LIVE BLOG: Lawrence City Commission discusses the T’s future, budget cuts

City Hall reporter Chad Lawhorn provides live coverage of the discussion

Lawrence city commissioners tonight are scheduled to review a host of changes to the T, including a fare increase from 50 cents per ride to $1. The meeting and live-blogging begin at 6:35 p.m.

Hi. This is Journal-World Reporter Chad Lawhorn. The Lawrence City commission meeting is set to begin at 6:35 p.m. There already is a large audience, with several members of the public here to speak about the first reading of the city’s proposed domestic partnership registry, which would create the first registry in the state for same-sex couples to register their partnerships. Commissioners held a public hearing on the item previously and approved it on a 4-1 vote. On their agenda this evening is the first reading of the ordinance.

Commissioners are now receiving a staff report on the proposed registry from Toni Wheeler, the city’s director of legal services. She said people using the registry must be city residents. She explains that a partnership can be removed if the city finds evidence that the couple no longer meet the definition of a domestic partnership.

Mayor Sue Hack said she wants to put a time limit on public comment on this subject. She notes that the commission received about 2 hours of public comment on the issue during the regular public hearing on the domestic partnership registry about two weeks ago.

Rev. Leo Barbee Jr. urges the commission in the “strongest way” to vote against the establishment of the registry. Asks the commission to turn back from this “dangerous” course. “This registry would weaken our commitment to strong marriages,” Barbee said. He said the public comment from the public hearing two weeks ago was not representative of the thousands of Lawrence citizens who oppose the registry. He also said the domestic registry would certainly not be the last step in promoting a “pro-gay agenda.” “It would be best to stop it now,” Barbee said.

Rev. William Dulin said anything against God’s word is a sin. “I don’t believe this registry will be a help to the community. I know this city prides itself in tollerance but sometimes we can be so politically correct that we become spiritually wrong,” Dulin said.

Natalya Lowther said she is a devoted Christian but said that is not what this is about. She said this registry is about making it easier for some people to have the documentation necessary to obtain health care. “It is not a business’ job or the city government’s job to determine who has sinned. That is God’s job,” Lowther said.

Sen. Marci Francisco speaks in favor of the registry. “Thank you for the courageous vote you made and encourage you to continue on this path,” Francisco.

Unidentified speaker. Asks the city to reconsider its support for the registry. Believes that we should provide health care and help people, “but that doesn’t mean we should give up what we think is right or wrong. Sometimes doing what is right may not be the public opinion.”

She continued that she doesn’t think this is about helping people get health insurance. She said this does nothing to help single people get health insurance.

Ronald Armstrong said the city is getting further out-of-step with our state leaders. “I can’t understand why we’re getting out-of-step with our other leaders.”

Valerie. Last name unavaialbe. She asks commissioners what good it does a person to gain the world but lose their soul.

Gloria Gardner opposes the registry.

Shelly Van. What happened to our moral values she asked. “If we passed this, I think we will be sending the wrong message.”

Betty Alderson. Supports the registry and says she was proud of Lawrence commissioners when it was approved two weeks ago. She said she views this as no threat to marriage.

unidentified speaker: Supports the registry. Tells commissioners that she is Jewish and reminds commissioners that they represent citizens with a variety of religions.

unidentified speaker: Opposes the registry. Said she has seen domestic partnership registry damage other communities.

Rose Van Armstrong: I disagree with the homosexual agenda we have here today, she said.

Public comment period ends.

Commissioner Mike Amyx had voted against it the last time. He intends to vote against it again. Commissioner Rob Chestnut said it is important to note that the Kansas Attorney General has said this is not in conflict with state law. Said this does not give any couples legal rights. He intends to vote for it again, although he supports the state’s Constitutional ammendement prohibiting gay marriage.

Commissioner Boog Highberger said he does not see this as a threat to marriage. “Anything we can do to encoruage long-term partnerships to individuals strengthens society.” He continues. “To me this is about freedom. This is a freedom that does not impose on anybody else’s freedom. I strongly support it, regardless of whether it is the most popular thing to do.”

Mayor Sue Hack thanks the crowd for their comments. She said she still supports the ordinance. Calls for a vote. Approved 4-1 with Commissioner Mike Amyx opposed.

Commissioners open discussion on the public transit changes. Mayor Hack said she wants to limit the discussion to raising fare prices and changing policies for ridership and use of the para-transit service. She said she does not expect the commission to discuss tonight possible cuts for 2008 that would involve eliminating Saturday service and shutting the system down two hours early each weeknight.

Cliff Galante, the city’s public transit administrator, explains some of the proposed changes. They include requiring riders of the para-transit system to get certified by a health professional to show that they have a qualifying disability that allows them to ride the para-transit system. The para-transit system is a door-to-door service that is open only to people with disabilities. Galante also is recommending that people become recertified every three years.

