Local boards heard little input, when needed, on budget plans

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Budget season on the local level was anything but normal this year with a combination of declining property valuations, a shift in ambulance services from county to city, and a body blow from Mother Nature making it harder than ever for residents to know what their tax bills will look like.
Heavy rains have been brutal in 2019, damaging roads and bridges beyond belief. Hamilton County, mercifully, has not been hit nearly as hard as fellow Nebraskans to the west and north, but nonetheless a drive through the county, especially as harvest season begins, leaves no doubt that drastic measures were in order.
That comes with a hefty price tag, as reflected in the 19 percent tax request increase from the Hamilton County board. With the Hamilton Manor and ambulance service no longer part of the budget (though the county will continue to provide EMS support with $200,000 payments toward the city’s fire-based service) there was hope that county spending would drop, but instead it went up significantly. That’s a tough pill for many to swallow in light of low commodity prices, on-going tariff battles and struggles in the ethanol industry, all of which have hit the ag economy hard.
On the city front, the tax request went up 5 percent, including a nearly $1 million budget for the first full year of EMS operations. Our community seems united behind the shift toward a fire-based ambulance service, though it is still not clear what that service will ultimately cost and if it can be run in line with industry norms, which is what prompted the year-long debate and county’s ultimate exit.
Aurora Public School’s tax request remained relatively flat for 2019-20, though the budget increased by $407,000 and the levy rose 5 percent. That’s a trend that cannot be offset by local growth from year to year, putting more pressure on taxpayers to foot the bill.
All of the above made it surprising, if not disappointing, that local citizens didn’t engage in the budgeting process this year. One Hampton resident spoke out at the village’s public hearing, asking specific questions about staffing and spending plans, which was refreshing to hear and let that board know that local residents cared and were paying attention. Other than that the room was silent when board members asked for input at all the hearings covered by News-Register staff.
Not surprisingly, we’ve heard a great deal of concern in private communications about the overall level of local spending, though that feedback would have been far more valuable if shared with elected officials who set the budgets and levies. Silence, in this case, was not golden.
Kurt Johnson

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