Lawrence City Commission to consider 2021 budget that keeps property tax flat, increases utility rates

photo by: Mike Yoder

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

City leaders will soon consider approving the city’s 2021 budget, which keeps the city’s property tax rate flat but calls for increases to all three city utility rates.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will hold the public hearing for the 2021 budget and consider adopting it on first reading. The 2021 working budget does not include an increase to the city’s mill levy rate, but would increase water, solid waste and stormwater rates. The budget also calls for $90 million in capital and maintenance projects, funding for a new field operations headquarters and raises for all city employees.

Last month, the commission voted unanimously to authorize publication of the 2021 budget summary and establish the maximum expenditure authority in line with City Manager Craig Owens’ recommended budget. It is the first recommended budget Owens has created since joining the city last year. Owens previously told the Journal-World that the budget aims to address infrastructure needs that are long overdue, including multimillion-dollar improvements to the city’s stormwater system and other facilities.

The budget includes a $51.6 million capital improvement plan, a $24.4 million maintenance plan and a $14 million vehicle and equipment replacement plan, or about $90 million total among the three plans. The 2021 CIP also includes $14.4 million toward a $28.95 million field operations facility that could take the place of up to a dozen existing city facilities.

The utility rate increases would go to support operations of the utilities as well as maintenance. Taken together, the utility rate increases would amount to an approximately $110 annual increase over this year for the typical residential customer using 4,000 gallons of water per month. Specifically, the budget calls for an 8% increase for water, a 3% increase for solid waste and a 50% increase for stormwater. The stormwater increase — which because the current fee is relatively low amounts to only $27 more annually — would go toward major stormwater infrastructure projects.

If approved, the three utility rate increases would generate an additional $5.63 million in revenue for the city in 2021. Though the budget gives the city the spending authority to increase the utility rates, the exact breakdown has not been decided. City officials told commissioners last month that the city is still in the process of determining exactly how the rate increases will be distributed among customer types and services, and a more detailed recommendation would be brought to the commission in September.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen previously asked city staff to determine what capital projects would go unfunded should the commission not increase the rates as much as requested, and city staff will be creating a scale indicating which projects would go unfunded at various levels of rate increases.

That sliding scale is not included with the materials for Tuesday’s meeting, but a city staff memo to the commission states that if the rates are not approved at the recommended level, there will be an impact on how services are currently being provided and/or planned improvements. That may include a reduction in the level of service, the elimination of current programs or other necessitated service impacts, according to the memo.

The budget also includes a general wage adjustment of 0.5% and about $828,000 in market adjustments for city employees in the primary pay plan, amounting to a total of about $1.04 million in pay increases for those employees, according to city staff presentation materials. Another $227,000 is included to fund annual wage increases in the Lawrence Police Officers Association pay plan, as well as $179,000 to fund annual wage increases in the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1596 pay plan.

Though the public hearing for the budget will take place Tuesday, changes could potentially be made after that. Owens has described the budget as a placeholder because the commission will likely make budget amendments once it updates its strategic plan, a process that was delayed because of the pandemic and a desire to account for calls for police and racial justice reforms.

The City Commission will convene virtually at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, with limited staff members in place at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The city has asked that residents participate in the meeting virtually, if they are able to do so, using temporary meeting procedures put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Directions for submitting public comment and correspondence are included in the meeting agenda that is available on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.

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