Cuts may leave roads ravaged

Marty Pattin, left, walks with his grandson Blaine Pattin, 6, and his dog Juju, along north Kasold Drive.

A tight city budget might mean bumpier rides for Lawrence motorists.

That’s one of the big issues looming over City Hall as commissioners put together a 2008 budget.

Commissioners on Tuesday were told that they need to spend an additional $1.2 million in 2008 to maintain city streets, or they should expect a significant number of roads to fall so far into disrepair that simple maintenance won’t be able to save them.

“Every year that we defer full funding for street maintenance, we’re adding on to our future costs,” said Chuck Soules, the city’s public works director. “I can definitely tell you that the costs aren’t getting any cheaper.”

But the road repairs may have to wait.A majority of city commissioners, during their second day of budget hearings, made it clear they want to avoid an increase in the city’s property tax rate.

“I feel like we have a mandate to try and reduce our expenses and not just turn to the taxpayers for more money,” said Commissioner Mike Dever, who was elected in April. “I’m going to stay on that course.”

Full funding sought

Without a tax increase or major cuts in spending to other city departments, commissioners may have to spend significantly less on street maintenance. The city is budgeted to spend $5.3 million on street maintenance this year, but Soules included only $2.8 million for street maintenance in the 2008 budget he submitted to city commissioners for approval.

That’s about $3.65 million less than what Soules thinks is needed to keep pace with the city’s aging streets, an amount that would bring the total to $6.45 million.

But Soules wasn’t able to figure out how to work that $3.65 million into his budget without cutting other vital public works operations. Instead, he’s asking city commissioners to figure out how to fund the $3.65 million, through a tax increase or some other means.

The city has been increasing street maintenance funding in the last two years after a city study found that 30 percent of streets have deteriorated to the point that routine maintenance no longer is effective.

Soules and other department leaders are struggling to maintain funding levels for various programs because the city is expecting sales tax and property tax collections to grow at much slower rates than in the past.

Other budget requests

Commissioners heard several other requests during budget hearings Tuesday. They included:

¢ A request from Soules for $250,000 to fill sidewalk gaps along major city streets. Soules said his department could provide continuous sidewalks along at least one side of all major streets – everywhere except neighborhood streets – if commissioners provided $250,000 in funding per year for the next six years.

¢ Soules also asked commissioners to consider a proposal that would require neighborhoods to begin paying for traffic-calming devices. Currently the devices – such things as traffic circles and speed humps – are paid for out of the city’s general fund. Soules said he thought a more feasible way to pay for the projects would be to require neighborhoods to form benefit districts for the projects. That would mean that property owners in the neighborhood would have a special assessment on their property taxes – usually for a period of about 10 years – to pay for the work.

¢ Police Chief Ron Olin asked commissioners to fund four new positions at a cost of about $250,000. Two of the positions would be sergeants to provide additional oversight to the investigations and internal affairs division. The chief also is asking for a computer programmer to create and manage a records system, and a fleet manager to oversee the department’s vehicles and equipment.

¢ Ernie Shaw, interim parks and recreation director, is asking for $93,000 in new funding to hire a maintenance worker and buy equipment to maintain Memorial Park Cemetery. He also told commissioners that it will require about $175,000 in new funding to begin operating the former Carnegie Library Building at Ninth and Vermont streets as a community center.

¢ Commissioners were told that staff members are still working on a recommendation for water rate increases in 2008. Water rates originally were scheduled to increase by 4 percent. But staff members alerted commissioners in April that a 7 percent increase may be needed to cover rising costs associated with expanding the city’s Clinton Water Plant. Staff members Tuesday said they were still studying the need for a 7 percent increase, which would be on top of a 9 percent increase in sewer rates.