Mayor Carl Brewer and the Wichita City Council may be ready to raise the sales tax by 1 cent for five years to address needs related to water, economic development, buses and streets, but they would count in November as only seven of 203,051 registered Wichita voters. One worthy talking point for the coming debate emerged last week – that Wichita has a comparatively low sales tax.
During the five-hour meeting Tuesday in which the council unanimously moved toward a five-year sales tax initiative, City Manager Robert Layton noted that Wichita and Newton are the only area communities without a city sales tax. And while Sedgwick and Harvey counties both have countywide sales taxes, a shopper pays 8.15 percent sales tax in Newton and 7.15 percent in Wichita (though the rate spikes to 9.15 percent within some of its community improvement districts).
The going rates nearby include 7.65 percent in Derby, 8.15 percent in Haysville (as of July 1) and Wellington, 8.4 percent in Augusta and Hutchinson, and 7.4 percent in Andover and El Dorado, with Wichita’s 7.15 percent matched by Goddard and Maize.
Wichita stands out statewide, too. In Lawrence, which is having a similar discussion about raising the sales tax, a Journal-World reporter looked at the tax burden in the state’s 16 largest communities and found Wichita had the lowest sales tax rate, the lowest average property tax bills, the lowest percentage of income going toward property taxes, and the smallest combined burden of sales and property taxes.
At last week’s meeting, Wichita City Council member James Clendenin contrasted the perceptions at the state level that cities do nothing but irresponsibly raise property taxes and that Wichita has “such a high tax rate” to the reality that it lacks a city sales tax and that the city’s mill levy has been reduced from 42 mills in 1985 to 32 mills now.
“Numbers don’t lie, and we have one of the lowest tax rates around but are showing some of the worst growth,” Clendenin said.
Council member Janet Miller added: “Small cities around us continue to have growth year after year even though their mill levies in some cases are extraordinarily higher than ours.”
Last week’s meeting also helped explain why the existing 1-cent countywide sales tax – Wichita gets 58 percent of the revenue for a total of about $54 million a year – can’t be used for the newly identified priorities of a long-term water source, jobs fund and bus system upgrade: A 1985 city ordinance limits use of that revenue to property tax relief and Kellogg and other road construction, and through 2022 most of it is committed to debt service on past and future road, bridge and freeway projects.
As the council neared the end of the exhausting meeting, and its decision to gather more community input before voting Aug. 5 to place a sales tax referendum on the November ballot, council member Pete Meitzner impatiently urged, “Let’s go.”
Will Wichitans go along?
That’s an open question, but a comparative look at the numbers could make it harder to argue that local taxpayers are maxed out.