Lawrence city commissioners are right to be cautious about a tax increase in light of the city’s recent financial missteps.
As part of his 2018 recommended budget, City Manager Tom Markus has proposed a 1.25 mill levy increase, which will help fund a $17 million police facility and address other necessary projects. In addition to the new police facility, automated water meters and major road reconstructions are in next year’s plans. Over the next five years, the city is seeking to fund some 180 large projects totaling $284 million, and Markus said the city can’t afford to kick projects down the road like it has done in the past.
“This town is going to continue to grow whether you like it or not,” Markus said. “And the various departments, including the police department, will continue to grow.”
But the city also recently discovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in missed lease payments because of billing and record-keeping errors on the city’s part. Markus ordered an independent audit of the city’s billing procedures after the missed invoices were discovered.
Auditor RSM Global has only completed the initial phase of the audit, and final figures aren’t yet known. But RSM auditor Christina Churchill has warned the city to expect more financial issues to be uncovered.
That has some commissioners rightfully nervous about a tax increase.
“Based on the stuff that’s come out, really, are we ready to have a mill levy increase?” Commissioner Mike Amyx asked. “I’ve been thinking about this the last couple days, and I really wonder about it. If that’s the direction that we ought to go until we take care of these other things.”
And Mayor Leslie Soden said she would prefer to keep the tax rate flat.
A 1.25 mill property tax increase would raise about $16 million in tax revenue and cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $29 more per year in property taxes. It seems unlikely the city could pursue the new police facility without the tax increase.
Overall, a majority of commissioners appear to be leaning toward the tax increase. That’s justifiable, but it does seem prudent to get RSM’s completed audit before doing so.