Fire engines and parks and recreation services will take a bigger hit than expected in Lawrence’s 2012 budget, as a last-minute deal lessened a proposed property tax increase on city residents.
City commissioners on Tuesday unanimously took off the table a proposed 2.8 mill increase in the city’s property tax rate for 2012 and instead said they would not raise the mill levy more than 1.88 mills.
But the smaller tax increase will come at a price to at least a pair of city departments.
The cutback means the city will not fund a $750,000 purchase of a new hazardous materials vehicle for the fire department, and it will cut $200,000 from the city’s parks and recreation budget, which has created questions about whether the city seriously will pursue a new west Lawrence recreation center in the foreseeable future.
Remaining in the budget, though, will be about $535,000 to fund an increase in compensation for city employees, and $400,000 to fund four new police officer positions and one existing detective position that currently is funded with an expiring grant.
“One of the things that is important here is we have made a commitment to our employees,” City Commissioner Mike Amyx said. “The people who truly work for this community, we can’t thank them enough. We’re making an investment in them and that investment pays off in the amount of work they do and the service they provide to this community.”
Instead, commissioners approved a list of spending cuts that was put forward by the city manager’s office only about three hours before the commission’s Tuesday evening meeting.
Rec center’s future
The cuts may catch some recreation supporters by surprise. Commissioners agreed to cut $200,000 from the city’s parks and recreation budget. City Manager David Corliss said that will require the city to more heavily rely on sales tax reserve funds to pay for maintenance projects in the parks and recreation department. He also said it would make it more difficult for him to recommend expanding parks and recreation facilities in the future.
That could be significant because the city has confirmed it has had discussions with coach Bill Self’s foundation about a public-private partnership to build a new west Lawrence recreation center. Commissioners have not yet taken any formal action on that project, but Corliss previously had proposed that architectural plans be developed in 2012. Whether that still would be the case was unclear Tuesday evening.
“I think it is going to be very difficult to take on new projects,” Corliss said.
Corliss said that philosophy carried over to the city possibly buying and restoring the Santa Fe Depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets. The leaders of a citizens group seeking the building’s preservation urged the city to not close the door on the project.
Mayor Aron Cromwell said the city’s actions on Tuesday hadn’t killed the possibilities for the depot. He said the City Commission still will have the ability to look at the depot and other projects, even if the city manager thinks they’ll be more difficult to fund.
Overall, Cromwell said he’s pleased with how the budget is shaping up. The majority of the 1.88 mill levy increase goes to fund a voter-approved expansion of the Lawrence Public Library. The $18 million project accounts for 1.7 mills of the increase. The remainder of the mill levy increase funds police officers and increased wages for city employees.
“I can tell you everyone up here is intimately concerned with coming up with a tax number that provides services at the level we have come to expect, but also keeps our tax bills at a reasonable level,” Cromwell said.
The original proposal to raise the mill levy by 2.8 mills would have increased the property taxes on a $200,000 home by $64.40 per year. The new proposal of a 1.88 mill levy increase would raise property taxes on the same home by $43.24 per year.
Commissioners did not give final approval to the budget on Tuesday. Instead, they committed to the maximum mill levy for 2012. The commission still could cut the budget before giving final approval in mid-August. Commissioners will hold a formal public hearing on the budget at their Aug. 2 commission meeting.