Lawrence's new mayor is all business.
Mayor Sue Hack said figuring out how the city can help attract new businesses and grow existing ones in Lawrence is going to take up a lot of her time during her one-year term as mayor, which began earlier this month.
She also said a new 1-cent sales tax might be needed to help address economic development issues and other city needs.
Hack - a retired school teacher and part-time employee of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce as its Leadership Lawrence director - has served on the commission since 2001. She previously served as mayor from April 2002 to April 2003.
Hack answered several questions from the Journal-World before she began her term as mayor April 10.
Q: What's really going to be your area of emphasis as mayor?
A: I think the voters certainly indicated that there's a dissatisfaction with the direction that the previous City Commission has taken in terms of economic development. It is very easy to say we want to have more jobs and do job creation better, but the reality is that it takes a lot of work. We need to set the stage for being prepared to celebrate some successes in economic development.
I think we do a great job of celebrating when a new company comes in, but we also need to realize that we need to do everything we can to help existing businesses to expand and stay here. The API Foils project is a great example of that.
Q: The API Foils project is a proposed expansion of that business' operations in the East Hills Business Park. API Foils has asked for a tax abatement from the city, and commissioners earlier this year voted to approve the tax abatement request. But at that meeting commissioners engaged in a debate about the value of tax abatements, while API leaders watched the whole discussion. I sensed that concerned you some. Did it?
A: It concerned me, and quite frankly I was extremely embarrassed. If we need to talk about our tax abatement policy, that is a policy discussion we should have. It had never been brought up as an item that we needed to talk about as an agenda item or as a study session. And to bring that up when the applicant is there and has met the guidelines of the policy is the wrong way to approach it. But that's also past history, and we can move forward. If there are things we need to do to look at our tax abatement policy ... I don't have a problem with doing that. Maybe we aren't aggressive enough in some areas and are too aggressive in others. But when an applicant is in front of you, that is not the time to do that.
Q: What types of things in general do you want to enhance economic development?
A: First of all, we need to have some resources to show folks. We need to move ahead with Farmland (vacant Farmland Industries fertilizer plant) and the property out by the airport. Those were the two areas designated by ECO2 as the prime areas for economic development. We need to focus our energies on that.
Q: Budgets are always tough, but it looks like that the city is going to experience a significantly slower growth in its tax base in the coming year because of a slowdown in home prices. Is the City Commission going to have to consider a tax increase to accomplish what it needs to do, or are you resolved not to do that?
Hack: I don't think we can resolve one way or the other before we have seen the budget numbers. We will be having our goal-setting session very quickly. The budget needs to be designed around those goals. ...That doesn't mean we're going to meet everything we want to do. There's a finite amount of resources. Whether we increase taxes is something we'll have to wrestle with. I know I would rather not. I don't think anybody gets elected to say, "Hooray, I get to raise everybody's taxes." But the fact of the matter is that we pretty much like our services in this community.
Q: Streets are always a hot-button issue for citizens. What's your assessment of the condition of city streets right now?
Hack: I think we're working diligently to improve it. We have put money into street improvements. The crack sealing will help. It is not the most attractive look, but it does save us money. I think we know we have some large road projects and some redos of some areas. It will always be a challenge. Everybody is going to drive on our streets. That will be a real mark of how the city is doing. I think a lot of people judge a community based on its streets because if you take care of the infrastructure that shows you really are concerned about the community.
Q: There are a couple of big-ticket items out there. The library is one. Talk of a new recreation complex by the citizens group Partners for Lawrence Athletics and Youth (PLAY) is another one. What are your thoughts on the city's ability to tackle large projects like that?
Hack: Given our current revenue stream, no I don't think we really can do that. I think we need to seriously look at the initiative that was talked about by Mayor Amyx, and that is some sort of additional sales tax. In my perfect world would be a 1-cent sales tax that has a sunset to it with an option to renew by public vote. A portion would be dedicated to the library, a portion to PLAY, a portion to economic development and a portion dedicated to infrastructure. To that extent that has the potential of not reducing property taxes but eliminating the need to increase them. It just seems like we may be at a point to capitalize on our out-of-town guests who use our services and use our streets.