You can’t beat Mother Nature, and evidently you can’t close her either.
Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday quickly backed away from a staff recommendation to close the city-owned Prairie Park Nature Center. The closure had been recommended as part of a series of cuts to respond to a state proposal that would reduce state funding to the city by about $1.1 million this summer.
Commissioners said they received about 300 e-mails in a 72-hour period, with most urging the city to save the southeastern Lawrence center that houses birds, snakes and other nature displays.
“I don’t think any of us have the stomach to close Prairie Park Nature Center,” Commissioner Sue Hack said at the beginning of the weekly meeting, which included an overflowing crowd at City Hall.
By the end of the meeting — which featured about 90 minutes of public comment decrying a host of proposed budget cuts — all five commissioners confirmed they didn’t support the Prairie Park proposal.
The evening included often emotional pleas from nature-lovers of all ages. More than a dozen children asked commissioners to save the center.
“It is a great place to go if you need information on animals,” said Eva Bradley, who struggled to see over the City Commission lectern. “And it is a good place to go if you are not feeling happy.”
If that’s the case, city commissioners may end up visiting the center themselves. They took the nature center closure off the table, but left other cuts open for debate.
Some of those include:
• Eliminating city funding for the school crossing-guard program. City leaders hope the school district will be able to absorb the program, which costs about $50,000 per year.
• Layoffs of three full-time employees in the city Human Relations division, which enforces anti-discrimination laws. Lawrence’s local anti-discrimination law would continue to exist, but would be enforced by existing staff attorneys.
• A host of funding cuts for social service agencies, youth organizations and art programs. Agencies that receive funding from the city’s share of the state alcohol tax would be hit hardest because the governor’s proposed budget would eliminate alcohol tax payments to cities.
• Elimination of several programs, including the City Band concerts in South Park, the youth bicycle helmet program, and CPR training classes.
• A reduction in hours at community centers and swimming pools, and closure of the South Park wading pool.
None of the commissioners endorsed any of the proposed cuts, but they did say that if the state follows through on reducing funding to cities that major changes would have to be made.
“I learned a long time ago that there is budget, and then there is money,” Commissioner Mike Amyx said. “We can put all that we want into the budget, but if the money doesn’t come in, we can’t do it.”
City Manager David Corliss, whose office created the list of possible city cuts, said he hopes none of the cuts have to come to fruition.
“This is Plan B,” Corliss said of the possible reductions in city services. “This is the retreat battle plan.”
Instead, city leaders hope that Lawrence residents will deluge local legislators with e-mails and phone calls like they did with city commissioners.
“Contact your legislators,” Mayor Mike Dever said as the crowd left City Hall. “Call, call, call.”
The city could face a shortfall in state funding beginning in July, when the state’s fiscal year begins. The timing is terrible, commissioners said, because the city would have no ability to raise property taxes in 2009 to compensate for the loss in funding. Property tax rates must be set by the beginning of each calendar year.
But commissioners could raise fees for several programs. Several commissioners said they wanted to review those options, including making the Prairie Park Nature Center more fee-oriented.
Commissioners also said they wanted to look at ways to rely more on community volunteers for everything from taking care of downtown flowers to staffing crossing guard locations.
Many speakers urged the city to keep the school crosswalk program intact with paid crossing guards.
“I’m afraid there would be definite incidents that would occur that none of us would want to explain after-the-fact,” said Kevin Loos, a Lawrence resident.
Commissioners said they may hold a town hall meeting on possible budget cuts. Staff members said they would continue to monitor proposals related to the state budget. The state’s budget likely won’t be set until April or May. Corliss said the city would need to be in a position to respond to those cuts by July.
In other business, commissioners:
• Directed their legal staff — on a 4-1 vote — to file the necessary paperwork to intervene in a Douglas County District Court lawsuit involving the Douglas County Commission and neighbors near the Lecompton interchange on the Kansas Turnpike. At issue is the annexation of about 155 acres of property, which has been proposed as a new business park. Neighbors contend the County Commission did not follow the proper process in allowing the city to annex the land. If the city is allowed to intervene, that theoretically would allow the case to continue on even if the County Commission ends its defense of the lawsuit. That could be a possibility given that the majority on the County Commission has changed since the lawsuit was filed. Commissioner Boog Highberger was the dissenting vote.
• Had no objection to a proposed list of projects that the city could submit as part of a future stimulus package coming out of Washington, D.C.