Janitors, bus drivers and a potentially expensive wage discussion that is brewing at Lawrence City Hall
Brooms and buses soon may get really interesting at Lawrence City Hall. We’ve already told you about a $450,000 idea to create a new city staff of janitors. If you think City Hall janitors are expensive, though, just wait until we get around to the discussion about bus drivers.
As some cities across the country start implementing communitywide local minimum wages that far exceed the federal minimum wage, Lawrence City Hall is taking a slightly different tack. Instead of talking about a citywide minimum wage law, commissioners are having a discussion about whether city employees — or employees that the city contracts with — should be required to make a “living wage.”
Right now, the discussion is centered on the folks who do janitorial work for city buildings. Those janitors are employed by a private Topeka-based company that has a contract with City Hall. The janitors don’t make a living wage, at least not one that meets the city’s criteria. The city has determined that a “living wage” is $12.60, which is equal to 130 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three in Douglas County.
There is an ordinance on the city’s books that basically says companies that receive tax abatements are required to pay all their employees a living wage plus benefits. This Topeka custodial company doesn’t receive a tax break, so the living wage requirement isn’t applicable. But the current City Commission has picked up on a question that surfaced a few times over the years: Isn’t it hypocritical for the city to require some private companies to pay a living wage while the city itself doesn’t pay some of its people a living wage?
So, it is now a real possibility that a handful of janitors in Lawrence may get a good raise and become city employees, which comes with a lot better benefits.
If that comes to be, there will be a new question for the City Commission: Where does it want to draw the line on being hypocritical?
A handful of janitors is just the tip of the iceberg on this issue. As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, take a look at bus drivers. The city has a contract with a private company to provide bus drivers for the city’s transit system. There are bus drivers who don’t make $12.60 an hour.
I checked in with Justin Priest, a former City Commission candidate who also is the head of the local transit union. He told me the starting wage for a bus driver in training is $9.50 an hour. After the training period is completed, the wage goes to $11.50 an hour. There are more than 100 bus drivers. (There are 136 employees as part of the contract, Priest said, but some of them are mechanics and other positions that get paid at different rates.)
If it costs $450,000 to add five janitors to the city’s staff — some commissioners question staff’s estimate on that — how much do you suppose it would cost to add 100-plus transit workers?
If commissioners add the janitors, we’ll find out. Priest said his union will begin pushing hard to make transit workers full-fledged city employees rather than contract employees.
“Ultimately, what everybody wants here is to be a city employee,” Priest said. “I guarantee you that if they end up doing that with custodians, we’ll push more and more to become city employees. We’ll push to do away with the privatization of the transit system.”
How will the city say yes to custodians and no to bus drivers? One of the rallying cries on the custodial issue is that some of the custodians have been receiving assistance from the local food bank Just Food. I’m guessing some bus drivers do too, and if that is the litmus test for becoming a city employee, I’m certain there soon will be lots receiving assistance from the food bank.
There are lots of other workers employed by the city who don’t make the $12.60 an hour. Many are seasonal employees in parks and recreation. What criteria will the City Commission use to determine who among their staff is entitled to a “living wage” and who is not?
The questions can go even deeper, though. As I mentioned, companies that receive a tax abatement are required to pay the living wage. Companies that receive other types of public incentives, however, are not required to pay a living wage. That means all the hotel developments that have received tax increment financing money aren’t required to pay their cleaning crews a living wage. Same goes for apartment projects that are scheduled to receive millions in taxpayer incentives. Those projects received “tax rebates,” not tax abatements, so the living wage requirement doesn’t apply.
None of these issues are new. I wrote about the transit issue in 2008, but the idea of a living wage for bus drivers never gained any political traction. I then wrote in 2009 about how the city’s living wage ordinance doesn’t apply to many of the publicly subsidized projects being approved by City Hall. But again, the issue never got political traction.
But the political environment changed significantly during the last City Commission election. It is not hard to envision that this group may stick with this issue longer than past commissions did. It is also not hard to envision the debate becoming much bigger than a handful of janitors.
