Commissioners, public criticize staff cuts in Lawrence city manager’s budget proposal

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

City commissioners and members of the public on Tuesday criticized cuts included in the Lawrence city manager’s 2017 budget proposal.

Conversation became heated at times during a work session about the budget Tuesday at City Hall. During a public comment period, Lawrence resident Umut Bayramoglu said the budget proposal “sounded like it was written by a person who does not understand the character of this community.”

Later, during discussion about the East Ninth Project — which is not funded in the budget proposal — City Commissioner Matthew Herbert said its lack of funding, in addition to cuts to the Lawrence Arts Center and a proposal to eliminate the position of city arts and culture director, would leave the current City Commission with a bad legacy.

“The legacy we’re facing right now is, in a period of about 30 days, we’re defunding the Arts Center; we’re removing the director of arts and culture; we’re canning a public art project — congratulations, we just became Topeka, Kansas,” Herbert said to some applause and laughs. “I live in Lawrence because it’s not Topeka, Kansas. I don’t want my legacy to be that I helped to make Lawrence Topeka.”

Others spoke against the proposed elimination of the city auditor position and asked for more of an increase to the Lawrence Public Library’s budget. Mayor Mike Amyx and Vice Mayor Leslie Soden voiced support for maintaining at least some of a longevity program for city employees.

Commissioners have about a month to revise the recommended budget before passing one Aug. 16. The public will have opportunities to comment on the budget at meetings July 19 and Aug. 2.

It wasn’t clear Tuesday whether commissioners would seek an increase in mill levy to fund some of the criticized cuts or defund some things to fund others. City Manager Tom Markus warned against commissioners taking money from city reserves and allocating it.

Markus said the recommended budget is “structurally balanced,” but only by “the thinnest of margins.”

“At the end of the day, we were faced with not having enough resources to meet all the demands,” Markus said. “Nobody likes a cut; I get that. But nobody likes a tax increase, either… You really have choices, but they’re pretty basic: You can raise revenue or you can cut expenses.”

The budget, totaling $189 million, includes the elimination of one part-time and nine full-time staff positions. When the budget was released last Thursday, it included cuts to eight full-time positions. Before a budget work session Tuesday, another was added: an unfilled administrative support position in the City Clerk’s office.

The filled positions being eliminated are: the director of arts and culture, the city auditor, the assistant director of finance and the small business facilitator.

According to 2015 employee salary information released Tuesday, the city auditor position is paid $91,738 base wages; the arts and culture director $80,000; the assistant finance director $89,250; and the small business facilitator $82,776.

Former city webmaster Eric Gruber and Michael Almon, with Lawrence’s Sustainability Action Network, spoke during a public comment section in favor of the city keeping the city auditor position.

Almon said it was “inappropriate” that Markus suggested the position be eliminated. The position’s existence is included in city ordinance, and the auditor is not under supervision of the city manager.

“Of all the items he has chosen not to fund, I’d suggest you give a lot of scrutiny to the one about the city auditor,” Almon said. “That person has a long list of audits. It’s important that you get that feedback from him.”

During public comment on the budget, and later during talks on the East Ninth Project, dozens of people urged commissioners to keep the arts and culture director.

Josh Shelton, project designer of the East Ninth Project, said eliminating the position would be “a mistake.”

“I’ve worked with other cities that have that position in place, and the cities run well as a result, on the arts and culture side of things,” Shelton said. “And I’ve worked with cities that don’t have it. You’re special because you have it. Don’t eliminate it.”

Vice Mayor Leslie Soden responded said later in the meeting that, “Arts and culture did not start in Lawrence when Porter was hired,” referring to current Arts and Culture Director Porter Arneill.

City staff thought “long and hard” about whether to include more staff cuts in the budget proposal, Markus said.

“We could’ve done more cutting, but the cutting was painful enough for people,” he said. “And — as you can now tell — it’s much more difficult to reduce force with an incumbent than to do it through attrition.”