Lawrence City Commission candidates share their views on addressing city infrastructure maintenance, including sidewalks and utility rates
photo by: Contributed and file photos
A backlog of city infrastructure maintenance is influencing policies ranging from sidewalk repair to land annexations and creating debate on the campaign trail for the Lawrence City Commission.
The Journal-World asked the six candidates whether they think the annexation limitations in the newly approved comprehensive plan are necessary to keep the city’s infrastructure costs down, whether they think recent utility rate increases are appropriate, and whether sidewalks should be considered city infrastructure.
•Plan 2040, which covers Lawrence and the unincorporated areas of Douglas County, has a new growth policy that prioritizes infill development and adds requirements for developers who want to expand the city’s boundaries. One requirement is that developers must provide some kind of community benefit if they want to annex land to expand the city. The goal is for the city to operate more efficiently and sustainably, but the community benefit requirement has been controversial with some members of the local business community, who say it will increase the cost of housing.
•Including the increases approved for 2020, the average utility bill has increased 33% since 2015. City staff has said the increases are needed in part to pay for deferred utility maintenance, but some candidates say the level of the increases is inappropriate.
•The city adopted a policy last year to administer its sidewalk repair ordinance, which has been in place for decades but not strongly enforced. The city requires property owners to repair hazardous sidewalks adjacent to their properties, and certain homeowners could qualify for financial assistance from the city.
• Stuart Boley
Boley said adding more streets and related infrastructure when the city has issues maintaining existing infrastructure is a significant addition to the city’s responsibilities. He said the annexation policy in Plan 2040, meant to prioritize infill development, is trying to balance the property tax receipts with the actual cost of maintaining city infrastructure.
“And if we succeed in infill development, then there will be more property tax revenues to take care of the infrastructure that we have,” Boley said. “So maximizing the property tax dollars per foot of street and related infrastructure without raising rates is part of the goal.”
Utility rates raise other questions. Boley said that since utilities are an enterprise fund — in which rates must cover the city’s service and personnel costs — he saw the recent utility rate increases as appropriate. He noted the city has had to replace failing utility infrastructure, such as water towers and water mains, and that there are bond payments the city has to make. However, Boley said he thinks the city should expand its utility assistance program, which currently provides limited funding for people over age 60 with very low incomes.
Regarding sidewalks, Boley said he thinks the legal responsibility for repairs should continue to fall to the adjoining property owner. He emphasized that the city’s policy pays to replace sidewalks damaged by city infrastructure, including street trees, and provides financial assistance for low-income homeowners and those with more than one sidewalk. City staff now estimates that repairing all of the city’s sidewalks would cost tens of millions of dollars, and Boley said the city needs more precise cost estimates before any promises about sidewalks can be made.
“I think that we need to have more information about what the city is responsible for and then also what the cost would be for the city to take it over before we can promise to do it,” Boley said. “And to say that we can do it with existing resources, I think that’s promising a whole lot.”
• Ken Easthouse
Easthouse said he doesn’t think the annexation policies in Plan 2040 seem realistic for the city’s population growth. Easthouse said he specifically opposes the community benefit requirement for annexations and believes that if an annexation will address a specific housing need, then that should be considered a community benefit. Otherwise, he said, the policy would decrease the supply of lots and increase the demand.
“If supply is down and demand continues to go up, prices are going to continue to go up,” Easthouse said. “And we’re already running out of room. Lawrence is blessed in that people want to move here and that’s an asset to the community. And I think we need to understand that and realize that and be prepared for it.”
Regarding utility rates, Easthouse said he does not think the recent increases are appropriate. He said he understands that the utility fund is an enterprise fund, but that he thinks some of the utility projects on the Capital Improvement Plan could be funded through the general fund instead. He said those projects should then be prioritized over other projects, such as the Lawrence Loop pedestrian and bike trail system. He said high utility rates are an aspect of affordable housing that doesn’t get enough attention.
“It’s one of the highest bills that many of my peers talk about having to pay every month,” Easthouse said. “When water and trash starts outpacing things like electricity and gas, especially in the winter, then we might have a problem.”
Easthouse said sidewalks are a valued piece of city infrastructure that people rely on to walk to work, to downtown or just around their neighborhoods. Therefore, he said, the city should pay for repairs. As for where the money would come from, he suggested revisiting the city’s agreements with the county for shared services such as fire and medical responders and the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. If the city could work out a more favorable deal, he said, that would free up money to create a fund specifically for sidewalk infrastructure.
• Brad Finkeldei
Finkeldei said he supports infill development over annexation because it allows the city to increase its tax base without increasing the amount of infrastructure it is responsible for maintaining. However, he opposes requiring all developments that annex new land to provide a community benefit. Instead, Finkeldei said that decision should be made case-by-case, because some projects may pay for the street maintenance, utility maintenance and fire and police services they necessitate while others may not.
For instance, he said there is a big difference between an annexation for a new neighborhood of large lots and one for a commercial project, such as the shopping center proposed for the South Lawrence Trafficway.
“I do think you pencil that (SLT shopping center) project out and that’s an annexation, but it is an annexation that more than pays for itself and allows us to address some of our other infrastructure needs,” Finkeldei said. “That’s a lot different from putting in a bunch of streets for 10-acre lots and one house every 10 acres.”
Finkeldei said that utility rate increases are a burden on residents, but that the city also needs to generate a certain amount through fees to make its bond payments, including payments toward the city’s $74 million sewage treatment plant. He said when the city studies rates next year, it needs to consider its expenses and examine all of the variables closely.
