Sedgwick County focuses on balancing budget

Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die, Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn told colleagues during a retreat about the county's finances Tuesday.

He was making the point that everybody agrees the county needs to balance its budget — dollars are going out faster than they are coming in — but they don't agree on how or how fast to do it.

Peterjohn and Commissioner Richard Ranzau want to reduce spending this year, when the county is expected to use $14 million of its reserves to continue operating. The county ended last year about $8 million in the red.

"Even with sizable growth, we are still looking at serious fund balance deficits," county budget director David Miller said. That means the county will continue to dip into its reserves.

In October, county management set August 2012 as the deadline for the county to change the way it operates. Ranzau said his goal is to move faster.

The county is setting up a page on its website where employees can share ideas about ways to reduce spending. The public also will be invited to give suggestions.

County Manager William Buchanan emphasized that the county remains in a strong financial position because of its policies to build reserves after the last economic downturn.

"We need not panic," he said.

The county is working toward a plan that would leave it with a nearly $6 million deficit next year and no deficit by 2013.

"We need to take action this year to do that," Buchanan said.

There is no one simple answer, he said.

Cutting spending will be "messy" and "nebulous" to some, he said.

But he urged a "systematic, methodical and consistent" approach. The county should take its time to make solid, proactive decisions about the way it operates instead of being reactive, he said.

Commissioners talked about their spending priorities. Board members Dave Unruh and Tim Norton both mentioned a special pod at the jail for inmates with mental illness. They said they would support hiring a staff person to lobby on behalf of the county at the Statehouse. Both said they would prefer having that person be a county employee and not a contract worker.

Norton also spoke of the Child Advocacy Center, which helps children suffering from abuse work with authorities. Commissioner Jim Skelton said it may be time to consider consolidating some services with the city. He also supports a mental health pod, funding for the Child Advocacy Center and a lobbyist.

Ranzau said he wants the county to focus on core services.

"I'll make the argument we can't afford any more NCATs," Ranzau said, referring to the National Center for Aviation Training.

Peterjohn expressed concern about the 2 percent across-the-board raises the county awarded for this year.

"Our situation wouldn't be as bad if we hadn't given $3 million in pay raises in December," he said.

He said he might support bonuses for employees doing exceptional work instead of raises.

Buchanan said although reducing spending will be difficult, "we've been through tough times before. We'll figure this out."