October 6, 2013

Public invited to debate Wichita’s future

Isabelle Elder has a message for her fellow Wichitans: Take an active role in the city’s ACT ICT program.

Isabelle Elder has a message for her fellow Wichitans: Take an active role in the city’s ACT ICT program.

“It’s very important to attend these meetings so they’ll know that we have to pay for ... what improves Wichita,” said Elder, a retired teacher who lives in northeast Wichita. “Improving Wichita comes with a price tag, and I don’t think enough people understand that we have to pay for it.”

Elder took part in Thursday night’s meeting at Atwater Neighborhood City Hall, one of the first in the city’s effort to bring the debate over Wichita’s future – and the millions of dollars it will cost to craft a brighter one – directly to the public.

ACT ICT is the third and final phase of a process asking the community to set the city’s course for the short- and long-term. The city plans to facilitate at least 100 neighborhood meetings by the end of the year.

It’s an extension of City Hall’s ongoing community engagement effort to bring city policy-making closer to the public in a one-on-one fashion. City Manager Bob Layton says he wants to end the city tradition of developing unilateral solutions, and then using city staff to sell them to the public. He wants more of a partnership with the public as those solutions are crafted.

The community engagement effort stems from the city’s citizen surveys, Layton said, which show a significant level of citizen dissatisfaction with City Hall’s willingness to listen.

“We need to hear from Mr. and Mrs. Jones,” Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said. “You’re going out into their environment, as opposed to them coming to you. They’re coming with a mindset they’ll be agreeable with you, because you’re going into their environment, their turf. It’s that honest conversation you’ll get that’s more helpful than something politically correct.”

Another Atwater participant, Janet Wilson, said the program is an extension of a more-involved City Hall.

“The city has become more transparent than ever,” she said. “It used to be they told you what they wanted to, and now they’re seeking public input. People need to be involved because the city’s going to take what we want and then do it.”

Each meeting will be an hour-long discussion facilitated by one of 12 city staffers, from department heads to middle managers. A report with the feedback from the meetings will be available in February, when it will be presented to the council and other community leaders.

Participants will wade through the results of a community survey taken earlier this year, which targeted jobs, public services like water, streets, bridges and transportation, more cultural attractions and community compassion.

Achieving those target goals will be expensive:

•  The city will have to triple its funding for repair and replacement of aging water and sewer pipes annually to catch up with deferred maintenance, for a total of $10.8 million each year.
•  The city also has identified up to $150 million for upgrades and new wastewater treatment facilities in the next six years, and more than $85 million in future storm-water mitigation projects across the city. And none of those figures include the cost of an affordable long-term water supply, another city focus after the drought took its toll on Cheney Reservoir.
•  The city’s bus fleet also needs a cash infusion – about $21 million to upgrade an aging fleet of buses and another $3 million to $7 million annually to improve service levels, all at a time when federal and state transportation funding has been slashed by 35 percent.
•  About $19 million each year has been recommended to expand parks and recreation areas.
•  Federal funding cuts have slashed the amount of money available for community development, homeless support programs, housing, rehabilitation and other programs in low-income areas of Wichita.

The survey showed that Wichitans are ready to start paying the bills. A clear majority of residents – anywhere from 55 percent for public transportation to 85 percent for a reliable source of water – are ready to pay more taxes or fees to achieve the goals listed on the survey.

So the city’s ready to saturate Wichita with its presentation. They’ll go anywhere people are – neighborhood associations, fraternal organizations, book clubs, coffee groups.

“The old model of meetings at City Hall isn’t effective. You get the frequent fliers, those you normally hear from,” Layton said. “We have to go where the people are.”

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