Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about county commissioners' salaries.
After weeks of discussions, public hearings and agonizing over proposed cuts they know will take a bite out of services, Sedgwick County commissioners will finally act Wednesday when they adopt the 2013 budget.
At one point Tuesday during the last of three public hearings, Commissioner Jim Skelton asked whether it was possible to delay the decision.
Perhaps the law would allow the deadline to be extended a day, County Manager William Buchanan replied, but added, “We need to get it done.”
So Wednesday it is. The commission will meet at 9 a.m. on the third floor of the courthouse, 525 N. Main.
“We’ll see where we all land,” Commission Chairman Tim Norton said of Buchanan’s proposed $408 million budget for next year.
The budget is set to eliminate a $9.3 million deficit by the end of next year. To accomplish that, there would be $8 million in cuts and a $1.3 million increase in revenue, primarily through a fee the county will begin charging later this year to accept payments by credit card.
The cuts include the elimination of 113 county positions, which would include 79 actual layoffs, and reducing the Sedgwick County Extension Center’s budget by $177,000. The zoo would take a $256,000 hit and Exploration Place a $112,405 cut.
Also under consideration is closing the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, slicing $201,000 from the Department on Aging and settling on a benefit and salary package for county employees, including commissioners. Commissioners showed support for keeping the ranch open for now and reducing cuts for senior programs.
Department on Aging cuts would trickle down to the county’s senior service centers, including the one used by Rosemary Ray in Oaklawn. She took the personal approach Tuesday in pleading her case to keep the centers funded as much as possible.
“Some of you look like you are going to join us quite soon,” she told the five commissioners.
Apparently they agreed. In any case, there appeared to be a consensus among the commissioners to add about $85,000 back to the Department on Aging budget. The department’s advisory board would then give its recommendations on how the money should be allocated, which would require the commission’s approval.
“If it was up to me, I’d put all the money back,” Norton said. “How we treat our children and seniors defines us as a civilization. We know it’s cost effective to keep seniors active.”
That, of course, means Buchanan will have to juggle his proposed budget to come up with that $85,000 by plucking from someplace else.
“We’ll figure it out,” he said.
After more than a dozen people spoke during Tuesday’s public hearing portion of the commission meeting, the commissioners also indicated they want to keep the boys ranch open until at least they see what the state Legislature does about increasing funding for the facility near Lake Afton during the 2013 session.
“We need to keep it going,” Commissioner Richard Ranzau said.
Closing the ranch would save the county $1.5 million a year in operational costs, plus $14.6 million in capital improvement expenses. The ranch serves about 40 juvenile offenders ages 14 to 20. The state provides $126 per day per boy to the county, but the cost to operate the ranch is $204 per day, according to a study done by Wichita State University.
Buchanan has said the ranch is a good program, but it’s the state’s responsibility. The state’s payment to the county has not increased since 2007 and is based on 2006 costs.
Commissioner Dave Unruh favors closing the ranch now, stating, “I’m firmly convinced” the Legislature won’t increase its funding for the ranch.
“But I’m in the minority,” he added.
Another item in the budget is the salary/health benefit package for employees.
Buchanan originally had a package in the budget that included a performance-based raise pool of 4 percent. He later reduced that to a 3 percent pool, which has drawn objections from the commission.
Tuesday, the commission seemed to center around a 2.5 percent raise pool, which would result in a savings of $486,282 from the 3 percent proposal.
Ranzau wants a 2 percent bonus pool for those making $70,000 or less. That bonus would be for only one year, he said, although he noted it could be renewed in following years.
Just more than 75 percent of county employees earn $50,000 or less. The average salary is $42,565; the median salary is $38,042.
Buchanan stressed that his proposal links the salaries and benefits together.
The raise pool is to help offset the increased share of health care premiums the county is passing on to employees. Even with a 3 percent raise, only 50 percent of the employees would be able to cover the increased costs of their health care benefits, if they paid all their medical deductibles, Unruh said.
Unruh, however, noted that most county employees don’t use all their deductibles so “they should be net gainers.”
At the 3 percent level, Unruh said the county is still saving $2.4 million in employee compensation because the county is reducing its insurance costs and has fewer employees. County employees have received scattered raises over the years, including only one in the last three years, Unruh said.
“We cannot ignore our employees,” Unruh said. “We’re asking fewer people to do more work. We have to be somewhat fair.”
Commissioners would also be eligible for the raises. Their yearly salary is $83,718.
Karl Peterjohn made it clear he wouldn’t accept a raise.
“If a commissioner or any other elected person wants to turn down the pay raise,” Unruh said, “they certainly have that authority to do it.”