After two relatively flat budget years, Joe Hewgley says, several big-ticket items are hitting Lincoln County at once.
There’s no escaping the double-digit increases — notably 24.7% in spending authority, 19.2% in the property tax request and 18.7% in the county tax rate — in the 2019-20 county budget on display at a 10 a.m. public hearing Monday.
Anticipated and unexpected road costs — the latter stemming from 2019’s soggy conditions — and a long-projected jail expansion explain much of the combined $11.01 million spending boost, said Hewgley, the County Board’s dean and current chairman.
But most of the increases would fall outside the county’s general fund — which would rise a relatively modest 4.9% — while others involve projects funded from sources other than property taxes.
And “if you look at budgeted and actual spending (for) each year, there’s a lot of difference,” Hewgley added.
Commissioners will discuss and vote on the $55.5 million budget after Monday morning’s first hearing. They’ll then hold a second hearing and another vote — both required by recently passed Legislative Bill 103 — on the budget’s call for a higher property tax request than in 2018-19.
Unlike school districts and cities, which just started or soon will begin new fiscal years, Lincoln County has been operating without an official budget for more than two months.
Like Nebraska’s state government, county fiscal years run from July 1 to June 30. But state law starts schools’ fiscal years on Sept. 1 and starts city fiscal years on the same Oct. 1 date as the federal government.
If approved, the county’s combined tax rate of 30.67 cents per $100 of taxable value would break a decade-long decline since its 25-year peak of 41 cents per $100 in 2008-09.
That was the year voters approved a bond issue to build the current Lincoln County Detention Center, which opened in 2011. It was designed to easily accommodate an additional wing on its northeast side, a step the County Board and Sheriff Jerome Kramer are preparing to take.
Like other local governments, Hewgley said, Lincoln County has to budget for possible spending from any fiscal source over the next year — regardless of whether that spending actually takes place.
He said commissioners expect soon to issue “limited tax obligation bonds” for the estimated $3.92 million project, which would include some remodeling of existing space.
It wasn’t clear until after the county’s draft 2019-20 budget was released last month that it would have to include initial repayments on those bonds, Hewgley said.
Next year’s budget includes three new line-items outside the general fund — one for the expected new jail project, the others tied to the road bonds approved in March — that cover $9 million of the overall $11 million increase in spending authority.
The road bond vote, which gave the go-ahead to nearly a dozen long-delayed repaving projects, took place a few days before the March 14 “bomb cyclone” punished most of Nebraska with blizzards, strong winds and sudden floods.
Though rural Lincoln County roads suffered far less than those in many counties, Hewgley said, six months of regular rains since have kept road crews scrambling to minimize disruptions to unpaved roads.
Even the county’s paved roads, including some slated for improvement through the road bonds, have suffered from the March storm and its aftermath, Hewgley said.
“If you look at State Farm Road,” he said, “it went all to heck in a hurry.”
Hewgley said two high-profile budget projects — well repairs to the courthouse’s geothermal system and the rerouting of part of West South River Road — will mostly be financed from outside the county.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover 95% of the projected $290,000 cost to move 1 mile of the road 0.79 miles south from the part washed out by South Platte River floods in May 2015.
Another line item of about $330,000 will repair the courthouse geothermal system’s malfunctioning well under the courthouse, Hewgley said.
The well’s problems, he added, explain the large hose that has drained water from the courthouse north to East Fourth Street for well over a year.
Money from the “performance bond” required of the project contractor will cover the well project’s costs in time, Hewgley said.