• Here is one twist to keep in mind as it relates to the city’s transit system. As we previously have reported, the city needs to get a funding plan figured out for the transit system by 2018. A 10-year sales tax that currently funds the system is set to expire.
I’ve previously written how I believe the transit system may be entering a danger zone. They city is behind schedule on finding a transit hub and doing the difficult work of redesigning the transit system to make it more efficient. If the system doesn’t become more efficient, it may make it more difficult to win voter support for a renewal of the sales tax.
A renewal of the sales tax also may become more difficult if Douglas County officials add to the local tax burden with a $30 million-plus jail expansion and crisis intervention center project. There’s only so many taxes voters will approve.
If city commissioners decide to increase what they pay transit employees, that also may have an impact. Boosting the wages would seem to increase the operating costs of the transit system. Would the city also need to increase the size of the sales tax in order to pay for those increased operating costs?
Tough to know. The easy thing to understand is that 2018 will be here before we know it.
A potential danger zone for Lawrence’s public transit system; restaurant expansion at Sixth and Wakarusa
In 2008, it seemed the public transit question in Lawrence was settled. Lawrence residents loved the idea of a city-owned bus system.
Voters went to the polls in November of that year with a do-or-die question. Voters were asked to approve a two-tenths of a percent sales tax to fund the T’s basic operations. Without the sales tax, it was likely that the transit system would be shuttered. Voters made their answer clear. The tax was approved by a 70 percent to 30 percent margin.
Heading into that vote, prognosticators weren’t sure how the public would respond. It could be close, we thought, because there were significant pockets of discontent with the city’s transit system. Instead, the tax measure won every single precinct in Lawrence. It continues to be one of the more lopsided elections I’ve ever covered. It seemed Lawrence had buried the hatchet on the T, or the empTy, as its detractors called it.
Today, questions are back, and the loudest ones are coming from City Hall. They started to get louder on Tuesday night when commissioners balked at the idea of installing a new transit hub near 21st and Iowa streets. Commissioners rejected a proposal to build the hub on the vacant piece of KU Endowment-owned property that is just south of the city’s Fire Station No. 5. They didn’t settle on a different location to build a transit hub, which basically is the place where buses congregate and riders make transfers to other buses on a regular basis. Talk of locations near Ninth and Iowa and perhaps near 19th and Iowa, where KU’s Stouffer Place apartments are in the process of being demolished, were discussed as possibilities.
Now, I want to be clear, I don’t think Lawrence city commissioners are trying to kill the T. But just because they’re not trying to, doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. The big issue facing the transit system is that the very successful sales tax approved by voters in 2008 came with a 10-year sunset. Voters are likely going to be asked to approve a renewal of that sales tax in 2018. If they don’t renew the tax, the T is likely back in jeopardy again.
The transit hub plays a key role in this because transit leaders want to get on with the work of redesigning transit routes to make them more efficient. But they can’t redesign routes until they know where the system’s hub is going to be located. And they say that they can’t get the type of route efficiency they want by having a hub in downtown because the downtown area is too congested to accommodate the number of buses that need to come to a hub.
The 21st and Iowa location has been a favorite of transit leaders because it is centrally located in the city, and to boot, KU Endowment is offering a long-term, no-cost lease for the city to use the land. Plus, it is what is available. The city has tried to swing a deal to put the hub at Ninth and Iowa, behind The Merc, but the property owner isn’t interested.
Commissioners balked at the site for a variety of reasons, but one of the louder critics of the site has been Commissioner Stuart Boley. He’s said the site is a poor one because it doesn’t offer any amenities for riders. In particular, he’s talking about opportunities for riders to get off the bus and spend some money. That would be possible at the Ninth and Iowa site, he notes. Commissioner Matthew Herbert at various times has echoed those comments. Both have said they like the idea of a “destination hub.”
