The Elkhorn City Council on Monday unanimously approved a tax-rate increase in its 2019 budget.

While the plan for next year passed without much controversy, City Administrator Sam Tapson said last week he has one eye on future budget discussions. Those could feature more dramatic funding alternatives—including a possible referendum to pay for fire and EMS services.

The 2019 budget is down about $6 million (14.18 percent) from this year because it includes lower costs for capital projects. Tapson said 2018’s budget took on more for the $6 million Department of Public Works building being built now.

The tax rate per $1,000 of assessed valuation will move closer to—but still slightly under—the 2017 rate. This year, taxpayers saw a decrease of 2.46 percent to $7.32. Next year, the tax rate will be $7.49 (in 2017 it was $7.50).

The tax levy increased 3.73 percent to $5.51 million. Tapson said this is “almost wholly attributable to debt service,” from borrowing for capital projects.

The council did not have any discussion about the budget Monday night, and Tapson said it did not include many big changes.

That could change in years to come, however.

As is happening in other municipalities, state-imposed tax levy limits are allowing less room for funding. From an operating standpoint, Tapson said such limits “haven’t been good.”

“At some point, the imbalance becomes hard to manage, and it’s getting ever closer,” he said.

The city’s fire and EMS services are “challenged” in terms of finances and staffing, which he said is the case in other communities, too.

Years ago, Elkhorn chose to go with a paid-on-premise fire and EMS program, which Tapson said has come with steadily rising costs.

“There is a likelihood as you look out down the road, probably into 2020, there may very well be a need for a levy limit referendum on the question of fire/EMS sustainability,” he said. “While it’s down the road, the discussion needs to be very current.”

The council, Tapson said, was not interested in looking at some kind of vehicle registration fee, but “we’re just looking at options.”

“You can’t get to 2020 and go, ‘Oh, we need to do something,’” he said. “We know we need to do something, and we need to plan for that and we need to think our way through that.”

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