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Archive for Friday, January 8, 2010

Financial picture will be focus of county officials in 2010

January 8, 2010

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Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories, looking ahead to 2010.

As Douglas County commissioners try to navigate the economic challenges of 2010, they can look to what they accomplished in 2009 as a guide.

“It’s kind of an intricate balance,” Commissioner Jim Flory said. “You prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and I thought we had a good balance last year.”

Last year was the first year in office for all three commissioners: Flory, Nancy Thellman and Mike Gaughan.

Although they served only months in office, they passed a budget that included a flat property tax mill levy, a 1 percent cut for county departments and less severe cuts than they expected for social service agencies.

Commissioners also touted what they were able to set aside for economic development in 2009 — particularly to try to attract bioscience companies. They got shovels moving on several road-improvement and other capital projects as construction costs plummeted.

But even a year ago, as county officials were preparing for a difficult 2009, several said they expected 2010 to be even rougher, mostly because property tax values lag for a year. County officials are projecting the county’s valuation will decrease by 2 percent to 4 percent compared with last year, an unprecedented drop in recent Douglas County history.

The recent state budget cuts and their effects on local social service agencies represent the current crisis for the county. Commissioners in early 2010 will likely see if they have the money from reserve funds or elsewhere to provide some assistance to area agencies.

“We can only plan so much, and then we have to be able to respond to the decisions that are made at higher levels,” Thellman said.

County Administrator Craig Weinaug said he was concerned that state cuts to mental health care providers and other services will cause a ripple effect and still cost local governments and taxpayers. For instance, if district courts across the state are required to implement employee furloughs and close the courts for certain days because of budget shortfalls, Weinaug worried that it would create a backlog of criminal cases, leaving more defendants in the county jail awaiting trial.

“They will be in there longer at the cost of guess who: the local taxpayer,” Weinaug said.

Commissioners say budget decisions will be tougher this year compared with 2009.

“I think that we have to keep in mind what we value as a community and what’s important to us and craft our budget so that it reflects those values,” said Gaughan, who took office in April when Charles Jones resigned during his third term to focus on his job at Kansas University.

Thellman and Flory were elected to fill open seats on the commission in 2008, and they took office in January 2009.

Other issues the county will face in 2010:

• Determining the best strategy to increase jobs. In recent months commissioners agreed to partner with the city to buy the former Oread Labs building in west Lawrence, meant to retain Lawrence-based Crititech and attract other biotechnology companies.

Weinaug said commissioners will be asked in 2010 to support more economic development deals. In interviews last week, all three commissioners said job creation is a top priority.

• Deciding whether to put more public funds into the sheriff office’s jail re-entry program, meant to work with inmates as they transition into the community and to reduce recidivism.

Flory, a former Douglas County district attorney, said the program was not awarded certain grant funding this year. County leaders contend the program is a necessary investment to delay the need to expand the jail.

• Determining how to develop environmental policies established in the last year.

Thellman pushed to create a Douglas County food policy council that will look at ways to develop the county’s agricultural economy. A city-county shared sustainability coordinator position created last year will be filled soon, and that person will focus on energy efficiency and environmental issues.

“What I’m really hoping is that we’ll be cautious but not paralyzed by this current economy,” Thellman said. “And I think we have reason to be hopeful that we can plan some good things and know that, little by little, they will come along.”

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