A hotter-than-hot week brought welcome relief for local taxpayers: USD 259, the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County survived approvals of their next budgets without any increases in property-tax mill levies. That deserves applause, especially in light of the multiple-mill hikes deemed necessary by struggling local governing bodies around the state.
USD 259: The combination of the Legislature’s 1-cent sales-tax increase and additional federal dollars spared the Wichita school district and superintendent John Allison the nightmare of making more cuts to teaching jobs and programs as it was building schools and expanding facilities as part of the $370 million bond issue voters approved in 2008. The $631 million budget passed last week is $10 million larger than the one proposed for 2009-10, though that’s because of $12 million more in bond and interest money and some additional restricted federal funds. It still includes significant job and program cuts, such as driver’s education and school-resource officers at middle schools.
More so than their city and county colleagues, school board members also are subject to the ups and downs of state revenue and state leadership, meaning more cuts could come if the economy doesn’t pick up strength and if the next governor and Legislature consider K-12 education a lesser priority. And last week’s news that three more Wichita schools are “on improvement,” for a total of 12, was a sobering reminder that the achievement demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law don’t brake for a state fiscal crisis.
City of Wichita: Just a year and a half into his job, City Manager Robert Layton won an impressive vote of confidence from the City Council in its decision to approve a $519 million budget that cut $1 million from parks and recreation without specifying how. With so much yet to be decided, though, council members cannot have been surprised at the rumors or response from citizens, including seniors, fearful that favorite programs would be axed. Now, the challenge becomes delivering on Layton’s assurances that streamlining and outsourcing parks and recreation will realize $1 million in savings.
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In truth, Layton’s whole upbeat approach to a budget that cuts $6.4 million, in part by cutting 65 jobs and furloughing employees and reorganizing departments, can’t help but raise a question: If none of these cuts affects public safety or other core services, was that spending really necessary? One budgetary impact is undeniable — on the families of those whose jobs are targeted for elimination.
Sedgwick County: As they avoided layoffs and furloughs and cuts to core services in passing a nearly $412 million budget, Sedgwick County commissioners even managed about a half-mill cut in property taxes (a tax savings of about $5.75 a year on a $100,000 house). But with the budget relying on $14 million from “rainy-day” reserves and the economy still a wreck, commissioners’ insistence on a tax cut looked imprudent and political. Still, the budget includes an important $700,000 investment in dealing with mentally ill inmates at the Sedgwick County Jail and keeps the Kansas Pavilions open.
And hooray for county leadership, especially longtime County Manager William Buchanan and his financial management team, for having ample reserves to tap. All governments across the region and state should be so lucky — or, more accurately, so well-managed fiscally.