The county’s smaller budget has been capped, but how much property tax money residents will pay is still up for debate.
Sedgwick County commissioners set the limit for the county’s total budget at $412.8 million Wednesday, about a 3 percent reduction from last year’s budget.
A slim majority of commissioners kept the window open for property taxes to remain roughly the same as last year, instead of slightly lowering taxes as suggested in the recommended budget.
That budget released Monday had included a $512,094 rollback of property taxes with a slightly lower mill levy. The mill levy determines property tax rates for Sedgwick County residents.
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But commissioner Jim Howell joined Tim Norton and Dave Unruh on Wednesday in voting for a budget ceiling that did not include the rollback.
They contended that will give the county more flexibility in its budget process. But chairman Richard Ranzau and commissioner Karl Peterjohn said it could eventually act as a property tax increase.
“This is not the right time to make this adjustment and I think having options on the table is good for us,” said Howell, who proposed keeping the mill levy flat with last year.
“That is not a tax increase and it’s not a tax cut. It’s neither,” he said. “It is trying to maintain that level.”
The tax cut had been a major goal of the commission’s majority for the 2016 budget, along with paying for capital projects with cash, limiting county debt and focusing on core government services.
The owner of a $100,000 home would have saved $1.37 in taxes under that change, according to the budget.
Commissioners set a maximum county budget of $394.6 million, with no more than $130.1 million coming from property taxes. They also capped the budget for Fire District 1, which serves unincorporated parts of the county, at $18.2 million.
Commissioners cannot approve a final budget with spending or property tax dollars that exceed the levels set Wednesday without violating state-imposed deadlines, said budget director Lindsay Poe Rousseau.
The $512,094 cut in property taxes would have changed the mill levy from 29.478 mills to 29.359 mills.
However, the final mill levy will still be up in the air even after the budget is adopted by Aug. 12. County staff won’t know the actual tax rate until later in the year.
That’s because people appeal the assessed value of their property. When assessed values change during that process, the mill levy can go up or down to make up the difference.
Commissioners wrestled with how to accommodate these “technical adjustments” in the mill levy.
“I realize we don’t quite know the quotient yet because we can’t do that math until the end of September,” Unruh said.
Unruh, who opposes some of the recommended cuts, said it would be unwise for the county to get fewer property tax dollars without all the data first.
“I don’t think that we should, before the final certified numbers are in, arbitrarily reduce our funding stream by $512,000, which is a number that we do know,” Unruh said.
Rousseau said it’s more likely than not the mill levy rate will go up after the appraisal appeals process is over.
“We’re actually going to end up with higher (rates) than what is intended, based on historical experience,” Ranzau said.
Ranzau and Peterjohn said they need to preemptively lower property tax spending since the mill levy may creep up later.
“This is an effort to maintain property tax levels at what the commission intended to do,” Ranzau said.
Howell agreed the mill levy could creep up after the appraisal appeals are completed.
“It will not stay at 29.478 (mills) if we don’t make an effort to keep it there,” Howell said.
He said the county should consider lowering the mill levy before the final budget is completed.
“It is my intention we will deal with this in such a way that will anticipate the technical adjustments,” he said.