County may be crawling out of recession

Sedgwick County may be in the beginning stages of an economic recovery, based on indicators such as building permits, layoffs and unemployment figures, the county's chief financial officer told commissioners Wednesday.

"It's evidence that we may have reached bottom and we may have started to recover, although it's somewhat slow," Chris Chronis said.

Later, he told The Eagle that "it's no one statistic. It's the combination of statistics."

For example, construction permits issued by the city of Wichita totaled 2,500 in August compared with about 1,000 for August last year and August 2007, county figures show.

While construction activity is rebounding, Chronis noted, "the first projects that get done are the low-value projects."

County figures show that the value of construction permits granted is down or about even from past years, although March had a big jump with more than $160 million in value. Chronis said he didn't know why March's figures were higher than other months this year, which hovered between $20 million to $40 million.

Unemployment is declining after the July peak, Chronis said.

In May, the county's unemployment rate was just more than 10 percent; in July, it was at 8.9 percent. Last month, it was 8.5 percent, Chronis said.

Sales tax receipts are still down 7 percent, but "earlier this year it was down more than that."

For the first three quarters of the year, the county has collected $18.9 million in sales tax, Chronis said, compared with $20.4 million for the same time period in 2008.

"Sales tax has been the most volatile source of revenue," he said.

Chronis said he couldn't say if the signs point to a continued recovery.

"All we can do is hope at this point," he said. "I don't know if the past two or three months of relatively good news is the start of a trend or merely an anomaly, but it's certainly better than the alternative."

Commissioners welcomed the news.

"The way he presented it, I thought it was very encouraging for our community," board member Dave Unruh said. "All we've been hearing is negative reports, and we continually hear we're about at the bottom but it's going to be a long, hard crawl out. This is the first indication that we're maybe ready to bounce back out. That's great news."