An audience member at the Downtown Lawrence forum asked the Lawrence City Commission candidates on Wednesday whether they would support a vacancy tax.
He said it was an opportunity cost for the city — people are “sitting on” empty properties that could be earning sales tax dollars.
None of the six candidates — Lisa Larsen, Bart Littlejohn, Milton Scott, Amber Sellers, Ma’Ko’Quah Jones and Stuart Boley — gave a firm answer, but they shared some views on the idea.
Larsen said she needed to know more, and to talk with folks about what it would actually look like. She said she was “definitely open to the idea” but she would want to have data and to see it in an ordinance to help her make that decision.
Littlejohn said “we’re seeing the problem but we’re not doing anything about the problem.” He echoed what Larsen said — he wanted to learn about it, and bring some of those property owners to the table to talk about it.
Scott said he would want to see what incentives there could be to drive more pop-up businesses and minority business incubators to downtown. A vacancy tax wasn’t attractive, but incentives could be, he said.
Sellers said there are a lot of spaces that aren’t being utilized, and a vacancy tax was worth exploring. She said she was “leaning toward” it, and there’s something to be said for it.
Jones said she’s not supportive of financially burdening people more, especially in the time of COVID, and she wouldn’t readily support any sort of tax like that. However, if the vacancies are resulting in lost money for the city, she would explore it, she said.
Boley noted that he has previously said he’s against a vacancy tax, but he’s “persuadable.” However, he said the city has to deal with what the state Legislature in Topeka does — including potential roadblocks to such a plan — and that’s “not an inconsequential consideration.”
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In between questions about economic issues in Lawrence, such as childcare, local purchasing policy, and the Downtown Master Plan, City Commission candidates explained what role they thought the commission should have in the business community in Wednesday’s forum, hosted by The Chamber of Lawrence.