That is an issue that may benefit from some perspective. One issue to understand is the nature of a bus transfer, particularly under the new route system that city transit leaders envision. Under the new system, the average time a rider would be waiting at the hub to make a transfer is about 3 minutes, transit administrator Bob Nugent has told me. So, for someone to decide they are going to want to do some shopping at the transit hub, they are going to have to decide to delay their trip. I’m sure some folks would do that. But if they are willing to delay their trip, they can shop anywhere up and down the route that they happen to be on. For example, your bus goes by Dillons, you have the bus stop near Dillons, you get off and do some shopping, then you catch the next bus when it comes by in about 30 minutes. Dillons doesn’t need to be at the hub for you to do some shopping.
That said, I’m sure there are some benefits to having the shopping convenient to the hub. But, it seems a question worth pondering is, how isolated is 21st and Iowa streets? I decided to do a little test. I did a little walking yesterday in my cowboy boots and black suit to see how far you really are from amenities at 21st and Iowa.
There is a big tree in the center of the site proposed for the transit hub. So I started there and timed how long it took me to get to the shopping center on the northeast corner of 23rd and Iowa streets. It took me three minutes and 30 seconds to get to CiCi’s Pizza. I think that qualifies as a destination. Based on my experiences, I think it is the No. 1 destination in Lawrence for men to get marinara sauce on their ties. Of course, there is quite a bit more to do at that shopping center. There is Cork & Barrel next door to CiCi’s, (you have to get club soda for the marinara stain, so you might as well pick up something to go with it.) There is Hastings next door, which would allow you to shop for books, music or even buy a guitar to serenade fellow bus riders with. There are numerous restaurants at the site. In fact, I think you could even win some sort of national transit award by taking the bus to get to the famed sandwich shop The Yellow Sub. Think about it, you take the bus to get a Tijuana Taxi. (It is a delicious Yellow Sub Sandwich, and yes, I am afraid to ask the origins of its name.)
If you want to walk an extra two minutes, you can get to the CVS on the southeast corner of 23rd and Iowa. And, I know what you are thinking: You would have to be crazy to try to walk across 23rd Street, but the intersection there has made that crossing — at least on 23rd Street — much easier.
So, with an approximately five-minute walk, you have a lot of amenities to choose from. Transit riders are probably some of the best walkers in the city. Is a five minute walk going to discourage them much? I don’t know. It seems a reasonable question though.
I asked Boley about it, and he thinks the site at 21st and Iowa is problematic for a number of reasons. He's thrown out an idea that has a real twist to it. Ninth and Iowa street, but in Centennial Park rather than in the parking lot behind The Merc. That likely would open a whole other can of worms related to whether the city wants to decrease its park space to accommodate lots of buses.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no transit site expert. And, furthermore, I don’t particularly care whether the hub goes at 21st and Iowa streets. But as someone who has watched City Hall a long time, I sense the transit system entering a danger zone. The biggest risk to the system is that commissioners get bogged down in trying to find a transit site, and the job doesn’t get done before the 2018 election, the transit system isn’t operating the way leaders want it to, and the system suffers at the polls. Another possibility is that a transit hub is chosen late in the game, and the city hasn’t got all the kinks worked out of the new route system before voters go to the polls.
Maybe it won’t matter at all. It is tough to predict how voters will think at any given moment. But this much is clear: The city has been trying to figure out the location for a transit hub for more than two years. That’s a long time. As interim City Manager Diane Stoddard pointed out to commissioners on Tuesday, there is never going to be a perfect site for the hub. And she reminded commissioners that getting a site is really important to the future of the T.
“The site is really key to us being able to provide better service, which I think is one of the things we talked to voters about a number of years ago” Stoddard said.
In other news and notes around town:
• Some of you may have noticed some work underway in the former Famous Dave’s BBQ restaurant at Sixth and Wakarusa. Well, I don’t have all the details, but I have a few. A brand new restaurant is not coming to the space, but rather Six Mile Tavern and Chophouse is expanding. My assumption is the chophouse will only take a portion of the space because Famous Dave’s was huge. Owner Brad Ziegler has confirmed an expansion is underway for Six Mile, but Brad and I have been playing phone tag and I don’t have all the details. When I get them, I’ll pass them along.
