Lawrence City Commission eyes big property tax increase after pleas from firefighters

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Firefighter-medics on Tuesday emphasized the worst-nightmare moments that they see on a regular basis as they pleaded with the Lawrence City Commission to fund staffing levels the same way the city has in years past. 

The Lawrence and Douglas County commissions have agreed to support building two new fire stations to serve the city as it continues to expand. Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical leaders have pushed for the past few years to build new stations, citing slower response times to some hotspots in the city’s outskirts.

But Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens’ proposed budget would partially mitigate the tax increases necessary to fund those new stations by lowering staffing levels at the current stations. 

The property tax rate would still need to increase by 3.5 mills even with LDCFM staffing cuts, but ultimately, Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday asked to set the maximum budget with a mill levy increase of 5.7, with the intent of lowering that number. 

“I will vote, for the sake of the conversation for next week, that we come in with the 5.7-mill increase, because we can go down,” Commissioner Amber Sellers said. “We need to start with the more aggressive number to take the sticker shock off of everyone. Then once we see the different nuggets, different pieces, after we plug and play with everything — then we can decide if we need to go down and keep it at the (33.207, no mill levy increase), or do we need to do something else.”

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Commissioner Amber Sellers, center, speaks during the meeting.

Owens’ proposed increase of 3.5 mills would make the city’s total mill levy 36.707, up from 33.207, and would mean the owner of a home with a value of $247,300 – the median value for Lawrence in 2022 — would pay $100 more to the city in property taxes next year. That would be $1,044, up from $944, according to the meeting agenda.

A 5.7-mill increase would increase the bill to $1,107 — up $163. 

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Firefighter-medics and their supporters asked the commission to weigh the costs against the department’s ability to help families in emergencies. 

About 30 people, including numerous Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical employees, spoke to the commission Tuesday evening about the budget proposal, which would cut the minimum staffing levels from four people per fire apparatus to three. 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Numerous Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical employees and supporters pack into the lobby at Lawrence City Hall for the July 9, 2024 budget meeting.

Seamus Albritton, president of IAFF Local 1596, the firefighters union, recalled a night in July 2018 when two adults and two young children were trapped on the third floor of a building on fire. 

“Your Lawrence firefighters rescued that family, deployed a hose to the fire and established a water supply. These things are not exclusive from each other,” he said.

“To make a rescue, you need a hose line in place. Typically, to put a hose line in place, you typically need a water supply. All these are labor intensive tasks that must be done quickly. A large amount of people is needed to get it done. So I will ask you, moving forward, if we move to three-person trucks, which of these tasks would you like us to prioritize?”

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Seamus Albritton, president of IAFF Local 1596

Firefighter TJ Everett told the commission that his memories of saving people’s lives and family members thanking him are usually enough to drown out the little voice in the back of his head that makes him question why he puts his life at risk, which he said gets even louder when he witnesses somebody dying. 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times TJ Everett

“I feel relatively safe in risking my life because the city that I have served has historically moved in the direction of providing increased safety to its firefighters,” Everett told the city commission. “But this proposal by Mr. Owens to cut the number of firefighters on every truck from four to three negates that. I feel unsupported, and my risk unappreciated.”

Firefighter John Darling used Lego trucks to demonstrate his point:

“So if you take one wheel off, what happens? It doesn’t function nearly as well. But the wheels are the same as the firefighters. You need all four firefighters on a fire apparatus to function well, the way our system has been designed,” he said.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times John Darling

In addition, more than 150 people submitted written public comments asking the commission not to cut LDCFM’s budget.

LDCFM Chief Rich Llewellyn said only one of about 12 nearby peer cities staff fire apparatuses with four people full-time; others use three most of the time. 

Vice Mayor Mike Dever asked about the unintended consequences of moving from four to three people, “from a fire insurance rating standpoint, from a life safety standpoint, and from a realistic coverage in real world cost.”

Llewellyn said he is in favor of four-person staffing — “It’s more efficient. It’s delivering a better product to the community. It helps us improve our strategic goals. So I just want to be clear on that,” he said. 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times LDCFM Chief Rich Llewellyn, standing, speaks to the city commission.

Llewellyn said the Insurance Services Office scores the department on staffing levels, and four-person staffing helps with that. However, he said adding the two fire stations would improve the department’s score for dispersion, meaning fire apparatuses are located within certain ratios of each other.

“As part of this plan, we are adding fire stations so those points may offset the decrease that we’re going to see from staffing decreases,” he said.

There was little discussion or public comment about the proposal to ask voters to approve a .05% sales tax increase to continue funding homelessness initiatives, or of proposed cuts to the parks and recreation budget. 

Read a summary of other key points in the proposed budget at this link

Commissioners didn’t take action on the budget as Tuesday’s meeting was a work session. Mayor Bart Littlejohn asked the city staff members to come back with a budget option that would retain four-person staffing for LDCFM and fund two new stations but incorporate some other cuts. 

At the next meeting, city staff members will bring back the revised maximum budget. That meeting will start at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, July 16 at Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. Additional public hearings will be held before the final budget is approved.

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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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