The Douglas County Commission on Wednesday approved a 2022 budget with a slight increase in property tax rates and an agreement for a grant of $500,000 toward addressing homelessness.
• Commissioners approved a budget of $148.5 million for next year.
Some county residents voiced concern about the tax increase, which amounts to about $23 more this year for the owner of a home valued at $200,000. Commenters said that the economic challenges of the past year have left more individuals unemployed and unable to meet rent and utility payments.
Catherine Ellsworth, a Eudora resident, asked commissioners to consider how the rural parts of the county would be affected by the raise in property taxes. With the budget’s largest increase going toward the county’s share of funding for the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical services, Ellsworth expressed concern that residents outside of Lawrence in the jurisdiction of Eudora Township or Wakarusa Township fire departments wouldn’t see the benefits of this.
“It’s just kind of a divisive time to be pitting rural and outlying areas against the urban areas,” Ellsworth said.
Commissioner Patrick Kelly said that although he agrees it is a difficult time to ask residents to pay more in taxes, there have been requests this year for additional services, and it’s the job of the county commissioners to respond to that.
“It’s our biggest responsibility, setting the budget as a County Commission and weighing the county’s request for services against the burden that we put upon county property owners and through our sales tax,” Kelly said.
Commissioners agreed that the funds set aside for county employee raises are an important part of the 2022 budget. Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said she is looking forward to upcoming market studies about the salaries of county staff, and part of the long-term goal of providing the best services possible in the county is retaining the employees that provide them.
“We do know our staff are severely underpaid,” Portillo said. “We can provide a bit of a boost this year through some market raises, and I hope that that helps us retain the really wonderful employees that we have.”
• Commissioners also approved a $500,000 grant agreement for the county’s Housing First Pilot Project.
Under the Housing First project, Douglas County will collaborate with the City of Lawrence to provide homelessness resources in the community. Financial support for this project came from American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding to address challenges on vulnerable populations in Kansas resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Several community stakeholders are also involved in the project, including Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, the Lawrence Community Shelter, and the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition.
Assistant County Administrator Jill Jolicoeur provided an overview of the project contract, which include services such as behavioral health resources and a local housing voucher program.
“It’s a really important opportunity for us, and (Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services) has given us a good amount of discretionary authority in envisioning a pilot project and how we want to use those dollars,” Jolicoeur said. “We’ve really just got a lot going for us, and we’re already organized and hitting the ground running.”
Commissioners expressed enthusiasm about how collaborative the project is and the potential it has to help residents stay in their homes. Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid said she’s grateful for the staff members and community members who have kept that conversation alive.
“For us to be thinking about how we help fill that gap and how we address the most vulnerable folks that are hitting those barriers and other systems is really important to me,” Reid said. “I’m very grateful for that and excited to see what we do with these state dollars.”
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