Town Talk: Self likely to donate $1 million for West Lawrence recreation center, sales tax dollars may fund rest; skatepark improvements, new East Lawrence playground on drawing board

News and notes from around town:

• Here’s a developing story to keep an eye on. It appears a deal between Kansas University men’s basketball coach Bill Self and the city will be announced soon regarding his efforts to help build a new West Lawrence recreation center. I had heard that Self, through his ASSISTS Foundation, had told city leaders he’ll donate $1 million to a recreation center and will spend his time and energy to help raise another $2 million in private donations. When I told Mayor Aron Cromwell what I had heard, Cromwell confirmed that is largely the deal that is expected to be announced. As part of the plan, the recreation center would be built on city-owned property behind the Wal-Mart at Sixth and Wakarusa, which is a site we previously have reported on. Self’s donation, however, will cover just a fraction of the total cost for the center. Cromwell confirmed that the total price tag would be around $15 million. The city’s plan long has been to use money that has been or soon will be freed up as other parks and recreation projects retire their debt. For example, the city’s indoor aquatic center is now paid off, and I’m told some other projects will be in the coming year. The city would take the money it has used to make those bond payments and start using it to make a new set of bond payments for a recreation center.

I don’t yet have the specific numbers on how much money is set to be freed up by these projects that will be paid off, but I’ll get it. It will be an interesting number because certainly the city has lots of financial needs at the moment. From reading the tea leaves, I expect the city’s 2012 budget will include a significant mill levy increase — maybe about 3 mills, which would include the already approved 1.7 mill increase for the library and maybe another mill or so for additional police officers. (That’s just an educated guess, so don’t hold me to it.) The line coming out of City Hall is that if you want additional police officers, a mill levy increase is the only feasible way to fund it. That’s why these freed up sales tax dollars will be interesting. Perhaps they won’t be large enough to make a dent in the Police Department’s needs, but perhaps they will be.

The countywide sales tax that voters approved in 1994 is very clear. The sales tax dollars can be used for any general governmental purpose. That would include funding additional police officers. But Cromwell said he thinks that would be a disingenuous use of the sales tax dollars. As part of that campaign many years ago, voters were told the sales tax would be used to bolster the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. I covered that campaign, and that is certainly true. It was a big selling point for voters in Lawrence. But voters also were told that the sales tax — which has no sunset — would be used to provide property tax relief. (Indeed, some mill levies did go down following its passage.) That element of property tax relief also was a significant selling point with voters.

Now, 17 years later, we may find out what selling point most resonates with the public today. Thus far, I don’t think the idea of using these sales tax dollars for police has much momentum on the commission. When I asked Cromwell about the possibility, he expressed concern about using this money for purposes other than parks and recreation.

“We have the legal authority to use it however we want,” Cromwell said of the sales tax dollars. “But the moral authority, I don’t think is there to use it for anything other than recreation.”

One other point to remember is that this whole project is not yet a done deal. Cromwell said the 2012 budget likely won’t include many expenses for the project. Instead, the city wants to use 2012 as a year to do private fundraising for the project. The city wouldn’t issue new debt for the facility until it has raised the private funds. That would mean 2013 would be the year it would really start to show up in the budget.

• While we’re on the subject of recreation, leaders of the city’s parks and recreation department recently outlined what they believe will be some of the major improvements they’ll undertake in 2012. The department thinks the upcoming city budget will have some money to refurbish the skatepark at Centennial Park. Money to do some needed maintenance at the swimming pool also is a strong possibility. Whether that maintenance will include a new slide and other such features will be something to be determined as the project moves along. Plus, the department told its advisory board that a new playground is on the way for East Lawrence. The large Kansas City-based engineering firm of Black & Veatch has told the city it likely will donate $25,000 for a new playground to be installed along the Burroughs Creek Trail where it intersects with 15th Street. Black & Veatch is making the donation as part of a program to give back to the communities where it works. The company is doing major work in the area as part of the expansion of Westar Energy’s power plant north of Lawrence. No word yet on when that donation may become official or when that project may kick off. The playground would be near where the old Morton Block factory was located, which is now city property. Mark Hecker of parks and recreation told me that long-term plans still call for that area to house a unique “spray park,” which would be a water feature that kids or those young at heart could run through and cool off. The playground will still leave room for that, if funding ever develops in the future.

• One last thing to keep an eye on related to the city budget. The employment contracts for both the city’s police and fire unions are set to expire at the end of the year. There hasn’t been much news about those negotiations because both sides have done a good job of keeping quiet about the closed-door negotiations.

But if the number of times city commissioners have gone into executive session to discuss the matter is any indication, the negotiations are tough. Commissioners have had five closed-door executive sessions in the last eight weeks. Almost every session has lasted an hour or more. I’ve covered the City Commission since 1994, and this seems like an above average amount of attention from the commission. I have no inside scoop on what the major points of the negotiations are.

But here are some educated guesses: 1. The city’s health care plan. The city is considering major changes to how the plan is structured. This comes at a time when the city has about $7 million in a reserve fund in its insurance account. The city staffers who run the insurance fund are very uncomfortable drawing that fund down too much. The city is self-insured and the nature of health care costs make that risky. 2. Overtime. The city made some changes to its overtime policy within the last year, but those changes didn’t extend to police and fire because their overtime policies are governed by their contracts. 3. Pay. Compensation is always an issue.