Wichitans want a stable long-term water source and jobs, based on feedback in a series of 102 community meetings held by City Hall last fall and early this year.
The people who attended those meetings said they were willing to absorb some sort of a tax hike to deliver those priorities.
Slightly more than 2,000 people participated in the city’s ACT ICT community engagement process, which comes on the heels of a community investments plan survey returned by more than 4,000 residents earlier last year.
The citizen responses, which will be formally unveiled Tuesday during a council workshop, tell city officials where to go first with tax dollars to improve Wichita.
“Mr. and Mrs. Jones have spoken,” Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said. “Now, it’s our job to figure out how to pay for it.”
A reliable source of water topped the want list from the community meetings, followed by encouraging economic development, business investment and job creation. Water was the top issue in the community survey as well.
Other priorities from the meetings were creating a cultural arts and entertainment center downtown and along the river, improving street maintenance and meeting the needs of the low-income and homeless.
“The silent majority in Wichita has spoken,” the mayor said. “We now know what the public wants, and it’s time to begin planning to provide it. We’ve asked people to engage with us, to tell us how they see Wichita in the future, and if we don’t follow through, then the complaints that we never listen become legitimate.”
The city will first examine how many of the priorities can be financed through the city budget, such as the capital improvement plan, a decade-long priority list of big-ticket city projects.
“With our budget tight, though, clearly we’re going to have to come to the public for some of this,” Brewer said.
The wish list won’t be cheap. City officials estimate that any long-term water source could cost from $150 million to recycle waste water to $300 million to complete the Equus Beds recharge project. And they say a multimillion-dollar war chest is essential to recruit new jobs in a competitive regional market.
The 2,009 people in the ACT ICT process indicated they are willing to pay higher taxes.
A total of 81 percent responding in the community meetings favored raising taxes – 58 percent favored a sales tax increase, 23 percent a property tax increase.
Only 18 percent – “the no’s,” as Brewer characterized them – favored fiscal restraint: 7 percent of those opted for tax and service cuts, and 11 percent for spending current revenues a different way.
A solid majority of the meeting participants, 62 percent, favored a 1-cent sales tax increase.
Of the proponents of higher property taxes, 51 percent favored a 1 percent increase; 41 percent favored bigger increase.
City officials have been weighing a sales tax initiative, which would require voter approval, since last fall. They have mentioned priorities that dovetail with – but don’t exactly match – the priorities drawn from the survey and meetings.
For example, stabilizing the city’s transit system finished in the middle of the pack with the community, but council members say they’re committed to bus service. The transit system, which requires significant city subsidies to stay afloat, needs a new funding source.
Brewer said he plans to take the priority list from the meetings and blend it with council priorities.
The meeting and survey results may be criticized, Brewer acknowledged. The city’s anti-tax groups earlier panned the survey for leading questions, and the data from the meetings was largely accumulated anonymously and electronically, making verification by third parties difficult.
John Todd, a Republican active in Americans for Prosperity, said he wasn’t surprised by the ACT ICT results. He said the city’s meeting presentations, and the community survey, were “designed to produce predetermined outcomes.”
But Todd said the goals of the city and his group aren’t that different.
“We love Wichita. We all do,” he said. “We just feel like some of these goals can be accomplished with frugality and better stewardship of our money.”
Brewer said city spending opponents have been well represented during the ACT ICT meetings – including one in December at the Pachyderm Club, a Republican group that has opposed city spending initiatives. The final report on the meetings includes 36 pages of citizen comments, including many demanding liberty, freedom, smaller government and spending cuts.
“They’ve had their chance to weigh in, and they’ll continue to have it,” Brewer said. “They organized and attended several of the meetings. We’ve heard them, too.”
Brewer and City Manager Robert Layton emphasized that the door is still open for input, positive and negative, on the city’s future.
“This process doesn’t stop,” Brewer said. “Community engagement is a permanent thing in Wichita now. We’re going to keep going back, revisiting what we’ve learned.”