Lawrence City Commission keeps possibility open for slight property tax increase

photo by: City of Lawrence

The Lawrence City Commission discusses the 2023 recommended budget during a study session Tuesday, July 12, 2022, at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

The potential for a decrease to the City of Lawrence’s property tax rate seems to be fading.

Rising property values have increased local tax collections, and Douglas County leaders this week called for lowering the county’s rate as a result. However, at a study session for the city’s budget on Tuesday, none of the four city commissioners present (Amber Sellers was absent) proposed decreasing the city’s rate.

Instead, commissioners — though they reiterated their desire to keep the city’s property tax rate flat — said they wanted to leave open the possibility of increasing the rate to account for the tax increase approved by the Lawrence Public Library.

The library’s property tax rate is part of the city’s overall tax rate, but up to a certain amount is controlled by the library’s board as opposed to elected city commissioners. The library board voted in June to increase its rate by about .077 mills. The city manager’s recommended budget called for decreasing the city’s tax rate by that amount so the overall city tax rate would stay flat. However, commissioners said Tuesday they weren’t ready to commit to that.

“I just don’t want to shut the door to it until we actually have to,” Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said.

Commissioners first indicated they wanted to keep the city’s property tax rate flat in May, with Larsen expressing interest in potentially decreasing the rate to help offset the increased taxes residents are paying due to rising home values. The library board’s vote to increase the library’s tax rate, and therefore the city’s overall tax rate, came after that discussion. As the Journal-World reported in June, the additional library funding will help pay for a 17% to 21% pay increase for most of the library’s 85 staff members.

At the end of the study session — which also included two hours of public comment against the city’s proposed budget cut to close the Prairie Park Nature Center building — Larsen said she no longer saw the city lowering its property tax rate as a possibility. Reducing the city’s overall tax rate would mean keeping in the cuts proposed in the recommended budget, such as the nature center and others, or finding alternative cuts, and also identifying additional cuts.

Though the recommended budget calls for no increase to the tax rate, the budget assumes a 12% increase in property valuations, which the city anticipates will generate approximately $4.7 million in new taxes. For an example, if the owner of a house valued at $250,000 sees a 12% increase in value, to $280,000, the amount owed to the city would increase by $115, from $957 to $1,072, just due to the increase in value. If the city’s overall mill levy rate increased by .077 mills, that homeowner would pay another $2.50 on top of that.

The .077 mills is projected to generate about $99,000 in revenue next year, but Larsen said the amount the city essentially forgoes would be more each year that property values increase. While commissioners said they would still like to see the overall city tax rate remain flat, they agreed with Larsen that they wanted to keep a .077 increase on the table at this point.

“I’m not sure we’ll end up on (an increase), but I understand what you’re saying,” Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said. “We can always lower it.”

The direction from the commission regarding the property tax rate was needed so city staff could prepare a resolution to set the city’s maximum expenditures for the 2023 budget. The commission is scheduled to vote to establish its maximum expenditures on Tuesday. Once the maximum is set, the commission may lower it later in the budget process but cannot increase it.

City Manager Craig Owens’ recommended budget for 2023 totals about $436.8 million across all funds and keeps the city’s property tax rate flat at 33.29 mills. It also proposes new parks and recreation fees, utility rate increases, and $936,000 in cuts to city services and positions, some of which are offset by other additions. The city is proposing $1.2 million in new parks and rec fees — potentially including new admission fees for recreation centers, which are currently free to access — and the closure of the nature center.

The budget calls for $936,000 in reductions, with the nature center making up $337,000 of that amount. There are $606,000 of proposed additions, including increased funding for economic development, information technology and two new positions.

In other budget discussion:

Prairie Park Nature Center: Three commissioners — Mayor Courtney Shipley, Larsen and Finkeldei — indicated they were interested in looking for ways to keep the nature center open. Shipley said the commission had seen “the greatest outpouring of support” for a city amenity that it may ever see, and she’d like to discuss the possibility of partnering with community members for fundraising. The city’s recommendation for closure was based in part on how the center scored in relation to the city’s strategic plan goals, and Larsen said five other programs had the same or lower scores, and of those, she’d like to see the city look at potential funding reductions to the office of the police chief and the police department’s professional standards office. Finkeldei said he thought the center was “an amenity we need to keep,” and suggested the city free up some general fund dollars for the center by using federal pandemic relief aid to pay for some of the city’s housing initiatives. The center is part of a 100-acre nature preserve that includes trails and Mary’s Lake, but the city manager’s recommended budget did not propose closing the preserve.

Parks and Recreation fees: The budget proposes $1.2 million in new parks and rec fees, which includes the possibility of entrance fees for recreation centers. Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said if the city were to raise the $1.2 million off recreation fees alone, instead of through memberships and sponsorships, then that would equate to an approximately 30% increase in fees. Owens said those increases would not be across the board, and some programs may continue to be subsidized while fees for other programs may be set to completely recover costs. Rogers said the city is also proposing increasing funding for its recreation scholarship program from $35,000 to $55,000.

Lawrence Humane Society: The budget proposes a $100,000 reduction to animal control services that the city contracts through the Lawrence Humane Society. About 15 people, including staff, volunteers or board members for the animal shelter, spoke in opposition to the funding reduction. The funding for the animal control program is within the Lawrence Police Department’s patrol division, and the proposed cut was based in part on how patrol scored in relation to the city’s strategic plan. Larsen questioned whether the animal control program belongs within the police department patrol program, and suggested police programs that scored lower be looked at for potential reductions instead.

East Lawrence Recreation Center: The budget proposes $68,000 to eliminate a vacant recreation programmer position. Rogers said the cut relates to a vacant programmer position at the East Lawrence Recreation Center that is currently being filled by two part-time employees. Though not necessarily opposed to a restructuring of how those positions are handled, Larsen said that out of fairness, she would not support cutting that position specifically from the East Lawrence center if the city’s other three recreation centers continued to have a full-time programmer. Finkeldei agreed.

City of Lawrence Sustainability Office: A few members of the Lawrence Sunrise Movement called for additional funding for the city’s sustainability office. As part of the 2022 budget, the city approved funding for another position in that office. However, since then, the Lawrence-Douglas County sustainability director resigned to take another position, and an interim has been filling in for the city. Assistant City Manager Casey Toomay said it was decided the scope of position was large enough to warrant the city and county each having their own sustainability offices. Toomay said the city combined the 40% the city paid toward the joint position with the funding for the new position from the 2022 budget to create a city sustainability director position.


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