Finkeldei said he doesn’t think the legal responsibility for sidewalks should shift from property owners to the city; he said he was comfortable with the state statute — which the city’s ordinance mirrors — that makes sidewalk repairs the responsibility of property owners. However, he said the city’s enforcement and assistance programs should change. Specifically, Finkeldei said homeowners should fix obvious issues with sidewalks but that he opposes the current city program that requires homeowners to fix “really minute defects.” He said if the city wants to have those repairs made, certain sidewalk routes should be prioritized and the city should help homeowners pay for those repairs.
“I think the (Kansas) statute gives the city protection, and I don’t want to give up that protection,” Finkeldei said. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t cost share, and I believe we should prioritize sidewalks based upon need by residents.”
• Joey Hentzler
Hentzler said he is in favor of the annexation policy, and that proper policymaking ensures that the city develops responsibly. He said the city needs to make sure it understands the true cost of growth and sprawl and doesn’t end up essentially providing handouts to developers through its annexation policies.
“If we don’t capture the true cost of growth, then that’s really a handout for developers who get to instead shift that cost onto the public, as we pay with our tax dollars for more schools, services, roads, infrastructure,” Hentzler said.
Regarding utility rates, Hentzler said he thinks the recent rate increases are highly inappropriate. He said he understands the fees help fund infrastructure and maintenance, but that utility fees are the most regressive way to raise revenue.
However, Hentzler said expanding the utility assistance program wouldn’t be a good answer, either, because the paperwork and application process could be a barrier for those who need such assistance. Instead, he said the city should move forward with a billing structure that charges higher rates to those who use more water.
“I’m interested in making the utility rates as progressive as possible,” Hentzler said. “So making sure the person who is dumping water on their large lawn to make sure it fits a certain aesthetic, that they are paying more for that than an individual who is using water to heat up baby formula.”
Hentzler said sidewalks are a public good — encouraging physical activity and thereby promoting public health — and that he definitely considers them the city’s responsibility. He said it’s unfair to have people who happen to have sidewalks next to their property pay for their maintenance when everyone uses the sidewalks. He suggested that the city could look to other municipalities in Kansas and across the country to find a more equitable way to maintain its sidewalks.
• Rob Sands
Sands, who is a member of the Planning Commission, said he voted to recommend Plan 2040 because he believes in the vast majority of what is in the plan, including the requirement for projects to show that they’re meeting a demand when requesting an annexation. However, he said he does not agree that projects should also have to provide a community benefit, as he feels it will be hard to interpret for all involved.
“The part that I spoke out against four times in Planning Commission was the provision of community benefit,” Sands said. “It’s vague, and that vagueness cuts both ways.”
Regarding utility rate increases, Sands said those increases most affect people who can absorb those costs the least. He said utility costs, property taxes and increases in property valuation are all lumped into the housing costs in Lawrence, which he says have gone up astronomically. He said he thinks it’s appropriate for the city to look at spending its reserves before it increases rates.
“We move quite a large reserve from year to year, and I think it’s wholly appropriate to look into that first,” Sands said.
The Journal-World reported in August that the city’s water and sewer fund ended 2018 with $42 million in its fund balance, which meant that for every $1 the utility fund spent, it had another 84 cents sitting in its reserve fund. The fund was budgeted to have only about $23 million in it. The Journal-World is continuing to seek clarification from the city on how the reserve fund grew significantly larger than budgeted.
Sands said sidewalks should be considered city infrastructure because they are a public good. If the city were to lengthen its timeline for completing sidewalk repairs citywide, he said, it could gradually make all of the repairs using the money it had planned to spend for the financial assistance program. He also said costs could be reduced if the city had “more reasonable” criteria for what qualifies as a hazard requiring repair.
“They replaced a lot that just didn’t need it,” Sands said. “I think by reassessing the evaluation criteria of what needs to be replaced, we can probably bear the cost of it citywide in the budget that has already been established for the assistance program.”
• Courtney Shipley
Shipley said she thinks the annexation limitations in Plan 2040 could help the city better address deferred infrastructure maintenance. She said she understands that the building community is concerned the limitations will stifle development, and that she thinks the city should have a cost of growth study completed. Still, Shipley said the city needs to give the plan a chance, and that if issues arise once the plan’s policies are implemented, then the city can adjust as needed.
“It would at least give us a couple years to come up with some kind of plan, because what we are doing is not working,” Shipley said. “We know whatever we build now, we’re not actually going to be able to pay for that infrastructure in 20 years.”
When it comes to the recent utility rate increases, Shipley said she thinks part of the problem is that the city is not following best practices of planning 10 or 20 years out into the future so that increases aren’t as drastic. Shipley said she doesn’t think that expanding the utility assistance program is the best way to address the issue because it doesn’t honestly reflect usage and in the long run could make things more difficult for the city. Rather, she said the city should be using a tiered rate structure that charges more per gallon to those who use more water.
Shipley said the city should take on responsibility of sidewalk repairs. She said other cities have successfully adopted sidewalk repair programs, and that there are methods other cities have used to solve their sidewalk problems that she thinks could work in Lawrence. For instance, a method used by Englewood, Colo., allows residents to opt into a program where they pay a small monthly fee and the city uses that funding to make sidewalk repairs when necessary, but only for those who opt in.
“We need staff to look at those other programs and determine if they would work here in Lawrence,” Shipley said.
More coverage of the 2019 Lawrence City Commission election
Read up on all the candidates and issues in advance of the Nov. 5, 2019 election: ljworld.com/2019-election/