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Dozens of Lawrence community members ask City Commission to save Prairie Park Nature Center

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Post updated at 1:10 a.m. Wednesday, July 13:

Zoë Leos, who is in her second year working as a camp counselor at Prairie Park Nature Center, got emotional as she asked Lawrence City Commissioners not to take their budget problems out on the kids who come to camp.

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They’re already excited about having more mulberries to eat on next year’s wild edible hike, and another opportunity to catch a fish if they didn’t manage to this year. 

“We didn’t know that there wouldn’t be a next year until last Thursday. I’ve been lying to these kids,” she said. “The kids want a next year at Prairie Park.”

The commission heard from more than five dozen community members during a preliminary discussion of the city’s budget proposal Tuesday night. Most came to speak in person at City Hall, and about two-thirds of them pushed for the commission to keep the Prairie Park Nature Center open. The proposal calls for closing the center to save the city $337,000 annually in the $436.78 million expenditure budget.

A passion for the nature center also emboldened one young Lawrence resident to stand up in front of the crowd and speak to the commission. 

“Please don’t close the Prairie Park Nature Center. We need this. We love it,” the boy said. “… How could we do any of the stuff that we want to do when we don’t have anything that is adorable in range of sight? I don’t get it.”

His mother said the boy has severe generalized anxiety disorder and is “on the spectrum.” 

“He waited through this entire meeting to be able to stand up and tell you his comments, which impresses me and I hope it impresses all of you. But this was one of the few places we could take him. He didn’t do crowds. He loves animals. … This is his home.”

About a dozen others spoke about the Lawrence Humane Society. Its staff members were “exceedingly disappointed” to see the city’s proposal to cut its funding by about 27%, or $100,000. Some staff members and volunteers shared their experiences, what the Humane Society has meant for them, and what services they’ve been able to provide for the community. 

One staff member shared an example of unfortunately having to retrieve a dog who was hit by a car and didn’t make it — but the staff was able to at least find out who the dog’s owners were, let them know what happened, and deliver their pet’s ashes. In happier cases, injured animals can be rescued and taken to emergency clinics. 

“I’m not sure if people realize that we provide 24/7 services. … And while a $100,000 budget cut to the Humane Society wouldn’t cause us to close, it could cause us to cut services such as that one to the people of Lawrence.”

Several more community members spoke about sustainability issues and raised concerns about the police department budget. After nearly three hours of public comment, the discussion came back to city leaders. 

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said he doesn’t think the city should be cutting the nature center.

“I think it’s an amenity we need to keep,” he said. “The obvious question, then, is how do you pay for that?” 

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Finance Director Jeremy Willmoth said the nature center is being subsidized by more than 80% — but the center’s free programming for families was one of the main points community members emphasized to the commission. 

“The Prairie Park Nature Center is one of the reasons I fell in love with Lawrence and continue to stay here,” one public commenter said. “It’s one of the few attractions in town for families with children, as several other people have said, and it’s one of the few accessible places for low-income residents.”

The nature center’s score on the city’s strategic plan framework put it “among programs least aligned with the City’s strategic plan,” City Manager Craig Owens’ budget proposal states.

Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said five other programs, amounting to $8 million total, scored lower than Prairie Park on that same framework: court services, office of the police chief, professional standards in policing, the golf course, and school crossing guards. She asked staff to look at those items more closely before future budget discussions. 

Owens responded that “reducing accountability services for policing isn’t the direction of a lot of the conversations that we’ve had, and so I can tell you the answer to that one right now.” But he said staff can look at those items and see if there are cuts to be made in certain areas rather than fully eliminating them. 

Some proposed new revenue sources included in the budget are increased fees for Parks and Recreation, with the goal of hitting $1.2 million. 

“It’s not been yet identified the exact revenues that would increase; more work will be done on that. This was more of a target for revenue, and then the goal is a better cost recovery for all of our park programs,” Willmoth said. 

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical has also proposed a false alarm fee, predominantly for alarm companies and systems “that in 2021 had sent us on 1,500 false alarm calls,” Willmoth said. 

Another cut would be to flowers around the city. Some locations could use perennials or native plans, so they wouldn’t be as flashy as the annual flowers, but they would require less maintenance. “High-profile” areas like South Park and downtown would keep the flowers. Parks and Rec estimated that could save about $65,000 annually. 

“I do think we’re on the right track with this budget,” Larsen said. “… The funding issues, obviously, are always difficult discussion, and this is why we have this up here and why we have the community come out and talk.”

The commission meets next at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, July 19. The meeting agenda will be posted at this link. See the full budget proposal, along with hundreds of pages of written public comments, at this link.

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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of this work for the Times here.

Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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