A new recreation center would be a nice addition to northwest Lawrence, and KU basketball coach Bill Self’s promise of a $1 million donation and assistance in raising another $2 million in private funds certainly sweetens the deal.
However, Lawrence city commissioners shouldn’t base their decision about the center on any perceived “moral” obligation to use all or most of the money from its share of a countywide sales tax on recreation projects.
When the sales tax was approved in 1994, voters were told that it would be used for recreation projects, the Community Health Building, construction of a new county jail and to provide property tax relief. However, the actual wording of the ballot question put no restrictions on how the money could be used.
Nonetheless, the city has continued to direct that money to recreation projects. Now that it has paid off the Indoor Aquatic Center and is close to paying off Eagle Bend Golf Course, it sees an opportunity to make another major recreation investment. A new recreation center, perhaps on property north of Walmart, would fill a geographical gap in the city’s recreational facilities and provide additional gymnasium space for the entire community.
But is a recreation center with an estimated price tag of $15 million the best use of the city’s sales tax revenue?
City commissioners need to ask that question and not just assume that sales tax money that is being freed up by other projects being paid off must be redirected to new recreation facilities.
“We have the legal authority to use it however we want,” Mayor Aron Cromwell said last week. “But the moral authority I don’t think is there to use it for anything other than recreation.”
That’s a big assumption. How about the “moral authority” to provide property tax relief, which also was among the tax’s original selling points? It seems well within that authority for the city to use sales tax revenue to pay for additional police officers or other expenses that would otherwise trigger an increase in the city’s mill levy.
City commissioners and other supporters of expanding the Lawrence Public Library refused to consider using sales tax money instead of a property tax increase to fund that project although such a move would have provided property tax relief on a building that arguably qualifies as a recreation facility.
Again, a northwest recreation center may be a good project for the city and the support from Self certainly is appreciated, but before the city agrees to make that investment, it owes it to taxpayers to revisit its assumptions about how revenue from the 1994 sales tax must be distributed.