Credit is due the city of Wichita for its aggressive community engagement, both in a formal survey last spring and in 102 meetings since September. Now the input can inform policymaking – though leaders should realize the results don’t guarantee a sales-tax hike would pass at the polls.
At a Tuesday workshop, the Wichita City Council will hear a formal presentation of the information gathered at the ACT ICT meetings, during which city officials sought input from 2,009 residents on vision, priorities and funding preferences. The Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs at Wichita State University was a crucial part of the process, conducting the poll last year and taking the lead on developing the meetings’ framework and collecting and analyzing the responses.
In a city with a lot of competing priorities, the big surprise was the dominance of the issue of finding a reliable long-term water source. Last year’s drought-fueled warnings about Cheney Reservoir’s levels made a lasting impression. That result shows foresight on citizens’ part but also common sense. If the water supply runs out, Wichita can’t expect to be a good place to run a business or raise a family. The possible remedies include recycling wastewater, completing the Equus Beds recharge project or piping water from El Dorado Reservoir.
Jobs and economic development were a close second at the ACT ICT meetings – and no wonder, given the layoffs and other local tolls of the Great Recession. That surely also relates to citizens’ stated wish to better meet the needs of the homeless and improve low-income housing, in an admirable expression of concern for their poorest and most vulnerable neighbors.
No surprise that street maintenance also scored highly in both the survey and discussions. Nor that downtown investment and a possible new cultural arts and entertainment center were on the minds of meeting attendees, given a parallel process exploring whether to improve or bulldoze Century II as part of making Wichita a more competitive convention market.
The information now can be a guide as City Manager Robert Layton prepares the next city budget and the staff and elected leaders update the long-term comprehensive plan.
Like the survey responses last year, the ACT ICT results invite skepticism in finding that 58 percent and 23 percent of attendees favored funding priorities with sales tax and property tax, respectively. The anti-tax, less-government thinking in the community seems stronger than reflected by the 7 percent of participants who favored reducing taxes and services; any sales-tax ballot question would face vocal opposition.
Translating the results into a sales-tax initiative also gets tricky regarding some of the items on the to-do list – including water and sewer upgrades, a new Central Library, better bus service, and a Lawrence-Dumont Stadium renovation – that didn’t bubble up as high priorities.
Thanks are due the 6,000 people who either filled out a survey last year or participated in the meetings and shared their aspirations for Wichita.
And thanks for asking, City Hall. What matters now is what leaders do with the information, and how Wichita stands to improve as a result.