County agrees on plan that will raise tax rate for 2022 budget, but not by as much as once proposed

photo by: Chris Conde

The Douglas County Courthouse is pictured in September 2018.

Douglas County’s property tax rate won’t increase as much as once expected, after county commissioners tapped into reserve funds and used a dormant jail expansion account to offset proposed tax increases.

County commissioners on Wednesday tentatively agreed on a 2022 budget that will increase the property tax rate by about 1 mill, which would result in the owner of a $200,000 home paying about $23 more a year in taxes. That increase is lower than an approximately 1.7 mill increase proposed by the Douglas County administrator. That increase would have raised property taxes on a $200,000 home by a little more than $40 a year.

Now, attention will shift to Lawrence City Hall, where commissioners are set to begin crafting the city’s 2022 budget later this week. County commissioners didn’t come out and specifically urge city commissioners to build a budget that cuts the property tax rate by an amount large enough to offset Douglas County’s 1 mill increase. But, there certainly were allusions to the idea.

“Now the city has its work to do,” County Commissioner Patrick Kelly said after the county agreed upon its budget numbers.

Why would there be an expectation that city commissioners might reduce property taxes to offset a county tax increase? Well, the county’s and City of Lawrence’s budgets have been more linked than normal this year because the big spending increase in the county’s budget is a more than $2 million transfer of funds the county is making to the city to pay for the jointly operated Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical department.

County commissioners have spent a good amount of time this budget season talking about how the new fire and medical agreement basically represents a “cost-transfer” from City of Lawrence taxpayers to county taxpayers. The agreement doesn’t change the basics of the service: The joint department will provide fire service to all of Lawrence, while providing ambulance service to all of Douglas County. The City of Lawrence will pay for the fire services, while Douglas County will pay for ambulance service expenses. The two entities will jointly share in the cost of overhead and other administrative costs. The new agreement changes how those costs are calculated and split, resulting in the county paying about $2.3 million more this year than it has in past years.

In sum, the new agreement will provide the City of Lawrence with new revenues that won’t require an increase in the city’s tax rate, but did result in an increase in the county’s tax rate.

“It is important for all of us to be transparent and as plainly spoken about it as we can,” Commissioner Shannon Reid said. “This new agreement … did create a cost transfer and this is how it impacts the mill levy and tax rate, and I just think it is important for community leaders of both organizations to be talking plainly about what those numbers mean.”

The new agreement was the first of several between the city and the county that are expected to be renegotiated after being on the books for decades. Watching how the city uses new money that comes from the county’s coffers may play a role in how well future negotiations go, but county commissioners were cautious on that front Wednesday.

“I think it shows progress,” Kelly said of the new agreement. “Over the past couple of years the collaboration between the city and the county has been strained at times, and I think we’re starting to see progress. The processes and agreements aren’t perfect yet, but what I want to resist is telling our partners what to do. That’s not really our job.”

County commissioners had their hands full just trying to whittle down the proposed property tax increase while also funding some new programs. Commissioners held three days of budget hearings last week and two days of budget deliberations this week. While they reached agreement on the budget Wednesday, it won’t become official until late August when the County Commission holds a public hearing on the budget and takes a vote.

Commissioners reduced the proposed property tax rate in two ways. The first involved about $690,000 in funds that were sitting in the county’s budget with the idea that they would pay for increased jail operations, if the Douglas County Jail ever were expanded. The idea of a jail expansion, however, was discarded last year after the idea received pushback from voters.

However, the timing was such that the county’s budget was still structured to collect a tax to pay for those increased jail operating expenses. County Administrator Sarah Plinsky left that tax in place as part of her recommended budget and urged commissioners to reallocate those jail dollars to other projects.

Commissioners ultimately agreed to reallocate about $65,000 of those funds to other projects, but decided to return about $625,000 of the funds to taxpayers in the form of a reduced tax rate. That $625,000 decision basically reduced the proposed tax rate increase from 1.7 mills to about a 1 mill increase.

But the second thing commissioners did is to pull about $200,000 out of the county’s fund balance — a type of savings account the county keeps — to pay for a project that it otherwise couldn’t figure out how to fund without a tax increase. That $200,000 in funding will provide support to a new coordinator position that aims to make applying for and receiving housing, utility and rental assistance in the community easier.

Plinsky had cautioned commissioners to not rely too heavily on pulling money from the savings account-like fund because it may create challenges for future budget years when the county wants to fund that program again but has less money sitting in the savings account. All three commissioners, though, said they felt comfortable pulling the $200,000 from the account because they think the county’s property tax base may grow more robustly this year than it did last year.

While the changes to the fire and medical agreement produced the biggest dollar impact, the county’s 2022 budget does include several other new additions, such as:

• About $400,000 to begin work on creating a public defender office to represent people accused of misdemeanor crimes. The new office would be designed to more quickly connect people who can’t afford an attorney with an attorney. It would replace a system where judges appoint willing local attorneys to represent those who can’t afford one. The funding won’t immediately start a new public defender office. Rather, the money is being made available to spend if the county reaches an agreement with the nonprofit Kansas Holistic Defenders to create a new office of public defenders in the county.

• About $1.1 million to provide cost-of-living and other wage and salary increases to county employees.

• About $96,000 to fund a new planning position for the county’s zoning and codes department.

• Two new positions for the county clerk to help facilitate the clerk’s office opening a new election headquarters office in The Malls Shopping Center at 23rd and Louisiana streets.

• A new cook position for the Douglas County Jail after the sheriff’s office reported having problems finding inmates who could be trusted to work in the position.

• Increased social service funding for a variety of nonprofits, including Just Food, Willow Domestic Violence Center, The Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center, Trinity In-Home Health Care and several others.


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