Journal-World reporter Chad Lawhorn will offer live coverage of the Lawrence City Commission meeting tonight. Check back, starting at 6:30 p.m., for updates.
Hi: The matter on the Oread Inn will not be heard tonight. It has been moved to next week's agenda. We will live blog the discussion regarding whether a future sales tax issue should be placed before city voters. That discussion has not yet begun. Please check back near 8 p.m.
8:10 City commissioners haven't yet started the sales tax discussion, but instead are addressing other issues on the agenda. Please keep checking back for the discussion to begin.
9:04 The sales tax discussion is about to begin. Commissioners also are expected to talk about future steps regarding an expansion of the Lawrence Public Library.
City Manager David Corliss explained the staff memo that presented four sales tax scenarios. They include a half cent sales tax and quarter cent sales tax, with sunset provisions varying from 5 years to 10 years. Mayor Sue Hack has said she wants to discuss those scenarios, but does not expect the Commission to make any decisions on the matter tonight.
City Commissioner Mike Amyx says he thinks you can tell a lot about a community by the quality of their streets and sidewalks. That is a reason why he has been lobbying for a sales tax. "As we look at this, something that is important is to really help past that curve before our streets get to the point that we have to rebuild so many that we just can't afford to do it." Thinks any plan that is put forth to the voters has to be very specific. "We have to list street projects by name." Says that the sales tax also could be used for economic development infrastructure. "I make no bones about it, I think the Farmland property is very important to this community. We're going to need help to redevelop it," Amyx said of the former Farmland Industries site that the city is looking to buy and redevelop into a business park.
Corliss said that the staff is struggling with how specific to get on street projects right now. It gets difficult to forecast specific projects several years down the line. Want to be able to respond to street conditions as they develop. But he said he also understands the value of having specific projects to present to voters.
Amyx said a good first step would be to show a list of "likely candidates" of streets to be fixed.
Amyx asks about election timelines. If we were to hold the election in August as part of the state primary offices, what could be done to the budget to allow this to take affect in 2009. The city's budget for 2009 largely is completed by August. Corliss said a change could be made.
Amyx said he wants to make sure that other needs aren't forgotten. Wants to know whether other needs should be addressed in addition to street work. Said he wants to make sure that the city isn't overwhelmed with road work. Said it could be 40 miles worth of roadwork per year.
Chuck Soules, the city's director of public works, said it would be a good challenge to have because there are many needs. Ms. Mezger, assistant public works director said it will be an issue for the traveling public. "Can the public tolerate that level of construction. That is the biggest challenge. How to phase it in and locate it will be the issue."
Sorry for the delay. We had a technical problem. Comm. Highberger said he had concerns about the sales tax. Said he wouldn't try to stop the process from moving forward, but said he wants to look for another revenue option that doesn't hit poor people so hard. "Every revenue source, every fee we have hist poor people extremely hard. I don't want to see us try to balance the budget by trying to tax poor people's grocery bills."
Commissioner Mike Dever: "I've had mixed feedback from the citizens of Lawrence," Dever said. "I think we really should make sure that we're spending what we have as effeciently as we can. If we can show that to the public, I think an increase would pass. I would like to have more revenue to accomplish some goals, but I'm concerned that we're taxing people at level that is already difficult."
Mayor Hack said she hates to put something on a ballot as part of a special election. Would rather have something as part of the August primary election. "I know that we need street repair, but also very encouraged about the conversations we've had with sidewalks." She said it also would allow for more investigation of green sidewalks that are pervious. "There are opportunities for us to provide unique ways in providing that connectivity." She also said that she likes the economic development infrastructure component. Says it will help address the issue of not having enough land ready to serve new industrial development. She also said she wants to look at ways to collaborate with the county on open space issues. Says she wants to inquire whether county would contribute money to open space preservation. She also said she wants to discuss the issue of providing adequete recreation facilities for cities. "I would like to have some consideration on quality of life issues, as well." Said her preference would be a half-cent for 10 years. "It is a good opportunity to jump start the community from an economic development standpoint."
Corliss said the discussion has been helpful. Said he'll put together another report on the tax to address some of the issues brought up tonight. Says thinks the commission ought to put it on for another city commission agenda that is pretty much devoted to the sales tax issue. Says the city needs to see which one has majority support.
Comm. Rob Chestnut said he wants staff to really review whether all the projects can be reasonably done in a reasonable amount of time. "What would be bad is to get the allocation and then have a backlog of projects."
