Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan on Wednesday presented to commissioners a $421,355,378 budget for next year that adds an ambulance crew, a prosecutor for child-in-need-of-care cases and a detective for the Exploited and Missing Child Unit.
The county cut expenses by $3.4 million to overcome a deficit that had been projected for next year, Buchanan said.
The county will not raise its mill levy rate, as some other counties across the state – including Johnson County – are doing. The mill levy is the assessed property tax rate the county – and other government entities – uses to fund services.
“It’s a balanced budget to maintain our future financial integrity. It’s about focused government,” Buchanan told commissioners.
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He called his recommended budget, which commissioners will vote on Aug. 13, “an allocation of the public’s resources.”
Buchanan told The Eagle the county could have raised property taxes by half a mill, laid off 39 employees or “shuffled the deck” to reduce expenditures. The latter was the county’s strategy.
Although the budget avoids a projected $2.4 million deficit next year, Buchanan said stagnant revenue from property taxes and less money from the state will be a problem in a few years.
“We’ve had a slow increase in valuations. The result is lower property tax revenue,” he said. Looking to the future, Buchanan said “2017, 2018 and 2019 are going to be real hits to this organization.”
Buchanan stressed that the county is healthy financially and has $10 million in reserves and the highest rating possible from financial institutions. That’s despite reducing the mill levy by two mills the past five years and seeing $59 million in reduced revenue from the state during that time.
“Decisions at the state level have had significant effects,” he said.
The state pays the county 15 percent of the $150,000 million in programs and services it mandates the county offer to taxpayers, Buchanan said.
Highlights of the budget include:
• Eliminating funding for Visioneering Wichita. The county had given the group, an offshoot of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, $40,000 a year.
• Reducing funding to Wichita Area Technical College by $150,000.
Commissioner Tim Norton said he was concerned about the cut, saying technical education is good for the regional economy.
“I don’t want to go backward in what we’ve accomplished out there,” Norton said.
Buchanan said the county’s subsidy was more critical for the college in earlier years but not as much now, especially when the county is facing harder financial times itself. Efforts to reach officials at the college for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful.
• Hiring a detective for the Exploited and Missing Child Unit and adding a sheriff’s deputy who will work in courtrooms.
• Adding a prosecutor and administrative assistant in the district attorney’s office for children-in-need-of-care cases.
• Adding one EMS crew at a cost of $286,432 to keep up with a 5 percent annual increase in calls. EMS had requested two crews.
• Putting $400,000 aside to fund recommendations to reduce EMS calls. One suggestion has been sending two people in a regular vehicle to respond to people who call 911 because they can’t get up from their chair or bed. Buchanan told The Eagle on Tuesday that EMS has received 49 calls from an elderly man who most often just needed help getting around. The county also is exploring using case managers in the Department on Aging to work with people who may need extra help but don’t need to be transported to a hospital.
• Keeping six firefighter positions for Fire District 1 open. Filling the positions would cost $343,146.
Commissioner Jim Skelton expressed concern about not adding firefighters because of safety. He suggested instead eliminating some management positions, adding he knew that would not be popular either.
• Hiring a forensic scientist at the Regional Forensic Science Center due to an increase in so-called synthetic or “designer drugs.”
• A 2.5 percent pool for performance-based raises, expected to cost $1.9 million.
Some expenses also are expected to grow, such as food at the county jail, a projected $205,553 increase, and utilities, a projected $100,889 increase.
The county expects to pay 2.9 percent more for health insurance costs, about $715,977 more. The county recently moved to a self-funded insurance plan. Health care costs would have gone up just less than 10 percent if the county had kept its current plan, Buchanan said.
Commissioner Karl Peterjohn noted that employee pension costs also are rising. He expressed relief that the county’s bond rating still is high and its bonded indebtedness is decreasing.
Commissioner Richard Ranzau made another plea to reopen the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, which is shutting down this month.
He grilled Buchanan about the ranch.
“Could you talk for a minute about your contingency plan to reopen JRBR in January?” Ranzau asked Buchanan.
“I don’t have one,” the manager responded.
“When do you plan on developing one?” Ranzau asked.
“When the commission instructs me to,” Buchanan said.
Ranzau told Buchanan “I would encourage you do so sooner rather than later. I’m serious. You’ve got to think about it. There’s huge public support out there for this.”
Buchanan reiterated that the county was subsidizing the ranch for the state. He started talking about repairs needed at the ranch at Lake Afton when Ranzau interrupted him.
“That’s not what I asked,” Ranzau said, cutting off the manager. “I’ve heard all the talking points, and I’m not going to debate them anymore.”
Ranzau said the county “needs a plan to reopen it. I think it would be unwise to wait until January to come up with a contingency plan to open it.”
Ranzau has said that a new majority could evolve after elections and that there might be a push to reopen the ranch.
Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to close the ranch.
“I think that the commission as it’s currently constituted has made a decision about that issue,” Chairman Dave Unruh said. “We can’t ask staff to make a plan on the prospects of what the commission might do six months from now.”