Editorial: City needs to hit reset button before moving ahead with $1M-plus hiring plan

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Buying is almost always easier than getting buy-in. Lawrence City commissioners on Tuesday need to make sure they get the public’s buy-in before they agree to spend more than $1.3 million to add anywhere from 9.5 to 13.5 full-time positions to the city’s staff.

At their meeting on Tuesday, city commissioners are being asked by staff members to include the additional spending and the additional positions in a forthcoming quarterly adjustment to the 2021 budget.

Staff members noted that the 2021 city budget largely was a placeholder budget, as it was crafted during the early stages of the pandemic last spring and summer. Staff at the time said that adjustments to the budget were likely, given that a clearer picture would emerge as we fought our way through the COVID-19 crisis.

That was a fair enough strategy, and indeed budget adjustments will be needed throughout the course of the year. That’s one reason why it is particularly important to make sure this particular set of adjustments is done right.

For most members of the public, the idea of 10 or more new positions to the city’s payroll is a fairly new idea. The Journal-World posted a basic article about the idea on Friday evening after reviewing and comprehending the city’s recently released agenda for its Tuesday evening meeting.

For members of the public to study the issue themselves and form a reasoned opinion before Tuesday’s meeting is a pretty quick turnaround. The best that probably can be crafted is a knee-jerk reaction. It is quite possible such a knee-jerk reaction would center on the idea of government getting bigger when many of Lawrence’s businesses are getting smaller. Quite a reaction could be crafted around that dichotomy.

In may be the wrong reaction, though. People are important, and sometimes you simply have to have a certain number of them as an organization to accomplish your work. If you are wanting to change the shape and direction of your work and mission, certainly new and different types of people can be critical. The city may well be in that place.

The city manager argues that the positions are needed to keep the city on track to follow its strategic plan. Again, that may be the case, but most residents could offer no reasonable opinion on that assessment due to the inconvenient fact that most have forgotten what the city’s strategic plan includes.

That lapse certainly can be forgiven since it seems like a lifetime ago when the city crafted that plan. It really wasn’t that long ago — it was approved about four months ago — but the process did begin before COVID-19 struck. Understandably, both as a community and as individuals we have spent more time thinking about day-to-day tactics to battle the pandemic than longer-term visions for a future that still seems wishful on some days.

Plus, there is just some human nature to account for here. While the city did a lot of outreach during the strategic planning process, now is the point where some of those ideas start having hard dollar figures attached to them. For better or worse, some members of the public simply don’t pay attention until the dollar signs start appearing. They should be given some time to react to this latest proposal.

The city needs to hit a reset button before moving forward with these new positions and new spending. It could be cathartic and perhaps even celebratory. It would be a chance for the city to say, while we are not yet done fighting the pandemic, we have moved to a new phase where we can spend more time trying to accomplish the goals in our life prior to the pandemic. Step one of that process, though, should be reminding ourselves what those goals are and asking whether they need to adjust given the life-changing events we’ve been through.

Such a process doesn’t have to take a long time. But the city should give itself a month or so to review the strategic plan again, conduct some more outreach with the community about whether those goals still make the most sense in today’s world, and then give some thoughtful consideration to whether this proposed hiring plan is the best way to spend more than $1.3 million in our community.

Indeed, there may be more budget adjustments to come in 2021. This is an excellent opportunity for the city to set the right tone for future ones by taking the time to make sure the community is adequately engaged about the important question of the best path forward for our community.


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