The Omaha City Council has voted to approve financing of the downtown juvenile justice center and courthouse expansion project. Once bonds are issued for the project, Douglas County property taxpayers will find themselves on the hook for the repayment of this financial obligation for years to come. Without a public vote by the taxpayers who will be paying, I find this troubling.
Regardless of one’s view on the merits of the facility itself, I believe this is a flawed process. That’s why I introduced Legislative Bill 20 this past session to require a public vote before the issuing of bonds by a public building commission. Unfortunately, that bill remains tied up in committee.
Public building commissions are authorized by law to be created in a county where a city of the metropolitan or primary class is located. The stated purpose is to provide a means “whereby buildings, structures, and facilities can be acquired, constructed, remodeled, or renovated and financed for use jointly by such cites and the respective counties.” Under current law, such a commission can authorize bonds simply by resolution, with the authorization of the governing body of both the city and county by which it was created. No vote of the public is required.
All Nebraskans need property tax relief. Whether you’re a Nebraska farmer or rancher suffering from the third-highest property taxes in the nation or a homeowner suffering from the fourth-highest property taxes, you deserve relief.
And what about urban Nebraskans? For them, property taxes can make up 30% to 40% of a house payment, straining family budgets and forcing many young families out of the housing market. Sky-high residential property taxes are keeping the American dream of home ownership out of reach for many of our residents.
We often talk about the need to grow our state. One of the factors in such growth is the affordability of housing to help retain existing young residents and encourage migration to our state. Having the fourth-highest residential property taxes in the nation is not conducive to affordable housing, and it hampers our efforts to grow Nebraska.
There are two routes to property tax relief, both of which we must travel. We must change how we pay for things, and we must control spending. One way to control spending is to encourage accountability and transparency in local government spending decisions. And we can help do this by promoting public input and engagement in the spending decisions of our local governing bodies.
Requiring a public election before a bond issue takes place would provide needed public input and engagement in our local spending decisions. It would give those who will be responsible for the repayment of such bonds direct input into the decision. And it would help legitimize any decision to incur debt for public facilities.
When we’re talking about saddling our taxpayers with a long-term commitment to pay off bond debt, the burden should be on those who wish to see such bonds issued to seek and gain voter approval. The voters deserve the opportunity to weigh in at the voting booth on matters of such importance. That’s why numerous sections of our statutes dealing with other public entities require a public vote prior to bond issuance. And that’s why this loophole for public building commission bonds must be closed.