Here in another couple of months, my household will be in full Winter Olympics mode. That will mean several things: Jokes about communists (the games are in Russia this year); spontaneous performances of the Olympic theme song, complete with cymbals, by my wife; and whether I like it or not, figure skating on the TV.
Perhaps in the future, though, we can get our ice skating fix locally. I've gotten wind of an ice skating idea that is percolating at Lawrence City Hall. Folks in the parks and recreation department are exploring the feasibility of a seasonal, outdoor ice rink in downtown Lawrence.
Mark Hecker, assistant director for parks and recreation, told me several areas are getting a look. They include an area near the Outdoor Aquatics Center and part of South Park. But the most intriguing location is the plaza area that will exist between the city's new parking garage and the expanded Lawrence Public Library once it's completed next year.
The idea has some momentum at City Hall, in part because City Manager David Corliss is intrigued by it. He said he's interested in finding a way to bring more people to downtown Lawrence in winter. The idea of placing a temporary rink in the plaza area has some synergies, he said, because there would be adequate parking in the adjacent garage, restrooms are available in the new garage, and nonskaters could easily find something to do in the library or make the quick walk over to Massachusetts Street.
Whether the plaza area will be big enough to accommodate a rink isn't known. The financial feasibility of all this is also a question. To be clear, city officials aren't thinking of simply flooding an area and waiting for it to freeze. They do that occasionally in a low lying area of Watson Park, but it usually is only worth the time if there is going to be three to four weeks of freezing weather.
Instead, city officials are exploring renting a portable ice rink that comes with the appropriate ice making equipment. The financial feasibility of the idea likely will involve finding a corporate sponsor, and also charging a fee for skaters. Obviously, Crown Center in Kansas City has done well for years with its rink. Even for people who don't skate, it seems to add to the area's reputation as a holiday shopping destination.
That's certainly behind some of the thinking at Lawrence City Hall.
"We like the idea of a Winter Wonderland type of concept in the downtown core," Hecker said.
It's far from a done deal, but city officials seem to be serious about exploring the concept.
If it comes to be, I know somebody who can provide the theme music.
In other news and notes from around town:
• There is something else that is slipping and sliding just a bit in Lawrence: Retail sales numbers. The latest city sales tax report shows that taxable sales in the city fell by about 7.5 percent during the most recent reporting period. Totals for the entire year are still decent, but this does mark the third month out of the last four that the city has registered a decline in taxable sales in the city.
The most recent report details the taxes the city received from the state's Department of Revenue in November, but due to a lag in reporting and processing, it really measures sales that occurred from mid-September to mid-October. So, it appears really early-bird Christmas shoppers weren't out in full force, and, let's face it, Jayhawk football fans weren't roaming the city in the numbers they used to either. I never put too much stock in one month's worth of numbers, but the 7.5 percent decline is fairly significant.
For the year, sales tax collections are up about 1.6 percent. It's worth remembering that 2012 was a strong year for retail sales locally, so the fact we're above last years totals is encouraging. But, it also is worth noting that Lawrence in 2013 is performing worse than the state as a whole when it comes to retail sales. The statewide growth rate for taxable sales is 2.6 percent so far in 2013.
Lawrence isn't alone. It has been a mixed bag for several of the larger retail communities in the state. Here's a look at some of the winners and losers:
— Dodge City: up 1.6 percent
— Emporia: up 2.5 percent
— Garden City: up 5.2 percent
— Hays: down 12.3 percent
— Hutchinson: up 3.2 percent
— Junction City: down 1.0 percent
— Kansas City: up 5.1 percent
— Leavenworth: up 4.1 percent
— Leawood: up 0.9 percent
— Lenexa: up 5.2 percent
— Manhattan: down 1.2 percent
— Olathe: up 3.4 percent
— Ottawa: up 4.5 percent
— Overland Park: up 1.8 percent
— Salina: up 1.4 percent
— Shawnee: up 3.4 percent
— Topeka: up 0.4 percent
— Sedgwick County: up 2.3 percent.
• It was a late night at the Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, so news of the commission's discussion on a pay raise for commissioners got a little bit short-changed in our coverage. As we reported, staff members were directed to create an ordinance that would bump the annual commission salary to $20,000, up from $9,000 today. The mayor would get a bump to $25,000, up from $10,000 today.
The proposal, however, is a bit different than some had envisioned. Previously, there was a thought that none of the pay increases would take effect until after a new commissioner had been elected or an existing commissioner had been re-elected. In other words, no one would be guaranteeing themselves a pay increase.
But Commissioners Terry Riordan and Bob Schumm lobbied for a slightly different idea. The new proposal is that the pay increase would go into effect for all five commissioners after the April 2015 election. Three of the five seats — those held by Schumm, Riordan, and Mike Dever — are up for election in 2015. Mike Amyx and Jeremy Farmer's seats aren't up until 2017. Riordan said it wouldn't be fair for some commissioners to be making $20,000 while others are making only $9,000.
