Lawrence is a growing city with a growing need for such basic services as police and fire protection. The half-cent sales tax that will be voted on next Tuesday seems a reasonable way to finance the needed increases in the city's police and fire departments.
Tax increases seem to be a way of life for almost every level of government these days, and any tax increase is rightly viewed with some skepticism, but the sales tax increase is more palatable than many proposals for several reasons.
One is the fact that the proceeds from the tax are specifically earmarked. The tax is estimated to bring in about $2.7 million in the first year. Of that, city commissioners have committed about $1.46 million to hire and equip 27 new police officers and nine additional firefighters. The remainder will be used to reduce the city mill levy. That will provide some relief to property taxpayers, who were hit with a heavier tax burden when the statewide property reappraisal and classification took effect.
A half-cent increase in Lawrence's sales tax would still put the city's rate at or below the level of many other Kansas cities. Lawrence shoppers already pay a 1 percent sales tax to the city of Topeka when they shop there. A total of 80 Kansas cities have a sales tax of 1 percent.
Overland Park, Prairie Village, Olathe, Lenexa and Merriam all have a 1 percent city sales tax in addition to the 0.6 percent sales tax collected by Johnson County. Combined city-county sales taxes put the rate in Hutchinson, Manhattan and Ottawa at 1.5 percent. Shoppers in Kansas City, Kan., pay 2 percent in city and county sales tax on top of the state's 4.25 percent tax.
Although the sales tax is often classified as a regressive tax because it puts a proportionately greater burden on low-income people, some of that effect is offset by the fact that the city doesn't collect sales tax only from Lawrence residents. Kansas University students, people who attend KU events and other Lawrence visitors contribute nothing to Lawrence in terms of property tax, but they all pay sales tax whenever they buy dinner or do other shopping in the city.
Partly because of the large student population of Lawrence and the number of visitors to the city, there is an increasing need for additional police and fire protection. A high level of public safety is important not only to full-time Lawrence residents but to the comfort of people who attend KU and visit here. Providing that service is one of the basic tasks of city government.
As with all other city funds, city officials should use the sales tax revenue wisely. Lawrence residents will be watching in the years to come to make sure the sales tax money is being used for its intended purpose of aiding the police and fire departments and lowering the city's tax levy.
Money is tight and taxpayers may be faced with other tax increases at the state and federal levels. No one likes tax increases, but in some cases, the increases are justified. The city's proposed half-cent sales tax increase is a prudent way to raise the funds the city needs to continue to provide a high level of public safety for its residents and guests.