Lawrence City Commission candidates discuss sidewalks, auditing and budget cuts at forum

Lawrence City Commission candidates participate in a forum on July 16, 2017, at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The forum was hosted by the Voter Education Coalition.

At a forum Sunday for Lawrence City Commission hopefuls, the eight candidates faced questions on topics such as sidewalk maintenance, the city’s auditor position and potential budget cuts.

As part of the forum, hosted by the Voter Education Coalition, a moderator asked questions and each candidate had one minute to respond. The forum did not allow for rebuttals.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she thought the question of whether the responsibility of sidewalk repairs should be taken on by the city should be answered by voters. She said any proposal to expand the role of government should be answered by a referendum.

City Commission candidates

The terms of commissioners Lisa Larsen, Mike Amyx and Matthew Herbert are expiring this year. Eight candidates have filed for the election: Herbert, Larsen, Bassem Chahine, Dustin Stumblingbear, Jennifer Ananda, Ken Easthouse, Mike Anderson and Christian Lyche.

“I would support a referendum that was fully vetted by the public and the city prior to the vote and that the funding source is brand new and equitably distributed,” Larsen said. “Our current budget structure is not set up to add a new government function to repair or replace sidewalks.”

In March, the commission voted unanimously to defer action on a new administrative policy that directed city staff to enforce the city’s longstanding ordinance requiring property owners to pay for repairs to sidewalks that border their properties. The proposed policy would have city staff systematically enforce the sidewalk repair ordinance, but would provide funding help for low-income residents, as well as property owners with more than one adjacent sidewalk. The commission has yet to identify funding for the financial assistance portion of the policy, should it be adopted.

Jennifer Ananda and Dustin Stumblingbear said they think sidewalk maintenance should be the city’s responsibility; Mike Anderson, Bassem Chahine and Ken Easthouse said the current ordinance should remain in place but voiced support for providing financial assistance to low-income residents. Christian Lyche said he thought making sidewalk repairs is important, but didn’t think property or sales tax should be increased to fund repairs.

Commissioner Matthew Herbert said any decision has to bear in mind that estimates indicate there are at least $10 million worth of sidewalk repairs, and agreed with Larsen that if the city were to take on full responsibility, it would have to be done as a voter referendum.

As currently proposed, the city’s budget would eliminate 11 positions, including that of the city auditor.

The auditor is a performance auditor, as opposed to a financial one, evaluating city programs. Most of the candidates agreed the city’s position of auditor should be eliminated. Lyche and Easthouse disagreed and Anderson said a more thorough review of what the position did was needed. Those candidates who said it should be eliminated agreed that external audits should continue in some fashion.

Herbert said hiring outside auditors got taxpayers more for their money.

“It’s essentially the difference if you’re refurbishing a house: you could call in a handyman and have him look at your entire house, or you could actually call in specialists to look at the individual parts of your house you want to repair,” Herbert said. “For my money and for your money, I want to call in those outside experts in specific areas so that we can get the best outside auditing we can afford.”

In addition to use of outside auditors, Ananda said she thinks the city should have an alternative, such as an audit committee.

“I support having something in place to ensure that there is an alternative solution, such as a committee,” Ananda said. “I believe that systems auditing is important and it’s important to have that objective view and not just for specific projects.”

As it stands, the city’s budget includes a 1.25 mill increase in the city’s property tax rate, which amounts to about a $25 annual increase for the owner of a $175,000 home. The increase will help fund the construction of the first phase of new police headquarters.

A question from the audience asked the candidates what they would cut if they had to eliminate one city program or service. Most of the candidates said they would have to do more analysis to make that decision, but Herbert and Chahine said they would cut the city auditor. Larsen pointed out the 11 positions being eliminated by the budget as-is and said she thinks the city should continue to use priority-based budgeting to rank its priorities. Anderson said he thought the city could consolidate or sunset some of its advisory boards.

Lawrence voters narrowly rejected a citywide sales tax to fund a police headquarters in 2014, and Easthouse said for that reason he would cut the police headquarters project.

“My position, as someone who has been an election judge for Douglas County, is that the voters two years ago rejected a tax increase for new police station construction,” Easthouse said. “We’re now increasing a different tax without your consent for a new police station construction. I know it’s two different taxes, but I think that’s spitting in the face of voters, personally.”

Other topics in the forum included homelessness, the environment and economic development. The full forum lasted nearly an hour and a half. It can be viewed on the city’s YouTube channel.

The Voter Education Coalition is a nonpartisan community organization that works to provide educational opportunities to the public.

The primary election will take place Aug. 1 and will narrow the field to six candidates. The general election will be Nov. 7.