The Douglas County Courthouse.
The large fire district that has served much of rural Douglas County for the past few years still doesn’t have a dedicated fund for purchasing equipment, but that’s going to change in the near future, county leaders heard on Wednesday.
As part of their 2024 budget proceedings, county commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to publish the budget proposal for Consolidated Fire District No. 1, which totals $2.135 million and would hold the mill levy flat at 5.5 mills. It’s a plan that County Administrator Sarah Plinsky hopes will help alleviate a major problem for the 3-year-old district — the lack of an equipment reserve fund.
“We’re just really grateful that we’re going to be in a position that we can create an equipment reserve for the first time,” Plinsky said. “I think that’s something that will evolve over the next two or three years.”
Plinsky said the fire district, which was created in 2020 by consolidating the fire services in the Wakarusa, Clinton, Eudora and Kanwaka townships, has been covering its equipment needs by tapping into its general-purpose fund. But the district’s fire chief, Mike Baxter, said that wasn’t sustainable over the long term.
Without a fund specifically for big purchases, Baxter said the district would have to take on more debt and grapple with high interest rates to replace its aging vehicles (or “apparatus”). That’s “not a very economical way of spending taxpayer money,” Baxter said.
“Do I continue to put Band-Aids on this fleet until I can save up enough money?” Baxter said Wednesday. “It’s that process that I’m trying to work through and, with Sarah and her staff, ways to replace that apparatus sooner rather than later.”
According to the county’s agenda materials for the meeting, the fire district set aside $150,000 to go toward a future equipment reserve fund in the last budget cycle, and it plans to do so again in 2024 to bring the total to $300,000. As the fund grows, it should be easier for the district to make the big purchases — which Baxter said will only get more urgent, considering that 19 of the 37 vehicles in the district’s fleet are at least 20 years old.
“Over half of my fleet is aged out,” Baxter said. “The fleet is what we need, and that’s my priority.”
Also on Wednesday, commissioners set a hearing date of Aug. 30 to receive public comment on the fire district and county budgets, as well as the decisions to exceed the revenue-neutral rate — the tax rate that would keep property tax revenues steady compared to the previous year’s budget. The fire district’s mill levy would remain flat under its plan and the county’s mill levy would actually decrease, but both taxing entities would collect more money in property taxes because property values have gone up. In the case of the fire district, commissioners heard Wednesday, the total assessed valuation grew by 22% over the past year.
In other business, commissioners:
• Heard an overview of the county’s 2024 Capital Improvement Plan and Public Works facilities projects.
Douglas County Finance Manager Brooke Sauer said in a presentation that approximately $8.379 million has been allocated for CIP project expenditures, and $3.63 million has been allocated for road and bridge project funding.
Sauer also discussed new projects that fit into the county’s proposed 2024 facilities plan. The largest expenditure allocations were earmarked for renovation projects at the courthouse. Other projects currently in progress include an offsite satellite location for use by the county treasurer’s office, for which commissioners previously approved the purchase of a building on West Sixth Street.
• Heard about multiple options for a renovation project planned for the courthouse chambers.
Commissioners will not hold a regular business meeting on Aug. 2, and will next meet at 5:30 pm on Aug. 9.