With a growing population, declining revenues and budget cuts coming from Topeka, the county will likely face a choice between service cuts and raising property taxes next year, according to County Manager Hannes Zacharias.
“The headline might be that a property tax increase is coming to a local government near you,” he told a forum Saturday sponsored by the Johnson County League of Women Voters.
Zacharias cited recent reductions in school budgets and the phase-out of the state mortgage registration fee as examples of the challenges local officials face in trying to meet their budgets while dealing with actions taken by the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback.
About 100 people turned up to hear a panel that included Zacharias, County Librarian Sean Casserley and Patti Rule, a member of the advisory committee of the area Agency on Aging, discuss how the current state budget troubles may affect their entities in the coming year.
Zacharias pointed out that the county has kept the mill levy rate the same for recent years, including during the worst of the recession when housing values declined. But all the efficiencies instituted during that time have left the county with little to trim as state funding is cut even more, he said.
“The idea of doing more with less does not exist in this community,” he said. “I think the lexicon now is doing less with less.”
The alternative would be increasing the mill levy to meet the need for services, he said.
Although real estate values increased last year and may again this year, he said that may not be enough to cover the salary increases the county’s employees will get. Last year the county commission agreed to a 3 percent increase for its employees that Zacharias said was necessary to keep those employees leaving.
The most likely alternative to cutting services would be an increase in the property tax, he said. The sales tax rate is already high enough that any increase could drive buyers across the state line, he said.
Zacharias’s comments echoed those he made in proposing a mill levy increase to the Johnson County Commission a year ago. The commission seemed set to take that advice, citing lost income from the mortgage registration fee collected at real estate closings. But at the last minute, commissioners decided instead to keep the mill levy intact and make some other adjustments to the budget. In the process, the Heritage Trust Fund that funded historical projects in the county was closed out.
Casserley and Rule also had concerns about how state budget machinations could affect their services. For instance, Casserley said cutting back on such things as mental health services can have “unintended consequences,” for the library, a place people with mental health issues often visit.
Rule said she was concerned about cutting home services to the frail elderly. Those services allow them to stay in their homes and have a better quality of life, she said, while costing taxpayers substantially less than institutionalization. The Agency on Aging is watching to see what the state budget impact might be, she said. In the meantime, officials there may set up a nonprofit Friends of the Aging as a way to get grants and raise other money, Rule said.
“We’re looking for ways to do more with less money but we don’t want to see services cut to seniors,” she said. “They’re our most vulnerable population along with the very young.”
Casserley cited the library’s work bringing books to nursing homes and to juvenile detention. And he said the library system is run efficiently in serving about 2 million people.
“Taxing isn’t bad,” said Casserley. “Taxing reaffirms the Athenian oath that we’re going to leave the community better for our children than when we found it.”