Yes, the email system for Lawrence city commissioners is working these days.
City commissioners said Friday afternoon that they’ve gotten “lots” of negative feedback from city residents about a proposed 2012 city budget that would include a 2.8 mill property tax hike, the largest to come out of City Hall in more than a decade.
“We’re going to have to decide what we have the stomach for here,” Mayor Aron Cromwell said at Friday’s budget study session.
City Manager David Corliss’ recommended budget — released last week — calls for an increase of 2.8 mills in the property tax levy. The increases would maintain all existing city positions and services, plus fund:
- An $18 million expansion of the Lawrence Public Library, previously approved by voters.
- $535,000 for wage and compensation increases for city employees. The details of any increases haven’t been determined yet because the city is still in negotiations with police and fire unions.
- $400,000 for five additional positions in the city’s police department.
Commissioners agreed that a 1.7 mill increase for the 2012 budget is largely a given. Voters were told to expect such a mill levy increase when they went to the polls and approved the library expansion in November. But a majority of commissioners said they weren’t yet willing to accept another 1.1 mill increase on top of that.
“I’ve heard quite a bit from the public,” said City Commissioner Mike Amyx, a downtown barbershop owner. “I have heard from quite a few people who have said they haven’t gotten any raises lately.”
But signs of division also showed up at Friday’s study session. City Commissioner Hugh Carter pushed the city to look at providing more police officers than what Corliss has recommended. Carter said he wanted to find a way to fund 10 additional police officer positions. Corliss has estimated that would take the total mill levy increase to 3.3 mills. Carter stopped short of saying he would support that large of an increase — he said he wanted to look for other cuts — but he argued a larger police force was going to be a necessity if the city is unable to persuade the state to keep the local SRS office open.
On the other end of the spectrum, City Commissioner Bob Schumm said he might be willing to consider adding fewer police officer positions than recommended by Corliss. He said that adding three officers this year and committing to add two additional officers each year for the next several years might be a good multi-year approach to deal with what police leaders say is a staff shortage.
“We didn’t get short in one year,” Schumm said.
A mill is $1 in property tax for every $1,000 in assessed valuation. A 2.8 mill increase would raise the property taxes of a $200,000 home by $64.40 for the year. Any property tax increases would be in addition to proposed sewer, water and trash rate increases. Corliss’ budget recommends a 2 percent increase for water rates, 2 percent increase for sewer rates and a 2.7 percent increase for residential trash rates.
Several commissioners indicated Friday that they would be looking for several small cuts to try to reduce the budget by $1 million to $1.5 million. Such cuts largely would eliminate the need for a mill levy increase, other than for the library expansion.
Items that came up in that vein included:
- Questions about whether the city could defer purchasing two new pieces of fire-fighting equipment for another year. Delaying the purchases would save the city about $500,000 in 2012.
- Comments on whether 2012 is the right year to begin purchasing right-of-way and other property for a new wastewater treatment plant south of the Wakarusa River. The city has set aside $1.6 million for that phase of the project, which would be funded through higher sewer rates.
- Inquiries about the overall size of the city’s parks and recreation budget, which totals a little more than $9 million under the 2012 proposed budget.
- A request for more information about why the city has budgeted large increases in commodities for many departments, even for many departments that aren’t highly dependent on fuel.
But commissioners also were told that it will be difficult to find cuts to the budget that don’t produce noticeable declines in service. Corliss said he’s recommending the mill levy increase, in part, because he hasn’t found a way to hold city services steady without one. Corliss is not recommending eliminating any city positions in 2012, but he noted the city has cut 26 positions since 2008. The city also has kept its mill levy below 27 mills since 2004. The proposed budget would take it to 29.49 mills. Carter — who was elected in April — said commissioners need to keep that in mind as well.
“Holding steady on the mill levy has been commendable,” Carter said. “But costs are going up, revenues are flat, and we have cut all the positions we think we can. It kind of is what it is.”
Commissioners at their Tuesday evening City Commission meeting will discuss the budget again and are scheduled to decide on the maximum amount they would increase the mill levy in 2012. Commissioners must finalize the budget by mid-August.