Lawrence voters may be asked, as soon as August, to approve an increase in the local sales tax to pay for beefed up police and fire department staffing and to provide a small measure of relief to the city's property taxpayers.
The referendum came up Tuesday during the Lawrence City Commission's first discussion of the city's "Public Safety Report." The report, completed in January, points out deficiencies in current staffing levels and calls for the addition of 27 police officers and nine firefighters to the city's forces over a five-year period.
City Manager Mike Wildgen, one of the report's authors, noted that the increased staffing would be costly nearly $1 million in salaries and benefits in the first full year of the complete additional staffing.
"It's really an expensive proposition," Wildgen said.
LAWRENCE'S police department has not seen a staffing increase since 1972, shortly after voters approved a -cent local sales tax. Public rumblings throughout 1989 about the need for increased traffic patrols in neighborhoods resulted in the commission seeking the city report.
Now the commission appears ready to let the public back up those calls for more staffing with its pocketbook.
Wildgen said the city basically can turn to only two sources for the money necessary for the staffing additions: increased property taxes or increasing the city sales tax to a full penny. With the continued outcry over property taxes, compounded by problems resulting from statewide reappraisal and classification, commissioners indicated they were more prone to try the sales tax route.
A -cent increase in the sales tax would have raised approximately $2.7 million in 1989 in Lawrence.
COMMISSIONER Bob Schumm, noting that $1.4 million is needed for the additional staffing and equipment recommendations, pointed out that any excess money from a sales tax increase could be pledged to property tax relief.
"I really feel with the climate of the tax issue throughout the state right now, it's not very favorable to suggest an increase in taxes," Commissioner Bob Schumm said. "However this particular project is very valuable to the city; we've all heard about it."
He said that a sales tax increase to pay for enhanced public safety packaged with property tax relief "makes good sense." The city's sales tax receipts, he noted, already will be favorably impacted by increased spending by out-of-town visitors to the newly opened Lawrence Riverfront Plaza factory outlet center.
IF THE CITY raises $1 million from sales taxes above its costs for the additions, Wildgen said the savings to property tax owners would approach approximately four mills. A mill is equal to $1 in taxes for every $1,000 in assessed valuation.
The commission indicated it will revisit the public safety issue, including the question of holding a referendum, before June 15. That's the latest the city can notify the Douglas County clerk's office of its intent to hold a referendum in conjunction with the August primary election.