Lawrence City Commission votes to increase property taxes, fund police headquarters

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday passed a budget that includes a property tax increase, a utility rate increase and $17 million toward a new police headquarters.

Commissioners at their meeting approved an approximately $255 million budget for 2018 that increases the property tax rate by 1.25 mills. The property increase will cost the owner of a $175,000 home an additional $25 annually in city property taxes.

Though commissioners combed the operating budget and $60 million of capital improvement projects for potential reductions, they ultimately passed the budget as recommended.

“It’s tough to do the 1.25, but frankly I think that’s our responsibility,” Vice Mayor Stuart Boley said. “We need to take care of the issues that face the community, and that’s how we’re going to do it.”

Mayor Leslie Soden was the only commissioner to vote against the budget. She said she wasn’t voting against the police headquarters, but instead wanted to indicate that she thinks the city needs to better prioritize spending and projects among departments so that a property tax rate increase isn’t required.

“To me, there is not appropriate prioritization that’s being done with this budget,” Soden said. “I get very frustrated when I go through the long list of projects.”

In addition to the mill levy increase, the budget includes increases in utility rates and assumes the renewal of the 0.55 percent citywide sales tax. The mill levy increase will enable debt financing for $17 million for the first phase of a new headquarters for the Lawrence Police Department. The police currently work out of multiple buildings that the department says are inadequate.

The multi-phase, multi-year plan will create a law enforcement campus that would allow city police to potentially co-locate with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to save costs. However, City Manager Tom Markus informed the commission that although Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug is supportive of the idea, he said the county’s needs for facility expansion are likely much further into the future than the city’s.

Voters rejected a proposal to use sales tax to fund a police headquarters in 2014. City leaders have emphasized the differences between that proposal and the current one. In addition calling for a phased approach and the use of property taxes, the current proposal does not require the city to purchase land. The city is proposing building the headquarters on a site it already owns.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen said the police department’s facilities are “woefully inadequate,” and described cramped conditions in the evidence, evidence processing and weapons storage rooms. She noted that she didn’t agree with using sales tax or purchasing land for a headquarters, but that a ranking system included in the city’s priority-based budgeting process indicates the police facility is a top priority.

“When something ranks that high, I think we would be remiss not to address that,” Larsen said.

Utility rates will increase for water, trash, sewer and stormwater services. Combined, the changes will add about $65 annually to residents’ bills.

City staff said the utility increases will go toward infrastructure repair, compliance with stricter water quality regulations and the city’s new wastewater treatment plant. Larsen said the city has to keep up with costs or else residents will get slammed with a huge increase in the future.

“We’ve got to incrementally keep up with what the cost is,” Larsen said.

The budget also calls for the elimination of 11 positions, all of which are now vacant following the recent resignation of the city auditor, Michael Eglinski, on July 14. Combined, elimination of the 11 positions will save the city about $630,000 in 2018.

Part of the context of the city’s budget is that Douglas County and the Lawrence school district are also planning tax increases for next year. As it stands, the county’s budget includes a 1.9-mill increase in the property tax rate. Lawrence voters also approved an $87 million bond issue for school improvements that is expected to raise the district’s property tax rate by about 2.4 mills.

Commissioners are scheduled to give final approval to the budget at their meeting Aug. 8. The county and school district will approve their budgets in coming weeks.

In other business, the commission:

• Voted unanimously to approve VanTrust Real Estate’s application to the city’s Catalyst incentive program. As part of the program, the real estate company will receive city tax abatements, free land and industrial revenue bonds to construct up to $31 million of speculative industrial buildings at Lawrence VenturePark.

• Voted unanimously to defer a decision regarding the site plan for the former Jayhawk Bookstore, 1420 Crescent Road. In April, a Kansas City company filed plans to open a bakery and restaurant, McClain’s Market, in the building. A few members of the public were concerned about the restaurant’s ability to sell alcohol, and commissioners deferred the decision until Aug. 15.

Correction: In a previous version of this article, an explanation of Commissioner Lisa Larsen’s opinion regarding the new police headquarters incorrectly referenced a public survey. Larsen’s reference was to a ranking system that is part of the city’s priority-based budgeting process. The ranking system allows the city manager and program managers to evaluate and assign priorities to projects.