Maintaining city streets and sidewalks, managing storm water and providing firefighters with up-to-date equipment should be among the basic responsibilities of a city government. A public transportation system is a vital necessity for a number of local residents as well as being a desirable amenity for a progressive community.
It's unfortunate that Lawrence finds itself in the situation of having to depend on a sales tax increase to catch up on maintenance and save its public bus system. However, that being the case, the Journal-World encourages Lawrence voters to support the three ballot questions that will raise the local sales tax by a total of 0.55 percent to fund those services.
Many local residents are raising legitimate questions about how the city has arrived at this juncture. It seems that money should have been put aside to take care of the infrastructure projects that will benefit from the 0.30 percent tax proposed in Question 1 of the ballot. The funds from that tax will be directed to street and sidewalk maintenance, improvements to stormwater facilities in North Lawrence, building and maintaining recreational trails and purchasing fire equipment.
The infrastructure projects - with the possible exception of the recreational trails - are essential to the safe, smooth operation of the city. The additional sales tax will allow the city to maintain those services.
The other two sales tax questions will decide the fate of the city's fixed-route and paratransit T system. Question 2 provides for an additional 0.20 percent sales tax to fund the system, and Question 3 would raise that tax by 0.05 percent. Commissioners have not included any funding for either the fixed-route or paratransit system in next year's budget. Without the sales tax, they say, both will be eliminated.
The City Commission's approach to the T has been disappointing. Although both Lawrence officials and residents seem in agreement that significant changes are needed to improve the service and financial viability of the T, the commission has failed to attack any of those issues. Even many who support the T find it difficult to approve the sales tax proposals when the city has provided so few details on its plans to improve the system.
Nonetheless, the T is an important service for people who don't have cars or, for a variety of reasons, are unable to drive. Adults use it to get to work and medical appointments; young people use it to go to school and participate in activities. With uncertain energy supplies and a sagging economy, the demand for public transportation is likely to increase. If the T is killed now, it is highly likely it will have to be revived in some form within a few years, perhaps at a far greater cost.
If the transit sales tax is approved, the community should hold commissioners' feet to the fire to make sure positive changes in the T's operation are made, including a closer working relationship with the Kansas University bus system.
The sales tax is not a popular funding method especially in a state that applies that tax to necessities such as food. On the positive side, an additional 0.55 percent tax will add only 55 cents to a $100 purchase and will leave Lawrence's sales tax roughly comparable to what is charged in many other area cities. Another important factor is that the tax comes with a sunset provision that will eliminate the additional tax in 10 years.
Raising taxes is a tough call in the current economy, but the questions voters will face on Nov. 4 are important to maintaining and improving Lawrence's quality of life. We encourage local residents to vote "yes" on Questions 1, 2 and 3.