Lawrence City Commission moves forward with 2019 budget, including utility rate increase
photo by: Journal-World Illustration
Lawrence city commissioners have voted unanimously to move forward with the city’s 2019 budget, which holds the property tax rate flat, increases utility rates and provides millions of dollars for new projects.
The City Commission held a public hearing on the budget as part of its meeting Tuesday, and though commissioners noted that increasing utility rates can be hard on residents, they agreed that having the funds to keep the city’s utility systems in good order was important.
“This may be tough for some of the folks, but we need to support the basic services of our city, and this is one of them,” Mayor Stuart Boley said.
As proposed, the $206.5 million budget holds the mill levy rate flat at 33.279 mills and includes increases to city utility rates for water, sewer and stormwater services. The budget includes a 7.8 percent increase in the rates for water and sewer and a 3 percent increase for stormwater. City utility bills for the typical household will go up about $60 per year, according to city estimates.
The city has been increasing utility rates regularly to cover increasing costs and infrastructure projects. Last year, as part of the 2018 budget, the commission also approved utility rate increases. Rates for water, sewer and trash services all increased by about 6 percent in 2018, adding about $65 annually to residents’ bills, according to city estimates.
Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said that she knows it’s hard to raise utility rates every year, but that, unfortunately, the cost to do business keeps going up and the city has to keep up with that.
The utility rate increase goes to fund the utility department’s operational costs and capital improvement plan, which includes the installation of automated water meters, water quality processes, waterline maintenance and other infrastructure repairs, according to a city staff memo to the commission.
Deputy Director of Utilities Mike Lawless presented data to the commission that indicated the monthly costs for water and sewer services for Lawrence residents is about the middle of the spectrum when compared to other Kansas cities such as Olathe, Topeka and Manhattan. A chart shown to the commission indicated that an average Lawrence household that uses 4,000 gallons of water per month will pay about $73.23 for water and sewer services under the new rates. Stormwater and trash charges are in addition to that amount.
Commissioner Matthew Herbert said he was happy to support rate increases that pay to maintain the city’s infrastructure. He said clean water is never going to be seen as a wasteful expense on the budget.
“As a ratepayer, I’m happy to make sure that we have state-of-the-art infrastructure, to make sure that we have the highest possible quality,” Herbert said. “We’ve seen all over the country instances where neglect of this form of infrastructure has had catastrophic results and continues to have catastrophic results.”
Across all departments, the budget includes about $69 million in capital improvement projects for next year, including funding for a new bus hub, sidewalk repairs and downtown security cameras.
In other business, the commission voted unanimously to approve amendments to the 2018 budget, which include allocations for a $2.25 million budget surplus. Part of the surplus came from approximately $700,000 collected late last year due to a city-commissioned billing audit, which found that the city failed to bill various entities. The amendment approved by commissioners calls for an additional $200,000 to be directed to the city’s affordable housing trust and the remainder to go to the city’s capital improvement fund, which is used to fund improvements to city facilities and infrastructure.
As part of Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners approved the first reading of the ordinances needed to adopt the city’s 2019 budget. The second reading of the budget ordinances will be Aug. 14, after which the commission will formally adopt the budget.