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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

County manager presents budget to commissioners that eliminates 113 jobs, closes Judge Riddel Boys Ranch

By Deb Gruver
The Wichita Eagle

A “painful” budget that Sedgwick County’s manager has recommended for next year would eliminate 113 jobs, close the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch and give less money to senior centers, the zoo, the extension center and Exploration Place.

Those cuts are key elements of a $408 million spending plan that William Buchanan shared Wednesday with commissioners, who ultimately will decide next month how to spend taxpayer money.

Buchanan set out to eliminate a $9.3 million deficit by the end of next year. He did so by cutting about $8 million out of this year’s budget and finding about $1.3 million in new revenue, primarily through a fee the county will begin charging later this year to accept tax payments by credit card.

Buchanan said he knows the cuts would affect some of the most vulnerable people the county serves.

People with developmental disabilities would no longer get help with special tools they need for jobs that help them live more independently. Seniors might have to dig deeper into their pockets for prescriptions or eyeglasses. At-risk offenders might be placed at a residential center farther from home.

“There’s enough in this budget for everyone to hate,” Buchanan said.

Commissioners will work in coming weeks to decide whether to go along with Buchanan’s recommendations or dip into the county’s rainy-day reserves to save some of the services important to people in their districts.

Commissioner Tim Norton, for example, suggested waiting until midyear to close the boys ranch to give state officials more time to kick in more funding, even though Buchanan has stressed that the county has been asking for help since 2007, the last time rates were raised.

Norton would like to restore funding to the extension center, the zoo and Exploration Place.

But doing so means living beyond the county’s means, Norton recognizes.

“Somebody’s ox is going to get gored. That’s just the way it is when you have to make budget cuts. One man’s victory is another guy’s pain. If you have trim $9 million from a budget, it has to come from somewhere. “

Boys ranch

Closing the boys ranch would save the county about $1.5 million a year in operational costs, not to mention $14.6 million in capital improvement expenses.

Those are real savings, Buchanan said.

Based on recidivism rates and a study by Wichita State University, estimates are that boys now at the ranch would commit 39 new crimes a year. Housing them in jail would cost about $75,000 a year. That pales in comparison to how much the county spends now to operate the ranch. The state provides $126 per day per boy to the county, but the cost to operate the ranch is $204 per day per boy.

Buchanan said in an interview that he understands the savings doesn’t take into consideration the victims of those 39 crimes a year. He also said there are 31 programs across the state that provide the same services as the boys ranch.

The boys, he said, would not be turned out on the streets.

The boys ranch, while a good program, is the state’s responsibility, Buchanan stressed.

Under this plan, the ranch would not close until mid-January to allow boys to finish the fall semester of school.

The county is considering a juvenile day reporting program that would aim to reach youths on the front end, before they offend.

Commissioner Jim Skelton said there is support on the board to keep the ranch open.

“We are going to talk about it,” he said. “There are alternatives.”

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn thinks there may be a way to restructure the ranch to save money.

Some spared cuts

Departments that would have no budget cuts include general government offices such as the county counselor, clerk, register of deeds, election commissioner, treasurer; public safety offices such as the district attorney, the courts, emergency communications, Fire District No. 1 and code enforcement; public works services such as noxious weeds and household hazardous waste; animal control; and economic development.

Buchanan said the county clerk, register of deeds, treasurer and district attorney’s office — all led by elected officials, not staff — offered no suggestions for decreasing their budgets. Buchanan said he declined to recommend the cuts the other departments offered because they would have impaired services.

While planning for next year, Buchanan said he asked department heads to think about what they would keep if they had 80 percent of this year’s budget to spend in 2013. Then he asked them to make a list of what they would keep if they could hang onto 90 percent. Finally, he asked them to consider what they would do with the last 10 percent of this year’s budget, or what they would “buy last.”

Buchanan said he approached the task of getting to a zero deficit by focusing on the county’s core services.

Staff evaluated 908 programs or services in preparing for next year’s budget. Buchanan said his plan keeps 97 percent of those intact.

Sites see cuts

Buchanan’s budget would cut funding to the zoo by about $256,000 and support to Exploration Place by $112,405.

County funding to the extension center would be cut by almost $177,000.

Funding to senior centers would decrease by 10 percent, or $66,300.

Buchanan said one of the county’s main goals in its department on aging is to keep people out of nursing homes.

Senior centers “are pretty far from the door to the nursing home,” he said.

Exploration Place spokeswoman Christina Bluml said the science museum expected a cut.

“We were able to plan for it, and we feel prepared for the next year,” she said. “We’ll just keep on keeping on.”

Bev Dunning, director of the extension center, was less hopeful.

“Last year our cut was 12 percent, this year it’s 18 percent,” she said. “I think 30 percent in two years is a bit much. That’s really critical for us.”

She said the center’s board plans to meet tonight to talk about what to cut.

Zoo executive director Mark Reed said the zoo has lost almost $1 million in funding from the county the past two years.

He said the zoo laid off five people last year.

“We’re going to get by without having to lay people off,” he said.

Reed said he is concerned about maintenance. The zoo is struggling “to keep our garden and grounds up,” he said.

“But partners help partners when they’re in trouble. We’re getting stretched tight. Hopefully this will be it, but we’ll see.”

Commissioners will vote on next year’s budget at 9 a.m. Aug. 15.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-263-7389 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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