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City manager forecasting increase in city’s general fund property tax rate for 2014 budget

If City Manager David Corliss has his way, property tax bills in Lawrence may go up just a bit in 2014.

Corliss is in the process of preparing his recommended 2014 city budget, but he has provided city commissioners a peek at one of the bottomline numbers. Corliss is forecasting that his recommended budget will call for at least a 0.4 mill increase in the city’s property tax rate, mainly to pay for four new positions in the city-county 911 center, for increased overtime costs for the police department and for additional equipment in the public works department.

In case your abacus is acting up in the heat, let me take my shoes off and do the math for you. A 0.4 mill increase would amount to an extra $9.20 a year in property taxes for the owner of a $200,000 home.

But as the saying goes at City Hall, the city manager proposes and the City Commission disposes. In other words, just because Corliss is recommending a mill levy increase doesn’t mean that City Commissioners will approve one.

Corliss is scheduled to provide a budget update to commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting. But most of the heavy budget lifting for the commission comes after Corliss releases his recommended budget, which is scheduled to happen in the last week of June. Commissioners then have until early August to finalize the budget for 2014.

There are still several questions outstanding on what else will be included in Corliss’ recommended budget. Budget-makers will have to make some decisions related to the budget for the Lawrence Public Library. Leaders at the library have asked for about $173,000 in additional funding for its operations. The library’s mill levy is separate from the city’s general fund mill levy, but both are controlled by city commissioners. Corliss didn’t provide a forecast for what may happen to that mill levy, but staff members previously have said the additional funding would either require a mill levy increase or a draw down of the library’s reserve funds. In other words, the total increase in the tax rate for city property owners may be more than 0.4 mill, depending on what happens to the library fund.

A mill levy increase for the library shouldn’t really catch anybody by surprise. During the bond election, library supporters said they would need a mill levy increase for both the construction of the expanded library and for the operations of the larger facility. Thus far, city commissioners have mainly just increased the mill levy to cover the construction costs but not the operational costs. The library is expected to move into the larger facility in 2014.

If the city’s mill levy does increase, it will continue a trend. The city’s property tax rate has increased each of the last two years, mainly due to increased spending to add more police officers and the voter-approved $19 million library expansion. The increases ended a period in the mid-to-late 2000s where the mill levy either held steady or declined. Here’s a look at mill levy rates:

• 2003: 28.09

• 2004: 27.86

• 2005: 26.36

• 2006: 26.36

• 2007: 26.79

• 2008: 26.65

• 2009: 26.69

• 2010: 26.69

• 2011: 28.61

• 2012: 29.53.

It is also worth noting that in 2008, city voters approved three new sales taxes — two for public transit and one for infrastructure — that took significant pressure off the city’s property.

It will be interesting to see if city commissioners balk at any increase in the mill levy this year, or whether they are willing to live with a small increase. An increase this year will come on the heels of the city’s decision to use recently unencumbered sales tax dollars to pay for a $25 million recreation center and infrastructure for the KU-oriented Rock Chalk Park project. City commissioners resisted calls to use those recently unencumbered sales tax dollars to fund other city budget priorities.

Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.

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