Johnson County pushes false choices to justify another property tax increase

Dave TrabertTax & Spending

(Note: the original version of this blog post noted a large difference between the number of employees budgeted and actual people employed.  We have since learned that the difference is attributable to Johnson County Parks and Recreation (JCPR), which is included in the Johnson County budget but not in the employee count in the Johnson County Comprehensive Annual Financial Statement because they are separate legal entities.)

 

Johnson County Commissioners are considering what is being positioned as the first property tax increase in nearly a decade, but that only refers to the mill rate.  Government officials and others who promote tax increases like to pretend that taxes only increase if mill rates go up but citizens pay their taxes with dollars, and Johnson County tax dollars actually increased 32 percent over the last ten years.  Data from the Kansas Department of Revenue shows Johnson County taxes went from $109 million in 2004 to $143.6 million in 2014. 

Kansas Policy Institute collects data on property tax collections and mill rates for all 105 counties and the 25 largest cities in Kansas since 1997 and posts annual updates on KansasOpenGov.org.  The county data only reflects taxes imposed by county commissioners; taxes for cities, school districts and other taxing jurisdictions within a county are not included.

Between 1997 and 2014, Johnson County taxes increased by 146 percent while inflation was 44 percent and the population rose by 38 percent.  Even if taxes increased by the combined rate of inflation and population, the total take would be $105.9 million, or $37.6 million less than actual taxes of $143.6 million last year.  Put another way, Johnson County residents would be paying 36 percent less if the county had just raised taxes by the combined rate of inflation and population.

 

 

Johnson County Manager Hannes Zacharias tries to scare residents into submission with a series of false choices in his 2016 Budget Message.  “… we have the following three options before us: (1) cut $13.7 million in services to the community in order to maintain a constant mill levy, (2) maintain current service levels, requiring a mill levy increase of 1.622 mills ($13.7 million) at a cost of approximately $4.00 per month for the average homeowner in Johnson County or (3) maintain existing services along with expanding specific services to address needs of future growth and keep this community a great place to live, work, and raise a family.

In other words, ‘pony up, taxpayers, or suffer the consequences.’  Government never says ‘give us a tax increase or we’ll have to operate a tiny bit more efficiently.’  And it really is a ‘tiny bit’ for Johnson County; $13.7 million is just 1.9 percent of 2016 budgeted expenditures of $728.4 million.   

Here is another option to avoid an unnecessary tax increase:  take the $13.7 million out of cash reserves of $185.2 million and still have 23 percent of budgeted expenditures in reserve.

Johnson County is also being deceptive about the magnitude of the proposed tax increase.  The mill rate is proposed to increase by 6.97 percent but valuations also increased by about 7% so the real increase (buried deep in the budget document) is 13.93%!

Johnson County residents should send a clear message to county officials and others (e.g., The Kansas City Star) leading the cheer for higher taxes – No False Choices.

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