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City Council discusses sales tax referendum at strategic planning session

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, at 9:02 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, July 7, 2014, at 11:30 a.m.

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City Council members moved closer to a sales tax referendum Tuesday as they sorted through community and council priorities for Wichita’s future during a strategic planning session at the Hyatt Regency Wichita.

Still uncertain is how much the city might seek in a sales tax increase, or when it might go to Wichita voters. But it is clear that the council wants to ask voters how much they value several of the priorities for the city’s future identified in surveys and meetings over the past year, with an emphasis on quality of life issues.

City Manager Robert Layton and Mayor Carl Brewer opened the meeing by asking for a list of five or six priorities – distilled from a written citizen survey and a 102-meeting community engagement effort – so Layton can draw up financing plans.

The idea is for the city to determine what it can pay for from budgeted funds, before targeting other sources – such as a sales tax increase – to pay for the rest.

A new water source and jobs remain atop the priority list. But council members said they don’t intend to adhere specifically to the surveys, which some said didn’t attach enough significance to quality-of-life issues.

Without quality-of-life enhancements – like fine arts, conventions, a downtown central library and a return of minor league baseball – the city will fail in its efforts to recruit and retain jobs, several council members said.

Council member Jeff Longwell pushed to “identify the items the community will rally around, and then go forward with a referendum,” a direct reference to a possible sales tax vote.

He got some support from council members Janet Miller and Lavonta Williams, who said quality-of-life enhancements are an economic development tool that meets the public’s desire for more jobs.

Longwell said his constituents are interested in fine arts improvements such as the proposed changes to Century II, a central downtown library and improvements to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, including the return of minor league baseball to Wichita.

Brewer fought back mildly, touting the survey results as a clear “list of what the community wants.”

Longwell pushed for a broader project process, saying the “surveys are driven by what’s in the news at any particular time.”

Miller sided with Longwell, telling the mayor, “there are a lot of ways to do economic development without a great big pot of money to give someone.” She said the quality-of-life issues aren’t necessarily earmarked for a sales tax increase.

“I think it’s important to make the connection between economic development, quality-of-life issues and the economic health and prosperity ... of the community,” Miller said.

The discussion got heated, briefly, when Williams raised the possibility of Joyland as a city quality-of-life project.

“Our kids just don’t have enough to do right now,” she said.

Several council members objected, saying the city doesn’t own the Joyland property. Although the idea of buying the decaying theme park and adding it to the city’s park system was floated, it drew little support.

“And a lot of people don’t think that is the right place for a theme park,” council member James Clendenin said.

Joyland didn’t make the list, but the historic Dunbar Theatre and Watson Park did. Layton will give the council a funding plan for those.

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

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