I want to thank the citizens of Lawrence and my fellow commissioners for giving me the opportunity to serve as the Mayor of Lawrence Kansas over the past 12 months. Most importantly I would like to thank my family, who have allowed me to pursue the opportunity to serve the people of Lawrence. I have embraced the responsibility and duties and worked to treat the position with the care and respect it deserves. I also want to thank all of the employees of the city who have helped provide me with the information that I have needed to make decisions, provide assistance to individual residents and carry out my duties during the year.
When a person is asked to take over a job, usually they are provided with training and time to learn the position. This is not really the case when it comes to serving as a commissioner and Mayor. You must hit the ground running and there is little time to ponder. Fortunately, I was able to take over the gavel from a teacher. Commissioner Hack was gracious with her time, constructive criticism and insight into the process of running a public meeting. The commission was also blessed with the presence of three former Mayors who also helped keep things running smoothly. To all the commissioners, I am grateful for your support over the past 24 months.
One of the most inspirational things I learned as Mayor was how truly fortunate we are in this city to have many civically engaged citizens and volunteers involved in all of the boards, associations and taskforces. I want to personally thank all of them for their dedication and service to this community. Without these people, Lawrence would not be quite so extraordinary.
The year has been filled with some pretty gloomy economic conditions but our community has been fortunate to have experienced less economic volatility than many others. The economic conditions have created challenges for the nation, the state, or city and almost every individual citizen. Lawrence continues to struggle with budgetary constraints and I hope that we can work together to keep our community at the forefront when people consider relocation of their home or their company. What we have in Lawrence is difficult to duplicate and we need to nurture the things that make our community unique.
Lawrence citizens demonstrated their commitment to our community by allowing the city to raise our local sales tax rate to improve our community and help make it more sustainable. Many people know that I have invested a lot of time in our transit system. As one who is familiar with good working models of transit systems and an environmentalist, I made it my responsibility to see how we could craft a more useful, efficient and long term model of transit in our community. I spent many hours meeting with city staff, KU on Wheels staff, government officials in other towns and residents of our community. What I discovered was that we needed to have a solid future for the T in order to make it more efficient and useful. Citizens also expressed concerns over the state of roads and infrastructure in Lawrence in our citizen survey. In response to those concerns and our internal review of our transportation network the city also proposed a sales tax to help pay for the desired and needed improvements.
The effort to secure the future of our transit system and raise funds for the repair and replacement of our aging infrastructure brought out the best in Lawrence. Volunteers, commissioners and City staff, spent countless hours explaining the reason for the sales tax increase, its purpose and application and highlighting the need for the additional funding. From July until November many people dedicated their precious time and energy to this important initiative. While there were some in the community who believed the commission should have made the decision regarding the T and focused the sales tax on infrastructure, my desire was to solidify the funding and create a community referendum on the value of transit in Lawrence.
As many hoped, our community stepped up and overwhelmingly supported all three questions on the ballot and provided invaluable feedback on the value of public transportation and infrastructure in Lawrence. We want a transit system that more people use and fuel efficient options for the transit dependent and choice riders. We want better roads, sidewalks and emergency service vehicles in our community so we can continue to be an extraordinary place to live. In the face of tough times, 70% of the voters said yes, and for that I want to thank all of you.
With new federal stimulus funds, previously budgeted dollars and sales tax revenues, the city is undertaking some major projects that have been needed for a long time. Lawrence has been the recipient of millions of stimulus dollars in recent weeks, and we will use the money for much needed projects. We will repair roads that were built 100 years ago, and some that are only 20 years old. We will also use federal dollars to help replace our aging bus fleet with cleaner, greener vehicles. And soon we will implement our first coordinated route between KU on Wheels and the City of Lawrence. Coordination is something many people have talked about, but this year we did it. I believe this will be the first step in the creation of a first class transit system. The timing is perfect given the instability of the price of oil and the potential for tighter air quality emission standards.
In reviewing the last twelve months, I would like to comment on our successes and failures as a commission and community. We hit a home run last April as our community and University celebrated exuberantly, but safely as our Jayhawks were able to win a National Basketball Championship. While other communities over the past few years made national news for their lack of restraint, we did it right, several times, through the careful planning of our public safety professionals and an incredible community spirit. The only thing burning in Lawrence those weeks were the desires of our rabid fan base to repeat our success.
