Lawrence City Commission candidates weigh in on sales tax renewal, property taxes

Six candidates are vying for Lawrence City Commission seats this fall. At top, from left: Lisa Larsen, Matthew Herbert and Dustin Stumblingbear. At bottom, from left: Jennifer Ananda, Mike Anderson and Bassem Chahine.

Taxes are likely at the forefront of many people’s minds this campaign season.

In November, voters will be asked to renew the city’s extra 0.55 percent sales tax instead of allowing it to sunset. If approved, the special tax would be in place from 2019 to 2029 and is projected to generate more than $116 million for city infrastructure, transit and affordable housing.

The affordable housing portion is a repurposing of a transit expansion tax. The city’s five-year capital improvement plan is built upon the infrastructure sales tax being renewed, and transit relies heavily on the sales tax for its operations. If any of the three portions fails, there is time for the city to modify the proposals and put them before voters again.

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.

Combined, the property tax increases will cost the owner of a $175,000 home an additional $135 annually in property taxes. The City Commission also approved an increase in utility rates that will cost average residents another $65 annually.

Here’s a look at what City Commission candidates are saying about the sales tax renewals and local property tax rates.

Jennifer Ananda

Ananda, an attorney and social worker, said it’s important for the city to fund infrastructure, transit and affordable housing, but that she would like to see more specific funding plans.

“I want it to be clear that I do support the things that these sales taxes are funding,” Ananda said. “I am hopeful that it will pass, but I also understand if the voters need more information from the city in order to feel confident voting for a decade’s worth of sales tax.”

City Commission candidate Jennifer Ananda

Ananda said although the infrastructure portion will utilize the 2018-2022 capital improvement plan, there are unknowns for the transit and affordable housing portions.

An updated housing study won’t be complete ahead of the vote, Ananda noted. For transit, she said she’d like to have more conversations about what a proposed transit hub would look like and where it would be located. Although she supports funding all three components, she said the community has a right to demand more from the City Commission.

If any of the sales tax renewals fails in November, Ananda said that would give the city another opportunity to demonstrate the importance of the taxes and the consequences if they aren’t renewed. If the renewals ultimately fail, Ananda said the city would have to assess and prioritize its budget and seek new revenue or funding sources, such as federal funds or grants.

“We have to provide services, particularly for our most vulnerable residents,” Ananda said.

Regarding property taxes, Ananda said the constant increases are making housing less affordable for both renters and homeowners, especially those on fixed income. She said going door to door, she’s met with multiple people who are having to leave their homes because they can’t afford them anymore.

She said the city needs to be able to show the level of property taxes is justifiable, and that money is being spent responsibly and equitably.

“We have to show that the services that we are providing are really assisting our residents,” Ananda said.

Mike Anderson

Anderson, an actor and former local talk show host, has a few stances when it comes to the sales tax renewals. For one, he said he “fully supports” renewing the sales tax for infrastructure.

“That’s one thing that I’ve learned door-knocking, on 2,000 houses now, is that infrastructure certainly is important to individuals,” Anderson said.

City commission candidate Mike Anderson

Anderson said he will probably vote yes on the sales tax for the city’s transit service, but that he is still “iffy.” He said it would have been better for the city to present a clear plan for a transit hub before asking voters to renew the tax.

Alhough he strongly believes in the need to deal with affordable housing, Anderson said he will be voting no on the sales tax repurposing. He said it’s troubling to him that there isn’t a more specific strategy, and he thinks the question shouldn’t be put on the ballot until a solution is more clearly identified.

“What is the solution?” Anderson said. “Is the solution permanent supportive housing that we work with the county toward? Is it easing regulations for affordable housing?”

Should the sales tax renewals fail, Anderson said he would work with the city to determine priorities and identify other funding options. Should the taxes continue, he said his hope is that the city can develop its tax base and find additional sources of revenue so it can let the sales taxes expire in the future.

Anderson said increases in the city’s property tax rate and utility charges are not sustainable, and have created “the perfect storm” when combined with county and school district property tax increases. He said 2018 was not the right time for the city to raise its property tax rate to pay for a new police headquarters.

“When I’m on the campaign, a lot of people say, ‘Mike, if you’re on the City Commission, we wish you’d treat the city’s budget like you would treat your own checkbook, like you would treat your own finances,'” Anderson said. “And that sort of sentiment is not lost on me.”

Bassem Chahine

Chahine, a Lawrence business owner, said he supports all three of the sales tax renewals. He said it was important to him that it’s not an increase over what residents are paying currently.

However, he said he is confused on the question regarding affordable housing. The city points to prior affordable housing projects it has supported, but Chahine said he wants a straight answer when it comes to how the problem will be alleviated.

City Commission candidate Bassem Chahine

“I’m still confused on that question, because it still does not look like there is a plan,” Chahine said. “It looks like, ‘Hey, we’re just going to do it and see how it goes.’ That’s not how I like to buy things; I want a straight answer.”

Chahine said that doing something about affordable housing “is a must,” and if the affordable housing component doesn’t pass, he said there are other ways to address the issue. That could be through incentives or working with Section 8 Housing, he said. If the infrastructure and transit portions don’t pass, Chahine said the city would have to look at potential reductions elsewhere.

When it comes to property taxes, Chahine said the commission needs to better plan rate increases.

“Our property taxes are just going to keep going up and up whenever we need money,” Chahine said. “There is no control.”

Chahine said the commission needs a comprehensive, long-term plan when it comes to property tax increases. He said that could mean a board or committee to look at the next 10 years.

“We need something concrete, not what if, what if, what if?” Chahine said.

He also said he wants the city to commit to a flat property tax rate for the next 10 years for people who are 65 or older and have only one property.

