The Wichita city manager's proposed budget would close a golf course and cut planning staff while adding firefighters and police and increasing street maintenance.
City Manager Robert Layton said he'll also seek ways to continue Saturday bus service after a public outcry against a plan to end it.
He also wants to try to save about $1 million on the fees the city pays Sedgwick County to house inmates jailed by municipal court.
Those are the highlights of a proposal that seeks to close a $4.8 million gap in a $218 million general-fund budget for next year.
The proposal keeps the property tax rate where it has been for years. Layton also said he does not expect an increase in property values to increase city revenue next year.
"It's been a difficult three years, 2009 through 2011 already," Layton said. "But in the general fund, we've trimmed over $20 million in expenditures during that period of time to match the drop we've had in revenues, primarily property tax revenue, but also sales tax revenue."
Goodbye golf course
The most controversial part of the budget could be Layton's plan to shut down one of the city's five municipal golf courses.
The courses are Auburn Hills in west Wichita near West Maple and 135th St. W.; L.W. Clapp in south Wichita near Harry and Oliver; MacDonald in east Wichita near Ninth and Yale; Sim Park in central Wichita near Murdock and Amidon; and Tex Consolver in west Wichita near Tyler and Harry.
Layton said he won't decide which to recommend closing until after consulting with the Park Board. He said the system, funded through course income, is expected to run a $350,000 to $500,000 deficit.
"We need to address that," Layton said. "My goal would be if we can close one course, then we can develop an outstanding municipal system and one that can keep up with the demands of our players as well as the capital needs."
At a public meeting on the budget Tuesday evening, Paul Davis, a member of the city's District Advisory Board 6, said the problem is not too many courses, but that high-scoring recreational players like him are "treated more as an inconvenience than a customer."
"I've never felt like a welcome guest at a city course," he said.
Layton promised to look into that, along with the marketing of the courses, "kind of an area we've fallen down on on all city services."
Parks and Recreation would lose 17 positions through the golf course closing and ongoing restructuring, the biggest job cut in any department.
Planning and Central Inspection would lose two jobs, primarily due to the slowdown in building caused by the recession, Layton said.
Libraries would lose three positions now funded with grants.
The city would end up with a net increase of three employees, including 15 more firefighters and eight more police officers.
Layton said residents and council members have identified those public-safety functions as their highest priority.
The additional firefighters won't increase coverage, but solve a problem caused when the city underestimated the number of firefighters needed when it opened new stations in recent years. That has resulted in substantial overtime costs, he said.
One new position will be added to the city attorney's office to try to reduce the fees that Wichita pays Sedgwick County to house municipal court inmates.
Layton said the employee will focus on developing alternatives to jail, such as expanding diversion programs in which offenders can get their charges dismissed if they complete a period of supervised probation.
In addition, the city is disputing some of the charges the county has levied for jailing inmates. The discrepancy between the city's records and the county's jail bills could be as much as $1 million, Layton said.
Residents who come in contact with the courts would pay a higher price under Layton's plan.
Court costs in all cases now include a $3 fee to fund programs to reduce domestic violence and a $4 fee to pay for public defenders to represent low-income defendants. Each of those fees would go up $2.
That's expected to generate about $200,000, the budget documents show.
Layton also hopes to gain about $300,000 by renegotiating with tow companies so the city gets more money when cars are sold at impoundment auction.
Early exits proposed
The proposal also contains a fundamental shift in policy toward older employees.
Layton proposes to do away with DROP — the Deferred Retirement Options Program — which allows late-career employees to receive their salary and pension benefits simultaneously if they continue to work after reaching retirement age and 30 years of service.
During the DROP period, as long as five years, the employees' pension contributions accrue in an interest-earning escrow account they can claim in a lump-sum payment or individual retirement account when they leave. The payment can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional compensation for top city officials.
In a shift from encouraging employees to stay past retirement, Layton proposes to launch an early retirement program. Details are not worked out yet, but he said it will "pretty much mirror" the program the county offered its employees this year.
The county program pays early retirees accrued vacation and compensatory time, along with a choice of ongoing assistance paying for health care or as much as 50 days worth of sick leave.
Streets and buses
One of Layton's goals is to increase the money for street maintenance from the current $6.6 million.
"We're behind the curve and haven't been able to keep up with our needs," he said. "We really need to get to $10 million and beyond."
Layton said he'll recommend the council shift money from its capital improvement program, which is primarily set aside for new construction, to use for upgrading and maintaining the street system.
He is also looking to reduce the city's costs of fueling its motor fleet, in part by reducing the number of city cars that employees drive home at night and the amount of time they can leave cars idling.
In addition, he said the city will explore using liquefied natural gas to fuel buses.
Layton said he plans to come up with an alternative to a proposal floated earlier this month that would have eliminated Saturday bus service and raised fares from $1.25 to $1.75.
A public meeting on that plan drew 200 people, with opponents complaining that cutting Saturday service would make it difficult for bus users to buy groceries and run other errands that they can't do on workdays.
"Individuals came out of the woodwork. They spoke, they yelled, we heard them," said Mayor Carl Brewer, who took questions at the news conference where Layton outlined the budget plan.
"We're going to have to try to come up with a lot of different ideas in trying to address the Saturday service issue," Brewer said. "At what level we don't know, and that's the portion we have to figure out."
At the public meeting Tuesday, Richard Harris, a business consultant who lives in the central area, criticized the city for the state of its transit system and urban sprawl.
He said the bus system is treated as a "charity for the poor" rather than a workable transit system for everyone.
Meanwhile, "we continue to pave miles and miles out into the woods for the benefit of a handful of developers ..." he said.
Layton said he plans to shift attention to fixing infrastructure in the inner core, largely because building has dropped dramatically in the outskirts.
He said he plans to schedule a citywide discussion on transit to figure out long-term needs. He said he doubts much can improve unless the city establishes a source of funding for transit outside the regular city budget.
Property tax breaks
Brewer also said the city is re-evaluating its longtime strategy of giving property tax breaks to businesses to try to spur sales-tax growth — since both types of tax income have been declining.
"We have revised our economic development plan as to creating that balance there that is actually needed," Brewer said.
"We definitely need new businesses to create new opportunities where sales taxes are concerned here in the city of Wichita, but we also need property taxes," the mayor said. "We have to continue to weigh those kinds of things out as to what's good for the city of Wichita, and what's not, and what's good for us to make that investment today, and/or whether we should just leave it alone."