The Lawrence City Commission agreed to proceed with a 2022 budget that increases utility rates but keeps property taxes flat after a public hearing on Tuesday.
The budget resolution will be up for final approval at the commission’s meeting on Sept. 7. Tuesday’s public hearing served as an opportunity for residents to make themselves heard about the city’s proposed spending.
The total budget for 2022 is $400.74 million with no increase in property taxes. But utility rates will go up for the city to increase funding toward its water, sewer, stormwater and solid waste services.
Finance Director Jeremy Willmoth said although specific utility projects and rates won’t be finalized until this fall, infrastructure needs are one of the three core initiatives in the budget, alongside $4.7 million toward affordable housing and a 2.5% wage adjustment over two years for city employees. The proposed allocation for utility infrastructure projects is $448,602,000 over five years.
Commissioners will also move forward with several personnel changes under the 2022 budget. Those include eight new city staff positions, the replacement of six police officer vacancies with nonofficer positions in the department, and reallocation of two previous police officer positions to the city’s new Housing Initiatives division.
Some residents expressed concerns that proposed efforts toward addressing the city’s housing insecurity problems might not be enough, and some voiced concerns that city employees should all make living wages before raises were given to the city’s “top earners.” A few residents asked city staff to make the online version of the budget more accessible and transparent.
But the concern that raised the most public comment during the meeting was a lack of city support toward Lawrence’s Climate Action Plan. Several residents attended a rally outside City Hall ahead of the meeting; many stayed to give public comment in person, while others chimed in from home via Zoom.
The City Commission pledged earlier this year to incorporate principles of the Green New Deal into city decisions, and several residents raised concerns that one new employee to the city’s Sustainability Office wasn’t sufficient support of this.
Sustainability Advisory Board Chair Ma’Ko’Quah Jones called for the city to outline sustainability goals in the strategic plan and additional staff to help implement those goals.
“When we talk about sustainability and when we talk about climate change, this is not just about the environment,” Jones said. “This is about our health and our city’s health.”
Sustainability Director Jasmin Moore said the city is working to implement goals such as 100% use of renewable energy by 2035 and electric transportation, but these efforts will take time and intentional work. Although the department currently only has two full-time employees and she hopes to see more staff hired down the road, she said adding a new position this year will add to the department’s ability to do this work.
“I think everyone can agree that when it comes to the environment, it’s hard to do enough,” Mayor Brad Finkeldei added. “All 888 of our employees are committed to environmental sustainability, and we hope we can leverage that and make a difference.”
The budget also outlines plans for the approximate allocation of $19 million from the American Rescue Plan to address the financial burdens of COVID-19. Federal funding from the American Rescue Plan has helped, but Willmoth said sales taxes, guest taxes and liquor taxes saw large decreases throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, he said the 2022 budget has taken into account how the city can put that money toward central services that the public is entitled to.
“The ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and what it has done to our revenue is, I think, the headline story if you will of our budget,” Willmoth said. “We intend to use the federal funds to bridge that gap over the next several years, which will also allow us time to rebalance the General Fund and the other operating funds.”
This is also the first year of the city operationalizing its strategic plan, which commissioners agreed will help move the city toward its long-term goals.
“I know this is tough for lots of folks in the community, especially with the utility rate increases that we’re looking at,” Commissioner Stuart Boley said. “But we have an obligation to maintain the assets that we have and work toward solving the problems that we face.”
The video of the meeting is available via the city’s YouTube page.