The number of people who signed up to speak at the second Sedgwick County budget hearing quadrupled from last week’s one to this week’s four.
The Thursday evening meeting was the last chance for people to formally address commissioners in person about the recommended Sedgwick County budget before its Aug. 10 adoption. Only one speaker attended the July 27 hearing. An online budget hearing runs until Aug. 10.
The longest discussion of the meeting began with Laura Bernstorf. She confronted commissioners about not listening to speakers at last year’s budget hearings, where dozens of people railed against proposed budget cuts that largely remained in place in the final budget.
“I spent a lot of time here last year,” Bernstorf said. “For all of the representation that our community brought last year, there were no significant changes to the budget to address the concerns that I have.”
“People do not listen and change the behavior,” Bernstorf said. “So what I’m saying is that’s why this room is probably empty.”
She said quality-of-life issues like culture and recreation important to people last year were cut.
“We make decisions based on what’s fiscally responsible in one person’s mind when there are multiple people saying otherwise,” she said.
Bernstorf, 34, acknowledged that millennials need to step and become more engaged.
“We are trying to get them educated and understanding what it means to be involved in the community,” Bernstorf said. “But when they try and they’re not listened to, that’s why they’re not here this year.”
Chairman Jim Howell said he felt like commissioners did take public input into account last August. He mentioned decisions to soften cuts to Exploration Place, Wichita Area Technical College, health care program Project Access and the South Central Kansas Economic Development District.
“We actually did respond, I think, with a number of changes to the budget based on the folks that came out and spoke to us last year at the budget hearings,” Howell said.
Bernstorf also urged commissioners to explore “alternate ways of funding” road and bridge projects to not spend the county’s cash reserves. Commissioners have been sharply divided whether to borrow money or use cash reserves to pay for that type of work.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding there,” Commissioner Richard Ranzau said. “We’re using some excess cash to fund some projects, some one-time projects.”
Ranzau said the county had been “borrowing habitually” and paying millions of dollars more on interest than the actual cost of road and bridge projects.
“After a certain number of years, we will dig ourselves out of the hole and you’ll have more money to spend on everything,” he said.
“We can certainly agree to disagree. But I appreciate you coming here today,” Ranzau said. “I wanted to explain that rationale.”
“I appreciate the explanation. I was fully aware of that,” Bernstorf responded. “But I appreciate you needing to speak your piece.”
After the meeting, Bernstorf said she felt “lectured” and “talked down to” by Ranzau. And she called that part of the problem.
“A lot of it felt like it was pointless to come back again,” Bernstorf said, referring to why attendance was low this year.
Senior Services of Wichita executive director Laurel Alkire thanked commissioners for the county’s support of its programs to help deliver Meals on Wheels.
Chuck Knowles, a Wichita Youth for Christ director, urged commissioners to not completely defund a program that helps provide job readiness training.
And Charles Peaster blasted David Dennis for not attending the budget hearing. Dennis defeated incumbent Commissioner Karl Peterjohn in the Republican primary on Tuesday.
“He evidently don’t care about the budget,” Peaster said. “Or he thinks he knows so much about it that he don’t need to be here to see what the peoples’ responses are.”
A fifth speaker who did not sign up to speak, Lonny Wright, said Dennis was at the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission meeting as vice chairman. Wright said the meeting had run long past the start of the budget hearing.