A citywide election to create a new sales tax to fund a police headquarters building — and perhaps new trails, sidewalks and other "quality of life" projects — may be on the way in November.
Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday had their most serious discussion yet about authorizing a November sales tax election, with some commissioners saying the sense of urgency for a police headquarters building is growing.
"I've said it before, but we have to beat every other issue off with a stick," City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer said.
At a Tuesday evening study session, commissioners received a rough idea of how large of a tax increase may be needed for a police headquarters building. One estimate prepared by city staff showed it would take a 0.2 percent sales tax to pay for a $30 million police headquarters building. The tax would need to be in place for about 15 years, at a minimum. Other estimates showed a 0.5 percent sales tax would pay for the facility in about 7 years, and a 1 percent sales tax would pay for it in about 4 years.
But commissioners stopped well short of an endorsing a $30 million price tag for a new police headquarters facility.
"I want to build a police facility that is good and has a benefit, but hopefully it will cost less than $30 million," Commissioner Terry Riordan said.
Commissioners took no action to put a sales tax election on the ballot, but they agreed to have a study session to review proposed plans for a headquarters facility and possible tax increases to pay for it.
"If we're talking about a November election, we need to have some significant discussions in June," City Manager David Corliss said.
For many years, Police Department leaders have stressed the need for a new headquarters facility. Currently the department is split between the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center at 11th and Massachusetts streets and a facility near Bob Billings and Wakarusa Drive in west Lawrence. The police also operate out of several smaller facilities for parking control, evidence storage and other smaller departments.
Farmer said he is resigned that the only way the headquarters project will move forward is through a citywide election for a sales tax increase. Farmer said he is willing to move forward with a sales tax and a citywide election, but he would rather the city examine its authority to raise property taxes to pay for the project without an election. The city has estimated it would take about a three mill property tax increase — which would stay on the books for at least 20 years — to pay for the project.
Commissioner Bob Schumm said he would much prefer a sales tax to pay for the project because a sales tax would ensure that visitors to the community would help pay for the police services that they use.
Farmer said he is hesitant about a citywide election because he thinks it would "set a dangerous precedent by putting public safety items to a public vote." He said he also has concerns about the impact sales taxes have on people who are in poverty.
But Farmer said if a sales tax vote moves ahead, he wants to explore making the sales tax large enough to pay for quality of life initiatives, such as sidewalks, trails and other such projects as determined by the public. Farmer even mentioned the possibility of creating a new city department to oversee "community livability" issues.
But Farmer said he didn't yet have an estimate of how large of a sales tax should be devoted to quality of life initiatives.