The Douglas County Board on Tuesday approved a $324 million budget for 2013-14 that raises the tax levy for county government by 1.6 cents.
As a result, 88 percent of Douglas County homeowners will see the county portion of their tax bills go up next year, according to a World-Herald analysis of property valuation data.
Taxes for county government make up about 12 percent of the total property tax bill for most residents. Taxes for other local governments such as cities and schools account for the rest and will be set this summer.
The increase in the county portion alone will add $24 to next year’s tax bill for a home valued at $150,000, assuming no change in valuation from last year.
Only those property owners whose valuations went down this year by at least 5.7 percent will avoid an increase in the county portion of their tax bills.
The higher tax rate will raise $3.1 million this year to close a structural deficit and $5.9 million next year, according to county finance director Joe Lorenz. A stagnant tax base and the loss of other revenue sources have put pressure on the county’s finances.
Overall, the budget approved Tuesday is 0.8 percent lower than last year’s spending plan.
County Board members Mary Ann Borgeson, Pam Tusa and P.J. Morgan voted against the budget because of the tax increase.
Morgan instead proposed what he called the “painful alternative” of cutting 1 percent from every department’s budget and using $1 million from the county’s cash reserves to balance the budget.
“Maybe there’s a way for us to really seriously reduce the size of government,” he said.
But the board voted 4-3 against Morgan’s alternative.
Board member Clare Duda cautioned that tapping the reserve account — which has a balance of $25 million — might affect the county’s credit rating.
“It is a tight and austere budget,” he said. “Sometimes the reality is, you have raise the tax rate. Nobody wants to do it. I don’t want to do it. But when you cut the budget, sometimes you need money to balance it out.”
Several people who spoke at the meeting said they saw a number of ways to balance the budget without raising taxes: outsourcing security at the City-County Building, canceling an annual half-million-dollar donation to the UNMC Cancer Center or postponing the $485,700 purchase of the old Greyhound bus station near the County Jail.
“You ought to be able to save that money without breaking a sweat,” said Omaha resident John S. McCollister, former director of the Platte Institute, a think tank in Nebraska.
The only deviation from the proposed budget was the approval of a $150,000 supplement for the county’s Community Mental Health Center. Manager John Sheehan said one of his psychiatrists is out with an injury and another recently quit, leaving two psychiatrists to do the work of four. They have been on call every other night, he said.
“That’s a situation you can’t tolerate for more than a week or two,” he said.
Assuming that a new psychiatrist can be hired by November, the extra money will be used to boost on-call pay and hire temporary help, which can cost $10,000 a week, he said.
A few board members wanted to pay for the supplement with money that had been earmarked for implementing electronic health records, and board member Mike Boyle suggested taking the money out of the Sheriff’s Office and Corrections Department accreditation budgets. In the end, the board used cash from the reserve account.
World-Herald staff writer Paul Goodsell contributed to this report.
Explore the budget
The Douglas County board on Tuesday approved a $323.9 million budget (pdf). The breakdown:COUNTYWIDE BUDGET GENERAL FUND GENERAL REVENUE