Sedgwick County rethinks Heartland Preparedness Center funding

Some Sedgwick County commissioners say they are hesitant to go forward with their piece of the Heartland Preparedness Center, going up at I-135 and K-96, because of the county’s financial crunch.

The city and county agreed to build a law enforcement training facility at the center, joining the Kansas National Guard at what would be the nation’s first homeland defense center merging city and county public safety and the military. The National Guard’s part of the center is under construction.

The city approved a long-term capital improvement plan in March that includes money for the training center. Commissioners will vote Aug. 15 on the county’s budget for next year and on a five-year capital improvement plan. The city and county would split the estimated $30 million cost to build the center. The county would be the managing partner for the project, which would be funded with bonds. The city would pay for half of the debt service over 20 years.

But some commissioners are questioning the expense. City and county law enforcement now train jointly at a former school at 39th Street North and Amidon that officials say is cramped and outdated.

County Manager William Buchanan said Friday that the county’s participation in the center is under review. The county and city already split $3.8 million for infrastructure for the military part of the center.

Commissioner Dave Unruh said his decision about whether to go forward will hinge on whether the city-county portion is necessary for the National Guard.

“I think it needs to be analyzed a little bit on how critical our training center would be to the whole facility,” he said.

If the National Guard doesn’t need the city-county building, “I think it’s not critical that we be there,” Unruh said.

Unruh said he wants to make sure “we maintain the commitments we’ve made. But we have fulfilled our obligation for infrastructure, and if our training building is not necessary and there are other facilities that are available, we have to consider that.”

Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General’s Office, said the National Guard could move forward without the city and county’s building.

“We’re still working with the city and county to determine when to start their portion of it,” she said Friday.

Even if commissioners approve the capital improvement plan, they will have to vote later on the project. The capital improvement plan is essentially a “placeholder” for “some of these big projects as we roll up to them,” Unruh noted.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer isn’t happy that there’s hesitation at the county courthouse.

He said as far as the City Council is concerned, “that train has left the station.”

He said he would worry about the city and county’s standing with the federal government if it pulled out of the project.

“It wouldn’t shine a good light on Wichita, Sedgwick County and the state of Kansas,” Brewer said. “The walls are up.”

If the county doesn’t pony up its part of the funding, “the city would have to go back and look at everything,” Brewer said.

Commissioner Jim Skelton, a former City Council member, said he was still on board with the project.

“I think that we made an agreement here some time ago. I know I wasn’t on the commission when the commission made that agreement, but I think we need to stand with the prior decisions made before construction started.”

Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau oppose moving forward with the project.

“I don’t think we need to do it, especially at this time, because it’s going to be a significant amount of money for years to come,” Ranzau said. “We have much more cost-effective alternatives. We can continue what we’re doing now (at the school). We can use the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Hutchinson. We could renovate an existing building.”

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