Several Douglas County Board members said the board needs to make substantial budget cuts to avoid a significant property tax increase.
P.J. Morgan, finance committee chairman, has asked board members to provide him a list of potential spending cuts by May 8.
Last November, Morgan proposed that the board pass a nonbinding resolution pledging no tax increase for the 2012-13 budget. The measure deadlocked by a 3-3 vote when Marc Kraft abstained.
"I see that we are headed for a substantial increase in the mill levy," Morgan said Friday. "When you have over $300 million (in county spending) and you are faced with a $4 million to $5 million shortfall, there should be a way to make hard decisions to cut budgets by less than 2 percent."
Morgan said he won't support a tax increase but believes a majority of the board could approve a tax hike when it adopts the budget in July.
Three of the four board members who supported a tax increase in 2010 are running for re-election unopposed in November. The fourth member, Pam Tusa, said last week she hadn't made up her mind about a tax increase but said county spending was getting out of control.
County Finance Director Joe Lorenz said the county faces an estimated budget shortfall of between $3 million and $5 million.
Without significant spending cuts, the county may need to raise the tax rate by between 2 cents and 3 cents, meaning the owner of a $150,000 house could pay an additional $30 to $45 a year in county property taxes.
"We still have not found a solution to our long-term problem of flat revenues and increasing expenses," Lorenz said. "This year we have to sit down and make specific targeted cuts to reduce our costs by seven figures. Those have not been determined yet."
Kraft, the new board chairman, said it was too early to know how much of a tax increase was needed to make up the projected revenue shortfall.
"It's going to be very, very difficult to avoid a tax increase," he said. "It will be very hard to come up with enough to cut to compensate for all the increases we have for labor, health insurance and costs for medicine at the health center."
Board members Mary Ann Borgeson and Mike Boyle said they agreed with Morgan that spending cuts are necessary. They plan to submit lists of targeted cuts to Morgan.
"It's a good exercise, because everyone has different thoughts and ideas," Borgeson said. "Not everyone will agree with everybody's list, but it gets discussion out there. I hope everyone does it and takes it seriously."
Borgeson said she hopes the board holds taxes steady.
Lorenz said there are several options for making substantial spending cuts. The county has considered closing the long-term care center at the health center campus, he said. The county funds about $12 million of the center's operating budget, with Medicare and Medicaid providing most of the rest of the $42 million cost.
Kraft said he opposes closing the center or contracting for services with an outside provider.
"We have a responsibility legally and morally to take care of those who can't take care of themselves," Kraft said.
Other nonmandated services include $1.4 million to fund a health clinic at the general assistance office and $450,000 for the Douglas/Sarpy County Extension Office.
Borgeson and Boyle questioned longevity pay, which costs the county at least $1.25 million annually. In the Sheriff's Office alone, longevity pay accounts for at least $250,000, including more than $17,000 split among four sheriff's captains whose base salaries already are $105,000.
Last week, Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning submitted a preliminary budget calling for a 5 percent increase, bringing the total to more than $14 million.
Dunning's budget calls for about $600,000 in increased costs, including $200,000 to fill four deputy positions left vacant the past couple of years. He plans to tap about $750,000 from the department's $2.8 million federal drug forfeiture fund to finance additional training, travel and new equipment.
Personnel costs in the fully staffed crime lab alone would increase by more than $100,000, primarily to fund the additional management position of field supervisor for crime scene investigations.
Last year the crime lab moved into a $4 million regional facility at the former Thomas Fitzgerald Veterans Home. Yet use of the lab's forensic services by law enforcement agencies outside Douglas County has declined, which prompted sharp criticism by one county board member.
"The revenue you're generating is a disaster," Boyle told sheriff's officials. "In my opinion, you have a failing crime lab that is not producing."
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