News and notes from around town:
• Downtown Lawrence always has been special. Soon it may have the tax to prove it.
City Manager David Corliss’ office is floating a plan to add a new special assessment to most every property in downtown Lawrence. The special assessment would be used to pay for 70 to 75 new covered parking spaces downtown. The spaces would be added to the multi-story parking garage being planned as part of the expansion of the Lawrence Public Library.
If you remember, city commissioners long have talked about adding another level of parking to the proposed garage. But there is not enough money in the $18 million bond issue approved by voters to do so. The $18 million bond issue has enough money in it to pay for a 250-space parking garage — which will be built on the current surface lot between the library and the senior services building. If approved, the extra floor would bring the total number of parking spaces in the new garage to about 320. For comparison purposes, the Ninth and New Hampshire parking garage is around 500 spaces.
Corliss’ plan to pay for the extra parking is to add a special assessment to the property tax bills of downtown owners. The city is estimating it will cost $1.22 million to build and finance the additional parking. Property owners would be charged for those costs based on how many square feet of real estate they own.
For a traditional 25-foot-by-120-foot lot on Massachusetts Street, the city is estimating an extra $141 per year for the next 10 years would be added to the owner’s property tax bill. For a 50-foot-by-120-foot lot, it would be an extra $282 a year for 10 years. If you want to do your own calculation, it amounts to a charge of 47 cents for each square foot.
I believe — but haven’t yet confirmed — the amount of the assessment is based only on the size of the lot, not the size of the building on the lot. In other words, a person who has a one-story building on a 25-by-150-foot lot would pay the same as someone who has a three-story building on the same size lot. Again, I need to check on that, but it appears that's correct, based on the information I’ve seen out of City Hall. If so, tall buildings in downtown win again.
A second point to remember is that even though I’ve referred to this as a tax, it technically is an assessment. It feels like a tax because it shows up on your property tax bill, and you’ll get to know your lawyer really well if you refuse to pay it. But it is different from a property tax in a key way. The amount you owe stays stable throughout the 10-year period. That’s not the case with property taxes. If the appraiser says the value of your property has increased, then your property taxes are likely going to go up as well.
Another interesting element to all of this is that property owners have a pretty direct say in whether these new special assessments will be created. The law allows property owners to band together and file a protest petition. I believe if more than 50 percent of the property owners object to the special assessment, the law says the special assessment can’t be imposed. I’ll check on that detail.
One other item I’ll check on is just how much non-downtown property owners will pay for all of this. The idea of a special assessment obviously is to charge the cost of the project to the property owners who will most benefit. But that doesn’t mean the public at large also won’t pay for some of this. That’s because the public owns quite a bit of downtown property. Think of all the public parking lots, City Hall, Watson Park, the swimming pool, and several other pieces I’m forgetting.
I believe — unlike a property tax — those publicly owned pieces of ground will be subject to the assessment. Again, I’ll have to check. If you are interested, here’s a map of properties that would be included in the special assessment district. It includes all of Mass. and Vermont streets from Sixth to 11th Streets. It includes most of New Hampshire from Sixth to 11th Streets, but doesn’t include the former Riverfront Mall property, which has its own parking garage (which often isn’t very full, by the way.)
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Downtown property owners generally hate their tax bills. But many of them also want to see more downtown parking available (even though my F150 and I didn’t have much problem finding a parking spot on the busiest parking day of the year.)
The idea of special assessments in downtown isn’t new. My understanding is several of the surface parking lots in downtown were paid for through special assessments. But we haven’t seen the idea used much recently. Lately, the philosophy has been more one of if it is good for downtown, it is good for all of us. So we all pay. If this idea of special assessments wins favor, it will be interesting to see if it is expanded upon. What about special assessments for a couple of dedicated police officers for downtown? What about for downtown convention space? What would you want to see a special assessment in downtown for?
• If special assessments don’t trip your tax trigger, fear not. We’ve got other tax news to talk about. It is like City Hall has turned into a Golden Corral restaurant, complete with a buffet of endless choices. (Did you see where Golden Corrals now have both a chocolate fountain and cotton candy available? My wife sure did. She actually drooled on the Sunday paper when she read about it.)
City Hall staffers have come up with new scenarios to build a large police headquarters building and to boost the numbers on the city’s police force. There are three big differences from the $42 million plan that was presented earlier this summer:
— No new property taxes.
- A smaller building.
- Longer time periods to add the 46 positions to the city’s police force.
Here’s a look at three new scenarios:
— A $30 million police headquarters building and 46 police positions all added over four years. That’s all unchanged from the proposal made earlier this summer. What’s different is that the scenario proposes a 0.4 percent sales tax increase that would last for at least 20 years, but perhaps longer. The original proposal called for a short-term sales tax increase coupled with property tax increases.
— A $24 million police headquarters building and the addition of the 46 police positions over seven years. This scenario would require a 0.35 percent sales tax for at least 20 years.
— A $24 million police headquarters building and the addition of the 46 police positions over 10 years. This scenario also would require a 0.35 percent sales tax for at least 20 years.
A couple of other wrinkles to throw into this: City staff has estimated all of the above mentioned sales tax increases could be reduced by 0.1 percent, if the city is willing to use some of its proceeds from the existing 1 cent countywide sales tax. But I’m uncertain how that would impact the city’s plans to build a new regional recreational facility in northwest Lawrence. Some of the city’s share of the countywide sales tax has been unofficially earmarked for that project.
The other wild card is that staff members are reminding commissioners the statewide sales tax is scheduled to decrease by 0.6 percent on July 1, 2013. In other words, Lawrence could get this new police facility and still have a lower total sales tax rate than it did in 2012.
But I know economic development officials have had their eye on this same scenario. I believe many are hoping to make an argument that a new sales tax could be put in place to fund economic development issues and other items.
The surest thing about this is there will be no shortage of causes looking to replace that 0.6 percent state sales tax that will come off the books. One thing to keep in mind, though, is voters really do control this issue. No sales tax can be added in Lawrence without a public election.
• If the combination of history and art excites you even more than the idea of chocolate and cotton candy, we have good news for you.
A source tells me that the Watkins Community Museum of History in downtown Lawrence soon will announce that Ernst Ulmer’s famous painting of Quantrill’s raid — Blood-Stained Dawn — will be on long-term display at the museum beginning later this month.
If you remember, we wrote an article about how this piece of Lawrence history was going on the auction block. There was discussion about how several historians thought the painting should have a home in Lawrence, but there concern about whether local entity would be able to pay the $30,000 asking price for the 4-foot-by-6-foot oil painting.
I don’t have the details, but my understanding is that Watkins did not buy the painting, but rather the owner has agreed to some sort of long-term loan of the painting to the museum.