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Friday, July 25, 2014

City of Wichita to cut services, avoid layoffs in proposed 2013 budget

By Bill Wilson
The Wichita Eagle

The city of Wichita would leave 110 positions open — and trim services including library hours — under a 2013 budget proposed Tuesday by City Manager Robert Layton

Layton’s proposed $213.5 million general fund budget eliminates projected deficits of $5.4 million in 2013 and $6.7 million in 2014 while avoiding for now layoffs that city officials had feared earlier were inevitable.

The proposed budget also includes some fee increases and service cuts.

“I don’t want to say I’m pleasantly surprised,” council member James Clendenin said. “But we were looking hard at cuts a lot more drastic than this.”

“The good news is we’re looking at a plan that balances the budget for ’13 and ’14,” Vice Mayor Janet Miller said. “There is some pain in cutting library hours and not being able to continue some grant-funded police positions. However, given the state of the fragile economy it wasn’t as painful as we had imagined.”

City officials say they think they’ve eliminated possible layoffs and have determined that 90 of the city’s 200 vacant jobs must be filled to maintain basic service levels. Over the past three years, the city has pared about 200 positions and about $20 million from the general fund, Layton said.

Thirty-seven city jobs will be eliminated, the city manager said, but only eight are filled and most, if not all, of those people will be moved to other jobs. Nineteen eliminated jobs would be from the office of central inspection, eight from the police department and 10 from engineering. The police positions are seven street officers and one parking officer. Council members said officers on military deployment will not lose their positions.

The cuts are in response to expected slow, if any, growth in the city’s property valuation through 2014. City officials blame Wichita’s stagnant property tax values for much of their budget woes.

Most of the unfilled open positions will be prioritized by city staff, the city manager said, but at least 80 of those are probably long-term vacancies through 2014.

“It’s been pretty fluid,” Layton said. “The holding of the vacant positions is substantial. We’ve held positions before, but this is the first time we’ve had a systematic approach to it that’s this strategic.”

The city’s deficit-busting got a major boost when city officials learned recently that they’ll save about $600,000 in worker’s compensation costs.

Layton also proposed a variety of fee increases, including fire inspections, convenience and parking rates.

He proposed several service cuts, including cuts in library branch hours and a cut in the city’s marketing operation, which includes Channel 7. Also included is major savings in street maintenance, topping out at $2 million next year, as Public Works Director Alan King uses alternative repair and maintenance methods to improve streets.

And the city manager’s budget proposes the stabilization of Wichita’s embattled bus system through 2014, through the use of contingency reserve funds and the realignment of west-side bus routes. There was no mention Tuesday of the sales tax referendum that the city’s transit advisory board seeks for long-term expansion of the bus system.

“The westside connector will be modified, and there are some other possible service changes,” Layton said. “The bottom line is we’re trying to buy some time for a community discussion.”

The library hours will be adjusted at non-peak times, said Mark Manning, the city’s budget officer, and will save about $150,000. The increase in fire inspection fees should raise about $280,000, with convenience payment fee hikes raising $300,000 and parking rate increases another $50,000. Specifics on what those fee increases will mean for consumers are not yet available and will come before the budget is approved in mid-August.

“The issue for us is we really are currently struggling to keep enough people in place to keep up with the work and cover the service schedule,” said Cynthia Berner Harris, the city’s director of libraries. “What we as a management team did was to look at things we could do to adjust library hours in ways so we could have a deeper level of staffing during the busiest hours to keep up with the work and not always be on a skeleton crew.”

Library officials are ready to shift to the new schedules after Labor Day, Berner Harris said.

Layton said the service cuts, while painful, aren’t as deep as imagined early in the budget process.

“I don’t perceive the service cuts to be that drastic in terms of the fact that at one point we were looking at deleting service areas and programs,” Layton said. “We were able to avert that and avoid significant layoffs, which would certainly impact the way we would provide services.

“There has still been some erosion of services across departments, and we’ve had to trim some service levels. The staff is working hard to keep the public from seeing the impact of that.”

Layton is scheduled to present his final proposed budget to the City Council on July 17. Adoption is scheduled for Aug. 14.

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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