Sumner County isn’t on board with fed’s sustainable communities planning grant

07/29/2012 5:00 AM

07/30/2012 12:09 AM

One of the counties served by a sustainable communities planning grant recently declined to be a partner in the effort, expressing concerns about federal intrusion in local government.

Sumner County commissioners this month voted not to join the grant’s consortium leadership team, a victory for opponents of the federal grant who liken it to the United Nation’s Agenda 21. They say the grant comes with strings attached and is based on a non-binding U.N. agreement that calls for people to set aside their cars and ride bikes and live in high-rise apartments.

One of the opponents is Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau, who hopes other local government groups follow Sumner County’s lead.

“I hope it will create a domino effect,” Ranzau said. “My intent is to kill this particular plan altogether.”

The $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Urban Development to the Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP) of South Central Kansas will help a five-county area — Sedgwick, Butler, Reno, Harvey and Sumner — take a regional approach to planning.

Paula Downs, project manager for the sustainable communities regional plan appointed by REAP, said she still hopes Sumner County will become a partner.

“Of course we wanted all of the counties and cities and as many people as possible to be involved in this effort,” said Downs, who was hired by the Hugo Wall School at Wichita State University.

Sumner County’s unwillingness to sign on as a member of the consortium team doesn’t exempt it from the planning process, said Downs, whose salary is paid by the grant. She also said the grant is not in jeopardy of being revoked because of the county’s decision.

Grant opposition

When Sumner County declined to sign an agreement to be part of the leadership team, one of its three commissioners said he considered the grant to be “the nose under the tent for federal intrusion into local government,” according to minutes of the board’s meetings.

Another commissioner, the minutes said, thought the plan was “too broad and vague.”

Ranzau voted against Sedgwick County participating in the grant, as did Commissioner Karl Peterjohn. But they were in the minority.

Sedgwick County and Wichita agreed to provide in-kind services, mostly in staff time. The county committed to $120,707 in in-kind contributions over the three-year period of the grant, and the city committed to providing $166,410.

Ranzau recently attended the National Association of Counties’ annual meeting in Pittsburgh, in part to try to persuade others against supporting the grant, which he sees as a waste of federal money and a way for the federal government to win more control of local decision-making. Ranzau served on NACO’s environment, energy and land use steering committee.

He arrived in Pittsburgh on Thursday, attended meetings on Friday and Saturday before leaving Saturday. The conference continued through Tuesday. The county paid $1,463.50 in travel expenses to send Ranzau to the conference, including the $490 registration fee.

“I didn’t think it was a good use of my time,” Ranzau said when asked why he didn’t stay for the whole conference. “There might have been some things that would have been interesting, but my intent was to help influence some of the policies that NACO advocates for at the federal level.”

The group voted against a resolution opposing Agenda 21, Ranzau said.

“I was disappointed by the outcome,” he said.

Ranzau last week also missed a commission staff meeting because he wanted to talk to Reno County commissioners to try to influence them to not join the consortium. Reno commissioners were meeting at the same time as Sedgwick commissioners but canceled their meeting.

“I was asked by some people who were going to speak there,” he said. “If I thought it would interfere with my work here, I wouldn’t go.”

Commissioner Dave Unruh, the chairman of REAP, said he too could miss a meeting because he plans to go to Reno County on Aug. 7 to support the grant when commissioners there consider it. He said it’s possible Sedgwick County’s meeting that day will be canceled because of the primary election. He also said he expects Ranzau to be there to speak against the grant.

Ranzau said the grant is one of his key issues but declined to say it was his top priority as a commissioner.

“I’m concerned about a lot of things,” Ranzau said. “This has certainly turned into more than I thought it was.

“It is a big issue for me because I think it could have significant long-term negative impacts on our community. It stands out from all the other grants we’ve gotten from the federal government because of the concept and the agenda attached to it.”

Asked about such criticisms, Downs said, “I can’t speak to Agenda 21 because none of my work plan has anything to do with the language in Agenda 21.”

‘Look to the future’

Unruh said Ranzau’s passion about the grant is “an interesting commentary on his priorities. He is definitely driven by his desire to do everything he can to interrupt and eliminate any sustainable planning. It seems interesting that he would go to Pittsburgh for a conference” and not stay for all of it.

Unruh said he doesn’t understand the concerns about Agenda 21.

“They think they can connect to the dots to all that,” Unruh said of opponents’ drawing parallels between the grant and Agenda 21. “It’s a difficult conversation. They have stimulated concern among the Farm Bureau that the government is going to come in and confiscate their farmland.

“A lot of folks get emotional, and they are just assuming this is the beginning of world-centralized government that is going to be oppressive.”

Unruh said he sees the grant simply as an “effort to make decisions about our future for us and our future generations that will save money, conserve resources and be the best solutions for all the folks in our region.”

Commission Chairman Tim Norton also attended the NACO conference. He went as a representative of the Kansas Association of Counties, of which he is president.

The Kansas association paid for Norton, who was there from Friday through Tuesday, to attend. He served on a health steering committee and attended five subcommittee meetings. He also served as a moderator.

Norton said he sees the grant as a way to “look to the future, try to figure out best possible outcomes and make decisions today that will be good for tomorrow.”

“We’re all in this together. You may not like the federal government. You may not like the state government. You may not even like the local government. But I like being at the table and being involved in the future.”

He dismisses any connection to Agenda 21.

“It was a non-binding agreement passed during the first Bush era,” he said of former president George H.W. Bush. “I don’t rail on President Bush because it happened on his watch. I’m not twitchy about it. I’m not worried about it.”

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