News and notes from around town:
• File this away in the category of: I’ve been out-of-state for a week and don’t know what’s going on. But, it appears that the Zarco 66 convenience store at Ninth and Iowa streets is looking to expand. Lawrence architect Paul Werner sent me a note while I was away alerting me that his firm has filed plans at City Hall to combine the existing Zarco 66 station with the former BP station that is just south of the Zarco site. I haven’t seen the plans yet, but I’ll take a look and tell you more in a future Town Talk. As we reported back in February, the BP station at 914 Iowa was closed down by Topeka-based Haag Oil Co.
• Now available at Lawrence City Hall: A mill levy menu. Whether you will be interested in ordering from it, however, is another matter. City staff members on Tuesday will present to city commissioners several scenarios that would raise the mill levy for the 2012 budget. As it stands right now, the 2012 budget has about $1.2 million worth of unfunded items in it. City commissioners, of course, could get out the budget knife and cut some more expenses. (More on that in a moment.) But the city manager’s office also has put together a list of scenarios that would increase the mill levy by anywhere from 1.7 mills to 4.6 mills. Commissioners are being asked to consider the increases because there is concern from City Hall leaders that even with cuts to expenditures that a “gap remains between anticipated revenues and expenditures necessary to continue to support an appropriate level of city services.”
In total there are 11 different scenarios that City Manager David Corliss and his staff have put together for city commissioners. Honestly, all the information can be a bit overwhelming. So, here’s the list, but here’s my summary of some of the major issues the proposed mill levy increases try to address. (For your reference, a one mill increase would add $23 per year to the property tax bill of a $200,000 home.)
- An expanded Lawrence Public Library. Count on at least a 1.7 mill increase for a larger downtown library. Voters approved that project, so the mill levy increase will happen. Actually, voters blessed a 2.0 mill increase, but City Hall leaders are proposing 1.7 mills for 2012 and then the full 2.0 mills for 2013. That’s a recognition that the library won’t open until 2013, and thus the full amount won’t be needed until then.
- Increased compensation for city employees: Ten of the 11 scenarios include about $380,000 (or 0.4 mill) for increased compensation for city employees. If you’re playing along at home, the library + increased employee compensation would total 2.1 mills.
- Employee health care: The city estimates it needs about $700,000 (0.8 mill) to maintain its existing health care plan for employees. Currently city employees don’t pay a premium for their health insurance. (They do pay if they add their spouse or families to the plan.) But commissioners are expected to consider changing plans. The new plan would have higher premiums and deductibles for employees. So, library + compensation + health care = 2.9 mills.
- Police Detective: The city currently has a detective position that is funded largely through grant money. That grant is set to expire, but the city would like to keep the detective position. That would require $100,000 (0.1 mill)
- More police officers: New police Chief Tarik Khatib has told city commissioners that he believes the department needs more police officers. One plan would call for one detective and four new police officers at a cost of $400,000 (0.5 mill). Another option would add one detective, three sergeants and five officers at a price of $800,000 (1 mill). A third option would add one detective, three sergeants and 10 officers at a price of $1.2 million (1.5 mills).
- Radios. The city is under a federal mandate to get all of its radios for police, fire, public works and the utilities department operating under a new band of frequencies. Radio replacement has been on the city’s to-do list for a number of years, but now the deadline is set to become an issue in 2012. To replace all the radios would be $2.08 million (2.5 mills.)
- The savings account: The city has about $12 million in an account called its general fund balance. It basically is money that the city has been able to save over the years. Expect serious discussion about dipping into that account for the first time in several years. The budget scenarios presented by Corliss anticipate taking anywhere from $425,000 to $600,000 out of the account. But that number could go higher, depending on what commissioners choose to do with other issues.
• I told you we would mention possible cuts that city commissioners could choose to make to the budget. Corliss has put together a list of items for commissioners to consider. The only thing certain about this list is that each one will make some group mad.
- Cut social service agency funding by 50 percent. That would save the city about $280,000. (Remember, the “gap” is about $1.2 million.) The cut in funding would hit well-known social service programs, like the Boys and Girls Club, the Ballard Center, the Lawrence Community Shelter, the Lawrence Arts Center, and others. It also would create a decision for city commissioners. Do they just cut social service funding or do they cut funding to all the outside agencies it funds? That larger group includes organizations like Downtown Lawrence Inc., the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, the Douglas County Bioscience Authority and the Humane Society.
- Reduce the city’s street paving program. The city in 2011 is expected to spend about $2 million on milling and overlaying city streets. Corliss said the city could choose to do less of that in 2012, but noted that improving streets was a top priority of residents in the recent Citizens Survey. It also would create a question of whether the city is going back on what it told voters in 2008 when they approved a new infrastructure sales tax. During that campaign, the city said it would use the new infrastructure sales tax to add to the total amount of street work going on in the city. It indicated it would not use the new sales tax as an opportunity to cut existing street funding. Now, three years later, it seems like that is at least an option.
- Put a freeze on vehicle purchases. As currently crafted, the 2012 budget includes about $200,000 to purchase eight police cars. The commission could choose to push those purchases off for a year.
- Delay filling vacant police positions. The department currently has five vacant police officer positions. It has plans to start hiring those positions later this year. Corliss said the city could push that off and save about $290,000 this year, which could then be used to help offset the gap in 2012. But this obviously goes against the advice of the police chief.
- Closure and reduced hours. Back in 2009, Corliss proposed several cuts that could be made if the city ended up losing about $1 million in state funding. The reduction in state funding didn’t materialize, but anger over the proposed cutbacks at City Hall did. Those proposed cuts included closure of the Prairie Park Nature Center, reduced hours for the city’s swimming pools and other recreation facilities, and defunding of the city’s crossing guard program. In a recent memo, Corliss said commissioners could consider those list of cuts again, but acknowledged that they were “highly unpopular” among the public.
City commissioners will discuss all things budget-related at a 4 p.m. study session on Tuesday at City Hall.