City leaders begin discussion of city manager’s recommended budget, with changes to be made over next several weeks

photo by: City of Lawrence

The Lawrence City Commission discusses the recommended budget as part of its study session July 13, 2021.

City leaders have begun discussion of the 2022 recommended budget, which calls for a flat property tax rate and an increase in utility rates, and coming weeks will determine what changes they might make.

As part of a study session Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission received City Manager Craig Owens’ recommended budget. The budget is $383.87 million across all funds, and includes more than $117 million in infrastructure and maintenance funding, $5 million for employee raises, eight new positions, and a new division to handle homelessness and housing issues. Though it does not propose an increase in the city’s property tax rate, it does call for increases in all three city utility rates.

The budget is the first to be guided by the commission’s newly created strategic plan, which was based on input from the community. Owens told commissioners he felt the budget was proactive and responsive to the community. However, he said that over the next several weeks, he looked forward to getting questions from commissioners and the public and making adjustments.

“This is my proposal as a starting point, and then we look forward to making it the right budget for our community through this process,” Owens said.

More specifically, the recommended budget allocates about $59.9 million to the city’s capital improvement plan, $38.5 million to the maintenance plan and $19 million to the vehicle replacement plan. The approximately $5 million in new compensation for employees is part of a two-year plan to bring compensation to market rate, and it includes a 2.5% general wage adjustment. The city will reallocate existing resources to establish a Housing Initiatives Division within the Planning & Development Services department. The budget also begins to allocate the approximately $19 million in federal coronavirus relief the city will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

The eight new positions proposed include four that are funded with general fund dollars and tied to goals in the commission’s strategic plan: a sustainability analyst, an equity and inclusion coordinator, a budget analyst and an economic development analyst. The four other positions would be grant funded, with one being funded by federal coronavirus relief funds and the other three funded by state and federal grants that could potentially be renewed into the future.

Mayor Brad Finkeldei said that given the economic disruption of the pandemic, the federal coronavirus relief funding has allowed the city to start moving forward on the strategic plan’s goals more quickly than it would have otherwise.

“To be able to jump-start this and move in this direction and use those ARPA funds for that purpose, I think, is exactly what they are meant to do, and I think it’s going to pay off for us in the long run,” Finkeldei said.

The commission does not take any action as part of its study sessions, but commissioners had the chance to ask questions about the recommended budget. Commissioners did not comment on the recommendation to increase the city’s utility rates.

City utility bills are made up of charges for water and sewer, storm water and solid waste, and all three rates would increase as part of the recommended budget. An executive summary of the recommended budget states that many of the rate increases are related to “increasing maintenance and capital needs.” In a letter to the commission, Owens states that details of the recommended increases will be presented later in the budget process following an update of the city’s utility rate models, which rely on the annual financial audit that was recently completed.

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. The budget assumes a 2.5% increase in assessed property values, meaning that though the city’s property tax wouldn’t increase under the recommended budget, those whose property values increased would pay more than they did last year.

The commission will further discuss the budget as part of its meeting next Tuesday. The city’s budget hearing is scheduled for Aug. 31.

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