Even though Lincoln County has the lowest tax levy of any Nebraska county with 30,000 or more residents, a group that wants five county commissioners accuses the county board of overspending wildly.
A flyer, published as hand-out for the election and printed in a voter’s guide, says county spending has increased by 125% in the last 10 years. But the authors used a “catch-all” projected spending amount instead of an actual amount.
That campaign, led by land broker Duane McClain, purports to foster wiser spending of tax money, but organizers evidently don’t understand how to read the county budget.
McClain’s campaign literature used “projected” expenses for the current fiscal year, which is still underway, to make it look like county spending is going through the roof.
The reality is that the Lincoln County Commissioners have kept expenses relatively low. According to Nebraska tax records, Lincoln County’s levy is lowest of the state’s most populated counties, even though the county is the third largest geographically, with more roads than most.
Lincoln County’s levy is the third lowest of any Nebraska county that has 10,000 people or more, the state record shows.
During the last decade, if county spending increased for one year, it typically went back down the next year, according to county budget records.
As another example of fiscal efficiency, in 2009-10, actual county disbursements were $25.7 million.
Eight years later in 2017-18, the county actually spent even less — $25.6 million.
During those years, the county built a new jail and sheriff’s offices, renovated the courthouse ($2.3 million), built a new overpass at Birdwood ($2 million) and also paid more to meet state requirements in juvenile courts ($466,000 per year.)
The “projected disbursements” that the McClain camp published are projected each year to be much higher than the county’s actual expenses — often 35-40% higher.
The projected amounts set the budget for “pass-thru” funds — funds that come from outside sources such as federal and state grants or drug confiscations, the commissioners said.
If pass-thru funds arrive, they cannot be spent unless they are published in advance in the legally approved budget, which voters can see and comment on at a public hearing, according to state law. If pass-thru amounts are not in the budget, the counties, schools, cities, etc. violate state rules and auditing procedures.
Pass-thru funds don’t come from county taxpayers. Most times, projected pass-thru funds don’t even arrive. Therefore, actual expenses are much lower than projected.
Also, the commissioners receive more than $40,000 per year, including a salary of about $28,000, about $13,000 in health insurance benefits, plus reimbursable travel expenses. That is more than McClain published. He didn’t include benefits or travel expenses.
Some county observers also note that the county roads department is divided into three districts at present, but that might change to five districts after the election, adding more expenses.
Also, county officials said in a letter to the newspapers that five county commissioners would not equate to five equal-sized geographic areas. The five districts would be divided by population, not geography, so rural districts would still be large.
If the “for 5” proposal passes, the commissioners are expected to authorize the county clerk to redistrict the county. Once the new boundaries are drawn and announced, applications would be accepted.
A committee of the County Clerk, County Attorney and County Treasurer will interview applicants and choose from them.
State law requires all that to occur within 45 days. By law, the five districts must be contiguous and the edges should conform to existing lines and boundaries, such as voting precincts or townships, Lincoln County Clerk Becky Rossell told the Bulletin.
Rossell said it would be a challenging process.