Do road improvements, damage mitigation justify raising taxes?
Antelope County commissioners disagree:
September 12, 2019
County leaders spent about an hour mulling six “options” for managing Antelope County’s finances in the coming year, when they met last week at the courthouse in Neligh.
Lisa Payne, county clerk, presented the commissioners with six scenarios for the annual budget, ranging from what she called the “golden egg” with its seven-cent levy increase, to one that called for no change in the county’s slice of a taxpayer’s pie.
She cautioned that the figures were “very preliminary,” intended to give the commissioners a picture to work from.
The high end of the spectrum would include funding budgets presented by all department heads Aug. 22, along with some increases suggested that day by the commissioners, most notably the road and bridge department. It also included increasing the General Fund cash reserve to $1 million, from the 2018 reserve of $300,000. The scenario would increase the projected tax-funded government spending to nearly $7.5 million, about $1.9 million more than the tax asking for fiscal year 2018.
The gold option was not considered by the commissioners, nor were the next two which would have raised the county’s levy approximately 29% and 21%, respectively.
Getting to the no-increase scenario in option six, the $1.9 million would have to be sliced away. Options discussed to reach that goal included elimination of Payne’s proposed $700,000 increase in cash reserve and drawing the Inheritance Fund, which serves as the county’s savings’ account, down to $1.5 million. The bulk of the remaining million-dollar cut would most likely come out of the road and bridge budget.
Deb Branstiter, county treasurer advised the commissioners on maintaining the cash reserve.
“Partially, it has to do with cash flow, because we start spending the budget in July, but we really don’t start collecting tax dollars until now, so that gets us through that couple of months for cash flow,” she said.
“Our workflow can be adjusted, we made it last year on $300,000. If you guys don’t want to raise taxes, don’t keep a million dollars (in reserve). I think every farmer in the county would say that,” Casey Dittrich, road superintendent, said. “You have to gamble.”
He qualified that statement, adding “I can’t adjust when we push snow and when we need gravel on the roads.”
He also advised difficulty cutting 20% from his budget, which he said is already 40% expended. Dittrich did suggest some large-ticket items in his budget that could be cut, notably $750,000 budgeted for hot-mix asphalt.
“The amount of money we saved this year, by not repairing the 25 miles of road we ground up… it’s a huge, huge step. If you want to continue in that direction, instead of three quarters of a million in hot mix asphalt, by all means we can do that,” he said. “But instead of improvements we are on damage control.”
The county has already committed to $1.2 million in capital improvements, including eight and a half miles of asphalt overlay, according to Payne. She said the projects include Cemetery Road and armor coating “Koinzan Road.”
Nearly half of the Inheritance Fund balance was used to fund emergency post-flood road and bridge repairs in the interim for FEMA and NEMA reimbursement. While 75% of those expenditures are sought from FEMA and 12.5% from NEMA, reimbursement is not expected during FY 2019, and the county still needs to foot the bill for the remaining 12.5% of the $2.9 million disaster expense.
“Somewhere that money’s got to be made up,” Payne said.
Tom Borer, board chair, had asked Dittrich to inquire about the timeline for funds from FEMA. The officials did not offer any definite time frame, indicating it could be two months or two years.
“In other words,” Borer said. “It might be the next decade.”
“I’m not for raising taxes and I don’t want to pay any more tax than anyone else, but we have Casey going and we need to keep after it,” Henery said. “We don’t know what the winter’s going to bring, but if we continue getting a lot of moisture, it’s going to turn white real quick like, it’s going to be a winter when we are going to need some funding to push snow off.”
Dean Smith, although also voicing reluctance to raise taxes, favored a one-time 2.5-cent levy increase suggested by accountant Regina Krebs at the August budget meeting, as projected in Payne’s option four, with $6.1 million in tax asking.
Eli Jacob initially suggested option five, which projected asking taxpayers for $5.7 million, and would result in a more modest one-penny increase in the county levy.
“We are going to have to look internally and figure it out. I think it’s our responsibility to look at how we can do it internally…I think you guys are barking up the wrong tree, this year,” Bentley said. “If we raise taxes this year, I just think the rest of you guys are going to get recalled.”
