County wading through budget questions; Humane Society, Watkins, homeless shelter, others set to have key hearings
photo by: Chris Conde
Douglas County commissioners on Monday completed their first day of budget hearings, and didn’t give many clues about whether they are on board with a recommended budget that would increase the property tax rate.
“We still have a lot of hearings before we know where we are going to land on that,” Douglas County Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said.
Commissioners also may be interested in listening in on a hearing that will take place on the other end of Massachusetts Street at Lawrence City Hall. A question has been growing about whether the City of Lawrence will propose a property tax rate decrease to help offset the proposed 1.768 mill increase that Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky has recommended for the 2022 budget.
Plinsky has said the overriding factor in the recommended property tax increase is a new deal that will send an extra $2.64 million to the City of Lawrence to help fund Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical, a jointly operated department that provides fire protection services to all of Lawrence and ambulance service throughout the county.
The new county money is meant to create a more equitable funding split in how the city and the county fund the department. The two governments are working to create new funding agreements for several shared services, many of which have not had their funding formulas adjusted for decades. Over the years, city leaders have expressed concern that city residents may be paying too great a share for some of the services.
This is the first funding formula to get a major adjustment, and the county agreed to pick up a larger share of the department’s cost. But will that result in a lowering of the tax burden for city residents, or will the city keep the tax rate at current levels to fund other projects? Portillo didn’t specifically raise that question during Monday’s budget hearing, but rather brought up the issue afterward when a reporter asked her how she was viewing a possible property tax rate increase for area taxpayers.
“I’m excited to see how the city takes up that issue,” Portillo said. “We recognize that what we’re doing is a large cost transfer.”
It will be awhile, though, before county commissioners or anyone else learns of the city’s plans. City Manager Craig Owens hasn’t yet released his recommended budget for 2022. Plans call for it to be released late next week.
Douglas County’s budget hearings will be done by then, but county commissioners still will have plenty of time to react to whatever news comes out of City Hall. County commissioners have until mid-August to finalize the county’s budget for 2022.
In the meantime, county commissioners have several more hours of funding requests to listen to. Here’s a look at upcoming budget sessions, all of which begin at 9 a.m. at the Douglas County Courthouse, 11th and Massachusetts. Live stream information also is available at the county’s website at douglascountyks.org.
• Tuesday’s hearing is scheduled to include presentations from the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical, the county’s Public Works Department and the county Planning Department. The Planning Department is slated to get a new planning position at a cost of about $96,000, under Plinsky’s recommended budget.
Also on the schedule for Tuesday is a presentation from the Lawrence Humane Society. Plinsky’s recommended budget includes an additional $113,559 in funding for the organization. About $32,000 of the increase would fund a rate increase the Humane Society is seeking from the county for sheltering stray animals that come from the unincorporated parts of Douglas County. The Humane Society charges Lawrence and other cities a fee that pencils out to about $200 per animal sheltered. The county has paid a flat fee that equates to about $108 per animal. The new fee would equate to about $188 per animal, according to budget documents submitted to the county.
The Humane Society is also recommended to receive about $82,000 in new funding to take over the responsibility of responding to complaints about violations of the county’s animal welfare code. Currently, the sheriff’s office is responsible for responding to those calls in rural Douglas County. The sheriff has endorsed the move, telling commissioners the Humane Society is better equipped to deal with those calls. However, he also told commissioners that he won’t find $82,000 of savings in his budget if the Humane Society takes over those responsibilities.
Tuesday’s hearing also will include funding requests from a host of nonprofit museums in the county. The Douglas County Historical Society is seeking $85,000 in new funding to keep staffing and service levels steady at the Watkins Museum of History in downtown Lawrence. The organization was able to use grant money to add online programming during the pandemic. Nearly 17,000 people participated in the online programming, and leaders at Watkins want to keep that service going while restarting the in-person programs and exhibits as well. The budget documents warn of possible staff layoffs and cut to pay and benefits if the $85,000 isn’t funded. The funding request currently is not included in the county’s recommended budget.
• Wednesday’s hearing includes presentations from a host of social service providers in the community, including the Ballard Center, Just Food, the Lawrence Community Shelter, Tenants to Homeowners and several others. The Ballard Center, Tenants to Homeowners and Willow Domestic Violence Center all have requested first-time funding from the county this year. However, none of their requests currently are included in the recommended budget. Just Food also is seeking a $25,000 increase in county funding to support its operations, and the homeless shelter is seeking nearly $87,000 of increased support to help restore capacity to the shelter. Neither of those funding requests currently is in the recommended budget.
Also on the agenda for Wednesday is presentations from several organizations involved in delivering mental health care services as part of the county’s expanding array of behavioral health services. Those include Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, Heartland RADAC, and Artists Helping the Homeless.
• Commissioners are scheduled to meet on Thursday morning, if needed, to hear any other budget hearing items.