City leaders concerned about proposed property tax, utility and recreation fee increases
photo by: Chad Lawhorn
City leaders expressed concern about Lawrence City Manager Tom Markus’ budget recommendations to charge entrance fees at recreation centers, increase the property tax rate and significantly increase utility rates.
Markus is proposing a recommended operating budget of about $236 million that includes a 0.5-mill property tax hike and increases in water, solid waste and stormwater rates. Markus, who began his position in 2016, told the Lawrence City Commission at its meeting Tuesday that the budget was probably one of the more difficult budgets that city staff has dealt with.
Markus emphasized that right now the budget was his recommended budget. He noted that the budget includes about $10 million in unfunded capital improvement projects, personnel requests and equipment, and it was up to the commission to make difficult decisions as the budget process continued in coming weeks.
“While it might be the city manager’s budget right now, by the time this process is over it has to be the City Commission’s budget, and it has to reflect what you as commissioners determine is in the best interest of the community as a whole,” Markus said. “That’s the challenge that you face every night you come here for a commission meeting.”
The property tax rate increase would help fund, among other things, the first across-the-board wage increase that most city employees have seen in years. The increase would amount to about a $12 increase in annual property taxes on a $200,000 home. The utility rate increases would amount to a $78 increase for the average resident. Taken together, the owner of a $200,000 home would pay about $90 more in 2020, amounting to an overall increase of about 4.7%.
Though the commission agreed that the raises were needed in order to retain city staff, Mayor Lisa Larsen said that she wanted to scrutinize the budget to see if the property tax rate increase could be reduced or eliminated.
“The one thing I would like to look at real closely is the proposal to increase the mill levy,” Larsen said. “I would like to see whether we can go through this budget with a fine-toothed comb to find a way to bring that mill levy down.”
Larsen also said she didn’t want to initiate entrance fees at the city’s recreation centers and had other concerns about the recreation budget, and her fellow commissioners generally agreed with both concerns. At Larsen’s suggestion, the commission came up with a list of budget elements to scrutinize in conjunction with city staff to better align the budget with the commission’s goals. The commission ultimately appointed Larsen and Commissioner Stuart Boley to work with staff and then bring that information back to the full commission for consideration.
The recommended budget eliminates 1.5 vacant Parks and Recreation Department positions. The position cuts would be accommodated by eliminating general public access to the Community Building, which includes basketball courts, cardio equipment and a weight room. To fill a more than $600,000 hole in the recreation budget, the recommended budget calls for recreation centers to collect entrance fees and for other recreation fees to increase. The recreation division’s proposed budget was presented to the Parks and Recreation advisory board earlier this month, and the commission previously requested the board’s feedback on the proposal.
In addition to the mill levy rate and proposed recreation fees and cuts, commissioners indicated they wanted to consider whether parking rates should be increased to fund modernization of downtown parking; whether the Lawrence school district should contribute funding toward the four city-funded school resource officers; and whether a proposed increase to commissioner pay should be more moderate.
Commissioners also said they were interested in potentially allocating additional funding toward completing sections of the citywide Lawrence Loop trail, funding a study regarding land use and neighborhoods along 23rd Street and providing utility bill reductions for low-income households. Currently, the city provides limited funding for very low-income people over age 60.
City utility bills are made up of charges for water, solid waste and stormwater, and city staff said one of the main drivers of the increase is the city’s capital improvement program that helps maintain city infrastructure. The recommended budget calls for an 8% rate increase for water, a 3% rate increase for solid waste and a 3% rate increase for stormwater.
Still, Municipal Services and Operations Department Director Dave Wagner told the commission that the current budget is not reflective of need. Wagner said that deferred maintenance, including maintenance of waterlines, roads and city facilities would continue to be stressors on the budget. He said the recent water main break on New York Street was a prime example of that, and that the city would be further evaluating what maintenance and reconstruction is needed to keep infrastructure working.
“I think the commission has a lot of hard choices to make when it comes to infrastructure maintenance,” Wagner said. “It’s clear that we have a lot of needs out there, and some of those have come about not just in a year, but decades worth of deferred maintenance in some of the infrastructure.”