County budget will force tough decisions
Candidates weigh financial issues ahead
The 2009 Douglas County budget includes a 2.92 mill levy increase but less spending and across-the-board cuts for departments and social services.
The county’s revenue picture has been rosier in past years, and the four candidates vying for two seats on the commission acknowledge that commissioners will have tough decisions ahead of them.
“I think there’s been some times that being a county commissioner was pretty easy because there was money to work for. You could keep people happy,” said David L. Brown, a Republican 2nd District candidate. “It’s going to be quite a challenge.”
Fiscal responsibility and expanding the tax base have been common phrases on the campaign trail, especially with flat or declining real estate values and other factors not giving the county its annual boost in revenue.
Brown, a retired Douglas County sheriff’s officer who lives near Vinland, faces Democrat Nancy Thellman, a Presbyterian minister from rural Lawrence, in the race to replace Commissioner Bob Johnson, a Republican not seeking re-election. The district includes North Lawrence, southeastern Lawrence, Eudora, Baldwin City and the eastern half of the county.
In the 3rd District, Democrat Ken Grotewiel, a retired Kansas Water Office official who once represented Wichita as a state legislator, faces Republican Jim Flory, a former Douglas County district attorney and retired federal prosecutor. The district includes western Lawrence, Lecompton and the western half of the county.
The winner will replace Republican Jere McElhaney, who is also not seeking re-election. The two new commissioners will join Democrat Charles Jones, who was re-elected in 2006.
Flory has been adamant about not wanting to increase property taxes, especially for senior citizens and others on fixed incomes.
“It’s a balancing between the property taxes to the extent we can hold them steady and not go up and still provide the services, maybe through some consolidation,” Flory said.
Grotewiel has said if the county’s budget can be managed properly, taxes also can be managed. He has mentioned going to performance-based budgeting for departments.
“I think it should be up to the county to decide who is performing, who is working together and reward that kind of behavior,” Grotewiel said.
Both have also commended agencies that support the aging population for implementing some consolidation and for efficiency.
Several social service agencies have to implement cuts because of reduced county funding.
In the other race, Thellman has said with the economic picture getting tougher, she would be less inclined to further reduce funds to social service agencies.
“We have to be very careful about cutting our social services at time when our social services may be even more necessary than they were just last year,” she said.
She has also mentioned looking at efficiency within departments and services. A guarantee not to raise taxes would be unrealistic, Thellman says, but it would be a major factor in budget decisions.
Expenses do need to be controlled, says Brown, her opponent, but he sees a balance between tightening down and making sure necessary services, such as road maintenance, aren’t neglected.
“I really don’t want to raise taxes. The services we have, we need to keep. They may be trimmed a little bit,” Brown said.
Although their ideas might differ on the topic, all four candidates say the long-term answer for the county’s revenue woes is to work with local groups and the city to attract new businesses, which will expand the tax base.