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Thursday
October 17th, 2019

seward logoROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times

 

The Seward County Commission recently passed the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and for the sixth year in a row, the mill levy has shown a slight increase.

This year’s increase was just more than a mill from 2019’s 46.826 levy to 47.865 for FY 2020. Administrator April Warden said this year’s increase is partially due to the constant valuation factor, but more so due to the county’s recent settlement with DCP National Helium.

“The total settlement was $3,101,468.49,” she said. “That is to be paid over a four-year period ending in 2023. Seward County’s portion of that settlement is just over $250,000 a year. A mill this year is equivalent to $259,532.”

The National Helium settlement concerned a case that company made with the Board of Tax Appeals in which company officials felt DCP property had not been valued properly and therefore, too much tax was assessed on the property.

Warden said the county has seen a rise in tax appeals from businesses and corporations, and the decisions from the Board of Tax Appeals can in turn affect the county’s valuation.

“When we are trying to set a budget in July because we have to send that budget to the state by August, a lot of times that valuation can change once values are certified in November,” she said. “There’s always a potential of having to pay tax back to those entities such as the case with DCP National Helium.”

Warden said the way cases have been decided has also fluctuated throughout the years, as has the county’s valuation, and this makes it hard to determine that valuation.

“We set a value based on the guidelines given to us from Property Valuation Division, and if those values are appealed or challenged and they go to the Board of Tax Appeals, we testify,” she said. “We give them the reasons why we value something the way we do by the guidelines we are given, but those decisions are made by the Board of Tax Appeals, and that can affect our valuation depending upon how they rule. That’s the reason why you’re going to see the difference in valuation.” 

Around 2008, Seward County saw a major dip in oil and gas valuation. Warden said decreases like that are easily identifiable, and while it will likely never come back to the level it was prior to that decrease, Warden said county leaders try to plan accordingly.

“We’ve done that, but we’ve also seen a shift in the number of businesses and corporations that are appealing their taxes and how those are being ruled on at the Board of Tax Appeals,” she said.

The county’s valuation also increased slightly from $257.5 million to $259.5, and expenditures saw a significant increase, with net expenditures at $27.9 million in 2019 and 2020’s going to $33.8 million.

Warden said out of the mill levy, one mill is allocated for the county building fund, and since the mill levy fluctuates from year to year, so to does the amount that fund gets.

Warden did say department budgets remained steady for the most part.

“I think our department heads our very cognizant of being importance of being efficient, and they’ve learned to do more with less,” she said. “However, we face the same increases with fuel costs and utility costs and health care costs the rest of the economy faces, and we have to adjust accordingly for that.”

Seward County did see some recent major repairs, including a huge energy project in 2017 and 2018 to replace HVAC systems, windows and lighting in some buildings. Recent purchases of buildings were also made for a new health department and a residential firefighting program at Seward County Community College. Warden said no new buildings are planned for the rest of this year.

As for the residential firefighting program, with the first year now in the books, Warden said county leaders have learned what worked and what did not work with that class.

“We’re making adjustments for the new year that will be starting this month,” she said.

As for the health department building, Warden said getting that department into the building on West 15th Street has been a slow process and one that has required a lot of patience and understanding.

“When the building was purchased, we identified areas we would need to remodel,” she said. “We tried to limit that very much because that building was already set up with a lot of office space for doctors’ office, so it was very conducive to the health department as far as the medical rooms that were set up and different things. We were able to keep remodeling costs down. We did that, and we remodeled the clinic part, and we remodeled the WIC department.”

Warden added the state reimbursed the county for the remodel of the Women Infants and Children program after the county paid for the work up front. However, she said, there were and still are former tenants in the building.

“One of those was the hearing aid place, and they moved out right away upon hearing we had purchased the building,” she said. “However, Dr. Rachow still is a tenant of the building, and we have not been able to remodel for the maternal and infant program.”

Warden said some people asked if part of the health department could be moved with the remainder staying at the current Second Street location. She said this would cause problems in terms of the technology between two separate buildings, particularly phone lines and servers.

