‘No more spending’ won’t solve Wichita’s problems, council says

03/21/2014 12:00 AM

08/06/2014 11:44 AM

The debate over a sales tax hike in Wichita boils down to this, City Council members say: Is your tax bill or your quality of life more important to you?

To them, it’s a debate centered on growth: A new water supply must be found, and 30,000 jobs lost to the 2008 recession need to be replaced, council members say. Wichita needs to be a good place to live, work and be entertained if it’s going to grow, they argue.

Over the next month, the council will talk a lot about a one-cent sales tax increase. The city has until Aug. 18 to get a sales tax increase on the November ballot, according to Tabitha Lehman, the county election commissioner.

Council members are resolute: The “no more spending” sentiment in the city is not an answer to the obstacles confronting Wichita’s future.

“I don’t think any of us really want to take this step,” council member Lavonta Williams said. “But we find ourselves at a point where we’ve got to get some things done for the good of our city. We’ve got to fund them somehow.”

Opponents say the list of targeted projects hasn’t been secrets to this or prior councils, and that the city should enlist the public’s help in trimming the project list before it asks for tax hike approval.

Wichita needs work

Simply put, Wichita’s needs – as defined by the council – outstrip its pocketbook:

Those needs, they say, include:

• A new 50-year water supply, probably at least $150 million, an amount that city officials estimate would eat up much of any sales tax increase.
• An economic development fund to attract new business and grow existing ones, to replace the 30,000 jobs lost here in the recession, price tag unknown
• Street, sewer and water system improvements, with the city’s sewer and water systems needing $2.1 billion worth of work over the next 20 years. A price tag for different options to improve city streets is coming this summer.

And that doesn’t account for the quality-of-life projects the council wants to pursue, such as a new conventions space and a new performing arts center to replace Century II, and ballpark improvements to attract a new affiliated minor league baseball team. Those probably will have to be fitted into the city’s existing budget.

“If you don’t like our ideas, come to the table with us and give us your ideas,” said council member James Clendenin. “No is not an idea. It’s absolutely not an idea. No is not constructive whatsoever.

“We have no choice. We need to finance these projects. We have cut city government to the bone, we’ve reduced the debt by tens of millions of dollars over the past couple of years and we’ve kept the city financially viable.

“But we have to move. These projects are going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and they could potentially threaten the viability of our city if we don’t do something about them.”

Clendenin has an ally in Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer.

“In an ideal situation, we’d all love to say we’re not going to spend more,” the mayor said. “But things like these that have to happen. The basic things in our community that allow a basic quality of life cost money. Saying ‘no’ is an easy thing to do. So is saying ‘no more spending.’

“But let’s be honest about all this: It doesn’t make any sense.”

Where the sales tax vote stands

Right now, the issue is in the hands of City Manager Robert Layton. At a retreat last month, council members gave their list of project priorities to Layton – with a new water source and jobs atop that list – and asked staff to determine which could be funded by the city budget.

Council members already know that Layton’s answer won’t cover their entire priorities list.

“We cannot fix some of these issues,” council member Jeff Longwell said. “We’re not going to fix the 50-year water supply on our own, and with the limitations we have on our revenue stream.”

And Wichitans alone shouldn’t have to pay for everything, Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner said. Water improvements from sales tax revenue would spread the bill among Wichitans and visitors, he said.

“We have 150,000 water bills in the city, commercial and residential. Do we want that big ticket just on the 150,000 water bills, or do we want that shared among the million people we serve in our city, who come here to use our services?” Meitzner asked.

What the opposition and the public think

Susan Estes, a spokeswoman for the Americans for Prosperity anti-tax group in Wichita, stopped short of opposing any sales tax vote, calling AFP’s current stance more of a “wait and see” approach.

“The mayor has been discussing citizen input on a wide range of projects, and some City Council members have made statements regarding various projects,” Estes said. “Truly essential items did not suddenly become essential in the last 24 months. It is up to the City Council to set priorities, which is what we are all waiting to see before the voters are asked to support a tax increase.”

Estes offered some support for the city’s ACT ICT community engagement process, suggesting it should be extended before voters are asked to approve a sales tax increase.

“The city put a great deal of effort into getting input on what types of projects and improvements members of the community would like to see,” she said. “It would be great if the city went back after the City Council sets their priorities, and expended the same effort to seek public suggestions on how to work the funding.”

Council members say their internal sales tax debate is results-driven, from the community survey, 102 public meetings and a little more than 6,000 respondents who were part of ACT ICT.

A total of 81 percent responding in the community meetings favored raising taxes – 58 percent favored a sales tax increase, 23 percent a property tax increase.

Only 18 percent favored fiscal restraint: 7 percent of those opted for tax and service cuts, and 11 percent for spending current revenues a different way.

A majority of the meeting participants, 62 percent, favored a one-cent sales tax increase.

Of the proponents of higher property taxes, 51 percent favored a 1 percent increase; 41 percent favored a larger increase.

But some council members say the cross-section of Wichitans represented in the survey and meetings isn’t enough. They also said the community engagement meetings weren’t evenly spread among the city’s six council districts.

Council member Jeff Blubaugh said only two ACT ICT meetings were held in his District 4. He said meetings there are plagued by low and repeat attendance, two significant challenges for the city as it tries to get its message out.

“I felt like it could have had a lot better sampling from the geographical area of my district,” he said.

Meitzner called for professional polling in Wichita to help confirm the projects the community values most.

“I value the opinions the citizens brought to the community engagement process,” he said. “It can be further validated by a true cross-section poll, but I don’t know why it would be much different than the original engagement process.”

Estes suggested that public opinion on the sales tax hike can’t be accurately gauged until the City Council puts forth a specific list of projects it wants to fund.

“The response of Americans for Prosperity, and Wichitans in general, is going to depend on the proposal brought forward by the city council,” she said. “Thus far, the public has just heard the statements of various City Council members, but no concrete proposal of how a possible sales tax would be structured, and which projects would be prioritized.”

But council members are unanimous about the need to fund major city projects, especially water and jobs.

Council member Janet Miller said she’s open to any legal way to fund essential city projects.

Cutting more at City Hall isn’t an option unless services are broadly scaled back, she said.

“I have heard recently, for example, that a municipal earnings tax is illegal in Kansas,” she said.

“But at this point, I’m not saying yes or no to anything. We do need to face the realities of needing additional funding for community needs, and ultimately we need to find out how strongly the community agrees with that.”

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