Lincoln County commissioners Monday deliberately added to their 2021-22 budget challenge before devising a strategy to push their spending plan under state lids.
The five-member County Board began by refusing on a 2-1 split vote to use the full amount of their state-allowed budget growth under the 25-year-old lids.
Commissioner Jerry Woodruff abstained, and Commissioner Joe Hewgley was absent.
That step boosted the County Board’s draft budget’s $301,800 spending overage under the lids by $121,500, North Platte accountant Susan Maline said later during commissioners’ third budget “work session.”
After mulling various options, the four commissioners present Monday decided to pare back their plan to have the county contribute toward employees’ family health insurance premiums for the first time.
The County Board had proposed paying for 70% of those costs for the fiscal year that started July 1, Chairman Kent Weems said.
Instead, commissioners informally agreed to begin by covering 35% of those costs to close most of the $423,300 spending gap.
Whatever else is needed to balance the spending plan in regard to the lids will be drawn from the county’s inheritance tax fund, board members said.
“It’s there when we need something, and we need something,” Weems said.
County Board members agreed they need to do what they can to help employees with families better afford their health costs. The county has regularly paid part of single-coverage premiums.
Over the years, “we haven’t improved our (family) coverage, and society has,” Commissioner Bill Henry said.
Commissioners set 11 a.m. Sept. 13 for their formal public hearing and vote on the budget, which totaled $61.46 million for all funds — including cash reserves — before Monday’s changes.
Nebraska’s regime of lids on budgets and property tax rates, which dates to 1996, excludes bond repayments and some other types of spending from the budget lid.
Local governments cannot raise spending in the remaining “restricted funds” by more than 2.5%, unless their governing board votes for increasing its spending authority in those funds by up to 3.5%.
Taking that option each year had been routine for the County Board until Monday, when it quickly became evident the newer members didn’t want to add the extra 1% this time.
First-year Commissioner Chris Bruns said he had gone through department budgets “and found items that are a little bit out of line. We’ve got to find some way to cut.”
Nebraska’s county boards set overall spending for each department but can’t control line-item spending for offices under separately elected “row officials,” like the county clerk, treasurer, sheriff and several others.
Henry and County Clerk Becky Rossell said sticking with the basic 2.5% spending lid will have a ripple effect on future budgets.
That’s because the 2022-23 budget — which likely will have to deal with the highest U.S. inflation rate in 40 years — will have to start from a lower “base,” they said.
» For every $10 of spending allowed under the lid in last year’s budget, the county after Monday’s vote can raise spending to no more than $10.25 instead of $10.35.
» When commissioners work on their 2022-23 budget next summer, that $10.25 could grow to either $10.51 under a 2.5% lid or $10.60 under a 3.5% lid.
» But had the County Board chosen Monday to take its extra 1% in budget authority, their 2022-23 spending under the lid could have grown from the higher “base” of $10.35 to between $10.61 and $10.71.
Mushrooming energy costs caused the Consumer Price Index, the federal government’s key inflation measure, to run at a 6% annual pace in July.
“That would kill us” if inflation persists at that rate, Henry said. “We’ll have to cut a lot of stuff just to make that cost-of-living” raise that the county usually gives employees.
Weems and Bruns voted against exercising the county’s extra 1% in spending growth under the lid, though Weems expressed misgivings.
“I’m personally a little concerned that to this point we haven’t found a lot of room in this budget (to cut), and we need to,” he said.
Henry cast the lone vote to exercise the extra spending authority.