The Douglas County Board approved a 2019-20 budget Tuesday that will increase property taxes for a planned new courthouse annex and juvenile detention center.
Under the budget, the county’s tax rate will go up 1.5 cents per $100 of valuation.
That would cost the owner of a $200,000 home in Douglas County about $30 more in property taxes next year.
County officials have been projecting that tax increase for the Douglas County Justice Center project.
The increase will pay for $5.9 million in costs related to building the justice center. Most of that would go to start paying back debt for the planned project, although the $114 million bond issue and project are now on hold because of a pending taxpayer lawsuit.
David Lanphier filed the lawsuit last week in an effort to stop the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission from issuing the bonds.
The bonds can’t be sold while that legal cloud is hanging over them. But if the bonds are eventually sold, the county will have to start paying back the debt next year.
The county’s property tax levy would increase from just over 28 cents per $100 of valuation this year to just over 29.5 cents per $100 of valuation next year, if projections for countywide tax valuations hold true. That’s a 5.3% increase in the county government’s share of Douglas County property owners’ taxes.
The county’s general fund budget will increase by 1.6% to $215.3 million next year. The total budget would increase to $425.4 million, an increase of $17.1 million, or 4.2%, over the previous year.
By comparison, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert is proposing a general fund budget of $419.6 million for the city in 2020, which would keep the city’s property tax levy at the current rate of 47.922 cents per $100 of valuation. She’s proposing a total city budget of $1.1 billion for 2020. The city also has other taxing sources such as the restaurant, sales and wheel tax.
Besides the justice center, the rest of the county’s budget increase is largely driven by increased criminal justice costs and spending for road projects, Douglas County Finance Director Joe Lorenz told the board. Gas tax revenue and federal funding will offset some of the road costs.
The County Board voted 5-1 to approve the budget. Chris Rodgers, P.J. Morgan, Marc Kraft, Clare Duda and Mike Boyle voted yes. Jim Cavanaugh voted no. Mary Ann Borgeson was absent because she was traveling.
“This is a budget that is as tight as it can get,” Boyle said.
Morgan said it is the county’s first tax increase in six years. He said most county departments and offices agreed to the target budget set by the county’s finance director. Those who believed that they could not meet the target budget went before the County Board in recent months to request more money.
Most of those departments and offices serve criminal justice functions, such as the Corrections Department and the Sheriff’s, County Attorney’s and Public Defender’s Offices. The county agreed that they needed more money because of increasing caseloads.
Cavanaugh criticized the budget process as being rushed and lacking public scrutiny. He said all leaders of all county departments and offices should have come before the board to have their proposed budgets publicly vetted. He tried to postpone a vote but received no support.
“It’s impossible to in good conscience vote on a pig-in-a-poke budget, tax increase like this,” Cavanaugh said.
But Boyle said the County Board’s finance committee, led by him and Morgan, had worked with department heads, elected officials and Lorenz to keep spending down. Boyle said the committee’s meetings are public.
“We looked at doing this as inexpensively as possible,” he said.
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At a public hearing before the vote, Doug Kagan of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom said the County Board, to offset the cost of the justice center, should immediately enact a consultant’s 2013 recommendations regarding the Douglas County Health Center. The consultant recommended outsourcing the center, among other measures.
Omahan Larry Storer said the county should not force taxpayers to pay for services that should be provided by families, schools, churches and nonprofit organizations.
Lorenz has been telling the County Board since the spring that the justice center project would likely require a two-step increase in property taxes. He has said the county may have to raise taxes by another 1.5 cents per $100 of valuation in 2023 to service the debt and pay for operations and maintenance of the new buildings.
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