Speaking of national news, how wonderful it has been to be a part of the national frenzy associated with Lawrence’s youngest lobbyist. Judson King has been honored multiple times for his impressive and intelligent approach to changing the law regarding hedgehogs. We were able to send a message nationally, that Lawrence listens to everyone and that we are home to some pretty incredible young men and women. This exposure perfectly captured the essence and spirit of our community.
The commission was also able to implement an important initiative, as we completed a draft of our city’s climate protection plan. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the task force that spent the past twelve months compiling a document that our city can use to begin the process of educating our community and undertaking the important task of reducing our community’s greenhouse gas emissions. The dedicated men and women who were a part of the taskforce created a thorough and thoughtful plan that will help our region and our planet.
Our community took a major step in creating a regional hub for Biosciences by committing to the funding of an incubator facility in cooperation with Douglas County and the University of Kansas. The unique partnership that we created inspired the Kansas Bioscience Authority to also invest millions of dollars in our community and together we will be able to create a first class facility that will likely reap benefits for many years to come. Our investment in this endeavor will hopefully create high paying jobs in our community and allow us to tap into the amazing science and technology research being conducted at the University of Kansas. Much of the credit for this success is attributed to our community’s earlier investment in the Lawrence Douglas County Bioscience Authority.
2008 was a year where I wanted to focus on strengthening the cities relationship with the University of Kansas. With the success of the university’s athletic, research and development and scholastic programs it only seemed natural for Lawrence to work cooperatively with the University to improve our community. Besides our transit integration and bioscience incubator initiative, the city also worked closely with the University in creating two impressive new buildings in the city of Lawrence. The new boathouse located at Burcham Park is a tremendous addition to the community and will provide a first class facility for KU athletes and Lawrence residents to take in the beauty of the Kansas River and Burcham Park. We were also able to work together with private developers and the University to break ground for the Oread Inn. This new facility, built on the edge of the University will provide much needed hotel and meeting space for the community and further enhance the neighborhoods within its environs. Although the process was difficult, through community involvement and unique Tax Increment Financing and Transportation Development District creation, the city responded to the challenge and helped move the project forward. As the building begins to rise above the landscape, my hope is that the project is a success and that the University can use this project as a cornerstone for future successes.
Also last year, Lawrence public safety received two national recognitions. Fire Medical was awarded international agency accreditation status and confirmed as a world class operation. The accreditation is a credit to all the men and women of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical and the service they deliver every day. A second national distinction came to Lawrence Public Safety when the Lawrence Police Department’s School Resource Officer program was recognized as a National Model Agency recognizing the excellence of the program.
One item that I think our city has fallen behind on is the issue of homelessness. The City has always played a part in service to the homeless and has dedicated funds to both the Lawrence Community shelter and the Salvation Army. The faith based community and private individuals have done much to help those most in need in our community and the Commission on Homelessness has spent countless hours developing a plan for our community to effectively deal with this important issue. However, with the loss of the Salvation Army as a refuge we have lost a valuable asset and have been put in a position where we must act quickly. We need to work with those that have the expertise and funding to find a permanent home for a larger and properly configured homeless shelter. We must put aside our differences and allow the community to create a system where we can be assured that those in need can find clean, safe and consistent shelter from the elements. At the same time we must create a system where we can help the homeless move into mainstream society and become productive members of our community. The recent events surrounding the removal of campsites from city park property in the dead of winter have underscored the importance of this issue and focused the spotlight on the inadequacy of our current system. Before next winter we must have a plan, place and a passion for solving this ever growing social issue.
Finally, we must all recognize the importance of having viable land for the attraction and development of new business in our community. The focus during the recent election was job creation. However before we can attract many new businesses and help existing businesses grow, we must find a place for them. Although we have space in our current business park on the east edge of town, we must all understand that one size or place does not fit all. We must use the current economic downturn as a time for our community to identify and develop areas of our community where we will welcome businesses. Lawrence has prided itself as a welcoming community. In order to continue that welcoming, we cannot allow ourselves to fall any further behind in the fight for jobs and economic prosperity. I am hopeful that we will thoughtfully consider all potential areas in our community and provide the process and funding to create a sustainable community.
As I finish my term as Mayor, I have an expanded appreciation for Lawrence and more drive to make a difference in my community. Spending a few moments revisiting the successes that made us proud is a good thing but now it is time for us to move on to the opportunities of a new year. We have the ability to keep Lawrence a great place to live and a place that everyone of us is proud to call home.