Not all the big buildings that the city of Lawrence is thinking about building will be full of fun and games.
While city commissioners are debating whether to proceed with a $24 million northwest Lawrence recreation center, the prospect of a new police headquarters building that could cost up to $30 million is still on the horizon.
Just how far that horizon stretches, however, depends on whom you talk to at City Hall.
On one end of the spectrum is City Commissioner Hugh Carter. Carter said he wants city commissioners to have a serious discussion about placing a special sales tax question in front of voters in early 2013. The goal, Carter said, is to try to get a new sales tax that could fund police, and perhaps economic development functions, on the books at the same time the state is reducing its sales tax by six-tenths of a cent.
The state is scheduled to reduce the sales tax in July 2013, which means Lawrence voters would need to approve a new local sales tax sometime in the first quarter of 2013, if local leaders want the new tax to kick in just as the state’s sales tax is cut.
“As soon as we get done with this recreation center discussion, I want to bring that item up again,” Carter said. “With the changes in the state sales tax, it seems like a natural time to try to get it done.”
On the other end of the spectrum is City Commissioner Mike Dever. He said city leaders may want to slow down on the police headquarters idea, and instead have an even larger discussion about law enforcement. Specifically, he said the community needs to decide whether the Lawrence Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office will forever be two separate entities.
“I still think it is reasonable for us to consider some sort of consolidation of emergency services, or at least the idea of the police and Sheriff’s Office being together in one location,” Dever said. “Ultimately, it would be great to have a conversation about how we’re going to provide public safety services in Douglas County before we spend tens of millions of dollars to build a facility that serves only the city.”
The most certain aspect of the discussion surrounding a new police headquarters building is that city commissioners decided not to put any money in the city’s 2013 budget for the project.
Police department leaders made a strong pitch during the city’s budget session to fund a multi-year plan that would have built a $30 million state-of-the-art police headquarters building and added 46 new police officers over a four-year period. The plan would have required a new sales tax, higher property taxes or a combination of both to fund.
The idea, which would allow the police department to no longer be split between a downtown office and a west Lawrence office, never gained much traction with commissioners. Instead commissioners funded a plan to add three new officers through a slight property tax increase.
City Manager David Corliss said he’s now waiting for further direction from city commissioners on where the police facility’s issue should be ranked in the city’s list of priorities.
But Corliss said he heard enough from commissioners during recent budget study sessions to surmise changes will be required in the plan.
“I still believe the facility is a need at some point, but I don’t think there is strong support for the $30 million solution,” Corliss said. “I think in the future we would need to look at doing something smaller both in size and cost.”
One caveat to that thought, however, would be if the city and county try to do a joint project.
City leaders last year approached the county about joining the city in a feasibility study for a joint law enforcement center. County officials chose to not participate in the study.
Dever, though, said that doesn’t mean the issue shouldn’t be discussed.
“Sometimes you have to bring things up more than once,” Dever said.
Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern said his office did not participate in the study because it was clear moving to a new building would create logistical problems for his department.
The Sheriff’s Office is responsible for running the Douglas County Jail on the eastern edge of Lawrence. It also is responsible for providing security for the Douglas County Court system, and for executing all the warrants produced by the court system.
Those duties, McGovern said, requires the department to have offices next to the courts. A new building would mean the Sheriff’s Office would have offices in three buildings.
“Would I love to be in a modern new building with state-of-the-art equipment?” McGovern said. “Sure, but I don’t see how it is going to be efficient for us.”
Dever said he understood those concerns but said a more detailed discussion between the city and the county might produce some solutions.
“I think downtown would be a great location for a new and improved police building, and perhaps that would allow us to house a coordinated, joint facility,” Dever said.
Dever said he didn’t know what downtown locations may work. But he said with the trend of building underground parking in downtown, larger buildings have become more feasible. McGovern said if the city wanted to explore constructing a larger building near the current Judicial and Law Enforcement Center at 11th and Massachusetts streets — the building does have a large surface parking lot — it should be prepared to undertake an even larger study. He said any such project should take into account the future needs of the Douglas County Court system.
“I think you could look at doing something downtown, but whether that would be the choice or not, I don’t know,” McGovern said. “This is a nice location because it is in the heart of the community. But where you would put a new building, I don’t know.”
Dever said if a solution could be found, he’s confident taxpayers would save money if the departments were located together. He said that even if the two departments didn’t fully consolidate, which likely would be politically difficult, there could be savings on back-office personnel, building maintenance, vehicle maintenance, weapons storage, computer technology and other shared resources.
“Even if you are not sharing officers or dollars, I have to think there are some savings,” Dever said. “I know that it is easy to spend more money than you need to if you don’t have a concerted discussion on how to conserve taxpayer dollars.”
Time to act
Carter, the city commissioner, said he is uncertain whether the city should spend much more time exploring a joint project with the county. He said he thinks the city has had enough discussions with the county to see that there are significant hurdles to a joint facility.
“I understand why some people feel like it is a natural combination, but I think there are some good reasons why it is not likely to happen,” Carter said.
Instead, Carter said he thinks the city has a window of opportunity to create a new sales tax without raising the overall sales tax rate in the city. Carter hasn’t said how large of a sales tax he thinks is needed, but it likely would be less than the .6 of a percent that is set to come off the state’s rate in July.
Earlier this summer, the city estimated a 0.35 percent sales tax for 20 years could fund a police headquarters building and a staff expansion.
“A sales tax is the right way to go,” Carter said. “When it comes to police facilities, everybody should share in supporting that, not just property owners.”
Carter said what he does not want to have happen is for the project to get put on the back burner. He said he’s concerned that could happen because three of the five City Commission positions — including his — are up for re-election in April. Past commissions have been reluctant to introduce major issues just before an election.
“My concern is that if I don’t push this, it will be on the back burner until after the election,” said Carter, who has not yet decided if he’ll seek re-election. “But I plan to push it. We’re here to work year-round.”