Lawrence City Commission finalizes 2020 budget that holds tax rate flat, increases utility and parking rates

Homeless shelter's request remains partially funded

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured Thursday, July 7, 2016

Lawrence city commissioners have finalized the city’s 2020 budget, which holds the property tax rate flat and increases utility rates, parking rates and commissioner pay.

Commissioners gave preliminary approval on the budget last week, and they made no further changes at their meeting on Tuesday. However, before the budget was finalized, Commissioner Matthew Herbert did propose that the commission postpone its salary increase until 2021 and provide that money to the Lawrence Community Shelter instead. The budget calls for increasing commissioner pay to $22,044 annually.

Postponing the raise would have freed up $64,000. Herbert acknowledged that the extra dollars would not completely fulfill the shelter’s funding request and would only be available for 2020, but he said the shelter could make good use of those funds.

The commissioners did discuss the possibility, but the majority ultimately agreed that commissioner pay, which has not changed in 20 years, needed to increase. Commissioners also asked legal staff whether the raise could truly be postponed, and City Attorney Toni Wheeler said the commission could approve the related ordinance for the raises for 2021, but that the next commission would still need to approve the funding, as the current commission cannot bind future commissions to take a specific course of action.

Ultimately, the commission voted unanimously to approve the 2020 budget and related utility and other fee increases. The commission voted 4-1, Herbert opposed, to approve the raise.

The shelter has struggled financially in recent years and requested that the city more than double its funding for 2020, increasing it from $195,000 to $504,000. A recent review of the shelter’s finances found that its private fundraising has significantly decreased in the past five years, and the shelter’s leaders have said it may take a few years before it can re-balance government and private funding.

The city’s budget allocates $296,000 to the shelter, which matches the amount Douglas County provides in its working budget. As she suggested last week, Mayor Lisa Larsen again said that the commission should review the city’s sales tax receipts early next year to see if they outpace current projections, which could enable the city to do a funding amendment to provide the shelter with additional money.

Last week, the shelter announced plans to cut its capacity by 60 people, or approximately half of its current capacity, for both safety and funding reasons. Several residents spoke at Tuesday’s meeting urging the city to fully fund the shelter’s request. The residents expressed concern that 60 people might soon be forced to endure extreme heat in the summer and freezing temperatures in the winter.

Former City Manager Tom Markus’ recommended budget provided more funding for the shelter, but also called for a property tax increase. Vice Mayor Jennifer Ananda said she had thought a lot about the shelter’s funding request, but said she would hate to spread that cost throughout the community by increasing taxes and making it more difficult for people to afford their housing.

The budget includes a $235.4 million operating budget and about $66 million in capital improvement projects for next year. Though the budget does not increase the property tax rate, it calls for three utility rate increases — an 8% increase for water, a 3% increase for solid waste and a 3% increase for stormwater — that will bring the typical utility bill to about $103 per month.

Under the budget, most downtown parking rates and fines would double, with the additional revenues going to fund projects to modernize parking downtown. The budget also makes about a dozen changes to eliminate recreation facility entrance fees and keep the Community Building open for drop-in use.

City Commission Work Session 08/13/19


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