Lawrence City Commission approves adding nearly $1.6 million to current year’s budget, including 13.5 new city staff positions

photo by: City of Lawrence

Commissioner Lisa Larsen speaks as the commission and city officials discuss adjustments to the city's 2021 budget as part of the commission's meeting on March 2, 2021.

Citing critical operational needs, Lawrence city leaders are moving forward with changes that would add nearly $1.6 million to the city’s budget for this year, enabling the city to add 13 full-time positions and one part-time position to city staff.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to authorize an adjustment to the city’s 2021 budget to include the additional expense of $1.59 million, which includes the 13.5 positions and other costs. City Manager Craig Owens told the commission that the positions would meet critical needs in city administration and begin to advance goals the commission recently set as part of its strategic plan.

“If we’re going to be successful in fulfilling these commitments, we are going to need to grow some capacity,” Owens said.

The vast majority of the positions — 9.5 of them — are administrative positions. Owens, who came to the city in July 2019, said that in his observations, city operations were very decentralized and probably became that way unintentionally over a period of decades. Owens said the changes could not wait and were needed in order for the city to provide reliable performance in key areas and take initial steps toward executing the strategic plan that the commission approved in October.

The 9.5 administrative positions are a community engagement coordinator, a media/creative specialist, a payroll manager, a payroll analyst, an assistant city attorney, a purchasing administrator, a buyer to assist the purchasing administrator, a cybersecurity manager, a help desk technician and an administrative technician. In addition, city staff is recommending increasing the pay of the city-county sustainability director by $10,000 because of an increase in the position’s responsibilities.

The commission also approved an additional four planning positions, bringing the total number of new positions to 13.5. The new employees will enable the planning division to help more neighborhoods create neighborhood plans.

Commissioners agreed that the additional positions and other additions were needed to make sure the city functioned well and to work toward the commission’s goals. Commissioner Lisa Larsen, citing the serious issues identified in recent annual financial audits as one example, said that the city had been suffering in some areas for quite some time and there was no doubt in her mind that the city needed the new positions.

“Overall, I know we’ve got structural issues, and the administrative part of our organization is basically our foundation as to making sure we have the support to operate our entire city,” Larsen said.

Assistant City Manager Casey Toomay told the commission that for this year, the expenses were expected to be offset by some other cost savings and potentially fund balance, or the city’s savings, but could require increases in property taxes or other revenues in future years. However, Larsen said she was not interested in any future funding for the changes coming from property tax increases, and that instead the city needed to use the new positions to identify efficiencies in operations or other cost savings. In response to questions from Larsen, Toomay said that after accounting for the savings in other areas, the city anticipated spending about $500,000 of fund balance to cover the additions, which Finance Director Jeremy Willmoth said would bring the fund balance to $20.2 million, or 21% of expenditures.

The commission has anticipated making changes to the 2021 budget for a while. Because the coronavirus pandemic caused delays in the completion of the commission’s strategic plan and financial uncertainty, the commission approved a “placeholder” budget for 2021 with the expectation of making quarterly budget adjustments throughout the year. As the Journal-World reported in January, the city originally planned for multimillion-dollar revenue losses amid the coronavirus pandemic, but that worst-case scenario did not occur, putting the city in a stronger-than-anticipated financial position going into this year.

The commission’s vote Tuesday authorized city staff to include the $1.59 million budget expansion in the next quarterly budget adjustment for 2021, which will come back to the commission for approval at a later date.

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