City commissioners Tuesday finalized what they called a difficult 2009 city budget without raising property tax rates, and they decided to add a third sales tax question for voters to consider in November.
Commissioners unanimously agreed to place a 0.05 percent sales tax on the Nov. 4 ballot to provide additional funding for the city's public transit system.
City commissioners last week approved a 0.20 percent sales tax for public transit operations, but were told by several members of the public that the tax would not produce enough money to sustain the city's bus service for the long term.
"I want to do this because last week there was a clear desire from many members of the public to seek more money from the public for transit," Dever said.
Here's how the new ballot language will work: The 0.20 percent sales tax to fund transit would remain on the ballot. But a separate 0.05 percent sales tax - five-hundredths of a percent - question also would be on the ballot.
Voters could cast two separate votes to support the 0.20 percent sales tax and the 0.05 percent sales tax, which if both passed would provide the transit system with 0.25 percent in sales tax funding.
But voters who believe that is too much funding for the transit system could choose to vote only for the 0.20 percent sales tax or vote for neither. The 0.05 percent sales, however, could not be approved by itself. It only would be enacted if the 0.20 percent tax also passed.
The 0.05 percent sales tax would generate about $650,000 a year, and could be used to help the city replace the bus system's aging fleet.
The new proposal also may help muster political support for the transit sales tax. Several members of the public who last week chided the City Commission for underfunding transit said they now would get out and campaign for passage of the transit taxes.
"We're happy that if we can pass these sales taxes, we can keep the T functional and healthy," said Dennis Constance, a member of Grassroots Action, a local political organization. "We can argue about whether it would be better to have one vote or two, but at least it is now possible, and we'll work to make it successful."
The two transit questions would be in addition to a 0.30 percent sales tax that will be on the ballot to fund streets, sidewalks, fire engines, stormwater improvements and other infrastructure.
Dever said he did not think voters would become confused by the multiple ballot issues, saying other cities often put five or more sales tax initiatives on one ballot.
"I think we'll just need to educate the public on the issues," Dever said.
Commissioners approved the sales tax initiative as they finalized the city's 2009 budget.
On a 4-1 vote, commissioners approved a city budget that anticipates the city taking in $152.5 million in revenues and spending $146.3 million.
The budget will provide about a one-tenth of a mill decrease in the city's property tax rate to 26.668 mills. A mill is $1 in property taxes for every $1,000 in assessed valuation.
Commissioners had settled most of the major issues prior to Tuesday's meeting, but faced one last round of protest from residents concerned that the budget did not provide enough funding for key social service programs.
A crowd of about 30 people marched down Massachusetts Street - backing up traffic for a few minutes - to protest what they believe were inadequate funding levels for several social service agencies including Bert Nash Mental Health Center, the drug and alcohol counseling programs of DCCCA, and the Lawrence Community Shelter.
But commissioners did not take action to add funding to the social service agencies, saying a downturn in the real estate market had the city facing its worst budget situation in recent memory.
"The fact is we're definitely in a crunch," said Commissioner Rob Chestnut. "Given that, I'm proud that we've been able to maintain much of the funding to social service agencies."
Commissioners approved the budget on a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Boog Highberger opposed. He said he could not support the budget because it tied the future of the transit system to a sales tax vote, and because it doesn't provide adequate funding to some social service agencies.
Commissioners also took a separate vote on the $185,500 worth of funding the city provides to the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. Commissioners voted on the item separately because Commissioner Sue Hack works for the chamber. Hack abstained from the vote. The funding was approved by the other four commissioners.