senior center and set aside $250,000 to renovate a former Highway Department facility to expand the reentry program at Silverdale Detention Center, offering training in electrical, carpentry and welding trades.
Wamp's proposal would also fund a new prosecutor position in the office of Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp, who is the mayor's sister. Similar to a prosecutor the DA's office has hired to specifically handle child sex abuse cases, the new position would focus exclusively on the dealers of deadly drugs like opioids.
"We're at the very bottom of the entire state in terms of putting away the dealers of deadly drugs," the mayor told commissioners Wednesday. "It's quite frankly a failure of this community over the last decade, and these cases are incredibly complex."
The school system always accounts for most of the Hamilton County budget, and this year, 62% of the county's $995 million spending plan for fiscal year 2024 — about $621.6 million — is reserved for education.
The county is expecting an approximately $98 million boost in funding for schools this year, with roughly two-thirds of that bump resulting from the state's new public education funding formula.
Superintendent Justin Robertson told commissioners the school system has built its budget around five overarching goals: improving student learning, bolstering student relationships with educators and their community, providing equitable access to resources, ensuring staff members feel valued and making sure every community feels served. The Hamilton County Board of Education approved its operating budget in May.
Facing a nearly $1 billion backlog in repairs, the district is increasing the money it has reserved for capital maintenance by $6 million, bringing the total to $8 million in the upcoming fiscal year. The system has 18 schools rated as either poor or fair, Robertson said.
"Our goal by the end of this is to have that number down to 10," Robertson told commissioners. "I want to be clear with you guys: That doesn't happen by just building buildings. We're going to have to make some hard decisions around the number of schools we're operating in Hamilton County and how we reduce deferred maintenance as a strategy to get to this metric."
The district is also setting aside additional money for courses in English as a new language. The funding for those programs as well as exceptional education will increase by almost $5 million.
The system's budget includes a 5% salary increase at a cost of about $14.5 million and sets aside an additional $7.2 million that would help officials recruit and retain employees at schools and in subject areas that are difficult to staff.
"It's hard to find teachers," Robertson said, "but it's increasingly hard to find math teachers. We're going to differentiate compensation based on hard-to-staff positions — so pay math teachers more than we would a history teacher because those are harder to find."