County staff recommended a $412.3 million budget full of changes ranging from how the county pays for road construction to its support of public health and culture.
Chris Chronis, the county’s chief financial officer, called it a budget of transformational change.
“It’s a budget that, in many ways, begins the process of transforming what this government is, what it does and how it serves our community,” he said.
In line with the wishes of a new Commission majority, the county would lower property taxes slightly, use more than $3 million in cash to maintain and expand county roads and boost support for what it considers the core services of government, such as elections and criminal justice.
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To avoid further debt, the budget would delay road projects, put off building new EMS posts, slash economic development funding, eliminate county support for several public health programs and reduce its planned commitment to local cultural and recreation partners, such as the Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place.
The county will use $3.29 million in cash to pay for road projects. It usually borrows money for roads by issuing bonds.
To get the cash for roads, the county plans to cut more than $500,000 in cultural and recreation funding, around a $1 million in health and human services spending and almost $1.8 million on economic development from 2015 funding levels.
Another commission priority was to lower property taxes. In the recommended budget, the mill levy rate would go to 29.359 mills from 29.478 mills.
An owner of a $100,000 house would save $1.37 a year under that rate, according to the budget.
Groups affected by the cuts promised a strong showing of support at the public hearings in the weeks before the budget’s Aug. 12 adoption date.
“There you have it,” tweeted the Wichita Arts Council after the budget cutting their county funding was released. “It’s time to make some noise.”
Zoo director Mark Reed said the zoo’s social media is “blowing up” regarding the budget.
“I feel optimistic that we’ll hear good, positive public support,” Reed said.
However, the first public hearings won’t happen until a week after a critical point in the budgeting process known as “last-up day,” which is this Wednesday.
Last-up day means that, under state law, July 22 is the commission’s last chance to increase the 2016 budget.
“Wednesday is your last opportunity, if you care to, to provide more spending authority or more property tax revenue to support the budget than what is currently in the recommended budget,” Chronis told the county commissioners Monday.
The budget total, currently $412.3 million, will be capped on Wednesday.
Organizations can lobby for restored funding, but that money will have to come from other elsewhere in the budget, Chronis said.
Commissioner Karl Peterjohn expressed concern over the timing of the last-up day.
“I just wish the last-up day was later on in this process,” Peterjohn said. “I think it’s unfortunate we have it so soon.”
Focus on core services
County government staff are tasked every year with crafting a budget that will be approved by a majority of the five popularly-elected County Commissioners.
At a commission planning session back in February, staff projected a county deficit of about $8 million for 2016.
Chronis said the majority of commissioners wanted to reduce the use of county debt to pay for projects and to avoid an increase in the county’s property tax for 2016.
“They wanted to provide a greater focus on what they consider to be the core services of county government and perhaps devote less time and effort to non-core services,” Chronis said. “Above all, they wanted us to eliminate those operating deficits.”
Former county manager Bill Buchanan submitted a preliminary recommended 2016 budget shortly before his retirement in June.
Acting county manager Ron Holt said that the preliminary budget released in June was a balanced budget without cuts to the zoo, Exploration Place and other groups.
The preliminary budget was edited to its current form after more than a month of receiving input from commission members, Chronis said.
In order to maintain county roads and reduce debt, the budget creates a capital improvement project reserve fund, the first in the county’s history, to pay for road and bridge work with cash instead of bonds.
The budget also increases spending for several departments that provide what the commissioners consider core county services.
It plans for an additional $114,626 to the county’s election office for two election workers to handle a heavier workload due to the 2016 presidential election.
It also includes $500,000 for juvenile corrections programming that would serve as an alternate to reopening the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, a youth residential center the county shuttered last year.
The 2016 budget has a projected deficit of $1.1 million.
“It puts us in better financial posture, but it does so by making a lot of tradeoffs between services the county has traditionally provided,” Chronis said.
Zoo, museum lead losses
Cultural and recreation groups will lose more than $500,000 in county support that they had expected for 2016.
The largest chunk of that is a $388,302 increase the Sedgwick County Zoo expected through its funding agreement with the county. It would have gone to pay for zookeepers for the zoo’s Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit, which is now under construction.
The zoo’s 2016 funding will stay level with 2015 levels at $5.6 million.
Exploration Place would see a cut of $75,000. All county funding for the Wichita Arts Council, the River Festival, Kansas Junior Livestock Show and the Greater Wichita Sports Commission would end.
There are also more than $1 million in cuts to the county’s health and human services spending.
The county would eliminate its entire $200,000 funding for Project Access, which helps uninsured people with medical care.
The health department would see about $780,000 in cuts for programs that provide free health screenings, promote health education and provide immunizations.
Economic development funding also took a large hit in this year’s recommended budget.
The county would reduce its financial commitment to the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition by $50,000 and completely pull county support for the South Central Kansas Economic Development District, a total of $83,875. The Wichita Area Technical College will see a cut of $100,000.
About $16.2 million in county infrastructure projects would be deferred or eliminated.
A remodel project at the Sedgwick County jail would be deferred, along with two new EMS posts in the eastern parts of the county and a $4.3 million expansion of the Forensic Science Center.
County commissioners sharply disagreed on the necessity of the cuts.
“We have an obligation not to take these draconian cuts to services and partners that we’ve delivered for many, many years,” said commissioner Tim Norton.
Members of the commission majority emphasized how tough decisions needed to be made in this year’s budget.
Commissioner Jim Howell said the county needs to focus on core functions and have more responsible government.
“Some belt-tightening is required,” Howell said. “If we don’t do that this year, it just makes things more difficult next year.”