Shawnee considers raising property taxes to address stormwater infrastructure problems
The City of Shawnee is looking at significant challenges in repairing its stormwater drainage system and is considering the first possible property tax increases since 2006.
On Tuesday, Public Works Director Doug Whitacre presented the City Council with three options for the city to consider in a new 20-year strategic plan. Each alternative involves a property tax increase to address the problems of the aging infrastructure of the city’s 178 miles of stormwater pipes.
Whitacre said the city spent $850,000 on emergency repairs to pipes, above the annual budgeted amount of $2.47 million for the stormwater department, between 2012 and 2015. However, in 2016 alone, the city is already facing $1.2 million in emergency repairs to failed pipes causing collapsing roadways. Whitacre said the city’s current plan is not meeting the demand for repairs and the frequent emergency fixes are costing the city tremendously.
“We need a sustainable plan for the city’s stormwater system,” Whitacre said.
In establishing the 20-year plan, the city planning and public works departments gathered data on the city’s pipes and rated 23 percent of the pipes across the city.
Those ratings, similar to the city’s road rating system, show 31 percent of the city’s pipes are rated good condition, 36 percent are rated fair condition, 23 percent are rated in need of repair, and 8 percent are rated for replacement.
Whitacre said the city’s current plan and funding level allows for the replacement of about .25 miles per year. He said it would take the city 60 years to replace the 4-rated pipes under the city’s current plan.
The alternative plans all include two-year projects to tackle the current backlog of deferred maintenance requests made by citizens, inspect and repair all stormwater structures such as inlets and manholes, inspect and repair improved channels, and inspect and clear roadside ditches. Each alternative also focuses on proactive measures rather than the reactive steps the city has taken for years.
The first alternative, and the most aggressive, is to accelerate video inspection rates and clear all blocked pipes within seven years. This alternative would also repair, replace or line all 3-rated and 4-rated pipes in the city on a staggered schedule. All 4-rated pipes would be replaced in the first seven years, and the 3-rated pipes would be replaced or repaired within 20 years. This alternative would cost $11 million over first seven years plus an additional $6 million over the next 13 years. In other words, it would require a 5.3 mill levy increase in the first seven years and a 3.7 mills for the rest. Additionally, the stormwater fee would increase by $144.
The second alternative, and the one city staff recommended to the City Council, accelerates video inspection rates to be completed within seven years and repairs most of the 4-rated pipes and 3-rated pipes within 20 years. Under this plan, about 5 miles of pipes would be not be replaced. This plan would cost $7.2 million and would be funded with a 4.1 mill levy increase. Additionally, the stormwater fee would increase $84.
The third alternative is to complete video inspection and the clearing of blocked pipes over 20 years and replace all 4-rated pipes in 20 years. This would cost $4.7 million, or a 1.4 mill increase. Whitacre warned that this plan does not address the 3-rated pipes and that they would deteriorate over those 20-years without any scheduled repairs. This option would also increase the stormwater fee $60.
Shawnee’s mill levy of 24.5 is one of the five lowest in Johnson County. The property tax rate hasn’t been increased by the city since 2006. The first alternative would raise the city’s mill levy rate to levels close to other cities such as Lenexa, Prairie Village and Fairway. The second alternative would increase rates to levels similar to Gardner and Mission.
The City Council had a mixed reaction to the proposals, worrying that the city just increased taxes for road maintenance and just renewed the city’s sales tax for parks and pipes. While Council Member Jeff Vaught said he didn’t want to raise taxes, something has to be done about the aging pipes.
“For years we’ve waved the flag that we’re the most efficient city with the lowest property taxes,” Vaught said. “But it’s catching up with us. I don’t want to raise taxes, but I don’t want to ignore it. We can’t ignore this.”
Council Members Mickey Sandifer, Dan Pflumm, Jim Neighbor and Eric Jenkins all voiced hesitancy with each plan.
“Last year, we had the street tax approved and some of that money was to do the same things as this,” Sandifer said. “To turn around and have a mill levy increase to do the same thing would create a problem.”
Jenkins argued that city staff and the council should take a close look at the current city budget to find funds to accomplish these goals without raising taxes. He warned that this would take some thought and some hard decisions.
“I don’t think we’ve exhausted all of our brain power and all of our options just yet,” Jenkins said.
Council Member Stephanie Meyer also worried about raising taxes when the city just increased the sales tax rate last year, but also said the city has a short timeline to potentially accomplish passing an important plan like this. She warned the council that the Kansas Legislature was advancing legislation that would cap the property tax lid for cities and counties, requiring special elections for any property tax increase. That tax lid could be in place as soon as 2017.
“This is a very important process that would be limited by the tax lid,” Meyer said. “Our ability to capture that additional growth might be lost.”
City Manager Carol Gonzales said city staff would look into other alternatives within the city budget, with input from the council members, and would bring back all alternatives to the council for a decision in the coming months.