Home sales in city up by 7 percent for 2014; update on city bus hub; more numbers on Rock Chalk Park infrastructure
I spent my weekend hosting an overnight birthday party for six 11-year old boys, so I know a thing or two about being in the market for more space (You know what they say: Two's company, three's a crowd, and six is an insane asylum.)
According to the latest report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors, there were a few other space-hunters out there as well. Through February of 2014, home sales in the city are up a solid 7 percent compared with the same period a year ago.
February isn't particularly a big month for home sales, but the next several months sure are. The spring season will go a long way in determining whether Lawrence's real estate market posts a third straight year of rising sales.
It is a little too soon yet to predict whether that will be the case. While home sales are up for the year, the pace of growth does seem to be slowing some in recent months. For example, February's home sales were up just 4 percent compared with February 2013. That continues a slowdown trend that began about midyear 2013. During the first half of 2013, sales were up 29 percent over the same period a year earlier. In the second half of 2013, sales growth slowed to 6 percent. But all of this may be me just being unnecessarily jittery. (Funny how watching a golf cart loaded with six boys jumping through a ring of fire will do that to you.)
Regardless, here's a look at some other statistics from the most recent report.
— The number of active listings on the Lawrence market is down to 344, which is about 7 percent less than a year ago. That drop generally has been viewed as a positive sign that the market has heated up from where it was a few years ago. It is interesting to note that the number of newly constructed homes on the market is 45, which is up from 32 a year ago. That's a sign that builders have had more confidence in the market in recent months. Whether that confidence will be repaid is the big question for the spring season. In February, only one newly constructed home sold. That's down from six a year earlier.
— The median sale price for homes in 2014 is $149,700, down 14 percent from a year ago. But I wouldn't pay much attention to those numbers just yet. The drop likely is due to the small sample size, not a reflection that housing values are going down . The numbers, though, are probably a good indication that smaller, less expensive houses are what's selling best right now.
— The median number of days that a home sits on the market before selling is 84, which is almost unchanged from 86 a year ago.
— The number of pending contracts at the end of February was 93, down from 143 at the end of February 2013. Pending contracts are a decent indicator of what to expect in the month ahead, so this may be the one number that creates some concern for the industry. The 93 contracts, however, are still a pretty healthy number, but just not the huge number that was posted a year ago.
Bottom line: We'll just have to wait and see where all this lands. If nothing else, the golf cart has taught me that.
In other news and notes from around town:
• If you are interested in the city's transit system, mark your calendars for April 21. The city has scheduled a meeting at 6 p.m. at Fire Station No. 5, 19th and Iowa streets, to further discuss the possibility of placing a new transit center along Iowa Street.
As we reported in October, the city has an interest in vacant property near 21st and Iowa streets to use as a transit hub, which would serve as the main transfer point for bus routes in the city. The city has conducted a traffic analysis for the area, and wants to share the results of that study with neighborhood members and others at the April 21 meeting.
City commissioners likely will be asked to make a decision on the site sometime in May. The site is on the northeast corner of 21st and Iowa streets. City officials also had been interested in a site near Ninth and Iowa streets, basically behind The Merc's building. But as we reported in October, KU officials haven't been wild about that site. KU — which also will use the hub for many of its bus routes — wanted a location closer to campus. The owners of the Ninth and Iowa property also must not be wild about the idea. City officials said they recently have not been successful in setting up any discussions with the owners of the Ninth and Iowa property.
• We reported a couple of weeks ago about how construction crews are racing to get a lot of street, parking lot and other infrastructure work done at Rock Chalk Park ahead of the Kansas Relays in mid-April.
Well, the city has produced a new report on Rock Chalk Park work, and it gives a few more numbers on how the project is proceeding. Among the findings:
— At the end of December 54 percent of all the infrastructure work at the complex was complete. That is about $6.6 million of the projected $12.2 million in infrastructure costs. As it currently stands, the city is projected to pay for about $10 million of that work. Bill Self's Assists Foundation is projected to pay for up $2 million of the work. Neither Kansas University, nor the private development group that will own the property, is currently projected to pay for any of the infrastructure work.
— An update on how much infrastructure work was done at the end of February wasn't included in the report. But the report noted no infrastructure work was completed in January because of the weather.
