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Sedgwick County commissioners outline priorities at budget retreat

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, at 8:37 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, at 7:16 p.m.

Keep the budget balanced, continue to streamline services, and let residents know that some cuts in services aren’t driven by Sedgwick County decisions.

Those were the basic priorities that county commissioners established Tuesday during their annual budget retreat – held just up the street from the courthouse at the Ark Valley Lodge – and passed on to County Manager William Buchanan.

Gathered around tables for four hours, commissioners offered ideas for a long wish list, heard from staff on what was needed and received another splash of cold water on the revenue forecast: Assessed property valuation is expected to be less than previously thought, Budget Director David Miller said.

That’s significant because 62 percent of the county’s budget – or $222.8 million – comes from property taxes.

When property valuation was established last spring for the 2013 budget, Miller said it was thought the valuations would see a 1.5 percent increase in 2014 and gradually climb to 2.4 percent in 2015, 4.0 in 2016 and 4.5 percent for 2017.

Instead, Miller’s revised forecast calls for no growth 2014 and lower numbers for the other years. The projected change means $1.8 million less revenue for 2014 and more nearly $16 million less over the next four years.

“There’s not a lot of appreciation in value of property,” Miller said.

That didn’t really come as a shock to the commissioners. But coupled with news they received last week that the county’s investment income was down about 20 percent, it set the mood for the rest of the day’s discussions on budget priorities.

“I’d rather count on getting less revenue,” Commissioner Richard Ranzau said, “than hope for more.”

And while there was debate over such projects as establishing a pod for mentally ill inmates at the jail and increasing funding for the zoo, the commissioners agreed on a few things.

One was keep the budget balanced.

At the retreat two years ago, commissioners were told their spending and income source had them on collision for a $17 million deficit by 2016. After two years of cuts and consolidations while still reducing the mill levy, the projected deficit for 2016 has been cut in more than half.

The county also ended fiscal year 2012 with a $1.2 million budget surplus and is expected to be $300,000 ahead for 2013. But 2014 is expected to see a $2.7 million deficit, if more changes aren’t made.

Commissioners are determined to make those changes.

“I don’t think we want to lose sight of the fact we want a balanced budget,” Commissioner Dave Unruh said. “The needs are legitimate, but we don’t want to get sucked into a deficit situation.”

Chairman Jim Skelton said, “There’s a dream sheet here. There’s no way we’re going to accomplish all of it because of the budget. To prioritize, we have to work together.”

Commissioners also saw being more efficient and maximizing partnerships as an important part of keeping the budget balanced. They want the streamlining to continue.

But some also took off on the bum rap they thought they were getting from the public. Some of the cuts in county services were the result of losing supplemental funding from the state, they noted.

“I don’t want to take the hit as an elected person for what’s being done in Topeka,” Unruh said.

Miller provided a list of seven county departments – including corrections, aging and health services – that receives nearly $12 million in state money. With the budge belt tightening in Topeka, those funds are always at risk, he said.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said, “Outside factors can hit us.”

Among the specific projects discussed, the plans for a pod at the jail for mentally ill inmates drew the most discussion. The idea drew support from most of the commissioners, although Ranzau wanted a cost-benefit analysis.

The idea was first proposed in 2010, when the projected cost for the pod was $760,000 – all annually renewing costs except for a one-time $18,000 fee to do remodeling. That cost is now $838,000, including a remodeling increase to $25,000, Sheriff Jeff Easter said. The annual cost would be about $813,000.

Although the proposed pod would have room for 49 mentally ill inmates, Easter said the jail averages about 350 inmates who would qualify.

“It’s not the Cadillac of the bunch,” Easter said of the pod. “It’s a Chevy.”

As it is now, mentally ill inmates mingle with the jail’s regular population and sometimes incur additional criminal charges while in the jail.

“There’s a public safety issue in this,” Skelton said.

Unruh took a jab at Peterjohn, who was the commission chairman in 2010 when the commission declined to use a federal grant to help fund the pods. The grant would have paid for two years of operational costs and the remodeling, Unruh said.

“I don’t want to be guilty of piling on,” Unruh said, “but sometimes good comes from grants. Now we would be paying for it out of the mill levy.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or at rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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