Lawrence city commissioners will have their first official discussions on the city’s 2012 budget during a study session this afternoon.
Let’s hope they’ve prepared for the session by sharpening their pencils and tightening their belts.
The starting point for their discussions will be a budget prepared by City Manager David Corliss. That budget calls for a 2.8-mill increase in the city’s property tax levy. It’s the first significant city tax increase since 2007, but it’s no more welcome this year than it would have been in the past five.
The lion’s share of the increase is something city commissioners can’t do much about. That’s the 1.7 mills voters approved last November to fund the expansion of the Lawrence Public Library. Other significant additions include 0.6 of a mill to provide $535,000 in increased compensation for city employees and 0.5 of a mill to fund $400,000 in salaries for additional police officers. Both are desirable goals.
The budget also includes about $6.1 million to address a variety of city street and facility maintenance projects and $1.75 million to buy a new quint fire truck and a new hazardous materials vehicle for Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Department. Again, these are all desirable projects that for the most part address basic city services.
The city also plans to dip into its reserve and savings funds to pay $900,000 toward $2 million in radio replacements for police, fire and public works and to set aside $1.2 million to help offset the impact on city employees of changes to the city’s health insurance plan. The city has no choice about the radio replacements, which are mandated by new federal frequency rules. With a little more than $12 million in its main general fund savings account and about $7 million in its main insurance account, the city probably can afford to take that money from reserves. However, continuing cuts in state funding for local services are creating future budget uncertainty and it’s important that the city not deplete its reserves too much.
In discussing his budget proposal, Corliss indicated that he had tried to “strike a balance” on police department funding, but he expected more commission discussion on that matter. “The commission may want to do more than what I’ve recommended,” he said.
It may be tempting to “do more,” but it makes sense to resist that temptation at least until the city has a chance to take a comprehensive look at police department needs, including the possibility of a new law enforcement building. A formal study of those needs also is part of Corliss’ budget plan.
It would be nice for the city to be able to “do more” in a number of areas, but this isn’t the year. If commissioners can find a few ways to trim Corliss’ budget proposal, that would be great. If not, they should at least not add to it. A 2.8 mill increase will add about $64 to the bill for the owner of a $200,000 home. That isn’t a lot, but with all the demands taxpayers are facing in this sluggish economy, it’s plenty.