Editorial: More signs of needed cooperation between the city and the county

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Two statements of note have been made recently in Lawrence. One is big and fairly certain, while the other is small and still speculative. But the two of them together illustrate a problem that Lawrence and Douglas County need to address.

Statement No. 1 came from Lawrence’s draft strategic economic development. It stated what many of us have known: Lawrence has an affordability problem. The wages in the community don’t match what it costs to live here. That’s a big statement and a fairly certain one.

Statement No. 2 came almost as an aside in a Journal-World profile of Sheriff-elect Jay Armbrister. That profile was encouraging in many ways. There is every reason to think the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office will benefit from new ideas and approaches. But in that interview, Armbrister said he could soon see the day the sheriff’s office would need to move its operations out of the downtown Judicial and Law Enforcement Center into a facility — presumably a new one — at or near the Douglas County Jail.

Why is that interesting? The city of Lawrence is nearing the end of construction on a new police headquarters building in west Lawrence. If Douglas County ends up building a new facility for the sheriff’s office in the coming years, there will be a natural question of why the two agencies couldn’t have built something together. Surely there would have been some financial efficiencies that would have benefited taxpayers.

It is not because no one ever thought of the idea. This page and others brought up the idea during the city’s police planning process. The city professed that the Douglas County Jail location wouldn’t work very well for the police department for logistical reasons, but that always seemed more like a way to avoid the issue. The real reason seemed to be that the city and county knew they couldn’t cooperate well enough to pull off such a project.

Again, it is uncertain that this situation of duplicative facilities will emerge. But if it doesn’t emerge on the law enforcement front, it seems that it may on the public works front. The county several years ago built a new public works facility for its crews. It is located on the southeast edge of Lawrence, just past the jail. The city of Lawrence now is seriously considering building a new public works facility for its crews on a portion of VenturePark property in southeast Lawrence. The two sites are so close together you can almost see one site from the other.

But how are Statement No. 1 and Statement No. 2 connected? By money, of course. Lawrence does have an affordability problem. The economic report from the consultants — which is good on many levels and will get a more in-depth look from us in the near future — makes it fairly clear that Lawrence’s affordability problem is tied to wages. It is not that things cost more here. It is that we don’t have enough dollars to pay for them.

Increasing wages in the community is going to take a lot of hard work and time. What can be done more quickly is controlling the amount of money we send toward government. A community that has affordability problems needs to look for savings wherever it can. Honestly, such savings may not even result in a reduced tax bill, but rather may free up government resources to be used for tackling the wage issues.

Clearly, the public doesn’t want a consolidated government where one entity runs both the City of Lawrence and all of Douglas County. That’s not what this is about. But it is hard to believe that the public is against the idea of city public works crews sharing space with county public works crews or the police department and the sheriff’s department operating out of the same building. Seemingly there is even lower hanging fruit. The city and county both have purchasing departments, payroll departments, risk management departments and many other back-office functions. Can’t the two organizations learn to share those and create savings for taxpayers?

The good news is it can, and many of the players involved in making those decisions on cooperation are new. There is some reason to hope that it can happen. It certainly shouldn’t be an issue that we forget about. Most people get a reminder of why it should happen every two weeks: a paycheck that is smaller than in it needs to be.

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