Despite concern about leaving six firefighter positions open, Sedgwick County commissioners approved a $421,430,378 budget for next year.
The budget approved Wednesday does add an EMS crew, a detective for the Exploited and Missing Child Unit and a prosecutor for child abuse and neglect cases.
County Manager William Buchanan told commissioners the county would work with Fire District 1 this fall to come up with solutions to staffing concerns. Firefighters told commissioners at a public hearing Monday that they had safety concerns, especially at Stations 31 and 39 in Andale and Garden Plain. A Fire District 1 task force will meet in September, he said.
Firefighter safety should be a priority for the county, Commissioner Jim Skelton said.
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“I could sit here and just vote ‘no’ because of this whole issue,” Skelton said during discussions about the specific Fire District 1 budget. “We need to sit down and have this task force. I’m eager to participate if that’s appropriate.”
Buchanan said he thought there were “alternative ways to get the manpower and look at the budget” instead of raising the mill levy, which would raise property taxes. The county’s mill levy will remain at 29.3 mills, which represents about one-quarter of a property owner’s total tax bill. The owner of a $100,000 home will pay $336.95 in county property taxes. That number doesn’t include other taxing entities such as the school district or city.
“I’m certainly supportive of our firefighters’ safety and the kinds of actions that we need to make sure that the public is safe and is given the best care that they can get,” Commissioner Tim Norton said. “But I … find it pretty problematic that the call volume (at stations 31 and 39) is so small that trying to staff it fully and make sure it’s a good business decision are almost counter to each other.”
The county should take a “critical look” at Stations 31 and 39, Norton said.
Skelton said keeping the firefighter positions open is “another example of how budget cuts are negatively impacting public safety.”
The budget for the fire district is $17,627,925, included in the total county budget. The district has 146 employees, including 73 firefighters. Keeping six firefighter positions open would save the county about $420,000.
“We know that the fire district has had a couple years of deficits and projected deficits in the future,” Buchanan said. “We are prepared to sit down with union representatives and management and budget folks and rethink how we might go about this task of staffing the fire district.”
Skelton signed off on the budget, as did his four colleagues. The unanimous vote for the budget was unusual in recent years. Commissioner Karl Peterjohn often has voted against the budget out of frustration with specific issues.
Buchanan said little about the budget before presenting it, noting there had been two public hearings and many county staff meetings about the spending plan for next year.
“It’s balanced. It works. It provides for the well-being of citizens of Sedgwick County,” 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.
Commissioner Richard Ranzau said he was disappointed that the budget doesn’t include any money for reopening the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, which closed as a youth residential center II for troubled boys last month.
“This budget lacks any funding for Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, and my position has been made very clear on that,” Ranzau said.
Ranzau, who recently won the Republican primary for District 4 in northwest Sedgwick County, has said that if he wins the general election, he will pressure the county to reopen the ranch. Rep. Jim Howell, who won the Republican primary for the District 5 seat representing southeast Sedgwick County, also has said he would like to see the ranch back in operation. The Democratic candidates, former commissioner and state representative Melody McCray-Miller and former Rose Hill Mayor Richard Young, also have said they would support that move. Commissioners voted 3-2 to close the ranch. If Peterjohn and Ranzau get a third vote, a new majority could push Buchanan to fund the ranch.
“We’re looking at a budget that does not raise the mill levy, and that is very important,” Peterjohn said.
But Peterjohn said he shared concerns about the boys ranch.
Scott Hadley, director of EMS, said a new crew will start in January at a cost of $286,432. EMS had requested two new crews.
Where the new crew will be located is yet to be determined, Hadley said, but it will be a peak-demand unit.
EMS personnel are “very excited” about the new crew, Hadley said.
“The call demand has continued to rise the past several years. This will certainly address some of those issues.”
EMS calls have increased 3 to 4 percent every year the past seven or eight years, Hadley said.
The last time EMS added a crew was in 2011, Hadley said.
Other key points 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.
Hiring a detective for the Exploited and Missing Child Unit, a joint department of the Sheriff’s Office and Wichita Police Department, 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.
Putting $400,000 aside to fund recommendations to reduce EMS calls from people who don’t need transportation to a hospital.
Hiring a forensic scientist at the Regional Forensic Science Center due to an increase in so-called synthetic or “designer drugs.”
Creating a 2.5 percent pool for performance-based raises, expected to cost $1.9 million.
The budget increased $75,000 from the original recommended spending plan introduced last month to add 12 part-time workers who will mow along county roadways and rights of way.
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, or $715,977, more for health insurance costs. It 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.