The Lincoln County Commissioners worked together Monday to find a way to trim $300,000 from the total county budget.
Most of the cuts came from the roads and sheriff’s office/jail, two of the commissioners said.
Expenses had to be trimmed to fit the overall budget within a state-required lid on higher taxes. That lid keeps the property tax levy from increasing more than 3.5 percent from year to year, with a few exceptions.
Before the budget work began, Commissioner Willis Roethemeyer predicted that the roads and sheriff/jail would have to take the biggest cuts.
Afterwards, Commissioner Joe Hewgley said the roads department was cut by $130,000 and the sheriff and jail by about $60,000.
The cut amounted to 3 percent of the $10.1 million that the county will levy in 2012-13 from Lincoln County property taxpayers.
The budget allows for a small raise, from 1.5 to 2 percent, for employees, Hewgley said.
Three weeks ago, the commissioners were looking at how to cut $1.3 million from the first draft of the budget, but money in the inheritance fund had been improperly recorded on the first budget draft, Chairman Willis Roethemeyer told the Bulletin.
“That helped quite a bit,” Roethemeyer said.
Hewgley said there was $400,000 in the inheritance tax fund from last year, but the accountant that prepared the budget didn’t note it correctly on the first draft.
That bookkeeping clarification and the budget cuts brought the budget shortfall down to about $400,000. The inheritance tax fund was tapped this year to make up the difference.
That is a short-term solution, Roethemeyer and Hewgley said.
“We are getting to where we will have to cut back on some services,” Roethemeyer said. “Not so much this year maybe, but next year…look out.”
Roethemeyer criticized the state lid.
“Everything is getting higher,” he said, “except the lid.”
He said wages comprise most of the budget but those are difficult to cut. County employees received a 2 percent raise last year, but only after county departments cut other things from their budgets.
The first roads budget was $500,000 (10 percent) larger than a year ago, mostly to cover wages, parts, supplies and fuel, Roethemeyer said.
Hewgley said the roads department will cut about $80,000 from its equipment budget, but money will still be set aside for road graders. He said by 2014, the roads department should have enough money to finish putting its fleet of motor graders in good shape, but pickups and trucks will need to be traded.
The budget discussion put the commissioners in a tough mood Monday when they considered two related requests.
Commissioners tabled a request for $5,000 from Select Mail of North Platte to help comply with changing postal regulations.
Select Mail prepares the county’s 84,000 pieces of mail each year for the post office, which saves the county the cost of postage meter and related manpower, Select’s owner Dan Schmitz said. His company seals, sorts and stamps mail for customers all over town, then takes it to the post office.
Schmitz said he is virtually certain that Select Mail has to buy a $50,000 machine to put new, updated UPC codes on envelopes. He is asking major customers, including the county, the hospital, the college, the city and the public schools for a one-time payment to cover the cost of the machine.
Select Mail has handled the county’s mail for eight years.
“You’re one of my largest customers, and the amount of mail you send is growing rather than shrinking.” he said.
Commissioners Joe Hewgley, Roethemeyer and Duane Deterding questioned Schmitz closely about the costs of mailing.
Schmitz saves the county a half-penny an envelope, plus $450 a year in rent for a postage meter, plus manpower. He said Select Mail is nearly the smallest pre-sort bar code businesses in the county and he doesn’t have money for the update.
He said the new UPC code should allow officials to better track where mail comes from and is a consequence of the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, when mail laced with arsenic was sent to the nation’s capitol building and investigators could not find out who sent it.
County Treasurer Sue Fleck, County Clerk Rebecca Rossell and County Assessor Julie Stenger all urged the commissioners not to return the county to the days when departments got their mail ready.
Stenger said her office sends out 10,000 pieces of mail at a time and has to meet statutory deadlines, and Select is a big help. Fleck said her office sends out motor vehicle statements every month. Rossell said state and federal election requirements change frequently.
But Hewgley said he was not in the mood to vote for the $5,000 because the budget needs to be cut. But, he told Schmitz that he is “probably grumpy at the wrong guy.”
The commissioners also were concerned that the county might lose tax base to a wetlands on some land along the South Platte River in western Lincoln County.
All three commissioners asked tough questions of attorney John Cunningham of Grand Island, who represents the Wetlands America Trust.
“We cannot afford to lose tax base,” Roethemeyer told him.
The wetlands trust has a conservation easement on land owned by Double Dog Ranch, but Cunningham assured the commissioners that the owner of the property will continue to pay property taxes.
“This is not a tax avoidance scheme,” he said.
Roethemeyer asked him to rewrite the terms of the easement to specify that the owner always pay property taxes. Cunningham and Steve Donovan of Ducks Unlimited said the easement already stipulates that.
Donovan said Ducks Unlimited is not exempt from paying property taxes at current valuations, even though it is a 501(c)3 corporation.
“I’ve never heard of a situation where conservation easements are used to remove land from the tax rolls,” Donovan said. “We’ve never thought that we want to own that land, because it is protected for wildlife now, under the permanent easement.”