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News and notes from around town:
• When it comes to shoring up the city’s police force and building a new headquarters for the department, it now looks like it will take both a sales tax and a property tax increase to get the job done.
At least that is a scenario being discussed at City Hall currently. City staff members have a funding scenario that would provide money for both a $30 million police headquarters building and to add 46 police officer positions over the next four years.
The city is now estimating it will take $42.1 million over a four-year period to shore up the Police Department. It now appears it will be difficult for the city to fund the police department facility through property taxes without the city violating its own debt policy that says per capita general obligation debt should not exceed $1,100 per person.
Instead, city staff members have put together a scenario that would create a new, temporary 1 percent sales tax plus raise property taxes to fund the build the facility and add the new police officers.
The sales tax would be a full 1 percent and would last for 14 months. Such a tax would generate about $32 million, the city currently estimates. In addition, the city would phase in a property tax increase of 4.7 mills over the next four years. While the sales tax increase would sunset, I don’t believe the property tax increase would.
An increase of 4.7 mills would amount to a $108 increase per year in taxes for a $200,000 home. I’ve seen recent city commissioners nearly sweat blood over property tax increases that amount to a few dollars a year, so this type of increase likely would involve a lot of hand-wringing.
City commissioners are scheduled to talk about all of this at a Tuesday afternoon study session. It will be interesting to see if a sales tax and property tax increase causes the Police Department project to get dropped quicker than a hot potato.
It also will be interesting to see if the Police Department needs get pitted against the proposed northwest Lawrence recreation center complex, which has strong momentum with commission currently. Recently, some city commissioners — the mayor in particular — have been talking about how the sales tax that would be used to pay for the recreation center must be used for recreation purposes.
Technically, that is not correct. City Manager David Corliss wrote the ballot language voters approved to create the 1 percent countywide sales tax back in the 1990s. The language was written in such a way that it can be used for any legitimate governmental purpose.
Now, a real argument can be made that the city has an unwritten contract with the voters that a lot of the money from the sales tax should be used for recreation projects. But I covered that election back in the 1990s, and the talk wasn’t all about recreation. In fact, the city used a portion of its share of the sales tax to help pay for the Community Health Building that houses the Health Department, Bert Nash and other agencies. In fact, one of the big reasons the city has some sales tax money it potentially can devote to a recreation center is because it is retiring the debt it took out for the Community Health Building.
• Well, let’s go for the trifecta of issues that make message board folks whine and moan — property tax increases, sales tax increases, and a homeless shelter issue.
A new City Hall report estimates there will be up to 100 homeless individuals and families who remain in Downtown Lawrence — and perhaps crowd existing public places — when the Lawrence Community Shelter moves to its new eastern Lawrence location later this year.
And the report by the city’s Homeless Issues Advisory Committee suggest the city begin having serious discussions about ensuring some core services remain downtown, such as restrooms, meal sites, laundry facilities, and communication services like telephones and Internet access.
The concern is that not only is the Lawrence Community Shelter moving its homeless shelter out of downtown, but it also will be ending its “drop-in center” services for the downtown.
In addition to the people who spend the night at the homeless shelter, the facility also provides a place for people to take care of some basic services during the day, or simply get out of the elements. Those services currently are available to people regardless of whether they are sleeping at the facility.
The new homeless shelter — which will be located next to the Douglas County Jail in far eastern Lawrence — won’t operate in such a manner. The new shelter, it is my understanding, will have stricter rules on who can be in the facility during the day. Specifically, the shelter will be limited to those people who are overnight guests who are receiving case management services from the shelter and are on a formal plan to exit homelessness.
There are certainly many people who use the shelter’s current drop-in center who aren’t part of such formal programs. The report speculates those folks will remain in Downtown Lawrence once the shelter moves. There also are other homeless individuals, the report suggests, who simply won’t want to be that far away from the downtown area. They also are expected to stay long after the shelter moves.
A third group to keep an eye on is homeless families. Members of the advisory committee said they’ve also heard members of homeless families may be reluctant to go to the new shelter because they don’t want their children sleeping in an emergency shelter situation. I know leaders of the Lawrence Community Shelter do want to serve the homeless families, and are designing the new facility to have separate spaces for families.
Regardless, the advisory committee says it has information suggesting homeless families are going to be a part of the downtown landscape during the days. The report notes the Family Promise organization during a 30-day period this spring received requests for housing from 40 different families.
The advisory board has begun discussing the issues with groups that may be impacted the most by the closing of the drop-in center. Specifically, board members have had discussions with leaders of the Lawrence Public Library and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which operates the community building. The Community Building, with its public shower facilities, and the library already have proven to be gathering places for the homeless, but the report suggests the numbers may increase once the drop-in center service is discontinued downtown.
This issue of what will happen downtown once the shelter leaves isn’t a new one. We reported on it back in May 2011 when City Commissioner Hugh Carter warned folks the new shelter wouldn’t solve the homeless problem downtown.
“I think some issues definitely could be worse for downtown,” Carter said back then. “The ones causing the biggest issues for downtown are the least likely ones to be at the new shelter. The plan going forward seems to leave them with nowhere to go for large portions of the day.”
But the issue hasn’t received much discussion at the City Commission level since that point. It will be interesting to see how commissioners react now. Moving the homeless out of downtown has been an important issue among several political circles in the community.
If this new report leads to a city discussion about creating some sort of downtown replacement for the drop-in center, there likely will be some downtown leaders dismayed.
Commissioners are scheduled to receive the report at their Tuesday evening meeting, but they aren’t scheduled to take any action on the issue.
• Speaking of not taking action, we surely must be talking of lights for Lawrence tennis courts. The city has struggled for years to come up with a plan to provide lighted tennis courts near Lawrence High, to replace the old Lawrence Tennis Center that was lost to new athletic field construction at the high school.
The project brought many concerns from neighbors, so commissioners ultimately backed off the plan. It appeared a new plan was on track for approval, which involved adding three new tennis courts at Free State High and providing lights for all eight courts.
The plan was up for approval at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, but now the item has been removed from the agenda. It has been deferred “indefinitely.” That’s usually a bad sign at City Hall, but I don’t have the details on what has caused this delay. I’ll ask around and try to report back later today on whether this project has simply hit a bump in the road or has fallen into a deep, deep pothole.
The project did come with a significant cost. As proposed, the school district would provide the land for the project, and the city would pick up the construction costs. The costs are estimated at $547,000.
UPDATE: I chatted with Mayor Bob Schumm recently, and he tells me the tennis plan was pulled after some concerns were expressed by Free State High soccer fans. Apparently, the area the school district has identified as an expansion area for the tennis courts is currently used as a warm-up area for some soccer teams.
Schumm tells me the idea of a tennis expansion at Free State may come back up in the future. He said staff members will look at whether is a way to slightly move the proposed expansion and more of the open field available for soccer purposes.