After five years of austerity, Johnson County officials enthusiastically presented a 2014 budget that has neither cutbacks nor a tax increase in the immediate future.
By ROXIE HAMMILL
Special to The Star
“Five year forecast: No deficit!” exclaimed the budget rough draft presented by County Manager Hannes Zacharias at a workshop with the county commission last week.
The 2014 budget calls for $668.9 million in expenditures and $173.8 million in reserves, for a total of $842.7 million. The mill levy would remain at 23.210, which Zacharias said is the lowest in Kansas.
But while most of the budget document painted an optimistic picture of the county’s resources, there were several areas of concern. Inflation was blamed for a proposed rate increase of 6.5 percent to pay for wastewater expenses. And the county will need to find money for various library and parks building and maintenance projects, as well as its mental health services. Also, state funding cuts for corrections were approved in the late hours of the Legislature, but have not been specific enough to plan for yet, officials said.
County staffers and commissioners alike were pleased that for the first time since 2009, no budget cutbacks or layoffs are called for. In fact the proposal asks for a 3 percent merit raise pool for the county’s 3,869 employees and a 3 percent step increase for civil service employees in the Sheriff’s Department.
The county has cut $45 million in spending and eliminated 424 full-time positions over the past four years. Those cutbacks, plus the improvements in the job and housing markets, have enabled the county to outline a budget with no deficits expected in the next five years.
At the current taxation rate, the owner of a $240,000 home would pay $641 in county taxes. Owners of a $1.5 million commercial building would pay $8,571.
Zacharias listed mental health services as one of the more pressing challenges to the county budget, because the fees charged for those services fall short of what is needed to run the program.
Also, decisions will have to be made about various capital improvement projects. Both the county library system and the parks departments have long-range plans calling for new and replacement branches and parks development. But with a static mill levy, those departments fall short by about $60 million each on funding those plans.
The ongoing work on the former King Louie bowling alley in Overland Park, now owned by the county, is among those capital improvement projects that will be up for review.
Some commissioners cautioned that even with the good news, the county budget planners can’t relax too much.
Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said afterward that officials will have to resist the temptation to restore or add new programs too quickly in light of recent improvements in the economy. “We’re not sure the economy is going to come back anywhere like it did before,” he said. “We as a commission have to set realistic expectations.”
Ashcraft said the county should focus on the programs most desperately needed, such as services for the intellectually and developmentally disabled. The role of government is to “support and meet the needs of the most fragile and most vulnerable population,” he said. “But when we have limited resources, I’m not sure a new courthouse ranks up there with the most vulnerable population.”
Commissioner Jason Osterhaus also was cautious. “Overall, I was pleased,” he said.
But the impact of state-level changes in the KanCare medical program and the federal Affordable Care Act are still emerging, and the county will have to adjust to those changes, he said.
The workshop last week was only the first step in several weeks of meetings as commissioners go over the figures department by department. The schedule calls for a final budget to be published by July 16 with a public hearing at 7 p.m. July 29. The final vote would be Aug. 8.