McCOOK, Nebraska -- Red Willow County, Nebraska, commissioners worked for about an hour Monday morning on an informational brochure that will explain to voters the importance of approving a tax levy outside the state-mandated levy limit to pay for the construction of a $5.1 million 24-bed jail and law enforcement center.
What it all boils down to, commission chairman Earl McNutt said, is the financial stability of Red Willow County.
Voters will be asked to vote "for" or "against" placing the law enforcement center's 41⁄2-cent special tax levy outside the levy limit of 50 cents per $100 of tax valuation. McNutt said state law requires the successful vote of patrons for a special levy to be placed outside of the state levy limit.
If the vote is successful, the bond levy to repay construction costs of the jail would be outside the levy limit and in addition to whatever amount the county levies for its general budget.
If the vote fails, the construction levy would have to be figured within the 50-cent state levy limit and as part of the general budget.
Downer said the vote will determine how the county continues to provide services to county residents. "Anyone who lives on a county road should be for it," Downer said.
Downer said that, yes, taxpayers will pay for the construction bonds whether the levy is within the levy limit or outside of the levy limit. "Taxpayers will pay for construction one way or the other," he said, and McNutt added that placing the special tax levy for construction costs outside the levy limit will determine "the financial stability of Red Willow County for the next 20 to 25 years."
Fellow commissioner Vesta Dack said that county employees will be affected first if the vote fails and construction bonds must be paid for within the general budget. McNutt agreed, saying some of the first cuts will have to be county personnel and county employees' benefits.
Downer said other cuts that commissioners will have to make will be contributions to organizations seeking county support, such as, among others, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault Services, the Family Resource Center, the McCook Economic Development Corp., the McCook Humane Society. Predator control now paid for by the county may have to go, McNutt said. Downer said that many of these contributions "are the right thing to do, but they would be at risk. These are the things that could be on the table."
Downer is deeply concerned that the state, over the past 40 years, "has narrowed our tax base," and is now considering eliminating inheritance taxes and taking away highway allocation funds, both of which are sources of revenue for counties.
Making up for the loss of inheritance taxes used by Red Willow County could be as much as the jail bond levy, Downer said, and that would be within the general budget levy limit.
Downer has said that with the fixed cost of construction at $5.1 million and with a bond repayment tax levy that decreases over time to 4.4 cents, he does not foresee huge increases in taxpayers' tax bill. He estimated that most taxpayers will see a 1 to 2 percent increase in their tax bills because of construction of the jail and law enforcement offices.
McNutt said that the tax bill for the jail and law enforcement center construction would be an additional $46 per year on property valued at $100,000.
A key issue, McNutt said, is that the construction repayment bond levy would go away in 20 years, and it would reduce over time.
Commissioners wrote the "Pros" and the "Cons" of the bond levy outside the levy limit. The list of "Pros" includes maintaining the financial stability of Red Willow County; creating "breathing room" within the county's general budget for increases that are out of commissioners' control -- such as inflation, the price of fuel and repairs, replacement of equipment; and preserving the existing level of services provided by the county.
The "cons" include what McNutt called a "tight, tight, tight" general budget; the loss and/or reduction of county services, county personnel and county employees' benefits; and the elimination of contributions to organizations seeking county support.