Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell ripped into the Sedgwick County Commission on Tuesday for shifting governmental costs to the city as the city considered its budget for next year.
And Longwell said he expect the issue to grow worse when a state-imposed lid on local property tax spending kicks in with next year’s budget, putting financial pressure on both sides.
They’ve shifted $5 million over to us annually without a tax lid. I’m a little nervous about what might be shifted over, because they’re going to have a tax lid also.
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell
“They’ve shifted $5 million over to us annually without a tax lid,” Longwell said. “I’m a little nervous about what might be shifted over, because they’re going to have a tax lid also.”
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Longwell said he plans to make that a subject of conversation the next time city and county leaders have a monthly meeting.
County Commissioner Richard Ranzau replied that both governments have backed away from funding each other’s projects.
Over time, you know, they spend moneys in some places, we spend in others.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau
“We partner in some things, but we each have our different areas of responsibility and focus,” Ranzau said. “Over time, you know, they spend moneys in some places, we spend in others.”
During the council meeting, Longwell asked City Manager Robert Layton to calculate how much more the city was spending on public services that the county used to cover.
Layton replied that his staff had already run that calculation and came up with “just shy of $5 million annually that’s been shifted to the city” since 2008.
After the meeting, Layton said the shift included about $3 million in jail fees, $850,000 for the day reporting center that handles offenders on probation, another $850,000 for the Old Cowtown Museum and $60,000 in underfunding of the shared Metropolitan Planning Department.
That overall estimate dropped by about $450,000 during Tuesday’s meeting, when the city approved its own contract for day reporting services to cost $400,000 instead of the $850,000 the county was paying, Layton said.
There have long been tensions between the city and county, but they have worsened since a conservative commission majority consisting of Ranzau, Jim Howell and Karl Peterjohn took control of the county in early 2015.
They (county commissioners) have a different mindset over there right now.
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell
Although the city also has its own conservative streak, cutting its spending and privatizing work, “They have a different mindset over there right now,” Longwell said of the county.
“Part of our frustration includes the fact that they want to turn down federal grants that would help offset some of these costs, because they don’t believe in bringing in federal grant dollars for things.
“Whether they’re trying to send some message or not about what they believe is the right conservative attitude for our area, I just think our citizens deserve to get as many of their tax dollars (as possible) back into this area.”
He said his intention isn’t to start a fight with the county but to educate the public on what’s going on with municipal finances.
“I pay nearly as much … property tax on my house to the county as I do the city,” he said. “So it’s a little frustrating for me to see a shift of financial obligations over onto the city.”
Ranzau acknowledged that the commission has refused some federal money for what it considered nonessential government services, including some health care programs.
However, he said, that doesn’t have anything to do with the balance of spending between the county and city.
“Anyone who’s dealt with the city and county knows the county is not the difficult entity to get along with,” Ranzau said.
He said the jail fees and Cowtown cut came before the conservative majority. The fact that the city can do day reporting for half the price shows it was abusing the system when the county paid for it, he said. He added the county pays plenty for planning.
He also said the county has picked up the tab for functions where the city used to kick in, including the Child Advocacy Center and Exploration Place.
“What about the CAC?” he said. “We gave $1 million to their capital fund. They didn’t. We give extra money for operating costs every year. They don’t.”
Or, he added, “What about Exploration Place? That’s supposed to be a partnership ... we pay for the building. We’re subsidizing it over $2 million a year. They don’t participate in that.”
The city and county also clashed over the tax lid. The city fought it at the Legislature while the county was the only major local government entity in the state to favor it.
Over the past two years, the state Legislature has acted to keep local governments from reaping the benefits of rising property values.
The rising valuations brought cities and counties more money from property taxes, even if they didn’t raise the rate of taxation.
To prevent cities and counties from claiming that money, the Legislature instituted a cap based on an inflation rate calculated by the state.
This year, the inflation rate was 0.125 percent, well below the city’s 2.5 percent spending increase in the budget.
City officials can raise the budget this year and the only penalty is having to put a notice in The Eagle saying they did it. Next year, they’ll need voter approval if they want to exceed the cap again.
Layton said this year the city will go over the cap by about $800,000, but it’s questionable whether it will be worth investing in the cost of an election to try and get permission to spend that much revenue next year.
Public safety – in essence, police, fire and the municipal court departments – are exempt from the tax lid, but it could mean cuts in the city’s troubled transit system, street maintenance and parks and recreation, Layton said.
Overall, this year’s city budget includes about $580 million in total spending, the largest part of which is salary at 37 percent, followed by debt service on city roads, buildings and other projects at 30 percent.
The overall budget includes a $231 million general fund that provides the bulk of operating money for city services.
The largest source of general fund money is the property tax at 33 percent, followed by franchise fees, 22 percent; other revenue sources, 19 percent; and sales tax, 13 percent.
The biggest spending areas are police, 36 percent; fire, 20 percent; other, 17 percent; public works, 16 percent; parks, 7 percent; and libraries, 6 percent.
The property tax rate will stay steady at $32.686 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
Among the significant initiatives in the budget for the upcoming year:
▪ The addition of 10 police officer positions, plus seven staff members to handle video generated by the department’s new body camera program and a detective position for the Missing and Exploited Children’s Unit.
▪ Restoring a specialized traffic enforcement unit in the police department, which had been disbanded during the recession, to address a rising trend in accidents.
▪ A plan to shift funding in the transit system and seek grants to stabilize it through 2019.
▪ A pilot program for fire dispatch seeking to reduce the number of calls where acute medical treatment is not really needed.
▪ A pilot program for spot repairs of streets that need work but aren’t in line for complete resurfacing.
▪ A pilot program to control dust around schools, which has generated complaints from parents.