City leaders to consider proposed 2022 budget that holds property tax rate flat, increases utility rates
photo by: Mike Yoder
City leaders will soon hold the public hearing for the 2022 recommended budget that proposes a flat property tax rate, utility rate increases and several million dollars in new spending.
The Lawrence City Commission will hold the budget hearing as part of its meeting Tuesday, giving the commission the chance to hear from residents and make changes to the budget before it is adopted on Sept. 7.
City Manager Craig Owens’ recommended budget is about $384 million across all funds, and includes about $100 million in infrastructure and maintenance funding; the reallocation of existing resources to create a new Housing Initiatives division; $5 million total in pay raises for both union and nonunion employees; and eight new staff positions. The budget begins to allocate the approximately $19 million in federal coronavirus relief the city will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act, and is “structurally imbalanced,” meaning that city revenue will need to increase in the next couple years to cover the new spending.
The budget assumes a 2.5% increase in assessed property values, meaning that though the city’s property tax rate wouldn’t increase under the recommended budget, those whose property values increased would pay more than they did last year. Exact utility rate increases will not be proposed until the fall, but the budget includes spending from an increase in the city’s water, storm water and solid waste rates. If commissioners approved the spending authority for potential rate increases as part of the budget process, they could later decide not to increase rates or to increase them at a lower rate than city staff recommends, but equivalent reductions in spending would also need to be made.
Residents can submit written or in person comments to the commission on the recommended budget, and the city also previously collected public feedback on the budget as part of a Lawrence Listens survey. The city received 28 statements as part of the survey, and a majority of those comments expressed concerns about rising costs for Lawrence residents, particularly an increase in property tax payments due to increases in home valuations and rising city utility bills. Several said they had a fixed income or their income had not kept up with the increase in taxes and rates.
Summaries of some of the elements of the recommended 2022 budget are available below, as are links the Journal-World’s coverage of the budget thus far:
• Structural imbalance: The budget includes almost $8 million more in spending than the city is projected to collect in normal revenues, a gap that the proposed budget would offset next year with the first installment of $19.3 million in federal relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. Much of the $8 million represents ongoing rather than one-time expenses, meaning that the city would face a similar budget gap in 2023, which the second and final installment of ARPA funds could again cover. However, come 2024, if revenues have not grown on par with the new spending — projected to be as much as $21 million over the two-year period — the city will have to cut services or increase taxes or service rates, such as utility rates, to make up the difference. However, city officials are hopeful that growth in revenues as the economy picks up will bring spending and revenue back in balance before such measures are necessary. New ongoing spending in the budget includes $5 million total in pay raises for both union and nonunion employees and eight new staff positions, four of which are funded at least initially by federal or state grants.
• Utility rate increases: Citing the need to spend millions to fix water and sewer lines and other long-neglected utility infrastructure, the recommended budget calls for continuing the utility rate increases of recent years in 2022. Utility rates have been increasing at an average of about 7.5% annually since 2015, with the average bill now more than $100 per month. Though the exact recommendation for the proposed utility rate increases will not be proposed until the fall, the city’s multiyear utility rate models call for around that level of annual increase to continue for next year.
• Infrastructure and maintenance funding: The recommended budget calls for about $100 million in infrastructure and maintenance funding, including $8.95 million for a new city bus station and downtown transfer point; $7.9 million for improvements at the Kansas River Wastewater Treatment Plant; and $6.2 million for work on a portion of Wakarusa Drive. Other projects include $2.5 million for a storm water system assessment and model creation and $1.95 million for a maintenance project for the Jayhawk watershed area in the area of Ninth and Mississippi streets.
• New Housing Initiatives division: As Lawrence struggles to help the increasing number of people experiencing homelessness, the recommended budget calls for creating a new division to address the issue. The budget allocates $4.78 million in local, state and federal funds toward the new division in a manner that would be budget neutral. The division would incorporate the city’s existing housing and neighborhood programs, and the proposal would dedicate new resources toward addressing homelessness specifically. It would reallocate two vacant police positions and take advantage of new grant opportunities. About $1.14 million that the city previously spent more broadly on social services would be earmarked specifically for programs related to homelessness, meaning that some social service agencies might not get city funding under the new format.
•Reclassification and removal of patrol officers: The recommended budget calls for removing eight vacant patrol officer positions from the Lawrence police force, replacing six of them with nonofficer positions and reallocating the other two to another department. The positions have remained vacant because the city has been unable to keep up with current levels of attrition. Four of the positions would be reclassified into a “non-sworn response unit,” meaning that police officers would no longer staff those positions but the positions would remain within the police department. Two positions would be replaced with a victim-witness coordinator and an accreditation analyst, both also within the police department. The remaining two positions would be reallocated to the new Housing Initiatives division.
• Farmland cleanup: The recommended budget includes more than $3 million toward the monitoring and remediation of environmental contaminants at the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant, including $2 million that represents the first dollars budgeted for the cleanup outside of the trust fund the city received for that purpose. When the city agreed to take over the property in 2010, it received an $8.6 million trust fund to pay for the cleanup but also accepted full responsibility for remediating decades of nitrogen fertilizer sludge and wastewater that contaminated the soil, groundwater and surface water. Though city leaders at the time of the acquisition were optimistic that the trust fund would be enough to cover the cleanup costs, the city now projects it will need to spend another $13.25 million over the next five years to create a new pollution remediation system and $20 to $60 million in the ensuing decades to operate and maintain the system. City leaders are hoping that instead of the city and its taxpayers footing all of the bill, the city will be able to get federal funds to help pay for the cleanup.
The Lawrence City Commission will meet virtually at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, and some staff will be in place at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The public may attend the meeting in person at City Hall or participate in the meeting virtually by following directions included in the commission’s meeting agenda, which is available on the city’s website, Lawrenceks.org.