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Check back after 6:35 p.m. for live blog of commission's discussion of budget cuts
City Hall reporter Chad Lawhorn will be at tonight's City Commission meeting — where possible budget cuts will be a major topic of conversation.Post questions you have now and check back after 6:35 p.m. to see what's being discussed for possible budget elimination.Hello. This is Journal-World reporter Chad Lawhorn reporting from City Hall. The crowd is expected to be large tonight. City Hall staff members have set up chairs in the lobby outside of the commission chambers and even in the lower lobby of City Hall. Richard Heckler. Supports Prairie Park Nature Center. "It is a wealth of information." On the Arts Center. "It is another place for children and adults to go learn. You are never too old to learn something in Lawrence." On school crossing guards, he said many parents feel challenged about safe passage of their children to schools. Heckler is a Traffic Safety commissioner for the city. He said people are frequently asking for more safety efforts on the road. The meeting is expected to begin at 6:35 p.m. Commissioners have a few preliminary items to take care of before they get to the budget discussion. As a reminder, this discussion is in preparation for the loss of state funding that could impact the city if the governor's proposed budget is approved. The city would begin losing funds in July, if her budget is approved. Commissioners aren't expected to finalize any cuts tonight, but likely will wait until the legislature takes further action. Under the governor's proposal, the city is expected to lose about $1.1 million in state funding in the second half of 2009. And as always, with these live blogs, I issue an apology up front for any misspellings or grammatical mistakes. This copy does not have the benefit of being edited by our editing staff. 6:37 p.m. We're off and rolling. The budget issue is item No. 3 on the agenda. To give you some more information on the proposed budget cuts, Commissioner Rob Chestnut submitted a list of questions to staff members prior to the meeting. The questions ask for more information on several possible cuts that the staff studied but did not recommend. Among the areas he sought more information: • What would be the impact of eliminating the E-Government coordinator position?• What would be the impact of eliminating the city's Historic Resources function, and instead allowing the state to handle those duties in Lawrence?• What work would not be done if the city eliminated one or two long-range planner positions? • Would it be possible to make some positions on the city's concrete work crew seasonal? 6:56 The budget discussion is now beginning. David Corliss, city manager, makes a presentation. "We are seeking to begin the discussion about what the impact could be to the community." Does not anticipate making any final decision until state budget is approved probably in May. 6:58 Corliss explains that there are two revenue sources that could be lost under the state's budget. One is the state alcohol tax. The alcohol tax is put into three city funds: the general fund, the special alcohol fund and the special recreation fund. Corliss explains that the special alcohol fund and special recreation funds have historically been used to fund social service and youth programs. The other is a "slider" payment that is made by the state to compensate for the loss of property tax on machinery and equipment that was eliminated by the state a couple years ago. In total, $1.144,267 million will be lost to the city in the second half of 2009. Remember, the state's 2010 budget actually begins in July 2009. 7:02 Chestnut reminds everyone that the city's taxes are already set for 2009. The city does not have the legal ability to raise the city's property tax mill levy in the middle of 2009. The city next can raise the mill levy for the 2010 budget, which is set by August of 2009. 7:04 Corliss goes over cuts the city has made in past years. They include the elimination of 15 non-public safety position. The city has changed its employee compensation program. No across the board cost of living increases for city employees, except for police and fire departments. The rest of the city employees are only eligible for "merit pay increases." "We really haven't cut many services," Corliss said. "We haven't had this many citizens show up when we were eliminating positions because we figured out ways to do that without cutting services. I think we have been pretty successful in doing that." Goes over a chart showing the decline in the growth of property tax values. Notes it was very strong in the 1990s, but now has started to dip into negative terriority. "We were able to say yes to a lot of ideas in the '90s," Corliss said. 7:08 Corliss continues. "this has not been a labor of love. We don't like putting together lists of potential reductions." Corliss stresses that part of these proposed reductions is to make it clear to state leaders that these cuts would hurt local government. "I think it is critical that we communicate to our delegation the consequences of this." Says this is the first chance city commissioners have had to see these. He said he hopes the city does not have to implement any of the proposed cuts. "This is plan B," Mayor MIke Dever asks. "This is plan B,"Corliss said. "This is the retreat battle plan." Corliss begins going over potential cuts that were studied by staff. Not all are being recommended. Cross guard program. He hopes the schools can absorb that program. Eliminate the CPR training classes by fire department or begin charging a fee. Same for the the city's youth bike helmet program. On eliminating the city's Human Relations Department. "Lawrence has been a pioneer in the area of human relations law," Corliss said. "The thought is not to do away with the Human Relations ordinance." That ordinance prohibits discrimination based upon sex, religion, race and several other factors. Unlike the state's law, it also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Not recommending any changes to staff pay. Notes that city already has made changes to the system. "I think it is appropriate given the tremendous service the city employees provide and that they already are doing more with less," Corliss said. Not recommending elimination of the city's Historic Resources efforts. "This is one of those areas that I believe, makes Lawrence remarkable," Corliss said. "We've been a pioneer in this area. Also not recommending reduction of long range planners. Notes that already have made cuts to the planning department. Not recommending cuts to the city's street maintenance budget. "I have seen too many times in this room that we've balanced budgets by cutting our maintenance budget for infrastructure. I don't think that is path we want to go down again." 