Mayor Jim Henry's task force on tax abatements got under way Thursday with a wide-ranging discussion that touched on many of the growth issues facing Lawrence.
The meeting was held at the Sauer-Danfoss plant in East Hills Business Park. Sauer-Danfoss, along with neighbors Amarr Garage Door and Prosoco Inc., received tax abatements during the 1990s to come to Lawrence.
Henry opened the meeting by saying he hoped the task force will "bring some understanding, and, I venture to say, some healing to the community."
A recent Kansas University survey shows Lawrence residents are nearly evenly split on the need for tax abatements. That split was highlighted in 2000, when city commissioners approved an abatement to lure an American Eagle Outfitters distribution center to town.
The company eventually chose to build in Ottawa, but the controversy prompted Henry to promise creation of the task force. Thursday, he said the American Eagle fight revealed community misunderstandings of what abatements are and how they work.
Henry said the task force will take a close look at the city's abatement policy.
"Is it doing what we want it to do? Does it need to be tweaked? Does it need to be there at all? I personally believe that it does," Henry said.
State law requires the city to have an abatement policy, Assistant City Manager Dave Corliss said. The city has the power to craft the policy to make it easy or hard for a company to qualify, he said.
Task force members discussed the effect of abatements on the school district, their desire to find balance between the costs and benefits of attracting new businesses, the difficulty of balancing residential and industrial development and the debate on whether to primarily assist new or existing businesses.
They also discussed emphasizing Lawrence's quality of life to attract businesses.
But Keith Folkmann Sauer-Danfoss' director of plant operations and a task force member, said businesses often use objective data such as abatement policies to whittle down possible cities before looking at less tangible issues.
"Quality of life is extremely important, but if you don't get people here to look, it's not going to matter," he said.
The next meeting will be 8 a.m. March 21 at city hall.