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Council members say they’ll wait for public input before considering sales tax

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, at 1:53 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, May 13, 2014, at 12:54 p.m.

On the city’s potential wish list

1. Economic development

A financial war chest is needed to compete with cities and states that have paid as much as $200,000 per job in incentives to land jobs, chamber and city officials say.

2. Water supply

A three-year drought led council members to begin searching for a new city water supply to supplement the Equus Beds and Cheney Reservoir long term.

3. Conventions and arts

A study is examining how Wichita’s Century II convention space would need to change or be replaced to attract more business. Needs of the city’s performing arts organizations also would be considered.

4. Water and sewer lines

Wichita’s water and sewer systems need $2.1 billion in repair and replacement work, a bill that cannot be funded within the city budget without significant property tax increases, city officials say.

5. Streets

Streets need more money for maintenance, which has lagged because of tight budgets.

6. Downtown library

Plans to build a $29 million library downtown were shelved earlier this year, with council members citing concerns that the project would increase the city’s general obligation bond debt too much.

7. Bus system

Transit backers seek $25 million enhanced transit system, with expanded routes and hours. The current limited system cannot be sustained without a permanent source of funding, they say.

8. Ballpark

Lawrence-Dumont Stadium needs to be repaired or replace,d say supporters of keeping the National Baseball Congress World Series and potentially returning to affiliated minor league baseball.

City Council members say they will wait to hear from the public before targeting any specific projects for a possible sales tax vote.

During a retreat Monday at the Hyatt Regency Wichita, several council members indicated they want to wait for the results of public engagement meetings before they begin to narrow down community projects.

Council members are weighing a possible citywide vote as early as fall 2014 on a city sales tax that could pay for a bundle of community projects. Among projects that have been mentioned as possibilities are a job recruitment war chest, a new convention center and a new downtown library.

No decisions have been made. There’s no consensus yet on the size of a sales tax, how much it should raise or how long it should last. And council members on Monday backed away from talking about their own preferences for projects, instead saying they wanted to wait for results of City Manager Robert Layton’s 100-meeting community engagement plan launched in September.

“This is all pretty strategic and the fact it’s out there, it allows the negativism to rule the day about no new taxes,” said vice mayor Pete Meitzner, who represents east Wichita. “I’d rather defer to the future information gathering, planning, figure out what we want do and how do we message that.”

Council members visited Oklahoma City about a year ago to see how it used a similar bundled-project strategy to pass a long-term sales tax initiative.

“If we have the discussion first, then we’re driving it,” Mayor Carl Brewer said.

“I agree with what Pete’s saying. Let’s get the information back and let the citizens tell us what they want to do.”

City officials expect to report back on the public engagement meetings in February. The meetings are designed to take the public’s temperature on the range of community projects being contemplated – a new water source, a new convention center, a long-term commitment to viable public transit.

Council member Jeff Blubaugh, representing southwest Wichita, wanted to proceed with priority-setting for any sales tax.

Contrary to other council members, he said, he doesn’t hear an outcry from his constituents for a jobs recruitment and retention war chest.

“I’m not getting that feedback,” he said.

Council member James Clendenin, who represents south and southeast Wichita, disagreed.

“I think it’s out there. I think it’s a given,” he said. “People are so worn down by that topic.”

Clendenin said city officials may not be getting the jobs message to all Wichitans.

“If you go out to the DABs (district advisory boards), the same 10 people go to DABs all the time,” he said.

“If we want to get our message out to the people who are working hard for the tax money we’re asking them to give up, then our message has to be clear.”

“What’s important is we gather the information and we talk to the citizens,” Brewer replied. “If we’ve already made our minds up that this is what we want to do, then we’re wasting the citizens’ time.”

The city faces a daunting list of public projects, many quality-of-life issues, that some at City Hall say carries a tab of more than $1 billion.

City Council members say they don’t intend to raise property taxes to pay for the projects, and they want the city to focus on reducing, not increasing, its general obligation bond debt.

That focus led them to back away from borrowing money to build a $29 million downtown central library.

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

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