If Wichita City Council members weren’t stunned by how items on a community priority list added up to a potential $3 billion tab, a lot of citizens surely were. With the council now having heard all eight “white paper” reports that could factor into a sales-tax ballot initiative in November, some key decisions and a big sales job loom.
A May 27 council meeting will be crucial in determining which needs take the lead and which get kicked aside, or at least down the road. Mayor Carl Brewer and council members will have to choose strategically, weighing the projects’ urgency and cost but also taking a long view of what will best serve future Wichitans.
If council members continue to let last year’s community survey and the ACT ICT engagement process be their guide, creating a reliable long-term source of water will be their foremost goal. Last week brought the welcome news that the city’s Aquifer Storage and Recovery project may be the most affordable and workable alternative after all – a turnabout from the recent report that it was a long, expensive way from living up to its promised ability to replenish the Equus Beds with excess water from the Little Arkansas River. So an ASR expansion including an 80-acre reservoir is on the table for council consideration, as are options to buy treated water from the city of El Dorado and El Dorado Reservoir.
Last week the council also was briefed about the potential costs of reviving passenger rail through an extension of the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Newton, which could necessitate a $4.4 million-a-year operating subsidy from the city; making more affordable housing available; and doing more to repair and restore city streets.
The week before, the council had heard the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition’s pitch for a $90 million economic development war chest. That was of keen interest to council members, not only because of the emergency situation created by the loss of Boeing Wichita and thousands of aviation jobs since 2008 but also because the community engagement process revealed strong public interest in encouraging job creation and business investment.
In addition, the council got an idea of how a higher sales tax might stabilize and help expand the Wichita Transit bus system, further assist the city’s homeless population, and fund a $680 million array of quality-of-life improvements, including a new convention center and performing arts complex, a Lawrence-Dumont Stadium renovation and a new Central Library. That’s also when the scale of the potential $3 billion price tag for everything started to become clear, factoring in $2.1 billion already mentioned for needed sewer and water system upgrades.
Whether voters buy in to a sales-tax increase will depend a lot on which projects rise to the top of the council’s to-do list in the coming days – and, later, how loud the “none of the above” chorus gets.