Galante continues. He said the transit department is proposing to enforce the city’s conditional eligibility policy. For example, some people are qualified to ride the para-transit service during cold weather, but not during the summer. “We want to make sure the service is available for those who truly needed it.”

Also, Galante said he wants to reduce the reservation period for the para-transit service. The proposal is to reduce it from two weeks currently to three days. That proposed change does not impact people on a prescription type of service, such as people who have a standing, weekly appointment with a doctor.

Galante continues. He’s proposing that some identification be required to qualify for the reduce fare. Also wants a policy that would allow suspension of T-lift riders that cancel 50 percent or more of their trips during a 90-day period, with a minimum of six cancelled trips.

Galante continues. On proposed fare increases he said Lawrence charges cheaper fares than other Kansas cities that operate a public transit service. This would be the first increase in the six-year history of the service. Says he wants to come up with a long-term plan for increasing fares on a more regular basis to keep up with operating expenses. The fares would increase from 50 cents to 75 cents and then to $1 on Jan. 1.

On the issue of prohibiting riders less than 12 years old from riding the T without an adult, Galante said he would like to table that issue and study it more. “There is disagreement on that issue. There’s merits on both sides.”

Amyx said he appreciates that the transit service is looking at better ways to manage its revenues. “I still believe the T is the best value around.”

City Manager David Corliss said these changes largely are the result of the success that the para transit system is having. “The success of that service is outstripping the budget that we have to provide that service this year.” He said this is an attempt to ration the use of the para transit service to those who most truly need it.

Galante continues. “This is something we’re going to be dealing with for a very long time,” Galante said because the community is getting older. “This isn’t unique to Lawrence by any means. This is kind of a nationwide issue we’re dealing with.” He said many of the recommendations were based on steps taken by Fort Collins Colo. to deal with similar issues.

M. Johnston. Ms. Johnston said she thinks this is a critical time for public transit because of higher gasoline prices. She said the city needs to be adding more routes, not decreasing them. On the issue of whether children under 12 should be allowed to ride, she said that should be up to the parent. If they don’t behave, the could be removed the bus.

Robert Pearson. Said in most countries the public transit system is subsidized heavily by gasoline taxes. “It is unfortuante that during a time when it is getting very expensive for people you are contemplating cutting back service.” he continues. “If you cut it in half like I’ve read about, you might as well shut it down, because I think it would become unworkable.”

unidentified speaker. one of the reasons we came to lawrence is because it has one of the best public transit systems available. Hope you will consider many other options before reducing this service, he said. “Just nine to five, Monday through Friday, doesn’t work.”

Hubbard Collingsworth. Asks the commission to not to put the burden on the back of the poorest citizens.

Mr. Armstrong. Works for the T. On para transit riders: “They are so happy to have the ability to get around,” he said. “You should take the time to get to know some of them.” He continues. “I know he bottomline is always money. We have to learn to parlay our money and use them where we can get our best value.”

He continues. Said para transit service is very important. “Without it they would be locked in their houses and won’t have a life, is what they tell me,” he said.

J. Eubanks. “There are a lot of people who can’t get to where we need to go if we don’t have this,” he said, Said that he wants the city to figure out how to expand hours.

Vashti Winterburg. Said she would gladly pay more in property taxes to support the transit system. “I think this is just too important not to do this.”

She continues. “We’re probably due for a fare increase,” she said. She said she would like for it to be raised to 75 cents then reviewed. “Someday I hope I win the lottery so that I could fund the bus system and reduce the routes to every 30 minutes.”

Anthony Duran. Works for the bus system as a driver of the para transit system. “Everybody I’ve spoken to has been willing to pay the extra fare. This system really needs a system that is for the people. 90 percent of the people I drive for can’t afford to drive to work. Gasoline prices are too high or they just can’t afford a car. We need to look at this system from the standpoint if your car was broken for two weeks, how would you be able to use the T to get around.”

Public comment ends. Hack clarifies that issue of prohibiting young riders to ride without an adult is being tabled. She is glad that staff has agreed to study that issue more.

Amyx: “I have no reason to believe that this is not the right move. I think the fares are truly the best value in town. I think we can all agree that bus services are not designed to make money. Our job is to make sure there is an efficiency.”

Hack: Compliments Galante and the transit staff. Pleased with the ridership increases. “I don’t know a business in Lawrence that wouldn’t be thrilled with a 20 percent increase from a year ago.” Reminds people that a fare increase is not make money with the T. It is to help sustain the service. “We’re not going to be rolling in money and buying lottery tickets.” Agrees with Amyx that fare increases are neccessary and para transit service changes are needed.

Commissioner Mike Dever. Agrees the changes are needed. “Ultimately we are going to have to make some decisions about how we fund the T in the future.”

Highberger: Supports the changes, but does not support any cutback in routes or service times for the 2008 budget. “I don’t really like the fare increases but I think they’re the only realistic thing to do right now.”

