Survey: Sedgwick County residents open to tax for flood control

Would voters approve a sales tax to pay for projects to reduce flooding in Sedgwick County?

County commissioners are asking themselves that as they head into the next budget and election year.

A survey done for the county last year found that about 75 percent of residents and 77 percent of business owners and managers who responded said they would pay at least $1 a month for improvements to reduce flooding.

And there are about $240 million in potential projects.

Flooding is a major concern for some county residents.

It's the No. 1 reason people have called, e-mailed or written Tim Norton in his 11 years as a commissioner representing the southern part of the county.

Water creeping into basements.

Water pooling on roads.

Water, water everywhere.

"If you're the south-side commissioner, you've worried about it a lot," he said Tuesday.

"As Sedgwick County grows, this problem is not going to get smaller," he said.

The survey by ETC Institute noted "the lack of a dedicated revenue source severely hampers" efforts to improve stormwater drainage.

The study looked at some potential funding sources, including implementing a special sales tax, raising property taxes or collecting a special assessment from property owners.

About 430 county residents responded to the survey, and about 150 business owners or managers responded, Weber said. Its overall results had a margin of error of 5%.

Respondents said they would prefer a voter-approved sales tax over an increase in property taxes.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn told his colleagues he would not support raising taxes. But if voters approve a sales tax, he said, that's another matter.

Norton said "we need to find a funding source to invest in the future of our community and to maintain what we've already got."

He said he doesn't want to ever repeat the days when downtown Wichita and Valley Center severely flooded after a heavy storm.

The county created a stormwater management advisory board in 2007, and that group's list of potential projects is just that — a list, said Jim Weber, deputy director of public works.

"Keep in mind that these are examples of projects," Weber explained in an e-mail to The Eagle. "Significant planning would have to be accomplished in order to determine eligibility and prioritize projects. Other projects that are unknown at this time might get a higher priority."

A chunk of that $240 million — $50 million — is for improvements to the Wichita-Valley Center Flood Control Project, commonly known as the Big Ditch.

The flood control project, completed in 1959 for $20 million, was designed to protect people and property from a 100-year flood, which is a flood so severe it has only a 1 percent chance of occurring each year. Two years ago, county officials estimated the Big Ditch protects property valued at $6.7 billion.

The city and county have been in a race to get the Big Ditch certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after missing a deadline to do so in 2009.

Norton called the Big Ditch one of the area's most important projects.

"It wasn't popular" at the time it was built, he said, "but the public good that came out of it was huge. We wouldn't be what we are today without that one singular project."