Highland County commission president Jeff Duncan, center, reads a proclamation supporting the Bill of Rights as commissioners Gary Abernathy, left, and Terry Britton look on. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Highland County commission president Jeff Duncan, center, reads a proclamation supporting the Bill of Rights as commissioners Gary Abernathy, left, and Terry Britton look on. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Highland County commissioners Jeff Duncan, Terry Britton and Gary Abernathy heard a report from Highland County Job & Family Services director Katie Smith and approved a proclamation supporting the Second Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights during their Wednesday, Feb. 12 meeting.

Smith gave an update with statistics from 2019, which she called “an incredibly difficult year for us out at Job & Family Services.”

“I didn’t come up, I don’t think, at all in 2019 to let you know that it was getting bad,” Smith told commissioners. “We went from bad to worse in 2019.”

According to Smith’s statistics comparing the last three years, there were 107 children in custody, with $1.8 million in placement costs, in December 2017, and in December 2018 there was a slight increase to 116 children in custody and $2.3 million in placement costs.

“However, in December of 2019, we ended the year with 172 children in care, and placement costs are $3.4 million,” Smith said. “That’s startling to me.”

Smith shared a list of the number of children in care for each month, saying, “in 2019, the first five months were difficult. We went from 116 children in care to 140 by May. We stayed pretty consistent over the summer at 140, and then from August to December, we went from 140 to 172.”

Since being hired in 2015 (and named acting director the following year), Smith said she has worked to resolve “administrative issues internally that were causing us to not be able to pay” placement costs.

“We have fixed those,” Smith said. “It’s still scary to me where our placement costs are. We’re barely able to make it this year. One more high-needs kid, and we might not be able to make ends meet.

“I know that we are busting at the seams, but we’re within what we can reasonably pay. There may be a time when I come to you and let you know that we can’t, but I wanted you to know we have made some administrative changes internally, and we are doing the best we can with the money we have been given.”

Regarding “high-needs” children, Smith said there were two such children when she started, but “we now have four children who are over $400 a day in placement.”

“The needs of the children we’re seeing are increasing,” she said. “The trauma that they’re experiencing at home has led them to need that specialized care. We continue to monitor those placements, but I truly feel that the kids we have in those high-dollar placements are there because of the trauma they’ve suffered at home.”

Britton said Smith has “done an excellent job as far as the financial side” of her role.

“When I first came in [as commissioner], I think they had already had to pay out a million dollars for child care, and I think we had to put in another $800,000, I believe it was,” Britton said. “Since then, I don’t think we’ve had to add to that.”

Smith said her “goal is always to keep within our budget.”

Smith also discussed the various placements for the children in care, with 34 percent in kinship care with “relatives or non-relative kin;” 30 percent in Highland County foster homes; 25 percent in network foster homes; and 11 percent in residential facilities. Over the past few years, the number of children being cared for in local foster homes has increased, Smith said.

“When I started, that number was much lower. We did not have our own foster homes, so we were paying networks a much higher daily per diem to care for our children,” Smith said. “We’ve increased our foster care network, so we’re able to keep about 30 percent of our kids in our own homes.”

Smith gave a breakdown of ages of children in care, with 37 percent under 5, 38 percent 6-12 years old and 25 percent 13 and older. There are also “28 children in the county who are awaiting adoption,” according to Smith.

“We’re actively working on finding adoptive homes for them, but that’s a high number,” she said. “We’re finding with the addiction struggles that we face here that kids aren’t able to return to their birth parents, so finding kin that is willing to step up and care for them, or ultimately putting them in the agency’s permanent custody and getting them adopted, are our options. Children are not able to return home like they once were.”

With the 172 children in custody, Smith said her staff is “overwhelmed.”

“I can’t afford to hire more workers, but at the same time, the workers I have are chasing their tails. They cannot get anything done,” Smith said. “I appreciate the workers I do have. They are hanging in there and doing a good job, but we’re missing stuff. You can’t manage 172 children with five ongoing workers. You just can’t.

