Editorial: Cooperation needed in 2018

The city, county and school district should resolve to do a better job of working in the taxpayers’ interest.

We have reached the part of the year where we resolve to do the things next year that we didn’t do this year. It happens in households, but it particularly ought to happen with local governments.

Douglas County’s three large governments — the city of Lawrence, Douglas County and the Lawrence school district — should resolve to work together better. There was too little cooperation and coordination between the three entities in 2017.

If anyone doubts this, look at this year’s property tax bills.

This year ended up being the year that all three governments decided that whatever they were doing was absolutely the most important thing in the community and simply couldn’t wait another year.

For the school district, the most important thing was an $87 million bond issue to improve school buildings, which came on the heels of a $92 million bond issue in 2013 that improved a different set of buildings.

For the city of Lawrence, it was a $17 million police headquarters, which comes on the heels of voters rejecting a similar plan for a police headquarters in 2014. This time the city didn’t give voters a chance to vote on the project.

For the county, this was the year that it decided it had to expand its responsibilities into the mental health care realm. It added about $2 million worth of spending for mental health programs, some of which are being advertised as pilot projects.

The end result is that Lawrence residents saw their combined property tax rate increase by more than 6 mills, the largest increase in recent memory. The actual increase is even higher because many homeowners saw the value of their homes grow by above-average rates too. That means they are paying higher taxes as a result of the higher tax rate, and they are paying higher taxes as a result of their homes being worth more. Elected officials really did owe taxpayers a better explanation about why they had to increase taxes so much at a time when property values already were growing the tax base and local sales tax collections continued to come in above expectations.

But what taxpayers are really owed is some cooperation and coordination. It is not that any one of the three major projects listed above is a bad idea, but do they really all have to happen at once?

Elected officials too often forget that the walls between various local governments don’t exist when taxpayers write their tax checks to the local treasurer. As the old saying goes, it all comes out of the same wallet.

Despite that, all three government entities largely plan separately. Each government, to some extent, has a capital improvement plan that lists the major expenditures it expects in future years. More could be done to create a master capital improvement plan for all three entities, which theoretically should help spread out major projects so taxpayers don’t get hit all at once.

Yes, that could end up being a complicated task. But governments could get started by trying some simpler cooperation. For instance, why are Lawrence Municipal Court and Douglas County District Court in separate buildings? Taxpayers are paying for security systems at two buildings when one would suffice if they were both under the same roof.

There are surely many more examples of common-sense coordination. Local government ought to resolve to find them in 2018.