July 15, 2014

More dollars for snow removal part of proposed Wichita budget

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported what the city would have to do if increased property tax revenue exceeded the change in the Consumer Price Index.)

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported what the city would have to do if increased property tax revenue exceeded the change in the Consumer Price Index.)

After last year’s frozen-over winter, the city of Wichita is planning to put more money into snow removal as part of the annual budget.

More street maintenance, a few more firefighters and a more permanent police outreach to the homeless also were among key changes highlighted by City Manager Robert Layton as he presented the proposed budget to the City Council on Tuesday.

It was the public’s first look at the 2015 plan, which totals $819 million once all spending, grants, transfers and trusts are accounted for.

That includes a local operations budget of $577 million.

“This is really a good-news year, the first good-news budget since I arrived,” said Layton, after years of managing cuts, freezing wages and restructuring departments.

The property tax rate in the upcoming budget will be the same as the past 21 years, 32.509 mills, or about $32.51 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Because of increased valuation of property and new construction, property tax revenue will be up this year, Layton reported.

This year’s levy will be about $102.8 million, up from about $101.6 million last year, according to a city report.

It’s not a big enough increase to trigger a new state law that requires special notice procedures to raise property taxes by more than the change in the Consumer Price Index, Layton said.

Layton said the changes he is proposing in the budget reflect priorities brought up by residents in a series of live and online town meetings and comments left on the city’s social media pages.

One of the most visible changes for residents could be that there will be more money for snow removal next winter.

Many residents were outraged in February when Wichita was hit with 9 inches of snow, followed by a bitter cold snap that overwhelmed the city’s removal efforts.

Streets were iced over for about a week and icy ruts persisted in some locations for weeks afterward.

Layton told the council that he’s taking steps to keep that scenario from happening again.

He’s proposing to increase snow-removal spending by $100,000, which would be used to contract with private companies. That, he said, will save the city the cost of buying more equipment that would sit idle most of the year.

He also said he’s creating a $750,000 snow contingency fund to be tapped in case of another major snow and ice event.

Other budget highlights include:

• $8 million for street maintenance. Layton said that’s about twice what the city spent in 2009 and he wants increase it to $10 million in future years.
• Six additional grant-funded firefighters and a training chief for the Fire Department.
• Indefinite continuation of the Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team, a group of three officers that works with the city’s homeless population with the goal of helping them get connected to services. Officials say the HOT team, originally set up as a pilot project, has been successful in reducing the number of homeless people who are sent to jail for minor violations, making their lives more comfortable and saving the city money.
• $250,000 for removal of dead trees from public right-of-way. The city lost numerous trees because of persistent drought conditions in recent years and neighbors have complained they’re becoming an eyesore. The money won’t be enough to get at all the trees, but it is a good start, Layton said.

Layton is recommending against cutting the police helicopter, which had been considered – and in favor of improving information technology security and the city’s marketing effort.

Some things that won’t get done right away include rehabilitation of the wildlife exhibit at Riverside Park and planned improvements at Watson Park, Layton said.

The council will hold two public hearings on the budget, Aug. 5 and Aug. 12.

Council members expect to adopt the budget immediately after closing the hearing at the Aug. 12 meeting.

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