Come next Tuesday, it’s either going to be “Nothing to see here, folks” or a change in the majority among Sedgwick County commissioners.
The matchup between incumbent Tim Norton, a Democrat, and Ben Sauceda, a Republican, could change the way the county approaches economic development and spending. Both men — one a political veteran and the other a newcomer — are seeking to represent District 2, which covers south-central Wichita and Haysville.
If Sauceda, an associate pastor, wins, it’s likely he often would vote with commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau when the board is split.
However, Sauceda told The Eagle that he will look at every issue on its own merits and not vote one way or another simply to “side” with other commissioners.
If Norton wins, he would retain a majority vote with Republicans Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton, who often — but not always — vote together when the board is not unanimous.
A new majority could affect the county’s participation in subsidies for businesses trying to locate or expand in the area.
Norton has been supportive of subsidies, as have Unruh and Skelton.
City Council member Jeff Longwell, who ran unsuccessfully in the primary against Peterjohn, said he was concerned about a possible change in the majority. He said he and other council members “have had some casual conversations about this very thing. If you change the makeup to a very conservative group, then one of the things we recognize is at this point in time, we would be looking at a straight free-market system for economic development. Those cities and states that we neighbor that are offering incentives are the ones that would probably win.”
The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee has endorsed Norton. He’s the only Democrat the PAC endorsed. The PAC labeled Norton “pro business.”
Susan Estes, field coordinator for Americans for Prosperity and a former county Republican chairwoman, said she is hoping for a new majority.
“I would welcome a free-market county commission,” she said. “I feel that the need for incentives expresses a greater issue than what we see on the surface. It signals to us that we really need to go in and look at our mill levy and look where we can cut taxes. … ”
Estes said she supports across-the-board help for businesses through tax relief instead of incentives for specific companies.
“Whenever we do things piecemeal, yeah, we may help one guy and maybe it works out but we’re seeing that it often doesn’t. Why are we helping people one at a time? Where is the equal representation in that?”
Ranzau, who represents District 4 in north-central Sedgwick County, said he is hoping for a change in the majority.
“I think we’d certainly have a better opportunity to take a look at some issues,” he said.
Ranzau said he has sensed “some resistance” to look at “better ways to spend money and cut costs without having a negative impact on things. When you’re in challenging times, you have to rethink what you’re doing.”
Sauceda, he said, might be “more willing to get into the nuts and bolts and not defer to the manager and staff.”
Ranzau said he also thought Sauceda could help the county withdraw from a sustainable communities grant he has ardently opposed.
Sauceda confirmed that he would work to get out of the grant. He said he has not made links between the grant, administered through the Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP), and United Nations Agenda 21, as Ranzau has.
“But I am opposed to it,” Sauceda said.
Sauceda, who has the backing of former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, also said he would vote against subsidies for companies that have business models that won’t work without government help.
He said he would have voted against going along with a tax-increment financing district for the Southfork development, a mix of retail and office space with hotels and restaurants proposed by developer Jay Maxwell. Norton supported it, as did Skelton and, eventually, Unruh.
Norton noted in a written response for The Eagle’s voter guide that he sits on the board of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. “As a group of business, local government and community leaders it is apparent that we would like to use incentives sparingly but that there is a fierce competition from other cities, states and countries. … I believe that we must compete and sometimes that includes incentives whether we like it or not,” he wrote.
Unruh said he anticipates a change in the majority if Sauceda wins.
“I think that if for some reason Tim doesn’t prevail in the election, there will be a shift in the majority perspective on many issues,” Unruh said. “How much will actually be influenced we won’t know until the issues come up one at a time.
There will be some change, and I think it probably will be noticeable.”
He agreed the major impact could be on economic development.
“There’s a difference of opinion among commissioners now about how much we’re involved in economic development support, how much we’re involved in GWEDC (the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition) and how much involvement there is in REAP. All of those issues could be influenced if someone else were elected to the commission.”