May 24, 2014

Wichita mayor predicts support for projects, tax increase at polls

If Wichitans don’t get a chance in November to vote on a sales tax increase – probably 1 cent for five years – it will be a surprise.

If Wichitans don’t get a chance in November to vote on a sales tax increase – probably 1 cent for five years – it will be a surprise.

But beyond $250 million for a new water source – probably through enhancements to the city’s aquifer storage and recovery project near Sedgwick – it’s less clear what the Wichita City Council wants to do with the money.

Let alone what happens after those five years.

On Tuesday, council members will hold their last scheduled public discussion about four projects that a community survey and meetings targeted last winter as priorities: the new water source; more jobs, which has morphed into a $90 million jobs development fund; street improvements; and stabilizing funding for Wichita Transit.

Mayor Carl Brewer said he’s confident the community will support the council’s final project list at the polls.

“Why? Because we’ve done it before,” he said. “The arena. We had a project. We had a specific price tag to go to. We had a length of time we weren’t going to go beyond. And we didn’t.

“We did exactly what we said we were going to do with the arena.”

A divided council

The only part of any sales tax vote that Brewer and council members agree on is the need for a water source.

Confronted with long-term bills for that source potentially in excess of $1 billion, the council has been energized by the notion of a 50-acre reservoir that would help capture more river water for the city’s Aquifer Storage and Recovery project, or ASR, near Sedgwick.

Not to mention the long-term costs of the ASR project, estimated at a comparatively cheap $375 million.

“That $250 million for water – someone’s got to pay for it,” council member Pete Meitzner said. “The question becomes, do we want the people who commute to Wichita to work and then drive home at night, the people who buy our goods and then go home to another town, to help pay for what Wichitans have already paid more than their fair share for, or are we OK with water ratepayers picking up the tab?”

Beyond water, the council agrees on little else: Some think sales tax revenue would be a popular source of funding for more street improvements. Others think the $90 million jobs development fund is a poison pill that Wichita voters simply won’t accept, dooming any sales tax revenue for other essential city projects like water and streets to defeat.

Some think stabilizing Wichita Transit’s finances is an essential part of any sales tax referendum. Others believe the bus system has no business in any sales tax vote.

And some think the council is wasting its time by taking another month after Tuesday’s meeting to take voters’ temperatures – again – on the issues that get the final nod.

Council member Jeff Longwell warned against “paralysis by polling.”

“Doesn’t the public get to weigh in when they vote?” he asked. “Do we want to try to go to the public with this three times?

“The public has absolutely told us their expectations. I’d be worried about continually trying to go back to the public with surveys and these meetings to help us define the list.

“I think we have to have that debate, and then let the public have the true final say by means of the ballot box. Me, I’m ready to move forward.”

To vote or not to vote?

Some council members aren’t ready to publicly admit – yet – that a sales tax vote has become a probability.

Despite Meitzner’s comments on funding the ASR improvements, he “wants to hear more from the public” before he decides on a sales tax vote. Council member James Clendenin maintains the council’s May debates are “for a list of priorities for the next decade that we need to decide how to fund.”

“I’ve never taken that this was to compile a list for a sales tax,” he said.

That is exactly opposite of how council member Janet Miller views the May debates.

“What we’re doing is putting together a tentative list for a sales tax referendum,” Miller said, “with the purpose of getting public comment on it.

“This list isn’t necessarily what I might vote on in July when the time comes for the final decision. A lot of things could change between now and July when we make the final vote, if we make one, based on public reaction and input.”

The council on the issues

Brewer is even more clear: A sales tax vote is drawing closer.

“No question that’s where we’re probably headed with all this additional discussion,” the mayor said. “Everyone agrees that water is important.”

So is the jobs development fund, the mayor said, and it should be an easy sell to Wichita voters, not the poison pill some council members fear.

“And the reason I say that is if you look at other cities and their practices, these funds are what they use to compete. It’s the practice across the country,” Brewer said.

“I mean, you can have water, but if we don’t have jobs in Wichita it won’t do any of us any good. We’ve got to get on the front end of creating jobs, and we’ve got to clearly define to the citizens what we want to do with this jobs fund and put some clear, transparent ways on it to measure where the money goes. If we can do that, it’ll be easier to sell.”

Longwell, on the other hand, says the jobs development fund proposal “falls on its face.”

“I think the conservative community we live in, and even some that aren’t so conservative, see that,” he said.

Given the city’s track record of failed economic development incentives – such as for WaterWalk and the Minnesota Guys – the current, and admittedly vague, jobs development fund proposal needs to be re-crafted, Longwell said.

“From too many different perspectives, that cash tends to line the pockets of big businessmen,” he said. “And what happens when those companies become successful and start paying out big bonuses to their top people? You think that won’t come back and haunt us after we’ve given them cash money to come here?”

Transit and streets

The sales tax debate gets even more heated when transit and street improvements are mixed in.

“Transit is going to have to be a part of this,” Brewer said. “We are going to have to change the way we look at the bus. We’re in the habit of driving everyplace we want to go, but you don’t have to look very far – Colorado, for example – to find mass transit. Young people want it. Businesses want to use it and encourage their employees to use it. The question before us is what is the right system that will work.”

Clendenin and Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh disagree with Brewer. Clendenin said he wants to avoid putting too many projects before voters; Blubaugh wants the transit system funded out of the city’s budget.

“Transit is important,” Clendenin said. “We have to figure out how to fund it, but when you start piling things in the sales tax vote and mucking up the waters, it will confuse voters. And if people are confused, they’ll vote no or they won’t vote at all.”

Longwell and Blubaugh want to plow some sales tax revenue into an expanded street improvement program. Blubaugh said his southwest Wichita district has been shorted in the past as the city doled out street work.

“We can pay for literally 30 years of past city government sins, and I think the public will agree that streets are a high priority for government,” Longwell said.

And, like Meitzner on water, Longwell thinks funding street work with sales tax revenue spreads the bill from Wichita taxpayers to commuting workers and visiting shoppers.

Council member Lavonta Williams offers a totally different perspective on the debate: Wichita’s needs are intertwined. Wichita needs to be a player in the costly world of recruiting and retaining jobs, and when it wins those jobs, it needs public transit to get workers to them – on a good system of city streets.

“It all ties together for me,” she said.

Don’t let the sun go down

There is some agreement on the council about the length of any sales tax for water and other improvements: five years.

But voters shouldn’t take that agreement as a commitment to sunset the sales tax for good. Several council members eye Oklahoma City’s renewable MAPS sales tax – with voters approving extensions – as a model.

“At a different point in time, five years from now after we’ve addressed transit, the water source and we’ve developed an economic development fund, I’d want to look at proposing a second five years or a continuation of the sales tax for quality-of-life assets as other communities have done,” Miller said.

“We have to show the voters that we can successfully implement a new water source and improve streets before we can convince them that changes to the ballpark, to Century II, the fine arts can come to fruition,” Longwell said.

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