The coming debate over whether Wichita needs a 1-cent city sales tax promises to be instructive, productive and even historic for the community, which is still suffering more than most from the economic downturn.
Indeed, that the city’s economy badly needs more employers and jobs seemed like the closest thing to a point of consensus at Tuesday’s Wichita City Council meeting, before the 6-1 vote to put the sales tax on the November ballot with proceeds earmarked for water, economic development, the bus system and street maintenance. The main questions Tuesday were whether a sales tax was the way to go at all, whether the jobs initiative should be split off for its own vote, and whether a referendum should be scheduled for November or deferred to another year, council and mayor.
The council decided that voters will have to take or leave the whole package, including the estimated $80 million for job development. While the other parts of the five-year, $400 million plan seem less controversial, especially the $250 million to be used to ensure a long-term water supply, that jobs slice likely will be as hotly debated from now to November as it was Tuesday. It arguably is the most important, given that the 30,000 local jobs lost since the 2008 recession have yet to be replaced.
Comments heard at the meeting from a number of speakers revealed the deep divisions among citizens and the business community. The role of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce during the fall campaign will be key.
Proponents will need to push back not only against the anti-tax orthodoxy so prevalent in Wichita but also the contention voiced Tuesday that business incentives don’t work. Then there is the case against the sales tax as regressive, and discomfort with funding business recruitment by requiring people to pay more for groceries. If voters approve, the tax would go into effect on April 1, 2015.
Set aside for now are the questions about whatever happened to the urgent need to use a sales tax to bankroll a new downtown library and convention center, or update Lawrence-Dumont Stadium; whether development of a long-term water source would be better funded by users on their water bills; and what will sustain the bus system after 2020 if the sales tax ends on schedule.
Much of the strength of the sales-tax proposal going into Tuesday’s vote came from the impressive amount of public input that shaped it, thanks to dozens of community gatherings and multiple online forums. Council member James Clendenin said Tuesday’s scheduled vote had generated the most feedback he’d received in 3 1/2 years in office.
More people now should join the defining conversation for Wichita, then join their neighbors at the polls on Nov. 4.