A combination of dwindling revenues, ongoing state and federal cuts and increasing community needs have Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug proposing what would be the largest property tax increase in his more than three decades in local government.
Budget hearings ahead
Representatives of departments, agencies and programs that receive money from Douglas County government are scheduled to make their cases to county commissioners for financing in the 2011 county budget.
Hearings begin at 8 a.m. and continue through 10:30 a.m. at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Mass.:
• Monday: Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center; Emergency Communications; Information Technology; Sheriff; Public Works; Destination Management Inc.; Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.
• Tuesday: Emergency Management; District Attorney; Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical; Jayhawk Area Agency on Aging; potentially others requested by commissioners.
• July 19: Community Corrections and courts; administrative issues, including employee pay/benefits, Capital Improvement Program, Building Fund; discussion of heritage, open space and economic-development initiatives.
• July 20: Discuss decisions on changes to budget.
• July 26 and 27: Additional hearings, if necessary.
And that’s just fine with him, as a starting point for deliberations.
“This budget does not defer public costs to future years,” Weinaug said of his proposed spending plan for 2011. “It does, in fact, play catch-up.”
The budget, which would allocate $69.5 million for the county’s public services, projects and reserve funds, calls for a property tax increase of 16.6 percent.
Among other things, the additional money would:
• Cover a $1 million decline in revenues generated by mortgage taxes.
• Help agencies such as Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and Douglas County Community Corrections recover from revenue cuts from state and federal sources.
• Restore $500,000 to the county’s Capital Improvement Program, which finances major road projects, building maintenance and other projects.
• Pump $500,000 into a new economic-development fund, plus another $500,000 into a new fund to purchase and promote preservation and use of open space and other so-called “heritage” assets and activities.
To do all that and more, commissioners would need to increase the county’s property-tax rate by 5.44 mills. With a mill equal to $1 of tax for every $1,000 of a property’s assessed valuation, the boost would cost the owner of a $150,000 home another $93.84 in property taxes.
“I know it’s a jaw-dropper,” said Nancy Thellman, commission chairwoman. “I also know that these are extraordinary times. … We’ll end up with some kind of increase, but I don’t know how much.”
Commissioners plan to conduct budget hearings during the next two weeks, to review and possibly adjust specifics for spending and revenue generation. They plan to formally approve their budget next month.
“I think it’s highly likely there will be a slight mill levy increase, just to provide the essential services that we need to provide,” Commissioner Jim Flory said.
Other local governments are mulling tax increases as well. The Lawrence school district is discussing prospects for boosting its property tax rates for 2011, and while Lawrence city commissioners are considering a proposed budget that would hold the line on municipal property taxes, they will review possibilities for increasing rates for water, sewer and trash services.
City commissioners also have agreed to have Lawrence voters decide in November whether they want to increase property tax bills by 2 mills to finance construction and operations of an $18 million expansion to the Lawrence Public Library. The construction tab would be paid off during the next 20 years.
County Commissioner Mike Gaughan said that while the county’s revenue sources continue to deteriorate, community needs do not.
And while state government can and will continue cutting its own spending, he said, taxpayers will be left to pick up many of those costs on their local tax bills.
“If communities value the services that they receive, then local government needs to step up to the plate and find the revenue for that,” Gaughan said.