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SPOTLIGHT
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Wait and see

Published on -8/26/2012, 1:58 PM

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Local budgets have been passed for 2013. Staffs for county, city and school district work long and hard on these documents, which are more than suggested guidelines. Once elected officials give their blessings, which happened unanimously in all three cases, the budgets represent the maximum amount those governmental bodies can expend. Spending less can and does happen, although it doesn't result in refunds being sent to taxpayers.

The fundamental elements that determine how much property owners pay every six months are minimal: assessed valuation and mill levies. As assessed valuation is up locally anywhere from 2 percent to 4 percent, upcoming tax bills would go higher unless the mill levy was dropped.

Hays USD 489 did just that. In fact, this marks the seventh consecutive year the district has lowered its mill levy. Hays city commissioners marked their fourth straight year of keeping their levy at the same mark. Only the county is going up next year, and that's primarily to accommodate a $4.5 million repair job on Old U.S. Highway 40.

Still, that increase in assessed valuation will enable each taxing entity to have more money to work with than they did this year. The only way the numbers calculate is for property-owners overall to be paying more in taxes. All told, however, most tax bills will not be that much higher. We believe most residents welcome such prudent fiscal management.

Government workers and elected officials need to be cognizant this was the last relatively painless budget season they will have for awhile. Starting in fiscal year 2014, the state of Kansas will be pushing significant expenditures down to the local level as a result of the Legislature working to eliminate income taxes for businesses and individuals. If the impossibly optimistic economic boom doesn't happen, Topeka will be shy some $2 billion annually to pay for services it now provides.

And that's when local governmental agencies will face some difficult decisions.

The biggest squeeze will be applied to K-12 public education, as that is what the state usually dedicates half of its general fund to support. Lawsuits will be futile at that point; there simply won't be enough revenue coming in. Other state-assisted agencies and services will suffer, although which ones and how much will be decided in Topeka during the next session. We would anticipate mental health, social services, arts, economic development, law enforcement and others to turn to the city and county for assistance in order to avoid being decimated.

At the same time, Ellis County, the city of Hays and USD 489 all have big-ticket items in the offing. The county plans to build an EMS/Rural Fire Department facility and renovate the law enforcement center once it's finished moving administrative offices to the Commerce Bank building and redoing the courthouse. The city, which has prudently moved to a pay-as-you-go approach to large projects, might have to contend with forces fixated on building a new conference center. And the school district is in the middle of a facilities study as well.

We would recommend all three entities put all future expansion projects on hold until they see what the state does next year. With no effective opposition to check the conservative faction that soon will dominate Topeka, local government had best wait to see what pieces will need picking up. The governor's Roadmap for Kansas is headed straight for a financial cliff. Communities that don't wish to crash more than likely will need to raise both property and sales taxes. We can't afford to be overextended in either category.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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