April 16, 2013

Survey respondents say they’re willing to invest in Wichita area’s future

Wichita and Sedgwick County residents who responded to a community survey say they are ready to put their self-interests aside and spend money on the future of their communities.

Wichita and Sedgwick County residents who responded to a community survey say they are ready to put their self-interests aside and spend money on the future of their communities.

City and county officials will roll out the results of “CommunityInvestmentsPlan ... a Framework for the Future,” during a 2:30 p.m. presentation Wednesday at Wichita State University’s Marcus Welcome Center.

The $65,000 survey developed by WSU is the first look at public priorities for future tax-dollar spending. The results reflect a strong interest among respondents in improving the community for the future and in paying for those improvements, city and county leaders told The Eagle on Tuesday. The survey will be followed by broader community discussions in coming months.

“As I reflect on the preliminary results, the message that people are willing to work for the best interests of the community rather than themselves is a real promising message,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “Maybe we have given too much credence to the small negative voice in the community.”

The survey was sent to 25,000 randomly selected Wichita and Sedgwick County registered voters. Nearly 4,100 people, or 16 percent, responded. Officials had hoped for 6,000 responses. “You always want more,” said Mark Glaser, a Wichita State professor who designed the survey.

The survey results, as presented by Glaser, lay out respondents’ strong preference to spend money on a broad chunk of the city’s future — short- and long-term economic development, local solutions for homelessness, neighborhoods, public transportation, streets and passenger train service from Texas through Wichita to Kansas City.

No single issue in the survey, though, drew as much interest as the future of the region’s water supply.

Almost 97 percent of respondents want the community to develop additional water sources to ensure adequate water supplies. About 80 percent of those respondents want the city and county to act now on the water shortage, including further investments in infrastructure and changes in consumption behavior.

Interestingly, they may want to pay the tab with their taxes, and not their water bills, Glaser said.

“It’s not at all clear they want their water bills to go up, but would prefer some broader tax structure,” Glaser said. “It’s probably a combination of the two that will have to come out in a broader community dialogue.”

Responses were mixed on downtown revitalization: Around three-fourths said the general downtown revitalization movement and the construction of Intrust Bank Arena has made downtown a better place. But a majority did not support increasing spending on downtown projects.

Among other key findings in the survey: 91 percent of respondents said government has a responsibility to meet the transportation needs of vulnerable populations, like the low-income and elderly. Three-quarters want the city to extend bus routes and hours, and more than half are willing to pay for it.

More than 80 percent of respondents stand behind job training for high school students and young adults and job retraining for older workers.

About 90 percent of respondents want residential streets improved, and two-thirds are willing to pay for it.

The survey seemed to be a vote of no-confidence for neighbors: Although a clear majority of respondents said they were willing to put self-interests aside for the long-term good of Wichita and Sedgwick County, an equally clear majority doubted the ability of their neighbors to do the same.

The results form the basis for a broader community dialogue, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and Sedgwick County Manager Bill Buchanan said. The city plans public meetings later this summer, once a course has been charted for the future of the city’s water supply through similar meetings. The county’s comprehensive plan steering committee will begin reaching out later this year to public groups for input on how the survey should shape the plan, which will set priorities through 2035.

“It’s time for the citizens to start telling us,” Brewer said. “We don’t have the funding that we used to have, and now we have a general idea of what they think their priorities are.

“We’re really one large community. This is an opportunity for everyone to give their input. What’s important to you?”

Buchanan said he’s optimistic the public meetings can bridge any trust gap indicated by respondents’ views of their neighbors’ level of commitment to the community.

“Any time local government can engage citizens in a conversation about the future, it doesn’t get better than that,” he said. “It seems to me that’s what democracy is all about.”

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