Sales tax gains favor among commissioners

Hack, Amyx see hope for 1/2-cent plan

The seeds of compromise may be taking root when it comes to proposals for a new citywide sales tax.

Both Mayor Sue Hack and City Commissioner Mike Amyx said Thursday they were willing to back away from their competing 1-cent sales tax proposals. Instead, both said they could envision a new half-cent sales tax, but the two commissioners still had differences on how new tax dollars should be used.

“We’ve talked, and I don’t think we’re that far apart,” Hack said.

Amyx said he wants a sales tax that would focus on repairing streets and sidewalks, while providing property tax relief.

Hack said she would like a broader sales tax that would fund infrastructure, economic development, a new library and additional recreation amenities proposed by the Partners for Lawrence Athletics and Youth, or PLAY, committee. But Hack said she might be able to support a narrower version that would include only infrastructure and economic development funding.

Both also agree that a sales tax should be ended after 10 years.

Any new sales tax would have to be approved by city voters, but first a majority of city commissioners must agree to put the issue on a ballot. If Hack and Amyx could reach agreement, that would be two of the three necessary votes.

City Commissioner Rob Chestnut said Thursday that he would be willing to entertain a half-cent sales tax proposal, and said he was glad Hack and Amyx had backed off the idea of a full 1-cent tax.

“A half-cent has merit,” Chestnut said. “I do agree that 1 percent would be pretty aggressive.”

A potential sticking point between Amyx and Hack may be the issue of property tax relief. Amyx said he thinks it is a necessity for any sales tax proposal. Hack said she would love to support it, but is not sure the city can afford to cut property taxes during tough economic times.

Amyx, though, said the tight economy dictates the need for a property tax cut.

“We just can’t afford to put much more load on property owners,” Amyx said. “If we can show that there is property tax relief built into this plan, I think it will work with the public.”

Based on current sales, a half-cent sales tax would raise about $6 million per year. That’s roughly the amount of money the city has been told it needs to spend on street maintenance next year to stop existing streets from falling into serious disrepair. Millions more are needed to replace existing streets that already are in disrepair.

The city is now spending about $5 million – garnered mainly from property taxes – on street maintenance. Amyx said he would like to use as much as possible of that $5 million for property tax relief. But he said he would consider using it to boost existing operations, such as the city’s economic development program.

“I don’t think we can bring in new projects, though,” Amyx said. “It doesn’t take long for new projects to eat up all the property tax relief.”

That means plans for a new library and the PLAY proposal would have to wait. Chestnut said he also was willing to put PLAY and a library on the back burner, if it was determined that a half-cent sales tax wasn’t enough to adequately fund everything.

“I think infrastructure should be a priority and economic development should be a priority,” Chestnut said. “The amenity projects should be considered after that.”

The earliest a sales tax question could be on the ballot is November, although April also is a possibility. Commissioners likely will discuss the sales tax issue at their budget study session set for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.