A planning workshop Tuesday at City Hall quickly morphed into a debate about what projects to include in a public vote on a sales tax increase.
A new water source, a $90 million jobs development fund, transit improvements and pavement improvements emerged as the top choices after a rare two-hour policy debate before an audience and cameras.
Only water drew the unanimous support of the City Council, minus Mayor Carl Brewer who spent the morning with Gov. Sam Brownback.
Another discussion on May 27 could narrow the field of projects further and perhaps include a final decision on some, like water and jobs.
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The discussion included numerous mentions of a possible public vote on a sales tax referendum and briefly segued into a debate over whether the sales tax should last five or 10 years before expiring. The council has yet to formally approve seeking a one-cent sales tax increase.
Several projects that once contended for a chunk of any sales tax proceeds were pared from the list, including new convention space and other improvements at Century II, a performing arts center, affordable housing and homeless shelters.
Some could reappear this summer as the council tweaks its 10-year capital improvements plan, another way to pay for major projects. Among those are a new central library, which got new life last week when the council approved planning work for it; improvements at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, which some council members say could be done for less than the city estimate of $49 million; and the Century II work.
But others, like the privately owned Dunbar Theater and the still-conceptual return of passenger rail service to Wichita, appear to have been checked off the city’s financial list for at least five years.
The council did approve an application Tuesday for federal grant money to complete environmental studies to extend the Heartland Flyer rail service from Oklahoma City through Wichita to Newton. Finalizing that project will take time, city officials said.
Council members seemed to agree that money should be spent on a new water source, attracting and maintaining Wichita jobs and on the city’s bus system.
They were unanimous only on the new water source: They indicated a $250 million project to retool the city’s aquifer storage and recovery project near Sedgwick, doubling the amount of water the city captures from the Little Arkansas River, is the best and most cost-effective solution to long-term water issues .
Council member James Clendenin, a long-time advocate of water re-use, said the ASR enhancements and El Dorado water are “probably the best options we have at this time.”
Council member Jeff Longwell said that he’s looking for a cost-effective water source that maximizes the efficiency of the city’s $240 million ASR project. City officials have proposed a new 50-acre reservoir that would be 12 feet deep and hold 195 million gallons of water.
Longwell said he’s looking for financial efficiencies for Wichita water users as well. The ASR project would include a one-time 1.8 percent rate hike for water bills, far less less than the increase expected if the city builds a transmission system here for El Dorado water.
“Rate impact is going to be a critical factor in my decision,” he said.
The jobs fund
Some of the most lively discussion focused on the $90 million jobs development fund sought by the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to encourage entrepreneurship and to retain and recruit high-paying jobs.
Council members were less than enthusiastic about the idea, with a couple noting that they wished incentives were not necessary in the competition for jobs.
“If we don’t play by the rules, we’re going to lose,” Clendenin noted.
And some wondered if pouring city sales tax money into incentives instead of quality-of-life enhancements is the right move. Council member Janet Miller cited studies that show young people choose their homes based on lifestyle, then look for jobs.
Miller said all of the quality-of-life projects before the council – Century II, convention space, performing arts space, Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, the new central library, theaters – are important pieces of the city’s lifestyle.
“The resounding message (from the surveys) is it's all about life and creating a place where people want to live,” she said.
Longwell noted that the city was straying from the economic development blueprint in Oklahoma City, where leaders built quality-of-life enhancements in the first round of MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects), a voter-approved sales tax increase in the mid-1990s.
“Downtown Oklahoma City has been a tremendous asset to economic development in Oklahoma City,” Longwell said.
He suggested that the length of any proposed sales tax increase should be 10 years, to capture money for quality-of-life improvements.
Longwell said that Wichita has lost jobs to other cities who value quality of life more.
“Quality-of-life issues can be more important to economic development than handing closing funds to people to close the jobs gap,” he said.
“Every community around us has done a 10-year sales tax referendum. We ought to at least take a look at it.”
Other council members criticized the GWEDC plan as too vague and set the stage for a demand that the plan’s books be fully transparent to the public.
Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh said that the GWEDC plan is not specific enough to sell to Wichita voters, a position others shared.
“Before people will support the fund, they want to know the strategies, how money will be spent,” Miller said. “I think the voting public wants more information about how these dollars will be used before they're going to support it.”
Council member Pete Meitzner, who said the city needs to do anything it can to join the regional and national jobs race, recoiled at the size of the fund being sought.
“The $90 million number is a big one to swallow. It has a little sticker shock to it," he said.
Transit director Steve Spade said a tenth of a cent from the sales tax would stabilize funding for his embattled system and permit the addition and fine-tuning of several key routes around town.
But he said the transit system would fall into the red again if and when any sales tax revenues end.
Nonetheless, transit had significant council support, with Miller noting that a growing number of young professionals insist on public transit in the communities they choose.
"There is not one that stands out in my mind more than this one.” Miller said about the issues before the council.
Council members split on whether the city’s street improvement and repair program, which has received a $2 million annual infusion already, could use sales tax proceeds to speed up the work.
So far, the extra street money has come from the city budget.