Most Douglas County property owners would see their taxes go up under a budget the County Board will consider Tuesday.
The $324 million budget proposal that emerged after several weeks of hearings is 0.8 percent lower than the current budget.
But property valuations are projected to be flat this year, and key revenue sources have dried up, contributing to what has grown into a structural deficit. With revenues faltering, county officials say they have few options but to raise its tax rate.
“We'd like to not have an increase if there's some way to do it,” board member P.J. Morgan said. “I'm just not sure we have the options to put forth.”
The revenue shortfall for operations supported by property taxes was $5.5 million after county departments submitted their requests. The fiscal committee trimmed that figure to $3 million by adjusting revenue assumptions and cutting from some departments that asked for more money than last year.
The board is required to pass a balanced budget. The proposed budget would close the gap by raising the county levy 1.6 cents per $100 of valuation, a 6 percent increase from the current rate. That would mean another $24 a year on the tax bill of a home worth $150,000. Some valuations went down this year, which would cut into any tax increase.
The county levy accounts for a little more than 12 percent of an Omaha resident's total property tax bill.
Board Chairwoman Mary Ann Borgeson said the board is “not at this point” considering dipping into the county's cash reserves to cover the shortfall.
County Finance Director Joe Lorenz has said the extra tax revenue would bring in $3 million this year and $5.8 million for the 2015 budget.
Board member Marc Kraft, meanwhile, said the county is “deceiving itself” by failing to adequately fund operations, and he wants to restore cuts that already have been made.
“We've cut more than we should, in places we should not,” he said.
Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, a Tea Party group that has been active in shaping the budget, issued a white paper suggesting a number of cuts to county services in lieu of raising taxes.
Among the suggestions: Eliminate the county Extension program; decrease or end step and longevity pay; hire private security companies to guard the City-County Building; and lobby to end “unreasonable and uncompensated mandates,” such as providing interpreters.
“But we don't have the votes to stop a tax hike,” said Doug Kagan, the organization's president.
Morgan said Kagan's group has some good ideas but said many are unworkable. Postponing renovations at the Douglas County Health Center would save some money in the short term, for example, but it would mean giving up a strong revenue opportunity on the back end, he said.
“We're not done yet,” Morgan said of the negotiations, “but we're getting close.”
Explore the budget
The Douglas County board meets Tuesday to consider a proposed budget (pdf) of $323.9 million. The breakdown:COUNTYWIDE BUDGET GENERAL FUND GENERAL REVENUE