Budget problems in Johnson County’s four fire districts have eased a bit this year, thanks to increased property values and adjustments made in previous years’ budgets.
There were no mill levy increases planned for any of the districts for 2018. In fact, three of the districts will ask for decreases in the tax rate and the fourth, Northwest Consolidated Fire District, proposed no change in its levy.
However all four districts will be able to increase the amount they raise in taxes, even with the reduced rates.
The budgets don’t necessarily mean tax bills will be lighter for residents in those districts. Taxes can go up if property values increase. But it is a good omen from the districts, which have been struggling in recent years to get budgets under control.
The county fire districts answer calls in areas not covered by city fire departments. Three of them – Fire District Nos. 1 and 2 and Northwest Consolidated – cover mostly rural areas. Consolidated Fire District No. 2 (not to be confused with Fire District No. 2) takes care of the small cities in the far northeast part of the county.
Those districts went through a tough budget period in 2015, for a variety of reasons. The result was higher tax rates for three of them.
For instance, Consolidated Fire District No. 2 asked for a mill levy that was almost 6.8 percent higher for the 2016 year, and Fire District No. 1 went for a rate increase of 1.76 percent. The Northwest Consolidated district had the highest rate increase proposal, about 20 percent. That district came back the next year to ask for a 16.6 percent higher levy.
The situation was dire enough that county commissioners asked for a consultant’s study on how the districts could save money by sharing expenses or consolidating. That possibility is still on the table with the study due at the commission in about three weeks. Fire chiefs have said they will be open to the suggestions.
By contrast, the mill levies are flat or decreasing this year, even as expenditures are going up. Fire District No. 1, which covers Gardner, Edgerton and the southwest, will have a $4.4 million budget next year, which is about a 10.5 percent increase over this year. But its mill levy will be 15.164, which is a decrease of about 2.13 percent over last year.
Likewise, Fire District No. 2, covering the Spring Hill and southern parts of the county, will increase its budget by 5.3 percent to $5.8 million but decrease its levy 1.78 percent to 8.276; and Northwest Consolidated, serving De Soto and the northwest, keeps a steady levy at 21 mills with a budget increase of 12.7 percent to $2.76 million.
Consolidated Fire District No. 2 is lowering its rate very slightly to 11.75 mills. Its expenditures are 21.8 percent higher, with a total budget of $13.5 million. A mill equals $1 of tax per each $1,000 of taxable value.
The fire chiefs told commissioners their budgets have been stabilizing this year. The outlook for Northwest Consolidated, in particular, has improved enough so the district can replace some aging equipment, said Chief Michael Whim.
The commission unanimously approved the budgets. Even Commissioners Steve Klika and Michael Ashcraft, who had reservations in the past, said they’d support the budgets because of the fire chiefs’ willingness to consider the study recommendations.
The final mill levies will be set later this year, after property values become final.