Douglas County makes case for tax hike
Officials say we can’t afford not to seek 16.6% increase
A proposed increase in property taxes would help Douglas County generate $1 million to:
• Inject money into promising bioscience companies.
• Plant protective preservation into farm fields, historic sites and other culturally sensitive areas.
• Bankroll community objectives that have languished for more than a decade without specific financing.
The components — all part of a vision to create jobs and protect finite resources — are included in a plan to be considered by Douglas County commissioners as part of their 2011 operating budget.
It’s also part of a package of improvements and expenditures that would boost the county’s property tax rate by as much as 16.6 percent, already the largest single increase County Administrator Craig Weinaug has ever proposed, much less seen enacted.
The major initiative couldn’t come at a more important time, he said.
“This community for years, at the leadership level, has talked about how economic development cannot be done by itself, that there’s another side of the equation to a healthy community: protection of open spaces and historic resources,” Weinaug said. “There needs to be public funding to meet both of those needs, and neither is more important than the other. …
“But it will cost something. And this is not symbolic funding — it’s something that can make a difference.”
$500,000 X 2
Specifically, Weinaug has outlined a proposal that would generate $500,000 for new economic-development projects and programs, ones designed to support existing and expanding companies, attract new employers, and invest in infrastructure to help the community succeed in a competitive business-attraction environment.
Likewise, Weinaug’s proposed budget calls for dedicating another $500,000 for protection of heritage resources and open spaces — land, structures and landmarks said to define the county’s historical, social, economic, political and agricultural heritage, plus open spaces identified as necessary for the county’s long-term needs.
For now, commissioners and officials supporting the efforts see hope in what otherwise would be considered bad economic news: continuing joblessness, fragile property values and insecure consumer confidence.
Nancy Thellman, commission chairwoman, acknowledges that the prospect of raising taxes to boost economic development and preservation efforts will be a “tough sell,” but she’s willing to push for it.
‘Time to move forward’
“There’s never a good time to ask for more money,” Thellman said, “but I think, at some point, there is a time to move forward on these initiatives that our community has talked about for a decade, if not more.
“Whether these initiatives will be voted in or out, I don’t know. But it’s definitely worth bringing up and talking about whether our community is serious about economic development — whether we’re going to be able to compete with our neighbors.”
Weinaug envisions the economic-development money to be used annually for financing incentives and otherwise covering public costs that go into encouraging businesses to expand or attract new employers into the area. Examples being discussed these days include Berry Plastics possibly building a warehouse at the northwestern edge of Lawrence, and Deciphera Pharmaceuticals potentially locating a manufacturing operation at the former site of the Farmland Industries fertilizer plant at the southeastern edge of Lawrence.
“The ability to keep Berry Plastics will take some level of public funding to make that deal work,” Weinaug said. “For Deciphera … to make that work, when it happens — and streets, roads and infrastructure need to be added at that site — that will require public expense.
“In the environment of 25 years ago, all that infrastructure could be provided by the industry. The way the competitive makeup now is, if you can’t provide those things, they go to Topeka. They go to Canada.”
Step ‘sorely needed’
Brad Burnside, co-chairman of the Economic Development Committee for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t want the Lawrence area to lose its edge. The area already has lost at least 1,500 jobs in recent years, he said, and setting aside $500,000 to prime the pump for economic initiatives would go a long way toward keeping Lawrence and Douglas County in the game.
“This is a significant step and one that’s been sorely needed,” said Burnside, Lawrence market president for US Bank. “At the end of the day, these investments will bear fruit to the folks paying taxes. We just have to step up to the plate.”
And businesses looking to move or expand no longer are relying solely on the “bottom line” of an incentives deal, said Judy Billings, president of Destination Management Inc., the operation behind the new Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area. Employers want to be sure their employees also enjoy a solid quality of life.
And that, she said, means living in a community that values its history, embraces its resources and preserves what has made the community unique and successful and sustainable.
Providing $500,000 to help such efforts is as much about economic development as it is about preserving and supporting a community’s very identity, Billings said.
“The timing is right,” said Billings, who notes that so-called “heritage travelers” spend, on average, $300 more per trip than do travelers as a whole. “There’s a lot of talk around the country in terms of heritage development, as it relates to economic development, and I think we need to look at both: jobs, and conserving and preserving our heritage, how these both fit together.”
Raising taxes is never easy, she said, but Billings is confident commissioners will be able to follow through and help the heritage area and the community build a strong foundation — through support of the Watkins Community Museum of History, embarking on a survey of the county’s historic and cultural resources, and making other efforts to ensure what’s important today remains available for future generations.
“Making an investment in the future is the right thing to do,” Billings said.