The budget struggle for Douglas County in the coming week will revolve around two priorities: social services and public safety, commissioners said in separate interviews last week.
Caring for people in need and patrolling county neighborhoods to fight crime are both worthy and expensive causes, they said.
But with a state-imposed budget lid and the commission's desire to keep taxes down, neither priority will emerge a clear winner. And any new spending will mean large cuts from requested public works projects.
"We have some groups asking for more money," Louie McElhaney, commission chairman, said. "We also have a large budget that we have to spread around. We can only create so much spending. I'm sure some people are going to feel that they didn't get what they thought they should have."
After the ink dries, commissioners said, the average property owner should get a slight break on taxes, at least from the county's portion of the mill levy.
Commissioners are scheduled to vote July 26 on a budget for publication. They will hold a series of daily public meetings this week to discuss the big picture. The first meeting begins at 1 p.m. Monday in the commission meeting room at the county courthouse, 11th and Massachusetts streets.
Commissioners said they would like the public to participate throughout the process.
"I would like to see them really involved in it if they're aware of what's going on," McElhaney said. "People getting in on it at the very end could create some confusion."
During the year, commissioners hear criticism when tax bills come due or when an issue blows up into front-page news.
"Throughout the year we get requests," Commissioner Mark Buhler said. "The best time to do that is budget time."
Commissioner Jim Chappell, who will be grappling with his first budget as a commissioner, said the budget could seem overwhelming to people. The full document is eight inches thick.
"It would seem hard for the public to actively participate -- hard for the public to understand the whole picture -- but I would always encourage them to come," he said.
Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug has predicted a levy of 28 mills, plus or minus 1 mill. That is a drop of anywhere between 0.925 and 2.925 mills from 1992. Weinaug said he could make an exact mill levy prediction Tuesday.
A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed valuation. Appraised values for residential property rose an average of 5 percent this year, and the assessment percentage dropped from 12 percent to 11.5 percent.
In other words, the owner of a house worth $80,000 in 1992 paid a county tax of $287.28. On average, that same house's value rose to $84,000 in 1993. Assuming a 1993 county levy of 28 mills, the owner would pay $270.48 this year, a decrease of $16.80.
Although commissioners will have to cut about $800,000 from the requested public works budget, Weinaug said the cuts should not jeopardize general maintenance.
"I don't think you'll see tough choices with noticeable cutbacks in service," he said. "They will be what I call 'do-able' decisions."
Service agencies such as Visiting Nurses Assn., CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and Douglas County Senior Services all have requested increases in county funds. Commissioners must balance those requests with a request from Sheriff Loren Anderson for more deputies.
"I think we've become the bearer of bad tidings to a lot of the social service agencies," Buhler said. "I think we need to find a way if we can to fund some of their needs."
However, he said, the sheriff has been turned away without new deputies for several years.
Commissioners tentatively have decided to allow for two new deputies, three less than Anderson requested.
"At any one weekend, in the entire county, there are only three deputies on duty," Chappell said. "It is never a very popular thing to have large increases in things like law enforcement and jails and those kind of issues. People in general are not sympathetic."
All three commissioners praised the new way Weinaug has handled the budget. Rather than commissioners hearing requests from every department, they only hear from those that require a significant increase or a policy decision.
"I'm convinced that he saves us far more than the salary he's paid," Chappell said.