Lawrence soon may be entering a new big-ticket era.
Construction has started on an $18 million expansion of the Lawrence Public Library, commissioners have signaled support for a $64 million sewage treatment plant, signed agreements for a $25 million recreation center, and Lawrence Police Department officials are lobbying for $20 million to $40 million worth of facility and personnel upgrades.
In the second of a series of articles about issues in the 2013 Lawrence City Commission race, the Journal-World asked the six candidates for their views on some of the larger issues that could impact the city’s finances.
Voters in the April 2 general election will choose three candidates from the field. Voters in the lightly attended Feb. 26 primary election narrowed the field to six.
Mike Amyx, a city commissioner and downtown barber shop owner, finished in the top spot. He was followed by: Jeremy Farmer, the chief executive of the food bank Just Food; Terry Riordan, a Lawrence pediatrician; Rob Chestnut, a former city commissioner and a chief financial officer of a private company; Scott Criqui, an executive with Lawrence’s non-profit Trinity In-Home Care; and Leslie Soden, the owner of a Lawrence pet care business.
Here are the issues we focused on with candidates:
• Water and sewer rates: Staff members have presented a multiyear rate plan that would increase water and sewer rates by about 6 percent annually for the next five years, well above the recent average increases of about 2.5 percent per year.
• $64 million sewage treatment plant: The facility — slated to be built southeast of Lawrence on the south side of the Wakarusa River — would be the city’s second facility. As proposed, work would begin now and be completed by about 2018. If the plant is built too early, the city’s population may not be large enough to justify the expense. If construction is started too late, the lack of additional sewage treatment capacity could hinder growth.
• Taste and odor issues: The city currently is estimating it may cost about $19 million to add equipment to the city’s two water treatment plants to address periodic, harmless taste and odor issues that occur when certain algae levels are high at Clinton Lake or in the Kansas River.
• Police needs: The department currently is split between two facilities — one downtown and one in west Lawrence. Questions about the size, condition and efficiency of the facilities have been raised by Lawrence Police Department leaders. The police chief also has warned the department needs more officers to maintain current levels of service.
• Long-range planning: Questions have emerged over whether the city has created an adequate plan for future big-ticket projects.
Here’s a summary of what each candidate had to say:
More Election Coverage
Check out our Lawrence City Commission election page for profiles on all six candidates, and for articles on a variety of campaign issues. http://bit.ly/10eY4UF
Amyx, the lone incumbent in the race, voted for the recent increases in water and sewer rates. He said he disliked the increases but believed the projects they would fund represented a “long-term investment in the community.”
After years of uncertainty, Amyx said he now believes it is the right time to proceed with the new sewer plant. He said he was swayed by the fact that the plant isn’t just needed for growth reasons but also to comply with EPA wet-weather regulations.
Amyx said he wants to see more data on the idea to add equipment to address taste and odor issues at the water plants. He said the issue is worth considering, but “It is a great deal of money for a few events a year.”
He said “there is no doubt” police department facilities are going to need to be upgraded. He said the City Commission “quickly needs to discuss the issue.” Amyx stopped short of saying that a tax increase would be needed to pay for the project, but said that is a possibility. He said he also wants to explore a joint facility with Douglas County or other agencies that could help defray costs.
On planning, Amyx said he thinks the city has had good conversations about the community’s long-range plan. Instead, he said concerns over long-range planning probably have more to do with a “difference of opinion about what projects need to come first.”
Chestnut said he sees the need for an increase in water and sewer rates, but will look for opportunities to defer some projects — particularly on the water side — which could allow the city to slow the rate of increase.
Chestnut said he believes the new sewer plant is a project that needs to be started now.
“There is just too much risk on missing on an economic development project if we start this too late,” he said.
He said he would reserve judgment on whether to proceed with spending to address taste and odor issues in the water.
He said the Police Department has facility needs, and a new facility ultimately may need to be constructed. But Chestnut said he also wants to look at alternatives — such as using existing space elsewhere in town — in an effort to cut down on the cost of the project. Chestnut said he was not ready to concede the project will need a tax increase. Chestnut said he does believe the city needs to add more police officers.
