Report says Kansas stacking up public debt; Douglas County debt totals soar over last decade

I’m sure glad my household doesn’t measure debt levels on a per capita basis. (If it did, the obvious solution would be to have another child.) The state of Kansas, though, does measure its debt on a per capita basis, and the state’s new treasurer is waving a red flag that Kansas may have a problem in that area.

Kansas had statewide debt of $1,554 per person in 2018, which was by far the highest amount of any state in the region. New Kansas State Treasurer Jake LaTurner released a state debt report on Tuesday that highlighted the issue. LaTurner’s office reports that while Kansas has the 18th highest per capita debt totals in the country, Kansas’ totals are far out of line with other states in the region. Those totals are:

• Arkansas: $639 of debt per person

• Missouri: $532 of debt per person

• Colorado: $484 of debt per person

• Oklahoma: $303 of debt per person

• Iowa: $219 of debt per person

• Nebraska: $20 of debt per person

Another way to look at it is that Kansas has about $5 billion in statewide debt. The state with the next highest total is Missouri with about $3 billion in debt. Nebraska has only about $38 million in statewide debt.

But digging a little deeper into the report by LaTurner, a Pittsburg Republican, the numbers do show that statewide debt levels have been declining in Kansas. Over the last decade, state debt levels hit their high point at $5.8 billion in 2016 before falling to $5.6 billion in 2017 and $5.5 billion in fiscal year 2018, which ended on June 30.

There was a definite spike in debt totals, however, during the Brownback administration when tax rates were cut and the state was dealing with a downturn in certain parts of the economy. From 2014 to 2016, debt levels grew from $4.3 billion to $5.8 billion, an increase of about 35 percent. Prior to that short time period, debt levels had been pretty steady. In 2008 they were at $4.35 billion and in 2014 they were at $4.38 billion. In between, they reached a high point of $4.79 billion in 2011.

As some of Brownback’s tax cuts have been repealed, it now will be interesting to watch future years’ reports to see what debt levels do.

Don’t worry, though: You don’t have to wait until next year to get your wonkish numbers fix. I’ve got more numbers to share, and in some ways they are even more interesting. The state’s debt report also looks at how much debt each county in the state has.

Douglas County residents should pay attention. The quick summary is that Douglas County still has relatively low per capita debt totals, but its total amount of debt has soared over the last decade. Douglas County’s debt totals have posted the highest percentage growth rate of any of the five urban counties in the state.

To be clear, the report isn’t just measuring the amount of debt issued by the Douglas County Commission. It actually is measuring all the debt issued by public entities in the county. That means the county, the cities, the school districts, Lawrence Memorial Hospital, townships and other such entities. It does not include debt issued for the University of Kansas. That’s counted as part of the statewide debt totals above.

In 2018, Douglas County governments had $679.3 million in debt, up from $667.9 million in 2017. The increase marked the seventh consecutive year of increasing debt totals in the county.

Since 2008, government debt in Douglas County has grown by nearly 89 percent. That’s higher than any of the other urban counties in the state. Their totals were: Shawnee County, up 51 percent; Wyandotte County, up 45 percent; Johnson County, up 6.7 percent; and Sedgwick County, down 25 percent.

Douglas County didn’t have the highest total in the state, though. I don’t know which county did because that would take more figuring than I have time to do. But I did check Riley County, since it is the other major university community in the state. Its debt levels increased by 132 percent over the last decade.

As I mentioned earlier, though, there is another side to Douglas County’s numbers. Despite the rapid growth, the amount of debt per person is still pretty low. In 2018, Douglas County had debt per capita of $5,623. Sparsely populated Greeley County had the highest per capita debt totals at $18,062. When compared with urban counties, Douglas County also did well. It has the lowest per capita debt totals of any of the urban counties in the state. Here’s a look:

• Douglas: $5,623 of debt per person

• Shawnee: $6,715 of debt per person

• Sedgwick: $8,341 of debt per person

• Johnson: $8,919 of debt per person

• Wyandotte: $13,720 of debt per person

Just for fun, I also looked at Riley County, which continues to be a bit too small to be counted as an urban county in Kansas. It had per capita debt totals of $5,023.

But wait, there’s more. (This column is like a roulette wheel — the numbers keep coming, yet you never get richer.) The last set of numbers measures how much Douglas County’s per capita debt totals have grown over the years. It was easier to get population numbers for 2010, so these figures measure how much per capita debt totals have grown from 2010 to 2018. Think of these numbers like a debt burden. Theoretically, communities that are seeing their per capita debt totals rise will face more pressure to raise tax revenues to pay for that debt. (Oh, now suddenly you care.) Douglas County doesn’t fare too well in this category.

• Shawnee: per capita debt up 55 percent since 2010

• Douglas: up 50 percent

• Wyandotte: up 45 percent

• Johnson: down 6.7 percent

• Sedgwick: down 34 percent

• Riley: up 11 percent

Rising debt totals haven’t sneaked up on us in Douglas County. We’ve been reporting on these issues for years, although we’ve normally focused on just one government at a time. The state treasurer’s report does make it easy to see the total amount of debt spread out among all the county’s governments.

In the past, county leaders have argued that the county’s low per capita debt totals were a sign that we probably weren’t investing enough on infrastructure and other upkeep. There has been a conscious effort to upgrade infrastructure, and some of this debt reflects those projects. Other debt has been directly approved by voters, such as the school bond elections and the improvements to the Lawrence Public Library. Other debt, such as for Rock Chalk Park and perhaps a county jail expansion — if commissioners follow through on the latest proposal — hasn’t been directly approved by voters.

Whether we have been playing catch-up, adding amenities or a little bit of both during the last decade, I don’t know. But the numbers do make it clear that it has been an extraordinary decade for government spending and debt in Douglas County.

Ultimately, voters — who pay no attention to things like per capita debt levels but pay a lot of attention to tax bills and quality of life issues — will determine whether such spending will continue or slow down.

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