Editorial: City’s financial mistakes pile up

A recent blunder on the affordable housing front is the latest in a series; taxpayers deserve better.

It is difficult to have much faith in the city of Lawrence’s financial decision-making these days.

The city that failed to bill tenants for property leases for years and failed to properly invest funds it received for the cleanup of the Farmland Industries property can add botching the rules for funding affordable housing projects to its list of mistakes.

It appears the latest misstep will cost Lawrence taxpayers modest property tax relief.

Last fall, the city awarded $600,000 in funding for affordable housing projects. The plan was to finance the projects and repay the debt using funds from a sales tax for affordable housing that was approved by voters in November and will take effect in 2019. But the city’s bond counsel recently said those housing projects did not meet bond requirements that the projects contribute to economic development.

Given the ruling, the city must find $600,000 in cash to pay for the projects. Of course, it just so happens that the city has about $630,000 in unbudgeted revenue from one of its other miscues: The outstanding rent payments from leases the city failed to bill for years until discovering the error last year.

For 2018, the city implemented a 1.25 mill property tax increase, mostly to pay for a new police headquarters. Based on that, city officials had indicated that perhaps the $630,000 in back lease payments should be returned to taxpayers in the form of a property tax break. Former Commissioner Mike Amyx and City Manager Tom Markus were supportive of the idea.

But last week, commissioners started walking back the tax break idea, indicating the $630,000 in lease payments will have to be used for the affordable housing projects instead.

“Anytime we get an opportunity to provide some property tax relief where the money is truly available, then obviously that’s something that should be looked at really hard,” Commissioner Lisa Larsen said. “Should it be returned to the public? Maybe so. But I don’t think I want to tie my vote to any one thing until we’ve heard every single option.”

The $630,000 property tax break spread across the tax base would not have amounted to much for city taxpayers. Still, it’s disappointing that city commissioners are ready to forego a break for taxpayers in order to cover their affordable housing mistake.

Missteps are to be expected from time to time, but the city of Lawrence has stumbled far too often in the past year. It’s long past time for the stumbles to end.