City manager says significant budget changes could occur after adoption; more discussion on utility increases upcoming

photo by: Screenshot/City of Lawrence

Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens presents his budget recommendations to the Lawrence City Commission during its virtual weekly meeting, Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens told city leaders that the debate about the city’s upcoming 2021 budget may stretch well beyond its typical summer timeframe, with significant changes likely to be made in the first quarter of next year.

That’s because Owens is proposing a recommended budget that he says will function as a placeholder while the city gathers additional input from the community about spending priorities amid the coronavirus pandemic and calls for police and criminal justice reform. Owens and other city staff presented the recommended budget, which holds the property tax rate flat and increases utility rates, to the City Commission for initial input at its work session Tuesday.

Owens told commissioners that, although the budget must still be adopted in August to meet state deadlines, he recommends the city use the quarterly budget adjustment process to significantly “reprogram” how money within the proposed $291 million budget is spent.

“While this budget doesn’t make significant changes really on any of the services that we’re providing, we recognize that those conversations are ahead,” Owens said. “And I believe that this proposal gives latitude and leaves options open for us to consider those and all other services and priorities.”

The City Commission had already collected public feedback on its new strategic plan, which the commission uses to create spending priorities that guide its budget decisions. However, that feedback was collected at the beginning of the year, and, due to the pandemic and national and local calls for police and criminal justice reform, the city reopened public feedback on the strategic plan last month. The commission will not meet to begin drafting the plan until July 25 and other reviews regarding policing and other social justice issues will continue for the next few months.

Mayor Jennifer Ananda, who has called for a broad review of the role of police and other issues, expressed appreciation that the city would be taking time to have those discussions instead of rushing those decisions to be made before the budget adoption.

“We really are striving to balance that urgency I think that exists around this issue, and really avoiding damaging our community unintentionally through acting too swiftly and not actively engaging our community,” Ananda said. “Again, I appreciate that flexibility, with the understanding that there will be amendments on this as we go through the year.”

However, some changes will be discussed in coming weeks. The budget recommends that all three city utility rates increase, amounting to an approximately $110 annual increase over this year for the typical residential customer. Specifically, the budget calls for an 8% increase for water, a 3% increase for solid waste and a 50% increase for stormwater.

Some city commissioners asked about the proposed utility rate increases, which will go to fund various infrastructure projects that Owens said are overdue. Commissioner Lisa Larsen indicated she was interested in further discussing those increases, and city staff informed her that a presentation with more details about the recommended rate increase was scheduled for the commission’s meeting July 28. Ananda also said the ongoing process to expand the city’s utility assistance program would be even more essential given the recommended increases.

The next step in the budget process will take place on July 28, when the commission will be asked to set the maximum expenditures for the 2021 budget. The public hearing on the budget will take place on Aug. 11 and the second reading of the budget is scheduled for Aug. 18.

City Commission Meeting 07/14/20

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