Residents and businesses in the northwest Johnson County and De Soto will see an increase in their property taxes next year so the Northwest Consolidated Fire District can get on its financial feet and begin to replace aging equipment.
The Johnson County commission approved a 2.99-mill increase for the area, bringing its total levy to 21 mills. That’s a 16 percent increase over last year.
Chief Mike Whim said the increase, which was the only one among the four county fire districts this year, will enable the struggling, mostly rural district to start building its reserves and replace what he said is some of the oldest equipment in the area. He also plans to add three firefighters so that there are enough people to cover if someone gets sick.
The county commission approved the final budgets for all of the fire districts Thursday. Tax rates remained flat for Fire Districts 2, serving southern Johnson County and a bit of Miami County, and Consolidated Fire District 2, serving smaller cities in the northeast part of the county that don’t have their own fire departments.
Most residents of Fire District 1 in the southwest will see a 0.481 mill drop in their tax rates. That district recently consolidated with Gardner, which had been contracting for fire coverage. Gardner residents will pay more in taxes than they did under the city contract.
For homeowners in Northwest Consolidated, Whim put the impact at $35 per year for the owner of a $100,000 home, $70 a year for a $200,000 home and $103 a year for a $300,000 home.
“I don’t want to have to rely on tax dollars. I struggle to boost taxes like that,” Whim said, adding that he hopes to save money by continuing to look for regional grants.
Northwest Consolidated has been struggling for years, in part due to a statutory limit on its mill levy rate of 15 percent dating to the district’s beginnings. In 2010, the tax rate was 10 mills, but by 2015 it had reached the limit. After the legislature removed the cap, the rate went to 18 mills in the 2016 budget.
Walter McDaniel, chairman of Northwest Consolidated’s board, told commissioners, “We see that this is a big request, but we can’t buy anything if we don’t have any money.” He said he has received support from residents and the De Soto City Council.
Whim said the district wants to replace the department’s self-contained breathing apparatus, which is 15 years old, as well as some other firefighting equipment that is 25 years old. “These are not wants, but needs,” he told commissioners.
The fire district budgets have been controversial among commission members in past years because of the tax rate increases. The districts’ budgets are written by their governing boards, but the county commission has final approval.
Because of concerns about the sustainability of the county fire districts, the commission has announced plans to hire a consultant to find ways the districts can save money. That idea had detractors on the board — Commissioner John Toplikar said it amounted to overreach into the decisions of the boards and Chairman Ed Eilert said the same thing could be accomplished with a working relationship between the districts and the commission.
Commissioner Steve Klika said the push for a consultant was one reason he voted to approve the fire district budgets.
“You’ve been under the gun in trying to change the direction of the Northwest Consolidated Fire District,” he told Whim. “I cringe over such a large mill increase.” But Klika said earlier that although in the past he has hesitated to support fire district tax rate increases without discussions on cost savings, he now sees things moving in the right direction.
Whim hopes the increase will be the beginning of better budget planning for the fire district. “This … absolutely lays the foundation for the future for us,” he said. “Before we just didn’t have plans in place for reserves for the big ticket items.”
Those sentiments were echoed by McDaniel. “Hopefully we won’t have to come back next year and ask for anything if our projections are right, and I think they are.”
In other action, the commission made changes that will allow the Overland Park Historical Society to occupy space in the new Arts and Heritage Center at the former King Louie facility. The Historical Society has been looking for space in the building since the commission set up the plan to turn the former bowling lanes and ice rink into a center for community theater performances and the county museum.