Smart spending helps Aurora tax climate

Editor’s note: The following is a guest column by Sarah Curry, policy director at the Platte Institute.
Local property taxes will be at the forefront of debate in next year’s session of the Nebraska Legislature. Agricultural land values and home prices have increased considerably over the last decade, and still Nebraska’s property tax rates remain the nation’s seventh highest on average.  
Few people object to paying taxes altogether, as long as the taxes are fairly assessed and the money is properly used. But many communities in Nebraska have been stretched thin by their spending priorities, making the property tax problem even worse.
In Ralston, the city was forced to raise property taxes to pay the debt associated with their arena, while removing funding for police officers and the library. York’s tax rates are likely to rise dramatically in the next several years due to fiscal mismanagement. The city struggles to afford road maintenance and personnel, but had previously spent $9 million on a ballpark complex. North Platte’s budget has been drained to fund a local golf course for close to a decade, while bridges that need maintenance sit untouched.
While Aurora has a tax rate that is approximately 30 percent lower than its neighbors, that should not give citizens reason to relax. Neighboring York and Grand Island have both raised their taxes this year, making it easy for Aurora to look like a shining star when there are still issues pressuring the community to also increase its spending and taxes.
Of course, we all want nice amenities in our community, but Aurorans learned early on that community projects and services have the best chance of success when support is broad-based.  In Aurora, projects are not solely dependent on taxpayers but funded with private contributions from the community.  
This approach is known to many as “The Aurora Way,” and may provide a model to be replicated statewide.
Projects in Aurora are expected to have detailed plans to win the full support of the community, and the capacity to earn private donations, before the decision is made to move forward. Aurorans have reaped the benefits from this approach.
This is all the more impressive since Aurora forgoes a local sales tax to make up the difference. The citizens voted against renewing its original local sales tax by a 3 to 1 margin, after voters expressed disapproval with the implementation of a proposal for a taxpayer-funded swimming pool.  
The Aurora Way has been tremendously successful, but it is now being challenged. A perfect example is the current debate over the county’s EMS service. Under the current program, the EMS service’s total expenses are over $820,000 per year. While there are less expensive alternatives available such as privatization, or a public-private partnership that can save hundreds of thousands each year for taxpayers or other local services, the community isn’t in full agreement.
Another proposal led by the city would start a new EMS service which would increase total expenses to over $1.2 million, adding pressure on the city to raise property taxes.
The opposition to less costly alternatives puts Aurora at a turning point. This will not be the last time the community will have to decide whether to provide services using the Aurora Way, or spend more on services that other counties show can be more efficiently managed by the private sector.  
The famous economist Milton Friedman used to say, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” Aurora is an admirable example of measuring by results. The community has a proven track record for keeping taxes low while providing a high quality of life for its residents.
But maintaining that record isn’t easy, as we can see from the many Nebraska communities that have been saddled with higher taxes following fiscal mismanagement. For more of Nebraska to follow Aurora’s example, residents here will have to stand by the approach that made their community so successful.
Sarah Curry is policy director at the Platte Institute. Learn more at

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