Sedgwick County should stick to plans for joint training center, Wichita mayor says

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said he hopes county officials are “people of their word” and move forward with longtime plans for a joint law-enforcement training center at the Heartland Preparedness Center.

Brewer made his remarks Tuesday, after county commissioners weighed the value of the project against its $30 million price tag, which would be split between the city and county.

A spokeswoman for the Kansas adjutant general also voiced concern Tuesday about the possibility of the county pulling out of the project, saying the National Guard chose to locate there because it believed the city and county’s first responders and law enforcement officers would train there, too.

County officials have been debating for months whether it still makes sense, in a down economy, to spend $15 million at a time the county has laid off employees.

Tuesday, County Manager William Buchanan told commissioners the county and city could train together for a lower cost elsewhere. Options could include finding an existing building and remodeling it.

“We need data and facts rather than bluster” to determine if the cost is warranted, he said.

Brewer said he thought not moving forward could jeopardize the city and county’s relationships with federal and state officials.

“I’m sure we’d get a lot of raised eyebrows at the federal level,” Brewer said. “If we decided not to do it, what would the impact be? One would be on relationships — we talked the federal government into something and then we backed out of it?”

Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General, said “we are concerned that the county is reconsidering at this point. We did select a site with the understanding that the city and county facilities would be constructed in the future.”

Buchanan would not respond to Brewer’s comment. A spokeswoman for the county emailed that “It seems that comment could be interpreted a number of ways, so not knowing exactly what the mayor meant by it, I don’t believe the county manager will have a response at this time.”

Commissioner Dave Unruh said he didn’t think a change of plans by the county would equate to us “going back on our word. My understanding is that the plans were all conceptual and now circumstances have changed and we certainly need to make the wisest decisions with our capital funds.”

The National Guard broke ground in November 2010 on its part of the center, a 45-acre complex at I-135 and K-96. Construction of its roughly 120,000-square-foot Readiness Center is expected to be finished this summer, and a field maintenance shop is expected to be completed by the summer of next year. Watson said construction and plans are far enough along that it would be difficult to find other partners for the project.

The Guard’s Readiness Center will be home to 330 Kansas Army National Guard personnel, including the 287th Sustainment Brigade headquarters. The field maintenance shop will consolidate two maintenance facilities and provide vehicle maintenance support for units within the region, a news release last year said.

The city and county have included a law enforcement training center adjacent to Heartland in their capital improvement projects. No timeline has been set for its construction.

Brewer said the city has committed to the project.

“I think it’s important that we be out there because one, there are few places in the nation that have a facility like this,” he said.

Training together would help military, first responders and law enforcement work better together, he said.

But Buchanan said the county must determine “What is the value of that location?” and determine if it is worth a $30 million investment.

Buchanan said a new training center is needed to replace an aging building on North Meridian where the sheriff’s office and police now train, but “It doesn’t have to be at Heartland. It can be done for cheaper.”

Commission Chairman Jim Skelton, a former Wichita City Council member, said “I can understand the mayor’s position, but I think we need to approach this carefully. We have a huge price tag to deal with, and we have to face reality. I don’t want to have to lay off another 100 people next year. It is our responsibility to explore other options because of the pressing nature of governmental finances at this time.”

He said he planned to talk to the mayor about the county’s concerns and noted that he, Brewer, Unruh and others are scheduled to meet Feb. 8 with Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, the state’s adjutant general.

“This is serious business,” Skelton said of the city and county spending $30 million.

Commissioner Tim Norton said he thought there was an economic value in “having a regional or Midwestern training center because we could bring people here for training. I still like the idea of a first responder co-located center. But if that synergy has fallen apart, we need to do something else. Disasters in Kansas never stop. The more the police and any first responders and the National Guard can work together and co-train the better for the community.”

Sheriff Jeff Easter said he thinks city and county law enforcement should train together, but he said he had not been involved in discussions about Heartland. Easter recently took office as sheriff.

Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams said he understanding the economic challenges the city and county face, but “we’ve spent a decade working with representatives of the Kansas National Guard with the understanding that this is a joint venture that’s going to benefit all of these different entities. The thing that’s also important to keep in mind is that partnerships are critical to the 21st century. Partnerships leverage resources at a time when we see resources being reduced.”

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