City officials hear some support for tax hikes to help budgets

07/21/2013 11:27 AM

08/06/2014 2:26 AM

Bill Wynne fears he’s a voice in the wilderness, calling for Wichita officials to raise taxes to maintain core services.

“I’m probably the only person who tells the city manager that,” said Wynne, a retiree and member of Wichita Independent Neighborhoods and the city’s District 1 advisory board. “If we want the quality of life that we seek in Wichita, we have to be willing to pay for it.”

Wynne wasn’t a solitary figure Wednesday night, though, as the City Council’s district advisory boards tried to hone in on the last $2 million in cuts to balance the proposed 2014 and 2015 budgets.

The general fund for both years hovers around $535 million. The 2014 budget still has a $1.06 million deficit, and the 2015 budget still is $1.18 million short.

City officials heard some surprising support for a tax increase to keep Wichita a “decent place to live,” as advisory board member Kathy Landwehr put it.

Council members have directed City Manager Robert Layton not to increase taxes. The current budget proposals contain no tax increases, no major fee increases, no immediate job cuts or hiring freezes and no proposals to eliminate significant city programs.

Instead, budget cuts may mean holding open positions the city had planned to use to help repair its crumbling streets. It might mean delaying a police recruiting class or eliminating the police helicopter. And it could spell the end of some aging neighborhood swimming pools that are in need of thousands of dollars’ worth of repairs.

“This is a difficult year, and when I say difficult, what I mean is that in 2014 and 2015, the planning horizon will continue to be a difficult climate for the city,” Layton had said earlier.

“Even though we are seeing some improvement in the sales tax, we are not seeing the kind of growth in property valuation that we thought,” Layton said. “That’s an important part of funding the general fund, and it makes it really difficult to balance the budget.”

City officials are planning for only minor growth in assessed valuation, based on the latest Sedgwick County projections of 0.5 percent in 2014 and 1.5 percent in 2015. The result is $880,000 less in revenue for the 2014 budget and $1.79 million less than originally expected for 2015.

Wynne said he is ready to pay more to enhance the city budgets and maintain city jobs.

“This city staff has done an excellent job cutting back and outsourcing jobs,” he said. “But every time you outsource a job, someone loses a job, and the person who gets it makes a lot less. I can’t see how that’s good for our economy.”

Deborah Sanders, who serves on the District 6 advisory board, advocated for a sales tax increase.

“Pools aren’t as important as people having water to drink,” she said. “I’m proud of the city for shutting down its watering. Now, I hope they push it further with things like planting buffalo grass.”

Some savings

The city expects to get some help from an unexpected source. After planning for a 10 percent growth in health insurance premiums, that number will come in closer to 8 percent because of wellness programs and other factors, Layton said. That translates into almost $400,000 saved for the 2014 budget and a little more than $800,000 in 2015.

And there’s good news regarding the city’s internal water conservation plan, which is projected to yield almost $250,000 in savings a year.

The other big-ticket move in Layton’s recommended budget is holding open a large group of positions in the city’s road and bridge department. The plan calls for only the highest-need vacancies to be filled, yielding almost $800,000 for each year’s budget.

That’s not good news for a city that wants to get ahead of street maintenance issues.

“This makes it difficult to stop the erosion of service,” Layton said. “We will do all the necessary infrastructure work, but we’re not going to get ahead of the game, by any means.”

David Babich, a member of WIN and the District 2 advisory board, advocated an unusual measure to improve streets: Put street work in the city’s annual capital improvements plan to lessen stress on annual property tax revenue, at the expense of the plans for a new central library.

“We’re prioritizing, and I prioritize streets over a new library,” he said.

The budget crunch also could spell the end of the city’s neighborhood pool system, with several pools facing thousands of dollars of work to repair leaks. The potential tab for that work is so large, Layton said, that the city may study pool use and begin retooling into a “regional” system.

The police department also faces cuts, including a one-year 2014 recruiting class delay that would save the city $600,000 and the elimination of the city’s police helicopter, which would save $1.15 million in 2014 and 2015. Layton said the recruiting class delay is the most likely option, with the police helicopter fielding 4,000 calls annually.

Staffing concerns

The cuts are frustrating, Layton said – to him and to city staff members.

“As resources dwindle, it’s taking a toll on our employees who are putting in some great extra effort trying to avoid eroding service levels,” Layton said. “They see that they are putting more time in, but they’re not getting results. It’s demoralizing to the employee and to the customer.

“What we’re trying to do is strive for excellence in everything we do. We want to be a first-class city. We just can’t get there yet.”

Sanders agreed with Layton, expressing concern that the city might be understaffed.

“For example, grants,” she said. “The city did away with the grant-writing position, and now they’ve got this program that no one understands for each department to write their own grants. That could be federal money lost.”

Wynne didn’t come to the meeting expecting much support for his ideas.

However, former council member Sharon Fearey backed him, blaming the state for cuts to cities, including ad valorem tax revenue sharing.

“We’ve either got to start cutting the bone, or we’ve got to pay for what we get,” Fearey said. “We have to be ready for a new and different world.

“To have some of the things the city really needs, I know a lot of people who would be willing to take that on, at least for a couple of years. I think it’s time we tell the City Council we will support them in doing this for our city.”

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