At final budget hearing, city finds extra $30,000 for Cowtown

The city of Wichita put the final touches on and passed a $533 million spending plan for next year, along the way finding an extra $30,000 for Old Cowtown Museum, the city’s western-heritage-themed historical park.

At the final hearing on the annual budget, City Manager Robert Layton recommended shifting the $30,000 from city hotel-motel occupancy taxes. He said he came up with that recommendation after meeting with council members and other Cowtown supporters.

Cowtown has been a sore spot in the budget, with its supporters complaining at previous meetings that it was the only major city attraction getting cut and they were blindsided by Layton’s budget recommendation.

Layton’s initial budget proposal included a $100,000 cut to Cowtown, but a recalculation based on new salary information found the cut would really have amounted to about $80,000, Layton said.

With the $30,000 added to the attraction’s budget on Tuesday, the actual cut will be $50,000, he said.

“I think we would all like it to be less,” said council member James Clendenin, whose district includes Cowtown. “But we have realities we have to deal with.”

Last year, Cowtown needed $208,000 in city support to pay its bills.

Clendenin said he is confident that city staff and volunteers can work together toward “a more robust popular museum.”

“We really do have a jewel,” he said.

Cowtown is run by a partnership between the city government and a volunteer nonprofit board. The city owns the building and grounds while the nonprofit owns the artifacts on display, Layton said.

The board also acts in an advisory capacity to the city government, which manages the attraction.

Dave Crockett, chairman of the Cowtown board, said he was surprised to find out from the newspaper that the attraction was getting cut.

On Tuesday, Layton apologized for that, saying that he thought the board had been informed at one of its meetings before he made his recommendations public.

The council also heard an passionate plea on behalf of Cowtown from Newman University student Rhenee Clark, who spoke at a council meeting for the first time.

She said she moved to Wichita from the country 15 years ago and to her, Cowtown “is a place within the city I can escape to and relax.”

Clark also said Cowntown represents a vital link between the modern city and its colorful past.

“We have to understand where our roots came from,” Clark said. “Money from the cattle drives and the cowboys is what our town was built on.”

Crockett said the board will try to fundraise to make up for the budget cut. Last year, Cowtown raised slightly less than $50,000 total.

“A $50,000 cut is better than a $100,000 cut, so I’ll end on that positive note,” Crockett told the City Council.

Later, he said Cowtown has already made significant cuts in the past few years and reduced staff from 12 to seven employees, but is growing in visitors and revenue.

“We’re going to make every effort to stay on track,” Crockett said.

Both the board and the city are committed to better communication and coordination to come up a new system of governing the attraction and avoid the need the need for future cuts, both Crockett and Layton said.

In the overall budget, the property tax mill rate stays steady, but the budget balances through a package of austerity measures on both the revenue and spending sides of the balance sheet, including:

– About $835,000 in fee increases for fire inspections, electronic transactions, municipal court programs and planning applications.

– A 46-hour-a-week reduction in hours that city libraries will be open. The service hours will be reduced the most at the least-used branches.

– Elimination of 64 city employee positions, mostly through reorganization and attrition. No employees are slated to be laid off.

The biggest single source of revenue for the city is charges for services, $169 million, making up 32 percent of city money.

Property tax generates $104 million, 20 percent of the city income. Sales tax accounts for 10 percent, $54 million.

On the spending side, 38 percent of city money, about $202 million, goes to salaries and benefits. Another 29 percent, $154 million, goes to payments on city debt and 15 percent, $79 million, is spent for contractual payments including such items as utilities, insurance and professional services.

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