Archive for Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Town Talk: A scary use set for former Blockbuster building on West 23rd Street; sales tax collections soar in August; city to discuss debt limits

September 11, 2012


News and notes from around town:

• Lawrence, be afraid, be doubly afraid. The city once again will be home to two Halloween stores this season.

As we previously reported the former Sears building at 27th and Iowa streets will house Spirit Halloween, a seasonal retailer of all things spooky. Spirit was located in the former Maurices building in Downtown Lawrence last year. (Yes Freebirds Burrito is still slated to go into that spot, but I do need to get an update on the progress of that project, which proposes to subdivide the building.)

Now we can report that Halloween Express is going into the former Blockbuster building on 23rd Street. Store manager Kattie Johnston told me the store likely will be open by this weekend. Halloween Express was in the former Borders building in downtown, which is no longer available because it will be used as temporary home for the Lawrence Public Library.

“We’re excited to be even closer to campus,” Johnston said of the new location.

As for what new Halloween trend you ought to be excited about, Johnston is betting “blow-up costumes” will be a hot item this year. You put on a special suit, and with the help of a few batteries, you can flip a switch and your costume inflates. One such costume makes you look like you are bullrider on top of a bull. Another makes you look like a ballerina. No word yet on whether they have one that can make the University of Missouri look like an SEC football team.

(Yes, I know it is risky making jokes about Mizzou right after KU loses to a Conference USA opponent. But fortunately, very few Mizzou fans read. Also, I wanted to have an aside on KU football. I think it will be very interesting to watch attendance figures this season. Football attendance is big business for Lawrence retailers, and at the moment, it looks to me like there is still some work to do. I went to the stadium on Saturday at noon with no tickets in my hand. Shortly thereafter, I had four tickets in my pocket and I hadn’t paid for any of them. Two of them were good reserved seats at the 40-yard line. I turned down four other free tickets.)

Anyway, Halloween Express likely will have hours 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. The store is a temporary store, meaning it probably will close around Nov. 1.

• Speaking of things related to horror (you can decide whether that is a reference to Halloween or Mizzou football), I believe there once was a horror movie titled "I Know What You Did Last Summer."

Well, I think I know what you guys did last summer, too. You went shopping. Retail sales numbers continue to come in very positively for Lawrence, and the latest report was off the charts.

The city in August received nearly $325,000 more in sales taxes than it did during the same month a year ago. Due to a lag time in reporting, the August report measures sales made from mid-June to mid-July.

It appears those dog days of summer were kind to retailers. According to the city’s number, retail sales figures were up 25 percent compared to the same time period a year ago. In fact, the August report showed $124.08 million in taxable sales, which has made it the largest month of the year thus far. So much for the summer doldrums in Lawrence.

It is always risky to read too much into a single month’s report, though. Statistical anomalies easily pop up in these reports, and I suspect there is some of that going on here.

But we’ve also received eight reports now for 2012, and they all have been higher than during the same period a year earlier. In fact, we have now seen 12 straight months where the monthly reports have been higher than those a year ago. From January to August 2012 compared to January to August 2011, retail sales tax collections are up 7.6 percent. So a retail rebound is happening.

Here’s a look at retail sales totals for the first nine months of this year compared to the same period in past years. The numbers in parentheses are the sales totals adjusted for inflation.

2012: $908.74 million ($908.74 M)

2011: $844.32 million ($859.95 M)

2010: $814.59 million ($855.86 M)

2009: $831.06 million ($887.49 M)

2008: $861.40 million ($916.62 M)

The 2012 inflation-adjusted numbers are getting very close to passing the 2008 pre-financial crisis numbers. If that happens, I think it will be a very significant sign for the health of the Lawrence economy.

Regardless, today’s numbers are pretty darn significant for the city’s budget. The city is officially projecting a budget surplus of $1.1 million in the sales tax category for 2012. If retail sales, though, keep growing at their current rate of 7.6 percent, the surplus likely will be higher than that.

