One by one, Douglas County taxpayers stepped behind the microphone and outlined their support for spending — even through higher taxes — as part of next year’s proposed $69 million county budget.
For Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. For Watkins Community Museum of History. For economic-development programs and projects. For protecting open space, supporting heritage efforts and preserving the county’s historic resources.
“I don’t like the idea of more taxes,” said Ron Schneider, an attorney who works in downtown Lawrence and lives outside of town, “but I can tolerate more taxes if I think they’re being used well.”
Schneider’s thoughts captured the essence of those from many of the 20 people who opted to speak Tuesday night at the Douglas County Courthouse. Each had taken commissioners up on their offer: to listen to any and all county residents and taxpayers who wanted to provide input about the proposed budget for 2011.
The budget, as it stands now, calls for a property tax increase of 15.9 percent. The increase would cost the owner of a $150,000 home another $90.22 in property taxes for next year.
With that as background — and after only one speaker expressly asked commissioners to cut staff, reduce employee wages and otherwise cut programs and proposals that were not limited to public safety — both Commissioner Jim Flory and Commission Chairwoman Nancy Thellman admitted being surprised that they hadn’t heard more opposition to increased taxes.
“I’m absolutely shocked,” said Flory, who said that he’d received dozens of communications opposing increased taxes, especially regarding a proposal that would provide $500,000 for economic development and set aside another $500,000 for open space, heritage efforts and historic preservation. “The comments tonight were not only not consistent with the numerous comments I’ve gotten by e-mail, letters and phone calls — they were diametrically opposed.”
Thellman, who acknowledged receiving many of the same communications as Flory, took comfort in knowing that virtually all of the people who showed up for the special public input session expressed support for budget initiatives. Thellman has pushed for additional spending for economic development and open space.
“I’m shocked as well,” she said. “Pleasantly so.”
Commissioner Mike Gaughan, the lone commissioner up for re-election this November, said that he would take Tuesday night’s comments under consideration. While he isn’t disclosing what he’ll support or oppose come 8 a.m. Monday — when commissioners sit down to start deciding what stays and goes in the budget — he noted that those who offered comments Tuesday set a good example for everyone in Douglas County to follow.
“They all have a vision for what they want this community to be,” Gaughan said.