Lawrence Public Library will forgo property tax rate increase in 2022, but also will have to scrap plan for employee raises

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence Public Library, pictured Aug. 20, 2015.

An odd tax story is taking shape in Douglas County this year, and the Lawrence Public Library is one of the first organizations to get a reading on it.

The oddity: Home prices are soaring in Lawrence as the city suffers a shortage of available homes. Normally those rising home prices would mean the county’s overall tax base would take a significant jump too, which normally leads to local governments getting a natural boost in property tax revenues.

But this has been no normal year. The county’s overall tax base is up, but much less so than it has been in recent years. Why so? Because the pandemic has hurt the real estate values of many businesses. The end result will be that homeowners are likely to see property tax increases, business owners are likely to see declines and government organizations — ranging from City Hall to the library — won’t have much new money to work with, unless they take the unpopular step of raising the property tax rate.

The Lawrence Public Library this week became the first of many organizations to approve a draft budget for the upcoming year. The draft budget shows the organization receiving just $44,000 of new property tax funds in 2022. The lower-than-expected increase has caused library leaders to scrap a 2% to 3% pay raise they intended to give to employees.

“This is the smallest increase we’ve had in the nine years I’ve been here,” Brad Allen, executive director of the Lawrence Public Library, told the organization’s board of trustees on Monday.

Library board members, however, resisted any temptation to raise the property tax mill levy to fund the library next year. Allen and Lawrence Mayor Brad Finkeldei, who sits on the library board, said there’s a strong desire among local leaders to try to keep the property tax rate steady in 2022.

“At this point, the city’s direction has been that we don’t intend to raise the mill levy,” Finkeldei said of the property tax rate. “We haven’t seen the city manager’s recommended budget yet, so that could change. But I would expect us to stay there, based on what I’ve heard.”

Members of the library board decided not to buck the trend and opt for a property tax rate increase, but they forecast that they may be looking at the option strongly for 2023.

“The board has expressed an openness to asking for an increase, but only after we have done our due diligence,” board member Judy Keller said.

The library is undertaking some strategic planning, which will include a review of wages that are paid to library employees. Allen said he’s confident that review will show library employees are “chronically underpaid.” With that study in hand, library leaders will be better equipped to seek a property tax increase in 2023.

“I’m afraid if we ask for it now, it might look a little sloppy,” Allen said of seeking the increase before the strategic planning is done.

The library’s mill levy is included as a part of the city of Lawrence’s overall mill levy. However, in recent years there has been debate about whether the City Commission actually has any authority to set the library’s mill levy at a rate different from what the library board has decided. Some leaders read the law as forcing the City Commission to adopt the rate that was decided on by the library board. Most years it hasn’t mattered because the City Commission has routinely adopted the rate sought by the library board.

What is clear is that the library does have a cap on the amount of property taxes it can seek. A city charter ordinance limits the property tax rate for the library to 4.5 mills. The library’s tax rate currently is just over 4 mills. Depending on what the staff wage report finds, the library may need to start an effort to try to get that cap lifted.

Allen said another frequent library topic in the community also may require the cap to be lifted: library branches. The idea was discussed a decade ago but ultimately rejected when voters approved a bond issue to enlarge and improve the sole city library, which is located in downtown.

Allen, though, said the idea that Lawrence has grown large enough to need a library branch does continue to come up.

“We hear people who would love to have a branch that serves the west side of town better,” Allen said. “We really are in the northeast corner of town right now. But we also hear from people who feel like a branch would destroy the fabric of how people use libraries. They think it would hurt the downtown location.”

Allen said even bigger discussions about the future of the library are possible. One that has not received much attention yet is the idea of a countywide library system. That would be one library system that theoretically would serve not only Lawrence but also Baldwin City, Eudora and Lecompton.

“We had a visioning day recently where our staff and some community stakeholders talked about our future,” Allen said. “One thing that came up was to explore that. Is it useful to think about this as a county system?”

A potential benefit of a countywide system would be to eliminate some back-office expenses. For example, the libraries in Lawrence, Baldwin City and Eudora all have expenses related to payroll, accounting, information technology and other such functions. Some of those expenses might be able to be lessened if they were shared between multiple locations.

But Allen said the idea might have some tall political hurdles to overcome.

“A lot of people in the county worry about Lawrence coming in and telling people what they are going to do,” Allen said. “There would be a worry that Lawrence dominates something like that, and you would want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

As for 2022 taxes, the Lawrence Public Library’s budget is the first of many that will be created in the coming weeks. Both the city of Lawrence and Douglas County are expected to release draft budgets for consideration soon. Local governments, including the Douglas County Commission, local city commissions, school boards and township boards are required to have final 2022 budgets approved in August.

The library built its budget based on a 2.4% increase in its property tax base. That’s expected to be the same increase the city of Lawrence will see for its tax base. That’s far less of an increase than the last couple of years, when the tax base grew by about 4.5% in 2020 and 5.5% in 2019.

The county hasn’t released final breakdowns yet, but a preliminary set of numbers showed that values for residential properties were expected to increase by about 5.5% in total this year. However, those same estimates showed the total value of commercial property in the county falling by about 5.3%.

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