Lawrence city commissioners seek signage for taxing districts

Special taxing districts deserve special signs.

City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday directed staff to bring back a policy that will require any business in the city charging a sales tax above the standard community-wide rate to post a sign alerting customers of the higher tax.

“I think we have to mandate signage,” said City Commissioner Mike Dever. “We have to ensure that shoppers know they’re choosing to shop at a location despite an additional tax.”

Lawrence currently has two special taxing districts — the Bauer Farm development on the northeast corner of Sixth and Wakarusa and The Oread hotel development near Kansas University. But other proposals have come up in recent months, and the public has asked questions about whether the special taxes, which can be up to 2 percent, are being fairly communicated to shoppers.

Under the proposal commissioners generally agreed to on Tuesday — no formal vote was taken — the two existing special taxing districts would be required to post signs, as well as any future taxing districts. But details about the signs were left undecided.

Commissioner Bob Schumm said he thought businesses should be required to put a sign out on the public right-of-way, next to the business’ main sign, so that motorists would know about the tax before deciding to pull into a merchant’s parking lot.

“I just think it is a transparency issue,” Schumm said.

Previously, proposals for signs have called for them to be placed on the front door of a business or near the cash register. City Manager David Corliss said his staff would have to research what the city can legally dictate in terms of sign placement.

Commissioners are expected to formally vote on a policy in the next four to six weeks, following staff research on the sign issue and other topics.

In addition to the signs, commissioners asked staff members to bring back a policy that:

• Created more specific criteria for when businesses can qualify for a Community Improvement District or a Transportation Development District, both of which allow for a special sales tax to be charged;

• Adds language requiring businesses applying for the special taxing district to show that the project will not be feasible without the special tax;

• Limits how a business can use the proceeds of a special tax. State law allows taxes generated in a Community Improvement District to be used for a variety of public and private development expenses. Commissioners, however, are proposing that the city only allow the taxes to be used for public infrastructure expenses and a handful of private expenses related to the exterior of commercial buildings or other features that would be noticeable to the public.

In other news, commissioners decided to not take a formal position yet on whether Lawrence should be included in one or two congressional districts as part of the redistricting process.

Mayor Aron Cromwell and Schumm both said they could see advantages to having the city entirely within one district, likely the 2nd Congressional District, which likely would include both Manhattan and Topeka.

But the remaining commissioners said they want to monitor public sentiment further before taking an official position. The state legislature is expected to make decisions on redistricting, which occurs once a decade, early in the 2012 session.

A public hearing on the issue will be held by the legislature’s Special Committee on Redistricting at 9 a.m. Sept. 2 at the Dole Institute of Politics on Kansas University’s West Campus.