Opinion: Reviewing Leavenworth County budget discussion for FY 2020

A World War I doughboy statue stands outside the Leavenworth County Courthouse. Enlarge photo

September 4, 2019

The battle of the budget for fiscal year 2020 is now over.

The debate during the past few weeks has been on how to prioritize spending levels, and whether to give the taxpayers any kind of reduction in the mill levy in light of the enormous property valuation increases and resulting tax increases. Overall, the county budget is about $61 million but this number includes nearly $10 million in carry-over and transfer budget amounts, including pass-through state and federal grants.

In terms of actual spending in the county budget, the amount budgeted for 2020 is a little more than $50 million. Budgeted spending levels have increased under the new county budget from $49,008,916 (FY 2019) to $51,160,069 (FY 2020). This represents a $2,151,153 increase in spending year over year.

County revenue was buoyed by the county-wide average valuation increase of 8.1 percent. This was the average, but increases in the southern part of the county were much higher, many in double digits with some increases over 20 percent in the Linwood area.

Leavenworth County falls within the tax lid established by the Kansas State Legislature to try to control government spending levels at the local level. The tax lid limits spending increases in most categories to the rate of inflation. This lid applies to county government and city government but not K-12 education or local school boards.

The large revenue increases that flowed into the county because of the valuation increases was expected to require a reduction in the mil levy just to comply with the tax lid. But it turned out the budget did not require a mil reduction because of large increases in the departments that are exempt from the tax lid. Exempt departments include all departments related to law enforcement and public safety, including the Sheriff, EMS and portions of the County Attorney’s budget.

Largely because during the budget process it was decided to increase deputy wages base by 4 percent and officers by 6 percent to attract new employees and reduce attrition at the Sheriff’s office enough new expenditures were removed from under the tax lid to allow for the creation of a level budget. That is, a budget that would leave the current mil levy at 37.112 mills.

The discussion of the budget was a lengthy one that included meeting with department heads from each county department. These meetings included work sessions with Public Works, the County Attorney, Sheriff, Clerk, Treasurer, Assessor, and Register of Deeds. Department heads from all of the agencies of the county including Public Works, Council on Aging, Juvenile Justice Authority, health department, EMS and all other departments of the county. The budget process also included meeting with representatives of outside groups that receive funding. These outside groups include the County Extention, Soil Conservation, Guidance Center, Alliance Against Family Violence, St. Vincent Clinic, Historical Society and CASA.

While all services in the county were funded some substantial increases were added to some areas of the budget with the agreement of all Commissioners including increasing funding for mental health services at the guidance center by $89,306 from the 2019 level of $197,906 to fiscal year 2020 budget level of $287,232. The discussion at the County Commission meeting Aug. 21 centered on whether the county would use a portion of non-appropriated funds, which currently stand at $769,757, to fund a reduction of the mil levy by 0.25 of a mil. This reduction would have reduced the fund by $181,000 but would if coupled with reductions by other local governments allowed the taxpayers to have some tax relief in light of the huge valuation increases. Commissioner Smith and myself supported this but the other three Commissioners were not supportive and the tax reduction failed to pass.

The budget process was a good one because it included input from each department and allowed all of the commissioners to talk to department heads directly about their budgets. Sadly, it is my view that the Commission as a whole did not take seriously the impact of huge property tax increases and how that destroys the future of many of our citizens. Local government at all levels should be trying to find ways to reduce the tax burden on the citizens and a small reduction from the county government added to reductions by other local government entities could have helped to offset some of the impact of valuation.

Just because we have large amounts of added revenue flowing into government does not mean that government spending levels must increase disproportionately. Hopefully we can revisit some of these issues during consideration of the FY 2021 budget.

Please feel free to contact me at any time on any topics related to county government.

— Stieben is the Fifth District representative for the Leavenworth County Commission.

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