Under plan, county may avoid cuts, dip into savings

Like you might dip into your savings to get through lean times, Sedgwick County would use about $14 million of its "rainy day" reserves to avoid tax increases, cuts in services and layoffs under its manager's recommended $415 million budget for next year.

Manager William Buchanan presented his proposal Wednesday to commissioners.

The budget does not raise property taxes, something commissioners — including those running for re-election — have been adamant about.

Buchanan's plan also does not cut core services or call for job reductions or furloughs among the county's roughly 3,000 employees.

The budget includes a 4 percent pool for staff raises, about $6.2 million. Buchanan has suggested the county wait until fall to decide whether, when and how much to reward employees with merit raises. That way the county can respond appropriately to the economy, he said.

The county's budget outlook stands in contrast to City Manager Robert Layton's proposed $519 million budget for Wichita, which eliminates about 65 positions and calls for furloughs for many city employees. The city would eliminate four school resource officer positions, reduce public hours at police substations, and cut the city's reforestation program in half.

Buchanan said a deliberate approach to saving for a rainy day allows the county to weather bad economic times.

He called dipping into reserves a "short-term solution to a short-term problem."

"That's what it's there for," he said. "In the last several years, we've not had any deficits. We've had surpluses."

Vote is Aug. 11

Commissioners will vote on Buchanan's proposed budget Aug. 11.

Board member Gwen Welshimer expressed concern about the plan for a 4 percent pool for staff raises.

Welshimer said when Buchanan recommended last year that the county close the pavilions at the Kansas Coliseum complex, the public thought commissioners were making that suggestion. She said she didn't want the public to think commissioners are asking for 4 percent raises.

"I think back to another time when we had a county manager present a budget and it had something in it about closing down the pavilions," she said. "And at that time, what the manager recommended in his budget was a surprise to us, but that suddenly became something that the public thought we were doing.

"Maybe we had better discuss that subject and amend this budget today."

But Commissioner Tim Norton cautioned Welshimer that the board shouldn't vote to amend anything in Buchanan's proposal before the upcoming public hearings.

Public scrutiny is necessary "before we start making too many decisions," Norton said. "We have plenty of time to hammer what I think we all believe about this. The truth is we've just been presented the budget just today. We all need to read it, look at it a little bit more and listen to public input."

The budget for this year did not award raises for employees who make more than $75,000 a year, which included Buchanan and commissioners, and gave 2 percent across-the-board raises for staff who make less than $75,000.

Chairman Karl Peterjohn said he would not support a pay increase for elected officials.

"I really don't believe in these economic times any elected official should receive a pay increase," he said. "And when I say that, I mean any elected official, regardless of what level of government, I'm not just referring to the county here."

Budget details

Buchanan's proposed budget adds 5.5 employee positions, including two 911 dispatchers who will focus on quality assurance.

His budget also includes $700,000 to address jail inmates who have mental illnesses. The sheriff has asked for a mental health pod at the jail that could hold 49 inmates. Placing mentally ill inmates in the same area of the jail could help better manage them and keep them from coming back, sheriff's officials say.

The budget also adds money to a program, Project Access, that provides medical services for low-income residents.

The county also would put $120,000 in Comcare grants toward the Child Advocacy Center. The center helps about 2,500 children each year who are victims of sexual and physical abuse or Internet crimes.