Lawrence voters approved all three of the sales tax questions in Tuesday’s general election, lining up millions of dollars in revenue annually for transit, infrastructure and affordable housing.
All three of the sales tax questions — totaling 0.55 percent and projected to generate $116 million over a 10-year period — were approved with comfortable margins, winning about 70, 73 and 62 percent of the vote.
Mayor Leslie Soden said the election results were important positive feedback from voters.
“I think that it leads to participatory budgeting, which is something I’ve been really interested in,” Soden said. “I think it’s really important for us as elected officials to get that kind of feedback back from voters that, yes, they do want us to continue funding the bus; yes, they do want us to put more money toward affordable housing.”
The 0.3 percent sales tax for infrastructure, 0.2 percent sales tax for transit operations and the 0.05 percent sales tax for affordable housing will be in place for 10 years. The affordable housing sales tax is the only tax that didn’t currently exist. The infrastructure and transit operations sales taxes are in place currently, but they were scheduled to sunset in 2019. The affordable housing tax will take the place of a transit capital improvements tax that would otherwise have expired in 2019.
Commissioner Lisa Larsen, who herself won re-election with overwhelming support Tuesday, also said the results of the sales tax questions show that voters are committed to funding those services.
“What we’re seeing on the sales tax result is an indication that the citizens of Lawrence want to support infrastructure, they want to support transit, they want to support affordable housing,” Larsen said.
The closest contest was for the affordable housing portion, which was approved with 62 percent of the vote. The affordable housing sales tax is projected to generate about $10.5 million total for affordable housing between 2019 and 2029.
The faith group Justice Matters, which includes representatives from several local religious congregations, was a vocal supporter of the sales tax to support affordable housing. Justice Matters board member Steve Ozark said that he was ecstatic to know that Lawrence was behind the initiative to solve the city’s affordable housing problem. He said he saw the vote as an “exponential step” in addressing what was becoming a crisis in the community.
The affordable housing sales tax question received some community criticism because there is not a specific plan for how the money would be spent. Though, the city has pointed to recent projects with Habitat for Humanity and Tenants to Homeowners as examples of what the money can be spent on.
Larsen said she is committed to ensuring the money is well spent.
“It’s going to be up to us on the affordable housing issue to make sure that we are true to the voters and that the money is efficiently spent on affordable housing issues,” Larsen said. “And that’s going to be my goal is to be a watch dog for that.”
The infrastructure sales tax is projected to generate $63 million between 2019 and 2029 and will help fund infrastructure improvements and purchasing fire equipment. The transit sales tax is projected to generate about $42 million for transit operations during that time.
The sales tax renewals come at a time when property taxes and utility bills are also on the rise. Between the city, county and school district, Lawrence residents are facing one of the largest increases in recent years. In total, residents will see a property tax increase next year of about 6.67 mills: 1.25 mills from the city, 1.916 mills from the county and 3.5 mills from the school district.
One local group, the Lawrence Sunset Alliance, came out against the sales tax renewals. One of the group’s main criticisms is that sales tax is regressive and that the burden of overall taxes continues to increase. Though disappointed by Tuesday’s election results, group leaders said they are glad that the community engaged in a serious conversation about the sales tax renewals and that it's a discussion that will continue.
“It’s an ongoing discussion about priorities and budget, and we’ll be involved in that,” said LSA treasurer Patrick Wilbur. “It doesn’t end tonight.”
RESULTS: 2017 Lawrence city, school board, sales tax elections• Lawrence City Commission: Incumbents retain seats; women now have historic majority
• Sales Tax Renewals: Lawrence sales tax questions pass overwhelmingly
• Lawrence School Board: Jones, Gordon-Ross, incumbent Johnson win seats
• Area Races: Challenger unseats Baldwin City mayor, plus other area results
• Other: Tuesday’s election turnout in Douglas County tops 21 percent