Questions about possible tax increases loom over discussion of Douglas County’s Open Space Plan

photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World

Douglas County commissioners take part in a work session that provided additional details on the county's potential Open Space Plan on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, at the Douglas County Courthouse.

Updated at 10:40 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 26

To safeguard its undeveloped lands, Douglas County has several options — from creating a new department to establishing a grant program — but county leaders want the right facts first about whether they’d have to raise taxes to pay for it.

At its meeting on Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission heard a presentation from consulting firm Logan Simpson, which it hired to help develop its Open Space Plan. As the Journal-World previously reported, open space plans can include things like protecting natural landscapes, promoting recreational activities, preserving community history and improving flood water management, and the consultants said earlier this year that the county was “about a decade behind everyone else.”

If it wants to keep up, Logan Simpson analyst Kristina Kachur said Wednesday, the county might have to think about raising taxes.

Specifically, Kachur said tax-related ballot questions are among the “main funding sources that we have in our toolbox,” and she mentioned a mill levy increase of five mills or a quarter-cent sales tax as examples. She claimed the former could generate about $9.5 million annually and the latter could generate about $6.5 million annually.

But County Administrator Sarah Plinsky had a problem with those dollar amounts. She said they didn’t match up with the estimates that the county uses to prepare its budgets.

“We generate more than that on sales tax on a quarter-cent,” Plinsky said. “So let’s just make sure we get (commissioners) the right info.”

While the specifics might not be clear yet, Commission Chair Patrick Kelly told the Journal-World that it was appropriate to at least acknowledge the possibility of a tax increase for the county’s conservation efforts.

“If we have a desire to have open space and reserve open space, there is going to be costs,” he said after the meeting. “I don’t think anything that was on that slide (in the presentation) was meant to be a proposal, but just to indicate that there is a cost.”

Even if the financial aspects of the Open Space Plan are still murky, the commissioners did get a better idea of what kinds of programs the plan might entail. Logan Simpson presented a few preliminary suggestions to the commission, including the creation of an Open Space department, a citizen-led foundation or a grant program. Some of the suggestions were more specific, such as “conservation-oriented farming” — a program that would lease county-owned land to farmers and work with them to help preserve it.

Logan Simpson also presented results from a survey that asked 950 county residents what they thought was important about open spaces. The top answer was wildlife populations and biodiversity, and “water resources” and “agricultural heritage” were also popular answers.

Kachur said that the firm was still working to gather public input, and that Logan Simpson expected to present a draft plan to the public in January for more feedback before making its final recommendations to the commission next spring. For right now, a questionnaire is available at through Nov. 12. Among other things, it specifically asks respondents about their “level of support” for several different tax increases: a 0.15% sales tax increase, a 0.25% sales tax increase, or a five-mill property tax increase. But Kachur wanted to make it clear that the public outreach efforts right now were “not connected to any discussion” about a potential tax increase.

“Now that the headlines are about tax, let’s make sure that the survey is connected to that conversation as well,” she said. “This is not a ballot-measure test and study; we’re just trying to understand a little about the willingness to pay.”

In the future, Kachur said, Logan Simpson might recommend hiring a national nonprofit such as The Trust for Public Land to conduct a survey specifically about a potential ballot measure.

Kim Criner Ritchie, the county’s sustainability manager, said that the questions involved were difficult, so “we need to be creative with our solutions” and “it might not be one silver bullet dollar amount that helps us bring open space to fruition.” But one thing she was certain about was that the county couldn’t afford to do nothing.

“There is a sense of urgency,” she said. “There is incredible pressure on our land.”

In other business, commissioners:

• Heard a presentation from County Treasurer Adam Rains about changes to service fees at the Douglas County Treasurer’s Office and its satellite locations in Lawrence and Baldwin City. The fees apply to motor vehicle titles and renewals, but not to free transactions such as handicapped placards.

Starting in January 2024, Rains said, the fees will be $3 at all three sites — the two satellite locations and the Douglas County Courthouse location. Under the current fee structure, the fee is $5 at the satellite sites, but there is no fee at the courthouse location. Rains also said that there will continue to be no service fee for items received by mail or drop box. Rains said the changes would generate about $90,000 more per year than the current fee structure.

Under state law, the changes to the fees don’t need to be approved by the County Commission.

• Unanimously approved the purchase of a 2023 John Deere cab tractor/diamond boom mower in the amount of $191,899.

Editor’s note: The story has been corrected to show that under state law the County Commission does not need to approve the changes to fees.


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