November 25, 2013

Council members say they’ll wait for public input before considering sales tax

City Council members say they will wait to hear from the public before targeting any specific projects for a possible sales tax vote.

City Council members say they will wait to hear from the public before targeting any specific projects for a possible sales tax vote.

During a retreat Monday at the Hyatt Regency Wichita, several council members indicated they want to wait for the results of public engagement meetings before they begin to narrow down community projects.

Council members are weighing a possible citywide vote as early as fall 2014 on a city sales tax that could pay for a bundle of community projects. Among projects that have been mentioned as possibilities are a job recruitment war chest, a new convention center and a new downtown library.

No decisions have been made. There’s no consensus yet on the size of a sales tax, how much it should raise or how long it should last. And council members on Monday backed away from talking about their own preferences for projects, instead saying they wanted to wait for results of City Manager Robert Layton’s 100-meeting community engagement plan launched in September.

“This is all pretty strategic and the fact it’s out there, it allows the negativism to rule the day about no new taxes,” said vice mayor Pete Meitzner, who represents east Wichita. “I’d rather defer to the future information gathering, planning, figure out what we want do and how do we message that.”

Council members visited Oklahoma City about a year ago to see how it used a similar bundled-project strategy to pass a long-term sales tax initiative.

“If we have the discussion first, then we’re driving it,” Mayor Carl Brewer said.

“I agree with what Pete’s saying. Let’s get the information back and let the citizens tell us what they want to do.”

City officials expect to report back on the public engagement meetings in February. The meetings are designed to take the public’s temperature on the range of community projects being contemplated – a new water source, a new convention center, a long-term commitment to viable public transit.

Council member Jeff Blubaugh, representing southwest Wichita, wanted to proceed with priority-setting for any sales tax.

Contrary to other council members, he said, he doesn’t hear an outcry from his constituents for a jobs recruitment and retention war chest.

“I’m not getting that feedback,” he said.

Council member James Clendenin, who represents south and southeast Wichita, disagreed.

“I think it’s out there. I think it’s a given,” he said. “People are so worn down by that topic.”

Clendenin said city officials may not be getting the jobs message to all Wichitans.

“If you go out to the DABs (district advisory boards), the same 10 people go to DABs all the time,” he said.

“If we want to get our message out to the people who are working hard for the tax money we’re asking them to give up, then our message has to be clear.”

“What’s important is we gather the information and we talk to the citizens,” Brewer replied. “If we’ve already made our minds up that this is what we want to do, then we’re wasting the citizens’ time.”

The city faces a daunting list of public projects, many quality-of-life issues, that some at City Hall say carries a tab of more than $1 billion.

City Council members say they don’t intend to raise property taxes to pay for the projects, and they want the city to focus on reducing, not increasing, its general obligation bond debt.

That focus led them to back away from borrowing money to build a $29 million downtown central library.

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