December 1, 2013

Eagle editorial: Do what citizens want

Wichita City Council members are wise to back off internal discussions about a possible sales-tax increase and get more input from the public.

Wichita City Council members are wise to back off internal discussions about a possible sales-tax increase and get more input from the public.

“What’s important is we gather the information and we talk to the citizens,” Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said at a council retreat last week. “If we’ve already made our minds up that this is what we want to do, then we’re wasting the citizens’ time.”

A tax increase already faces long enough odds without giving the impression that the skids are greased.

The Eagle reported last weekend that council members were weighing a possible citywide vote on a sales-tax increase that could pay for a bundle of community projects. There was no consensus yet on the size or duration of the sales-tax increase or exactly what it would be used for, but possible projects included a cash “war chest” for economic development, an additional water supply, new or renovated convention and performing arts space, an enhanced transit system, water and sewer system repair and replacement, and a new Central Library.

The city faces some real needs, both in the near and longer terms. And it will be difficult to address all those needs within the existing city budget.

Council members also are adamant about not raising property-tax rates. So that led them to consider packaging projects and paying for them with a sales-tax increase, similar to what Oklahoma City did in 1994 and in 1999.

Such a proposal could be a tough sell, given the economy’s slow recovery and continued local layoffs. Also, the city has a credibility problem with some citizens after WaterWalk and other struggling development projects. The successful voter challenge last year of a tax incentive for the Ambassador Hotel showed that citizens are tiring of special deals for developers.

If a project package has a chance of passing, it needs to be based on the public’s priorities, not council members’ wish lists.

Council members are now pulling back and waiting for results from community-engagement meetings. City Manager Robert Layton and city staff began meeting with local civic, church, neighborhood and business organizations in September to discuss issues facing the city and present results from a recent community survey.

Some of the issues discussed are jobs and the economy, water, infrastructure, public transportation, parks and downtown. Participants also discuss whether the city should reduce taxes and reduce or outsource services, raise taxes and expand services, or expand some services but fund that by shifting funds within the city’s budget.

Layton hopes to hold at least 100 meetings by the end of the year. The results then will be compiled and presented to the council in February.

Council members shouldn’t get ahead of this outreach effort or manipulate the process to match their own agenda.

As Brewer told council members, “Let the citizens tell us what they want to do.”

Then do what citizens want.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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