The Douglas County Board appears ready to again consider the issue of merging two countywide elected offices.
Board member Pam Tusa, who is pressing the issue, said she wants the board to vote July 10 on letting voters decide in November whether to combine the Register of Deeds and Assessor's Offices.
The proposal is being delayed until after the board adopts its 2012-13 budget. Special ballot measures must be submitted to the election office by Sept. 4.
If voters approved the consolidation, the county would then need to schedule a special election in 2013 or 2014 to select an official to head the merged operation.
Lancaster County merged the two offices there in 2003. The Cass County Board just last week considered a proposal to place a merger of its two offices on the November ballot, but it failed by one vote.
Tusa said last week that she hopes the board has enough bipartisan support to let voters decide.
“I don't think the seven of us should decide this solely,” Tusa said, referring to County Board members. “It should be a decision left up to all of our constituents.”
Tusa said she has made government mergers and service consolidation a priority. A combined office for deeds and property assessment duties would “create a one-stop shop” for title companies, real estate companies, lawyers and the public, she said.
“It would combine services, make for more efficient government and reduce the overall budget,” she said.
At a minimum, the county would eliminate two jobs — a department head and a top assistant.
Lancaster County saw several efficiencies after its merger, Lancaster County Administrator Kerry Eagan has said, in part because the merged staff has been cross-trained to handle the duties of both offices.
The number of full-time employees has dropped from 50 to 42 since the merger, officials said.
Douglas County Board member Mary Ann Borgeson said she supports Tusa's proposal and it's time for a decision. The board has postponed the measure since Jan. 10.
Register of Deeds Diane Battiato opposes the merger. County Assessor Roger Morrissey has said he is neutral on the issue.
Said Borgeson: “I am still convinced that there would be a reduction in staff costs and better efficiencies gained.”
County Board member Mike Boyle remains opposed to putting the merger on the ballot. He says the board still has not been presented with a study showing the potential savings, including reduced personnel.
“I don't see this as saving any money,” Boyle said. “I don't see any real, improved services if the merger passes.”
Boyle said Battiato “has run a real good office” since she was elected in 2004.
Battiato says that there is no duplication of services and that the two offices are not close in function.
Her office has 27 full-time employees, and the Assessor's Office has 46 full-time employees.
“She's vulnerable because there has been a large drop in business activity, but the number of employees has not changed, and that's where people are not happy,” Boyle said.
County Board member P.J. Morgan, who supports a public vote on the issue, said a combined office might allow the elimination of unnecessary management positions and provide other cost-cutting opportunities.
Douglas County Board Chairman Marc Kraft, who initially supported a merger, is now undecided.
“I am very mixed on this, and I am very much conflicted,” Kraft said. “Is this the right time to be doing this? I am just not sure.”
He also said he is now skeptical about the savings.
“We have no hard facts,” Kraft said. “If we put this on the ballot to decide in November, the voters would automatically assume that there would be a savings.
“If there is not a cost savings, why take the risk of the disruption in services? How would the consumer benefit?”
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