By Jeff Fox

New year, same trend: Jackson County will take in and spend less money in 2014 than the year before.

A county budget of $296.3 million takes effect Jan. 1, compared with the $300.27 million budget approved a year ago for 2013. The office of County Executive Mike Sanders had projected a 2 percent drop in revenues this year compared with 2012, and that’s actually come in slightly better, a decline of 1.74 percent, Sanders said.

It looks a little better for 2014.

“We’re projecting flat revenues,” Sanders said Monday.

The $296.3 million covers a variery of services, from $2.15 million for 911 service to the roughly $24 million each for the health fund, the road-and-bridge fund and the anti-drug sales tax fund, or COMBAT. The COMBAT tax is approved by the voters, as was the 25-year sales tax of three-eighths of a cent to upgrade Kauffman and Arrowhead stadium. The debt service on those stadium improvements accounts for nearly one-sixth of the county budget, or $48 million.

One big new project in the budget is renovating the Courthouse Annex on Kansas Avenue just off the Square in Independence. With the reopening of the Truman Courthouse in the middle of the Square last September, the county has moved some offices out of the annex and has set aside $6.4 million to renovate the building.

“We hope to break ground in 2014. ... But the money’s in the budget,” Sanders said. The project is expected to take about a year.

The aim is to find space to add judges, reflecting a rising caseload as Eastern Jackson County grows. Most of the county’s Circuit Court judges are in downtown Kansas City. Also, Sanders said, the outside of the building needs green space and just generally needs to look better, becoming something the public will want to use for a long time.

“We want to make a 40-year – a generational – investment,” he said.

The budget also continues to include a pool of money – 2 percent of all salaries – for merit raises for county employees. The county has reduced positions over the last several years as the economy has struggled – cutting tax revenues – and as state and federal funding has dropped.

“We set a goal in 2008 of really trying to retain the best and the brightest,” Sanders said.

The county relies largely on property taxes, which are tied to property values, and officials see flat revenues – modest growth in Eastern Jackson County offsetiing declines in Kansas City – as a long-term trend for county finances.

To Sanders, that presents two issues: First, how to adjust to limited funds even as costs – everything from people to paperclips – rise steadly over time. The second, he said, is to look at what can be done to change that long-term, stagnant trend. Sanders says experts advise the same thing he’s advocated for years.

“They think mass transit is a game changer for Jackson County,” he said.

The idea is that commuter rail or streetcar lines attract significant, long-term investment, something officials say they’re already starting to see with the downtown Kansas City streetcar system set to open in 2015. Four years ago, Sanders proposed a commuter rail system – currently on hold – that would connect with streetcars to move people to and from Kansas City and within Kansas City once they get there.

“These are things that just inherently work together,” he said.