County begins review of proposed budget

John Richmeier
The Leavenworth Times
County Commission Chairman Mike Smith, left, and Commissioner Doug Smith join their fellow commissioners Tuesday in reviewing a proposed 2022 budget. Also pictured is County Administrator Mark Loughry, right.

Leavenworth County commissioners began reviewing a proposed 2022 budget for the county government Tuesday. And they began debating whether to lower the county's mill levy.

The mill levy is used in determining property taxes. County Administrator Mark Loughry said the proposed main budget for the county would have a flat mill levy for next year.

But a 1.158-mill increase is proposed for a separate local service road and bridge fund. Loughry said the property tax levy for this fund is charged only to people who live in unincorporated areas of the county.

He said this fund is supposed to pay for rural roads in the county that are not designated as county routes. But he said this fund does not generate enough money to pay for the maintenance of these roads.

"This fund is underfunded," he said. "It is under levied I would say."

In order to keep the mill levy for the county's main budget flat, several requests for enhancements were excluded. Enhancements are requests for funding not included in the previous year's budget.

"We had to work hard to keep it flat," Loughry said of the mill levy.

Even if the mill levy remains flat, people who own properties that have increased in valuation could owe more in property taxes.

Loughry said the county is taking on some expenses that it has not had in the past. This includes the maintenance of the former Saint Luke's Cushing Hospital building. The hospital closed last year, and the building was donated to the county.

"Eventually, we'll start collecting revenue from rents on that building," Loughry said.

He said the county also will save money in the future by moving the Council on Aging into the former hospital building. The county currently pays rent to house the agency at another location.

Loughry noted the county also has added security at the Leavenworth County Courthouse. Members of the Leavenworth County Sheriff's Office now operate security stations at courthouse.

Loughry said this has resulted in an additional expense of almost $300,000.

Commission Chairman Mike Smith said he would like to see a reduction of the county's mill levy for next year if possible.

"I know what I would like to see, but maybe that's not possible," he said.

Commissioner Jeff Culbertson argued the county government has historically reduced its mill levy as other taxing entities in the county have raised their levies.

"Everybody else raises their mill levy and the county is the only one that gets blamed," he said.

He said mill levy cuts over the years have resulted in reduced services from the county. He argued the commissioners do not control the valuation of property, which leads to higher property taxes for individuals.

Commissioner Mike Stieben said property valuation in the county has increased significantly in recent years and the county has received a lot of additional revenue. He said taxpayers are wanting the commissioners to be as frugal as possible.

One of the enhancement requests has come from County Attorney Todd Thompson. He has requested funding for an additional attorney in his office.

Loughry said this position would require $110,000 in additional funding for 2022.

Thompson said a backlog of more than 200 cases has resulted from a suspension of jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leavenworth County District Court resumed jury trials this month.

"We're slowly getting through it," Thompson said of the backlog.

Thompson said judges also have required more work of his staff. And his office is transitioning to a new statewide computer system.

"I don't like asking for more money," Thompson said.

Commissioners had both morning and afternoon budget work sessions Tuesday. They are scheduled to have an additional budget work session this morning following their regular weekly meeting.

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