City leaders move forward with 2022 budget that holds property tax rate flat, increases utility rates
photo by: City of Lawrence
Recognizing that the plan includes some risk, city leaders are moving forward with the 2022 recommended budget that proposes a flat property tax rate, utility rate increases and several million dollars in new spending.
After holding its budget hearing Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to move forward with the budget without making any changes. Commissioner Lisa Larsen said the budget made “great strides” on goals in the city’s strategic plan, but that the commission should recognize that the new spending amid the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic made it a risky budget.
“And we’ve got two years to make this work and make it a success,” Larsen said. “And so I think the work is just starting, and we just need to continue to move forward.”
The budget includes almost $8 million more in spending than the city is projected to collect in normal revenues, a gap that the budget would offset next year with the first installment of $19.3 million in federal relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. As much of the spending represents ongoing expenses, the budget is “structurally imbalanced” and the city will have to cut services or increase taxes or utility rates if revenue does not increase to fill the gap as city administrators project.
The 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, four of which are funded at least initially by federal or state grants. The budget also includes about $2 million toward cleanup of contaminants at the former Farmland Industries nitrogen fertilizer plant, representing the first tax dollars spent on the cleanup beyond a trust fund for that purpose.
The city recently collected public feedback on the budget through an online survey, and a majority of the 28 comments received 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.
Mayor Brad Finkeldei said he appreciated the concerns voiced by residents about increasing costs and how to balance those against the city’s strategic plan goals. Finkeldei said that in addition to hoping city revenues grow in the next couple of years, he thought there would be federal infrastructure dollars and other federal money to help the city offset costs.
“I think there are lots of possibilities that will help us along the way that I know staff will work on,” Finkeldei said.
Finkeldei said that amid the pandemic, the city certainly could have taken the option of waiting to implement its strategic plan, but that the budget moved the city ahead and he thought that was important. Commissioner Stuart Boley agreed, adding that the city has an obligation to maintain its assets and work toward solving problems.
The budget assumes a 2.5% increase in assessed property values, meaning that though the city’s property tax rate won’t increase, those whose property values increased will 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. Commissioners 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 need to be made.
In addition to the survey comments, about 20 residents — including members of the Sunrise Movement Lawrence, state Rep. Christina Haswood and Sustainability Advisory Board Chair Ma’Ko’Quah Jones — called for the city to provide more funding and commitment to environmental sustainability. The city has set renewable energy goals and agreed to incorporate aspects of the Green New Deal into the city’s plans, and one of the eight staff additions in the budget is a sustainability analyst. Several speakers said that the one additional position was not enough to make adequate progress.
In response to questions from commissioners, Lawrence-Douglas County Sustainability Director Jasmin Moore said there are only 2.5 sustainability-related positions currently — her jointly funded position, a county-funded position, and a part-time grant-funded position — and that the additional position would significantly increase capacity for sustainability work. However, Moore said it would take ongoing work over the coming years and cooperation from staff across all departments to meet all the city’s environmental goals.
Following the commission’s vote, city staff will bring forward a resolution to adopt the budget as part of the commission’s meeting next Tuesday.