WICHITA — There were more questions than answers at Sedgwick County budget retreat Tuesday.
Commissioners, other elected officials and department heads got together to talk about the county’s finances and their priorities for a year marked by a deficit.
It’s time for county government to “do less with less,” its manager William Buchanan told commissioners and department heads.
Already, the county has 210 fewer employees today than a year ago as a result of a voluntary retirement program and cuts to services.
But the county must continue to shrink, Buchanan said.
Its goal is to have a zero deficit by next year.
Still, leaders raised potential challenges that cost money, including finding space at the courthouse for more judges; supporting the Sedgwick County Zoo, which needs space for at least one more elephant; partnering on the Heartland Preparedness Center; contributing to the Child Advocacy Center; building a special area at the jail for inmates with mental illnesses; and others.
Getting to a zero deficit means cutting $9.3 million in spending this year. That is 3.7 percent of the 2012 adopted budget for all county property tax-supported funds.
The county could get there simply by eliminating 160 jobs, Buchanan said.
“That would be a lot more folks,” Buchanan said.
And commissioners warned that as the county shrinks services, residents will start to complain.
Commission Chairman Tim Norton said, “there will be a time when the public will say ‘enough is enough.’ I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet.” Commissioner Dave Unruh said the county’s glass isn’t half-full, as Commissioner Karl Peterjohn noted, but its “glass is too big.”
Buchanan said wholesale cuts in staff won’t work.
It makes more sense, he said, to focus on “core service and streamlined processes for results.”
Smaller government will be key, Buchanan said, but “internally, we have struggled to determine what that means.”
The county already is further along on cutting its deficit thanks to a voluntary retirement program and decisions such as reducing an adult residential corrections program from 120 beds to 65 beds, deferring some projects, cutting a software maintenance contract and eliminating safety net funding for the Sedgwick County Development Disability Organization.
But more cuts remain.
Should the county, for example, shed Comcare, which provides mental health services? It could become a non-profit, Buchanan said. But he doesn’t advocate that because “I think it’s a core function of what we do.” And Comcare still would depend on the county for money as a non-profit, he said.
Budget leaders have identified 908 programs countywide and are evaluating each of those, Buchanan said.
Unruh said one thing is certain — the county can’t depend on the state for more money.
For example, the Judge Riddell Boys Ranch costs the county more to run than it gets reimbursed by the state. Cost to the county is $201 per child per day, and the county receives $126 per child per day.
“Is that our job?” Buchanan asked. “It’s a state program.”
Unruh noted, “We’re flat going into the future. I don’t think it’s gloom and doom . . . but I think we’re going to have to do away with some things.”