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Avoiding deficit may mean tough choices, says Sedgwick County finance chief

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, May 15, 2013, at 9:24 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, at 7:07 a.m.

How Sedgwick County commissioners approach next year’s budget will depend a lot on whether they see reduced revenue as cyclical or as a long-term problem that won’t get better.

The county’s chief financial officer, Chris Chronis, gave commissioners something to think about Wednesday as he and County Manager William Buchanan kicked off budget hearings.

If commissioners believe the tax base will return to a growth of 4 percent or more, “the conclusion is we have a cyclical problem, and the solution is careful choices about budget allocation and prudent use of reserves,” said a report that his office prepared.

That means spending some of the county’s rainy-day money, much like a household might dip into savings to temporarily weather a loss of income.

But if commissioners think the tax base will continue to be flat, there’s a bigger problem that will require more spending cuts or tax increases.

Chronis noted that when he moved to the area in 1999, his real estate agent told him that buying a house in Wichita as an investment was not a good strategy because property values don’t skyrocket like they do in other parts of the country. But he said property values also don’t plummet like they do on the coasts.

The county expects to end this year without a deficit after making about $7.2 million in cuts to tax-supported funds and eliminating 69 full-time positions. It also shuttered some programs, such as the health department’s prenatal program, and it reduced support to the zoo, the extension center, Exploration Place and Wichita Area Technical College.

A deficit of $5.7 million is forecast for next year – Chronis was careful to use the word “forecast” and not “planned” because no one, he said, plans a deficit.

“We’ve achieved your goal of having a zero deficit” this year, Chronis told commissioners. But more cuts are needed to wipe out next year’s.

He jokingly gave commissioners a pop quiz about “Chronis’ Law of Budgeting.” His theory, he said, is that funding is never the problem. Priorities are the problem.

Not everything can be a high priority, Chronis told commissioners, who will have to make tough decisions such as whether to give the Sedgwick County Zoo more money and whether to build a special area at the Sedgwick County Jail for inmates who are mentally ill.

To avoid a deficit and avoid raising taxes, “you may decide we need to make changes to the community’s expectations of services,” Chronis said.

Commissioners might decide the county shouldn’t be the agency to offer some services, like it did when it stopped supporting a pre-natal program.

The county’s economic development office was the first to make its budget request to commissioners. About $10.3 million is proposed for next year, including $8.2 million for the Affordable Airfares program and slightly more than $2 million to support organizations such as the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and for forgivable loans to businesses. This year, the county earmarked $12.2 million for economic development.

Buchanan said staff members have been working on next year’s budget since January.

In July, he said, commissioners will compare his recommended budget with what department heads have asked for in hearings that continue next week.

“Our mission is to provide services for the present and future well-being of the citizens of Sedgwick County,” Buchanan told commissioners. “This process is about information and choices, options and decisions. It is a journey. It’s about taking care of the short-term and creating a long-term plan for how we deliver services.”

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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