Voter Guide: Citywide sales tax renewal

This Election Day, Lawrence residents will be asked whether to renew three special citywide sales taxes for infrastructure, transit and affordable housing.

This Election Day, Lawrence residents will be asked whether to renew three special citywide sales taxes that total 0.55 percent.

Each of the three components of the sales tax are voted on individually. If all three are renewed, the taxes are projected to generate $116 million in total for infrastructure, transit and affordable housing from 2019 to 2029. If not renewed by voters, the taxes will automatically expire in 2019.

Currently, the 0.55 percent sales tax breaks down as follows: 0.3 percent for infrastructure, 0.2 percent for transit and 0.05 percent for expanded transit service. Under the sales tax renewal proposal, the 0.05 percent would be repurposed to fund the city’s affordable housing trust fund.

With state, city and county sales taxes, Lawrence residents pay 9.05 percent on their purchases, which in Kansas includes groceries. The sales taxes up for renewal are in addition to the 1 percent general city sales tax and the 1 percent county tax, of which the city gets a share.

If the sales tax renewal fails in November, city officials have said there is time before it expires in 2019 to modify the sales tax renewals and include them in a subsequent election.

More on the 2017 Lawrence city and school elections

• Read up on profiles, candidate forums, ballot issues and more in the Journal-World’s Voter Guide.

Infrastructure portion

The 0.3 percent special sales tax provides more than $6 million annually for infrastructure improvements and purchasing fire equipment. If renewed for another 10 years, the infrastructure tax is projected to generate $63 million between 2019 and 2029.

The city plans to use the extra sales tax revenue for several high-dollar infrastructure projects and annual programs, such as the residential street maintenance program, improvements to 23rd Street and increased funding for sidewalk, bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

The city’s capital improvement plan assumes renewal of the tax, and city staff have said that not having those dollars would mean the city would have to reprioritize the program.

The City Commission voted unanimously to use the existing 2018-2022 capital improvement plan as the spending plan for the sales tax renewal. The CIP lists 20 infrastructure projects or programs.

The list includes $1.3 million annually for the contracted street maintenance program, at least $400,000 for a curb and gutter repair program and at least $100,000 for pavement repairs. Specific projects include $4.75 million for improvements to 23rd Street, $2.8 million for Wakarusa Drive and $2.65 million for 19th Street.

Also included are equipment purchases for the fire and medical department, including $540,000 for personal protective equipment and $600,000 for mobile radios.

The commission isn’t obligated to follow the plan exactly; rather, the spending plan provides examples of specific projects that meet the parameters for spending the sales tax proceeds. Those parameters are laid out in ballot language for the infrastructure tax question.

The CIP spending plan also includes increased funding for sidewalk, bicycle and pedestrian improvements. The CIP includes $600,000 for this program in 2019, and it increases the amount annually to $1 million in 2021 and 2022.

The ballot language is binding and allows the funds to go toward constructing or improving various types of transportation infrastructure or purchasing fire equipment. The ballot states, in part, that the proceeds would be used for “constructing, improving, and maintaining public streets, sidewalks, storm water facilities, and recreational trails, bikeways, and paths.”

What is not included in the spending plan is the mounting problem of residential sidewalk repairs. The city has estimated that more than $6 million of residential sidewalk repairs are needed throughout the city, and much of that work is the responsibility of property owners by ordinance. The Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods and some City Commission candidates think the repairs should be the city’s responsibility.

While the ballot language would allow the infrastructure sales tax proceeds to be used to repair any sidewalks in the city, Public Works Director Chuck Soules has told the Journal-World that at this time, it is not intended to be used to repair sidewalks adjacent to residential properties, given the standing ordinance.

Read full story: Renewal of infrastructure sales tax puts $63 million in projects on the line

Transit portion

The 0.2 percent special sales tax would provide more than $4 million annually for the city’s public transit service. If renewed for another 10 years, the transit tax is projected to generate about $42 million total between 2019 and 2029.

It’s projected the transit service will cost nearly $9 million to operate this year, with the special sales tax providing more than 40 percent of that funding. The sales tax funds will go toward transit operations, helping the city to receive nearly the same amount annually from state and federal transportation grants. Bus fares only account for about 6 percent of transit’s revenue.

