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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.

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