Tight budget puts squeeze on new city programs

Commissioners hesitant to spend more for pesticide-free parks, rental inspections

New projects had a difficult time of finding their way into the city’s 2008 budget Tuesday.

Commissioners at their weekly meeting said they liked the idea of expanding the city’s pesticide-free parks program, but said they couldn’t support spending approximately $75,000 in 2008 to expand it to an additional 20 city parks.

Commissioners also said they were intrigued by an idea to create a rental registration program that would require every apartment in the city – about 15,000 total – to register and be inspected for health and safety issues by the city once every three years.

In both cases, city commissioners cited a tight 2008 budget, in part, for their reluctance to move ahead on the projects. But the pesticide-free parks project may have come out of Tuesday night’s meeting with more momentum than the rental registration program.

A majority of commissioners said they wanted members of the city’s parks and recreation staff to continue working toward a system that maintains all city parks without the use of pesticides or herbicides. Currently the city maintains 31 of its smaller parks, plus Watson Park, without the use of pesticides and herbicides.

Parks and recreation leaders had said it would cost about $75,000 to hire and equip new crews to maintain the remaining 20 parks in the system without the use of pesticides. The new crews mainly would use weed trimmers where pesticides and herbicides now are used to control weeds and grass.

Instead of funding the $75,000 for 2008, city commissioners said they wanted staff to work on a pesticide-free plan over the next three to five years.

“I don’t want anyone to think that we’re shutting the door on this,” Mayor Sue Hack said. “We’re just trying to maintain a balance.”

Commissioners had more questions about expanding the city’s rental registration program. The proposal – pushed for by the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods – would require all rental units in the city to be inspected once every three years. Currently, the city inspects about 2,100 rental units that are in single-family homes. The new proposal would include inspections at apartment complexes for the first time.

But several commissioners said they were not convinced that the new program could pay for itself through inspection fees.

Commissioners heard from several neighborhood representatives who said the inspection program would help ensure that safe living conditions were available in all parts of the city.

Representatives for several of the large apartment complex owners in the city objected to the proposal. They said the current system that allows tenants to request an inspection at any time was adequate. They said the city should do a better job of educating tenants of that service rather than creating a new city bureaucracy.

In other business, commissioners:

¢ Agreed to designate about $10,000 in the 2008 budget to continue with energy conservation and environmental sustainability issues. The city this year is spending about $8,700 to buy green tags to help offset energy use. The $10,000 would be used to buy green tags in 2008, and to pay for staff time to gather data on the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

¢ Agreed to spend $250,000 on sidewalk and traffic-calming projects this year. Commissioners approved the spending request on a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Mike Dever voted against the projects. He said he wanted to give some consideration to not spending the money into 2007 to help shore up a tight budget.

¢ Directed staff to continue working on details related to the Neighborhood Revitalization Act, which could provide property tax rebates to people who make improvements to homes or businesses in targeted neighborhoods.