Riders of the Lawrence transit service, which includes routes coordinated with the University of Kansas bus service, now make more than 3 million trips annually, according to Robert Nugent, transit administrator for the city. Nugent said if the sales tax doesn’t pass, the city will have to “dramatically reduce” service to get the budget in line.

Before the special sales tax was approved in 2008, local funding for transit came from property taxes, and the city could go back to using property taxes. Under the state’s new property tax lid, using property taxes instead of sales taxes could also require voter approval if the city’s property tax lid is exceeded.

A transit hub is another piece of the puzzle. The city’s bus service has been using what was meant to be a temporary location in the 700 block of Vermont Street as its main transfer point for years. A location study for a transit hub was previously completed, and several locations were considered and ultimately ruled out, some after vocal opposition from nearby neighborhoods.

In May, the City Commission voted unanimously to move forward with another location study for a bus hub. The study started anew earlier in August and will collect up-to-date ridership, traffic and demographic data to help identify potential locations for both a primary and secondary bus transfer hub. The study will also collect public and commissioner input on the locations.

Once a location for the hub is determined, the city could use money in the transit reserves to build the hub. The city states that no additional funding for a hub will be needed, so the current tax presented for public transit will not go toward a transfer hub.

The ballot language is binding and allows the funds to go toward operating the city’s public transit system, including purchasing and maintaining buses and other transit vehicles, transit facilities, and equipment and such other transit-related purposes as may be in the best interest of the city.

Read full story: Renewal of transit sales tax the ‘ultimate question’ for city bus service

Affordable housing portion

The 0.05 percent special sales tax would provide more than $1 million annually for the city’s affordable housing trust. It would repurpose a tax that currently supports transit expansion, and is projected to generate about $10.5 million total for affordable housing between 2019 and 2029.

The latest Census numbers estimate about 13,000 of the city’s homes and apartments don’t fit the definition of affordable. Those households pay more than 30 percent of their incomes toward housing and utility costs, qualifying them as “cost-burdened.”

If approved, the sales tax would more than triple the funds allocated annually to address the city’s affordable housing shortage.

Currently, the trust fund is funded with general obligation debt, which restricts the projects to construction projects. Specifically, the city’s 2018 budget allocates $300,000 of general obligation debt to the affordable housing trust. The city’s five-year capital improvement plan calls for increasing those funds to $350,000 annually from 2019 through 2022.

If approved, the new sales tax dollars could be spent on purposes other than construction. That includes supportive programs, such as voucher programs to subsidize housing costs.

There is not a specific spending plan for how the new dollars could be spent if approved, but Affordable Housing Advisory Board members have pointed to recent projects as examples of how the additional sales tax funds could be spent.

This year, the city received applications for two projects totaling $105,000. AHAB is recommending Lawrence Habitat for Humanity be awarded $75,000 toward construction of three homes that will be sold to families with incomes below 60 percent of the area’s median income. AHAB is recommending Tenants to Homeowners be awarded $30,000 toward construction of six one- and two-bedroom “cottages” for households earning less than 40 percent of median incomes. Those projects amounted to about one-third of the dollars available, and the city re-opened the application process this month to attract more funding requests.

AHAB helps oversee the trust by ordinance. If the sales tax is approved, Assistant City Manager Casey Toomay told the Journal-World the board will continue to provide recommendations for how money in the trust should be spent, which will go to the City Commission for consideration. As far as how the funds will be distributed, Toomay said options include the board’s existing annual grant application and soliciting requests for proposals for specific projects related to affordable housing.

The ballot language is binding and allows the funds to go toward various aspects of housing affordability. The ballot question states, in part, that the sales tax proceeds will be used “for the purposes of providing and improving the quality, availability, and affordability of housing in Lawrence.” That includes acquiring land, investing in private/public partnerships and such other related affordable housing purposes as may be in the best interest of the city.

This month, the City Commission voted unanimously to authorize a comprehensive housing market study that will provide insight on the city’s affordable housing shortage. The study will cost about $80,000, and it will collect and analyze data on the city’s housing market and provide recommendations for addressing the shortage. It’s estimated the study will be complete in April 2018.

Read full story: Lawrence voters to decide whether city should triple spending on affordable housing