7:21 Corliss continues. Goes over several parks and recreation cuts. Calls them "regrettable." Knows that the community does not want to see the Prairie Park Nature Center closed, but he said he is concerned about having the revenue to keep it open. Said other options should be considered. Perhaps charging a fee to use the center is an option that needs to be considered. Also said he is disappointed that funding to plant flowers and landscaping in downtown also would be reduced. On social service cuts and outside agencies. Groups receiving money for Special Alcohol funding would be cut 50 percent in 2009. "If the state keeps all that money, we wouldn't have any money coming to us, so the question becomes what do we do after July 1." Responding to questions from public that have come in via e-mail. On selling Eagle Bend. Can't sell the land because the Corps of Engineers own the land. More imporantly, the city has a $290,000 annual debt payment. "Even if we closed the operation we would still have the debt obligation. We can't walk away from that legal obligation." Said revenues at the golf course are helping pay for some, but not all, of that debt. "I know the community will say 'sell Eagle Bend. I don't see that as a feasible option." On adding a new Sister City. Corliss said he will not recommend that. "My quick answer was that we don't need another Sister City. We need a rich uncle," Corliss said.Corliss wraps up presentation. Tells commissioeners: "I fully expect you to change this," Corliss said. "I know this is happening fast." Expresses optimism that cities can convince legislators to back off state budget cuts as proposed. 7:29 Mayor Dever asks if city has explored whether a contractor would take over operation. Corliss says no formal RFP has been done. Dever also points out that the city commission can not bind future city commissions to any action. He points out that likely the final decisions will have to be made after the April City Commission elections. Corliss said that is correct. But he said the city should talk about it now. "We're saying 'let's get ready. We may have to do this." 7:32 Commissioner Mike Amyx notes that city commission about a year ago made mid-year adjustments to social service agencies. "Who would ever have thought we were going to have to do that again," Amyx said. Amyx said the economy has changed and that means the city commission has to consider whether its priorities have changed for 2009. "We're going to have to do that," Amyx said. Amyx said he does disagree with the recommendation to close prairie park nature center. It draws applause. "I don't wan to have another vacant building. We have one with the Carnegie Library building. We have one with old Fire Station No. 4." Wants more people to volunteer. Thinks that could help with downtown beautification. "We can have contests on how pretty downtown Lawrence can be." Also brings up that city contracts with a company to clean up bus stops. Mentions whether volunteers could do that. Maybe city could pay social service agencies to do that. "There's an opportunity here for us to look at our priorities in the 2009 budget," Amyx said. "This is still our budget." He continues. "I think we have to do things different." 7:38 Amyx continues. "I learned a long time ago that there is budget and then there is money. We can put all that we want in a budget, but if we don't have the money come in, we can't do that." Then urges crowd to call legislators. 7:39 Commissioner Sue Hack. Says Corliss has done a good job. "It is important to not throw stones at our city manager for doing his job and pointing out possibilities." She continues. Says she may not agree with all recommendations. "I don't think any of us has the stomach to close Prairie Park." Thanks Corliss for bringing them forward. "This is a good alert. This is a reality. We're not playing Monopoly here. This is real money." 7:42 Amyx asks about hiring freeze except for core departments like police, fire, street maintenance and sanitation. Corliss said "We've been in a hiring chill for about two years, and that continues. We are not automatically filling positions as they become vacant." 7:43 Commissioner Rob Chestnut asks questions about what would happen if the Historic Resources efforts were discontinued. City Planning Director said it would put a strain on staff. 7:45 Dever opens up public comment. "I think you have heard that we want to keep Prairie Park Nature Center. It is clearly something the community values." Says this subject has created the most amount of e-mail he has received in his two years on the commission. 7:46 Dever continues. He said he supports keeping Prairie Park open. Said that is clearly three commissioners who support keeping the nature center open. Comm. Rob Chestnut said he agrees there is not support to close the Prairie Park Nature Center. Does want to explore changing the hours and making it "a little more fee based." He also reminds everyone that this is a very fluid situation. He said it is good that the city is talking about possible cuts "sooner rather than later." Would rather do this now than being forced to make a lot of quick decision in April. 7:50 Commissioner Boog Highberger. Said e-,mail came in faster than he could respond to them. "I like the way this is structured, Dave. You get to take all the heat for making the recommendations, and we get to be the good guys for saying we're not going to do that." Also said he wants to consider what impacts cuts would have on the local economy. He said wages should be one of the last things cut because the city wages circulate throughout the local economy. 7:52 Public comment begins. Kimball Coleman speaks first. Young adult who says he really likes the Prairie Park Nature Center. "It is a fun place to learn about animals." 7:53 Diana Fredrick, director of Douglas County CASA. Says CASA, which provides court appointed advocate services for children, already has received past cuts. "The proposed cuts would be devastating." Says CASA serves some of "our most vulnerable citizens." 7:55 Stephen Petrovits. Another young school-aged child who supports the Prairie Park Nature Center. "They put a great emphasis on science." An unidentified friend of Stephen also supports the center. "The talking crow Edgar is like a brother to me." Another young student supports it. "I learn more there in a week of summer camp than I do in a semester of school." Gwen Klingenberg, president of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods and a city commission candidate, said "Lawrence is at a dark crossroads." She said "I urge the city commission to put people first and find other ways to balance our budget." Said "quality of life issues are not side issues." Does not support losing the city's Human Relations program. Brandon Irvin, He urges city to look at volunteers for upkeep of downtown flower gardens and such. Also wants to find funding for Boys and Girls Club because he knows many families use this. Said he would pay higher fees to play golf at Eagle Bend. Uses several Parks and Rec programs. Said he would pay more in fees for those programs. "As a community, we can find ways to come together and do this." State Sen. Marci Francisco. Said she is here to listen and take stories back to the Statehouse about how these cuts will impact people. Said she does not think the state will get this done before April. "We like to work right up to the deadline." Highberger: Brings up to Francisco that the city does not have any revenue source that is not regressive. "The more burdens get shifted down to the local level, the more regressive our tax system becomes," Highberger said. Francisco said she will deliver that message to legislators, and also said she will stress that these cuts would hit the city in the middle of the city's budget year. David Leamon, new director of the Lawrence Arts Center. Has been told that Lawrence Arts Center is the epicenter of a very creative community. "I was also told good luck. Now, I know why." Said this is a bit of a rude awakening. Said funds that would be cut from Arts Center is used to actually maintain and clean the building. "We already have a very slim staff." Have 3,000 people visit the center each week. Traffic is getting increasingly strong as more events are held there. 71 percent of center's budget comes from fees and classes. Said revenue has started to shrink as economy has declined. Unidentifed school counselor. Said she is worried about the school crossing guard program. Thinks a volunteer program "would be too much risk to our children." Kelly Kindscher. Showed up to save the nature center. Wants the commission to involve the community. How could you have a forum that you can get some real ideas. Mentions that parks department mows too much and spends too much on herbicides at city parks and cemeteries. "Unidentified student. Wants them to save the Prairie Park Nature Center. He starts crying. His mother comes in to talk for him. Urges the commission to not close the nature center. Also supports keeping crossing guards. Unidentified student. Urges commission to not close nature center. Says it is like another home to her. "Animals are the best friends you could ever have."June Jones. Lawrence Arts Center. An essential quality of Arts Center is that it is an organization that "provides a cultural backdrop that nurishes the souls, creativity, connection that people have with things that you can not buy with money." Says several generations have used the Arts Center. "The Arts Center is not something that can easily be outsourced. If lost it can not easily be recreated." Joyce Wolf. Jayhawk Audubon Society. Supports Prairie Park Nature Center. Urges transparency in the budget. Wants more effort put into grant writing. Kristin Moreland. She's an artist who supports city funding for the arts. Her children go to Arts Center for classes. Mike West. Moved here. Could have moved anywhere. Friend told him to move to Kansas. Considered moving to Wichita, but it is a "hell hole in an unperceptable way." Said he has never been in a city like Lawrence that has so many resources of people. Said he has been amazed at the services provided by Arts Center, swimming pool. Said this is the smallest town he has ever lived in. Says this community has resources it should draw upon. "It has wealthy people, but it has other resource. It has people who give a damn." Said he is a complete outsider until moving here. "But you have an extraordinary town." Please do "whatever we have to do to keep this place extraordinary." Eva Bradley. Young student. Likes the Prairie Park Nature Center. "It is a great place to go if you need information on animals. It is a good place to go if you are not feeling happy." "I know I might be small, but this is a big, big deal to me." Young adult student. Supports Prairie Park Nature. Patrick Freeland. President of Wetland Preservation Organization. Says the group is a broad-based group "working to make environment better around us." Says Lawrence is very multi-cultural. "I ask you to have faith in your community. If you need help, feel free to ask." Supports Prairie Park Nature CenterUnidentified speaker. Concerned about swimming pools closing early. Ernesto Hodison. Nature center has made a great impact on his children's life. He has served with Boys and Girls Club as a board member and volunteer. Sees the impact it makes on children's lifes. Works with Warm Hearts. "There are a lot of people out there who need assistance and wouldn't have it if you didn't provide the funding." Also works with the Human Relations Commission. "This ordinance reflects the values of our community." "As you look at these cuts I ask that you think about the impact it will have on the quality of life of people." Daniel Poole. Member of the city's Sustainability Advisory Board. Supports keeping nature center open. Urges city to make better use of city's advisory boards. Kathy. Teacher, mother and environmentalist. Supports keeping nature center open. "It is a resource we can't afford to lose." Janet Fitzgerald. Concerned about closing the city wading pool and eliminating the City Band concerts. "It is hard to imagine what life would have been like as a parent without the experiences I have had at the city parks and the wading pool." Said wading pool is a safe environment for the really small children. "Those are the first years of their lives and it is really special to them." Also has great memories of the band concerts. Note: I missed a couple of speakers here while writing a story for the 10 p.m. broadcast of 6News. Kevin Loos. Chair of parks and recreation advisory board. "At the next advisory board we certainly talk about not closing the nature center. There would be a mutiny." Invites people to get involved with the advisory boards. Said what he heard tonight is that people are more willing to pay fees for some of these services than there was a few months ago. "There are ideas that may work now that would have gotten slaughtered not long ago," Loos said. Also said volunteer crossing guard program is a bad idea. "There would be definite incidents that would occur that none of us would want to explain after the fact." Unidentified speaker. Urges residents to take ownership and help he government make informed decisions. Rachel Vaughn. Wants more transparency. Wants a larger forum with more details. Asks people to look at domino effect of some of these cuts. Aaron Paden. Urges city and legislators to raise his taxes. "These are services that make a community worth living in," Paden said. Said he would support hiring freezes in police department. Points out that we have Douglas County Sheriff's office, and KU police department as well. Also said he could live with less street maintenance. "I wouldn't mind a pothole or two if it helped us not run over a kid," Paden said. Public comment ends at 9:20 p.m. Corliss: Reminds everybody that he intends to talk to state legislators to avoid these cuts. "That is Plan A." Also said he takes to heart the recommendation to talk more with the city's advisory boards. Dever. "This is just the first step for us. It has been overwhelming and inspirational to see how many people care about one thing or another." 9:23 Dever estimates he got about 300 e-mails in 24 hours. 9:24 Chestnut. Also stresses that this is the beginning of the process. Interested in the idea of having a forum on the subject. Said there are a couple of issues that are important to him. He is concerned about depleting reserve funds. Concerned about some past practices of spending more than the city has received in new revenue. Said many amenities are near and dear to his heart. "I grew up here and fell off the train at Watson Park, played in the wading pool, but we can't forget that fire & medical, police and sanitation are just core absolute services." On taxes he said the city doesn't have the authority to do any taxes that aren't regressive. "We're really stuck in the short-term to come up with some answers," he said, especially given that this would hit the city during the middle of a budget year. "But he have a lot of resources here, and they just aren't financial." Said he can't predict how long the financial downturn will be. Said it could be a protracted situation where revenues are flat or declining. Doesn't want to draw down reserve funds to fill the gap. Said he's not sure that is sustainable. "We can't hope that revenues will grow like they did five years ago," Chestnut said. "I don't think that would be the responsible thing to do." 9:32 Highberger. Said it is a misconception that prosperity depends on low taxes. He said prosperity depends on good education, good infrastructure and a good quality of life. But he said the city doesn't have a way to really raise taxes to address the shortfall this year. Does support the idea of a town hall meeting. Wants to see usage numbers on wading pool. Band concert cut concerns him. "$12,000 for the amount of pleasure it provides, I think is one of our most cost effective expenditures we have." Says he is not sure how to avoid cuts to social service agencies if the alcohol tax is lost. Says he really wants to do cost-benefit analysis on these programs. "It is not fun and it will continue to not be fun." 9:37 Hack. Says will have to look at more creative city fees. She's very concerned about the cuts to social service agencies. 9:39 Amyx, who is the one commissioner with an expiring term that is running for re-election. "It is time for the city to challenge its citizens," Amyx said. "We know there is going to be some reduction in funding for this community." Compile information and give residents more options to consider. He thinks more discussions about city fees are necessary. Commends the city's employees. "We have the best employees in the state of Kansas." "We're going to have to have a volunteer spirit to get a lot of this done," Amyx said. 9:42 Mayor Dever "These tough times are going to be tough on all of us." Says that more people are going to have to become involved in community service. He said residents also will have to adopt to community sacrifice. "We're going to have to make some sacrifice to save what is important to us." "Contact your legislators," Dever said. "Call, call, call." 9:45. That ends tonight's discussion on the city budget. Check out 6News and ljworld.com for complete stories.