Commissioners passed Sedgwick County’s budget for next year after debates over flooding, debt, senior centers and health recommendations they deemed politically motivated.
The $425.2 million budget spends more on voting locations, support for the arts, tools against flooding, new technology for law enforcement agencies and money for improvements at the Sedgwick County Zoo.
The budget keeps the property tax rate flat at 29.359 mills. Residents may see higher tax bills if their home values rise.
It eliminates $35,985 in county funding for a position that manages the county’s role in a community health assessment and improvement plan, which tracks progress on key health goals and how to best meet them.
The position, funded evenly between the county’s general fund and health grants, was cut in the 2016 budget but restored in the 2017 budget approved last August, to the delight of public health advocates.
Commissioner Michael O’Donnell blasted a version of the plan for “talking about Topeka tax policy, talking about Topeka education policy, talking about gun control (and) talking about sex education.” He said the report previously had offensive language that attacked “the Topeka Legislature.”
“I hope we can develop a better program…that doesn’t get into areas that are not only out of their territory, but also an affront to many of the principles that we all campaigned on and believe in,” said O’Donnell, a former state senator.
“Let’s stick to improving the health of our community. Let’s get out of the political bomb-throwing and areas that are not the business of this group,” O’Donnell said. “We need to start asserting our authority as the Board of Health and we need to start talking about health programs and ways to do that without becoming a political weapon.”
Commissioners Jim Howell and Richard Ranzau voted with O’Donnell to eliminate the position.
Chairman Dave Unruh and Commissioner David Dennis also expressed concerns about statements in the plan, but voted against O’Donnell’s motion. Unruh said he didn’t “want to give up my seat at the table.”
“The best way for us to influence that is to have a person on the committee, to have our representative there,” Unruh said. “Withdrawing that person from the conversation, to me, seems counter-productive.”
Public health groups, private-sector entities and universities also participate in the development of the community health assessment and improvement plan.
Flooding that rocked Derby, Mulvane and southern Sedgwick County last fall sparked more interest in boosting the county’s stormwater efforts. The recommended budget includes more money to clear streams of debris and a reserve fund for storm cleanup.
But commissioners disagreed on what to do beyond that.
O’Donnell and Ranzau hoped additional funding could go toward projects, rather than more studies of stormwater issues. Unruh worried about deficit spending on unspecified stormwater expenses.
Eventually, commissioners compromised and unanimously approved $60,000 to develop a plan to find long-term funding solutions for flood control projects.
Capital projects paid with debt
Commissioners are split over whether to pay for projects with cash or by borrowing.
The recommended budget included $2.8 million to pay for 10 bridge repair and replacement projects next year by issuing bonds.
Howell and Ranzau voted against the part of the county’s capital improvement program that was funded with bonds and external sources like the Kansas Department of Transportation. Unruh, O’Donnell and Dennis voted for it.
For the past two budgets, Ranzau and Howell were part of a commission majority that wanted to pay for more infrastructure projects with cash instead of bonds.
“I think this swings the pendulum back too far,” Ranzau said. “I’m just not comfortable with the balance right now.”
Funding for senior centers
Senior centers in Haysville, Bel Aire, Clearwater and Mulvane wanted $73,000 more because they met service requirements in a funding formula. Those centers provide meals, programs, classes and presentations to improve seniors’ fitness, diet, mental and physical health.
“This is time for us to move forward and do what we said we would do,” Howell said.
Motions by Howell to fund senior centers from operating reserves and economic development funds didn’t gain traction. Ranzau asked to table the discussion for a later time. That passed 4-1, with Howell voting no.
Other parts of budget
The budget approved Wednesday includes:
▪ Funding for a better emergency communications system, a corrections department database and a Sheriff’s Office computer server
▪ More crime analysts to help the District Attorney’s Office process body camera footage from law enforcement
▪ Ten more polling sites for the 2018 gubernatorial election
▪ Future spending to remodel of the courthouse to accommodate district court and district attorney space needs
▪ Spending in later years for a new county administrative building and elections building
▪ $15,000 in county funding for the Arts Council
▪ $400,000 for improvements at the Sedgwick County Zoo, like upkeep on exhibits, fencing, roofs and sidewalks under a new funding agreement