Public input taken
Douglas County commissioners plan to listen to taxpayers — but not answer questions — regarding their draft county budget for 2011 during a special public input session set for 6:35 tonight at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Mass.
Speakers will be asked to sign up upon arrival in the commission meeting room. Each will be asked to limit comments to 3 or 5 minutes, depending on how many people attend.
“We’ll just absorb it and keep it in our minds,” Commissioner Jim Flory said.
The input will help guide decisions about which programs, projects and other proposals to retain in the budget. Commissioners intend to start those discussions during a working session at 8 a.m. Monday, also at the courthouse.
Douglas County commissioners are resigned to increasing taxes on county residents and businesses for the coming year.
Just how much — and even which taxes — remains open for discussion.
During their latest budget hearings Monday morning, Nancy Thellman, commission chairwoman, reiterated her support for what she considers the most “ambitious” new programs included in the draft version of the county’s 2011 budget:
• $500,000 to finance heritage-related efforts, plus preservation of historic features and open space
• $500,000 for economic-development activities and projects, designed to create jobs and boost the Lawrence area’s competitiveness in luring new companies and expanding existing ones
Such dedicated spending has been lacking for far too long, Thellman said, especially as other areas build on their own historic heritage and set aside millions more dollars per year to entice employers.
“We can only go on charm and beauty and quality-of-life issues for so long,” Thellman said. “We have to invest.”
The county’s draft budget calls for supporting $69 million in spending and other financial moves by levying 38.033 mills in property taxes, which would be an increase of 15.9 percent.
The additional 5.23 mills — one mill is equal to $1 in tax for every $1,000 of a property’s assessed valuation — would cost the owner of a $150,000 home an additional $90.22 for next year.
Craig Weinaug, county administrator, said that more than half of the proposed increase — anywhere from 3.33 to 3.5 mills — would be required just to maintain the county’s current services and spending into the coming year.
That would mean keeping the same number of sheriff’s patrols, the same operations at the county jail, the same services at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department and the same expenditure levels for road maintenance, elections and other needs that county residents and businesses have become accustomed to and rely upon.
Commissioner Jim Flory, who has been crunching budget numbers for more than a week in search of potential cuts, said he had tallied enough options to trim the mill levy increase nearly in half, to 2.69 mills.
But with the county facing declines in mortgage taxes and other revenues, he concedes that a property tax increase is no longer a matter of if, but how much.
“You have to have a little bit of an increase just to stay even,” Flory said.
His version of the budget would eliminate the additional $500,000 for open space and heritage activities, and trim spending for economic development. Flory said he would be against commissioners approving an “involuntary taking of dollars” for such efforts through the property tax.
Instead, he said, voters should be asked whether they would be willing to pay an additional 0.25 percent in sales taxes to finance such efforts — a surefire way to gauge public sentiment, even if the vote ends up being 51 percent to 49 percent, either way.
“The way you find out is an election,” Flory said. “Then you know where the community stands.”
Commissioner Mike Gaughan, for one, doubts such a sales tax could be used to finance many heritage projects, given the limited language included in a state law allowing the county to pursue additional sales taxes.
And Thellman, who has pushed for public investments in heritage preservation as a way to boost rural tourism, would prefer that commissioners support such efforts through property taxes.
“You take a stand and you stand for what you think is good for the community,” she said. “You see opportunities — even financial opportunities — that are missed unless you take that first step.”