Lancaster County's proposed budget would result in the first property tax rate increase in 10 years, if adopted — an add-on for many homeowners who already faced the prospect of higher taxes because of rising home valuations.
The proposed $199.8 million budget represents a 4% hike over last year, an increase largely driven by spending to address ailing roads and bridges.
Several county commissioners applauded two of the big aims of the budget rolled out Friday.
It gives County Engineer Pam Dingman $3 million more to fund the work to reopen bridges damaged by spring flooding and to complete more deferred maintenance. Dingman had asked for an additional $4 million earlier this year.
And it would make the county more fiscally resilient by adding $1 million to its cash reserve.
But this proposal won't add employees, as several of the county's more than two dozen agencies had requested.
"There’s not much more fat on the beast," said Commissioner Sean Flowerday, a Democrat who serves as the board's vice chair.
Entering budget discussions this summer, local government entities, including the county, city and school district, faced a decision over how to address the so-called tax windfall resulting from property valuations rising beyond projections.
Some members of the county board had hoped to lower the levy because of the growth in property valuations estimated at 6.5%, while others wanted to keep the levy unchanged.
"The increase in need (for county services) far exceeds the increase in valuation, in effect swallowing whatever 'windfall' there was," Flowerday said.
In Lancaster County last year, the average home valuation was about $184,800.
The proposed levy change — essentially a 2.6% increase — would add about $14 in support of county government onto the property tax bill for an average home, according to an analysis by the Journal Star. That increase doesn't account for properties where the valuation has changed.
Annually, Lancaster County pulls in about 13% of a city property owner's tax payment, compared with the city of Lincoln (16%) and Lincoln Public Schools (61%).
Last year's county government levy was 26.6576 cents per $100 in valuation. As proposed, it would jump to 28.1576 cents.
But to offset the hit for taxpayers, the county board is once again seeking to soften the blow by cutting the levy of the Railroad Transportation Safety District that it controls.
With the RTSD levy reduced to 1.4717 cents from 2.2217 cents, the net levy increase would be three-quarters of a cent.
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This new levy is expected to generate about $4.2 million in added revenue for the county in the next fiscal year.
The proposal also comes as a county-imposed wheel tax is being considered as another means to address infrastructure needs.
Flowerday believes that after years of budget cutting to hold the levy in place, the growing county should fund a county government serving more people, he said.
Commissioner Deb Schorr, a Republican who's been on the board since 2003, said budgets in recent years have been austere.
She supports the budget, as proposed, because the county desperately needs to improve its roads and bridges, she said.
Funding for the County Engineer's Office and the work it oversees for infrastructure improvements would increase from about $31.9 million to $34.9 million.
As proposed, it would help Dingman open one bridge that is currently closed, the engineer said.
Schorr, who chairs the RTSD, the city-county agency charged with making rail crossings safer, said she's only on board with the levy shift because she's been told it doesn't affect improvements under consideration for the area of 33rd Street and Cornhusker Highway, improvements likely to cost upward of $75 million.
And fellow county commissioners have assured her the RTSD's levy will be restored to its current level in 2021, Schorr said.
The county has final say on how much funding the safety district receives each year.
In 2012, the county dropped the RTSD levy from the state-mandated cap of 2.6 cents to 1 cent, transferring the difference to its own levy.
As a portion of the RTSD's levy was restored in 2013, 2015 and 2016, the county's levy was reduced by the same amount.
Two years ago, when countywide property valuations soared, the county increased the RTSD's levy but dropped the county's levy by significantly more, effectively cutting the combined levy by more than half a cent to the lowest mark in more than a decade.
A public hearing on the county's proposed budget is set for Aug. 27. The adopted budget must be filed with the state by Sept. 20.