On planning, Chestnut said the community hasn’t had enough dialogue about long-term projects, and community members often end up asking “what is next.” He said the city needs to create a more formal seven- to 10-year plan for funding and building projects.
Criqui said he understands the need for water and sewer rate increases, but believes past commissions “could have done a better job prioritizing spending so we could have held that increase down.”
He said he’s heard compelling information from Realtors, builders and others that a new sewer plant is needed, but he said he still needed additional information before he could say if now is the right time to start the project.
Criqui said the occasional taste and odor issues in the city’s water is worth studying more but that may be more of an “inconvenience” rather than something worth raising rates over.
On police needs, Criqui said it is “pretty clear” facility needs will have to be addressed. But Criqui said it also is clear to him that the issue should be put to a public vote because of its price tag. He said he would hope there would be a way to do the project without a tax increase, but “I haven’t been presented with anything other than a tax enhancement to address that need.”
Criqui said a lack of long-range planning by the city was one of the major reasons he entered the race. He said other communities have been successful with “community visioning processes” that create a real communitywide conversation about city priorities.
Farmer said the proposed rate increases will hurt low-income residents, but he believes waiting to fix water and sewer infrastructure will cost everyone more in the long run. He said several of the current projects should have been made a higher priority by past commissions.
Farmer said now is the right time to start work on a new sewer plant in order to ensure the city has the necessary infrastructure to support future jobs.
He said he is not yet convinced the city needs to undertake “wholesale changes” to address the water’s taste and odor issue.
Farmer said the Police Department has “lots of needs,” and they are reaching the point where they will start affecting the service levels of the department. He said the city should commit to building a centralized police facility to house all operations of the department.
“It is going to be one of those pay now or pay more later type of deals,” Farmer said.
He said he would want a tax increase to be used only as a “last resort.” He said he hopes increased economic development activity will boost tax revenues to pay for a police facility.
On long-range planning, Farmer said he wants to look at a more detailed multiyear funding plan for large projects, but he said the commission needs to do more to get resients involved too.
“The saying is budgets reflect priorities, and those budget hearings are very lightly attended by the public,” he said.
Riordan said a multiyear plan to increase water and sewer rates won’t be pleasant, but he understands the need for it. He “applauds the city for laying it out” so the public can know what to expect in the future.
Riordan said now is “absolutely the right time” to begin work on a new sewage treatment plant.
Riordan is less sure if a large investment to address taste and odor issues with the water is warranted.
“I’m kind of 50-50 on that. Let’s do the other things and see if we can afford it,” he said.
On the police issue, Riordan said he believes the city has done a good job of compensating police officers, but has done poorly in keeping up with facility needs. He said the current facilities are “inefficient and somewhat dangerous.” He also said staffing levels on the Police Department need to be increased. He said he would try to make Police Department improvements without a tax increase, but said, “I don’t think anybody knows where that money can come from right now.”
He said the Police Department needs are an example of how the community could do better with long-range planning.
“The library, the recreation center and the Police Department needs all should have been brought up at once so the public could have commented on all of them,” Riordan said. “We haven’t done as well with that as we should have.”
Soden said she is more likely to support the proposed water and sewer rate increases than oppose them, but she is disappointed in how the city has handled the process. She said she wanted the city to consider using some of the $25 million it proposes for the recreation center to instead reduce property tax bills. She said that would have lessened the blow of needed water and sewer rate increases.
Soden said she also is leaning toward supporting the proposed sewer treatment plant, because she is “optimistic about our city growing.”
She said she would take a more cautious approach on the water taste and odor issue. She would propose installing equipment only at one of the city’s two plants, in order to test the concept.
Caution also is the word on a new police facilities building.
“I don’t see an urgent need for a new police station right now,” Soden said. Instead she wants to monitor what the department has been able to do with the recent budget increase it received to add more officers and upgrade equipment.
On long-term planning, Soden said she thinks the city has done a reasonable job of trying to project its future needs.