With a budget crisis looming, one Douglas County commissioner wants the county to reconsider spending $350,000 a year on preserving natural and cultural heritage sites.
Commissioner Jim Flory said the public wants to know why the county still plans to spend money on these heritage projects while facing the possibility of having to increase taxes and cut services. At a meeting earlier this month, the County Commission learned the county was facing a possible $2.3 million shortfall for 2013.
“We have to do a lot of cutting and trimming and sacrifices to avoid a mill levy increase. So, I’m not comfortable going forward with this,” Flory said at a meeting last week.
At Flory’s urging, the County Commission will hold a public hearing at 6:35 p.m. Wednesday at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Mass. It will be a chance for the public to share their opinions on projects that protect the county’s heritage and ask questions about the process, Flory said.
This fall, the County Commission approved spending nearly $300,000 on 10 projects. More than half of that money, $163,000, went toward renovating the Robert Hall Pearson Farmhouse, a structure dating back to 1890. The building sits on land linked to the Battle of Black Jack, which is thought to be the site of the first armed conflict preceding the Civil War.
Other smaller projects focused on preserving historic structures, conserving land, helping buildings make the national historic registry and teaching Douglas County residents about historic trees. The newly appointed Heritage Conservation Council reviewed 18 applications and recommended the county fund 10 of them.
During 2010 budget discussions, the County Commission first approved setting aside $350,000 for culture and natural heritage projects. The money was first awarded at the end of 2011, and the application process is set to begin again.
Flory said he wanted commissioners to re-evaluate the funding before applications went out. The Heritage Conservation Council hoped to make its recommendation to the County Commission by the end of May.
Ken Grotewiel, chairman of the Heritage Conservation Council, said he sees merit in funding projects even in tough economic times. “It is something that needs to happen every year so you keep building enough critical mass here so it becomes a place that people want to visit,” he said.