News and notes from around town:
• The pocketbooks continue to be unlatched in Lawrence.
There’s a new report out from City Hall that shows the first six months of retail sales in Lawrence continue to be impressive.
Retail spending in Lawrence during the first half of 2012 is up 4.6 percent compared with the same period a year ago. (Note: the city has six months of sales tax collections in 2012, but the reporting periods don’t exactly line up with the first six months of the year. The totals represent sales made from about mid-November 2011 to mid-May.)
In fact, shoppers, diners, car buyers and others have spent an additional $30 million in Lawrence compared with last year. Even if you adjust the sales totals for inflation, Lawrence is still having its best year since 2008. Here’s a look at those numbers, with the numbers in parentheses representing the inflation adjusted sales totals:
2012: $666.46 million ($666.46 million)
2011: $636.58 million ($649.43 million)
2010: $611.64 million ($643.68 million)
2009: $616.51 million ($659.45 million)
2008: $639.48 million ($681.58 million)
The latest numbers, however, did show a little sign of weakening. The June totals (which represent sales made from about mid-April to mid-May, grew by 4 percent from the same period a year ago, which is slightly lower than the 4.6 percent average that has been posted for the rest of the year.
But 4 percent growth is still very healthy, so worrying about that would be like worrying about the mud created from last night’s rain. (Over an inch in my eastern Douglas County rain gauge.)
• The sales tax numbers should create a little less worry for budget-makers at Lawrence City Hall as well. The new sales tax numbers have city officials estimating the 2012 sales tax collections will exceed the budgeted amount by about $1.2 million. Assuming all other things are equal, the city should start 2013 with another million dollars more or so in its savings account than once anticipated.
Of course, as budget-makers are quick to point out, we still have another six months of economic gyrations to survive before we can count those chickens. And, they point out, rarely are all other things equal.
The city may see some revenues come in lower than expected. One example is the category of franchise fees. Utilities — read utility customers — pay what is kind of like a special sales tax to the city for the use of its rights-of-way. It is a significant revenue source for the city.
The city has a six-month report on those totals, and most utilities are about right on budget. But one is not: cable television franchise fees. With half of the year gone, cable television franchise fees have only produced about 39 percent of their budgeted amount.
I’m no expert on franchise fees, so I don’t know exactly what to make of the lower than expected number. But certainly there has been a lot of change in the cable television world in Lawrence with the entry of Knology into the market. Plus, there long has been speculation that more and more people will start cutting the cord when it comes to cable and start getting their video entertainment through the Internet. There very well could be some other explanation for why it appears cable usage in the city is less than expected, but it might be something to keep an eye on in the future.
• It appears the city’s bus system also will be worth keeping an eye on.
As we have reported, the city is seriously going to start looking for locations to house a new transit hub. That search will include many places outside of downtown Lawrence. But whether the city is really willing to shake up its transit system by making it less downtown-centric has always been a question.
Well, I’ve heard comments recently that make me think such a shake-up is likely. City Commissioner Mike Dever, who is one of the more active commissioners when it comes to watching over the transit system, recently made public comments suggesting significant changes are on the way for the T.
The question came up at this week’s public meeting on the proposed northwest Lawrence recreation complex about whether the city’s bus system would serve that location. City officials said it most definitely would. But Dever went a couple steps further and said he will be advocating for changes to the transit system that make it easier to get from one side of Lawrence to the other without going through downtown.
“Hopefully we will have a re-tooled T so that not all the buses go downtown first,” Dever said. “Hopefully we will have a better hub system. I think we will have major changes to the T between now and when this recreation center may be built.”
That means between now and 2014, perhaps. Where the city decides to build a new transit hub will go a long way in determining how the system functions in the future. I have had some city officials tell me that they do not see an obvious location for a transit hub in downtown Lawrence. If I were a betting man, I would bet KU’s park and ride lot on West Campus will receive serious consideration as a hub location.
In the meantime, T officials continue to tweak routes. A new set of tweaks go into effect on Aug. 1. You can click here to get more details on those.