The commissioners continued to scratch their heads, rehashing the information and asking questions of Payne and Dittrich. Borer asked his peers to vote on the scenarios.
They opted to take a vote on the three least aggressive options. Borer and Bentley selected option six, with no increase in levy, while Henery, Smith and Jacob all voted to have Payne proceed with option four.
Payne said she would have a completed budget prepared for their approval at the Sept. 10 meeting, with plans to submit the summary and notice of a public hearing for publication. That budget includes a tax request of $6,114,213, a 13% increase from last year’s $5,393,877. The total proposed budget for 2019-2020 is $7.5 million.
The public will then have another opportunity to voice opinions, at the 9 a.m. public hearing Tuesday, Sept. 17. The budget summary may be viewed on Page 8 of this edition of the Summerland Advocate-Messenger.
The approximate 2.5-cent increase takes the total levy for county spending to 24.6195 cents per $100 in property valuation. The increase, (of the county share only) would be about $25 on property valued at $100,000, $250 on $1 million in valuation.
Property owners’ tax bills also include levies from school districts, cities, villages and a number of other entities that are dependent on tax revenue.
Prior to taking on their budget-setting duties, the commissioners held public hearings on the proposed closing of two segments of county roadways. Both closure requests, one mile of 848 Road, from one-half mile east of 529 Avenue to one-half mile east of 530; and one-half mile of 847 Road, were brought by Elm Township landowner Andy Frey.
Frey said he wanted to farm the ground occupied by the roadway, part of which has a fence in the center. One-half mile of 848 Avenue to the east was vacated previously.
Brian McDonald, county engineer, advised closure, citing liability issues due to the roads not being maintained. No one else testified in favor of the closures.
Several county residents and landowners spoke in opposition to closing the road segments, including Jeremy Martensen, who farms adjoining land and testified he would be unable to access farm ground if the road is closed. Others voicing opposition included DeAnna Martensen, Joe Cornett and Cory Furstenau, who referenced a bridge on a nearby road that cannot accommodate wide farm equipment.
A letter of opposition was read from an area landowner, Verlene Furstenau Yates, as well.
Dittrich said there are similar road situations “all over the county,” and reminded the commissioners that historically roads have not been closed if there was opposition.
After about an hour of discussion, the county leaders voted, 4-1, on a Smith motion to vacate the east half of the 848 Road segment, lying between sections 28 and 21, with ownership of the easement reverting to adjacent landowners. Jacobs voted nay. A decision on closing the west half of the 848 Avenue proposal and the segment of 847 were postponed until surveys are completed.
Several township claims for gravel were approved for payment. When townships disbanded, funds that remained were earmarked for future gravel purchase in the respective townships. The funds are administered by Branstiter and Payne.
In other business, the commissioners:
~Approved an access permit for Ron Funk, which had been completed, with county employees on site;
~Approved several underground permits, including an application from Tom Thiele to place a culvert near Thiele Dairy, with stipulation Thiele provide all labor and materials, meet six-feet depth requirement, provide a minimum $500,000 liability coverage and call diggers’ hotline; two applications for electric lines by area landowners and five for telephone cable by Northeast Nebraska Telephone Company;
~Directed Dittrich to obtain auction specs for selling old patching machine and pull-behind pavement grinder;
~Approved Road Use Agreement with Invenergy/Thunderhead;
~ Approved an administrative plat in the Clearwater area to allow sale of a 2.3- acre building site by the George Hemenway Family Trust;
~Approved a three-year dispatch agreement with the City of Neligh.
~Approved interlocal agreements between the Antelope County Library Association and officials in Clearwater, Tilden and Oakdale; (Payne pulled the Brunswick Library agreement, pending correspondence with village officials); and
~Accepted bequeath from the late Eleanor Brady’s estate.
Among agenda items that were not addressed were county office inventories; discussion regarding potential road upgrades in the area of the proposed Summerland consolidated school site, noting the bond election related to the consolidation will not be held until November; and discussion placed on the agenda at the request of Joe Abler, county attorney, “Do’s and Don’ts regarding correspondence from Antelope County released to the press.”