Lawrence will get a new mayor tonight, and he comes equipped with a bright red warning flag.
If City Commission tradition holds - and all indications are that it will - Mike Dever will be elected by his fellow commissioners to serve a one-year term as Lawrence mayor.
Among the first orders of business is to convince residents that the community is facing economic times that are as tough as any in recent memory.
"I think we need to understand that we're in a perfect storm from an economic standpoint," said Dever, who is in line to become mayor because he had the highest vote total in the last City Commission election.
From Dever's perspective - the owner of a Lawrence-based environmental consulting firm - that means cuts to social service programs, including the city's public transit system, may be in order. If not, pressure to increase city taxes will grow considerably, he said.
Trio of troubles
Dever said it is obvious the city is facing financial pressures from a struggling national economy and a slowdown in the local real estate market that has led to stagnant property values for the first time in decades.
But Dever said he's also concerned about a third problem. He said he thinks the community may be undergoing a fundamental change as fuel prices rise and it becomes more difficult for people to justify living in Lawrence while commuting to Kansas City or Topeka.
"The value of our geographic location has diminished because of rising gas prices," Dever said. "I think when you look at all three of those factors, it should point to some sense of urgency on our part."
The economy may force dramatic cuts to the T, the city's bus service. Dever said he supports the T, and believes it could become a more integral part of Lawrence's future. But he also said he wants the community to make it clear that it supports the service.
"I want the public to sign off on any additional subsidy that we provide for the T," Dever said.
That could mean a sales tax vote. Dever previously has not been a strong supporter of plans by previous Mayor Mike Amyx and current Mayor Sue Hack to create a sales tax for streets and economic development. Dever said he's still not crazy about creating a new sales tax, but said if the commission does move forward on the idea it ought to include public transit on the list of items that a sales tax would fund.
"I just think the public deserves to have a voice on this issue," Dever said. "It is going to be a very expensive program to continue."
Dever said a new sales tax would not be his first choice. Instead he would rather look for ways to redistribute current city tax dollars to areas of the city budget that are in need.
Dever, though, conceded that it would be difficult to fund both public transportation and increase the amount of money for street maintenance, which he said needs to be a priority.
"The condition of our infrastructure really is the front porch we present to potential businesses and visitors who are thinking about locating here," Dever said.
Having more success attracting businesses and residents to the community is a key to reversing the city's economic fortunes, Dever said.
"I'm the type of guy who is going to ask the community to see the need for economic development of all kinds, whether it is retail, industrial or something more speculative," Dever said. "We may not be in a position where we can be as selective as we used to be."
Dever said making the community more business-friendly by streamlining processes and improving customer service inside City Hall is a priority. But he also said he wants to work on ways to reduce the amount of controversy projects face when they come to City Hall.
He said he wants to facilitate meetings among developers, neighbors and other groups to talk about developments well in advance of a project being heard by the City Commission.
"When you get both sides together on an issue, you normally find you're not as far apart as you think," Dever said. "It is really important as city leaders that we look for potential conflicts and points of confusion and try to address them early.
"I'm convinced that we have to be much more nimble in the future. We're in an economic standstill here. We can't afford to have projects come along and watch them fall apart at the 11th hour."