Lawrence city leaders to discuss potential budget cuts that would keep tax rate flat and recreation centers free

photo by: Chris Conde

Lawrence City Hall, 2018.

A Lawrence City Commission work group is proposing dozens of potential changes, including cuts to several programs, to address concerns commissioners have with former City Manager Tom Markus’ recommended budget for 2020.

As part of its work session Tuesday, the commission will discuss the proposed changes to the recommended budget. Markus’ recommended operating budget totals about $236 million and calls for a 0.5-mill property tax hike, increases in utility rates and the addition of entrance fees to the city’s recreation centers. The tax increase would amount to about a $12 increase in annual property taxes on a $200,000 home and the utility increases a $78 annual increase for the average resident, bringing the average monthly bill to $103.

Following the presentation of the recommended budget last month, the commission came up with a list of eight budget elements to scrutinize in conjunction with city staff to better align the budget with the commission’s goals. Those items included the proposed increase in the city’s property tax rate, utility rates and recreation center entrance fees. The recommended budget also increases downtown parking rates and fines, and commissioners asked to consider increasing those rates even more to modernize parking downtown faster.

The commission appointed Mayor Lisa Larsen and Commissioner Stuart Boley to work with city staff and then bring recommendations back to the full commission for consideration. Larsen and Boley have come up with various funding recommendations to address each issue identified by the commission. The recommendations will be presented for an initial discussion at the commission’s meeting Tuesday, and ultimately a majority of the commission must approve any budget changes.

A memo to the commission regarding the recommendations states that Larsen and Boley are proposing several one-time adjustments in order to balance the 2020 budget while avoiding a property tax rate increase, reducing fee increases and avoiding service reductions in the recreation fund, among other commission goals.

The following is a summary of some of the issues identified by the commission and the budget recommendations that Larsen and Boley are proposing. The full recommendation is available on the city’s website,

• Issue: Reducing or eliminating the recommended property tax rate increase.

Recommendation: The work group recommends seven changes to keep the city’s property tax rate flat. Those include reducing a proposed increase in commissioner pay; reducing the funding increase for the Lawrence Community Shelter, matching the amount provided by Douglas County; reducing Lawrence Chamber of Commerce funding by $20,000; and reducing Bioscience and Technology Business Center funding by $20,000. In June, commissioners agreed that local governments should provide emergency funding for the shelter but said they want more discussion regarding how the city and county should split up those costs, as the Journal-World previously reported.

• Issue: Reviewing utility rate increases. The city currently provides limited utility bill reductions for very low-income people over age 60.

Recommendation: The work group recommends maintaining the proposed rate increases, stating that they are driven in part by factors such as capital and staffing needs. The recommendation states that city staff will research options to fund an expansion of the utility assistance program.

• Issue: Reviewing recommended expenditure reductions and fee increases in the recreation fund, including a new recreation facility access fee. The recommended budget proposes no increase in the amount of money the recreation fund receives from the city’s general fund, as the Journal-World previously reported. Instead, it proposes significant changes to make the recreation division’s budget balanced, including charging entrance fees at recreation centers citywide, increasing other recreation fees and closing the Community Building for drop-in use, among other proposals.

Recommendation: The work group recommends 12 budget changes in order to keep the Community Building open for drop-in use and eliminate the proposed recreation center entrance fees. The memo states that the recommendations allow for the status quo in 2020 and gives the city time to develop a recommendation for the department’s long-term sustainability. The changes include a one-time shift of the $120,000 debt payment for Sports Pavilion Lawrence from the recreation fund to the debt service fund; eliminating a $30,000 appropriation for the Lawrence Arts Center grant program; a $70,000 reduction to funding for Explore Lawrence; and a $30,000 reduction for the city’s transient guest tax special events grant program.

• Issue: Reviewing the recommended fee and fine adjustments for the public parking fund. The recommended budget proposes increasing parking meter, garage and permit rates, as well as the fine for parking tickets, as the Journal-World previously reported. Taken together, the city estimates all the increases would generate $524,000 annually to help replace pay stations in the city’s parking garages and the technology used by parking enforcement staff for writing tickets. Commissioners asked whether the increases should be more in order to modernize the city’s parking infrastructure faster.

Recommendation: Parking rates should be increased as proposed in the 2017 Parking Operation and Development Plan, collecting an additional $161,000 in parking fines and fees in 2020, for a total revenue increase of $685,000.

• Issue: Reviewing the recommended pay proposal for city commissioners. Commissioner pay has not increased for 20 years, and the recommended budget calls for salaries to more than quadruple for commissioners, from $9,000 to $38,000 annually. If approved, it would move commissioners from among the lowest-paid elected city leaders in the state to among the highest, trailing only Wichita, which has about four times the population of Lawrence, as the Journal-World previously reported.

Recommendation: The work group recommends raising commissioner pay to $28,044, which is 75% of the pay provided to members of the Douglas County Commission. Establishing city commissioner pay at 75% of county commissioner pay acknowledges that Lawrence residents fund approximately 75% of the property tax resources used to fund the Douglas County government.

• Issue: Finding more funding for construction of additional segments of the Lawrence Loop bike and pedestrian trial.

Recommendation: The work group recommends changes to the 2020-2024 Capital Improvement Plan, comprising an additional $300,000 for the Seventh Street to Constant Park segment for 2021 and another $400,000 for the same segment for 2022. The additional funding comes from the elimination or deferral of six projects, including $700,000 for turf replacement at Sports Pavilion Lawrence, $200,000 for acoustical panels at Sports Pavilion Lawrence, and $200,000 for the first phase of a new park adjacent the new police headquarters.

• Issue: Review school resource officer funding options. The city funds four SROs, costing approximately $430,000. Currently, the school district does not contribute funding for the SRO program, and commissioners asked whether the district should provide support.

Recommendation: The work group recommends discussing school district support for the SRO program as well as support for the school crossing guard program for budget years beyond 2020. A joint meeting with the school district is scheduled for Wednesday.

The Lawrence City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.


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