On Tuesday the Wichita City Council made a big, unanimous move toward asking voters on Nov. 4 for a five-year, 1-cent sales tax for water, jobs, buses and streets. So begins what should be a fascinating demonstration of what Wichitans want – and are willing to pay more for bread, diapers and shampoo to get.
That said, the chosen priorities stand out for being not wants so much as basic needs that could share a role in repairing and developing Wichita’s economy: 63 percent of the new revenue would go toward a long-term water supply, 20 percent toward a $90 million jobs fund, 10 percent to stabilize and improve the Wichita Transit bus system, and 7 percent to beef up street repairs and maintenance. Officials estimate the sales tax could generate nearly $400 million as it raised the local sales tax rate to 8.15 percent over five years.
The items to be considered for a citywide sales tax had been unofficially winnowed down by the council and Mayor Carl Brewer in recent weeks, as part of a process that began with a formal survey of registered voters more than a year ago.
Then, the top concern was ensuring that Wichita will have the water it needs decades from now. That far-sighted vision came into focus during last year’s alarming local drought but hasn’t diminished. Though some major decisions lie ahead, it increasingly looks like the city, rather than turn to El Dorado or another secondary source, will double down on its Aquifer Storage and Recovery project, in which excess Little Arkansas River flows are drawn down and stored in the Equus Beds. That’s a pricey proposition, though, necessitating $250 million more ASR spending, including for a new reservoir.
Through surveys and public meetings, citizens also highly endorsed a better and fiscally sound bus system and wanted to see more attention and dollars devoted to residential streets. One question is whether the public’s stated desire to do something to create jobs will translate into support for a well-funded, robust program of business-recruitment incentives – handouts fiercely opposed by free-market purists. The details and transparency will be key.
The community survey that started the City Council on this path last year found that a majority of respondents were willing to set aside self-interest for the city’s long-term good but doubted that their neighbors would do likewise.
The civic debate now ahead will test that assumption, with the ultimate judgment coming at the polls.
It also will show whether the local electorate, which over the past 14 years has approved two Wichita school bond issues and a temporary countywide sales tax for a downtown arena, is willing to pay higher taxes to invest in community priorities that are less concrete but still crucial.