News and notes from around town:
• Work to balance the city’s checkbook for 2010 is essentially done, and the numbers showed the city stayed on the correct side of the ledger for the fourth year in a row. In other words, the city took in slightly more revenue than it spent, meaning its rainy day fund grew despite a down economy.
The totals — which aren’t official yet because the city hasn’t gone through its annual audit — show revenues in the city’s general fund were about $217,000 more than expenses. That means the city’s fund balance account — think of it like the city’s savings account — now has a little more than $12.5 million in it. This current City Commission has been pretty firm in its belief that the fund balance shouldn’t be touched unless absolutely necessary. Earlier commissions have been known to use it differently — just as some families use their savings accounts differently. How the new commission approaches it will be something to watch.
The city has been able to stay in the black for four consecutive years without increasing the city’s property tax rate. But taxes certainly have gone up during the time period. Voters in 2008 approved three sales taxes for infrastructure and public transit. Those extra sales taxes have provided a predictable boost to the city’s coffers. In 2008, the city’s general fund revenues were $55.9 million. By 2010, they had grown to $64.1 million, or about a 14 percent increase during one of the tougher economic cycles in recent memory.
The new sales taxes have been the main reason. It certainly is not because people are buying more in Lawrence. If you factor out the new sales taxes, the city’s sales tax collections were down 2.1 percent in 2010. That’s about the same rate of decline the city experienced in 2009. Or, another way to look at it: Absent the new sales taxes, the city collected less in sales taxes in 2010 than it did in 2007.
• Perhaps it is too soon to mention this, but KU’s loss on Sunday likely cost the city’s tax coffers a pretty penny. When the Jayhawks won it all in 2008, sales tax collections were more than $160,000 higher — or about 9 percent — for the months of March and April when the team was making that great run. The good times continued, as sales tax totals for the whole year were up a surprising 3.8 percent — or about $800,000 — despite all the national gloom and doom about the economy that year.
But the city’s drink tax collections were the real eye-poppers. During the 2008 Final Four run, the city’s drink tax collections increased by nearly 23 percent from the year before. In total, bars and restaurants sold an extra $3 million worth of booze in 2008. Those numbers don’t include the extra alcohol that was being sold at liquor stores. In fact, as I’ve pointed out before, the city doesn’t receive any revenue boost from extra liquor store sales. That’s because liquor stores don’t charge sales tax. They charge only a special 8 percent enforcement tax, and the state keeps all of those tax collections for themselves. Yes, as I’ve also pointed out before, the 8 percent tax rate on booze at liquor stores is now less than the sales tax rate for a sack of food at a Lawrence grocery store. So, if you are having trouble deciding whether to feed your sorrows or drown them this week, well, you do the math.
• Here’s one other option for improving your spirits: Attend tonight’s Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission meeting. That’s always a pick-me-up. Planning commissioners tonight are scheduled to hear a request to rezone property at the Vinland Airport between Lawrence and Baldwin City to allow for an expansion of an aviation parts business.
Several rezoning requests for the Oread neighborhood also will be considered. The owners of the lots at 1340 Tenn., 1344 Tenn., 1434 Tenn., 1403 Tenn., 1400 Ohio, and 413 W. 14th are asking for their property to be rezoned from RM 32 apartment zoning to Mixed Use zoning that would allow for a variety of residential and commercial uses.
The properties include the longtime college bar Bullwinkles. Like The Hawk and The Wheel before it, Bullwinkles wants a change in zoning so that its actual zoning matches the use of the property. Currently, Bullwinkles is a non-conforming use, which means if the bar were ever destroyed it would not have an automatic right to rebuild. The other properties are primarily apartment uses, but the recently approved Oread Neighborhood Plan called for this area to become a mixed-use district. No immediate redevelopment, however, is planned.
The commission also is slated to make a recommendation on a zoning change that would impact how Lawrence apartments can be built in the future. The proposal would change how dwelling units are calculated for the RM-32 zoning district. If that doesn’t take your mind off the ’Hawks, I don’t know what will. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.