August 13, 2013

Six firefighter positions at risk as Wichita City Council approves $543 million budget for 2014

What City Manager Robert Layton called his toughest budget year ever ended quietly Tuesday, when the Wichita City Council unanimously approved a $543 million operating budget for 2014.

What City Manager Robert Layton called his toughest budget year ever ended quietly Tuesday, when the Wichita City Council unanimously approved a $543 million operating budget for 2014.

Only one member of the audience spoke – a firefighters union representative – as the council put the caps on a tight financial plan for next year. And it could get even tighter next year, especially on quality-of-life issues.

“I’m looking for that day when it’s easier for you to put the budget together,” council member Lavonta Williams told Layton.

Next year’s budget includes a wide variety of cuts – $780,000 in vacant positions in public works will be held open, three grant positions were eliminated to save $180,000, and another $300,000 will be recouped by delaying the 2014 police recruiting class.

The proposed 2014 budget increases contract street maintenance by $1 million – with the promise of more street work outsourcing – while maintaining the city’s commitment to public safety and launching a new community engagement initiative. It was hamstrung, city officials say, by continued stagnation in the city’s residential property valuation, which has not recovered from the 2008 recession. It includes no property tax increases but eliminates 13 jobs, although the city will try to transfer those employees to vacant positions.

But it was the highest-profile proposed cut – the absorption of six firefighter positions into available vacancies, to save $424,000 – that drew the most attention from the council, and an eventual delay for six weeks.

Matt Schulte, who heads the firefighters union, asked the council for the delay to continue what he called productive talks with Layton. The union wants to seek grant funding to keep those firefighter positions intact.

“We’re working hard with fire administration and the city manager on a grant to save the six positions for two to three years,” Schulte told the council.

The budget also includes reallocation of city fire manpower and equipment, accounting for the elimination of the six firefighter positions. That includes the redeployment of equipment from Station 2 to Station 22, both in south Wichita. Station 38, in far east Wichita, will house a squad rather than an engine.

Layton said he was agreeable to the delay for six weeks, so the fire cuts will be put off.

That delay is just one example, the city manager told the council, of the city’s continued commitment to public safety

Police funding is on the way up, Layton said – to $79.5 million in 2014 from $75.2 million in 2012. Fire funding has also increased – to almost $43 million in 2014 from $41.6 million in 2012.

Those two increases, the city manager said, make up a big chunk of the proposed general fund increase in 2014 to $214.45 million, up from $206.5 million in 2012. Public works funding also is up, at $35.2 million in 2014, up from $31.6 million in 2012.

“We are staying true to the council’s recommendations for keeping strong in our core strategic areas,” the city manager said.

Cultural arts funding will slip slightly in 2014, Layton said – to $3.98 million from $4.02 million this year. The 2014 funding is still slightly below that in 2012, $3.991 million.

Council member Janet Miller pledged to maintain her commitment to the arts, in the face of e-mails that she said questioned that commitment.

“There will be lots of opportunity for discussion and input,” Miller said. “We went through a similar process with recreation a year and a half or two years ago. It was scary. I was afraid we’d lose some important things, but we ended up with a more robust program with as many offerings.”

However, council members do have some key issues on the budget-cutting table for 2015 – public transit, which will use up the $1 million it borrowed from the city in 2014, the Wichita Wildlife Exhibit and Watson Park.

Whether the wildlife exhibit in Riverside Park is financially viable, and whether Watson Park needs updating will be among the key budget issues next year, Layton said.

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