Lawrence voters face three sales tax proposals in Tuesday’s election: a 0.2 percent tax to fund the city’s bus system, a 0.3 percent tax to fund infrastructure projects and a 0.05 percent tax to fund affordable housing projects.
The tax proposals for the bus system and the infrastructure projects should be approved; however, the city has not made a compelling case for the affordable housing tax. The tax should be rejected.
The proposed taxes are not new; rather, they are renewals of existing sales taxes. Lawrence residents pay a 0.55 percent sales tax broken up into three parts: 0.3 percent for city infrastructure, 0.2 percent for operation of the city transit system and 0.05 percent for capital needs of the transit system. Those taxes, approved for 10 years in 2008, sunset March 31, 2019.
The city is seeking to use the funds slightly differently in the ballot proposal — the 0.3 percent for city infrastructure and 0.2 percent for operation of the city transit system are the same, but the 0.05 percent for capital needs of the transit system would instead be dedicated to funding affordable housing projects.
Question one on the ballot is the special sales tax for the operation of the city’s transit system. The 0.2 percent sales tax generates about $4 million of the $9 million required to fund the transit service. The sales tax makes the city eligible for state and federal matching grants that account for a significant portion of other transit service revenue. Riders of the transit service generate more than 3 million trips annually, but bus fares account for just 6 percent of transit service revenue.
The city’s bus service relieves traffic congestion, is environmentally friendly and provides affordable and reliable transportation to residents. The 0.2 percent sales tax is vital to funding the service and should be approved.
Question two is the 0.3 percent tax for infrastructure. That tax generates about $6 million per year for “constructing, improving and maintaining public streets, sidewalks, storm water facilities and recreational trails, bikeways and paths.” The tax is critical to addressing Lawrence’s long-term infrastructure needs and should be approved.
Question three is 0.05 percent sales tax for the purpose of “providing and improving the quality, availability and affordability of housing in Lawrence.” The tax would generate about $1 million. But it isn’t clear such a tax is warranted. It isn’t clear that Lawrence’s affordable housing issues warrant a dedicated tax and the city has yet to define how it plans to use the funds. The response to recent calls for project applications to use the city’s affordable housing fund has been underwhelming at best.
Vice Mayor Stuart Boley recently said that a recently commissioned affordable housing study will help guide the city’s use of the tax funds in the future. That’s reasonable, but why not wait until the study is complete — and a corresponding plan developed — before seeking the tax? The city has time; there are 17 months until the current taxes expire.
Just because a tax has been in place does not mean it should remain in place. The taxes for infrastructure and the city bus service are warranted. The sales tax for affordable housing isn’t. Vote “no” Tuesday on question three.