Lawrence city commissioners’ decision to move forward with building a new police headquarters without voter approval is not without risk.
Last week, commissioners approved a $255 million city 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. A property tax increase for the purpose of issuing debt does not require a public vote under state law.
In 2014, Lawrence residents voted 52 percent to 48 percent to reject a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to pay for a $28 million police headquarters.
Commissioners see a big difference between the current proposal and the one voters turned down.
“Are we supposed to not make decisions as commissioners on issues that confront us?” Vice Mayor Stuart 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.”
Commissioners Mike Amyx and Matthew Herbert said they felt the 2014 vote was a rejection of the proposed sales tax increase, not of the police headquarters. Both voted to approve the 2018 budget as is with the police headquarters and property tax increase.
Mayor Leslie Soden was the only “no” vote against the budget. But she didn’t oppose the police headquarters per se; rather, she opposed increasing taxes to pay for it.
To be sure, there are distinct differences between the 2014 proposal and this year’s plan beyond the tax approach and the pricing. The 2014 project was to be built on property the city would have to purchase. 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. That site could make it possible for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to locate on the site in the future.
But while they are different projects, the concepts are similar — a tax increase to fund construction of a police headquarters. Given how close the vote was in 2014, it would have been reasonable to think Lawrence voters would have supported this new, less costly proposal.
City commissioners are elected to make decisions on behalf of the residents they serve, and not every decision should be decided by public vote. But raising taxes to build a multimillion-dollar police headquarters is a decision that seems to warrant voter approval, and commissioners may regret not seeking it.