As the Lawrence City Commission prepares to decide whether next year’s budget should fund a new police headquarters, a consensus is yet to emerge.
Lawrence voters narrowly rejected a citywide sales tax to fund a police headquarters in 2014, and this time around commissioners will be the ones voting whether to raise property taxes to fund what some may see as a similar project.
But Mayor Leslie Soden said she doesn’t look at it that way. For one, she said she doesn’t think it’s necessary to raise taxes to fund a new police headquarters. Instead, she’d like to defer or modify other projects to keep the rate flat.
“I think people need to be really careful in how they’re framing this topic,” Soden said. “Making a direct connection between the police facility money and raising the mill levy is way too simplified.”
A law enforcement campus
Apart from the difference in funding source, Soden noted there are other distinctions between the $28 million project rejected by voters and the new proposal.
The proposal in front of the commission as part of the 2018 budget is for the first phase of a new law enforcement headquarters, which is estimated to cost $17 million. This time, a land purchase is not recommended and the plan is to create a campus that would allow the city police to co-locate with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to save costs.
The police department has been requesting facility improvements for years. Currently, the department has staff working out of two buildings and stores evidence and equipment at additional locations.
The downtown building that houses the current Law Enforcement Center is leased, and the police department has stated that its training center — formerly an office building — is not properly designed for law enforcement functions. As part of its project request, the department also noted that two of its largest components, patrol and investigations, are 10 miles away from each other.
Still, Soden said she hasn’t ruled out renovation as opposed to new construction, and emphasized that she thinks the conversations regarding co-locating or even potentially combining services with county law enforcement aren’t far enough along.
“It seems too early to talk about a new police building when we need to talk about co-locating first,” said Soden, adding that she’d also like to discuss merging city and county law enforcement. “Those conversations haven’t occurred.”
Other tax increases
The broader context of the discussion is that tax bills are on the rise in Lawrence. Combined with the approved school district and proposed county mill levy increases, Lawrence property owners could see the highest property tax rate increase in five years. The potential rate increase — a combined 5.41 mills — comes at the same times as the city’s proposed renewal of a .55 percent citywide sales tax and proposed increases in city utility rates.
A mill is $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of a property's assessed valuation.
The city’s proposed 1.25-mill increase is the smallest of all the proposed property tax increases, and would amount to about a $29 annual increase on a $200,000 home. However, it’s important to note that a large portion of the city’s funding is drawn from sales tax revenue. For instance, in the 2017 budget, 40 percent of the city’s general fund revenue came from sales taxes and 27 percent from property taxes.
Commissioner Lisa Larsen said the police department’s headquarters need improvement, but that the debate of how to address that is still open. If the commission moves forward with a project, she said she definitely likes the idea of constructing the project in phases.
“I’ve toured their facilities and I agree with them that they need a physical facility that meets their needs,” Larsen said. “I think at this point, if we move forward with it, it’s now up to the architects and the engineers to take it from here and design us something that works for us in a phased approach.”
Larsen said the commission needs to figure out some way to provide an adequate police station, but that she’s undecided as to whether property taxes should be increased to fund the project.
“I need the opportunity to hear what other citizens are saying and hear how the commission debates it,” Larsen said. “At this point, I’m definitely concerned about what our (mill levy) is being proposed at, but I’m still listening.”
A more modest approach
Vice Mayor Stuart Boley said improving police department facilities is a problem for this commission to deal with, and that may mean raising property tax rates. He noted that cuts are being made in other areas of the city’s budget — including the proposed elimination of 11 positions — and that he didn’t think needs could be met without raising the mill levy.
“How we pay for things is a significant issue in our community,” Boley said. “Part of what we’ve learned is that we have to deal with questions of deferred maintenance."
As far as the strategy of moving forward without a public vote, Boley said he sees the proposal in front of the commission as different. He noted that the funding source and the phased approach both differentiate it, as well as the fact that the city isn’t buying land this time.
“That was very controversial in that last proposal,” Boley said. “This is a much more modest approach to the problem, but it still moves us forward in dealing with that need.”
As part of their meeting Tuesday, commissioners will establish the maximum budget authority and mill levy for the 2018 budget and authorize the publication of the 2018 budget summary.
The City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.