Editorial: County should be picky in setting its 2020 budget
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
Anybody who has ever tried to lose weight knows that sometimes the best option on the menu is none of the above. It may be healthy for Douglas County commissioners to be that type of picky eater as they create the county’s 2020 budget this summer.
Interim County Administrator Sarah Plinsky deserves credit for crafting a recommended budget that holds the county’s property tax rate steady while also presenting a menu of choices for county commissioners to add new programs that require a mill levy increase.
There are good reasons why the county should take a cautious approach this budget season. For one, the county is still operating with an interim administrator. It certainly is possible that Plinsky may win the job, but thus far the county hasn’t really started the process. Hopefully a robust search will happen soon after a budget is approved. Such searches are important because they are times for reflection and goal setting. Perhaps the county shouldn’t be too ambitious with its budgeting until it has gone through that process.
The county is in a transitional period in another way too. Perhaps the biggest change to have happened in the Douglas County Courthouse in the last decade is that county government decided it needed to get into a new business: behavioral health care. The county should be given credit for sensing the need and the support of the community. Voters enthusiastically approved a new sales tax to fund behavioral health projects in the county. County government is doing something that the community values, which makes it easy for those government leaders to get excited.
But there is still a key question to be answered on this front: Is the county any good at providing behavioral health services? It is a new type of business for county government, and it is not clear the county has the competencies it needs yet to deliver those services. There are many projects already in process, but few that are completed. It might be wise for the county to allow some of those projects to be implemented before they start adding new ones. Government can’t afford to be like venture capital that spends rapidly and fails fast. It will take some time for the county to learn the business of behavioral health.
Finally, there is the issue of dollars and cents. From 2009 to 2018, the county’s property tax rate has increased from about 32 mills to 46 mills. That is the highest increase of any of the three major governments in the county. The city of Lawrence saw its mill levy increase by about 6.5 mills during the same time period, and the Lawrence school district actually saw its mill levy decrease by a little more than 3 mills.
Are such increases at the county sustainable, especially in a community that cares as much about affordable housing as we do? To its credit, if the county adopts this status quo budget, it would mark the second year in a row that it has essentially held its mill levy steady. The County Commission should have a conversation about what its long-term property tax strategy is. What can it afford to fund with property taxes and what else might have to change? The county’s mill levy history is the strongest evidence that the city and the county need to have more serious conversations about consolidating some of their functions.
No doubt, there will be some tough budget choices for the county to make. Probably the toughest expense to avoid will be funding for the Lawrence Community Shelter. The homeless shelter is asking for an additional $181,000 in additional funds. It is critical for the shelter to remain open, but leaders also must remember that past money hasn’t fixed the shelter’s problems. It needs expertise and leadership. While local government may need to provide some additional funding, the county and city need to look through its ranks to see if it can provide the needed expertise and leadership. It may be more valuable than the money.
As for other menu items on the county budget, they include $420,000 for a drug court diversion program, nearly $400,000 for new sheriff’s office personnel, $75,000 for a behavioral health analyst, $115,000 for the Heritage Conservation Council, and nearly $115,000 for a mobile integrated health project.
While some of those projects have merit, county commissioners should be skeptical of adding them to their already full plates.