The taxpayers have spoken, Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Jim Skelton said Wednesday, and now it’s time for a community dialogue to home in on future priorities for public spending.
Skelton and Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer rolled out the results of the Community Investments Plan survey at the Wichita State University Marcus Welcome Center.
The survey, developed by Wichita State University’s Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs, was sent in January to 25,000 randomly selected voters. A little more than 4,100 returned the survey, or about 16 percent – below the 6,000 anticipated when the survey was launched.
The survey, Skelton and Brewer said, is an accurate depiction of how Wichitans want their tax money spent: for economic development; transportation, including passenger rail; new water sources; and solutions for homelessness.
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“This is consistent with what the general will of the population is, given the wide variety of opinion in the city,” Skelton said. “There are things people are apt to agree on. Economic development, improving neighborhoods, keeping the fire department and police up and running, keeping our streets well maintained. Those are things that I worked at while I was on the City Council, too.”
Skelton and Brewer said the survey reflects what they hear when they’re out in public – if not the “limit government spending” drumbeat that marks the public meetings of both bodies.
“We don’t hear these voices week in and week out,” Brewer said. “We see them at neighborhood associations, independent living centers, community meetings. This is the first time to hear their voices and hear them in a strong manner saying these are the important things to us and this is how we prioritize them.”
However, support for the survey wasn’t unanimous among elected officials. County commissioner Karl Peterjohn, who arrived 15 minutes late, reiterated his objections to the media after the public session.
Brandishing a March 4 letter he wrote to Brewer and Skelton objecting to a “deeply flawed survey,” Peterjohn called the results “as valid as a three-dollar bill ... the historical equivalent of the 1936 presidential polls that declared Alf Landon would win.”
In the March 4 letter, Peterjohn criticized the absence of an “undecided” option on the survey questions. He also objected to the use of boldfacing, highlighting and underlining in the questions, called some survey questions “vague and inane,” and panned the survey’s use of “politically correct language” for skewing results.
Skelton – who rejected another copy of Peterjohn’s letter, saying, “Karl, I’m busy” – dismissed Peterjohn’s criticisms.
“I don’t have any questions about the validity of the survey,” Skelton said. “I’m sure anything can be shot to holes by opponents, but I think the people who developed this survey did the best they could.”
The survey found significant public support, and a willingness to pay, for a variety of past and present community initiatives. Among what respondents said:
• Nearly 97 percent said the community should develop new sources of water to ensure an adequate supply in the future, while nearly 81 percent said the community should encourage reduction in water use to delay investment in water infrastructure.
• More than 75 percent support long- and short-term economic development strategies, although government must demonstrate that the community benefits of such development are greater than the money spent.
• 82 percent want local solutions for homelessness.
• 90 percent want residential streets improved.
• At least 76 percent want improved public transportation, including extended bus routes and evening and weekend service.
• 74 percent want investment in passenger train service from Wichita up and down the I-35 corridor.
• 62 percent want more investment in Mid-Continent Airport to increase the number and decrease the costs of flights.
City officials will hold public meetings on the survey this summer, to get more citizen input on priorities. At the county level, the results will help guide the development of the new Wichita-Sedgwick County Comprehensive Plan.