The city's "savings account" will be less than previously expected, but so will residents' property tax bills after commissioners Tuesday night approved a last-minute reduction in the mill levy.
In a 4-1 vote, commissioners at their weekly meeting agreed to cut another mill from the property tax rate that had been recommended by City Manager Mike Wildgen. The tax cut won't require a reduction in city services, though, because commissioners agreed to dip into the city's fund balances, a type of reserve fund that has been equated to the city's savings account.
"We have been good stewards in the past and we have been able to put aside some money," said City Commissioner David Schauner, who proposed the 1 mill reduction. "I think a mill decrease is good business at this point."
Wildgen had recommended a 2006 budget that would have cut the mill levy by 0.523 mills compared to 2005. With Tuesday night's action, the mill levy in 2006 will drop by a total of 1.523 mills. A mill is $1 in property tax for every $1,000 worth of assessed value in property a person owns.
Mayor Boog Highberger was the lone commissioner to vote against the proposal. He said he was not comfortable reducing the city's fund balances by roughly $770,000 to allow for the tax reduction. He said he was concerned because projections from Wildgen indicated that the tax cut would accelerate a trend of dipping into fund balances. Projections indicate the fund balance could drop from its current level of $14.05 million to $1.42 million by 2008.
"I love the idea of reducing the mill levy by another mill, but I'm not sure it is the fiscally responsible thing to do," Highberger said.
Several commissioners said the reduction in the mill levy could be short-lived. If the economy slows and sales tax and other city revenue takes a dip, the mill levy might have to be increased to build the fund balances back up.
"I will support this but I am concerned about the future," said City Commissioner Sue Hack. "We may be putting a future commission in a position to raise taxes to keep these fund balances where they need to be."
Schauner, though, said commissioners should not put too much stock into the projections because they rely heavily on unknowable factors, such as how the economy will perform.
Whether the additional tax cut will actually reduce the amount of property taxes homeowners pay to the city is questionable. According to the county appraiser's office, the average Lawrence home will see its value increase by about 6 percent, which may offset the decreased mill levy.
In other budget news, City Commissioner Mike Rundle backed off a proposal to remove about a half-dozen parks and recreation projects from the 2006 budget until the community could have a discussion about how to use proceeds from the countywide one-cent sales tax. He said he would not object to the projects being included in the 2006 budget as long as the commission could have a discussion about future uses for the sales tax early next year.
Commissioners did hear from one member of the public who urged that fewer sales tax dollars be used for parks and recreation projects. Hilda Enoch said the money may be better used for homeless issue and affordable housing concerns.
"I do think next year that parks and recreation should have to compete for those funds," Enoch said. "They have had access to them for a long time."
Fee increases get thumbs up
City commissioners at their meeting Tuesday evening routinely approved a set of fee increases that will take effect in January.
Commissioners unanimously approved the following increases:
¢ A 2 percent increase in residential trash rates from $11.71 per month to $11.94 per month;
¢ A variety of increases for water and sewer users. The amount of rate increases vary depending on levels of usage. But a household using 6,000 gallons of water per month would pay $18.63 cents per month for water, up from $17.97 currently. The same household would pay $33.30 for sewer service, up from $30.52 cents.
¢ Green fees for the city-owned Eagle Bend Golf Course would increase from $22 per 18 holes on weekends to $23 and from $19 for 18 holes on weekdays to $20. Rates to rent a cart would remain unchanged at $14 per 18 holes or $9 per nine holes.
Commissioners briefly discussed not increasing the fees at Eagle Bend in an effort to get more people to play. A recent report projected that the city-owned course would have 1,000 fewer rounds played this year after it implemented fee increases in early 2005. Commissioners approved the increase in green fees but asked staff to prepare a report on how competitive the course's rates were.
Proposed triplex put on hold
A proposed triplex development at 500 Fla. will have to wait until at least early December before it can move forward.
Commissioners on a 3-2 vote refused to give the property an exception to a building permit moratorium that covers part of the Pinckney neighborhood.
The moratorium has been in place for approximately the last 18 months while planners work to finalize a new area plan for the neighborhood. Commissioners Mike Amyx and Sue Hack voted to allow the project to move forward because they said the moratorium seemed to be placing an unnecessary burden on the property owners.
The Pinckney Neighborhood Assn., though, opposed the request. It said the planning process for the area should be completed before the project is allowed to continue. The moratorium is scheduled to expire in early December.
Permit for music festival approved
A Latin music festival will be allowed to occur this Saturday at a North Lawrence bar.
Commissioners approved a temporary use permit for the live music festival for the Gaslight Tavern, 317 N. Second St. Planning staff members had recommended denial of the permit because the festival would temporarily take out of service all nine parking spaces that the bar has. Patrons likely will park in city-owned parking lots on the other side of North Second Street. Commissioners placed several conditions on the permit, including that security personnel be on hand to monitor people crossing the busy street.