The proposed budgets unveiled last week at City Hall and Sedgwick County are laudably aimed at pushing through lean times without raising property tax mill levies. But is there more that local leaders should be doing to help the economy – that thing they all say they want to do when they run for office? If so, it’s time.
Wichita’s unemployment rate rose to 5.9 percent in June from 5.4 percent in May. The size of the Wichita metro area labor pool – those working or job hunting – is down by more than 3,000 from June 2012, and the area has lost 2,400 manufacturing jobs just since June 2013.
Such figures may directly reflect the aerospace industry’s woes and especially Boeing Wichita’s demise more than local leadership. But they aren’t points of pride either.
The question for elected officials is whether the city and county are doing enough, through their budgets and otherwise, to support not only the considerable local aviation assets but to help other industries and diversify the economy.
In the face of the state’s phase-out of mortgage-registration fees, County Manager William Buchanan’s 2015 budget blueprint deftly avoids a projected $2.4 million deficit while adding an ambulance crew, a prosecutor for child-in-need-of-care cases, a forensic scientist, a courtroom sheriff’s deputy, and a detective for the Exploited and Missing Child Unit.
But it also trims $150,000 in funding for the Wichita Area Technical College. WATC has thrived lately thanks to president Tony Kinkel and Gov. Sam Brownback’s technical education initiative. But county commissioners need to ensure the cut won’t be counterproductive for the businesses that rely on WATC students.
City Manager Robert Layton’s budget recommendation spends more on snow removal – a necessity after the city’s poor response to a February storm – as it steps up street maintenance, adds six firefighters, continues the Police Department’s outstanding Homeless Outreach Team, and more.
But where the city’s potential role in the economic recovery looms largest is on whether to ask voters in November to approve a 1-cent sales tax. City Council members have favored using the proceeds from such a tax not only to ensure a long-term water supply, strengthen the bus system and step up street maintenance but also for a jobs fund of as much as $90 million. The council will discuss the proposed sales tax during a workshop at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
The public can scrutinize the county’s recommended budget at sedgwickcounty.org, and weigh in either online or at public hearings at 9 a.m. July 30 and Aug. 11; the commission is scheduled to adopt the budget on Aug. 13. The city’s budget proposal, which is at www.wichita.gov, will be the subject of public hearings at the City Council meetings at 9 a.m. Aug. 5 and before the council takes action on Aug. 12; people also can give feedback on Facebook. Citizens need to have their say.
Both the city and county continue to help fund the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and deploy their own economic development tools. Many would say the key to more jobs is lower taxes and fewer hurdles for entrepreneurs.
If a sure cure for the local economy remains elusive, city and county residents need to see more evidence that their elected leaders are focused on finding it.