WICHITA — There are two ways to pull off a Band-Aid: slowly or quickly. Sedgwick County leaders are debating which approach to take to cutting $9.3 million from their budget.
County Manager William Buchanan told commissioners Wednesday that most department heads want to get the cuts over with instead of delaying the pain, so that they can move on with “the new reality.”
Buchanan has pushed staff to do “less with less” as the county tries to get to a zero deficit by the end of next year.
The county could get to its goal by eliminating 160 jobs. But that kind of wholesale approach doesn’t make sense, Buchanan said.
“You can’t just eliminate an entire box on the organizational chart,” he said.
The county has looked at 908 programs, or services, it provides, Buchanan said.
“We’re trying to determine which ones have the most impact on the most people’s lives, especially the vulnerable,” he said in a later interview. “It’s really about hard choices.”
Commissioner Dave Unruh asked Buchanan if there’s any indication the county’s financial picture is temporary, which could allow the county to take a less drastic approach to cutting.
Buchanan said he sees no forecast that the county’s checkbook will grow fatter soon.
The county is pulling in less in property tax revenues because valuations are down slightly.
“The fact that one mill is generating less revenue than it has in the past is having an effect,” Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said later. “Taxable assessed value is lower than it was last year. It’s a relatively slight decrease, but in the past, property taxes at the same mill levy would generate increased revenues because of growth in assessed valuation. We’ve been in a much more challenging environment in the last two years.”
He compared the financial picture to working on a puzzle “when you still have quite a few key pieces missing.”
Peterjohn said he’s waiting to hear what staff recommends. Budget hearings for the county begin next week. That’s when department heads will begin delivering their plans for coping with decreased revenue.
“I’m interested in getting the best value for county taxpayers and trying to minimize any negative impacts of the financial challenges we face,” Peterjohn said.
Unruh said that he would be willing to cut more gradually “if we thought this would get us to a balanced budget with less pain. But if the forecast doesn’t support that kind of an action, we need to get ahead and get it done and stop the erosion of our resources.”
Commissioner Jim Skelton said he’s also waiting to hear recommendations.
“We may have to consider doing this gradually,” Skelton said, expressing concern about funding for senior centers and stormwater management.
Skelton said reducing money to seniors is “not really an option” for him.
The county may have to continue to dip into reserves to preserve services for its most vulnerable residents, he said, adding that it might take “extraordinary measures for extraordinary times.”
Unruh said he was worried about “what we might do with the Judge Riddell Boys Ranch. I have been given indication that that’s a strong consideration to be cut, and I am concerned about that.”
The 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, Buchanan said in February.
Buchanan emphasized Wednesday that “everything is on the table.”
Board chairman Tim Norton said that when he worked at Target, the company took an “if it’s not broken, break it” approach — always trying to think outside the box and not do things just because that’s the way they’ve always been done.
The county needs to do the same, he said.
Commissioner Richard Ranzau said he wants to reach a balanced budget by the end of next year but said “we will have to wait and see what the recommendations end up being.”