Wichita City Council members spent two and a half hours Tuesday patching together a bailout and a belated budget for the city’s financially strapped career development office after being confronted with three years of overspending and a Friday deadline to apply for diminished federal funding.
Council members approved a $342,567 general fund bailout for the office to cover three years of budgeting mistakes. They then patched together a funding plan to keep the office, its employment programs and the city’s neighborhood city halls financially solvent. They rejected the recommendation of a citizen review committee to defund parts of the office’s programming.
The 11th-hour budget allocates a little more than $500,000 in federal funding for the office’s programs, including employment, activity and healthcare, and the neighborhood city halls system. It pledges federal Community Development Block Grant funds for any other shortfalls.
The career development office offers career training to entry-level workers who face employment obstacles. Funding for the office also covers part of neighborhood city hall operations, neighborhood cleanups, youth programs and health care.
The council’s action pleased some in the audience who spoke in favor of the neighborhood city halls and health care programs.
“I think we got most of what we wanted,” said community activist James Roseboro after the meeting.
However, council members voiced frustration about “being put in the position of having to create sausage from the bench,” as council member Jeff Longwell put it.
Mary K. Vaughn, who oversees the office as the city’s housing and community services director, said she learned in December that federal Community Services Block Grant funding for 2013 would be half of 2012, a cut from $1,064,372 to $532,186.
In addition, assistant city manager Cathy Holdeman said, the career development office has overspent its budget the last three years, confronted with a “long-term decline in state funding and an inability to adjust staffing levels.”
Several council members said they learned of the office’s money problems Friday.
“There isn’t a lot we can do now,” council member James Clendenin said. “It’s very hard to get these recommendations on a Tuesday and have to vote on things that are so vital to so many people. This is a lot to digest over four days.”
He took Vaughn to task for the late notice.
“Since December, you’ve known there would be a 50 percent reduction in CSBG funding. Is there any way for you to move this process up a little bit?” Clendenin asked.
“Absolutely that complicated things,” Longwell said after the meeting. “We could have sat down and had discussions with staff, managers and organizations to help us bring back a recommendation that wouldn’t have played out so dramatically. I am of the mindset we should have had this discussion three years ago when they saw their funding stream cut.”
A public bailout
The bailout originally was not intended for public discussion. It was earmarked for the city’s consent agenda, where it would have received a vote without public discussion.
Longwell moved to remove the item from the consent agenda, forcing the debate.
Holdeman said the bailout was made necessary by declines in SRS referrals to the jobs program.
“There has been a trend in decreased referrals going back three years,” Vaughn said. “We weren’t sure that was a trend, but now we look back and we can see they were starting to go down.
“The career development office and staffing are dependent on a certain level of referrals and a certain amount of money. We couldn’t adjust fast enough to account for it.”
After the meeting, Longwell called the bailout a “very sore subject.”
“We didn’t get a good answer on it,” he said. “Here’s what happened: They had a series of reductions like this year, and no one paid any attention to that series of reductions and instead of budgeting knowing of those reductions, they funded the office at the old levels.
“And someone finally came in today and said, ‘Hey, we’re short. We have to go to the council to get money to pay our debts.’ This wasn’t very fun, and I hope it comes out clearly that we’re not very happy about being forced into a discussion to pay old debts.”
Federal funding cuts
The citizen review committee first met Jan. 10. It put case management and employment services, along with support and administrative costs, youth employment and training atop its priorities. It wanted to defund neighborhood cleanups, summer activity camps and Project Access, which provides medical care for the uninsured.
“Ultimately, the state tells us our ultimate responsibility is to take the poor and make them not poor,” said Joel Weihe, vice chairman of the committee. “To us, the way to do that is jobs.”
Council members made clear that they weren’t happy with the committee’s priority list, or with the success rate of the office’s job programs: In 2012, the office served 530 people and placed 59 in jobs with an average $8.90 hourly wage, Vaughn said.
Council member Paul Gray called that result insufficient for the cost — more than a half million dollars in federal funding. The office is providing unneeded training for menial jobs that provide on-site training already, he said.
“What you’re doing is teaching people to be human beings,” Gray said. “How did they get this far in life without the ability to do these things?
“It seems like you’re fixing a symptom rather than a problem. How do we turn out kids who are not capable of those things?”
Weihe said under council questioning that the review panel made no effort to pursue possible consolidations with area non-profits or the local Workforce Development Center as it weighed the federal cuts.
That was another sore subject for Longwell.
“The whole time they’re going through this exercise in appropriations, there was not one single conversation about collaboration with anyone,” he said after the meeting. “They are exactly duplicative at the CDO of the Workforce Development Center.”
Clendenin echoed Longwell’s call for more public-private job creation partnerships.
“We’ve found in many ways that when we partner with people, our resources can be combined and stretched further, be more effective,” he said.