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Report: Butler proves resilient

County suffered small financial hit

Revenue streams in Butler County were more resilient to pandemic shocks than the rest of southwestern Pennsylvania, according to a report from the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Preparing for Tomorrow: Fostering Municipal Resilience in the Wake of the Pandemic,” a study commissioned by regional stakeholders, took a look at systemic challenges that Southwestern Pennsylvania municipalities faced during a year ravaged by COVID-19.

A 28-member committee of experts surveyed 126 of southwestern Pennsylvania's 547 regional municipalities, including 11 municipalities in Butler County. The study also examined data from tax collection districts regionwide.

The survey requested data and opinions about operations, sustainability and resilience before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Little fluctuation

Aaron Lauer, senior policy analyst for the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics, said Butler County had a “much more moderate experience in terms of revenue losses and gains” than the rest of the region.

About 80% of all Butler County municipalities saw only a 5% change up or down in earned income tax revenue, as compared to the whole of Southwestern Pennsylvania, in which 68% of municipalities saw the same small level of change. Only five Butler County municipalities saw a drop more severe than 10%.

“This isn't to say all municipalities in Butler County have done well: There are municipalities within Butler County that have been impacted fairly significantly,” Lauer said. “But on the whole, the county came out amazingly well through the process.”

Lauer said the trend speaks to an underlying strong economy in the region.

“That Butler County had this sort of neutral impact from the pandemic as a whole, I think, speaks to the strength of the economy within the county coming into the pandemic,” he said.

Investing in future

Much of the study's research came from a survey that collected responses from municipal leadership about what their area's experience during the pandemic looked like.

Municipal managers who responded said that two big challenges they experienced over the past year in running Butler County municipalities had to do with understanding and implementing social distancing and with managing remote or hybrid public meetings.

“It's been sort of like a silver lining to the pandemic: The social distancing measures sort of forced a lot of municipalities to invest far more in IT (information technology) infrastructure,” Lauer said. “This has sort of broadened who's been able to participate. It was a matter of logging into a computer as opposed to going to the municipal building.”

Lauer said that Butler County officials expressed a desire to invest more going forward in municipal operations, and particularly in IT systems, so they can better respond to future crises.

Revenue flexibility, especially regarding programs such as the American Rescue Plan Act, was another big topic. There was an interest in putting money toward infrastructure in general, including stormwater control, sewer system upgrades and broadband access.

“In comparison to the rest of the region, Butler County placed greater emphasis on investing in economic development, providing businesses and nonprofits within their communities with funding to mitigate some of the impacts that occurred within the last year,” Lauer said.

Working together

Lauer said that investing in shared services, one of the larger recommendations within the survey, would “bolster municipal resiliency across the region.”

“What shared services really do is, by pooling resources together, you can better specialize your staffing and equipment, so services become far more robust,” he said.

The report itself explains further: While incorporating more shared services is something that municipalities sometimes shy away from because of cost and a perceived loss of administrative control, intergovernmental collaboration between municipalities can have a big, positive impact.

“Achieving such cooperative benefits would require not only the political will of municipal leadership and residents, but also the commitment of time and funding necessary to facilitate and plan the development of shared services,” according to the report.

First responders and libraries, according to many responses to the survey, were areas that could benefit from more shared services. The report recommends creating a database of shared services in Western Pennsylvania, and suggests piloting a program to share finance officer resources for the future, along with passing legislation that would allow municipalities to potentially disincorporate themselves if they so choose.

Plans in progress

Butler County Commissioner Kevin Boozel said the county has already been instituting some efforts to connect municipalities to one another. The county created a monthly municipal all-call that invites representatives, commissioners, municipal managers, council representatives and more to talk about what their communities are facing.

“We have had really great participation on that call, with even some of our more rural municipalities regularly participating,” Boozel said. “The thing about municipalities in Butler County is that they don't wait for someone to help them; they're very resilient. Their partnerships are strong. Communication has grown since we started our all-call municipal meeting.”

He said that in terms of the county's resilience, aid funds from the federal and state government have been a big boost. Some fluctuation in revenues may still be yet to come, but he doesn't expect a collapse.

“We are doing very well collecting our county taxes because of CARES (the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act), unemployment and the stimulus checks and that sort of thing,” he said. “What we're seeing is not the big losses we had expected, but had those funds not become available, it would be like 2008.”