LJWorld.com weblogs Town Talk
A game of 'what if' with the city's transit system
It's the scenario that City Hall leaders don't want to think about. What happens if the two sales taxes for public transit get shot down by voters in November, but then just five months later three pro-transit candidates are elected to the Lawrence City Commission?"You're scaring me," was the response I got when I brought the scenario up to one City Hall leader. But it is not out of the realm of possibility. It probably is not safe to assume that if the transit votes fail in November that pro-transit candidates could not feasibly win election in the April city commission election, where three of the five commission seats will be up for grabs. Here's why: Voter turnout. The November general election could easily surpass 80 percent turnout as Lawrence residents go to the polls to elect a new president. But most Lawrence political observers would begin stocking up on blankets for their trip to Hades if a City Commission election draws an 80 percent turnout. Usually 20 percent turnout is more the norm. If three pro-transit candidates do the best job of getting their supporters out to the polls in April, they'll win. What they'll do, other than throw up their hands, however is a big question. By April 2009, the city's fixed route bus system presumably would be closed. If the sales tax doesn't pass, the city has no money in the 2009 budget to run the system.But if three people on the City Commission want something bad enough, usually they can find a way to do it. If push came to shove, you could argue that the city has the money to run a fixed route transit system in 2009. The city's general fund has the equivalent of an approximately $10 million savings account. Technically it is called a fund balance. Never mind what it is called, it is more than enough money to run the city's transit system.The most recent estimates are that the city's transit system would need about $4 million to operate its existing service in 2009. Ten million is clearly more than four million, but it certainly wouldn't be that simple.For one, if a commission tried to use approximately half the city's fund balance in one fell swoop, the professional staff members who put together the budget would begin buying fabric by the gross to construct a giant, red warning flag.The city has a policy that the general fund balance shall not fall below 15 percent of the fund's expenditures. But that's just a city policy that can be changed or temporarily ignored. It is not some state law.And commissioners theoretically could take that money with the understanding that they would increase property taxes enough the following year to replenish the fund balance.One big question, though, is whether a new city commission would have any buses left to put on the streets. Again, theoretically, the current City Commission could choose to sell all the public transit buses before April. That would significantly increase the cost to restart the bus system. City commissioners want the sales taxes to pass, so they aren't in the mood to discuss any of this. But Mayor Mike Dever did say that he would be "disappointed" if such a scenario landed in City Hall. He wants November's election to finally put the public transit question to rest. "It would be a disappointment to me because I feel like we would have asked and answered that question," Dever said. "We really are having a referendum on public transit indirectly."And, by the way, Dever thinks I'm crazy for bringing the scenario up. He doesn't think it is very likely. He may be right.But I've covered City Hall in one way or another since 1994, and there's one philosophy I always keep at the top of my mind: Almost anything is possible, if you can count to three.