Wichita may give Sedgwick County land to settle fees

The city of Wichita may give Sedgwick County land instead of cash to settle a lawsuit the county has filed against it over jail fees.

Discussions between city and county leaders are under way, and officials said they are optimistic a settlement can be reached.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Gwen Welshimer said city property could be used for a mental health facility that might help relieve the county jail's population. About 60 percent of the inmates in the jail require some sort of mental health care, she said.

Other county officials and leaders from the city wouldn't speculate how city property might be used.

Welshimer and Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Karl Peterjohn met last week with Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and vice mayor Jeff Longwell about the issue.

County Manager William Buchanan and City Manager Robert Layton are working on a settlement.

According the city, the county initially offered to have it pay 51 percent of the fees it owes, but Brewer, Longwell and Layton all balked. That's because Bel Aire struck a deal with the county last week to pay 37 percent of what it owed for 2008 and 2009.

"I think 51 percent is arbitrary," Layton said. "At this point it seems punitive."

Wichita is the only city that hasn't settled a lawsuit filed by the county over jail fees. Its lawsuit is scheduled for trial in March. As of August, the county claimed the city owed about $9.6 million.

Bel Aire offered to pay about $35,000, and county commissioners approved the offer last week.

Other cities sued by the county that have settled are Goddard, which agreed to pay $9,000; Haysville, $46,534, and Park City, $36,450. They also agreed to begin paying 100 percent of fees this year.

The county began charging cities a $2.09 hourly fee in 2008 for inmates held only on municipal charges. It wanted cities to think twice about sending their prisoners to the jail, where overcrowding is an issue.

Wichita officials argued that residents already pay for the jail through property taxes, and that the fees amount to double taxation.

But a judge in March ruled the county had the right to charge the fees.

Brewer said he still feels the jail fees are double taxation and that he's not pleased with the county's offer to cover 51 percent of the bills.

"Even if they gave us 37 percent, it's still a significant amount," he said.

Layton said that he and Buchanan have discussed properties that Wichita could offer the county to settle the suit, but he declined to say which properties or how they might be used.

"In a perfect world, it'd be to the benefit of both parties," Layton said.

Welshimer said the Rounds and Porter building, which is near the jail, is among sites that have come up in discussions.

Buchanan wouldn't reveal any details about the discussions.

"There's all kinds of things on the table," he said.

"There's a number of assets that could be used in lieu of cash," Peterjohn said, "but I'm not going to speculate as far as what we might go forward with. "The issue before us is whether we can settle the lawsuit in a way that's beneficial for this community."

The city is analyzing values of properties, but Longwell said he worries that the city may become another victim of declining property values.

"I don't want to short-change citizens over a timing issue," he said. "This all comes out of the same taxpayer pockets."

Layton said he's not inclined to agree to anything more than 37 percent, though he said City Council members will make the ultimate decision.

A deal could include payment not only to settle the lawsuit but also to make some future payments to house inmates held on municipal charges, Layton said.

Brewer said he doesn't have a specific percentage in mind, and that he wants the city and county manager to find a deal that feels fair to both of them.

Brewer, Longwell and Layton said that despite some disagreement on the percentage, they're optimistic the two sides can reach an agreement.

Peterjohn said the discussions are a step forward.

"At least the city and county are now talking about this," he said. "It's a definite sign of progress that there have been some discussions with both the city and county managers and some of the city and county elected officials."

Longwell said he's glad the discussion is about a property deal instead of paying cash.

"I think that's awesome," he said.