Sedgwick County commissioners might have said "no," but other area leaders are stepping forward to support a regional group's efforts to land a federal grant potentially worth as much as $2 million.
"We're in discussions with some members. Hopefully we'll have that all solidified by early next week," said Joe Yager, CEO of the Regional Economic Area Partnership, known as REAP.
On Wednesday, commissioners Kelly Parks, Karl Peterjohn and Gwen Welshimer voted against the county serving as the agency to manage and distribute funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Sustainable Communities Planning Grants Program. The EPA and U.S. Department of Transportation also are partners in the grant. Commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh voted to support the grant application.
REAP is applying for the grant on behalf of a consortium of local governments, including Sedgwick, Butler, Sumner, Harvey and Reno counties and the cities of Wichita, El Dorado, Hutchinson, Newton and Wellington.
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Newton leaders have voted to approve the grant application. Other cities and counties will vote next week.
Yager said two partners have stepped forward and agreed to manage the grant since Sedgwick County will not. He would not say which partners had made that pledge but stressed "We will have one. We know that."
The application deadline is Aug. 23.
The aim of the grant — a pool of $100 million is available — is to promote regional planning for economic and work force development, transportation, housing, land use and infrastructure.
Kristey Williams, chairwoman of REAP and mayor of Augusta, said she was surprised by the commission's vote.
"We're a better place when we work together," she said of regional planning efforts. "We have more assets. We have a greater work force. I would like to think that Sedgwick County and all of the counties could work together to strengthen the entire regional economy."
Peterjohn said he voted against it for several reasons, including what he believes is out-of-control spending at the federal level, and "because I'm concerned we've got a substantial planning bureaucracy already."
Government should be streamlined, not expanded, he said.
"It screamed to me like marginal spending with no real tangible benefits," Peterjohn said Friday.
Although Parks voted on Tuesday to support the grant as a member of the Transportation Policy Body for the Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, he also had said he couldn't support it.
Parks said Wednesday that he was concerned about some of the phrases used in the grant materials that he believed "sounds like maybe we're out to hire a bunch more inspectors to go around and tell people how to use their land."
Welshimer said Friday that she didn't feel she had been adequately briefed about the grant before Wednesday's vote.
Commissioners receive a draft list of the agenda the Tuesday the week before their Wednesday meetings and a full agenda, including all backup materials, the Friday before their meeting.
Welshimer said she had concerns about the grant's management taking too much time away from the county's director of community development, Irene Hart. The county would not have added staff as part of the grant or used any of its own money but would have contributed in-kind staff time.
"I also am worried about unfunded mandates," she said.
Unruh remains baffled by his colleagues' votes.
"I'm really perplexed and flabbergasted why my fellow commissioners would vote against money that is going to be appropriated," he said. "To vote against it based on the federal government spending too much money doesn't make sense to me. If we can control the federal government from our bench, we'd make a lot of different decisions."
Elisabeth Skibba, business development director for Geotechnical Services Inc., an engineering and environmental consulting firm, wrote to Unruh this week thanking him for his support of the grant. Skibba serves on Visioneering Wichita's Environmental Sustainability Alliance. Visioneering Wichita is a partner organization for the grant.
"We've been talking about this grant for months," Skibba said. "When the county voted it down, I just couldn't believe it."
Skibba noted that the region worked together on the Fair Fares campaign, which brought low-cost airlines to Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.
Part of the grant would have focused on regional environmental sustainability energy use and climate change.
"We worked together with airfares. Why are we not doing that on sustainability?" Skibba asked.
Skibba said she contacted Unruh because he is her commissioner and plans to voice her frustration with the rest of the board.
"Why would you not want to improve your community?" she said. "You can't do anything without a good plan."