No clear answers as Lawrence City Commission looks for cuts to the city’s budget

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., Thursday, July 7, 2016

Although several Lawrence city commissioners say they want to minimize the property tax increase next year, exactly what will be cut from the 2018 budget won’t be known until Tuesday.

The public hearing for the budget will take place during the commission’s Tuesday meeting, and longtime commissioner Mike Amyx said he expects they will spend a long time going through expenditures for potential reductions.

“It’s the same process that I kind of always go through,” Amyx said. “Just making sure in my mind that we’re hitting the priorities.”

As it currently stands, the 2018 budget calls for a 1.25-mill increase in the city’s property tax rate, increases in utility rates and assumes the renewal of the 0.55 percent citywide sales tax that would otherwise expire next year. The utility rate increase would add about $65 annually to residents’ bills and the property tax increase would add $25 annually for the owner of a $175,000 home.

The city’s mill levy increase would provide $17 million for the first phase of a new police headquarters. Thus far, no commissioners have suggested eliminating or delaying the police headquarters. The budget also calls for the elimination of 11 city staff positions, all of which are currently vacant.

Part of the context of the city’s budget is that Douglas County and the Lawrence school district are also planning tax increases for next year. As it stands, the county’s budget includes a 1.9-mill increase in the property tax rate. Lawrence voters also approved an $87 million bond issue for school improvements that is expected to raise the district’s property tax rate by about 2.4 mills. Taken together, the three increases would amount to $112 per year in new property taxes on a $175,000 home.

Though Amyx didn’t yet have specific cuts in mind, he said he plans to spend the weekend going over the budget to look for potential reductions, particularly in the capital improvement plan. He said the total increase for Lawrence residents isn’t far from his mind.

“I especially realize this is going to be a tough year because of the number of increases that we’re going to see,” Amyx said. “And I think that we’ll try to do our best to keep ours as low as we can.”

In addition to the police headquarters, the city’s capital improvement plan includes $60 million in budgeted projects. Those include major street reconstructions, replacement of water lines and equipment purchases for the fire and police departments. Another $2.5 million will go toward the construction of a new animal shelter for the Humane Society.

Like Amyx, Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she is always looking for ways to minimize the potential tax increase. While Larsen said there are things that can be moved around, commissioners must consider the overall effect.

“But the bottom line is whatever we juggle around and whatever we take out or add is obviously going to impact something else along the way,” Larsen said. “There has to be a balance there.”

Larsen said that while she doesn’t have specific cuts in mind yet, she will be looking at the city’s capital improvement plan to see if there is anything that doesn’t have to be done next year. She said there isn’t a project that stands out to her, but she looks forward to hearing what the public and other commissioners think.

“Based on what I’ve looked at in the budget, I haven’t seen anything just really obvious that can be potentially taken off the table or money that can be allocated differently,” Larsen said. “There is nothing glaring that I can see, but that doesn’t mean there’s not something there.”

Likewise, Commissioner Matthew Herbert said he thinks he would speak for everybody on the commission in saying that nobody is ever excited about raising taxes. He said he’ll be focusing on what is necessary with the goal of having a mill levy increase lower than 1.25.

“What it becomes is just a game of trying to figure out what are the absolute necessary projects, what’s the absolute necessary costs,” Herbert said. “It’s my hope that that mill levy increase that we set as the maximum can be brought down.”

The City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.