Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan played cheerleader of sorts Thursday, thanking department heads for their creativity under tight budget constraints.
But he warned that with revenue projected to be worse than first anticipated due to stagnant property values and state budget cuts, the 2014 budget may be dimmer than first expected.
“We are all in this together,” Buchanan told his staff at a meeting at the Sedgwick County Zoo. “We will be required to be creative, innovative and collaborative.”
He stressed that it’s not the county’s money that department heads will determine how to best spend.
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“It’s the citizens’ money,” Buchanan said. “We are stewards. We are trustees of their money.”
County budget director David Miller started the meeting with a recap of the 2013 budget. The county made $7.2 million in cuts to tax-supported funds and eliminated 69 full-time positions. It also shuttered some programs, such as the health department’s prenatal program, and reduced support to the zoo, the extension center, Exploration Place and Wichita Area Technical College.
Miller said assessed valuation of residential, commercial and agricultural properties will be less than previously estimated. The county had estimated growth of 1.5 percent for 2014 but now says values will be flat, reducing revenue by just more than $1.8 million.
That trend is estimated to continue through 2017, when revenue will be down just less than $6 million.
County Appraiser Michael Borchard told commissioners last week that he expects values to remain stagnant.
Miller said if valuations had remained at the average 5.5 percent annual growth from 2010 to 2014, the county would collect $35 million more next year than currently estimated.
Commission Chairman Jim Skelton said the news Thursday makes it obvious it will be “an extra challenge to meet some of our goals. We’re still in that holding pattern, and it’s still a symbol of what I would say is a sluggish economy.”
But he said the county is six months out from adopting a budget – commissioners are scheduled to vote Aug. 7 on the 2014 budget – and has time to get creative and tough with the bottom line.
“We have extra time to think things through,” he said.
He said two of his top priorities are building a special pod at the county jail to better serve inmates with mental illnesses and keeping all zoo exhibits open.
“The thought of closing exhibits at the zoo is very scary,” Skelton said. “It’s the state’s No. 1 tourist attraction.
“We cut $250,000 in funding last year, and the next logical thing would be to have to close exhibits. That’s a frightening prospect, and it’s certainly nothing I’d like to be a part of.”
Budget hearings for county departments are scheduled for May 16 to May 31. Buchanan will release his recommended budget July 10. Public hearings are scheduled for July 17 and July 31.