The dickering is not done yet.
Lawrence city commissioners are set to finalize their 2012 budget Tuesday. But commissioners are indicating there will be a last-minute proposal to cut back on a planned expansion of the city’s police force, in an effort to limit a property tax increase.
City Commissioner Bob Schumm confirmed that he plans to present a proposal that would add only two new police officers instead of the four recommended by City Manager David Corliss. By cutting back on the police expansion, Schumm said, the city could drop the proposed mill levy increase from 1.88 mills to 1.7 mills. The 1.7 mills was approved by voters to fund an expansion of the Lawrence Public Library.
“This will get us to an amount that is no more than the voters approved,” Schumm said.
The proposal will draw debate. City Commissioner Hugh Carter said he was still learning about details in the proposal, but didn’t like the sound of it.
“I have felt from the get-go that the Police Department has taken a back seat for a long time,” Carter said. “Now it looks like we’re not even making the gesture that we’re working to get to where we need to be.”
But Schumm said he will propose that the city plan to add two new officers per year until staffing reaches an adequate level. New Police Chief Tarik Khatib has said the department could use 10 or more officers to get to adequate levels.
“Two is a good number to start with, and if we keep doing that, we’ll have several new officers in a few years,” Schumm said.
Commissioners, though, can’t formally commit on Tuesday to hire new police officers in future years. A current commission can’t bind a future commission, so any new hiring will have to win at least three votes each year.
Mayor Aron Cromwell said he was leaning toward supporting Schumm’s proposal, but does have some concerns.
“I definitely think we do need more police officers,” Cromwell said. “But I see some logic in trying to maintain the mill levy where it is at. I think what is important is that we make a commitment to continue adding in the future.”
Carter said the amount of savings in Schumm’s plan is minimal. It would reduce the mill levy increase by 0.18 of a mill, which would reduce the property tax bill on a $200,000 home by $4.14 per year.
“I know we can find that savings elsewhere,” Carter said.
Both Schumm’s plan and Corliss’ recommendation would continue to fund an existing detective position that currently is funded with a federal grant, which is expiring.
In other city budget news, commissioners are expected to debate some fee increases.
Carter said he is opposed to a staff recommendation to increase a system development fee that is charged on new construction that connects to city water and sewer service. The fee has been in place since the 1990s, and is designed to help the city pay for infrastructure projects that are caused by new growth.
For 2012, the city is proposing to increase the one-time fee by 11 percent, or an additional $340. Carter said such an increase would be sending the wrong message as builders in the community already have been hit hard by the economy.
“Housing is such a critical element to our economy,” Carter said. “As a government, there is a not a lot we can do to create jobs, but we can help create an environment to support economic development.”
Cromwell said he’s reluctant to go against staff’s recommendation on the system development charges. He said the city’s analysis shows the fees really ought to be higher than what’s being proposed. He said if the city doesn’t keep the fees at an appropriate level, it could make it more difficult for the city to start new infrastructure projects once the economy does pick back up. The biggest project on the horizon is a new sewage treatment plant south of the Wakarusa River.
“The builders who are impacted by the increase in this fee right now will be the ones who scream the loudest if that plant isn’t built on time,” said Cromwell.
Commissioners haven’t yet committed to a date to build the multimillion-dollar plant, but rather have said they want to wait until the city’s population growth rebounds.
Commissioners also are set to approve several other fee increases, including:
• A 2 percent increase in water rates and a 2 percent increase in sewer rates.
• A 2.7 percent increase, or about 40 cents per month, for residential trash service.
• A $7 increase in the city’s Municipal Court fee. The new fee, which represents the court costs that are added onto a ticket, will total $60, if approved. The new court fee would go into effect Sept. 1.
City commissioners will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall.