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Op-Ed: Douglas County Budget Disappoints

June 24, 2013

Great op-ed published today in the Omaha World-Herald by long-time friend and former ED of the Platte Institute, John S. McCollister discussing the need for Douglas County to cut spending and oppose a property tax increase.

To take action to stop a property tax increase, click here.

The author, of Omaha, is a former member of the Metropolitan Utilities District board and former executive director of the Platte Institute for Economic Research.

In our system, each level of government bears certain responsibilities as part of its statutory obligations.

The responsibilities of Douglas County include providing “general social welfare, operation of a county hospital, maintenance of streets and highways outside any incorporated city, village or sanitary and improvement district, legal court-related activities, licensing assessment enforcement and sanitary landfill and solid waste disposal.”

State statutes dictate that the county must establish an annual budget, and the Douglas County Board has been engaged in the budget process since the first of the year. Yet in the process of negotiating this year’s budget, it appears that the board is contemplating an increase in the mill levy for fiscal year 2013-14. In essence, Douglas County residents may be facing a property tax hike fairly soon.

The housing crisis has undoubtedly affected county revenues, as property values have remained largely stagnant. But not to be deterred by a crisis, the board raised the mill levy by 8 percent and increased the budget by $22.1 million, over 10 percent since 2008, all the while complaining about a “structural deficit” that appeared to have no end.

Additionally, while many functional departments have reduced expense since 2009, the commissioner’s administration budget has increased by 43.17 percent.

This flagrant spending increase is even more notable when one looks at the county budget as a whole, which increased from $215.6 million in 2009 to $237.8 million in 2012.

So if we are looking for who caused the county’s current financial plight, the lack of budget and spending restraint by our commissioners over the past five years would be a good place to start.

Additionally, unlike most private-sector employers during these hard economic times, Douglas County observed a major escalation of employee cost increases over the past five years. The number of county employees has dropped by 135 over the past five years, but employee-related expenses, which make up more than 65 percent of the county’s budget, have increased by about $15 million.

Surprisingly, while the five county-wide operating departments have reduced employees by 21 since 2009, the administrative department will have increased its manpower by four employees, or 40 percent, if the current recommendation is adopted.

The projected budget shortfall is $2.4 million, less than 1 percent of expenditures anticipated for FY 2013-14. It is time for commissioners to implement budget-cutting solutions rather than adding more extraneous spending.

Some ideas include:

>> Downsizing the Department of Corrections as demand continues to flag.

>> Instituting a short-term hiring freeze (including the two employees slated for the administrative department).

>> Significantly reducing overtime in all departments, reviewing employee benefits for part-time employees and increasing fees to bring in additional revenue.

Long-term solutions might also include reducing department “silo” budgeting and short-term bias now so prevalent in the process. The county also should evaluate consolidation of operating departments, consider merging multi-county functional areas and institute strategic budget reform initiatives.

Douglas County residents already pay hefty amounts of property tax, and there is no reason for the commissioners to increase that burden.

It is time for commissioners to properly deal with budget matters and utilize the ample taxes paid by residents to make the tough budget decisions that Nebraska families and business have made the past five years.

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