City manager’s recommended budget includes tax increase for police station, staff cuts

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

As part of his recommended budget, City Manager Tom Markus is proposing a 1.25 mill levy increase and the elimination of nearly a dozen positions.

“In order to present a balanced budget, tough decisions had to be made,” Markus wrote in a budget summary to the City Commission.

The mill levy increase will go to fund the construction of the first phase of a new police facility. The increase is exempt from the state’s new tax lid law, according to Assistant City Manager Casey Toomay.

The recommended 2018 budget was released Thursday evening. Markus is recommending a $415,000 increase, or .56 percent, in spending from the city’s general operating fund. Some of that money will go toward salary increases for eligible employees, an administrative support position dealing with Lawrence Police Department body cameras, and a municipal court security guard.

The proposed 1.25 mill levy increase would amount to about a $29 increase in annual property taxes on a $200,000 home.

Toomay said more money is allocated toward areas that the City Commission indicated it would like to focus on as part of its strategic plan. The strategic plan is broken into seven factors such as asset management, fiscal planning, commitment to core services, as well as safe, healthy and welcoming neighborhoods. She noted that the police facility, funding for body cameras and municipal court security fall into the commitment to core services goal.

“I think the focus this year is trying to move more in the direction of showing how we’re spending public dollars toward achieving those strategic goals that the commission identified,” Toomay said.

The recommended budget eliminates 11 positions, including the city auditor position, which examines the performance of multiple city programs. Markus proposed eliminating that position during last year’s budget, but commissioners ultimately agreed to keep it. The only filled position that would be eliminated is the city auditor. In this latest budget proposal, the other 10 positions proposed to be cut are already vacant. The vacant positions that will not be filled are: one code enforcement position, two solid waste loader positions, one administrative support position, one communication manager position, three utility meter reader positions, one assistant golf pro position and an administrator at Sports Pavilion Lawrence.

Toomay noted that personnel costs are a major part of the city’s spending.

“Our salary and benefits are almost 40 percent of our expenditures,” Toomay said.

Under the recommendations, funding for social service agencies is held flat at $1.36 million, and the city will undergo a new process for allocating those funds. Instead of including specific allocations in the recommended budget, the Social Service Funding Advisory Board will provide recommendations for how to allocate the funds.

For the 2018 budget, the amount generated from property taxes is expected to grow an estimated 2 percent. Under the new spending lid, the amount of additional money the city is allowed to collect without getting voter approval is generally limited to the five-year average rate of inflation, but there are several exceptions. Because the police facility falls under those exceptions, Toomay said a special election would not be required.

In 2015, state lawmakers passed a law that requires cities and counties to get voter approval before increasing property tax revenues from one year to the next beyond the rate of inflation. Exemptions to the tax policy include debt service, public safety functions, legal settlements and spending to comply with state or federal mandates.

While revenues are growing, Toomay said another focus of the budget is that that growth is not enough.

“The cost of providing services in many areas increases, and our revenues, while they are growing, aren’t always growing at a rate that is equivalent,” Toomay said.

Under the recommended budget, residents would see an increase in their utility bills. If adopted, city utility bills for the typical household would go up about $60 per year.

Exactly what the final budget will look like will be determined this summer. City commissioners will alter the budget over the next two to three months, for final adoption in either August or September.

The timeline for the budget process depends on whether the commission decides to increase taxes beyond what is permitted by the tax lid, which the city manager’s budget is not recommending. At their meeting June 20, commissioners will determine whether to hold a mail ballot election to increase taxes beyond the tax lid.

The recommended budget will be presented to the City Commission at its work session Tuesday. The work session will begin at 3 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

Correction: Due to an error in the budget document, a previous version of this story stated that two of the 11 positions that the recommended budget proposes to eliminate are vacant. The city auditor is the only position that is currently filled. A previous version of the budget and this article stated the Lawrence Public Library Board dictated a .27 mill levy increase when in fact the library mill was requested to be held flat.