Lawrence residents should prepare for a property tax rate increase, reduced hours on the T and a major cut to a touted social service program for students as part of the city's 2008 budget.
Plus, voters may be asked to approve a new sales tax in 2008.
A divided City Commission struggled late into the night Tuesday to shape next year's budget. Here's what they came up with, although several commissioners said they may seek to change the budget when they are scheduled to give it final approval Aug. 7:
l Increasing the mill levy by 0.42 mills to avoid some cuts in service to the Lawrence Transit System. But the mill levy increase does not avoid all cuts to the T. Under the new budget, the bus service would need to close at 6 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. Commissioners heard almost a solid hour of public comment against cutting the hours of the T.
l Eliminating $250,000 in funding for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center's WRAP program, which places social workers in Lawrence schools to help troubled or at-risk students. Commissioners left open the possibility of restoring that funding if they learn that the Lawrence school district would continue to fund its share of the program, which has been approximately $300,000 in past years. But City Manager David Corliss shared an e-mail communication with Superintendent Randy Weseman, who said the funding likely would not be a part of the school district's budget.
l Providing a 2 percent wage increase for all city employees. But commissioners mainly are using the elimination of the WRAP funding to provide resources for the wage increase. If the WRAP funding is restored to the budget, the wage increase for city employees may be out.
The City Commission was anything but unanimous on the budget. Commissioners moved forward on the overall publication of the budget on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Boog Highberger and Mike Dever voting against it.
But each voted against it for different reasons. Dever said he did not feel comfortable providing the wage increase during such tight financial times, while Highberger opposed the cuts in T service.
Tuesday's vote was just the first step in approving the budget. Commissioners must give final approval to the budget on Aug. 7. At that meeting, commissioners can lower the amount of money they've agreed to spend in 2008, but cannot increase it. That means the cut in service hours to the T is likely to stick.
A crowd of about 50 people came to the meeting, with most there to discuss the possible T cuts. Several members of the crowd told commissioners they would be willing to spend more in property taxes to avoid cuts in service to the T. They said the system was critical to getting people to their jobs, and that a cut in hours would be a hardship for many people who rely on the T.
Highberger and Mayor Sue Hack sided with the crowd, although Hack ultimately voted for the reduction in hours in an effort to move the budget forward. All five commissioners said they supported efforts to merge the T system with Kansas University's transit systems. But Commissioners Mike Amyx, Rob Chestnut and Dever said they couldn't support increasing the mill levy any more than 0.42 mills.
Sales tax proposal
There's an outside chance that the city may not increase the mill levy that much. Amyx was pushing a plan that would eliminate the need for a property tax rate increase in 2008. But it would do so by cutting about $400,000 to $600,000 in funding from the proposed street maintenance budget in 2008.
Amyx said he would be comfortable reducing the street maintenance budget in 2008, as long as commissioners placed a new half-cent sales tax proposal on the ballot for voters in 2008.
Amyx is proposing that the half-cent sales tax, which would expire in five years, be used entirely to fund street maintenance and sidewalks. He's estimating it would generate $25 million to $30 million during the five-year period.
But he also concedes that there is risk to the plan. Commissioners have no way of knowing whether voters would approve the new sales tax. It cannot be adopted without voter approval.
All five commissioners expressed support for putting a half-cent sales tax issue on a future ballot, although they did not specify a date. All five also said they would want the majority of the sales tax to be used for street issues, but Hack, Dever and Chestnut also said they would want part of the money to go toward preparing land for future economic development projects.
But a majority among the commission did not emerge for Amyx's plan to cut street maintenance funds this year in an effort to keep the mill levy steady.
"I'm not willing to gamble on that," Highberger said. "I don't think that would be responsible."
Amyx, though, said he thinks it is the best way to give a sales tax a fair chance of being approved by the voters.
"I don't think we can get a sales tax passed at the same time we have a property tax increase," Amyx said.