News and notes from around town:
• Perhaps I should check my credit card statement before I declare this good news, but retail spending in Lawrence continues on a roll.
New numbers are out from City Hall about the May sales tax check the city has received from the state, and the numbers are good. For the ninth straight month, the city’s sales tax numbers are higher than they were for the same month a year before.
Through the first five months of the year, retail sales in Lawrence are up 4.8 percent compared to the first five months of 2011. If the sales continue on that pace, it will top the 4.5 percent increase posted in 2011. It also will mark the best percentage increase since 2004, when sales also grew at a 4.8 percent rate.
The May reporting period appeared to be a good one for retailers. As always, it is a little difficult to say when these sales were made. The city gets its check in late May. Generally, the sales happened 30 to 45 days before then. So, some of these sales might fall into that March Madness time period.
Regardless, it was a happy time for retailers. Here’s a look at retail sales totals for the May period. The numbers in parentheses show the totals adjusted for inflation, which is a good way to gauge the health of the retail market.
— May 2012: $112.15 million ($112.15 million)
— May 2011: $106.73 million ($109.04 million)
— May 2010: $102.38 million ($107.90 million)
— May 2009: $93.54 million ($100.20 million)
— May 2008: $109.83 million ($117.23 million)
— May 2007: $101.19 million ($112.16 million)
— May 2006: $104.05 million ($118.61 million)
— May 2005: $100.38 million ($118.12 million)
As you can see, May 2012 was the best retail sales period since 2008, but the numbers still have a ways to go to get to the levels that were being posted before the economic downturn.
• But city officials currently have no complaints with what they are seeing on the sales tax front.
The city’s Finance Department now is projecting the city will collect about $1.1 million more in sales tax in 2012 than it budgeted to collect.
That’s a significant amount, and it will be interesting to see how city commissioners react to it as they put together the 2013 budget over the next couple of months. In particular, it will be interesting to see if commissioners sign off on any type of property tax mill levy increase if they suspect sales tax revenues are truly on the rebound.
City Manager David Corliss’ recommended budget will come out around the July 4 holiday, and I expect it will recommend at least a slight property tax mill levy increase.
Assuming commissioners don’t decide to yet embark on a plan to fund the $42 million in Police Department needs, I think Corliss will recommend a stop-gap plan to add a few officers to the force.
Corliss has outlined in a memo a plan that would add about three officers to the force, and also add money to the city’s budget to improve pavement markings on city streets. (Everything from crosswalks to turn lane markings.) The memo estimates it would take a property tax increase of less than a 0.8 of 1 mill or less than $700,000 to fund the proposal. A 0.8 mill levy increase would amount to an extra $18.40 a year in taxes on a $200,000 home. Not a ton of money, but whether commissioners will be willing to pass along even that amount of a property tax increase will be one of the questions of the 2013 budget process.
Plus, city commissioners may catch some political flak if they say the city has enough money to move ahead with a multimillion-dollar recreation complex but they have to increase the mill levy to improve the city’s police force.
City budget-makers, though, would caution that just looking at sales tax revenues to assess the health of the city’s finances is dangerous. I still think city staff members are concerned property values may go down significantly in future years, which would impact the amount of property taxes the city collects. In other words, the city could spend the sales tax windfall today, but wish it had it tomorrow.
• While we’re on the subject of retail, some of you may have noticed a sign at Nomads, 725 Mass., that says the store is temporarily closing.
I chatted with owner Courtney Ricketts, and she assured me the closing indeed will just be temporary. The store is set to close July 23 to allow construction crews to completely restore the facade of the old building. When completed, the building’s facade will have a more historically accurate look, I’m told. Ricketts said her store will reopen by Sept. 1.
When the store reopens, it will continue to focus on international clothing, jewelry and travel items. But Rickets said the owners of the former BoMo store (short for Bohemian Modern, I believe) that used to operate downtown also will have some of its inventory in the store. So those of you who want a little more Bohemian flair in downtown Lawrence, you're in luck.