Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is right: City Manager Robert Layton and his staff need to stay on top of the details and ensure that City Council members aren’t met with alarming and embarrassing surprises. The missteps are a matter of City Hall credibility and could make it harder to proceed with a mentioned sales-tax ballot initiative next year – at least a successful one.
Brewer raised the issue at a recent planning retreat. “The ‘I forgot to do that’ and the ‘I don’t know’ just aren’t acceptable before the City Council,” he said. Other council members have seconded his concerns.
A Sunday Eagle article pointed out some of the incidents in which council members have felt ill-served by Layton and his staff this year: when the council learned that Cheney Reservoir was 30 months from going dry and, later, that staff was proposing stiff conservation measures and punitive pricing including $1,000 fines; when The Eagle reported that a potential partner on a proposal to drill for oil under Century II had a recent history of unpaid state taxes and other financial issues; when The Eagle’s analysis of internal city documents found a bungled, abbreviated three-week bidding process for the west bank apartment project; and when The Eagle reported that the city wasn’t following up on council-authorized industrial revenue bonds by tracking the actual amount of business taxes abated and the valuation of companies’ improvements.
The council also looked uninformed about the city’s debt load in July, before it effectively shelved a $29 million, nine-years-in-the-planning Central Library over new concerns that the bonding would be more than the city could safely bear by 2018.
City manager since 2009, Layton has found ways to trim the city’s budget and debt during a rough economy and helped the city extend its run of a stable property-tax mill levy to 20 years. He also has followed his good instincts about gathering and being guided by community input, including via 100 meetings he aims to hold by the end of the year.
And the City Hall slipups haven’t diminished the success stories during his tenure, including the dramatic progress on downtown revitalization, the ongoing construction of a new airport terminal and the 2012 move requiring haulers to offer curbside recycling.
But the near future will ask a lot of the manager and his staff, especially if Brewer and the council want to act next year on the idea of asking voters to approve a sales-tax hike. The money might fund a business-recruitment war chest, build a new or renovated convention center and performing arts facility, pay for water and sewer improvements, upgrade the bus system, ensure a long-term water supply, and perhaps even cover the new Central Library.
With so many looming challenges to meet, City Hall will have little room for error, administratively or politically.