When Lawrence voters go to the polls Aug. 7, they'll be asked to approve an increase in the city's sales tax rate.
But the real issue, city officials say, is not the tax itself but whether residents want to beef up the city's police and fire departments.
Raising the sales tax to improve police and fire services isn't a new idea in Lawrence; in 1971, the city became one of the first in the state to approve a local-option sales tax, and the proceeds from the tax were earmarked for hiring an additional 26 police officers and 15 firefighters.
The current proposal calls for raising the local sales tax rate by an additional percent to a full 1 percent. The city estimates that such an increase would raise $2.7 million over its initial 12 months, and it proposes hiring an additional 27 police officers and nine firefighters with the tax money.
The cost of those staffing additions, along with related equipment purchases, is estimated at $1.465 million.
THE EXCESS money raised through the increased tax is earmarked for property tax relief. The city estimates that in 1991, 5 mills can be shaved off the city's property tax levy if the sales tax increase is approved. A mill is equal to $1 in taxes for every $1,000 in assessed property valuation.
For several months leading up to the 1989 city elections, talk surfaced throughout the community about the need for increases in police staffing. The issue followed Shirley Martin-Smith, David Penny and Bob Walters when they were elected to the commission in April 1989. And it continued through January, when the "Public Safety Report" was issued by Mike Wildgen, who was then the acting city manager. He since has been hired as city manager.
The report cited the need for additional staffing and, ultimately, the commission bought into the idea. Now the commission has placed the issue squarely in the lap of the public.
"IT'S UP to the citizens," said Martin-Smith, now the city's mayor. "They clearly indicated to us that they wanted more patrolling, they wanted more police officers out there in the neighborhood and on the streets. They wanted more firefighters. Well, this is the way we get it."
Commissioners decided on the sales tax the way to pay for the additions for a single reason: The only alternative for raising the needed funds is an increase in property taxes. With the statewide furor over reappraisal and classification of property for tax purposes, however, commissioners quickly ruled out increasing property taxes.
Although the city is 1-for-1 in getting voter approval on sales tax referendums, more recent history in Douglas County suggests the public isn't always open to the sales tax as the way to fund local government services.
In both 1984 and 1987, proposals for implementing countywide sales were defeated by county voters.
SIX YEARS AGO, county voters defeated, by 5,688 to 4,512, a proposed half-cent sales tax that would have gone toward property tax reductions. Nancy Hiebert, a county commissioner, speculated at the time of the defeat that the county should have been more specific with its projected use of the tax revenue.
"Reducing property taxes has often proved not to be sufficient reason for voters," she said.
In 1987, the county tried again, this time with a 1 percent proposal. The proposal was shot down by an even wider margin: 5,676 voters were against the tax to just 3,798 in favor.
The 1987 proposal's defeat was blamed on uncertain economic conditions and backlash against the county's 1985 decision to issue $4 million in bonds for the south Lawrence trafficway without a public vote. The greatest determining factor, however, may have been a general distaste for any general tax increase.
"People don't want their taxes raised; I think that's essentially it," then-Mayor Mike Amyx said at the time of the 1987 vote. "I think we were given a clear-cut message that people don't want us to raise their taxes."
ERNIE MOSHER, executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, said voters across the state historically have given more support to sales tax referendums when a specific plan is laid out ahead of time for spending the revenue.
Additionally, Mosher points out, sales tax votes have won voter approval in 123 out of 143 different cities that have opted for local votes. Forty-six cities have successfully gone from half-cent sales tax levies to full cent rates.