State budget cuts to hit county budget
The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department is asking Douglas County for an additional $20,470 next year to help absorb the cost of tests for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, which the state of Kansas will no longer fund.
That's just one example of the kind of requests Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said he has been hearing repeatedly as the county begins the initial phases of crafting its own budget for 2014.
"The state is questioning everything they do, every service they provide, and in a lot of cases they're changing the nature of how it's done," Weinaug said.
Weinaug has spent most of the last week and a half in budget meetings with outside agencies that receive county funding. Soon, he will start meeting with the heads of the county's own standing departments to hear their budget requests.
The process culminates in late August when the county and other local governments — cities, school districts and townships — must adopt their budgets for the upcoming year.
According to the health department, on Jan. 1 the Kansas Department of Health and Environment stopped performing lab processing for HIV tests from most counties in Kansas, including Douglas County . Those tests had been free for people classified as high risk, which included the vast majority of the 1,000 or so tests that the local department orders each year.
Now, health department spokeswoman Karrey Britt said, the local agency is contracting with Lawrence Memorial Hospital, which charges the health department $9 per test.
Furthermore, the department expects to absorb even more costs starting Jan. 1, 2014, when KDHE stops performing tests for gonorrhea and chlamydia, two other sexually transmitted diseases.
Britt said the health department will also seek additional funds for next year from the city of Lawrence, which jointly funds the agency. But local elected officials will have to decide whether they are willing, or able, to absorb the cost of programs that the state of Kansas is no longer funding.
That could be especially hard in a year when the county and other local governments are expecting to see a decrease in the property tax base.
"It's ... like $50,000 here and $10,000 there, but it adds up in a budget where the revenue available at the same mill levy is less than it was before," Weinaug said. "A lot of them aren't specific mandates, there's no state law saying you have to do this but it may be so intrinsic to our mission as a local government that county commissioners make the decision to take that over."
Although the final valuation numbers won't be known for several months, Weinaug said Douglas County is anticipating a decline of 1.5 to 2 percent in value this year. He said would translate to a loss of about $1.6 million out of roughly a $60 million annual budget.
All three county commissioners said this week that it's still too early to rule the possibility of a mill levy increase in or out.
"I don't think we know enough yet to say whether a tax increase is off the table," Commissioner Nancy Thellman, a Democrat, said. "I think we wish we could say that. We just don't have the numbers in front of us."
Republican Commissioner Jim Flory agreed, saying, "If there are programs that no longer have state funding, I think we have to look at those. We have to reassess every program we have. Obviously I would look at any increase in the mill levy as a last resort."
But Commission Chairman Mike Gaughan, a Democrat, predicted county officials will feel pressure to continue funding services the public has come to expect, including public health services like HIV testing.
"That's the kind of thing that our community and our citizens are counting on," Gaughan said. "If the state's not going to do it, it's just another example of the state passing on something to local government that we have to pick up."