Economic fallout from coronavirus casts pall over budget planning for Johnson County government

The city councilmembers are asking County Chair Ed Eilert and other members of the Board of County Commissioners to put some teeth behind the recommendations of the Ad Astra plan. File photo.

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As the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic continues, Johnson County Commissioners have begun to cast a wary eye toward what may be in store for the next year’s budget.

The county budget, which surpassed $1 billion two years ago, has been bobbing along in recent years, buoyed by steady increases in property values and low unemployment. But the rosy outlook has fallen into question the past year as officials have grappled with a possible major loss of commercial property value due to challenges to the way it was appraised, nicknamed the “dark store theory.” Last year they also puzzled over lagging sales tax returns.

Now, with metro-wide stay-at-home orders keeping many businesses closed, the situation has the potential to become many times more precarious.

“We have a hole in our budget that must be addressed,” Commissioner Mike Brown told his colleagues Thursday.

Chairman Ed Eilert agreed ruefully that this year, “will be a very active budget process.”

County budget writers are keeping an especially close eye on sales tax receipts, said County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson. A drop of sales tax collections of 10 to 30 percent over a year could result in the loss of $5 million to $15 million to the county’s budget, she said.

Property tax and other fees have usually been less volatile.

The county is taking some precautionary measures while officials watch to see what direction the virus will take and what type of federal and state money might become available. For instance, there is now a hiring freeze for all but essential county workers like sheriff and emergency medical personnel. Employees who work in buildings that are temporarily closed are being redeployed to other areas, such as Meals On Wheels delivery, Postoak Ferguson said.

But all the uncertainty and the rush of immediate work related to the pandemic prompted Postoak Ferguson to delay her presentation of a proposed 2021 budget by a month, to June 7. She told commissioners that delay will not prevent the county from making its mandated Aug. 25 deadline to have a budget in place.

What that budget will look like is uncertain. Brown suggested at a meeting last week that the commission should be prepared to consider ways to ease the financial pain of residents. For instance, the county could push back the property tax collection date, or decrease the mill levy, he said.

“Property tax payments are coming up in May and there is assuredly going to be a very long delinquent number,” he said. “We are going to have to be empathetic and understanding in a lot of things.”

Brown and other commissioners also said they will work on a way to bring public comment back to the meetings. “Public comment is pent up right now. I have had a nonstop stream for five or six days now,” he said.

The public comment part of the regular meetings has been temporarily removed because the commission is meeting remotely, through a video meeting app. The meetings can be observed on line at the county website or Facebook. There’s currently no way to comment in person, but people can email comments or call (913) 715-0424 to have them read aloud.

That can complicate public business, because in some cases, a public hearing is legally required. That’s particularly true in zoning and other items before planning commissions.

A public hearing was scheduled last week on a wastewater item, but was deferred. Eilert said the commission will work on a solution to that problem.