Lawrence town halls focus on 2024 budget planning


City of Lawrence Mayor Steve Collier kicked off the 2024 budget planning process with two town hall presentations in mid-August, focusing on different services the city provides.

The first town hall was about public safety, including law enforcement and fire and EMS. The second one covered parks, streets and public works.

Collier gave a brief introduction before handing the microphone to department heads. He noted that the municipal budget is usually between $25 and $27 million, and then the utility budget is generally between $28 and $31 million.

“We have a fairly substantial budget that we deal with every year and it’s fairly intricate,” he told the audience. “You’ve probably already seen the rather thick budget books that we put out every year.”

The 2024 budget is not yet available to the public. When a proposed budget is ready, the city puts it online, and Collier said residents then can look up expenses by line item, or can email the controller, Tyler Douthit, with specific questions.

Douthit provided an overview of the city’s finances during both town halls, noting that the primary revenue source for Lawrence is property taxes — the 2023 rate was 67 cents per $100 assessed value. He said property taxes make up about 42 percent of the general fund. Income tax is next at about 19 percent, followed by fees for services and payments in lieu of taxes.

He estimated that revenue for 2024 will be about $28 million.

As far as expenses go, Douthit said public safety takes up about 77 percent of the general fund.

“It’s an important piece, and it’s a primary use of our funds,” he said. “Given the size of the departments and their operating expenditures, it makes sense. This is not uncommon for most cities of our size.”

Lawrence Fire Department Chief Dino Batalis talked about significant cost increases for equipment — ladder trucks, in particular. He said a truck that cost about $930,000 in 2016 now costs close to $2 million.

“That’s how much has gone up (from) 2016 till now, and you have to really plan ahead because if you wait, you’re going get behind the ball,” he said. “And these prices are going up around every 30 to 45 days with the way that things are going.”

Batalis talked a little about expenses in 2023, including the new Fire Station 38. He said the new station will open in September and replace a 36-year-old building that was built for volunteer firefighters, not professionals who have to sleep and cook there during their shifts. The new station also will have a separate building to house reserve apparatus and a baby box, paid for through a grant.

Lawrence Police Department Chief Curtis Bigsby told the audience that the LPD has 57 officers but is authorized to have 65. He said they were about to swear in two new officers, and they’re always looking for ways to attract more personnel to Lawrence.

“It’s very competitive when it comes to salaries and pay and benefits,” Bigsby said, adding that there are regulatory barriers surrounding transfers from other agencies. “We are looking at how we can overcome some of those barriers and challenges and get more officers here within the City of Lawrence.”

Bigsby added that the police department has a regular rotation for new police vehicles, which cost about $65,000 each, including the police equipment.

Parks Director Eric Martin, Streets Director Jim Heneghan and City Engineer Sri Venugopalan addressed various projects during the second town hall.

Martin said the city takes care of about 300 acres of park land with seven full-time parks employees, and they’re always looking for grants to improve or add more services and amenities.

Venugopalan talked about the city’s stormwater system, which had been managed by Indianapolis until 2020, when Lawrence created its own stormwater district. Now, Lawrence residents’ stormwater fees go to the City of Lawrence.

Venugopalan said the fees generate about $2 million annually and are used to improve the local stormwater drainage system. He said they also have been awarded grants to help make those funds go further and to have something on hand for emergencies.

“I always set aside some money for ongoing repairs because people call in with complaints about drainage issues that has not been addressed some of the years,” he said. “I’m happy to say that we have caught up on a lot of those repairs in the last year and this year we have a contractor nonstop working on those repairs.”

The street department is primarily funded through the city’s gas tax, which will generate an estimated $3.1 million in 2023.

Heneghan said, like the fire department, his equipment costs are growing.

“Three years ago, I bought a tandem axle — it’s a three-axle truck — for $180,000,” he said. “I just was getting in the process of buying a smaller single axle — $260,000. So, three years difference, and trucks went up that much. That’s a budget killer.”

Similar to other departments throughout the City of Lawrence, Heneghan keeps an eye out for grants that could help fund services.

Once the mayor’s proposed City of Lawrence 2024 budget is complete it will go to the Lawrence Common Council for review. It then must be submitted to the Department of Local Government Finance for final approval.