“We have three intake workers, three investigative case workers. Their typical caseload should be around 20 to 25, and we have 130 open investigations right now. And we have three workers to work those. The numbers are just stark. It’s ugly right now.”

Duncan asked how state funding for Job & Family Services is determined. Smith said that the problem with Highland County is that unlike some other agencies in their region, they lack “preventative services.”

“We’re busy putting out fires when we should be able to have supportive services,” she said. “We should be able to provide our families here in the county with prevention, and we’re just responding to the crises.”

For comparison, Smith said another county in the southwest region — Greene County — has “a population size of 161,000 and they have 111 kids in care. We have 172 [kids in care], and our population is 43,000. It’s disproportionate.”

“So what you’ve seen is typically the higher-population counties to the west and north of us seem to have a better handle and more things available to them, whereas our county and counties to the south and east of us are experiencing the same issues?” Duncan asked.

“Correct,” Smith said. “We’re lumped in with Clermont County, Hamilton County, Warren County. They have services. They have things to prevent child abuse and neglect and to work with families in their homes. We just don’t have that here.”

Smith added that although opiate use is in decline, drug use remains a huge problem in the county.

“We still have an addiction problem,” Smith said. “They’re still addicted to methamphetamine. They’re still using cocaine, marijuana. The drug problem has not gone away.

“The treatment centers are doing the best they can. We’ve got more services to treat, but we’ve got to work on some prevention services.”

Britton said “the gap that we’ve got in case workers is the thing that’s disturbing me.”

“When you look at Greene County, they’ve got 111 kids in care and 16 or 18 case workers,” Britton said. “You look at what we’ve got — 172 [kids] and five or six [case workers] at the best.”

“At this point, myself as the director, the assistant director and the administrator are helping with intakes,” Smith said. “We’re going out and doing home visits. We don’t have the manpower. I can’t sit by and watch my caseworkers drown and not pitch in and help.”

Britton asked if there were any “short-term” solutions that could aid in the work overflow. Smith said that they have used interns but “have a hard time” finding contract workers, who also require training. They are also looking to fill one open position.

“It’s hard to fathom we have that many kids that are in bad shape with their families,” Britton said. “I mean, you think about it, that’s a whole class at Hillsboro High School.”

“And our schools aren’t equipped to handle the trauma these children are facing,” Smith said. “It impacts every system in Highland County.”

Duncan said Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s “administration has been helpful in sending more funding on these areas.” Smith agreed that they have “been wonderful” and said she had a call scheduled Wednesday with Kristi Burre, the director of the Office of Child Welfare Transformation. The department was created by DeWine “to lead Ohio’s child protection and foster care reform efforts,” according to the governor’s office.

Smith told commissioners that she would see if the Office of Child Welfare Transformation has other suggestions on ways to help with their caseload issues. Duncan thanked Smith and her staff for the “excellent job you’re doing.”

• • •

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners signed a proclamation showing support for the Second Amendment, following a meeting with representatives of the Ohio Stands United group Jan. 29. However, unlike the proclamation proposed by the citizens, commissioners added support for the other nine amendments of the Bill of Rights, with no reference to some of the suggested wording.

The sample resolution provided by the citizens group included references to becoming a “sanctuary county for all firearms unconstitutionally prohibited by the government of the State of Ohio, in that Highland County will prohibit its employees from enforcing the unconstitutional actions of the state government.” The sample also suggests the county vow “to protect the right to keep and bear arms in Highland County, Ohio, even if state and federal laws are passed restricting ownership” of firearms. The Highland County commissioners did not include those provisions in their proclamation.

The proclamation adopted Wednesday includes a sentence affirming support for each amendment of the Bill of Rights. Regarding the Second Amendment, the proclamation reads: “The Highland County Commissioners oppose any infringement on the rights of law-abiding citizens of Highland County to keep and bear arms.”

At its conclusion, the proclamation says: “The Highland County Commissioners hereby resolve that each of the 10 amendments of the Bill of Rights, as well as all other amendments to the Constitution, be fully preserved, protected and honored in Highland County, and pledge to defend the rights, freedoms and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of Ohio.”