Ultimately, Dever sided with Riordan and Schumm to move the proposal forward. Amyx and Farmer abstained from the vote because they did not want to be in a position of voting for a proposal that would guarantee themselves a pay increase.
None of this is official yet. Commissioners still will have to vote on the actual ordinance that increases the pay. That vote likely will happen sometime in January. As for the concept of city commissioners getting paid more, it was widely accepted at Tuesday's meeting. Two members of the public spoke in favor of it. None spoke against it.
Although there was a city survey that showed Lawrence's proposed salaries would make Lawrence among the higher paying in the area, Riordan said he thought the survey results mainly showed that commissioners in other communities are "grossly underpaid."
Probably the most interesting item of the discussion is that one member of the public commented that if City Hall wants to do something to encourage more people to run, it should place some limits on campaign spending for City Commission races.
Commissioners didn't take any action on that idea, but Riordan said he was intrigued by it.
"That may be worth looking at, at some point," Reardon said. "That probably would affect it more than anything else."
More LJWorld City Coverage
New proposal emerges to reduce scope of rental inspection program; city commissioners to debate increasing salaries of commissioners
Getting a new rental licensing and inspection program approved at Lawrence City Hall has become a bit like me trying to walk down my icy driveway this morning: It can be painful on the backside of the anatomy.
Commissioners have been struggling for more than a year to pass a program that essentially would require inspections of every rental unit in the city. Now, a new proposal has emerged. Mayor Mike Dever and Commissioner Mike Amyx have proposed a significant set of changes to the scope of the program. The changes likely will be met with favor from those in the landlord community but may spark concerns among some of the more fervent supporters of the rental licensing program.
Here's a look at some of the larger proposed changes:
— The licensing and inspection program would have an automatic sunset at the end of 2017. In other words, the commission in place in 2017 would have to vote to extend the program, or else it would automatically end.
— The list of items city inspectors could cite as violations would be reduced by more than half. Dever and Amyx are proposing to eliminate 38 items that previously could have been cited as violations. The new list includes 28 violations. Some of the items that no longer would be violations for the purposes of the rental license include: missing handrails on balconies or stairways; clothes dryers that are not properly vented; minimum standards for kitchen and bathroom spaces; and minimum ceiling heights for habitable rooms. You can see the complete list of what was eliminated and what remains by clicking here.
It is important to note that the items that are proposed for elimination still would be a violation of city code, but they wouldn't be held against a landlord for purposes of issuing a license for a rental unit. I talked a bit with Mayor Dever this morning and asked him what would happen if a city inspector saw an item that was a violation of city code but wasn't one of the items he was instructed to look for as part of the rental inspection. For example, an inspector notices a third-story balcony has a missing or very loose railing. Dever said a process will have to be established to deal with those situations, but he said one possibility is that the inspector would note it, and a follow-up inspection would be scheduled. The follow-up inspection would have no bearing on whether the rental unit could receive a license, but the landlord could be found in violation of a city code and be forced to fix the issue and pay a fine.
— There is new language in the proposed ordinance that may make it more difficult for city officials to prosecute a landlord for having too many residents living in a rental unit. Language was added to the ordinance that says a landlord is only in violation of the occupancy code if the landlord knew there were too many people living in the unit. In other words, the city could still take action to reduce the number of people living in the unit, but it couldn't seek to prosecute the landlord for the violation, unless the city could prove the landlord knew about the over occupancy. The city has found it difficult to prosecute over-occupancy cases under the current system. This additional level of proof likely will make the task more difficult.
— The city would be required to give tenants of rental units at least 72 hours notice before any inspection is conducted in their apartments. The ordinance also makes it clear that the tenant has the right to refuse an inspection, but the city also has the right to seek an administrative search warrant, which would allow an inspection to occur against the tenant's wishes.
I'll seek to bring you more reaction to the proposed changes later today. But I'm guessing it will be a spirited meeting on Tuesday. Previously, Commissioners Bob Schumm and Terry Riordan had expressed general support for the previous proposal. Dever and Amyx had expressed concern over the last draft. That leaves Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, who has said he believes an inspection program is needed but has questioned some of its elements. The meeting is set for 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Lawrence City Hall may be a ball of fun on Tuesday. In addition to the rental licensing program, commissioners also will be discussing a topic too hot to touch for the last 14 years: commissioner pay.
Over the years, several commissioners, as they were leaving office, have suggested that the commission really ought to examine the pay scale for the City Commission. Currently, commissioners are paid $9,000 per year, although the mayor gets $10,000. It has been that way for the last 14 years.
Ideas have been floated that commissioners should make anywhere from $19,000 a year to near $30,000 a year. The $30,000 a year range would put Lawrence in the upper tier of salaries for other cities surveyed by Lawrence officials. But it would be in line with what Douglas County commissioners are paid. You can see a list of salaries for commissioners in area cities, by clicking here.
Dever told me this morning that his proposal will be that no pay increase takes place until after elections are held again. In other words, sitting commissioners would not receive a pay increase, unless and until they were re-elected.