— In February, city inspectors noticed the site wasn't complying with regulations designed to keep construction dirt and other materials out of city storm sewers. Inspectors issued a notice of violation to the project, with instructions to add appropriate sediment barriers to the site within two weeks. City staff reports the corrections were made.
— As previously reported, some cracks have shown up on the concrete parking lots and streets at the project. City staff members now have more precise numbers on that issue. After walking the entire project, about 3 percent of the panels in the parking lot have cracks and about 2 percent in the streets are cracked. The report notes that the developer will need to make repairs to the panels before the work is accepted by the city.
More LJWorld City Coverage
The phrase “warm up the bus” may become a frequent one at Kansas University’s Memorial Stadium, and it has nothing to do with the improving — or declining — fortunes of the KU football team.
A new City Hall report lists a site on the grounds of Memorial Stadium as a leading contender to house a multmillion dollar transit center.
The report says a site just northeast of the stadium — where the shot put and discus rings are now — may be the best location to build a nearly $3 million transit center that would serve both the city and KU’s public transit buses.
As currently envisioned, the transit center would hold a specially-designed parking lot to accommodate upwards of 10 buses. It also would include a small building with public restrooms and a break room for bus drivers.
The option would involve relocating a portion of Fambrough Drive so that it no longer is part of an offset intersection where it connects with Mississippi Street. The portion of Illinois Street that runs onto the stadium property also would be relocated.
As for the discus, shot put and javelin areas, they would be relocated to the Rock Chalk Park complex in northwest Lawrence, where a state-of-the-art track and field stadium is being constructed.
The project is expected to cost about $2.8 million, including about an extra $100,000 per year in operational costs required to reroute the buses to the center.
The consulting firm Olsson Associates recommends that the city also seriously consider two other sites: 2029 Becker Drive, which is the KU Park and Ride Lot on West Campus; and 925 Iowa, which is part of the parking system behind The Merc grocery store at Ninth and Iowa.
The site at the stadium, however, has the lowest costs of the three. The Park and Ride Lot has an estimated $3.7 million price tag, including an annual additional operational expense of about $535,000 to route the buses through the center. The Ninth and Iowa location has a price tag of $3.2 million, including an extra $366,000 of annual operational expenses.
It will be interesting to think through how large numbers of buses will impact the thousands of people who show up on KU game days to tailgate around Memorial Stadium. There are already a large number of buses that arrive at the stadium on game day as part of the shuttle system the city operates from downtown to the stadium. But those buses are confined to parking spaces on Mississippi Street.
These buses — which I assume would be in addition the shuttle buses — would be on the stadium grounds themselves. And, a very key point here, they would be on a portion of the grounds that currently is prime tailgating space.
We may be setting the stage to find out how important tailgating is to the KU game day experience. Let’s face it, the last couple of years, it has been more important than the games. (If the city needs a consultant to advise it on KU tailgating matters, I certainly could form a corporation, so to speak. Of course, any good study will require a large quantity of a certain beverage, several pounds of prime beef, and probably a mobile flat screen television just to be thorough.)
City commissioners will get their first look at the study at their 6:35 p.m. meeting Tuesday at City Hall.
If talk of this issue has left you confused, don’t feel bad. (The thought of a mobile, flat-screen television leaves me discombobulated too.) No, more than likely it is that you thought this issue already was decided. Transit center talk has been in the news a lot lately, with commissioners just last week agreeing to locate a transit hub in the 700 block of Vermont Street. What’s important to remember about that hub, however, is it designed to be temporary.
The city soon will have to move its transit hub from Ninth and New Hampshire streets, once construction work begins on the new hotel at that intersection. It now has been decided that the 700 block of Vermont Street — across from the library project — will be the temporary location.
But city officials all along have said they need to find a better permanent home for the transit hub. It had become increasingly obvious that finding one in downtown may be difficult.
