Dodge County’s preliminary 2018-2019 budget estimates a tax increase of 32.87 percent, members of the board of supervisors said at the board’s Wednesday meeting.
Those numbers, if finalized, could increase the taxes on a $100,000 house by roughly $40, estimated Chairman Bob Missel.
The numbers are preliminary and speculative, and Missel told the Tribune that he expects the final budget will fall below that initial estimate.
But a “perfect storm” of costly expenditures — driven by escalating jail costs and the recently approved project with Motorola Solutions to revamp the county’s emergency radio system — has the board of supervisors wary about spending.
“When we first met with all the department heads, I said we were in for some uncharted waters, as long as I’ve been involved,” said Supervisor Rob George, who is the board’s finance chairman. “And you can see, the first run on this thing with some changes: 32.87 percent increase in taxes.”
The Motorola project was approved on July 18. It will build four new radio towers and upgrade the radio systems for fire and public safety entities throughout Dodge County. That includes the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office, which has argued that its outdated radio system poses safety issues for first responders.
The project is expected to cost a little more than $11 million — what Missel described as “the biggest financial piece that I’ve ever engaged with.” At Wednesday’s meeting, the board approved a down payment of $1,866,279.37 and voted to authorize the county to secure bonds for up to $9.5 million to pay for the project.
“If there is something over the $9.5 million, I think we have the capability of some of our ‘coffee can’ money out in the backyard that we can fund some of the other stuff,” George said.
While the exact details of the bonds are not yet set in stone, County Clerk Fred Mytty estimates that the county will have to pay off the bond at about $900,000 per year over 10 years.
A public vote on the bonds, like those that the city held during the April primary elections for the renovations of the Splash Station, Fremont City Auditorium and Keene Memorial Library, is not required in this case because the radio system pertains to public safety, Missel told the Tribune.
“That is a matter of public safety,” he said. “We have a situation in the county now where first responders find themselves in situations where they’ve lost communication due to old radio equipment operating on a narrowing bandwidth, and it’s time we address it.”
Meanwhile, the costs of maintaining a jail population continue to rise substantially — to the point where George suggested that the county consider building a new jail to house its inmates, who have been held at the Saunders County Jail since 2011. That decision was, at the time, seen as a cost-saving measure.
“The time of saving a boatload of money with Saunders County has passed,” George said. “I think at some point in time, a new jail may have to be built here.”
Dodge County inmate population numbers can now hit as high as 85, compared to 55 to 60 in past years. The Saunders County facility has a total capacity of about 121.5, George said. The preliminary budget for corrections in 2018-2019 calls for $3.2 million, which would be significantly larger than in past years.
In the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the budget allotted nearly $1.6 million to corrections. Last year, that number was $2.48 million. The county spent roughly $2.7 million last year. The costs were driven, in part, by outsized spending on medical costs for inmates: at a June 20 board meeting, George said the medical costs had hit $346,000, the most the county has ever spent on inmate medical expenses, and more than double the budgeted $140,000.
The board members believe that the county is still saving money by housing its inmates in Saunders — the cost of maintaining personnel, for instance, would also be substantial. But George cautioned that the savings are shrinking each year as the cost of housing inmates increases.
“We had a very good deal with Saunders County to start with — we were in the right place at the right time,” George said. “It’s catching up, and we can’t expect Saunders County to lose money on their facility to house our prisoners.”
Missel cautioned that a new jail might not provide immediate relief.
“That expense doesn’t go away, and in the short-term it’ll probably be more,” he said. “The biggest costs of running a jail, and we learned years ago, it’s not the building, it’s the employees.”
Supervisors Lon Strand and James Vaughan said the county should see if it would be possible to push off a potential new jail for another 10 years or so, to get past the expected payments that will be incurred from the Motorola project’s bonds.
Other contributing factors to budget increases include additional investment into the PSAP 911 program which records law enforcement data and an investment into a new attorney at the Dodge County Attorney’s Office to handle a growing load of cases. But still, Missel suggested the Motorola project is the “gorilla in the room.”
“This has been a conservative board; Dodge County ranks probably, out of 93 counties in Nebraska, I think we’ve been in the bottom five as far as our tax levy goes,” Missel said. “We’ve worked hard to be fiscally responsible to our constituents, and I feel we continue to do that. That said, this increase, again, it is a reflection of a huge project — the biggest one that I’ve ever been a part of.”
On Aug. 20, final valuations are certified by the County Assessor, and on Aug. 30, the budget is finalized for publication. On Sept. 12 at 9:15 a.m., there is a public hearing on the budget, and it must be adopted by Sept. 20.
In the meantime, the supervisors will review the preliminary budget and consider areas that could be changed.