New city parks are nice for children, but after-school programs may be a more dire need for Lawrence youths, city commissioners said Wednesday as they began to tackle 2006 budget issues.
Commissioners learned at a study session Wednesday morning that the city during the next two years will pay off the debt related to the Lawrence Outdoor Aquatic Center, the East Lawrence Recreation Center and the Clinton Lake Softball Complex. That's expected to free up approximately $200,000 in funding for the 2006 budget and about $800,000 for the 2007 budget.
City Manager Mike Wildgen asked commissioners to consider using the money to fund a second round of parks improvements. But the prospect of using some of the money to fund after-school programs at nonprofit centers such as the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence quickly emerged as a leading contender with several commissioners.
"After-school programs are in dire need of a sustainable source of funding," Commissioner Sue Hack said. "We have talked on this commission before about how those programs ultimately save us money. The benefits far outweigh the costs. Parks certainly provides youths a lot of benefits, but this would just be in a different vein."
Commissioner Boog Highberger said he was interested in using as much as $250,000 of the parks and recreation money to fund after-school programs.
"I think there is a definite payoff in the long term," Highberger said. "It is much more effective to spend the money on the programs now than to try and fix problems later."
Janet Murphy, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, said that was what she had found. She said her organization, along with the school district and private providers, team up to provide after-school programs at 11 school sites in the city. The program serves approximately 2,000 students by providing activities ranging from arts training to leadership exercises for about three hours each day after school is dismissed.
"Our schools end at 3:30 or 4 o'clock, and we have lots of parents in this town who still have to be at work," Murphy said. "It is important for children to be with an adult. Kids who are left alone and have lots of idle time are more likely to get in trouble."
Murphy said it costs about $80,000 to fund a site to serve 100 students. But she said it was too early to say whether an increase in city funding would mean that the program would be expanded.
"This could be a very important way for us to establish a foundation for the existing sites we have,' Murphy said. "We're always looking for ways to make sure that parents can count on the programs being there."
Currently the programs are funded through a mix of grants and some city funding. City commissioners approved $183,278 in funding for the Boys and Girls Club this year and also provided $55,000 to Van Go Mobile Arts, which also operates an after-school program.
Whether city commissioners will agree to increase funding levels, though, is far from certain.
"I think there needs to be a community conversation," Mayor Mike Rundle said.
Rundle said he saw the value of the after-school programs but wanted a discussion about whether the money could be used for a new library project or even to create a new fund that could be used for economic development incentives. Commissioner David Schauner said he also wanted to explore whether the money could be used to more quickly pay off the debt of the city-owned Eagle Bend Golf Course.
Commissioners also didn't entirely dismiss Wildgen's suggestion to use the money to fund new park debt. He said parks and recreation officials have been asked to study many projects that currently have no funding source, including a rail-to-trail project in east Lawrence and parks near Langston Hughes School and North Iowa Street and Peterson Road.
Commissioners agreed to have the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board study the need for future park projects.
One idea that didn't receive specific discussion was using the money to reduce the city's overall mill levy. But Schauner said that was what he was alluding to when suggesting the city look at paying off some of its debt early.
"I think we ought to try to tighten our belts some here," Schauner said.
In other news from the study session, commissioners:
- Directed staff to research the city's ability to create a new mortgage registration tax that could fund the city's Housing Trust Fund. The tax has long been talked about as a possible funding source to address affordable housing issues. State legislators would have to vote to allow the city to create the tax. The earliest a vote could happen would be the 2006 legislative session.
- Learned that the city's first quarter sales tax collections were basically flat from a year ago. Sales tax collections dropped by 0.26 percent to $2.95 million in the first quarter. Ed Mullins, the city's director of finance, said he was keeping a close eye on sales tax collections, fearing that they may drop as consumers are forced to spend more money on gasoline rather than retail goods.