Mayor Carl Brewer rolled out an expensive picture of the city’s future Tuesday evening in a call to action to Wichitans: What city services do you want and how much are you willing to pay for them?
In his annual State of the City Address, delivered to a packed house at City Hall, the mayor at times pleaded with residents to take part in a Wichita State University survey that will go out Wednesday.
In a tight-fisted era of public opposition to government spending, Brewer said Wichitans must weigh costly billion-dollar tax commitments to their community’s future, from crumbling infrastructure to a financial commitment to fight for jobs.
“Wichita is our home. The people that live here are our neighbors. The challenges facing us will impact our families today and into the future,” the mayor said.
“The time for action is now,” Brewer said, his voice rising. “We have reached a point where we must come together as a community, and create a plan that defines our priorities and the city we are to become.”
Brewer trumpeted City Hall’s work to tighten its belt over the past four years, cutting $28.2 million from the general fund budget while improving department efficiencies and pushing key projects like Project Downtown, the master plan for downtown Wichita redevelopment.
The stakes for community input have never been higher, Brewer said, even with a stabilizing local economy bolstered by anticipated modest growth in the economy and in property values.
“But while the local economy may be stabilizing, the national economy’s condition is still of concern,” Brewer said.
Wichita property values have been flat for four years, for the first time in decades. That weakness in property tax revenue, combined with cuts in state and federal funding, leaves the city vulnerable at a time of “unprecedented infrastructure and quality of life concerns,” he said.
Wichitans have big bills coming for basic public services, Brewer said:
• $2.1 billion over the next 30 years to maintain or replace the majority of the city’s water, sewer and storm drainage systems;
• half of the city’s streets ranked below the nationally accepted benchmarks;
• 29 percent of bridges in need of rehabilitation or replacement;
• $21 million to replace the city’s aging bus fleet, on top of grant reductions for transit and rising pension, health insurance and fuel costs that threaten the transit system’s future.
Brewer also jumped back into an ongoing local controversy over the role of government in job creation, advocating a dedicated funding source for economic development to recruit and retain jobs.
The mayor made no mention of a dedicated sales tax for economic development, an idea bandied about in some city circles.
“As we struggle to compete for new businesses and new jobs, especially in light of job losses in aviation, we must face the reality that we are competing with other cities that offer economic incentives for business development and expansion,” Brewer said.
“If we want to be in the game, we need to play the game, but we have no dedicated funding source for economic development. If we’re serious about finding new jobs for our people – and I am – we must change this scenario as soon as possible.”
The costly projects Brewer mentioned caught the ear of Dan Gray, who works with Warren Theatres in Wichita.
“The water lines were most definitely a surprise,” he said. “It sounds like something that’s been neglected for a long time.”
But Wichitan Dharma deSilva came at the projects from a different direction.
“I’m looking at the bright side of things,” he said. “Things are moving forward.”
Brewer said other quality of life projects could be pinched by limited funding.
Funds to expand Century II, construct a new central library and expand cultural arts facilities are inadequate. The city’s parks plan calls for $27 million of capital improvement upgrades per year. The draft bicycle master plan needs at least $12.5 million over 10 years for a bicycle priority network.
Where the city’s financial resources go, Brewer said, is up to the public and how they respond to the WSU survey.
“For all of our differences, I have never doubted this community’s ability to come together and protect what matters most,” the mayor concluded. “Wichitans work hard, and that work reflects our values.
“What kind of city should Wichita become? What kind of legacy will we leave for our children and grandchildren? This city needs you to step up and answer.”