Politics & Government

‘Call security’: Tempers boil over during county debt debate

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Tempers flared during a Sedgwick County Commission discussion over how much the county should limit its ability to borrow money.

At one point, Chairman Dave Unruh and a resident got into an argument after the resident spoke up during a discussion between commissioners. Unruh asked for staff to call security to remove him, but he left on his own.

As they moved toward a final vote, Commissioner Richard Ranzau said the commission had silenced Commissioner Jim Howell’s attempts to keep offering amendments.

At issue was a debt ceiling adopted by the previous commission majority last spring. That majority voted to limit annual debt obligations to 9 percent of budget expenses and to drop that to 8 percent in 2019. The previous ceiling had been 20 percent.

A proposal Wednesday set a new limit slightly higher – at 10 percent. Some commissioners said the new debt limit would give the county government more flexibility with its finances.

“The appropriate use of debt is something that governments do,” Commissioner David Dennis said. “The use of debt is something that I actually did campaign on, to give us the flexibility to do things our citizens are needing and asking for.”

“I think 10 percent is an even number,” Commissioner Michael O’Donnell added. “That is still half of what the debt limit was just a couple of years ago.”

Ranzau questioned why the change was needed and said the current limit was in place to discourage unnecessary use of debt.

“We continue to borrow and spend money on principal and interest beyond what you really need to,” Ranzau said. “The current policy is more than adequate.”

“Picking a number because it’s even isn’t a good reason to make public policy,” he added.

Wichita Pachyderm Club vice president John Todd and former commissioner Karl Peterjohn urged commissioners to vote against increasing the ceiling.

“You have plenty of debt limit as it exists right now,” Todd said.

‘Cease to speak and sit down’

Howell pushed for two separate amendments to keep the limit at 9 percent and to delay the limit’s drop in 2019. Both failed.

One of the earlier speakers opposed to a higher debt limit, Myron Ackerman, questioned why commissioners didn’t take public comments on Howell’s amendments.

“I think that we got your comment on the general issue and we’re trying to debate it up here,” Unruh said.

Ackerman kept protesting that he wanted to comment. Unruh said the public comment part of the meeting was over.

“This is not a public hearing. I’m going to rule you out of order,” Unruh said. “We allowed you an opportunity to speak on the debt service limit. And you had your opportunity.”

When Ackerman kept talking, Unruh asked County Manager Michael Scholes to “call security and ask them to have this gentleman take a seat.”

“You know that’s not necessary,” Ackerman responded.

“Then please cease to speak and sit down,” Unruh shot back.

“You’re not listening to your constituents,” Ackerman said as he left the room on his own. “You’re going to just do it without talking to the public.”

Unruh apologized for the “outburst.”

An ‘attempt to silence’

O’Donnell said the substitute motions were starting to feel like an “exercise in futility.”

“The majority of this commission does support going to the 10 percent,” O’Donnell said. “So going through these exercises of substitute motions … I just feel like that we know where the commission wants to go.”

Ranzau said the commission needed to “make an effort on behalf of the taxpayers” to consider alternatives.

Dennis made a procedural motion to, in effect, force a final vote, preventing Howell from offering more amendments. Howell said that short-circuited the discussion.

“It’s worthy of our time to talk about this,” Howell said.

Ranzau called it an “an attempt to silence an elected official … from making proposals publicly on the behalf of his constituents.”

“If he has another substitute motion, I don’t care if he has 10 of them, it’s our job to sit here and consider those,” he said.

The final vote for the 10 percent limit fell on the 3-2 dividing line evident throughout the meeting: Unruh, O’Donnell and Dennis voted for it, while Ranzau and Howell voted against it.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar