Lawrence sales tax collections remain strong; a look at how local shoppers are saving the city’s budget
While the Kansas Legislature continues to struggle to find a tax policy to fill a gaping budget hole (thus far the idea of using one hand to point fingers and the other to rub a magic lamp has fallen short), the city of Lawrence continues to receive good tax news. Sales tax collections remain on a roll in Lawrence.
Lawrence recently received its April sales tax check, which reflects taxes collected on sales made generally in February or late January. Whether it was big Valentine’s Day gifts, or the gifts you have to buy for forgetting Valentine’s Day, spending totals were up in Lawrence. Sales tax collections for the month grew by 5.1 percent in Lawrence, compared with the same period a year ago.
For some reason, spending in Lawrence was much better in February than it was in other major retail centers in the state. For example, Sedgwick County, Overland Park, Olathe and Topeka all saw declines in their sales tax collections for the month.
It is never wise to read too much into any one month, but the latest report continues a trend for Lawrence. The city now has received four of its 12 sales tax checks for 2017, and they have added up to a pretty positive trend. For the year, Lawrence has seen sales tax growth of 4.2 percent — or about $350,000 — compared with the same period a year ago. That puts Lawrence near the top of the pack of other large retail centers in the state. Here’s a look:
— Lenexa: up 10 percent
— Lawrence: up 4.2 percent
— Shawnee: up 4.2 percent
— Olathe: up 3.7 percent
— Topeka: up 2.9 percent
— Kansas City: up 2 percent
— Overland Park: up 1.1 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 0.4 percent
Sales tax numbers are a good indication of economic activity in a community, but they also are important to keep in mind this time of year for another reason. It is budget season at Lawrence City Hall. As we reported, City Manager Tom Markus released his recommend budget for 2018 last week. Sales taxes are a critical part of the budget.
While Lawrence’s performance this year is good, city officials are counting on it to remain good throughout the entire year. Markus’ recommended budget shows projections for how 2017 will end. The budget is projecting that 2017 sales tax revenues will come in 4 percent higher than 2016 totals. We are at 4.2 percent now, which is better than most cities in the state. Lawrence needs to keep up the pace to meet those projections.
A closer look at the budget shows just how important sales tax revenues have become to the city. It basically is the revenue source that makes up for all the other failing revenue sources. One struggling revenue source is franchise fees, which is a special tax you pay on several utility bills, such as electric, cable, telephone and gas bills. The city budgeted to collect $8.1 million in franchise fees in 2017, but city officials now project they’ll collect only $7.8 million. Licenses and permits — building permit fees are the big one in this category — were budgeted at $1.38 million for 2017. Now, they are projected to come in at $1.26 million. And then there are fines, such as the ones you pay for speeding or parking in a spot you are not supposed to. Evidently, Lawrence is becoming much better behaved in that regard. Fine revenue is really sagging. The city is budgeted to collected $3.02 million in fines in 2017 but is now projecting to collect only $2.4 million.
Just those three categories alone account for a $1.1 million budget shortfall at City Hall. Given that, you may think the city’s budget is in trouble. It is not, though. The city in 2017 budgeted to collect $72.22 million in revenues for its general operating fund. It is now projecting it will collect $72.81 million in the general fund. The city is on pace to have a nearly $600,000 budget surplus in its main operating fund.
The reason: sales taxes. The city budgeted to collect $28.5 million in general fund sales taxes in 2017. It is now projecting it will collect $29.7 million in sales taxes for the year — a $1.2 million surplus.
Lawrence shoppers are saving the city’s budget. A valid question, though, is: Could they save it even more?
As the city asks for this tax increase — and don't forget, the county may ask for one too — it will be interesting to watch whether it creates a debate about the city’s policy for allowing new retail development. An issue that continues to lurk just beneath the surface is the city’s 2016 denial of a proposed shopping center south of the South Lawrence Trafficway and U.S. Highway 59 interchange. The city is getting sued over that denial. The lawsuit is moving slowly. Whether that is a sign the two sides are trying to reach a settlement, I don’t know, but it would not surprise me given some of the chatter I have heard.
The developers commissioned a study that showed if the City Commission would have approved the shopping center in early 2016 that by 2018 the new retailers at the center would have added about $970,000 in new sales tax collections to the city’s budget. In case you are scoring at home, the 1.25 proposed mill levy increase in Markus’ budget will generate about an extra $1.1 million in property tax revenue. If the shopping center had been in place, perhaps a smaller mill levy increase would be needed. Opponents of the shopping center may not agree. It certainly is fair to note that developers' estimates don’t always come true.
What is likely to be true, though, is that by the time the city, the county and the school district get done with their budgets, there will be a fair number of people unhappy with their property tax bills.
How paychecks, pickup trucks and guns fit into the city’s budget deliberations; name change on tap for Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau
Paychecks, pickup trucks and guns: They’re not just the beginning of a Jeff Foxworthy joke. They’re also items to keep an eye on as city commissioners begin crafting a 2016 budget.
The new City Commission yesterday spent some time talking about budget issues and other spending matters. As we reported, the police headquarters topic certainly garnered some discussion. But that wasn’t all that got discussed. City Manager David Corliss said there are at least three big topics that commissioners need to be aware of as they figure out the spending plan. Here’s a look:
— Paychecks: Corliss said he believes compensation issues — i.e. how much city employees are paid — is going to be a “dominant” issue in the city’s budget discussions for 2016. The city has held wages relatively steady for most employees for the last several years. Corliss said he thinks changes in the marketplace will make it difficult for the city to take that approach and still keep valued city employees.
“I have seen wages start to move over the last 18 months in this region,” Corliss said. “We’re going to have to raise our wages to be more competitive.”
— Pickup trucks. Well, really we’re talking about equipment in general, but pickup trucks certainly are included in that category. Corliss, who is in the final weeks of his job here before he takes a town manager position in Colorado, was straightforward in his assessment of how city commissioners have treated the city’s equipment budget over the last few years.
“I don’t want to get too preachy as I leave here, but generally we have said let’s cut back on some of our maintenance or delay some equipment purchases, because we haven’t said no to a lot of things,” Corliss said.
For what it is worth, Corliss wasn’t chastising commissioners for those decisions. Lawrence isn’t the only place that has taken that strategy during tight budgets, but he was pointing out that there is a limit to how often you can go to that well. Corliss said he is concerned that the city’s equipment fleet needs some significant upgrades.
— Guns. Members of the public bringing guns into Municipal Court and City Hall is a concern for staff members. If you remember, legislators in 2013 passed a law that says cities can’t stop licensed concealed carry holders from bringing their weapons into government buildings, unless those building have extensive security systems such as metal detectors. If you also remember, the Legislature this year passed a law saying you will no longer have to have a license in order to carry a concealed firearm.
Cities were given a four-year grace period from the 2013 law. In other words, City Hall and Municipal Court can still be a no-gun zone, even though neither has the required metal detectors or security systems in place. That exemption will expire at the end of 2017.
City Attorney Toni Wheeler said it is not too early for commissioners to begin thinking about how they want to deal with that pending issue. She oversees the city’s Municipal Court, and she said she has real concerns about allowing defendants to enter a court building with a loaded weapon.
“We often deal with people who aren’t happy to be there or are angry,” Wheeler told commissioners. “We deal with a high percentage of defendants who have a mental illness. I am very concerned about security and safety at the building.”
We’ll see whether the issue really gets much discussion during this budget session, or whether commissioners wait another year and see if the law changes.
As far as potential costs, they are significant but not crippling to the city. Back in 2013, the city estimated it would cost about $5,000 for every metal detector it required for a building. The larger cost would be for employees to staff the detectors. The police department has said a proper security plan may require two people at a detector. Back in 2013, the city estimated it would take $42,000 per person to staff a metal detector. To implement such a system at Municipal Court and City Hall would mean a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, each and every year. I’m sure those numbers probably haven’t gone down since 2013 either, so look for new numbers if the issue indeed does become a topic of conversation this budget season.
An interesting twist to the conversation will be whether city commissioners think other city-owned buildings also should have metal detectors. The public access area of the police department building at Bob Billings and Wakarusa certainly will get some discussion. Recreation centers are another one that may get debated. If the city decides it needs metal detectors at recreation centers, the costs could approach $1 million a year.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Get ready to Explore Lawrence. I’ve gotten word that the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau is scrapping its longtime name, and soon will be known as Explore Lawrence.
That is just one of several changes that are taking place at the organization. Fred Conboy, the director for Destination Management Inc. — the nonprofit group that oversees the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area — resigned in February. I haven’t been given any particular details about why he resigned, other than it was just a decision that he made. Megan Gilliland, the city’s communications manager, has been serving as the interim director for DMI.
Gilliland said the idea of changing the name of the CVB has been in the works for awhile. She said the idea of a convention and visitors bureau can sometimes be hard for the average traveler to understand.
“Explore Lawrence is an action-oriented phrase,” Gilliland said. “It calls people to do something.”
A major part of the new name will be a new website. Gilliland said the new site will make it much easier for visitors and Lawrence residents alike to find out information about events and attractions in Lawrence and Douglas County. Look for that website to be launched in the next few weeks.
I plan to write more about the new direction at the CVB later today, so check back for more details.
City prepares to approve budget tonight, including $62 million worth of road and infrastructure projects
Here are three things that were discussed frequently on my family's recent weeklong vacation through the northern Plains: Roadwork (there was a lot of it), budgets (there was not enough of those), and "Full House" (for approximately 1,400 miles, episodes of the once popular Olsen twins sitcom played continuously, thanks to an in-car DVD player and my 7-year old daughter.)
It appears that at least two of the three will be topics at tonight's Lawrence City Commission meeting — hopefully, budgets and roadwork.
Commissioners tonight are set to give final approval to the city's 2014 budget. We've previously reported the basics: A $185 million budget that increases spending by about 6 percent and the city's property tax rate by about 0.5 of a mill. Owners of a $200,000 home will pay about $12 per year extra in property taxes, as a result of the rate increase.
But one important part of the city's budget that doesn't always get a lot of public attention is its list of capital projects that it plans to undertake in the next year. The city has about $15.2 million worth of road projects and other infrastructure purchases on its to-do list in 2014. Here's a look at some of the more notable undertakings:
• $1.7 million for reconstruction of the intersection at 23rd and Iowa streets. Expect new turn lanes and greater vehicle capacity. The project is being funded through state and federal dollars.
• $2 million for the first phase of the 31st Street extension in eastern Lawrence. When completed, the project will extend 31st Street from Haskell Avenue to O'Connell Road. Work will be going on during the same time that construction is occurring on the South Lawrence Trafficway project. The city will use property taxes to fund the project.
• $2.5 million to rebuild a portion of Wakarusa Drive from Oread West to Legends Drive. Proceeds from the city's infrastructure sales tax will be used to fund the project.
• $42,000 to begin engineering work on a future project to improve Kasold Drive from Bob Billings Parkway to Harvard Road.
• $2 million to begin work on a new Maple Street pump station to help alleviate stormwater flooding issues in North Lawrence. Funding will come from the city's infrastructure sales tax.
• $1.5 million to possibly purchase a site or begin design work for a new police headquarters facility. Funding will come from property taxes.
• $400,000 to improve the city's fiber optic and broadband system. The project will improve fiber optic connectivity between city-owned buildings, traffic signals and other structures, but also may put the city in a position to begin offering some of its fiber optic network for use by private broadband providers. Funding will come from property taxes.
• $1.05 million for renovation of the Santa Fe depot in East Lawrence. About $350,000 of the funding will come from property taxes, with the rest coming from a federal/state grant.
• $275,000 to install a traffic signal at George Williams Way and Bob Billings Parkway. The intersection is expected to become significantly busier once the new South Lawrence Trafficway interchange opens on Bob Billings Parkway.
• $750,000 to build a new public transit transfer facility. A temporary facility currently is located downtown, but staff members are exploring an area near the The Merc at Ninth and Iowa streets for a permanent facility. Funding will come from a transit reserve fund.
• $1 million to fund technology upgrades at the city and county's 911 center. Funding will come from property taxes.
• $1.2 million to replace a quint fire engine. Funding comes from both sales tax and property tax funds.
The really big builders in the city's budget, though, are in the city's Utilities Department. The city has budgeted $47.2 million worth of water and sewer projects in 2014.
A big part of that will be making your water taste better. The city has budgeted $17.9 million worth of work to improve taste and odor issues that occasionally occur when algae blooms become significant at Clinton Lake or on the Kansas River.
I would expect this project will get more discussion before commissioners actually approve any spending on the project. By putting it in the 2014 budget, that gives the city the legal authority to spend the money on the project, but commissioners may still decide that's too much to spend on the intermittent taste and odor issues.
The other big utilities project is $14.8 million worth of work on a new sewage treatment plant for south of the Wakarusa River. This will be a multiyear project. When it is done by 2017, the project is expected to cost about $65 million.
Those projects will be funded by increased water and sewer rates, which also are up for approval at tonight's meeting. The budget proposes an approximately 5 percent increase in the monthly water and sewer bills for an average household. That comes after commissioners approved a 6 percent rate increase in 2013.
A household that uses 8,000 gallons of water a month would pay $76.21 in monthly water and sewer fees, up from $72.34 under the current rates. City staff members have put together a chart that shows how Lawrence's rates compare with other cities in the area. An 8,000 gallon bill ranges from $61.69 in Manhattan to $102.65 in Gardner. Click here to see the full list.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. today. This basically is the last chance for the public to make comment about the 2014 budget. Historically, the city's budget discussions haven't produced a full house. But who knows? Maybe it will tonight. I'm fine either way — as long as I don't have to listen to the Olsen twins.
Humane Society preparing to fight for budget increase; commissioners asked to provide $25,000 in unbudgeted funds for Just Food
It may end up being an interesting evening at Lawrence City Hall tonight because commissioners are set to talk about two items people fiercely guard: pets and money.
Commissioners are nearing the key point in the 2014 budget process where they set the maximum amount of money they are willing to spend for the year.
It looks like a movement is afoot by the Lawrence Humane Society to fill City Hall tonight with people who will argue the city ought to spend more money on pets. Specifically, the Humane Society is seeking about an $80,000 increase in its 2014 budget. City Manager David Corliss is recommending a $20,000 increase, but leaders of the animal shelter are going to argue for the full amount.
Their argument is where the issue gets interesting. Nonprofit agencies ask for more money from the city all the time, but the Humane Society is a bit different of a breed of nonprofit agencies. That’s because the Humane Society is providing a service that by law the city would have to otherwise provide, according to Humane Society executive director Dori Villalon. State law requires that cities have a process in place to impound stray animals. The Humane Society provides that service to the city, and in return the city provided the shelter about $282,000 in funding in 2013.
But Villalon says the shelter recently has begun using a new computer software system that better tracks the actual expenses involved in housing stray animals. After analyzing the numbers, shelter leaders believe the current contract the shelter has with the city falls about $80,000 short of covering its expenses to meet the state-mandated requirement that cities impound stray animals for a certain period of time.
“It is imperative that we close this gap,” Villalon said in a recent letter to commissioners. “LHS (the shelter) isn’t looking to profit from the city contract, but simply cover the cost of providing service, thus protecting the future of our nonprofit organization.”
In case you are wondering, the shelter provided care to 1,665 stray or abandoned cats and dogs from the city in 2012.
When I asked Corliss last week about the shelter’s analysis that the city contract doesn’t cover the basic cost of services, he didn’t dispute it. I’m not sure he has confirmed those numbers either, but rather he said his recommended $20,000 increase is what he could justify without raising the property tax mill levy. Corliss estimates it would take a 0.07 mill increase to fully fund the Humane Society's budget request. That would be on top of a 0.4 mill increase Corliss is recommending to fund other budget issues.
That philosophy is commonly used by the city when determining how much funding it can provide to a host of social service agencies and nonprofits in the community. But the real question here is whether the city is providing financial support to a nonprofit or whether it is being asked to pay for services rendered.
Shelter leaders are indicating it is the latter. The shelter provides a service the city is required to provide, and the city needs to pay an amount to cover the cost of those services. That’s the argument.
Villalon indicated in her letter to commissioners that the shelter — perhaps for years — has been using donations from community members to cover the shortfall that exists between what it costs to provide the state-mandated care and what the city currently pays.
Villalon said the proper use for those donations is to provide care that goes over and above what is mandated by the state law. The law requires stray or abandoned animals to be kept for only a short period of time. Shelters, to avoid euthanizing animals, can choose to keep them for a longer period while they seek to find a family to adopt the pets.
According to the letter and the shelter’s Facebook page, shelter leaders are encouraging supporters of the Humane Society to show up at City Hall tonight to support the budget increase. Shelter leaders are couching the issue in terms of saving lives of animals. In an information sheet the shelter is distributing to supporters, the shelter says if the funding request isn’t granted, “euthanasia of treatable animals may increase.”
Historically, the euthanasia issue has been a hot-button issue in Lawrence, which is a community that seems to really be a pet-loving place. We’ll see how hot the issue gets tonight. Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. at City Hall.
UPDATE: City Hall officials have gotten in touch with me today to clarify how they can provide the $25,000 in funding for Just Food without dipping into cash reserves or shortchanging other programs. City Manager David Corliss said he plans to reduce by $25,000 the amount of money that will be spent on sidewalk repair in the city's general fund. That money will be used to pay for the Just Food truck. The sidewalk work will be funded through the $25,000 in CDBG money that had been set aside with the thought it would fund the Just Food truck purchase. By shifting the sidewalk work out of the city's general fund to the CDBG fund, it will limit where the city can perform sidewalk projects. The CDBG funds must spent in one of the low-to-moderate income neighborhoods, such as Oread, Pinckney, East Lawrence or several others.
We’ll go from hot to cold to perhaps back to hot again. Commissioners as part of their consent agenda tonight will be asked to provide $25,000 in funding to the nonprofit food bank Just Food. The organization is run by City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer. The one-time funding will help the organization buy a refrigerated truck that will allow the food bank to collect meat, dairy and other such donations from grocery stores and convenience stores.
We reported in May that Just Food was seeking the city’s assistance to apply for federal funding for the truck through the city’s Community Development Block Program. But word has come back that the truck isn’t eligible for such funding, so now city staff members are recommending that $25,000 in local tax dollars be used to pay for the vehicle.
Plans for the truck do sound promising. Farmer has said it will be used to go to grocery stores, restaurants, convenience shops and other locations that often have to dispose of aging meat, dairy and produce. Currently, Just Food doesn’t have a way to transport refrigerated material from the stores to its distribution center in East Lawrence. Consequently, Farmer estimates grocers and other are throwing away “thousands of dollars of food per week.” Most of the perishable items are pulled off the shelves several days before their expiration dates, which gives Just Food time to distribute it to needy families.
But the timing of this $25,000 unbudgeted expenditure — which would be made in 2013 — may be unfortunate. City commissioners will be asked to approve it right before they are set to talk about how difficult it is to provide funding to worthy causes in 2014.
In my household, July means the start of two seasons: This is about the time that my wife’s refusal to turn on the air conditioner causes the kids and I to set up Gatorade stations throughout the house, and it is when city officials really start to dive into their budgeting process.
Fortunately, the weather has been cool this week, so there’s been plenty of time to focus on the budget. We’ve already reported that City Manager David Corliss’ recommended budget for 2014 calls for a 0.4 mill increase, which amounts to about $9.20 per year in extra taxes on a $200,000 home.
But the budget has a lot more details in it than just the bottomline. Here’s a look at a few other items of interest:
• There may be one fewer place for downtown motorists to park for free. As part of his budget, Corliss is proposing that the top level of the public parking garage in the 900 block of New Hampshire Street no longer be available for free parking. City officials several years ago agreed to make the top level of the garage free to park as a way to encourage more use of the garage. Usage of the garage, however, is not expected to be a problem in the future. Already, demand is up because of the multi-story apartment building at 901 New Hampshire, and more motorists are expected to be in the area as a new hotel/retail building gets built on the southeast corner of the intersection. By the way, hotel developer Doug Compton has told me he expects to get started on construction of the hotel around July 10.
• Perhaps we won’t get to make those fun commercials to attract retirees to Lawrence after all. Corliss’ budget does not recommend funding $30,000 for an annual marketing campaign to attract more retirees to the community. This will be an interesting one to watch because the city and county already have spent good money to get the ball rolling on retiree attraction. In January, commissioners agreed, along with the county, to award a $34,500 contract to Lawrence-based Kern Group to develop a comprehensive marketing strategy to attract higher-end retirees to the area. The contract calls for the group to create a title/slogan, a logo, a Web site, a package for marketing materials, and concepts for various print, broadcast and online advertising. Kern was up-front with officials that he expected it would take an advertising budget of about $60,000 to $80,000 a year to get the message out. If city officials don’t chip in $30,000 for the effort, I’m not sure where that leaves the commitment from the county or private stakeholders who may have made donations. We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, a fantastic advertising campaign hangs in the balance. I can see the commercial now: Retirees doing keg stands and streaking down Jayhawk Boulevard, followed by the tag line of “Lawrence: Where you are never old enough to know better.”
• Of all the books in the Lawrence Public Library, there must not be one entitled: How to Get Your Budget Request Fully-Funded at City Hall. Corliss is recommending a $100,000 increase in funding for the library as it prepares to move into its expanded facility downtown. But library leaders had asked for $175,000 increase. It is not unusual for agencies not to get everything they ask for, but how Corliss is proposing to fund this $100,000 increase is unusual. He recommends that the library fund dip into its rather paltry cash reserves to fund the $100,000 increase rather than raising the mill levy to do so. The library fund has about $235,000 in cash reserves, so this increase will eat up a good part of it. The strategy goes against the grain of one of Corliss’ long-held budget philosophies that permanent expenses need to be funded by permanent revenue sources. But in talking with Corliss, I think he is just hoping to buy time until the 2015 budget. The library’s first full year in its new facility will be 2015, and Corliss has said he has not forgotten what city officials told voters when they approved the $19 million expansion of the library. Officials told voters that they would provide the library additional money to operate the larger library. It was estimated a 0.5 mill increase would be needed for additional operational expenses. Thus far, the city only has funded a 0.2 mill increase for library operations. My crystal ball tells me to be on the lookout for a 0.3 mill increase in the 2015 budget.
• The new Rock Chalk Park recreation center will have a goal to shoot for — sort of. The 2014 recommended budget calls for the recreation center to generate about $715,000 in revenue, if it were to be open for a full year. But it won’t be open for a full year in 2014, so it won’t generate that much revenue. But that’s the number the city is shooting for once it is open full-time. As city officials said all along, the amount of revenue the center generates won’t be enough to cover its expenses. The 2014 budget — once again assuming a full year of operation — projects expenses for the center will be about $350,000 more than revenues. I believe revenues for the center will include things such as gym rental fees, class fees generated by the center, tournament and league revenue and concessions.
Ah, concessions. Maybe they’ll have a good deal on Gatorade. My kids and I sure hope so.