A closer look at the city budget
Here’s a look at several major items in the 2010 city budget.
• $300,000 to study and possibly design a new West Lawrence recreation center near Overland and Wakarusa drives.
• The elimination of the city’s Human Relations Division, which investigates complaints of discrimination. The duties would be taken over by the city’s legal services staff. The cut would eliminate two positions. Overall, city employment is expected to drop to 773 full-time equivalent positions, down from 783 this year. Most of the reductions are expected to come through attrition.
• $3.6 million in street maintenance work related to the passage of a new infrastructure sales tax. The major project will be a rebuilding of Kasold from 23rd Street to 31st Street. Overall, street maintenance funding in 2010 will grow to $8.7 million, up from $5 million this year.
• $2 million to fund extension of water and sewer service to the Lawrence Municipal Airport to open up ground on the airport to potential industrial and aviation development.
• $500,000 to replace the roof of the Lawrence Public Library.
• $1.8 million to purchase a ladder truck and an engine truck for the fire department.
• $200,000 to begin purchasing right of way for an extension of 31st Street from Haskell to O’Connell.
• A 1 percent merit pay adjustment for city employees. That’s down from a 2 percent merit pool in the 2009 budget.
Lawrence City Manager David Corliss’ recommended 2010 budget — released on Thursday — holds the line on property taxes, but doesn’t leave many other stones unturned in its search to generate revenue.
For starters, Lawrence property owners could face a new monthly “sidewalk maintenance” fee on their city utility bills. The fee — which would average about 25 to 50 cents per month for the typical homeowner — would fund a program that would require the city to maintain sidewalks throughout the community.
The proposed budget also includes fee increases for a variety of parks and recreation services, for downtown parking and for municipal court violations such as speeding and other traffic offenses. Monthly rates for water and trash service also are slated to increase. Plus, visitors will be asked to pay more through an increase in the city’s guest tax — a sales tax charged on the rental of hotel rooms.
All that comes after voters in April agreed to create three new sales taxes that added an extra 0.55 percent onto the local sales tax rate.
“I think what we’re trying to do is ensure that the basic city services are well attended to, but also try to do a little more than just pay the bills,” Corliss said.
The budget includes some new projects, including $300,000 to study and possibly design a new West Lawrence recreation center near Wakarusa and Overland drives.
City commissioners will have the final say on all the budget matters, including whether to institute new fees and fines.
Mayor Rob Chestnut said he’s generally pleased with Corliss’ recommendations.
“I think there was clear commission direction that in difficult economic times, that we didn’t want to raise taxes,” Chestnut said.
Chestnut said some of the fee increases were simply tough to avoid.
“I think we have a catch-up factor going on here,” he said. “It is a delicate balance, but some of these fees haven’t been changed for a long time.”
Commissioners will conduct a study session to discuss the budget at 3 p.m. July 13 at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.
Corliss’ recommended budget follows through on consistent direction from commissioners to keep the property tax mill levy steady. Corliss proposes a mill levy of 26.688 mills, unchanged from this year’s rate. A mill is $1 in property tax for every $1,000 in assessed valuation that a person owns in taxable real estate and property.
Many Lawrence residents actually may see the city portion of their property tax bill decline, as property values in several Lawrence neighborhoods have dropped with the faltering real estate market.
The decline in property values — the overall decline was 0.8 percent — sent city budget-makers searching for ways to generate revenue for 2010.
In total, the city expects to collect — through property taxes, sales taxes, water and sewer rates and other fees — $164.9 million in 2010, up 8 percent from the $152 million budgeted for this year. The bulk of the new revenue comes from the three sales taxes that voters approved in April.
On the spending side, the city has budgeted $157.7 million in expenditures for 2010, up 7 percent from this year’s budget.
The budget does not require the city to dip into its “fund balance” account, the city’s version of a savings account. Corliss said that was an important priority.
“It really is critical,” Corliss said. “We don’t know what the economy is going to do in the coming months or even years.”
Corliss’ proposal to create a monthly fee to do sidewalk maintenance is the largest philosophical shift in the budget. State law requires property owners to maintain the public sidewalks that run through their property. Under Corliss’ plan, the city would take over that responsibility — minus snow removal — for a monthly fee that would be tacked onto water and sewer bills.
City Hall has received complaints about households that are unable to afford sidewalk repairs, but Corliss concedes that he does not know whether the community is ready for the change.
“I’ve labeled it a trial balloon, and maybe it ought to be shot at,” Corliss said. “But if we don’t address it, we’ll just continue to go down the same worn path of knowing that we have a problem but not a solution.”
Property owners would be required to pay the fee, whether they have a sidewalk that runs through their property or not. The system would charge each property based on the amount of front footage the property has along a public street. Corliss is proposing properties be charged either a half cent or 1 cent per month, per linear foot of street frontage. For a typical 50-foot single-family lot in Lawrence, it would amount to 25 to 50 cents per month. Corner lots would be more.
The fee would generate $200,000 to $400,000 per year, depending on whether a half cent or a full cent per foot is charged.
Chestnut said he expects the commission to have significant discussion on whether to move forward with the project.
“I hate to put a tax in right now, but I recognize that we’re falling behind in sidewalk maintenance, and I don’t know where the money is going to come from to catch up,” Chestnut said.
The recommended budget follows through on previous warnings that a host of fines and fees would increase. Among those slated to rise:
• Water and sewer rates: The bill for a typical household would increase by about 95 cents to $1.90 per month.
• Trash rates: Would increase 66 cents per month for the average household.
• Downtown parking: The fine for downtown parking would increase to $3, up from the current $2 fine. The time limit for parking at Massachusetts Street meters also would be changed from two hours to 1.5 hours. Hours of enforcement also would extend to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Present enforcement ends at 5 p.m. The increases are expected to generate an extra $164,000 in revenue.
• Municipal Court fines: The fine for driving 1 to 10 miles over the speed limit would increase to $50, up from $38. Fines for other traffic offenses — such as running a stop sign, improper turns and driving left of center — would increase to $80, up from $68. Fines for notice to appear parking violations would increase to $55, up from $40. Court costs would remain steady at $52. Corliss also said he expects more tickets will be issued in 2010 because the budget recommends filling all vacant police officer positions. The higher court fines are expected to generate about $250,000 in new revenue.
• Parks and Recreation: The department will create a $1 fee for adults to enter the Prairie Park Nature Center. Children ages 5 to 12 would be charged 50 cents. Children 4 and under would be free. The department also would offer a $40 annual family pass. The department would start charging a $1 fee for children to use the South Park Wading Pool. The two fees are expected to generate about $12,000 a year.
• Eagle Bend Golf Course: The city-owned course at Clinton Lake would increase weekend green fees to $25 for 18 holes, up from $23. Green fees for nine holes would increase to $17, up from $15. Weekday fees would not increase. Cart fees, though, would increase by $1 for all days. All the golf fee increases are slated to begin immediately.
• Guest tax: The budget recommends increasing the guest tax to 6 percent, up from 5 percent. Corliss is proposing that the city use the increase to set aside $50,000 per year for the next 10 years to pay for improvements at the former Carnegie Library building at Ninth and Vermont streets. The building has been proposed to be the home for the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau and the main offices for the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area. Corliss is proposing that guest tax increase also be used to set aside $50,000 per year for the national heritage area to create exhibits and attractions in Lawrence.