Douglas County Commission to begin budget review; proposal keeps flat mill levy rate despite this year’s jump in property values

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The west side of the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., is pictured on Sept. 23, 2021.

The Douglas County Commission will begin reviewing the county’s proposed 2023 budget this week and, for now, county staff hasn’t recommended any change in the property tax rate from last year despite home values seeing their biggest jump in decades.

A significant portion of the proposed $166.3 million budget — $129,446,768 — comes from mill levied funds or, in layman’s terms, funds generated via property tax. The mill levy in the proposed budget is 47.419 mills, which is identical to the 2022 rate, and a mill equates to $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The county as a whole has seen its property tax base increase by 12.4% this year, up nearly 10% compared with the county’s 2.75% assessed valuation in 2021.

But County Administrator Sarah Plinsky told the Journal-World Thursday that last year’s valuation was something of an “anomaly” because of the coronavirus pandemic’s outsized impact on the commercial property market.

“I really feel like some of this is a correction to last year, in terms of our growth rate,” Plinsky said.

In the three budget years prior to the pandemic, the county’s tax base had average growth rates of about 5% per year; Plinsky said the math on year-over-year growth in a five-year span isn’t so far off comparatively, another reason for not recommending a lower tax rate. When adding the two most recent assessed valuations to the calculations for the past five years, Plinsky said they average to a growth rate of just over 6%.

Deciding to lower the mill levy, adding more county projects or doing a bit of both are decisions commissioners can make during their upcoming deliberations, Plinsky said, as is the case every year.

If county commissioners ultimately decide to keep the property tax levy steady, many county home and property owners likely will pay more in taxes to the county due to increases in their property values. How much more will depend on how much their property values increased, however; many property owners experienced increases of 10% or more in their tax values.

The proposed budget Plinsky detailed to the Journal-World Thursday considers a number of challenges — for one, it provides for price increases in existing services and commodities, including increased expenses for road and bridge materials, utilities and fuel.

“I view my job as to prepare a flat mill levy budget, to live within our means, to outline and to make sure that base, core, existing services provided by the county can continue to function,” Plinsky said. “That was challenging this year with inflation, and the cost of supplies and commodities and fuel-based contractual services and commodities are increasing rapidly. …Those were some demands that were built into this budget.”

The proposed budget also accounts for compensation adjustments in an effort to retain, hire and compensate county staff appropriately. That includes a 3.4% cost of living market adjustment and 4% increase to the county’s merit pool that Plinsky called “reflective of the time.” In total, those adjustments make up a $2,256,552 line item in the proposed budget.

A budget will ultimately be adopted at a public hearing during an August commission meeting. Between now and then, there’s plenty of work ahead for the commission.

Much of that work will take the form of this week’s budget hearings, during which commissioners will consider nearly 50 funding requests totaling $3.8 million from Douglas County departments and community partners that aren’t listed in the proposed budget. Plinsky walked the Journal-World through a number of requests that could end up as highlights during that process.

• Last year was the county’s first year adopting a budget under the revised governance plan for Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical. In a nutshell, Plinsky said that agreement spells out how the county and City of Lawrence operate and fund LDCFM. Previously, expenses were separated completely and paid by only one of either entity, but now a third category details expenses that are jointly financed between the city and county.

“I love the philosophy behind that, and I think it was really meaningful to us as we worked on the agreement,” Plinsky said. “… It created a column where it’s shared and we both own it; we both have responsibility to finance that portion.”

Plinsky said with LDCFM experiencing a 24% increase in call volume through the last two years, its plan to address the issue hinges on additional requests of the county and City of Lawrence in this year’s budget process. Part of the ask is adding another medic unit to eventually staff a new station, which Plinsky said requires nine paramedics and a roughly $500,000 ambulance.

It’s a topic Plinsky said she expects will be a significant part of the commission’s conversations.

“When they look to do a service expansion, it’s a big deal,” Plinsky said. “I would anticipate we’re going to have some really difficult conversations about that — are we ready, can we afford it, when do we do it, do we feel the increase in call volume is going to hold and what’s leading to that?”

• Commissioners will also consider budgeting sustained funding for the Housing Stabilization Collaborative, which Plinsky said has until now been funded by Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and American Rescue Plan Act funds. Those funds have an expiration date and need to be used up within the next couple of years. The request for $300,000 would shift funding for the HSC’s community rent and utility assistance to locally generated funds rather than one-time federal dollars.

“Sustained funding for this beyond the federal dollars is a high priority for staff and for our community partners,” Plinsky said. “That’s a request I think we’re going to spend some time talking about.”

•The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office asked for additional funding to hire a number of new employees, the majority of which are deputies or corrections officers. Plinsky said there are legitimate concerns that led to the requests, including that Douglas County is something of a “desert” for Kansas Highway Patrol presence and that the county jail’s population has become more “intense and high-need.”

• A consistent level of funding from the county’s behavioral health sales tax in this year’s budget means that some programs could naturally be expanded, Plinsky said. That includes an additional $69,799 in substance-abuse treatment, outpatient services, case management and peer support for the uninsured; an expansion of the intensive care coordination team with Heartland Regional Alcohol and Drug Assessment Center; and two beds for youths who are in crisis that will be coordinated by DCCCA.

• Two agencies, the Center for Supportive Communities and Tenants to Homeowners, are approaching the county this year with hopes of joining its list of ongoing community partners. The CSC is requesting $150,000 to support its truancy program, and Tenants to Homeowners is seeking $100,000 to fund supportive rental management services.

Budget hearings will begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday and continue from 9 a.m. to noon each day through Thursday. Then, commissioners will decide whether to start their deliberations Friday or Monday, July 11. Either way, those meetings will also take place from 9 a.m. to noon each day and will end after a final session Tuesday, July 12. The public can attend all of these sessions in person or via Zoom.

The budget is available for the public to view online at dgcoks.org/budget, and meeting information regarding the commission’s hearings and deliberations, including recordings of those sessions, is available on the county’s website at dgcoks.org/commissionmeetings.

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