“What we finally did, not having a good timeframe as to when Dr. Rachow was going to be able to be out because he’s also in the process of doing his own remodel, the commissioners approve for us to remodel the basement to accommodate the maternal and infant program,” she said. “The second floor space where Dr. Rachow’s located right now, we’ll use for future growth if there is any. We actually hope to open that location by year end. The basement remodel is scheduled to be done in October.”

As for projects on the board for FY 2020, Warden said part of Seward County’s fiscal responsibility involves identifying projects and maintaining the places where taxpayer dollars have already been invested.

“The county has a lot of facilities, so we’re trying to be proactive instead of reactive,” she said. “When you have the loss in valuation and different things that have been experienced in the 2005 range until now, you tend to band-aid things, and you tend to put things off to try to get along. You react instead of being proactive.”

In this realm of thought, Warden said the county, this year, did a facility assessment by trying to prioritize issues for county facilities over the next 20 to 30 years. Those projects were then broken down from which needed to be done immediately to those that could wait a little longer.

“We looked at a complete building envelope from our roofs to mechanical, electrical, plumbing systems and building automation systems,” she said. “In addition, we started setting aside funding for that, and we’re trying to adjust our budgets. We’ve projected projects that need to happen throughout that period. Budgeting now for one to five years is a little bit easier than budgeting further out, but at least we have an idea of what we need to budget for.”

With costs changing over the next 20 years, Warden said county leaders are still trying to put in a good plan for future budgets. As far as actual projects for 2020, she said a surprise to very few is the need for new EMS facilities.

“That facility is small,” she said. “The garage space where we house our ambulances, we have not been able to go with truck chassis as such for ambulances because they simply will not fit in those garages. Our space there is limited. It’s also outdated compared to what they build now for ambulances and different systems. We’ve identified that need.”

Warden said the county has begun putting money aside for a new facility, beginning with last year’s budget, and are continuing to do so now.

“We’ll continue to do so until such time we can financially accommodate that need,” she said.

County officials budgeted similarly for the Seward County Administration building, the Kismet fire station and the new Road and Bridge building, and Warden said current budgeting is simply just the start of a similar process for the EMS building.

“Whether that will be a newly built building or the time comes financially we can do it if there’s some space in the community that would accommodate that, we’ll be looking at that, but right now, we’re just setting funds aside to be able to afford that,” she said.

Recently, Seward County and the City of Liberal went in on a joint venture to get a new 911 communications tower and new radio equipment for first responders. The county’s 911 telephone budget saw a jump this year from $103,000 to $940,000, but Warden said that jump is somewhat misleading.

“The reserves have been in place for years in that 911 fund,” she said. “We’ve prepared for changes in technology and our emergency response communications. There’s very specific rules put into place as to what 911 funds can be used for, so as we started doing research on the tower, there’s only certain expenditures that can be used for a tower.”

As for the tower with 911 communications being a joint effort between the city and the county, each entity put in $150,000, and Warden said the county’s money came out of the entity’s equipment fund due to rules about 911 funds restricting where that funding can be spent.

“There was a lot about the tower that can be paid for with those expenses,” she said.

However, Warden said 911 funds can be used for changing technology needs such as consoles which are needed in the local emergency communications department.

“Obviously with changing technology and radios and frequencies, that funding in the 911 fund can be used to replace the equipment and the consoles and such in the communications center,” she said. “That money’s been there, but when you set the budget, you have to give budget authority for expenditures.”

Thus, the reason why the increase looks so big, Warden said, is the money alloted for the budget over time is now available for communications leaders to spend.

“The reality of them spending all of that is very rare, but what it does is it allows you to spend it,” she said. “When you budget, you’re giving budget authority for expenditures. If we didn’t open that up for them to be able to replace the console and the technology, it requires a budget amendment, and you have to do a separate public hearing and notification for the state.”

Knowing changes are going to have to be made for 2020, Warden said communication officials have now been given the budget authority for the money set aside for expenditures to be spent.

As for the overall effect of the rising mill levy, Warden gave an estimate to what it will mean for the average taxpayer.

“It means about $10 to $15 on a $100,000 home,” she said.

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