Property tax valuations in the Omaha area and across Nebraska often lag a year or more behind current economic conditions.
That is why local governments funded with property taxes typically fare better at the front end of a recession than they do coming out of one.
So it would seem reasonable to expect people who spend taxpayer money based on property tax projections to taper their spending accordingly.
Instead, metro area voters have read concerning comments from some officials in The World-Herald, comments they’ve heard before.
For example, a majority of the Douglas County Board decided they had exhausted their options and raised property tax rates by 1.6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation because of flat property valuations. Bellevue, which is transitioning to a paid fire department, and La Vista, which is considering how best to redevelop an area along 84th Street, are weighing options and might increase tax rates as well.
Public sector spending models often are built on the historically sound — but sometimes wrong — assumption of property valuation growth. Public agency labor contracts and spending often are decided without enough regard for the tightened household budgets many residents continue to wrestle with.
One need look only at the budgeting underway in the city governments of Omaha, Ralston and Papillion to understand that it is possible — although difficult — for elected officials to meet the sacrifice of citizens with spending restraint. (Of course, some communities have the benefit of new construction.)
Douglas County Board member P.J. Morgan acknowledged the need for restraint by putting forward a well-meaning but failed proposal for across-the-board spending cuts. Targeted cuts are better, but cuts can balance budgets.
It’s how businesses often make the books balance, and it’s how taxpayers respond to decreased hours at work, stagnant wages and rising health care costs.
Several members of the public offered Douglas County suggestions to save money and questioned whether, during such tough economic times, the county should have committed itself to a half-million dollars in annual funding for the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s new cancer center.
None of this is to say that the spending decisions these representatives have made over time were unwarranted. There are always more good causes than money to spend. In governance, as in business, it is a matter of setting priorities and sticking to them.
The county should be applauded for making some difficult decisions to keep its budget from ballooning out of control. But once the fat is trimmed, that is when elected officials earn their pay.
Programs have to be evaluated for returns on investment. Services have to be weighed for their contribution to the public good versus the cost of more significant cuts elsewhere.
Officials are not elected to set public agency budgets on autopilot. They are elected to make difficult choices at difficult times and to invest wisely when circumstance allows.