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Wichita City Council hears budget concerns over arts funding, firefighter positions

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, August 6, 2013, at 5:56 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, August 6, 2013, at 9:23 p.m.

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The public showed little interest in Tuesday’s public hearing on the proposed $543 million 2014 city budget.

But that didn’t stop Wichita City Council and staff members from poking at the budget. The city has one more public hearing at 9 a.m. Tuesday, with final budget approval also scheduled during that meeting.

Only two people spoke at the hearing – one bemoaning the cuts to quality-of-life services like the Riverside Park animal exhibit, the other calling for an end to council trips – near the end of a 6 1/2-hour City Council meeting.

But subjects like filling vacant city positions, contract road maintenance, public safety staffing and cultural arts funding went under the microscope as City Manager Robert Layton made his budget presentation

Vacant city positions, many of which have been eliminated strategically in budgets since 2009 as the council dealt with decreasing property valuations, drew the most debate.

Council member Jeff Longwell pushed Layton to strategically fill more revenue-generating positions, particularly in quality-of-life agencies such as City Arts that could face a city push to raise more private money for operating funds. Layton is proposing some rate increases, including at City Arts, to gradually achieve 50 percent cost recovery. Rates will rise at City Arts in 2014 to generate an estimated $60,000 extra, with a goal of $130,000 in 2015.

“My concern really is with some of the operations right now you are suggesting we get to a 50 percent cost reduction, such as City Arts,” Longwell said.

“Right now, they’ve got some vacant positions that have been open for quite awhile. For us to get to a place where we’re telling them to find other resources, I think they’re going to need an extra person in there.”

Layton said all city vacancies are filled on a need basis, determined by his office and department heads. He said department heads must demonstrate that the position generates more than enough revenue to pay for itself.

“Well, if we’re going to add more work and more community outreach there, you’re going to have to fill one more spot,” Longwell said.

Layton indicated that the $1 million proposed increase in contract road maintenance, to $8 million in 2014, may be the first step in the further outsourcing of city road work to private contractors.

The reallocation of fire department resources and the transfer of six firefighters to other vacant positions drew some criticism. Matt Schulte, who represents the firefighters’ union, asked the council for time to work with Layton and fire Chief Ron Blackwell to search for other areas in the fire department budget to recover the estimated $430,000 the six firefighter positions would generate.

The budget includes reallocation of city firefighter manpower and equipment, including the redeployment of equipment from Station 2 to Station 22, both in south Wichita. Station 38, in far east Wichita, will house a squad rather than an engine. The city is budgeting for six fewer firefighter positions while transferring the employees in those positions but says response times should not change and may be enhanced.

“I’d like to find different ways within our own budget as a way to save those positions,” Schulte told the council. “I think that if we get together with the city manager and the fire chief, we can save those six positions.”

Schulte got support from council member Longwell, who urged Layton to sit down with the union and Blackwell to look for other cuts.

Some of the discussion also focused on cultural services funding, which will be supported at a level similar to 2012 but not at the level the city’s cultural services board had expected.

Layton said the actual funding will be $104,805 less than the board had planned because city officials expected property valuation growth in the spring.

“It’s a valuation deal,” the city manager told the council. “Their ability to allocate was overestimated based on optimistic valuation projections that, as you know, we’ve ratcheted down now that the county has given us the true figures.”

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

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