Butler County starting aggressive improvement program with sheriff's office upgrades

Denise G. Callahan, Journal-News, Hamilton, Ohio
·5 min read

Apr. 19—The Butler County commissioners have started awarding funds for county capital projects, including some that are COVID-19-related, which will see work happening in government buildings this year.

This week the commissioners approved two new projects that are part of the $4 million capital improvement plan funded by the general fund. Sheriff Richard Jones' $365,000 computer management system upgrade was approved. The commissioners previously agreed to around $600,000 for the sheriff's annual vehicle replacement program.

Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer said the pricey software upgrade is necessary just like any other technology that becomes either obsolete or is not longer supported. Some of their systems are over a decade old. The upgrade to the jail system is a particular benefit to the taxpayers who are paying for it.

"How we manage our incarcerated population is important to the county as a whole," Dwyer said. "The ability to provide programming services to reduce recidivism, the ability to classify properly is a component we are managed to do. Quite frankly if we do not continue to stay ahead of it and upgrade we'll lose support which could then potentially adversely effect our ability to book inmates in and track them."

The commissioners also moved forward on new $137,000 boilers for the Juvenile Detention and Rehabilitation centers. Juvenile Court Administrator Rob Clevenger said officials applied for funding from the Ohio Department of Youth Services for both buildings. The ODYS must reimburse 100% for rehabilitation centers and can approve 60% funding for detention facilities. He said they needed the commissioners' to "front the costs" and after state reimbursement the hit to the general fund is only $41,100.

Next up is the largest project, the first of a three-year plan to restore the iconic 132-year-old courthouse in downtown Hamilton. The total cost of the project to make critical repairs to the courthouse is $4.6 million and this year Boyko has penciled in nearly $1.6 million. Reinforcing the crumbling sandstone and decorative details on the exterior are the first priority.

The commissioners approved $4 million for capital improvements to be paid for out of the general fund. This represents a 100% increase from previous years when about $2 million has been budgeted but rarely fully spent. Last year they approved around $1 million for capital projects.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic the commissioners have another large pot of money they can use to make improvements to their facilities. Some projects they may not have considered undertaking previously and others are coming off the shelf.

About six years ago Commissioner Cindy Carpenter dubbed the five-story structure at the corner of Court Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. their "Stone Age" garage, but it has still taken several years to get the wheels turning on automating it.

The 600-space garage currently operates as a cash-only, pay-at-the-gate operation. Proposals to automate the garage, making it more user-friendly and generating revenue from community events back then ranged from $100,000 to $400,000.

The project hit the skids back then but now with federal CARES coronavirus relief funds available, it is back on the table with an estimated cost of $200,000.

"I am happy that we're not going to have a Stone Age garage anymore," Carpenter said. "The world uses credits cards, everybody uses credit cards or debit cards. It only makes sense that we use that in our parking garage. It's very unfortunate when people are trying to leave the garage and they don't happen to have cash."

The commissioners last month considered, but have not yet officially approved the parking garage, installing touchless faucets and toilets in four county buildings, consolidating two courtrooms and switching to a touchless time card system for a total of $1 million.

Commissioners Don Dixon and T.C. Rogers were hesitant on the courtroom consolidation issue because they are in the middle of surveying all of their facilities to determine the best and highest use. Plus, all three commissioners are concerned about losing a courtroom in the growing county.

"I just don't envision us going to another judge for the next 15, 20 years, given the case loads, given the numbers," Common Pleas Administrative Judge Keith Spaeth told the Journal-News. "My point being we have at least one extra courtroom that's being used very little. This is going to solve a lot of problems."

The county used to be able to use the ceremonial courtroom on the second floor of the Government Services Center for grand jury gatherings and for large trials. The judge's chambers and jury room in the huge courtroom were overtaken by the Domestic Relations Court years ago and the commissioners use part of the room for meetings.

Spaeth said the court often requires more space than the existing courtrooms have, space that has now become paramount in this social-distancing world. There can be 50 or 60 people in the room during jury selection "it's absolutely packed and it's probably a fire code violation, but definitely in terms of social distancing an impossibility."

Dixon and Rogers are now onboard with the project. The commissioners do not bulk-approve capital improvements, but rather must award contracts as projects are presented, most times after bids are sought.