It will be interesting, however, to see how much the city’s bus system routes must change once the main hub is no longer located downtown. It's possible that some routes that come downtown today may not in the future. The report doesn’t provide details about route changes, but it assumes “service to downtown would continue where feasible for specific routes.” It also notes that the city may be able to reduce some of the estimated operating expenses, if it chooses to rethink the number of buses that it sends through downtown.
It all may create quite the discussion. In the meantime, I think I’ll do a little “professional development” for my career in tailgate consulting.
Buses, builders and bulldozers, oh my.
It is not the latest elaborate act for Lawrence’s Busker Fest. Instead, it may be the newest solution to finding a location to temporarily house downtown Lawrence’s public transit hub.
Commissioners at their meeting tonight will consider a new option for the transfer point: the 700 block of Vermont Street. For those of you who have forgotten your downtown geography, that’s where construction crews are building a $19 million expansion to the Lawrence Public Library.
The latest bus proposal calls for using the east side of the 700 block of Vermont Street for bus parking, and loading and unloading. That is the opposite side of where the construction work for the library is happening. (We’re basically talking about in front of the AT&T building and the vacant Local Burger building.) City transit officials have evaluated the site and haven’t come out against it, but they expressed several concerns. Transit staff believes there is a “high potential” for service disruptions or delays due to the library construction under way across the street. Construction vehicles often use the center lane of Vermont Street to make deliveries to the site. Transit officials also note the large number of buses that will be turning onto westbound Seventh Street may create problems for motorists trying to back out of the parking spaces in front of the post office.
But the new location was suggested by City Commissioner Mike Amyx, who is trying to find a location that doesn’t upset the parking balance downtown. City commissioners late last year agreed to move the transit hub to the 800 block of Vermont Street, but as the time came closer for the move, several merchants objected to the 13 long-term parking spaces that would be lost from the 800 block of Vermont. This new proposal for the 700 block of Vermont Street also will eliminate parking spaces. Transit staff estimates 12 to 16 spaces will need to be removed from the street. But I guess the thinking is the loss of parking in that area will be less objectionable because the new multi-level parking garage next to the library is expected to open this fall. We’ll see whether that theory holds. Thus far complaints about loss of parking haven’t emerged with this proposal, but that may be just because many folks in the area don’t know about it yet. (The proposal showed up on the city’s agenda late yesterday.)
Staff members have countered the new proposal with additional ideas on how they could mitigate parking problems in the 800 block of Vermont. They think they can place six five-hour parking meters on the north side of the 100 block of W. Ninth Street to partially offset the loss of the 13 meters in the 800 block of Vermont. In addition there are eight existing short-term spaces in the 200 block of W. Ninth Street that could be made into five-hour metered spaces. Staff members also believe about 20 two-hour spaces in the public parking lot near Ninth and Vermont could be signed so that people with 10-hour parking permits could use the spaces.
With all those changes, the number of long-term parking spaces near the 800 block of Vermont would nearly double. Merchants have said the need for the long-term spaces is critical because the area is used by downtown employees.
In case you have forgotten what started all this, the city is seeking a temporary home for its transit hub because its current location will become unworkable once construction begins on a new hotel at Ninth and New Hampshire streets. Word around town is that work on the hotel is expected to begin by the end of the month. City officials already have commissioned a consultant to help find a permanent home for the transit hub. It is likely that hub will be outside of downtown, but it may take a year or more to make the necessary improvements and route changes to accommodate a new transit hub. City commissioners later this month are expected to receive information from the consultant.
As for tonight, it is hard to say where the transit hub may land. Staff members thought the issue was settled months ago when they first presented the 800 Vermont proposal.
But this process has kind of turned into one of those complicated home improvement projects. You know they type: You remove, by hand, 20 cubic yards of soil for your new swimming pool only to have your spouse walk out the back, give the dreaded shake of the head and suggest a bird bath and herb garden instead. (The home improvement analogy is appropriate because as we’ve previously reported, the big item at tonight’s meeting is consideration of Menards’ plan to build a home improvement center near 31st and Iowa streets.)
We’ll have to wait and see how the transit hub debate plays out. In the meantime, I’m going to rest up for tonight’s meeting by doing the backstroke . . . in my birdbath.