On May 3rd the Gazette reported that the Lyon County Extension has been discussing the possibility of imposing mill levy limits on their taxing authority if Lyon County voters approve Resolution 1-12. Extension’s Brian Rees said, “We’ve talked about it briefly. We haven’t talked about a number.” Rees further said he’d be “tickled pink to have a 2.5 mill cap at this time.”
It was a classic example of a political trial balloon, one of those meaningless gestures or suggestions meant to sway voters. Politicians or those who stand to gain from political decisions often do this sort of thing. Many of us were around in 1988 when George H.W. Bush uttered the now infamous words, “Read my lips…No new taxes!” It got him elected. But, in 1990, with deficits increasing, he agreed to a budget deal that included tax increases to solve the problem. He didn’t get a second term. Woodrow Wilson promised to keep us out of war. Herbert Hoover promised to end poverty.
It’s one thing to make promises; it’s another to keep them. When County Attorney Marc Goodman was asked by KVOE about the legality of what Extension was “considering” he said, “The situation warrants further study, but an initial look indicates the district could legally set a mill levy limit by way of a majority vote by the district board. The board could also vote later to adjust the limit or remove it entirely.”
In other words, any promise Extension might write in to cap mill levies wouldn’t be worth a dime. Things can change. They always do.
In 2011 decreasing revenues had put Wyandotte County in a bind. Desperate, the Unified Government approved an 8.9% increase in property taxes contrary to promises they’d previously made. The vote was 6 to 4; about the same narrow scale of vote by which our commissioners approved the Extension merger. The people of Wyandotte County howled in protest, which was about all they could legally do. Did Wyandotte County residents get what they wanted? No, but they did get an approval from the Unified government for “an efficiency and effectiveness study of all departments.”
Here’s a hypothetical situation to consider. The Extension merger is approved. They set a 2.5 mill levy and promise to cap it. All seems well until county valuations decrease. Revenues shrink and businesses buckle under the weight of economic difficulty. Extension suddenly realizes that 2.5 mills leaves them far short of what they “need.” They can tell me till all the cows come home they won’t violate their “promise,” but I know better. When reality bumps into an empty promise, I can assure you that reality will win. Maybe 3 mills will do the trick, or 4, or maybe even 5. They will get what they “need.” We can howl in protest all we want, but it will only leave us frustrated.
What do you suppose might happen when, a year or two later, the increase to 5 mills gets Extension far more revenue than they need? Do you think they’ll give the money back to us? I know enough about organizational behavior to realize they’ll find something to spend the money on. There’ll be “needs” for new I-Pads, efficiency studies, updated digs, naugahyde chairs, “energy-efficient” vehicles, new credenzas, or training junkets.
A few years back Dale Fjell was asked what Extension was trying to accomplish by consolidating. He talked about efficiency and economies of scale. He talked about service. But he really tipped his hand when he said, “Here is an opportunity to be able to do that with another way to generate income. That is why we are trying to do that.” Brian Kreger put it even more succinctly – “We get to set OUR mill levy.”
There’s something Extension wants more than taxing authority. They want INDEPENDENT taxing authority. If they get it they won’t have to concern themselves with the needs of the Sherriff’s department, the library, Newman Regional Health, Road and Bridge, or other county departments. They’ll be as free as birds to do what they want.
There’s so much more to say. It will take subsequent essays to cover it all. I’ll close with this. Lyon County has been exceedingly generous with Extension. Since 2007 we have provided 67% of their funding. We’ve enabled them to increase salaries by close to 15% over that time, while county employees were getting no pay increases. In the early discussions about this merger, Extension has hinted that their future is uncertain. What are they saying? Haven’t we been generous enough? Has anyone against the merger said we were against funding Extension? Here is all we’re saying. We’re all for generosity. We’ve proven that. We simply don’t believe that his merger is a dog that can hunt. It needs to be left on the porch where it belongs.