Some city commissioners express interest in potentially lowering property tax rate, but revenue and other budget components will be key
photo by: City of Lawrence
In their first chance to weigh in on key policy questions regarding the city’s upcoming budget for 2024, at least a couple of city leaders said they’d like to see the city keep its property tax rate flat or try to decrease it, but that revenue numbers would be a deciding factor.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission was asked to consider five policy questions that will impact decisions regarding the 2024 budget. The commission’s input will be used to guide the development of the city manager’s recommended budget, which will come to the commission for initial consideration on July 11. While a few commissioners expressed interest in potentially lowering the tax rate, they said it would depend on how city revenue came in and other components of the budget.
Mayor Lisa Larsen, who was the only commissioner last year who expressed interest in lowering the tax rate, said she would like to take another look at the mill levy this year, particularly if property valuations come in higher than the city’s preliminary projection of an 8% increase.
“I do think 8% is pretty reasonable, I think, given the rate of inflation, the (city’s Capital Improvement Plan), everything that goes along with that,” Larsen said. “So I am definitely interested in looking at the mill levy, but it depends on how our property taxes come in.”
Though the city kept its tax rate flat for 2023, historic increases in residential property values meant that even with a flat tax rate, homeowners still paid significantly more in taxes. The city is anticipating an 8% increase in its property tax collections and a 5% increase in its sales and use tax collections for next year. The city will receive its final assessed valuation regarding property values from the county appraiser on June 15.
Commissioner Brad Finkeldei also said he would like to consider potentially lowering the property tax rate, but that it would depend on other factors.
“I am interested in trying to keep the mill levy flat or even looking at lowering it,” Finkeldei said, adding that the caveat was keeping in mind discussions that had recently begun about expanding the community’s fire and medical service.
Commissioner Courtney Shipley said that while it would be optimal to decrease the rate, it would depend on the actual components of the budget and the decisions made there.
“Obviously keeping it flat or lowering it would be optimal, but again, that’s why they put us up here to make the hard decisions,” Shipley said.
Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn didn’t provide specific direction, but said that similar to last year, he’d like to see budget options for keeping the tax rate flat, decreasing it or increasing it. Commissioner Amber Sellers also said she wanted to see those figures, and like Finkeldei, mentioned discussions with the county about expanding fire and medical service. Sellers said she thought it was too early to make a decision regarding the tax rate, and she would like to wait until the city has more solid property valuation numbers.
Apart from the city’s property tax rate, the questions centered on increases to employee wages, how city programs should be prioritized and where the city should look for potential budget reductions. The city has been focusing on making city employee wages more market competitive in recent years, and has allocated $10 million for employee raises over the past two years.
Finance Director Jeremy Willmoth said that to maintain the new pay structure will cost the city another $4.5 million in 2024, which for employees in the city’s primary pay plan would include a 2.5% cost-of-living adjustment and an average 5% merit increase for those who qualify. While commissioners generally were in favor of ensuring the pay plan remains competitive, they also said it would be something they wanted to look at in the context of the rest of the budget.
The commission also gave direction regarding weightings for the city’s Priority Based Budget initiative, a scoring process the city uses to make budget decisions, and said they wanted to wait to see how those changes affected scoring before discussing potential priorities or reductions.
In other business, the commission:
• Voted 5-0 to approve two items related to a field operations campus project planned for eastern Lawrence: an additional $904,000 for project design and a proposal to authorize the use of what is known as “construction manager at risk” instead of the traditional bid procedure for construction projects. The cost of the project, which will be broken into multiple phases, is now estimated at about $135 million, and city leaders agreed that construction manager at risk was a good option to better manage the project costs and planning.
• Voted 5-0 to approve an environmental sustainability policy for city capital projects. The proposed policy incorporates sustainable practices into the siting, design, construction, remodeling, repair, maintenance, operation and deconstruction of city facilities and infrastructure, according to a city memo.