They said it was a budget hearing, but it may have been city commissioners drafting the "vote yes" brochure for a new citywide sales tax.
City commissioners spent nearly three hours Thursday afternoon listening to department heads lament a lack of money to repair streets, fuel police cars and adequately maintain parks.
Afterwards, a pair of city commissioners said the most likely way to fix the city's 2009 budget is for voters to approve a citywide sales tax proposal that would fund street maintenance and the city's public transit system.
"There are only so many things you can do to cut budgets without impacting services," Mayor Mike Dever said.
Thus far, obvious cuts have eluded commissioners, bringing them back to the sales tax idea.
"We just have to hope that the voters say yes," City Commissioner Sue Hack said.
Sales tax ideas
Technically, city commissioners still need to ask voters. The past three mayors - including current Mayor Mike Dever - have suggested a new sales tax. But commissioners never actually have voted to put a sales tax on a ballot because there have been disagreements about the rate and what the tax should fund.
But commissioners say they're closer to agreeing. Dever said he wants to have a commission vote within the next month on whether to put a sales tax on the November ballot.
One hurdle may have been removed Thursday. Hack said she was fine with putting two separate sales tax issues on the November ballot: One to support public transit and another to support streets and infrastructure. She's the third commissioner - on a five-member commission - to support the idea of separate votes. Dever and Commissioner Rob Chestnut previously have advocated for two separate votes. Commissioners Mike Amyx and Boog Highberger have been lobbying for one combined vote.
Other details remain unsettled. Chestnut has suggested a 0.15 percent sales tax to fund operations of the city's transit system, and a 0.35 percent sales tax to fund street repairs, improve sidewalks and build other infrastructure projects needed to attract jobs. It's unclear whether a majority of commissioners support Chestnut's proposed rates.
But commissioners are scheduled to dive into the issue June 3 when they will devote much of their weekly meeting to transit-related issues. Figuring out how to overcome a $1 million shortfall in transit funding is expected to be the largest issue facing the city's 2009 budget.
Other departments' concerns
It's certainly not the only issue, though. Commissioners heard a variety of concerns from department heads on Thursday during the second day of budget hearings. Among the issues:
¢ Public Works Director Chuck Soules told commissioners that tight city and state finances means that there are no major road reconstruction projects planned in Lawrence for 2009. He said only maintenance work - such as sealing cracks, fixing potholes and providing a new topcoat of asphalt to some streets - will occur.
The amount of maintenance activities also will be less than in years past. Soules said without increasing taxes, he does not see a way to spend more than the $5.1 million the city is spending currently to maintain streets. With the price of asphalt and concrete rising sharply, he said that means fewer roads will be able to be maintained. His department has estimated it needs at least $9 million to adequately maintain the city's streets.
¢ Police Chief Ron Olin said his department is struggling with high fuel prices. He told commissioners he was unable to craft a budget using City Manager David Corliss' guidelines of planning for a 40 percent increase in fuel costs compared with what was spent in 2007.
Olin said he believes his department will be able to make cuts in other areas to avoid reducing patrol levels in the community but conceded a spike in fuel prices could require officers to do more foot, bike or motorcycle patrols to save on fuel. He also said those officers in patrol cars may be forced to be in a parked mode more often to conserve fuel.
¢ Ernie Shaw, interim director of parks and recreation, said his department plans to eliminate five positions that are currently vacant but ideally should be filled. The positions include a horticulturist, three park maintenance workers and an administrative support specialist.