• While we’re in the mode of reliving horror movies, does anybody want to remember the summer of 2011 when Congress, the president and others in Washington, D.C., fought like Freddy Krueger and Jason, the hockey wearing mask freak?

Do you remember what they were fighting over? Yes, it was a debt limit.

Well, I don’t expect to see any chainsaws or hockey masks at tonight’s Lawrence City Commission meeting, but there will be a discussion about city debt levels.

The city is getting ready to issue another $5.9 million in new long-term bonds, and another $24.4 million in one year notes. (Think of them like a one-year construction loan.)

The one-year note total is so high because it includes $18.02 million for the library expansion project.

The big-dollar additions to the city’s debt total has city staff members looking at the city’s debt guidelines. I took a look at those back in September of last year, and we questioned whether the city’s planned library project would push the city over its own guideline, which reads “the amount of general obligation bonds outstanding per population will not exceed $1,100.”

We noted at the time, that the city’s per capita bond debt was at $1,015, and that was prior to the city issuing any debt for the library project.

Well, city officials now are proposing to change the debt guidelines. In particular, the city is proposing to raise the per capita debt number from $1,100 to $1,500. But it also is changing the definition of how it counts debt. Under the current guidelines, the per capita calculation only takes into account long-term general obligation bonds. The new calculation takes into account both the long-term bonds and the short-term notes. Of course, a big part of that equation is what population total the city uses. I’ve seen the city use its own population estimate, rather than the Census Bureau’s population estimates. The city estimates its population to be quite a bit higher than the Census Bureau does.

Overall, the city contends the new guidelines are in line with what Moody’s — the debt rating service — recommends for Aaa rated communities.

Plus, the city argues that it has never adjusted its debt guidelines since they were adopted in 2002. Given that they involve monetary numbers, it seems like it would be wise to update them for inflation. For example, $1,100 in 2002 is now worth $1,400 in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation. So, the city is adjusting its debt’s guidelines a little more than inflation, but it also is broadening its definition of what has to be counted as debt.

And finally, I did look at how much debt the city has compared to other Kansas communities. I looked at this over the summer when the League of Kansas Municipalities put out is annual tax data book. (What, that’s not what you did this summer?) Here’s a look at what I found when it comes to total bonded indebtedness per capita. (This counts all types of debt, and I used Census population numbers. In other words, I figured it a bit differently than the city would, but I figured all the cities the same, so it should give you a good idea of where Lawrence ranks.)

  1. Leavenworth - $770
  2. Overland Park - $1,137
  3. Hutchinson - $1,324
  4. Salina - $1,337
  5. Shawnee - $1,385
  6. Lawrence - $1,576
  7. Leawood - $1,926
  8. Topeka - $2,473
  9. Olathe - $2,478
  10. Wichita - $2,516
  11. Manhattan - $4,042
  12. Kansas City, Kan. - $7,142

City commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. today at City Hall.

• Finally, one quick note about 9-11. I’ve written a lot of articles as a reporter, but this one about how a small Kansas community remembers 9-11 each year, has perhaps stuck with me more than any other article written. I’m sure Anthony, Kan., is doing its part today to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.


Currahee 5 years, 7 months ago

As a fiscally conservative liberal (wait, what?) I believe governments should fund core services first and if reasonable, spend more for other services. I love your article. Lawrence needs to have a more accountable government. Sales tax revenue is ahead in the summer and I can only imagine the commissioners imagining what they will do with the extra sales tax income that will come (they wont care what you think) once the state sales tax drops off a little bit. No tax breaks for the people who bring home the dough to Lawrence... and they wonder why no one will move here.

Michelle Fales 5 years, 7 months ago

Chad, thanks for sharing the Anthony, Kansas story. Very touching. As you read the comments below, you can see how much it meant to both Mr. Huber and the citizens of Anthony for you to share their story. Please continue to share every year on 09/11.

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