It is refreshing and encouraging to learn several Lawrence city commissioners are becoming concerned about the tax situation in Lawrence and Kansas. This should indicate they also realize the importance of broadening the tax base and that the only solid way to provide more services for citizens and taxpayers, without brutal tax hikes, is to bring in more industry, more retail business and new tax dollars to help pay for the many necessities as well as a good number of the "extras" or goodies that taxpayers seem to want.
For some time, city commissioners have been considering the purchase of a trolley, actually a regular bus chassis dressed up to look like a trolley, to ferry people between the riverfront factory outlet center and the downtown retail area. This was one way the commissioners thought they could show their continued interest and concern for downtown merchants. The trolley supposedly would facilitate and increase potential customer traffic between the riverfront project and the adjacent southern downtown area.
The only trouble is that the price tag for the trolley was fairly high, about $95,000 for one model, plus an annual estimated operating expense of $40,000.
AT TUESDAY'S commission meeting, several commissioners noted the growing pressures on local property taxpayers and decided to back off on the trolley purchase. They agreed that in light of the current local tax situation, the trolley did not command top priority.
The tax situation is bad, and a number of factors have contributed to the sizable property tax increases that local residents have experienced: the reappraisal of property, the inexperience of those who did the property reappraisals, the almost insatiable appetite for tax dollars by the local school district, and the lack of any major growth and development within the city and county. These all contributed to the current tax situation.
City and county government bodies did a reasonably good job in holding down their tax mill levies, but the school district tax statement continues to climb at a rapid rate and from all indications will continue to do so until local taxpayers say "stop."
If local residents want trolleys, more parks, more recreational services, more special programs, etc., they are going to have to expect to pay higher taxes.
THERE IS, however, one way to minimize these tax increases. That is to be more active and more successful in attracting new business, new industry, new residential development and new residents, all of which will help generate additional tax dollars for the city and county.
Unfortunately, recent city commissions have not been encouraging or receptive to the proposals for major business. For years, Lawrence has been looked upon by business and industry as one of the more difficult cities in which to locate a new retail business or industry. The city does not have a good reputation in this regard.
For example, for close to 15 years, a number of national, major department chains have wanted to have sizable stores in Lawrence, and a number of nationally recognized developers of shopping malls have wanted to invest millions of dollars in Lawrence. Each time, they have been turned down for a number of excuses.
One developer, Jacobs, Visconsi and Jacobs of Cleveland, has been trying for more than 12 years to invest in Lawrence. Each time the city has said "no" even though JVJ first proposed a mall at the southern edge of the city, then designed a mall for the east side of the 700 and 800 blocks of Massachusetts Street and finally offered a shopping center in the 600 blocks of Massachusetts, Vermont and Kentucky streets.
JVJ CONTINUES to look upon Lawrence as a favorable site for a shopping mall, and they currently are challenging in court the city's rejection of necessary zoning for development of a suburban mall.
If a mall had been approved and was in operation, it would have been a sizable shot in the arm for the local construction business, with many jobs created during the one- to two-year construction period. There would be hundreds of full- and part-time jobs for employees at the mall and there would have been many millions of new, added retail sales dollars generated by the mall and other Lawrence businesses. These sales would have resulted in increased sales tax revenues, and there would be less slippage of retail business to nearby malls in Kansas City and Topeka. And the mall would have paid sizable property taxes to be used by the city and county.
In regard to the JVJ proposal, it also would have resulted in a regional distribution center for one of the companies that would have been in the mall. This separate facility would have employed approximately 200 people, and it would have generated many spin-off jobs and businesses. It also would have added to the local tax base. City officials said "no" to the mall, and by so doing, lost the distribution center.
AT SOME TIME, local citizens, local taxpayers and city officials are going to have to decide what kind of city they want and if they have the pocketbooks to pay for such a city.
Parks, recreation centers, one, two or three high schools, swimming pools, art centers, trolleys, subsidized bus services, youth projects, parking facilities, new streets and many other similar improvements all are nice, but they all cost money.
What kind of a city will Lawrence be in the years to come? How many people will be able to afford to live in Lawrence or will they live elsewhere in the county and try to find jobs in Lawrence? Will the city have enough full- and part-time jobs, which are necessary to attract a certain number of KU students who need part-time jobs to pay for their college educations? How will this situation affect KU's future?
No one wants uncontrolled sprawl, no zoning, unreasonable land-use policies and uncontrolled growth, but there also is a danger of strangling the retail and industrial growth of the city. The current local property tax situation should bring this question squarely in front of all taxpayers. What do they want in the way of city services, and what can they afford?