It is budget season at Lawrence City Hall, which means it also is a season full of questions that often have dollar signs attached to them.
Commissioners at a Tuesday afternoon study session will begin crafting a budget for 2012, and they’ll do so with what has become a standard warning from the city manager.
“It will be very challenging,” City Manager David Corliss said. “I think it will be difficult to cut more personnel and equipment expenses without impacting service delivery.”
In other words, cuts that may come to the 2012 budget are more likely to be noticed by residents than those that have been made in past budget years.
How much residents will notice likely will depend on how city commissioners answer the questions. Here is a look at several questions that commissioners will face this summer:
• How much will your property tax rate go up? There will be a significant property tax rate increase at City Hall for the first time since 2003. Voters last year approved a 1.5 mill levy increase to fund an $18 million expansion of the Lawrence Public Library. That increase will begin showing up in the 2012 budget. But a bigger question is how this City Commission elected last month feels about property taxes? The last City Commission was loath to raise the mill levy, but two new faces have joined the group. They’ll get a test right away — new Police Chief Tarik Khatib is asking for $1.2 million in new funding to add police officers to the force. Funding that request likely would either take a brand new sales tax or an increase in the property tax rate. Add the police request and the already-approved library project together, and that would be about a 3 mill increase in the city’s property tax rate. That equates to an extra $69 a year in property taxes on a $200,000 home.
• What will give with the city’s water and sewer rates? Try this on for size: The city sells less water now than it did in the late 1990s. The conservation movement may be good for the environment, but it has been bad for the city’s bottom line. The city is projecting water and sewer revenues to come in $1.9 million short of budget in 2011. City commissioners last year went against staff’s advice and did not raise water and sewer rates. Corliss isn’t saying what type of water and sewer rate increase his staff may recommend — but when asked whether a double-digit rate increase could be on the table, he didn’t rule out the possibility.
• How mad are commissioners willing to make city employees? It seems city employees may get some news they won’t like to hear about their health insurance plan. Corliss wants the commission to at least have a discussion about making city employees pay more for their health insurance, and increasing their deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses. The commission is expected to consider a proposal that would require city employees to pay $11 every pay period (bi-weekly) for their health insurance. Now, city employees don’t pay any premiums for their insurance, although they do pay to have a spouse or their family on the city’s plan. But the commission also will consider changing the city’s health insurance system to a High Deductible Plan that will increase the amount of out-of-pocket expenses employees have to pay. If the city doesn’t make any changes to the health care plan, the city’s health care expenses are expected to rise by about $1.2 million in 2012.
• How long will it take to reach a deal with the city’s police and fire unions? The city’s police and fire unions have contracts that expire at the end of 2011. It is a good bet that health insurance issue will be discussed as part of the negotiations for a new deal. But in addition to that, the city last year implemented a new overtime policy that cuts back on the amount of overtime the city pays. The city wasn’t able to apply that new policy to police and fire unions because they were under contract. Already, the City Commission has had two lengthy executive sessions to discuss fire and medical negotiations.
Tuesday’s budget study session — which begins at 3 p.m. at City Hall — will be just the first of many discussions this summer. Commissioners will have a better picture of the city’s revenue situation by June, Corliss will present a recommended budget by early July, and commissioners will approve a budget in August.