City, county, school officials face tough funding choices

Lawrence and Douglas County commissioners and members of the Lawrence school board are devoting dozens, if not hundreds, of hours to studying budget requests for city, county and school operations.

It is a tremendously difficult task, particularly when requests for money to fund a multitude of projects far exceed the available dollars.

What are the basic, critical needs? What are the marginal programs? Have some programs outlived their purpose? What about new programs and new activities that would be good for the city, county or school system?

Obviously there is no easy or perfect answer, and just about any action taken by the commissioners and school board members is likely to disappoint some while pleasing others.

Those who put the various budget requests together have every right to believe their needs are indeed important, perhaps even critical, if their particular group is to meet its responsibilities.

This raises the question of what are the top priorities for the city, county and schools? This is the job commissioners and school board members face: deciding what they think warrants funding and to what level. How damaging would it be to do away with some program or eliminate jobs?

So what are the city’s top needs? What projects or efforts should be at the top of the list for the city, the county and the school district? Some of the current issues include better stormwater management for North Lawrence, the repair or replacement of many streets, a larger library, a new sports complex with baseball and softball diamonds, along with soccer fields, an indoor facility and maybe an ice rink. What about the traffic congestion, almost gridlock situation, in some areas of town? Many claim the city is looked upon as being anti-business and point to the drop in sales tax figures.

Are more police officers needed to provide a safer community? Should the city continue to subsidize the city bus service and golf course? Some say new fire engines are needed, and yet others suggest there would be far more efficiency and monetary savings if the city and county governments were consolidated. Lawrence and Douglas County history are important and, in that light, many desire increased funding for Watkins Community Museum of History.

The needs go on and on. It would be great to be able to fund all or a large percentage of these programs. But which “needs” are most critical? Has anyone tried to put together a list identifying, in numerical order, the most pressing needs, whether they deal with the city, county or schools?

The plea of David Johnson, CEO of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, to a joint meeting of the city and county commissions and the school board this week offers an excellent example of the exercise facing local officials.

Johnson made his case for continued and increased funding for Bert Nash’s Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities program. The WRAP program provides 21 full-time master-level qualified mental health professionals, backed by another 170 staffers at Bert Nash, to work with students in 21 schools. WRAP provided services to 3,321 students in 2006, year-round, in schools, homes and special programs.

In making his presentation, Johnson said he was convinced the work of WRAP had kept tragedies like the shootings at Virginia Tech, Columbine High School and other schools from occurring here in Lawrence. He did not back down in saying the efforts of WRAP had kept Lawrence out of the national headlines and, that if it hadn’t been for WRAP, Lawrence probably would have had one or more shootings.

This is a frightening statement, a very powerful statement that should grab the attention of all Lawrence residents. He wants more money to continue the WRAP program, and yet this argument could cause many to wonder whether he was trying to scare city, county and school officials to pressure them to ante up the money to keep WRAP alive.

Here are some of the facts Johnson presented:

l Half of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14. The earlier in life the disorder begins, the slower an individual is to seek therapy.

l Recent studies demonstrate the critical need for programs like WRAP. More than 25 percent of school-age children have experienced suicidal “ideation.”

l A national study of 13,601 high school students found that 9 percent of teenagers who think they are too fat or too thin, regardless of what they weigh, have attempted suicide. Another study found that 8 percent of all high school students have attempted suicide.

l The percentage of local 10th- and 12th-graders who reported attempting suicide was 7.3 percent in 1999, 5.2 percent in 2000 and 4.8 percent in 2001, compared with 8 percent of 10th- and 12th-graders nationwide.

l In the wake of Virginia Tech, 43.8 percent of students surveyed “felt so depressed it was difficult to function” during the past year; 9 percent said they had “seriously considered suicide.”

According to Johnson, it is these types of students – those who are so desperate and depressed and feel so isolated and picked on – who end up taking violent, often deadly, actions.

WRAP was started in 1999. It deals with mental health, school behavior, substance abuse, family and social issues, as well as legal problems.

How do city, county and school officials weigh the needs of the WRAP request against other powerful requests from other agencies and departments? What’s the most important? How important is it to have a program that, according to Johnson, keeps Lawrence from joining the list of communities in which students have killed in the schools?

There is no easy, guaranteed correct answer, but city, county and school officials must deal with available resources, develop priorities and decide what’s in the best interests of Lawrence and Douglas County residents. They hope they make the right decisions.

Next, they will need to work to increase tax revenues through new business and industry and additional taxpayers while, at the same time, maintaining the specialness of Lawrence.