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Sedgwick County manager unveils proposed budget

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, July 10, 2013, at 9:19 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 13, 2014, at 2:09 p.m.

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A proposed $413 million budget for Sedgwick County next year would restore money to the zoo and Exploration Place, keep the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch open through June 30, create a special area at the jail for inmates with mental illnesses, and add two elections workers.

The recommended budget that County Manager William Buchanan gave to commissioners Wednesday also includes a 2.5 percent raise pool for employees and could put almost $1.9 million into beefing up salaries to bring the county more in line with the private market. And it gives $205,000 – an increase of $85,000 from last year – to the Child Advocacy Center, which serves abused children.

Commissioners will vote on a spending plan for next year Aug. 7 after two public hearings that start next week.

“I think the manager and the budget people did a great job of reaching our goal of a balanced budget,” Commissioner Dave Unruh said. “I’m proud of the effort they’ve put in. I think this budget seems to be on the whole addressing all the needs that we had talked to the manager about. I think that we should be able to go forward.”

The suggested budget is about a half-percent higher than this year’s, which after revisions stands at just more than $411 million. It guides the county through spending in a down economy without a deficit. 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 closed 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.

The county had forecast a deficit of $5.7 million for next year, but Buchanan’s budget avoids one, even with flat property values. He forecasts a small surplus.

“I believe our community’s economic condition is slowly improving,” Buchanan said in his introduction to the 725-page budget. “But the revenues that fund services that citizens expect are flat or growing very slowly. Yet the cost of doing business will continue to increase.”

Buchanan’s budget would restore $373,226 in funding to the zoo, which has seen cuts from the county the past couple of years. It would restore $100,000 to Exploration Place.

In an interview, Buchanan said he this fall would present five-year funding agreements for the zoo and Exploration Place. The zoo, which opened in 1971, is a private-public partnership. The county pays most employees’ salaries. The zoological society pays the tab for food, supplies, utilities and other expenses.

An Eagle story earlier this year reported that the zoo’s executive director said the zoo was on a “non-sustainable” track without additional county funding.

This year’s operating budget for the zoo is about $11.36 million, of which just less than $5 million comes from the county. Buchanan has recommended giving the zoo $5.3 million next year.

The Sedgwick County Zoological Society is paying 56 percent of the zoo’s operating budget this year from admissions, memberships, sales of food and gift shop items, donations, grants and other sources of revenue, and the county is paying 44 percent.

Last year, the society paid 59 percent and the county paid 41 percent.

The county reduced the zoo’s budget by 6.6 percent in 2012 and 5 percent this year for a cumulative total of about $880,500. The zoo has been operating without a funding agreement with the county.

“This does not restore all of the cuts, but it begins a process,” Buchanan said of the budgets for the zoo and Exploration Place.

Scott Ochs, president of the zoological society, said the board is pleased with the extra money.

“It’s a great shot in the arm. We’ve always had a wonderful partnership with the county, the county managers and the commissioners. We understand it’s been a tough two years and they had to make some very difficult decisions that negatively affected the zoo,” he said. “Hard times are hard times, and we all understand that. We’re in it together.”

Ochs said the board is eager to work on a long-term funding agreement.

“I think the commissioners and we all agree on some very key points. We’ve got to maintain our zoo the way it is. It’s a world class facility. No. 2, we know we have to grow like any other venue that’s competing for entertainment dollars. You’ve got to update things and give visitors new experiences. No. 3, we have to keep the zoo as affordable as possible for all the citizens. We know we are at the upper limit. We just can’t raise prices anymore without having an adverse impact on operations.”

Jan Luth, president of Exploration Place, said the science center would use funding to help with maintenance.

“We are in a building that is now 13 years old and has a massive list of work that needs to be done,” Luth said. “This is the iconic building for our city and our region.”

Exploration Place has delayed some maintenance, such as interior painting, she said. Workers are power-washing the exterior now, she said.

She said the center had closed its cafe, reduced staffing and made other changes to deal with leaner years.

“We re-evaluated a lot of our contracts at the organization to get expenses controlled,” Luth added. “We’ve tightened our belt tremendously, and we’re also working on building our revenue at the same time.”

The budget does not include county funding for the boys ranch. The Kansas Legislature gave the county a lump sum of $750,000 for fiscal year 2014, which started July 1, to offset costs at the ranch. Not paying a subsidy to the ranch would save the county $1.1 million next year.

“We know we can keep it running until June 30,” Buchanan said.

The county plans to ask the state for more money per day per boy. The state pays the county $126 a day, but the county’s cost had been closer to $200 a day.

“My recommendation is if the state doesn’t fund us adequately, we need to shut down the program. It’s not our program,” Buchanan said. The $750,000 for state fiscal year 2014, Buchanan said, is “not going to solve the problem. It’s a short-term fix.”

Buchanan said Tuesday that “the plan is to send the legislators a letter this week thanking them for their efforts and letting them know that we really need to fix the daily rate. We’ll be providing them some information in the near future about what the daily rate should be.”

Commissioner Richard Ranzau said that he needs to delve into the budget more before speaking publicly about it but did express concern about “Judge Riddel Boys Ranch and the position we’re taking.”

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said he was “pleased that we’re looking at having a budget that should leave us with eliminating our operational spending deficit that’s been a concern.”

He said he “continues to believe” there’s a way to keep the boys ranch open.

Commissioner Tim Norton said the budget “does some things I think we should do – the mental health pod for the jail, one more year of trying to figure out what to do with the boys ranch. I’m glad we restore money to the zoo and Exploration Place.”

Board chairman Jim Skelton agreed and said he hopes there will be money for doing a better job maintaining creeks in the county.

Public hearings on next year’s budget are scheduled for 9 a.m. July 17 and 31 in the commission’s chambers on the third floor of the Courthouse, 525 N. Main. Residents also can comment about the budget and see it online at www.sedgwickcounty.org.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

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