Lawrence City Commission considers big property tax hike after firefighters’ pleas – The Lawrence Times

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Firefighter medics on Tuesday highlighted the worst nightmares they witness every day and asked the Lawrence City Commission to fund the staffing at the same level the city has done in previous years.

The Lawrence and Douglas County Commissions have agreed to support the construction of two new fire stations to serve the city as it grows. Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Leaders have been pushing for the new stations for the past few years, citing slower response times in some hot spots on the outskirts of town.

However, Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens’ proposed budget would partially mitigate the tax increases needed to fund the new stations by reducing staffing at current stations.

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

“I will vote, for the sake of the discussion next week, that we go in with a $5.7 million increase because we can go down,” Commissioner Amber Sellers said. “We need to start with a more aggressive number to take the price shock off of everyone. And then as we see the different gems, the different elements, once we’ve plugged everything in and tried it out — then we can decide whether we need to go down and keep it at that level ($33,207, no mill tax increase) or whether we need to do something different.”

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Commissioner Amber Sellers (centre) speaks during the meeting.

Owens’ proposed 3.5-mile increase would bring the total city levy to $36,707, up from $33,207, and mean the owner of a home worth $247,300 — the median value for Lawrence in 2022 — would pay the city $100 more in property taxes next year. That amount would be $1,044, up from $944, according to the meeting agenda.

An increase of $5.7 million would increase the bill to $1,107 — an increase of $163.

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Firefighter medics and their advocates asked the commission to consider costs versus the ability to provide emergency assistance to families.

About 30 people, including many from Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical, spoke before the commission Tuesday night about a budget proposal that would reduce the minimum staffing level from four people per fire department to three.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times A large crowd of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Department employees and supporters gather in the lobby of Lawrence City Hall for a budget meeting on July 9, 2024.

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

“Your firefighters in Lawrence saved this family, sent a hose to the fire and provided a water supply. Those things are not mutually exclusive,” he said.

“To do a rescue, you need a hose. Usually, to install a hose, you usually need a water supply. All of these tasks are labor-intensive and have to be done quickly. It takes a lot of people to do them. So I ask you, 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 memories of saving lives and thanks from family members are usually enough to drown out the little voice in the back of his mind that asks why he’s risking his life. That voice, he said, gets even louder when he witnesses someone die.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times TJ Everett

“I feel relatively safe risking my life because the city I serve has historically moved toward making firefighters safer,” Everett told the city commission. “But this proposal by Mr. Owens to reduce the number of firefighters on each truck from four to three negates that. I feel unsupported and my risk underestimated.”

Firefighter John Darling used Lego trucks to illustrate his point:

“So if you take one wheel off, what happens? It won’t work as well. But wheels are the same as firefighters. You need all four firefighters in the apparatus to work well, which is how our system is designed,” he said.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Jan Darling

Additionally, more than 150 people submitted written public comments asking the commission not to cut the LDCFM budget.

LDCFM Chief Rich Llewellyn said only one of about 12 nearby towns has fire trucks staffed by four people on a regular basis; the rest have three people on most of the time.

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

Llewellyn said he favors a four-person staff. “It’s more efficient. It delivers a better product to the community. It helps us refine our strategic goals. So I want to be clear about that,” he said.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times LDCFM CEO Rich Llewellyn, standing, addresses the city commission.

Llewellyn said the Insurance Services Office rates the department based on staffing levels, and having a staff of four helps with that. But he said adding two fire stations would improve the department’s score on spread out, meaning that fire apparatus is spread out in a certain proportion to each other.

“As part of this plan, we are adding new fire stations to compensate for the decline that will occur as a result of the staffing reduction,” he said.

There was little discussion and no public comment on a proposal to ask voters to approve a 0.05% sales tax increase to further fund homeless initiatives, as well as proposed cuts to the parks and recreation budget.

You can read a summary of other key points of the proposed budget at this link.

Commissioners took no action on the budget because Tuesday’s meeting was a work session. Mayor Bart Littlejohn asked city staff to come back with a budget option that would keep LDCFM staffed at four and fund two new stations, but would also include other cuts.

City staff will present a revised maximum budget at their next meeting. The meeting will begin 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), a reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more about her work for the Times here. See her team bio here.

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