Sedgwick County commissioners will be able to delay until Sept. 1 a decision on whether to give three organizations the funding promised in long-term agreements.
Commissioners voted 4-1 on Wednesday to push back the yearly termination option for the contracts from June 1 to Sept. 1.
The decision will give the county time to go through its budgeting process before locking itself into dollar amounts promised to the Sedgwick County Zoo, Exploration Place and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition in five-year funding agreements.
Commission Chairman Richard Ranzau said moving dates is part of a decision to reconsider contributions to several county-backed organizations in an effort to address a perceived $10 million to $12 million deficit during the upcoming budget year. It preserves the county’s flexibility during the budgeting process, he said.
“If we don’t do something by June 1, then we lose our ability to be flexible moving forward,” he said.
Commissioner Tim Norton, however, said the county should honor its agreements and partnerships. He voted against changing the termination date in the agreements.
“I went through the budget right after 9/11. I went through the budget right after the ’08 recession started. And we made it through. We had five-year agreements with the zoo, we worked with Exploration Place and many, many other partners, and we always found a way to judiciously and financially stability-wise come up with a budget.”
He added: “This is kicking the can down the road a little bit to get us to another place where we do have a conversation about how we’re going to cut your budget or go to a one-year agreement or to no agreement at all. And I find that distasteful.”
The commission will decide later whether – and at what rates – to continue providing support to the organizations.
Before Wednesday’s action, each year the organizations and the county each had until June 1 to give notice that the agreement would be terminated, to take effect the following Jan. 1.
The zoo’s funding agreement includes an annual increase through the next few years, from about $5.6 million in 2015 to about $6.9 million in 2018. Exploration Place’s 2015 funding is $2.2 million. The GWEDC is under contract to receive $300,000 annually.
The finalized 2016 budget will be presented to the commission for approval on Aug. 12.
The Eagle reported Tuesday that the zoo, Exploration Place and the GWEDC aren’t the only county-backed organizations that could see cuts in funding. Fourteen others – the Child Advocacy Center, Wichita Area Technical College, the Sedgwick County Extension Office and the Kansas African American Museum among them – are expected to receive letters from the county within the week notifying them of possible funding reductions for 2016.
Last year, their funding ranged from $5,000 to just more than $825,000.
Despite uncertainty that funding will continue at agreed-upon levels, representatives from the zoo, Exploration Place and the economic development coalition spoke at Wednesday’s meeting in favor of amending their five-year funding agreements to include the later termination deadline.
“We would like to see the agreement continue, because it provides stability for planning for our future and serving our community with science, technology, engineering and math education,” said Exploration Place board chairman Bill Bischoff.
Scott Ochs, chairman of the zoo’s board, cited the importance of the agreements in the zoo’s long-term planning and fundraising.
“The increases in the budget that we talk about basically go to pay for zookeepers,” he said, adding: “The zoo costs the owner of a $100,000 house in Sedgwick County roughly 4 cents a day, and that’s an incredible bargain.”
Several members of the public also urged the county to honor the five-year funding agreements to the zoo and Exploration Place.
Shannon Bull, a Wichita mother who home-schools her six children, was among them.
“I know that you have important decisions to make in front of you. And I hope you will take time to consider the people who will be impacted by your decision,” she told commissioners.
“Exploration Place and the zoo are important places to my family and to this community. As a home-school family, we look to these places to help make learning fun and bring it to life.”