It was a long day at the Sedgwick County Courthouse.
After about four hours of a winding and sometimes confusing debate Wednesday, Sedgwick County commissioners approved a 2016 budget that restored some funding to public health, economic development, the Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place.
But the bulk of proposed cuts to health department programs, arts and culture commitments and city partnerships in the $412.3 million recommended budget stayed in place.
The budget includes slightly lower property taxes.
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The final budget was proposed by Chairman Richard Ranzau and amended by commissioner Jim Howell. Although it accomplished some goals of the majority of commissioners, they said it was far from perfect.
“I don’t like it. I don’t think anybody likes it, but it’s the best we can do,” Howell said.
“It’s the least bad of all the options I have in front of me,” said commissioner Karl Peterjohn, who also voted for the budget.
Commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh voted against the budget after trying to persuade other commissioners to consider alternative amendments that would have prevented most proposed cuts.
“Mr. Chairman, I got a whole list of them here I could go through, but I’m certain they’re not going to pass,” said Unruh toward the end of the meeting.
The adopted budget will reduce the use of debt to pay for county road and bridge projects.
“We’ve moved toward less debt, which in the long run will actually help us provide more services,” Ranzau said.
The budget added $150,000 to the zoo’s 2016 funding, which is now about $5.8 million. The zoo had expected an increase of $388,302 in 2016 for personnel costs through its funding agreement with the county.
The Sedgwick County Zoological Society’s Mark DeVries said the zoo is grateful for the increase, which will pay the salaries for elephant keepers at the new Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit.
“While we’re disappointed it’s not enough to fund some maintenance and infrastructure for the county’s assets, we will figure out how to make it work,” he said in a statement.
Commissioners restored $40,000 of the $75,000 that was set to be cut from funding for Exploration Place.
“I’m really happy they restored some of the funding,” Unruh said. “I think the agencies that asked for that money are not frivolous with it, they’re not wasting it. So anything we give to them will be put to good use.”
Two health programs got relief, but more than a half million dollars was cut from the health department’s spending.
Project Access, which helps low-income residents get medical care, was largely spared. It will get $175,000 from the county. After a July commission vote, it was supposed to get $200,000. But the recommended budget cut its funding completely.
Anne Nelson, Project Access director, said the budget meeting was a roller coaster as commissioners moved the Project Access funding amount up and down repeatedly.
“We are grateful to know we have the county’s support for 2016,” Nelson said.
Some commissioners said Project Access should look for other sources of funding.
“I think they are too important of a program to be dependent on government and go through this every year,” Ranzau said.
But Nelson said the county and the city of Wichita’s role in Project Access is vital to the program’s success.
“I want the chairman to understand how difficult of a fundraising environment we’re in,” she said.
A health navigator program that educates people about their health care options got $91,099 in county funding, on par with 2015 levels. It was slated to be cut completely.
“Those (restorations) indicate that we’re standing by the two programs that touch people the most,” Howell said.
The health department will lose $514,069 in programs that provide health education, community health assessments, immunizations, cancer screenings and services meant to combat infant mortality. With the smaller cut to Project Access, total health department cuts add up to $539,069.
Howell called the other health programs that were cut largely bureaucratic and unnecessary.
Ranzau said the cuts in immunizations, for instance, were meant to make the county’s efforts more efficient.
“There is a rationale behind every decision,” he said, contending the county is still committed to improving public health.
The alternatives Norton and Unruh pushed would have funded some or all of the health programs that were cut.
“Many other worthy health programs and other community programs were cut or significantly reduced,” Nelson said. “It’s a little bittersweet news for us today.”
Various economic development, cultural and recreation groups saw cuts in the budget.
The county cut its funding for the Wichita Arts Council and the River Festival, as well as the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission and the Kansas Junior Livestock Association.
Arts Council President Arlen Hamilton said he was “extremely disappointed” in the decision. The Arts Council had used its county funding, $14,013 in 2015, to fund upstart projects.
“We will continue the mission of making our community a brighter and better place to live,” he said. “We look forward to the day when the Board of County Commissioners once again believes in the future of our county.”
Wichita Area Technical College will see a $75,000 cut from the county. The budget restored $25,000 in proposed cuts.
Howell accused Norton and Unruh of not being open to compromise. But Unruh said he and Norton were already cutting things they valued in their budget proposals.
“I was already cut to the bone in my opinion and cut a lot of things that I wasn’t comfortable doing,” Unruh said.
Howell said it’s a “new normal” of tighter budgets and renewed priorities.
“I wish we had more money, but we don’t,” Howell said.
Fight over two miles of road
Several of Unruh and Norton’s proposals focused on reducing funding for the county’s extensive road and bridge system.
Unruh said the cuts were largely self-created by the commission majority’s goal to reduce the county’s use of debt to pay for road and bridge projects.
Normally, Sedgwick County pays for $4 million in road and bridge projects by issuing bonds, or borrowing money. This budget created a $3.29 million cash fund for unspecified projects.
“If we were going to bond $4 million worth of roads this year, we wouldn’t be having all these budget gymnastics,” Unruh said.
That cash fund has had the majority’s support throughout the budget process.
On Monday, Unruh and Norton said they could restore all major cuts by delaying $1.25 million in projects that would pave five miles of county roads. Under that program, each commissioner gets to pick a mile of gravel road in his district to pave in 2016.
With commissioners rejecting that option, Norton and Unruh volunteered to give up the road projects in their own districts instead.
“I’m willing to forego my mile,” said Norton. “These other things are more important to me.”
But those alternative amendments failed by a 2-3 count, with the other three commissioners voting for full road funding.
“If they can’t identify needs in their districts, by all means, let’s put the money back on the (Capital Improvement Plan) or other roads that need that money,” Howell said.
He said delaying the projects to prevent cuts would set a new precedent of taking money that would otherwise go to roads.
“To take money out of something that would otherwise fix roads and do operations sets us up for problems next year,” Howell said.
Unruh said paving those two miles of road was less important than restoring funding to some groups.
“It was an honest effort to try and fund some of these community partners who really feel pain with these cuts,” Unruh said.
Taxes: The adopted budget slightly lowers the mill levy rate. The owner of a $100,000 house will save $1.37 in taxes.
Roads: Commissioners have struggled whether to delay projects or pay for roads and bridges with cash or debt. They fully funded a gravel road program.
Zoo: The Sedgwick County Zoo will get an additional $150,000 to pay keepers for the new elephants exhibit. The zoo had expected an increase of nearly $400,000.
Health: Some programs were spared cuts, but the county health department budget will be cut more than $500,000 from last year.