Lawrence City Commission to consider initial approval for 2020 budget with mill levy increase, but funding cuts already planned

photo by: Chris Conde

Lawrence City Hall is pictured in September 2018.

The Lawrence City Commission is considering making cuts of hundreds of thousands of dollars to a proposed $236 million budget to make sure its tax rate remains flat next year.

But the tradeoffs will include a possible financial squeeze for the city’s lone homeless shelter, and less money for the local chamber of commerce to spend on economic development activities.

At its regular meeting Tuesday, the commission will consider authorizing the publication of its 2020 fiscal year budget with a maximum expenditure that includes a 0.5 mill levy increase. Although the commission came to a consensus during its work session earlier this week to make various cuts to the budget to remove the mill levy increase, Mayor Lisa Larsen said that the commission will likely give initial approval to the budget with the increase to give the city some flexibility.

“Although this plan eliminates the need to raise the mill levy by 0.5, we opted to leave that option as a placeholder in case something shifts and there is a need to raise it,” Larsen said in an email to the Journal-World. “This will be decided during the next several weeks.”

Once the city gives initial approval to the budget on Tuesday, it will no longer have the authority to raise the mill levy, but it will still retain the right to make cuts to lower it until the budget is given final approval in August.

“If we enter into this with no flexibility, and we flatline it tonight, that really puts us in a spot,” Commissioner Matthew Herbert said during the work session. “We can always pull back on that.”

Leslie Soden was the only commissioner who expressed an interest to give initial approval to a flat rate, but she acknowledged she would be outvoted.

However, the commissioners discussed and agreed to several cuts during that meeting that would remove the mill levy increase. Those cuts include:

Lawrence Community Shelter

The commission is considering cutting $144,000 from the originally proposed allocation for the Lawrence Community Shelter. The cut would make the city’s funding equal to the amount of funding the Douglas County Commission is giving to the shelter.

But Vice Mayor Jennifer Ananda said the shelter’s funding was her main concern when the commission chose to leave the option of a mill levy increase open. She said there have been “difficult conversations” with the shelter and leaving the mill levy at a 0.5 increase in the initial approval gives the commission more time to think over the implications of the cut.

Larsen said the shelter funding was also the biggest concern she had heard about the possible cuts to flatten the mill levy.

The proposed budget originally called for increasing the funding for the shelter from $200,000 to $440,000, according to city documents. The cut would bring it down to an increase of $96,000 for a total of $296,000.

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Thea Perry, board president for the shelter, said the shelter originally asked for a much larger increase for a total of $504,000 of funding from the city. With this possible cut, she said staffing reductions will need to be made, which she said would either reduce the number of people the shelter could serve at a given time or make it less safe for shelter employees.

“It is unclear to us why in the $236 (million) budget that our 2020 funding request was selected to be tied to a mill levy, but we understand the budget process is challenging,” Perry said in an email to the Journal-World.

Commissioner pay

The city manager’s budget originally called for a pay increase for city commissioners. Currently, a commissioner earns $9,000 a year, but the recommended budget would have increased that to $38,000 — the first increase to commissioner pay in about 20 years. But the commission agreed to make cuts to the pay increase to help keep the mill levy flat and to make sure the Lawrence Arts Center’s funding remained intact.

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To help with the mill levy, commissioners first agreed to change the commissioner pay to $28,000, which would free up $50,000. But they chose to shrink the proposed salary again to $22,000, freeing up $30,000 more, after hearing from the public and Arts Center CEO Margaret Weisbrod Morris during the work session.

The Arts Center was facing a $30,000 cut to its scholarship program. Morris said the cuts would constitute a 25% reduction in the center’s financial aid program, affecting almost one out of every four students. Morris said the private-public partnership between the city and the center was formed because it was understood that neither entity could do it alone.

“Public funding, like the support we have received from you, is citizen driven, serves the public interest and ensures that everyone benefits,” Morris said. “Our private investment goes to major projects, fosters experimentation and supports innovation.”

Morris told the Journal-World on Friday that she was deeply thankful that the commissioners planned to reduce the size of their raise to ensure the Arts Center’s funding would stay intact.

“I think it speaks volumes about what they value,” she said. “They have a really difficult budget they are working with and I don’t envy the position they are in at all. So I’m very thankful.”

Lawrence chamber of commerce

The city is considering cutting funding to the Lawrence chamber of commerce by $20,000.

Bonnie Lowe, director and CEO of the chamber, said her organization is concerned about the cut. She said Douglas County made a $25,000 cut to economic development funding for the chamber last year, which will continue in 2020. If the $20,000 cut is made by the city, the chamber will have lost 20% of its public funding for economic development in two years, she said.

She said the program also receives funding from the business community.

“Those funds are all leveraged together, which helps make our program successful,” she said.

The commission also agreed to make a $20,000 cut to the Bioscience & Technology Business Center, which is a partnership between several local organizations and governments that aims to support bioscience and technology businesses in northeast Kansas. The city and the chamber of commerce are both partners in the organization.

Special Gas Tax Fund and others

The remaining difference to keep the mill levy flat would come from a $150,000 cut to the Special Gas Tax Fund, which is used for street maintenance projects; a $100,000 cut to the capital improvement project reserves fund; and a $30,000 cut to the funds that are being used to replace trees in Lawrence that were damaged by emerald ash borer infestations.

Commissioners will meet at 5 p.m. on Tuesday at City Hall.

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