All this talk of — make that hope for — an economic turnaround is all well and good, but folks who put together the budget for Douglas County government know that even an immediate 180-degree turn wouldn’t be enough to accelerate into recovery anytime soon.
“With the way tax revenues for local governments work — particularly those who depend on property taxes — the recovery does not result in increased revenue for counties until, perhaps, one and a half or two years later,” said Craig Weinaug, county administrator. “We have at least one, possibly two more difficult budgets to prepare for 2011 and possibly 2012.”
And while that means another challenging spring and summer for county-provided and county-financed programs and projects in 2011 and beyond, county leaders are continuing to do what they can to keep people working, get people working and draw more opportunities for people working.
The county remains committed to an ongoing program that pumps money into a bioscience and technology “incubator” building on Kansas University’s West Campus, a place to grow businesses out of groundbreaking KU research and accommodate other promising startups. Among them: A firm developing computer software for use by providers of mental health services.
Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, one of the firm’s co-owners, receives county financing to provide mental-health services, and is looking for avenues to both improve its own efficiencies and drive revenue as state assistance dwindles.
Power in partnerships
If such an effort can provide more jobs and help the area economy grow, Weinaug figures, that’s even better. Partnering with KU, the state of Kansas, the Kansas Bioscience Authority and the city of Lawrence — plus Eudora, Baldwin City and Lecompton on other projects — looks to remain a key part of the county’s plan for bolstering economic development.
“There will be a continuation of those efforts,” Weinaug said.
Decisions await on several other efforts with economic-development implications. County commissioners will be asked to weigh in on an incentives package for a proposed Berry Plastics expansion along the Farmers Turnpike at the northwestern edge of town, an area where commissioners are facing decisions about potential industrial development.
Commissioners also will be spending time in 2011 focusing on a major site on the other side of Lawrence: the Douglas County Jail, and the southeastern edge of town.
County officials are busy studying what sort of expansions — physical or operational — may be needed for detention services in the years ahead. One possibility could be maintenance or expansion of a grant-financed program that provides transition services for inmates leading up to, upon and following their release, to help secure employment and reduce the chances of such inmates from returning to incarceration.
Commissioners likely will entertain discussions abut such programs and their implications for the future, Weinaug said. In 2013, the county will have a chance to refinance what remains of its debt on the jail’s construction, providing the potential for additional revenue to address physical or related programming needs at the jail.
“The basic policy decision is whether future expansion of the jail will be additional beds or additional programs or some combination of the two,” Weinaug said.
Weinaug doesn’t expect jail needs to decline, and not only because of the overall community’s growth. He worries about what elected officials in Topeka will do in the weeks and months ahead.
“Voters have elected a legislature that is very unlikely to increase any revenues, and may solve their budget problems by creating more problems for local government by taking revenue sources away from us, or adding responsibilities for us,” he said.
Among the possibilities: requiring that counties keep inmates “who should be in state penitentiaries” in county jails longer, just one of many “unfunded mandates” that either have come down in the past or could take shape in the future.
“I hate to give them any ideas,” Weinaug said. “We anticipate another year where we are dealing with those types of situations.”