If the mindset of one voter is any indication, many voters didn’t know much about the need for a $30 million police headquarters facility when they approved an $18 million expansion of the Lawrence Public Library in November 2010.
The one voter? Mayor Bob Schumm.
Schumm wasn’t yet on the City Commission — he took office in April 2011 — but he certainly paid more attention than most to city issues. But he said recently the amount of need at the Lawrence Police Department caught him by surprise.
“I’m not going to second guess the need for the library at all,” Schumm said. “There is certainly a need there, but I didn’t know before I got elected that we were that far behind at the Police Department.”
In June, city commissioners received a report estimating it would take $30 million to build a new headquarters building for the Lawrence Police Department. When commissioners asked for a more detailed plan related to staffing the new facility, commissioners were presented with a plan that totaled $42 million.
Commissioners recently were told the city’s existing debt policies won’t allow the city to fully finance a $30 million police headquarters building with general obligation debt. That’s because the city already has committed to issue $18 million in bonds for the library project. If the city issued an additional $30 million in bonds, it would push the city above its own guidelines for the amount of debt per capita and also would raise the city’s bond mill levy to a rate above what the policy calls for.
The City Commission has the ability to change its own policy, but absent that the city likely would have to look at a sales tax increase to help pay for the $42 million worth of police needs.
Some commissioners are now wondering whether enough work was done to ensure voters understood the big-picture list of needs in the community.
“I think the library project will be a great project,” said City Commissioner Hugh Carter, who also took office in April 2011. “But for whatever reason, I think this Police Department project hasn’t been raised to the level it should have been.
“When the public went to the polls, I don’t think they knew this kind of need was looming. We need to get a plan together for this, and we need to do a better job going forward.”
A five-year plan
When it comes to planning for potential big-ticket projects, Lawrence doesn’t quite do it like many other communities.
City Auditor Michael Eglinski in a September 2011 audit made a set of recommendations urging the city to do more in the arena of long-range planning. Specifically, he said the city should start preparing a five-year capital improvements plan and start making multiyear financial projections of major revenues and expenditures of the city.
“I think it would be good to have a formal five-year plan on paper,” Eglinski said recently. “Everybody would have to understand that it would never be written in stone, but it would allow everyone to see the costs you have to address and then talk about the trade-offs you may have to make.”
In his audit, Eglinski found 13 of the 14 cities he uses as peer communities for Lawrence prepare multiyear capital improvement plans. Lawrence, however, hasn’t prepared an overarching multiyear capital improvement plan since 2008, Eglinski said.
But that is changing. City Manager David Corliss said his staff is now working on a five-year plan. He said it will be presented to city commissioners for review and approval in July.
“I think as we work through a number of larger projects, a plan like that is going to become more valuable,” Corliss said.
But Corliss stressed city leaders are doing multiyear planning currently. The city, for example, has a 10-year plan for major infrastructure projects that would be funded by the voter-approved infrastructure sales tax. It also has a multiyear plan for water and sewer projects that need to be undertaken. And sometimes, as in the case of the police facilities project, big-ticket items come up during the annual budget process. Police needs have come up over multiple years in city budget sessions.
The city, however, doesn’t have one single plan that combines the largest projects from all those lists. Corliss said one danger of a such a plan is that it can create the perception that one commission is making decisions for future commissions. In reality, each new commission has to make its own decisions about whether to follow through on a project, even if it is on a multiyear plan.
Corliss also said such plans can give people the impression that the budget is a rigid document that rarely changes. He said that hasn’t been the case, especially during the recent economic downturn when his office has had to make midyear spending adjustments to ensure the budget will balance.
“I’m a little bit worried about people thinking you have a five-year plan and you can put it on auto-pilot,” Corliss said. “I can promise you, we focus on the budget every week.”
Corliss also said he doesn’t believe the lack of a five-year plan created confusion among voters when they went to the polls for the library issue.
“I think the idea that there might be trade-offs was part of the discussion leading up to that vote,” Corliss said. “We told the public that it would cost 1.5 mills to pay the debt on the library project. I think everybody understood that may mean it would be difficult to ask for other projects in the near future.”
But as more large projects begin to emerge — currently commissioners are discussing the police facility, a regional recreation complex, a $54 million sewage treatment plant, millions of dollars to create an industrial park at the former Farmland Industries site, among others — Corliss believes a five-year plan can be a good tool to communicate with the public.
Schumm said he think it also will help elected officials.
“There really is a global question here: Should we not have the palette of needs in front of us when we’re making decisions?” Schumm said. “That seems to be a reasonable way to do it because you only have so much money.”