Chestnut: supports the changes. Said there will be difficult decisions about the T in the future, but believes everyone is committed to keeping the best service that the community can afford.

Changes to the fare and policies are approved on a 5-0 vote. Issue of ridership age is deferred.

Commissioners will deal with several other items. The live blog will continue when when the commission begins discussing possible 2007 budget cuts.

9:20 p.m. City commissioners are beginning to discuss 2007 budget cuts. City Manager David Corliss begins to brief the commission on different scenarios. Under the scenario that he has put together it would amount to a 6 percent budget cuts for the city’s general fund and also a 6 percent reduction to the outside agencies. A proposal suggested by Commissioner Rob Chestnut would only cut 4 percent of the outside agencies’ funding. Corliss said neither scenario addresses funding for the library. Corliss said he is now suggesting that the library’s 2007 budget not be cut but that library leaders be aware that the commission would not increase the library’s mill levy for 2008.

Corliss said some departments in the city are not facing a 6 percent cut. He said he did not think it was appropriate to cut the budgets of the public safety budgets by a full 6 percent, for example. He also said he was not recommending a 6 percent cut to the street mainteance fund because he believes the city is still trying to catch up with street maintenance needs.

Corliss said his recommendation includes not funding several equipment reserve funds for various departments. He said the reserve funds are used to deal with emergencies that can not be anticipated. He said the city can not indefintely delay funding those funds. He said the philosophy he was taking on 2007 budget cuts was to try to shelter the public from as many of the cuts as possible. He said either Commissioner Chestnut’s proposal or his proposal would accomplish the city’s goals.

Public comment begins. Hilda Enoch “I’m having trouble with a budget that cuts funding for people who most need it. These people will only need the services more if they are cut. It seems to be penny-wise and pound foolish.” She said she would like to see the people who are most in need are thought of as the highest priority in the city’s budget. Thinks raising taxes is a reasonable alternative to “cutting on the backs of the poor.”

Commissioner Amyx reminds Enoch that the city does not have the ability to raise taxes for 2007 because those rates were set when the 2007 budget was made last year.

Hubbard Collingsworth. He urges the city to not do anything to hurt the city’s credit rating.

Commissioner Boog Highberger. “I personally think the 94 percent reduction goes too deep, but after a conversation with Comm. Amyx and about what he thinks sales taxes may do the rest of the year, I’m more comfortable with that,” Highberger said. “I’m still not comfortable making cuts to the social service agencies at this time.” He continued. “If our sales tax dollars are down because money is tight, the converse is that the demand for these social services will be higher because money is tight.” Says he can’t vote for a cut to the social service agencies.

Commissioner Amyx: Thinks a cut to 94 percent is appropriate. “The truth of the matter is we’re going through an extremely tough time and I think we have to prepare that we may not come out of it for quite a long time.” Amyx said he will support staff’s plan. Said during his tenure he has tried to help social service agencies as much as he can. “When money dries up, we’re asking everyone to help.” Amyx said if sales tax payments increase more than expected for the remainder this year that some additional money could be transfered to the social service agencies in the fourth quarter of the year.

“As much as this is bad for so many people, it is probably something we should go through every few years to help us appreciate the good times.”

Amyx points out that if the city follows Corliss’ plan the city will not be spending more than it receives in revenue in 2007, as long as revenue projections hold up.

Highberger said he would like to see the city’s fund balances – the equivalant of a savings account – end 2007 at about a 17 percent level of expenditures. The Corliss plan would put the city at about 20 percent. Highberger said the amount of money the city is saving by cutting the outside agencies is about $95,000. That still would leave the city collecting more in revenue than it is spending in 2007.

Amyx said he would have a hard time supporting a plan that does not cut money from the outside agencies. He said everyone should share in the cuts.

Chestnut said he looked at this from a fairness standpoint. He believes about two percent of the 6 percent cuts in the city budget came from a cut in transfers to reserve funds. He said from an operational standpoint for 2007, the cut was closer to 4 percent. That is why he recommends a 4 percent cut for social service agencies. He agrees that the fund balance will be a little bit above 20 percent, but said that is artifically high because the city will not be able to forever forego transfers to reserve funds forever.

Dever: Believes in an across the board cut for each agency. Need to move forward quickly.

Hack: The only thing we can do from a equitable standpoint is to go with the plan that reduces the outside agency funding by 4 percent.

“this party isn’t over. we have some tough decisions ahead of us. I do believe that these social service agencies are core city services. i think they are responsiblities that a caring city has.”

Motion is to accept the plan that cuts social service agencies by 4 percent. Approved 3-2 with Highberger and Amyx voting against it.

Chestnut: “This is a really hard time but we’re still a great city and fiscally are in good shape. This is an economic situation that is being faced by cities all over the country. We have to remember that hopefully this is just short-term.”