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Patrick Wilbur: City of Lawrence should pass savings on to taxpayers (Column)

Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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It is summer in Douglas County, which means it is budget season again.

The 2022 budget season got off to an interesting start last week when a major transfer of funds was announced by the county. After extensive discussions, the county agreed to absorb $2.64 million in costs for operating Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical. Both the county and city should be commended for coming up with a fairer agreement. It is important to note that this is a direct passthrough of funds, a cost transfer. LDCFM isn’t getting any additional funds because of the change. 

County Administrator Sarah Plinsky has submitted a proposed mill levy increase of 1.768 mills, which covers the increased costs for fire and medical. For reference, this would be an increase of approximately $40/year on a home appraised at $200,000. 

While county budget discussions are underway, the city plans to release its proposed budget next week. A reasonable expectation of Lawrence residents would be to see a corresponding decrease in city allocations. After all, this is a windfall for the city. Although this may be a reasonable expectation, it may not be what Lawrence taxpayers see in the initial budget. 

There has been talk of “holding the line” on taxes, meaning that the city is aiming for a similar property tax burden for 2022. This is problematic for a couple reasons. First – the offloaded fire and medical funds belong to the taxpayers. It has been an extremely difficult year for many in Lawrence, and they deserve the right to decide how those funds are spent. 

Second – “holding the line” does not keep the tax burden the same. Property valuations are skyrocketing over the past couple years, and a flat mill levy still results in a significant tax increase. The majority of residential property owners in Douglas County have seen a valuation increase of at least 8% over the past 2 years. When all property taxes are taken into consideration, the owner of a home that was appraised at $200,000 in 2019 has seen an increase of about $250, on top the more than $3,000 they were already paying.

So, what are we to do if the city and the city commission come back with a flat mill levy? I am sure the intentions stated will be pure. There are legitimate needs to be addressed, and the justifications of “reinvesting” the $2.64 million will seem sound. 

However, an increased tax burden has very real implications. The ongoing effort to address affordable housing issues will be dented as struggling homeowners will be pushed out of ownership and renters will see increased pass-through costs as well. There has been well deserved focus on people experiencing homelessness and houselessness over the past few months. Why would we create a situation where we might put more people at risk? 

Earlier this year, the city commission approved a budget adjustment adding 20 employees, accounting for more than $2 million in annual (and increasing) costs. The city has had its spending spree and now it is time to offer relief to the citizens. If they cannot see fit to offer something this minimal, then it is time for us to get loud.

— Patrick Wilbur (he/him) is a Lawrence townie who breaks software for a living and causes good trouble for fun. He is convinced that Patrick Mahomes is reverse karma for John Elway and Throwing Muses is the most underrated band of all-time. You can contact him at wilbur45@sunflower.com and @PatrickWilbur. 

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