Local boards need to sharpen budget pencil during COVID era

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Some tough decisions lie head in the next few weeks for elected officials tasked with approving budgets in the midst of a global pandemic.
Though Nebraska is weathering this storm far better than some states, our economy has clearly taken a hit. Some sectors have experienced a surge, some report relatively little change, while others, including restaurants, bars and businesses reliant on crowds in small spaces, have suffered cuts to the bone.
How all of this will translate in total tax receipts is not yet known in clear detail. Regardless, budgets and tax levies will be discussed and approved in August, which means city, county and school boards will soon be making critical decisions on taxpayers’ behalf.
What we don’t know is how long this unprecedented economic slowdown will last, as we’ve said before in this space. What we do know with absolutely certainty is that “business as usual” is no longer a relevant term.
Complicating the conversations, in my view, is the fact that property valuations sent out last month reflected an 8 percent across-the-board increase on all dwellings and structures within the Aurora city limits. On the surface, that makes it look like there is more money in the coffers, seemingly there to be spent. That is a dangerous if not completely false premise.
There are soooooo many uncertainties facing elected officials in this COVID era, particularly school boards trying to figure out what education will look like this fall and beyond. However, there should be an equally pressing concern regarding taxpayers’ ability to fund local government operations.
On that note, it was alarming to see how county board members were criticized last month for hesitating to fund a new sheriff’s department position based on budget concerns. The position was approved, ultimately, but one underlying message was that a perceived need should trump taxpayers’ ability to fund additional spending.
I don’t agree with that philosophy, but more importantly, do you?
Elected board members deserve to hear from you, the taxpayers, about how you feel on this issue. Citizens have that opportunity during budget hearings, which typically draw little if any feedback. This year, under these circumstances, an engaged citizenry is more important than ever.
This may be a year to not only hold the line on city, county and school budgets and levies, but to actually cut spending. That would be painful. Elected officials deserve to know how patrons feel before they make such decisions.
Don’t act like you don’t know this conversation is coming on your behalf. Engage.
-- Kurt Johnson

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