After an hour and a half of public comments, Wichita City Council members on Tuesday voted in favor of putting a five-year, 1-cent sales tax on the November ballot.
The proposed tax would generate nearly $400 million over the next five years, officials estimate. It would help pay for a new water source, public transit, street maintenance and repair and job development.
“The citizens will get an opportunity to vote on it, to say this is what they want,” said Mayor Carl Brewer.
All council members voted in favor of the measure except for Jeff Longwell, who said he had reservations about the timing of the proposal.
“I think there are more tweaks to be made,” Longwell said at the meeting. “I’m not in the camp that says no, I’m just concerned that we do need a little more time.”
The council vote followed months of public hearings, surveys and planning by city officials. Brewer said city officials held nearly 100 community engagement meetings and heard from thousands of citizens on the issues.
Jobs development fund
Perhaps the most debated portion of the sales tax measure is the jobs development fund, which would generate about $80 million and add 20,000 jobs, according to city officials.
Opponents say the jobs portion is a “slush fund” for businesses.
Jennifer Baysinger, spokeswoman for the Coalition for a Better Wichita, which was formed in July to oppose the sales tax, said the group already has more than 100 members.
“The coalition’s main concern is the incentives fund,” Baysinger said. “We understand there is an importance for the other pieces, those are certainly what government can take care of, but the incentives fund is something we don’t believe government should be involved in.”
“We expected the ballot measure would likely move forward. That doesn’t mean we aren’t disappointed. So our group will just move into grassroots mode and work to defeat it in November.”
That will include knocking on doors, sending mailers, making phone calls and buying radio advertisements, Baysinger said. The group is in the process of becoming a 501(c)6 nonprofit organization.
Baysinger said she has spoken with representatives from Koch Industries about joining the coalition.
“Koch Industries is supporting the Coalition for a Better Wichita,” Mark Nichols, vice president for government and public affairs at Koch, said in a statement. “We do not support a new tax on citizens to create a jobs fund.”
The job development portion of the sales tax proposal has been spearheaded by other business leaders and the chamber over the past several months.
Several business leaders spoke in favor of the proposed sales tax, including Intrust Bank CEO Charlie Chandler, a friend of Charles Koch.
Chandler is co-chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Council, one of the groups that worked on the jobs proposal.
“The Leadership Council especially liked two things in this plan. First, that the private sector was taking responsibility with the public sector to analyze each project and use solid business practice, including ensuring that each project would positively impact our community before we spend a dime,” Chandler said.
“Second, that it would make us more competitive, not by competing head to head with other communities with cash, but instead by investing primarily in our infrastructure and in our citizens.”
Wayne Chambers, chairman of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, told city officials that their decision to put the issue to a vote, and the subsequent result of the vote in November, “might well be the most important decision for this community in the last 10-15 years.”
Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., said the city has seen activity and growth in retail, residential and hospitality areas in the past few years.
“But in the commercial market we haven’t seen the growth that we’d like to. We feel like the jobs initiative helps us move toward seeing those opportunities develop,” Fluhr said.
There are about 30,000 people unemployed in Wichita, Brewer said. There will be more meetings in the coming months that will include more detailed plans on job development.
“We have to do it in order to stay competitive,” Brewer said. “We’ve seen different cities and states, they’ve recruited our businesses, and they’re going to go where they can get the best return on their dollar. So we have to look at things from a business perspective and make sure we get the best return on our dollar, that dollar being our tax dollar.”
Food would be included under the proposed sales tax. Prescription drugs, however, would not be taxed because of a state exemption.
City Council members may vote next week on whether to place another issue on the ballot that would decriminalize marijuana.
Local supporters have collected thousands of signatures that are now being counted by elections officials to determine if they are from registered voters.
If there are enough valid signatures, the city will have three options:
Final approval of the proposed 2015 budget also is planned for next Tuesday’s meeting.