After two previous years filled with drama over a property tax increase and a fight with state lawmakers about the end of a mortgage filing fee, the final approval of the county’s $944 million budget happened with little fanfare.
Commissioners approved the 2017 budget — featuring a steady mill levy and $734.9 million in spending — on a 5-2 vote, with markedly less discussion than previous years.
No one from the public came in to discuss it at the commission’s regular Thursday meeting or at the Aug. 8 public hearing, although one person did submit some written points then.
In past years, the budget discussion has taken hours, fueled by disagreements between commissioners and the county’s representatives in Topeka, as well as citizens. The most recent few budgets have included a property tax rate increase, a dispute over hiring in the sheriff’s department and trouble making ends meet in the mental health department.
Two years ago, state lawmakers from Johnson County dominated the public hearing with their objections to a proposed tax rate increase to make up for the eventual loss of the mortgage registration fee. The commission backed down that year, but the mill rate went up the following year to pay for expanded parks, libraries and transit options.
The county budget, which begins Jan. 1, will have an estimated tax rate of 26.595 mills. However, the assessed valuation of property rose 7.43 percent from last year, which translates into a $16 million increase in revenue. A mill equals $1 of tax per each $1,000 of taxable value.
The total budget includes reserves of $209.1 million and revenues from all sources, including sales tax and a 6.5 percent increase in fees charged for wastewater treatment, for example. About a third of the revenue for next year, or $234.3 million, will come from property taxes.
Also included in the budget is a $5 charge for personal trips to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The surcharge was already in place to encourage people to renew vehicle tags by mail, but next year it will also apply to title work, which cannot be done by mail. The change was to compensate for increased workload caused by the closing of an office in Topeka.
Commissioners Michael Ashcraft and John Toplikar voted against the budget. Ashcraft pointed out the increased revenue from rising property values and said the commission should have looked at the budget “through the prism of limited resources, not expanded resource.”
“We’ve improved in past years,” he said of the county’s scrutiny of spending. “But we have not gone nearly far enough.”
Other commissioners defended the budget, saying the county must keep up with the demands of a growing population. “We need to stay ahead of it and not always be behind the ball on it,” said Commissioner Steve Klika.
Klika and Commission Chairman Ed Eilert referenced the disagreement two years ago with state lawmakers over the state-imposed phase-out of the mortgage registration filing fee, a source of revenue for the counties. The fee was replaced by a set of per-page filing fees on various mortgage documents.
Eilert said the Legislature’s action costs the county $12 million to $15 million per year and encourages a shift to property tax to pay for county services. The state has since added restrictions on property tax increases as well.
Commissioner Jim Allen said residents expect the county to keep up its services. “When you go down the list of the reasons people move to this area, a certain percentage of people moving here are demanding more services than 10 or 15 years ago,” Allen said.