During the Jan. 29 commission meeting, local resident Mark Lucas told commissioners that Ohio Stands United is seeking a resolution from “each county in the state to stand and say that they would support our Second Amendment rights,” although he said it was primarily “a symbolic gesture to show that we are united.” All three commissioners said they sere in favor of the Second Amendment, but Duncan told the group the commissioners weren’t “sure how much power we actually have” in passing such a resolution.

• • • 

In other discussion, Duncan reported that Highland County 911 coordinator Scott Miller and Emergency Management Agency director David Bushelman have been pursuing a grant to upgrade the county’s 911 system, and Britton updated commissioners on the financial implications for the county.

As previously reported, Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera, Miller and Bushelman met with commissioners Nov. 13, 2019 to seek a letter of support as they apply for a grant through the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office to upgrade the county’s 911 system. The last upgrade was approved by commissioners in 2015 at a cost of nearly $180,000 to the county, and at that time, the system was 11 years old.

“The project cost was going to be a total of $167,548.87,” Britton said. “Once they turned the grant in, there were some things on the grant request that were not going to be paid for, so they had to modify and revise the grant spending plan to match that.”

Britton said that the changes amounted to a $24,718.70 difference in the grant, which is a “60-40 split” (grant pays 60 percent, county pays 40).

“Our portion of this spending plan was going to be about $58,000. Now it’s going to be about $81,000,” Britton said. “That’s the difference.

“We had budgeted the full amount for the project, so we’re still going to be way ahead of the planned spending. It’s just going to be a little bit more.”

Britton thanked Miller and Bushelman for working on the grant application. “It looks like it’s going to be fine now, but I just wanted everyone to know there’s going to be a revision on the spending plan,” he said.

• • • 

Commissioners discussed two separate proposals from The Barn & Cabin Friend of Leesburg regarding a county-owned barn formerly used for storage for the sewer treatment plant.

Britton said the barn’s floor has caved in, and Duncan said the barn has reached a “state of disrepair that looking at it, it looks like it would take more to bring it back up to a state of repair than the benefit we would receive out of it.”

Duncan told commissioners that The Barn & Cabin Friend made two different offers, including one in which “they would take down and remove the barn, recycle the metal and then bury anything that wasn’t of value, including the silo, in exchange for anything they could salvage.” The other offer, Duncan said, is one in which the company “would give us $1,500 and come in and take what they felt was recyclable, and it would be up to us to dispose of what’s left.”

Duncan indicated he was leaning toward the first option, but Britton said he wanted to find out more information about burying “what’s left over” of the barn before making a decision.

“I think the proposals are pretty good. It’s not going to cost us anything, either option,” Britton said. “How are we going to go forward with dealing with what’s left over as far as burying it?”

Britton added that the county does not own the land around the barn.

“What’s your concern about stuff being buried?” Abernathy asked.

“Are they going to bury it right there in the basement of the old barn once they take everything out of there?” Britton said. “I want a few more details on what he’s thinking. I would assume that’s what he’s doing.”

Duncan said they would table the matter until they can get more information.

• • • 

Abernathy announced that Hillsboro city council voted Monday to approve a resolution for the city to provide water and sewer service to the Highland County Justice Center without charge to the county.

“They’ve always been paying 90 percent of the water bill out at the Justice Center, which includes the jail and the court,” he said. “Because of the fact we handle all the other expenses out there, we asked them, could they possibly pick up 100 percent?

“We appreciate the city helping out that way. It’s kind of a joint effort to keep that place going.”

• • •

In other action:

• Commissioners voted 3-0 to approve a request from the Highland County Engineer’s office to lease four Ford 550 trucks through Mount Orab Ford. Duncan said that the lowest interest rate found by county engineer Chris Fauber was from First State Bank, at 3.625 percent.

“They’re all the same truck,” Duncan said. “He’s going to put a dump bed on one of them and service bodies on the other three, I believe.”

• Commissioners also voted 3-0 to approve one resolution: a request from the Sheriff for an additional appropriation from unappropriated funds in the amount of $2,165.33.