Wall Street has seen a rebound, but local governments are still climbing out of the budget hole they have been in since the recession hit.
Jackson County is no exception, although for once the proposed budget anticipates no significant cuts, and some members of the county legislature are hopeful that 2015 marks the beginning of a turnaround.
“We keep finding ways to do more with less,” chairman Dan Tarwater said Wednesday after two days of hearing presentations from department heads and pleas for funding from outside social service agencies.
A public hearing on the county’s $293 million spending plan is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at the downtown courthouse, with final passage expected the following week.
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The budget that County Executive Mike Sanders submitted was down from last year’s by a modest $4 million due to a decline in tax revenue. Although sales tax receipts are up 7 percent, reflecting an improved consumer economy, real estate values continue to lag.
Property taxes, the single largest source of tax revenues, were down 3 percent from the previous year. The county also is seeing a continued decline in some state and federal aid.
State fees to support mandatory real estate reassessments, for example, are now half what they were a few years ago, $3 per property assessed compared with $6.
Raising local tax rates to make up for lost revenue was never a consideration. Sanders has refused to propose an increase in the tax levy during his eight years in office in the hope that improved economic conditions and wise use of tax dollars will relieve continuing budget pressure.
“While this continues to be a lean budget,” he wrote in his budget message, “our team is proud to submit a structurally sound budget that is balanced.”
Crystal Williams, chairwoman of the legislature’s budget committee, said she feels good about this year’s budget and the potential for growth ahead.
“Doesn’t it feel like things are getting better?” she asked.
Paychecks for the county’s 1,200 employees will feel only slightly better if the legislature approves the 1 percent merit raise pool Sanders proposed.
Meanwhile, most county departments are facing another static year, although the five veteran legislators and four newcomers could find money for some promising initiatives.
Tarwater said he and others were open to restoring a position or two in the office of the county’s public administrator, who says she could raise more revenue for the county if only she had more staff to do the work.
Another good possibility for increased funding, Tarwater said, is Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker’s proposal to expand the successful Kansas City No Violence Alliance. KC NoVA got partial credit for a dramatic reduction in the number of murders in Kansas City last year.
Other agencies outside county government might not fare as well. On Wednesday, nearly four dozen social service agencies, from food pantries to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, asked for amounts ranging from $5,400 to nearly $1 million for a total of $4.6 million in requests.
That pool last year was just $3.1 million, so a number of agencies are sure to get less than they wanted or nothing at all.
Those final numbers won’t be known until legislators do some negotiating behind the scenes, as has been past practice, before the budget is up for final passage on Jan. 26.