Lawrence City Commission votes to include 7 more staff positions in upcoming budget amendment
photo by: Nick Krug
Citing a need to keep up with infrastructure projects, Lawrence city leaders are moving forward with changes that would add another seven staff positions, bringing the total number of newly requested positions to more than 20.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to direct staff to include the new positions in the quarterly 2021 budget adjustment that is expected to come back to the commission next week. The seven positions are in addition to the 13.5 administrative and planning department positions the commission previously directed city staff to include in the amendment.
City staff told the commission that if the city was going to keep up with its Capital Improvement Plan, it would have to either hire outside firms to help with the load of capital projects planned for the next five years or hire more city staff. Finance Director Jeremy Willmoth said a staff analysis showed that the most cost-effective choice was hiring more city staff.
“Our analysis shows that we’ll actually go further by capitalizing these expenses with internal staff than we would if we capitalized these expenses with an outside firm,” Willmoth said.
The newly proposed positions would all be in the city’s Municipal Services & Operations Department. Six of them are more traditional employees for that department, such as engineers and inspectors, and one of them is an environmental remediation manager.
The six more traditional MSO positions would cost the city $279,000 in 2021, as they would not be in place for all of the year, and $558,000 in 2022. MSO Assistant Director Melinda Harger said that some engineers were currently working more than 50 hours per week, and that in addition to supporting the CIP, the new positions would help with work-life balance for city staff.
Harger said the personnel costs for those six employees would be reimbursed from bond proceeds, and the total cost for a full year would be less than 2% of the bond authorizations, so staff estimates that these costs could be covered by money set aside for contingency in the city’s CIP budget. In response to a question from the commission, Harger said the positions would continue to funded in that way in years to come.
However, during public comments, Lawrence resident Patrick Wilbur expressed concern about the recent commitments to more than 20 new positions while the world in still in the middle of a pandemic. Wilbur asked whether some of the money could instead be returned to taxpayers in the form of tax reductions. He also asked whether the city could be looking at staff cuts later if it hires too many people now.
Commissioners said the new positions were necessary. Commissioner Lisa Larsen said that when the commission hired City Manager Craig Owens in 2019, one thing it wanted to focus on was catching up on the city’s deferred infrastructure maintenance. Larsen said increasing the number of employees was a step toward getting caught up, but that she was supporting the positions with the understanding that she was not interested in increasing taxes to maintain them.
“We’re going to need to continue to find those efficiencies to ensure we can maintain these positions in the future,” Larsen said.
Commissioner Stuart Boley agreed, saying he saw the staff additions as a step toward the city achieving the lowest cost of ownership by maintaining infrastructure on a regular, incremental schedule rather than the more costly repairs required when infrastructure fails.
“It’s really important that we get our infrastructure in the kind of shape where we can maintain it rather than do repairs of catastrophic failures,” Boley said. “We really need this for the community.”
The seventh recommended position is an environmental remediation manager for the city’s contamination cleanup program at the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant. The city took over the Farmland site in 2010 and is legally responsible for the remediation of environmental contaminants. The position would be funded from the Farmland Remediation Trust. It would cost about $55,000 for 2021, depending on when the position is filled, and $105,000 for each year after that. Commissioners agreed with staff’s opinion that the needs of the Farmland program require a full-time project or program manager to ensure the existing and developing program commitments and obligations are met.
Due in part to uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the commission approved a “placeholder” budget for 2021 with the expectation of making quarterly budget adjustments throughout the year. The seven positions — as well as the 13.5 positions previously discussed — will be part of an upcoming budget amendment that Willmoth said will likely come back to the commission on April 20.
As the Journal-World reported, city leaders have previously indicated support for adding the initially requested 13.5 positions after the city finished 2020 with millions of dollars more in reserves than expected. Leaders said that outcome put the city on firm financial footing to add what they said were badly needed positions. Those positions and other additions proposed along with them amount to a $1.59 million budget amendment.