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Wichita City Council will listen to calls for tax increases

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, June 27, 2013, at 10:10 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, July 21, 2013, at 11:27 a.m.

There’s very little appetite among Wichita City Council members for property and sales tax increases to maintain quality of life and core services.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t listen to calls for more money to support core services like street maintenance and recreation like pools.

Possible cuts to balance the $535 million 2014 and 2015 budgets – everything from cutting back on street maintenance to reducing the number of city pools and mothballing the city’s police helicopter – proved unpopular Wednesday with members of the city’s advisory boards.

Several advisory board members instead broached the subject of a tax increase, a move that shocked council members.

“I’m speechless, to tell you the truth,” council member James Clendenin said Thursday. “First off, let me say that I don’t want to raise property taxes. This probably isn’t the best time for any increase in taxes, unless we’re going to give tax relief in other areas.

“But I’m always willing to listen to the public and see what they’re saying.”

Council member Janet Miller said flatly that she expects the board members to be drowned out – soon – by the city’s vocal anti-tax crowd.

“I’d be surprised if last night’s comments were reflective of a cross-section of Wichitans,” Miller said, “but with that said, I’d be interested in hearing more.

“I’m relatively certain that after another article in the paper on this topic, we’ll start hearing from people with a decidedly different opinion.”

The proposed cuts may mean holding open positions the city had planned to use to help repair its crumbling streets. It might mean delaying a police recruiting class or eliminating the police helicopter. And it could spell the end of some aging neighborhood swimming pools that are in need of thousands of dollars’ worth of repairs.

City officials are planning for only minor growth in assessed valuation, based on the latest Sedgwick County projections of 0.5 percent in 2014 and 1.5 percent in 2015. The result is $880,000 less in revenue for the 2014 budget and $1.79 million less than originally expected for 2015.

So council member Jeff Blubaugh said he’s reluctant to turn away from calls to maintain or improve services.

“As a real estate investor, my property taxes are lower in Wichita than they are in Haysville, Goddard, Derby, any of the surrounding towns,” he said. “I’m definitely surprised by the sentiment at the meeting, but I think it’s something we have to keep an open mind to.”

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner and council member Jeff Longwell were less open to tax hikes.

“I don’t have an appetite to raise taxes at all,” Meitzner said. “I’d have to get way into the bowels of every line item before I’d consider raising taxes.”

“We recognize that we’re in a tough economy that we’re slowly – slowly – working out of,” Longwell said, “but keeping taxes down will help us recover quicker than trying to raise taxes right now and provide some of these additional services.’

Meitzner did endorse, however, one of the ideas floated in the Wednesday night meeting: a voter-approved sales tax incease in Wichita.

“The only justification, in my opinion, for considering revenue increases to cover various services would be for the whole community to be involved, and that’s through a consumption tax done on the ballot approval of the citizens,” he said.”

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @bwilsoneagle.

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