Lawrence city manager says taxpayers are overpaying for some services

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

City Manager Tom Markus thinks the city of Lawrence is getting the short end of the deal in some of its collaborations with Douglas County.

That’s one of the reasons Markus, who presented his recommended budget to the City Commission Tuesday, told commissioners that the main theme of the budget is equity. In addition to partnerships with the county, Markus said the theme of equity related to topics including the proposed police station, balancing operational and infrastructure spending, and agreements with other governments.

Regarding funding agreements with the county, Markus said his goal is to make those collaborations more equitable going forward.

“I think it would be difficult to go back on some of those, but I think if people understand some of the math, it helps them understand where we need to go in terms of the negotiations on some of these things in the future,” Markus said.

Lawrence residents make up about 75 percent of Douglas County’s total population. Property taxes levied on behalf of the city and the county support collaborations such as the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Department and the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. Both the city and county also provide funding for the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center and other programs.

Markus explained that because both the city and county property taxes collected from Lawrence residents go to fund those services, Lawrencians are essentially paying more than Eudora, Baldwin City, Lecompton and other non-Lawrence residents for the same services. For example, Lawrence taxpayers pay for 68 percent of the health department’s costs while non-Lawrence residents and businesses in Douglas County pay 32 percent, according the budget.

“The thing that concerns me — more than just that everybody outside of the City of Lawrence has a 50 percent cut — is I don’t understand how you can treat Lawrence differently than you can treat the other incorporated communities,” Markus said.

Markus’ budget recommends reviewing those agreements, “not in order to reduce the amount of funding going to these services, but to share the cost of providing them more equitably across all taxpayers in Douglas County.”

Markus added those communities will likely continue to grow in population.

“As time goes on, especially Eudora, isn’t going to be a little burb on the highway anymore,” Markus said. “That’s going to be a growing entity, and the county I think needs to consider that.”

Commissioner Mike Amyx, who has served several terms beginning in the ’80s, said that equitable taxing between city and county residents is not a new issue.

“You’re my fourth city manager, and I don’t remember a budget year where this wasn’t brought up in some fashion,” Amyx said. “Tell me how are you going to do it?”

Markus, who is recommending the city collaborate with the county on the proposed police headquarters, said he will be raising the issue as future agreements are discussed. He also said some of that responsibility rests with the commission.

“My plan includes you, too,” Markus said. “My plan includes all of you, because I think you have to carry some of that water as well.”

Vice Mayor Stuart Boley agreed that the commission needed to come up with good collaborations.

“I think collaboration is a very significant financial opportunity for both the county and the city,” Boley said.

Markus said the theme of equity was both internal and external. He said his recommendation to increase the mill levy by 1.25 mills to help fund the construction of a new police headquarters also related to equity among facilities. He said he doesn’t think it’s necessarily fair to tack the millage entirely on the police facility, given the millions of dollars going toward projects such as the renovation of Fire Station No. 1, construction of a new animal shelter and a proposed fire-training tower.

“My point to you is, all of those things push that up,” Markus said. “Part of the challenge we’ve had with the police facility here is it’s such a big number that it’s hard to really bite down to the concept of how do we get this done?”

Markus said an external issue of equity is the K-10 Connector bus route, which runs along Kansas Highway 10 and takes riders between the University of Kansas, Johnson County Community College and KU’s Edwards Campus. Though Markus is recommending keeping that funding flat for 2018, he said he plans to discuss more equitable funding for the route to make sure Lawrence is paying its fair share.

The City Commission’s work session Tuesday was the first time Markus’ recommended budget was presented. Commissioners will alter the budget over the next two to three months, for final adoption in either August or September.