Douglas County taxpayers should brace for a double whammy.
Wednesday, administrators for the city of Lawrence, Douglas County and Lawrence public schools outlined recommendations for a combined 11.06-mill increase in the property tax levy.
City, 26.8 mills, up 2.87 mills
Schools, 55.4 mills, up 3.58 mills
County, 28.9 mills, up 4.62 mills.
Property values are expected to rise 8 percent from last year, which would mean more mills from greater valuation for taxing bodies.
"It's ridiculous," said Don Cashatt, head of the Douglas County Property Owners Assn. "Our government needs to practice some fiscal responsibility."
Cashatt said higher assessed valuations and rising mill levies hit taxpayers "from two sides." He supports a statewide cap on property valuations.
A mill is $1 in property tax for every $1,000 in assessed valuation.
The owner of a $120,000 house in Lawrence paid $1,323 in property taxes last year to support the city, county and schools budgets. While the valuation on that house would likely have increased in 2001, the tax bill on a home valued at $120,000 this year will pay $1,485 if the budgets are adopted as presented.
But City Manager Mike Wildgen said it was unlikely a double-digit increase in the combined levy would survive scrutiny by the elected officials who must approve the budget proposals.
For example, nearly half the city's mill levy growth 1.18 mills would be used for a branch library in west Lawrence.
"I'm very supportive of a satellite library," said Sue Hack, a city commissioner, "but I'm also very cognizant of the costs involved. Maybe this isn't the year" to approve the satellite.
County Commissioner Charles Jones said the county's proposed budget is certain to be revised downward.
"What that means is there will be some very painful discussions about where we can cut costs," he said.
But the school district's budget won't be significantly modified, predicted Supt. Randy Weseman.
"We're pretty much on target," he said.
Growing demands on city
At the city level, Wildgen recommended a general fund budget of $42.5 million, up from $38.4 million this year. If adopted, the budget would result in a city levy of 26.778 mills, a 12 percent increase over 2001 spending.
Much of it would be a one-time expense of $400,000 for branch library books and materials.
"They don't have to do the library," Wildgen said of the city commissioners who will approve or disallow proposed budget items. "That's not a mandate."
But Mayor Mike Rundle noted the city is spending money to create a greater police and firefighting presence on Lawrence's west side.
"It (the library) seems to me a fairly high priority," he said. "It seems important to bring the full spectrum of city services to the people who use them."
Other recommendations in the city budget:
An increase, to $517,720 from $427,908, for the city's legal services department. The biggest part of the increase pays to make full-time a part-time municipal judge post.
A $182,610 increase for staffing and maintenance at the new Lawrence Arts Center.
An $800,000 increase to catch up with repairs to streets damaged by severe winter weather.
$700,000 more for the Lawrence Police Department, including $134,000 to hire four clerks to shift four officers from clerical duties to patrol work. Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical's budget will rise $660,000 to fund firefighter salary increases.
County feels budget pinch
Administrator Craig Weinaug said taxpayers shouldn't expect tinkering with the budget to result in a decrease in the county's portion of property taxes.
The county's mill levy is projected to climb 19 percent from 24.323 mills to 28.948 mills in the 2002 budget. The proposed budget of $39.7 million would be a 2 percent increase from this year's $38.8 million budget.
The last time the county mill levy increased was in 1999.
Weinaug said one reason for the proposed increase was rising health insurance costs. He said they account for $1.6 million, or 2.18 mills, of the increase sought. Several county employees have been in accidents requiring prolonged treatment.
"It's not something that's anyone's fault, but it is the county's responsibility to take care of these services," Weinaug said.
Other factors tied to the county's proposed tax increase:
Sales tax revenue to the county in 2001 is below expectations, a trend expected to continue in 2002. Raising the mill levy 1.17 mills covers a combined shortfall of $908,000.
Mortgage tax revenues, because of fewer new housing starts, are projected to decline $265,000 in 2002, prompting a .34 mill increase.
Allocating $350,000 to make salaries for Sheriff's Office staff more competitive requires a .45 mill increase.
Jones said the commission shouldn't pass all proposed spending increases on to taxpayers.
"I just don't think it would be responsible for us to support a 4.7 mill increase," he said.
Commission Chairman Bob Johnson anticipates cuts to the recommended budget. Pressure to hold down spending will remain for years, he said.
"There's no doubt it's going to be tough, but I don't think it's going to be an isolated year," he said.
Adjusting the school budget
Lawrence public school district administrators seek a budget that includes a 6.9 percent increase in its mill levy.
Weseman said the levy would climb 3.58 mills to 55.352 mills, despite efforts to cut costs. The adult education, capital outlay, bond and interest, and special assessments levies were trimmed 4.6 mills to counteract an 8.26-mill increase in the local-option budget.
"We've worked pretty hard to offset a more significant mill levy increase" he said.
Weseman said the district eliminated administrative staff to save $700,000.
Overall, the mill levy adjustments would support a $55.5 million operating budget in 2001-2002, up from $53.3 million this year.
School board member Scott Morgan recently paid his residential and business property taxes.
"I, as well as anyone, understand the difficulty of it," he said. "And I understand these kinds of increases really do hit."
He said the district was dedicated to targeting resources where it counts most in the classroom with teachers and students.
"It's important that members of all these bodies keep in mind who is writing out the checks for all this," he said.
Staff writers Joel Mathis and Joy Ludwig contributed to this report.