The Douglas County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a $520 million budget Tuesday for the following fiscal year. The budget doesn’t raise the property tax levy because it assumes a 6.5% increase in total property values, bringing in more revenue for the county.
Douglas County Finance Director Joe Lorenz presented the budget Tuesday, and he said the budget (excluding $55.5 million in ARPA funding) was an increase of only 1.4% compared to last year’s budget, driven primarily by the criminal justice system and increased payroll. Costs for the health department have been at an inflated rate the past two years because of the pandemic, and Lorenz said this year costs are returning to normal.
Lorenz said the “usual suspects” requested more money than their target department budgets: the sheriff, public defender and county attorney. He said the sheriff’s office, which requested $500,000 more than their target budget, intends to hire six additional officers for the new juvenile justice center. County court and Geographical Information Systems also requested additional funding.
“That’s kind of a recurring area that we’ve been talking about for a few years is that the criminal justice system, the costs are increasing at a rate a fair amount above inflation,” Lorenz said. “There’s a bigger macro issue here and that’s just where we’re trending.”
Because of a formula change recommended by state auditors, the county received $2.6 million less revenue than expected from the Omaha Public Power District. Lorenz said it’s a complicated issue, which they’re trying to solve with the county attorney and city officials, but they’re able to offset the cost with higher than expected revenue from the inheritance tax. He said this is only a short-term solution because of changes to the inheritance tax rates by the state legislature.
Commissioner Mike Friend expressed concern about the future of the county’s budget because of inflation and a potentially looming recession. He said if property values stop rising — limiting the county’s tax revenue — services that aren’t federally mandated like the Douglas County Health Center will be the first to have their budgets slashed.
“There’s some stuff coming that’s gonna be very interesting. It may not be coming today, it may not tomorrow, but it’s coming soon,” Friend said. “I’m not Nostradamus, but I’ll tell you this: when I look at those numbers and I wipe the cold sweat away…I realize we’ve got problems.”
Board Chair Mary Ann Borgeson said they should have a discussion about non-federally mandated services provided by the county. She recommended that they go through each department and decide which services are saving money and which could be cut. Lorenz said those could be examined during the strategic planning process with individual departments.