County experienced an 'upward trend'
Union County rang its cash registers in 2012, surpassing the previous year's sales tax receipts for the first 11 months by more than $1.2 million.
"Clearly, there has been an upward trend," County Auditor Andrea Weaver said.
County commissioners Gary Lee and Steve Stolte agreed that the positive sales-receipt trend was the highlight of 2012.
"For our revenue not only to stabilize but to improve, yes, I'd say that is the biggest county story of the year," Lee said.
The county's biggest story of the year had an inauspicious beginning.
"The first three months didn't look good," Stolte said. "They were down from the previous three years and that was a concern. But in April, we saw a spike up and it's been positive news ever since."
Stolte said the estimates are that total revenues will be up by $3.5 million over estimates for the year.
"Consumer confidence in the county is up," he said. "I won't say the sales of automobiles is unprecedented, but there certainly seems to be a lot of pent-up demand. People are feeling better about the economy."
Despite the good news, the commissioners have been cautious about new expenditures.
"I think the feeling is, things may be getting better but we're not going to go back to the early 2000s when you could assume that every year was going to be better than the previous year," Lee said. "The last three or four years have been extremely challenging for our board, what with the nation-al economy suffering a recession and the state budget being unkind to counties."
Lee mentioned the loss of the tangible personal property tax money and Gov. John Kasich's budget cuts to counties and municipalities as factors that made his job more difficult.
"We're going to continue to be very frugal, economically conservative moving forward," he said. "Over the last three years, we've had to lay off people at Job and Family Services, we've had to lay off sheriff's deputies, county maintenance folks.
"I really do not want to go through that again and cause our wonderful employees personal pain."
Instead of increasing spending in 2012, the commissioners decided to increase savings, opening a budget stabilization fund and a salary and benefit liability fund, both for "rainy days."
"If our sales tax revenues take a hit, we'll have money in the budget stabilization fund to backfill," Stolte said. "Or if someone retires and we have to pay out for vacation and sick leave, that expense won't have to come out of a department's annual budget."
The commissioners even considered a quirk in the calendar and prepared for that with a salary and benefit liability fund.
"County employees routinely get 26 checks during the 52 weeks of the calendar year," Stolte said. "But every eleventh year, there is an extra paycheck, a 27th paycheck that until now we really hadn't accounted for. When that year with 27 paychecks comes in 2016, we'll be prepared for it."
The commissioners intend to put $30,000 into each fund every year, he said.
"I don't want to cry wolf," Lee said of his board's caution "2012 was a positive year and the county has a positive outlook. We truly believe in our future. But coming off the biggest downturn in our economy since the Great Depression, I still don't have the comfort to start spending money just yet."