Archive for Thursday, June 30, 2011

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

June 30, 2011


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.


d_prowess 6 years, 10 months ago

Any idea if the park on Peterson Road is about to be developed? This week crews have been out trimming all the branches that were lower than about 15 feet in the small grove a trees on the site. It now has a decent amount of shade available.

beeline 6 years, 10 months ago

I voted for that money to be spent on parks and recreation. That had better be where the City spends it.

somedude20 6 years, 10 months ago

you do not sound so sad must be kuokgirl, though I liked the message a few weeks ago when a dude thought it was ku's ad girl

MasterShake 6 years, 10 months ago

Major props to Self for offering to donate, but do the folks on the west side really need a rec center? Don't they all have gym memberships anyway? Do any of the other facilities need upgrades/remodels instead of a brand new facility for the wealthy part of town?

BigAl 6 years, 10 months ago

I live on the west side of town. I am definitely not wealthy. None of my neighbors are wealthy. I do not have a gym membership and as far as I know, none of my neighbors have gym memberships.

But don't let a few facts get in the way of a good whine.......

MasterShake 6 years, 10 months ago

No ignorance at all. How about a special tax distirct so you can pay for it? :)

Although, I'd imagine that folks no longer having to go to the East Lawrence center can breathe easier.

impska 6 years, 10 months ago

I'd be cool with separate tax districts so that East Lawrence pays for only its maintenance and West Lawrence taxes stay on the west side of town.

Seriously though? I doubt you'd be happy as East Lawrence roads fall further into disrepair while the city pumps all your tax dollars into the library and Mass street. But at least you'd still have a public pool to cool off in - if there was money left over for it.

JimmyJoeBob 6 years, 10 months ago

Kids on the west side of town need rec centers also. East side has the community building, East Lawrence Center, Boys and Girls club etc.

guesswho 6 years, 10 months ago

Umm..this is different. Have you ever tried to get a court to play basketball on? the rec centers (Holcomb, East Lawrence, the downtown one) and schools are filled with people needing gymnasium space. The East Lawrence rec center is great. West Lawrence does not have a rec center.

Vinny1 6 years, 10 months ago

You obviously have no idea how much things cost these days.

Ann Hamil 6 years, 10 months ago

It takes me 20 minutes to drive to the indoor aquatic center from my house in SE Lawrence (and that is the google drive time too--just looked it up). The google drive time from the aquatic center to Holcolm is 10 minutes and about half the miles, so it seems to me that the west side has a pretty good deal already as far as recreation options. I wish there was a nice indoor aquatic center closer to my neighborhood. Maybe we could put one on that land next to the East Lawrence rec center.

hail2oldku 6 years, 10 months ago

How long does it take you to drive to the Carl Knox Natatorium? Seems like that is closer to your neighborhood, and considerably shorter than the 10 minutes it would take to get to Holcolm.

youngjayhawk 6 years, 10 months ago

Build it and they will come! We need a rec center out west.

Clark Coan 6 years, 10 months ago

The City needs to double the size of both the East Lawrence Center and Holcomb. Those facilities need update and expanded.

We also need a real aquatic center with a lazy river, superslide, etc. like Gardner, Spring Hill, Olathe, etc. have.

workinghard 6 years, 10 months ago

Holcomb is in west Lawrence, you don't need one 1 minute from your door. Talk about entitlement mentality. People in Prairie Park neighborhood and North Lawrence have to drive to get to East Lawrence Rec Center. Would the new proposed rec center be on the same scale as the two we already have, yeah right. By the way, whatever happened to summer drivers ed being offered at both high schools? After a fuss was made some years back, they were offered again at both. Last year when I checked it was once again only offered at Free State.

beatrice 6 years, 10 months ago

Way to go Bill! Very ... Self-less!

Commenting has been disabled for this item.