Perhaps the biggest surprise in local election returns Tuesday night was the margin of victory for three sales tax questions put to voters by the Lawrence City Commission.
Not only were the sales tax increases to fund infrastructure and public transportation supported by around 70 percent of Lawrence voters, all three questions won approval in every single voting precinct in the city.
The overwhelming support of the sales tax increases, which will total 0.55 percent and will sunset in 10 years, is particularly surprising in light of the current economic downturn, a situation that wouldn't seem to encourage a vote for additional taxes. Nonetheless the voters have spoken and sent a message - with perhaps a few caveats attached - to city commissioners.
The positive vote on Question 1, was an apparent acknowledgment that the city has to do something to upgrade its infrastructure, buy firefighting equipment and attend to other necessities. The fact that city commissioners opted for a 0.3 percent sales tax to fund such basic city responsibilities raised a number of eyebrows. City commissioners should view this sales tax as an opportunity to catch up in some areas in which the city has been delinquent, not as an endorsement of the budget policies that left the city in such dire straits.
The positive votes on the two transportation sales taxes, totaling 0.25 percent sent a couple of messages to commissioners.
First, the vote should clear up the lingering question of whether the residents of Lawrence really support a public transportation system. Because the T had never faced a public vote, it seemed that commissioners, as well as many residents, had nagging doubts about whether the city should continue to support the system with tax dollars.
The 70 percent and 69 percent majorities that voted in favor of the two transportation taxes should answer that question. Whether they ride the bus themselves or simply think it should be available to others who do need it, Lawrence voters support the T.
The caveat on this vote, however, is that just because they support the T doesn't mean voters support the way the system currently operates. City officials must begin immediately to map out changes to make the system more financially viable. That will mean restructuring routes and looking at such steps as higher fares and perhaps concentrating service at peak usage times.
At the heart of those changes should be a serious effort to work with KU on Wheels, the Kansas University bus system. KU officials and students have expressed an interest in cooperating with the city or even merging the systems. It has never made sense for two separate bus systems to operate in Lawrence, but merging the systems may be tricky. The KU system is funded by student fees, approved by the KU Student Senate, which would have to be convinced it wasn't subsidizing a city bus system that wasn't geared toward student needs.
Especially on the transportation tax, voters have placed a great deal of trust in city officials to put their hard-earned tax dollars to good use. The voters who approved this sales tax with almost no details on how it would be used now will be carefully watching how quickly and how well the city proceeds with plans to improve its public transportation system.