Lawrence City Commission explains support for $17 million police headquarters

The Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St.

Although some Lawrence residents may think they voted down a tax increase to fund a new police headquarters, the Lawrence City Commission doesn’t look at it that way.

For one, Mayor Leslie Soden said it’s not the same project.

“I think that if we were trying to do the same project for the same amount of money with property tax — and raising taxes for that — then absolutely that would be a run-around to what people voted no on,” Soden said. “But to me, people voted no on that project, which had some pretty particular parameters.”

The $28 million project voters narrowly defeated in 2014 included a land purchase and would have been funded by a 0.2 percent sales tax. It was rejected by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin.

The $17-million plan

The new project will be built in phases on land the city already owns, with one option being a property at the intersection of Overland Drive and Wakarusa Drive. Though not designed yet, the idea is to make it possible for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to also locate on the site in the future to save costs.

The plan is to move the police department’s patrol division and some support services into the first phase, allowing the department to vacate the space at the county-owned Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St. That would in turn allow the municipal court to move into the vacated space so as to be in the same building as district court.

Commissioners Tuesday approved an approximately $255 million budget for 2018 that increases the property tax rate by 1.25 mills. The mill levy increase will enable debt financing for $17 million for the first phase of the new police headquarters. Unlike a sales tax increase, the property tax increase for the purpose of issuing debt does not require a public vote under state law.

Though Soden was the sole vote against the budget, she said she wasn’t voting against the police headquarters, but instead against raising property taxes.

“I just don’t think we should be raising taxes for it,” Soden said. “I think that the incremental, phased-in approach is perfect for not having to raise taxes to cover it. And I think there are other projects that should wait a few years, especially Parks and Rec projects.”

The property tax increase will cost the owner of a $175,000 home an additional $25 annually in city property taxes. The budget also assumes voters will renew the 0.55 citywide sales tax and increases utility rates by an average of $65 annually.

The commission’s responsibility

When asked why he was comfortable moving forward with the project without a public vote, Vice Mayor Stuart Boley said what the commission did was figure out the financing for the project. He noted state law doesn’t call for a public vote under those circumstances, and that it’s the commission’s job to make those decisions.

“Are we supposed to not make decisions as commissioners on issues that confront us?” Boley said. “I think we’re doing our job by doing it this way. We have a responsibility to the police who are our employees and to the public, for whom we’re providing public safety. I think we have that responsibility and we’re meeting that responsibility.”

Boley also said the commission plans to involve the community in developing the plans for the police headquarters.

“They’ll have a chance to be heard on what we’re going to do as we develop the facility,” Boley said. “I hope that as we develop the plans it will generate and receive outstanding support from the community because that’s what we need for public safety.”

When asked about his decision to move the police headquarters project forward, Commissioner Mike Amyx said that any decision to raise taxes is hard and his decision was not made without considering lots of public comment, the city’s budget priorities and the past vote.

“And believe me, before the final vote on Tuesday, I played it over many times in my mind about the vote that happened several years ago on the sales tax,” Amyx said, noting that people said the sales tax was already too high and it didn’t make sense for the city to purchase land. “I think a lot of that was taken into consideration for me and I think that there’s been a number of things that changed that I felt like I could support it.”

Like Boley, Amyx said he thinks that rather than putting the decision to a public vote, the decision falls under the commission’s responsibility.

“I’m elected to represent people and take in all sides of any of the issues that come forward,” Amyx said. “At this time, as we’ve created the budget, that went through my mind, but it’s one of those times where I felt that I was elected to do the job.”

Then and now

When asked about his decision, Commissioner Matthew Herbert said the issue of public safety is never an issue that gets put to public vote. He said that was not what the 2014 vote was about.

“People very well may have voted no on the police facility because they were specifically anti-facility; their vote may have had nothing to do with the sales tax,” Herbert said. “But the reality is the vote itself was a vote on the sales tax, not a vote on the facility.”

In addition to the police headquarters, the city’s budget includes $60 million for other projects. With that in mind, Herbert said he doesn’t think it’s fair to “singularly blame” the police headquarters project for the tax increase. He also pointed out the close margin of the 2014 vote and said he thinks there is a big difference in attitudes between then and now.

“The ‘no’ vote in 2014 was in a lot of ways tied to a whole lot of spending that had happened all at once,” Herbert said, noting the $19 million library renovation and the process surrounding the $25 million Rock Chalk Park. “And so there was a lot of anger in the community about costs and about process and it’s really unfortunate that the police department bore the brunt of that beef.”

Commissioner Lisa Larsen did not immediately return a call Friday from the Journal-World but was one of the commissioners who explained their stance during Tuesday’s meeting. At that time, Larsen said the police department’s facilities are “woefully inadequate” and that she thinks the commission would be remiss not to address the issue after the city’s priority-based budgeting process identified it as a top need.

This year, $1.5 million was budgeted for the planning and design of the new police headquarters, but City Manager Tom Markus has told the commission he did not want the city to spend those funds to develop a design before the commission approved funding for the project. Now that the commission has approved funding, site selection and design will move forward.