By Denise G. Callahan Journal-News, Hamilton, Ohio.
One local entrepreneur says proof the economy in Butler County is making gains is the fact her after-school programs are thriving.
Arin Singer-Bonk opened up a West Chester Twp. storefront in December for Delicious Designs Cookies, a business she ran out of her home for 10 years. Aside from creating custom treats, she also runs an after-school cookie decorating program for students in Lakota Local Schools.
"I feel like things must be going right with the economy because I feel like kids programming, if your personal household budget isn't doing well, that's going to be an extra you don't provide for your kids," she said. "They are providing it for their kids in these after-school activities and the parents are writing a check."
And Singer-Bock's numbers aren't the only ones looking up.
A Journal-News analysis of 15 economic indicators in Butler County for 2015 shows sales tax for the county shot up to $40.5 million, $3.5 million higher than anticipated and the highest in nine years. And foreclosures and bankruptcies continued to tumble last year.
Sales tax collections in 2007 were higher at $41.3 million, but County Administrator Charlie Young noted the county was still collecting an extra half percent in 2007 and the first quarter in 2008, to pay for a new 800 megahertz radio system.
"We are significantly recovered from the worst of the effects of the Great Recession," Young said. "Bankruptcies peaked and are now down closer to a pre-recession level. New home building permits have improved and are probably more in line with expectations at a lower level than before. Food stamps had grown quite a bit and now they've come back down. To me across the board it shows there has been improvement and we are back to or better than we were pre-recession."
Food stamps peaked in 2011 at $79.7 million and are now down to $65.2 million. Foreclosures were at a nine-year low last year with only 1,389, compared to 3,166 at the height of the recession in 2010 and the number of bankruptcies have almost halved with 1,033 last year compared to 1,931 in 2009.
Jerome Kearns, assistant director of Job and Family Services said the food stamp numbers are a good indicator to gauge the county's well being, but they have also stepped up efforts, with the help of the prosecutor and sheriff, to ferret out fraud, which also reduces the numbers. Officials estimate they have saved taxpayers $20.7 million since 2012 by detecting and often arresting fraudulent food stamp users.
"We are seeing more people going to work or increasing their hours," Kearns said. "That obviously has a direct impact on the amount of benefits as well as some of our other numbers are down a bit. It's a combination of things."
New home building permits are significantly better than they were during the recession, with 524 through the month of November, compared to 301 for all of 2011, but it still doesn't come close to the 826 permits pulled in 2007. Dan Dressman, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati, said back then the federal government was encouraging, even requiring banks to be more lenient with their lending practices so more people could afford to buy homes, that stance was actually a large contributor to the Great Recession.
He said prices have stabilized, and he expects new home building to continue to improve in 2016.
"We're not doing gangbusters at this point in time, but there has been a steady increase," Dressman said. "I think the economy is improving. I think the job forecast, unemployment has gone down and the job forecast has improved. Overall I think buyers and sellers are feeling better about the economy."
County Auditor Roger Reynolds said another indication of the economic health of the county is the fact 469 new parcels were created in 2015, which is a 60 percent increase over the prior year. The most new parcels were carved out in Liberty Twp. with 241.
"The eastern side of Butler County has seen solid commercial growth the past few years and Liberty Center has generated a lot of excitement," Reynolds said. "Now it's looking like the vast majority of these newly created parcels in 2015 will be built up with residential housing stock."
Another figure that has been stubbornly stagnant is investment income, it jumped $500,000 last year to $1.5 million. Income from the county's investment portfolio stood at $11.8 million in 2007 and hovered at the $1 million mark in 2013 and 2014.
Butler County Treasurer Nancy Nix, who manages the portfolio with the help of United American Capital Corporation (UACC), said she is cautiously optimistic this revenue stream will continue to climb. Interest rates started sliding significantly in 2007, but she said the county fared better than the market overall.
"In spring of 2013, the markets experienced a huge sell-off, but upon the advice of UACC, Butler County stayed the course, did not over-react or change strategy, and prices bounced back. Butler County's investment income was at its lowest point in 2013 and has steadily increased each year since," Nix said.
"Growing cash reserves due to a recovery economy, increasing county revenues and cost containment has enabled the Butler County treasurer to increase invested amounts, resulting in increased interest revenue. Absent catastrophic global news, we project Butler County's interest revenue to continue rising with the rising interest rate environment and growing cash reserves."
Personal income as reported by the Ohio Development Services Agency (ODSA) increased 10 percent in the county between 2008 and 2013. The per capita income in 2008 was $35,722 and $39,304 in 2013. The ODSA total for 2014 was $15.3 billion.
The unemployment rate was at the lowest level in ten years last year at 4.2 percent, it peaked at 9.3 percent in 2009 and 2010. Michael Jones, assistant economics professor at the University of Cincinnati, said that is a key indicator things are right with Butler County's economic world.
"Obviously the unemployment rate being at 4.2 percent is pretty remarkable," he said. "We typically think about full employment, where you really want to be, and the economy is around 5 percent. The fact that it's around 4.2 percent is certainly pretty strong. From an employment perspective it's encouraging."