Steve Rose: Tough questions require real answers about the county’s fiscal situation

Thursday, September 18th, 2014 @ 6:41PM

Steve Rose: Tough questions require real answers about the county’s fiscal situation

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There are some tough questions that need to be asked about county government, and they require factual answers.

It took a little digging, but here they are.

The questions or statements are posed by an imaginary citizen of Johnson County.

Citizen: My mill levy keeps going up, it seems like every year. What’s going on at the county?

Response: If you are seeing increases in the mill levy, it must be from some other source, like schools. The last time the county raised its mill levy was in 2006.

Citizen: Well, then, what about the windfall from the increased value of properties? Without raising the mill levy, the county gets more property tax revenue.

Response: It’s gone the opposite way, due to the recession and the subsequent decrease in home values. In 2008, before the recession, the county took in $181 million in property taxes. This year, that number is only $169 million. Over that period, the county has taken in $45 million less in overall revenues.

Citizen: Then, how is it that the county keeps spending more?

Response: The county is spending a bit more. In 2008, the county budget was $636 million. This year, it is $664 million.

Citizen: Why the increase?

Response: Most of the increase is sewers. We are spending $20 million more to handle maintenance and growth.

Citizen: Wait a minute. How can you spend $664 million this year, when you only got in $169 million in property taxes?

Response: There are other sources of revenue, including sales tax revenue, motor vehicle fees and money from the state and federal government.

Citizen; Ah, that raises a good question. Haven’t taxes gone up, when you count the increased sales tax?

Response: Yes, but the last sales tax increase was from an election held in 2008, in which the voters decided to increase the sales tax by a quarter-cent for public safety. That money is earmarked for things like jails and a crime lab.

Citizen: So, what have you done to balance the budget with declining property tax revenue?

Response: The county has reduced its number of employees from 4,100 in 2008, down to 3,800 currently. That is the biggest source of savings.

Citizen: Tell me about the county’s bloated reserves.

Response: The total reserves appear to be bloated at $174 million. But the general fund reserve is only $64 million, which is 24 percent of the general fund budget. To keep a AAA bond rating, the policy is to have on hand 20 to 25 percent. The rest of the reserves are not part of the general fund. They include $67 million in reserves for wastewater (sewers); $4 million for stormwater reserves; and there are separate parts of the reserves for libraries, parks, transportation and public works.

Citizen: I hear the county is upset about losing $1.7 million this year from the elimination of the mortgage registration fee.

Response: Costs were squeezed. There will be no tax increase to compensate for that lost revenue.

Citizen: I hear there is a movement afoot to build a new courthouse. Who will pay for that?

Response: If there is a new courthouse, it would only come with the approval of a majority of voters. There are no firm plans at this time to hold such an election.

Citizen: Thanks for taking the time.

Response: No problem. Glad you asked.

| Special to The Star

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