Clay County’s Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway is a conservative Republican and a former state representative and senator.
As such, she says, “I love to lower taxes as much as anybody. I also like to balance budgets.”
It was the perceived conflict between those two impulses, Ridgeway said, that led her to vote last month against cutting the county’s general fund property-tax levy from 12 to 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
That, and the fact that Ridgeway felt she was blindsided by lame-duck Presiding Commissioner Pam Mason, who proposed the tax cut during the Sept. 15 meeting.
The 2-cent cut amounts to about $710,000 in lost revenue, but the commissioners who favored the cut say that rising property valuations and sales-tax receipts will more than make up for that loss of revenue.
County Auditor Sheila Ernzen said after accounting for the growth in the property tax base, the move would result in a hit of nearly $550,000 next year to the county’s general fund. Ernzen estimates the tax will generate just over $4.1 million this year.
Mason made the tax-cutting motion and got the vote of Western Commissioner Gene Owen to pass it, but not before Ridgeway proposed a series of amendments that, according to a report in the Liberty Tribune, led to a “shouting match” among the officials.
County commissioners must set the property-tax levy each September and then pass a budget by the end of the following January. Public notice must precede a vote to set rates.
“I like to make sure everything is out on the table and have a full discussion, like the committee process in the state legislature,” said Ridgeway.
She noted that the tax rate was listed as remaining the same in both the commission’s agenda packet and the official newspaper publication.
“There was no word we were going to make any change,” she said. “Nobody said anything to me.”
Thus, Ridgeway said, “it came as quite a surprise” when Mason moved to reduce the general-fund levy from 12 to 10 cents.
“I said ‘Where’s the discussion? Is that enough? What’s the net effect? Are we balancing the budget?’”
Ridgeway said she posed a number of questions and proposed a series of amendments to Mason’s motion. She proposed tabling the motion to allow offices funded by the general fund — such as the sheriff — to weigh in. But, she said, she was defeated at every turn.
Ridgeway noted that Clay County balanced its 2014 budget only by spending more than $10 million in savings from previous years.
Speaking after the meeting, Mason and Owen defended the move.
“Why did we cut the taxes? We did so because other revenue streams were increasing and we wanted to return the money to the citizens,” Mason said in an email.
She said sufficient notice was published ahead of time.
Since she’s been in office, she said, county property taxes have been cut in three of four years.
Mason said Ernzen had documented a year-over-year increase of roughly $1 million in sales tax revenue “just through August … (s)o in that alone, the county has a net increase of revenue. Our assessed valuation went up in 2014, thereby increasing the revenue, as well …
“It is my philosophy to cut taxes and expenses of government … I just hope to instill in all local governments that we need to manage our money better and cut taxes and expenses, when possible.”
Owen said a recovering economy, generating increased property values and sales-tax receipts, made the property-tax reduction possible.
“The county is growing tremendously,” Owen said. “We’re lucky. But we need to not stockpile money … but to give it back to the taxpayers … It’s not a lot on a $150,000 house; maybe $20 a year. But it’s money.”
Owen called the notion that the tax cut imperils the sheriff’s budget “ridiculous.”
“Last year we did the same thing … we voted to cut 1 cent, and it was unanimous,” he said. “This year one thing is different. There is an election coming up. Some people are trying to make it an issue to get support for one person or another.”
Mason was defeated in the August Republican primary by former State Rep. Jerry Nolte, making her a lame duck through year’s end. Nolte faces off against Democrat Jay Swearingen in November.