A showdown between two Jims later this year could determine which way the Sedgwick County Commission leans on economic development and jobs and services the county provides from mental health care to aging.
Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, will challenge Commissioner Jim Skelton in the Republican primary.
The commissioners now split 3-2 on some votes, with Skelton siding with Tim Norton, a Democrat, and Chairman Dave Unruh, a Republican, in the majority.
But Howell says people who think the board’s majority would flip if he were elected are making an unfair assumption. He said he would not necessarily always vote in tandem with Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau, Republicans who often find themselves on the losing end of split votes now.
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Howell is a flight test engineer who has served in the state House since 2011. He filed by petition for the commission in November, gathering 800 signatures supporting him for the District 5 seat, which covers southeast Wichita and Derby.
Skelton, a former Wichita City Council member who runs a painting company, has not yet filed but says he plans to run and will make an announcement in the next month or so.
How the county handles economic development is one area where the board often splits. Norton, Skelton and Unruh typically vote in support of incentives for local businesses. Peterjohn sometimes sides with them, but Ranzau does not.
“If the majority were to change, I think you have plenty of examples of votes that would have gone the other way. That would concern me greatly,” Skelton said.
“The biggest difference between us is our approach to business incentives and retaining and attracting jobs. I don’t want to give away any incentives, but the feedback I hear from companies is that ours don’t compare to the incentives in peer communities. They whip our butt.”
Skelton said he looks at the cost-benefit analysis of proposed incentives, and if a company will bring in more money than what the county will give them, an incentive makes sense.
“We want to make smart investments,” he said.
Howell said he doesn’t want to get categorized as always voting against economic incentives.
“When I say that I’m independent, I really am independent,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair for everyone to make those type of assumptions.”
He said he’s growing weary of hearing people say they are “terrified” that economic development efforts would go away if he were elected.
Howell noted he has supported Fair Fares, an incentive campaign to bring low-cost airlines to Wichita. He said he supports more transparency for community improvement districts and thinks there are cases for tax-increment financing (TIF) districts.
“I’m not a big fan of TIFs, but they serve a specific function,” he said, noting that they were designed to combat blight.
He said he would have opposed a TIF district in Derby that commissioners allowed to move forward last year.
The district at K-15 and East Patriot Avenue was estimated to generate just more than $2.2 million in revenue over time for improvements. Menard’s bought land in the TIF district to build a home improvement store. The store’s plans were on hold for a while because of the economy, but they are back on, Skelton said.
Peterjohn and Ranzau voted against the commission’s motion that allowed the TIF district to move forward, saying the district would have an adverse effect on the county.
“I would have voted against that TIF district,” Howell said. “That would have changed the (outcome) of that particular decision.
“If this was Detroit, a TIF district is probably a very appropriate government tool to solve the incredible amount of blight that Detroit has. Would I ever vote for a TIF district? It depends on the situation.”
Commissioners are hesitant to say which candidate they are supporting in the primary.
“I have decided to support Jim,” Ranzau joked in a message.
“In a Republican primary, I think the best thing a Republican can do is stay neutral,” Unruh said. “I’m confident that whoever prevails in this next round of commission races will be committed to doing a great job for the citizens of our county, and in the light of that confidence, I’m willing to work with whomever is seated as new commissioners.”
Unruh had considered running for mayor but decided to run for his commission seat in District 1 again. He said commissioners have “great challenges and great opportunities, and after careful consideration, I decided the wisest thing for me to do was continue in this position, hopefully.”
Ranzau is seeking re-election for the District 4 seat, facing a challenge from former state Rep. Melody McCray-Miller, a Democrat. Ranzau said neither Howell nor Skelton has asked for his support.
But he said if Howell were to win, “I think I might actually have the opportunity to win one of the leadership positions.”
Ranzau has not served as chairman or chairman pro-tem of the board since he began his term in 2011.
Ranzau said he thought Howell would be “more inclined to take a look at spending, have more of a critical eye and not rubber-stamp things so much. I think the future of the (Judge Riddel Boys Ranch) would be much more secure.”
Howell, Ranzau said, has worked hard in the Legislature to get more money for the ranch. Howell recently criticized the commission for approving incentive bonuses to try to keep staff at the ranch, saying it undermined his efforts to get more funding from the state.
Howell said he wants to separate facilities for juvenile offenders from facilities that house children in the Department of Children and Families system in terms of funding and regulations. He also wants a cost study to determine how much money these facilities require per resident and whether high-risk offenders necessitate more funds than low-risk residents.
Peterjohn said he had not endorsed anyone in any of the commission races yet.
“I’m kind of waiting to see who files,” he said. “It’s a little bit early in a sense.”
Peterjohn did say that Howell has been involved in county issues, particularly with the boys ranch, and would “bring a very interesting set of skills to the County Commission.”