Highberger said if the tax produces more money than can be spent on maintenance in a single year, it can be put into a reserve fund to help fund major road rebuilding projects.
9:47 Public project begins.
David Smith: "Sales taxes disportionally affects the poor," he said. Says a half cent tax seems pretty small. "But in reality it would be a seven percent sales tax increase. That is seven percent more for groceries and other items." Says poverty in Lawrence often is a single mother or the elderly. Says property tax rate was reduced several years ago. "What we are seemingly in the process of doing is shifting from a more equitable tax to a less equitable tax. We're taxing the poor to do what the entire community needs done."
Comm Chestnut said there has been a significant increase in property taxes because the assessed valuation of property was going up two to three times the rate of inflation. "Property owners have borne a pretty heavy burden here."
Commissioners now are moving on to discuss a proposed "decision tree" regarding whether to move forward on an expansion of the Lawrence Public Library.
Mayor Sue Hack said the decision trees include getting proposals from private entities for public-private partnerships. She said she thinks that already has been done. Said she's not sure that is needed to be done again. "What we need to do is address the elephant in the room," Hack said. She said that is whether the city commission is willing to devote more money to the library.
Amyx: "The real decision is whether we are a go or no go at this point," Amyx said. "One of the things that we have been hit with over the last year is that we have a lot of big projects out there. They are all good projects. We can't afford to do all of these. I'm not stepping away from the library, but we have to start ranking these projects. We need to be big people and start saying yes or no to these. Right now, I don't think we can get into a new library, yet. I don't know when we can. At this point, I don't think we can do it yet."
Hack: "Relucantly, I would have to agree. We might be able to do a bond issue for a new library, but what scares me is putting the larger operating costs of a new library onto the budget." She continued. "I can't support satellite libraries. I just can't even accept that as a stop-gap measure. One of the problems is you do your job too well. It is a very successful library. I wish we had better news. We have just kept putting it off because we wanted to figure out how to do everything.
Comm. Mike Dever. "He agrees. "We're doing a lot of bonding right now, and I"m just uncomfortable with continuing that."
Highberger: "i'm going to have to be the lone commissioner again. I don't think the status quo is acceptable. we started this process with the library board about four years ago, and we have not provided the leadership that the issue deserves." He said he wants to put it to a public vote and allow the public to decide. "This is a community where learning is important."
Corliss: Explains several ways that library operations could be funded. Says voters could be asked to authorize a mill levy to fund the operation of the library. On ranking projects, Corliss said he is focusing on balancing revenues and expenses, increasing our tax base, addressing our infrastructure issues. He said addressing quality of life issues is important also. He said a bond issue for the library likely would be 1.5 mills for 20 years. Said the operating mill levy may have to increase to 6 mills, up from 3.2 mills. A mill is one dollar in propery tax for every $1,000 in assessed value.
Bruce Flanders, director of the Lawrence Public Library. He agrees with Corliss' estimates. "If we're doubling the size of the library from 45,000 to 90,000 square feet, doubling the operating expense is reasonable."
Amyx: Said raising the library's mill levy by that amount would make the library account for about 25 percent to 33 percent of the city's total mill levy. Says if we want more information on a library bond issue, he wants a list of what else is out there in terms of major projects. Mentions need for more police and firefighting equipment. "Times aren't the best right now. We have to make sure we are making the best decisions we can with these dollars. Let's pick what we can do and say that everybody else needs to get in line."
Hack: The key is to increase our revenue stream. She said increasing the city's industrial tax base is the best way to do that. "That is going to take an investment in our community. I think that is what this sales tax would be about."
Chestnut: "I agree with the idea of not yet." Says commission already has concluded that 1 percent sales tax is too high. Agrees that library facility isn't acceptable. "But I don't think our street grid is acceptable. I don't think our sidewalks are acceptable. It just comes down to priorities. The driveablity of our streets, the walkability of our sidewalks have to stand in front of the library right now." He continues. "It is always difficult to allocate scarce resources. I want to keep the dialogue going." Doesn't want to rule out public-private partnership for downtown redevelopment.
Chestnut continues. Said he was concerned about operating costs doubling. "I just couldn't figure out how to deal with that."
Bruce Flanders. Thanks the commission. "we respect your decision." We are committed to providingthe best sevices we can. We're in this for the long haul. We'll be back when the time is right." Will look at ways to incrementally improve the library as part of the normal budget process.
Commissioners end the discussion by agreeing that the consensus is that now is not the right time to proceed with a library expansion.