To increase the tax base, Chahine said his goal would be to bring more businesses into Lawrence and push for local hires, so that more University of Kansas graduates can find jobs in Lawrence.

Matthew Herbert

As an incumbent candidate, Herbert, a high school government teacher, isn’t allowed by law to advocate either way for the sales tax renewal. But he did speak to what he thinks the commission should do if the taxes aren’t renewed.

If the infrastructure portion fails, Herbert said the city would have to look toward property tax to fund that.

City commission candidate Matthew Herbert

“That obviously has to be paid for,” Herbert said. “Infrastructure to me is not an optional thing. It’s not something we do for fun. This is a basic component of local governance.”

If the transit portion fails, Herbert said the city would look to other funding sources, including the potential of using transit’s reserve fund at first. He said he doesn’t think anyone on the commission right now views the vote as asking whether the service should continue.

“I think the transit is here to stay, that it’s a vital part of our community,” Herbert said. “If anything, we’re looking for ways to actually improve the service. We’re certainly not looking for a way to kill the service.”

Herbert also said it’s not an accident that this commission has “dragged its feet” on the transit hub. He said before the city goes spending the money set aside for the hub, he wants to make sure there is a sustainable funding source for the service.

Herbert said the affordable housing portion was a way to find a dedicated funding stream for the housing trust fund. He said if the vote indicates that it’s not a priority, he would imagine it would not come out of property taxes.

Regarding property taxes, Herbert said the increases in the city’s tax rate are probably not sustainable. He said the city needs to consider whether growth in the community is paying for itself.

“If the answer to that is that it’s not, we have to look for ways that we can develop industry so that we can actually raise our property tax base,” Herbert said.

He also said property taxes relate directly to the level of service the city provides, and that people have an expectation of good infrastructure and services.

“Before I get into an arbitrary conversation about whether we should lower or raise tax rates, the conversation I would want to have is our level of service,” Herbert said. “Are you willing to lower our level of service in the community in exchange for lower tax rates?”

Lisa Larsen

As an incumbent candidate, Larsen, a retired geologist, isn’t allowed by law to advocate either way for the sales tax renewal. She did speak to what she thinks the commission should do if the taxes aren’t renewed.

If the infrastructure portion fails, Larsen said the city would have to re-evaluate its priorities and its strategic plan. She said it’s possible the city would create a scaled-down version of the infrastructure plan.

City commission candidate Lisa Larsen

“You would have to figure out what the projected revenues would be and operate from that,” Larsen said. “That could entail everything from scaling back projects to changing priorities to looking at programs that might not be considered core services. It would open up the entire budget to a re-evaluation.”

Still, Larsen said if residents vote against the sales tax, then the commission would find a way to make sure core services are covered in the manner expected. Although she said she would never close the door on a potential funding option, increasing the property tax rate to make up for the funding shortfall would not be “anywhere near” an option she’d want to entertain.

Regarding property taxes, Larsen said she is in favor of the recent changes in state law that capped the increases cities can impose without voter approval.

“I’m very much in favor of that,” Larsen said. “I think it’s a great tool for the public and voters as a whole to have a good solid say in what they are wanting to fund.”

Larsen said another consideration is that the city has to make sure it has the funding to pay for services. She said that includes paying for current services and costs the city has been accumulating over the past several years, such as the new Wakarusa Wastewater Treatment Plant and Rock Chalk Park.

“We’re just now starting to pay off that debt,” Larsen said. “The hope is that now that we’re getting that as part of our budget, that we can start leveling out the need for additional (tax increases).”

Larsen also noted that the city has cut about 16 positions over the past two years. She said she wants the commission to continue to cut down on the city workforce through attrition, noting that the majority of the city’s budget goes toward staffing expenses.

“We’re looking at more efficiencies within our departments, we’ll be merging some departments, potentially, to bring us some efficiencies,” Larsen said. “So we’re going to look at every aspect in order to try to continue to be more efficient and also to make cuts where it’s warranted.”

Dustin Stumblingbear

Stumblingbear, a retired veteran, said he supports all three of the sales tax renewals because the dollars will be able to help the city take care of many of the issues it’s facing.

He also noted that many people across Lawrence support the renewals.

City commission candidate Dustin Stumblingbear

“And I can say that having knocked on many thousands of doors and chatted with people,” Stumblingbear said. “They would love for our taxes to go down, but they understand the need, especially for addressing affordable housing and making sure our infrastructure is taken care of.”

Stumblingbear said he understands the concerns some people have about sales taxes being regressive, but he noted the taxes are also a way to generate money from visitors to Lawrence.

If the sales tax renewals fail, Stumblingbear said services would likely have to be reduced because the city doesn’t have anywhere else to cut.

“We have obligations: debt obligations that are required, pension obligations, salary obligations,” Stumblingbear said. “These things just can’t be cut or wiped away legally.”

He said if Lawrence residents wanted to continue to fund infrastructure and transit at the same level and use property taxes instead of sales taxes, it should go to a vote.

“I’d rather put it to people’s votes, let them make the decision, ultimately, on these tax increases,” Stumblingbear said.

Regarding affordable housing, Stumblingbear said it would just be a “nonstarter.” He said the city would have to look at state and federal programs and grants to help increase access to affordable housing.

When considering the city’s property tax rate, Stumblingbear said the increases are definitely not sustainable. He said people are talking about leaving town because they can’t afford to work and live here.

With that in mind, Stumblingbear said the city has to be careful with the kind of incentives it approves. He said he understands the need to grow, but that not all property tax breaks help the city.

“We have to be careful with what kind of tax breaks that we give for future commercial development, because that’s where we bring in a lot of our tax dollars,” Stumblingbear said.

Stumblingbear said he’d like to see the city look to increase tourism and sales tax collections from visitors by bringing more events to town.