City unveils 2014 budget with more street work, citizen outreach

There’s more street work in the 2014 city budget. It may be easier to interact with City Hall. There won’t be any property tax increases.

But if you’re hoping for nicer parks or more bike paths, you will be disappointed.

City finance officials unveiled a $543 million proposed 2014 budget Friday that increases street maintenance while maintaining the city’s commitment to public safety and launching a new community engagement initiative.

City Manager Robert Layton will formally present the budget to the City Council on Tuesday.

The 2014 budget, a 2 percent increase over 2013’s $533 million, includes no property tax increases. About 20 jobs will be cut, but no layoffs are planned. As it did in 2013, the city will attempt to place affected employees in other roles.

The budget also includes reallocation of city fire manpower and equipment, including the redeployment of equipment from Station 2 to Station 22, both in south Wichita. Station 38, in far east Wichita, will house a squad rather than an engine. The city is budgeting for six fewer fire fighter positions at a savings of $540,000, but says response times should not change and may be enhanced.

Mayor Carl Brewer said Friday the city will maintain its commitment to core services.

“I’m pleased that there are no workforce reductions, no layoffs,” he said.

But that commitment came with a price, Layton said, as quality of life projects like parks, libraries, bike paths and interactive fountains “took a significant hit.

“We come into this year after having laid a good groundwork ... of re-purposing and right-sizing the organization,” he said. “We were hoping we’d have some stability and we could make some strategic moves to allow us to address service level issues.

“But because of the limited growth in property valuation and taxes, it’s not possible. We went from a position of stability and perhaps limited growth to a point where we had to start cutting again to get here.”

The proposed 2014 budget includes $1 million more for street maintenance, primarily for subcontracted street work, with about 300 miles of street renovations scheduled for next year.

“I am very much satisfied with that,” Layton said. “I think this is one of the more important aspects of the budget. The mayor talked in his State of the City speech about infrastructure concerns, and more deferred maintenance right now is going to make it that much tougher.”

The budget maintains the city’s commitment to public safety, the mayor said.

“The community has spoken loudly to us on that,” Brewer said. “Public safety is our number one priority. It’s been very clear when I’ve been out in the community. We are not going to cut those guys.”

Two potential public safety cuts — the mothballing of the city’s police helicopter and the end of the department’s mounted patrol — are likely to escape the budget ax.

“When the manager brought up the helicopter and the mounted patrol, I told him, ‘Oh, you’re out there on your own on those,’” Brewer said.

“The mounted patrol is popular, and it serves a great purpose in a crowd to get the police up above the people where they can see. The helicopter gets police from place to place more quickly and efficiently than speeding through town.”

Council member Janet Miller said the city must remain cognizant of maintaining quality of life.

“Some of these components that we’re talking about are really important in terms of economic development,” she said. “They’re not just for making the lives of people nicer. This is about many of the things that people would say aren’t necessary for sustaining life and that’s true, but our communities are about more than sustaining life at a minimal level. This is about the services that people consider when they’re weighing whether to live and work in Wichita.”

By late summer, Layton also plans to launch through selected neighborhood city halls a community engagement initiative that he said is designed to “improve and tighten the relationship between our citizens — our customers, if you will — and City Hall.”

The plan will place community engagement workers in three centers — Atwater, Colvin and Evergreen — each serving two council districts. They will serve under an engagement supervisor based at City Hall, with the goal of connecting citizens with community resources and teaching city officials how to engage the public with specific, targeted questions about key city issues.

The drive for more community engagement came after several citywide issues prompted widespread debate, including a plan to reevaluate the city’s five golf courses.

The idea, Layton said, is to get a conversation about city issues going in churches, neighborhood associations and other social gatherings — a step beyond the city’s traditional emphasis on district advisory boards.

While the city will try to fill the community engagement staff of seven internally, on Friday Layton didn’t dismiss the possibility of hiring outside City Hall for the new office.

The community engagement office may help city officials bridge the gap between the quality of city services and the expectations of the community, Layton said.

“In the business metrics in which we measure our performance, we are in the top half — and sometimes higher — with our peer cities,” the city manager said.

“But in our citizen surveys, clearly our citizens don’t think so. We need to find a way to bridge that disconnect.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle