Politics & Government

How to prevent local flooding? Here’s what Johnson County did

A car sits in a ditch near Broadway and 103rd St. South during flooding last year.
A car sits in a ditch near Broadway and 103rd St. South during flooding last year. The Wichita Eagle file photo

Sedgwick County is looking toward the Kansas City area for inspiration on flood prevention – and how to pay for it.

Flooding that rocked homes and businesses in Derby and Mulvane last year catapulted stormwater management onto the county’s radar as a top issue. But the county has no dedicated way to pay for projects, so it is trying to figure out how to do that.

K-53 was flooded on Friday morning south of downtown Mulvane. (video by Jaime Green/Sept. 9, 2016)

On Thursday, the county heard from Johnson County officials about how they manage the effects of stormwater.

In 1990, Johnson County approved a one tenth of a cent sales tax on retail purchases that is dedicated for stormwater management, like culverts and drainage projects. Johnson County Stormwater Program Manager Lee Kellenberger said that was made possible by a 1988 state law pushed for by local mayors.

Cities propose, construct and manage the projects. Cities also pay about a quarter of the costs, while the rest is paid for by the stormwater sales tax revenue. Kellenberger said the county long administered the program by mostly just “writing the checks.”

In the late 1990s, the county considered gradually ending the sales tax because cities weren’t bringing forward new projects.

“The cities were doing the best they could back then by simply reacting to flooding problems after they occurred,” he said. “The problem is…if it doesn’t rain for a while, you don’t really know where to look next.”

But a deadly 1998 flash flooding event in the Kansas City area, which killed 11 people and caused $50 million in damage costs, ended talks of eliminating the tax. Johnson County also decided to invest millions in remapping floodplains to determine what areas would become flood prone.

“I can’t stress enough how important it was,” Kellenberger said. “For the first time ever, we could proactively address flooding problems before they occurred.”

Since then, the county has worked to provide technical support to communities, invest in research and develop a rain and stream gauge network and a flood warning system.

The Johnson County sales tax generates about $14 million each year. A similar tax in Sedgwick County would generate about $7 million per year.

“It’s not based on political boundaries…It’s a need-based program,” Kellenberger said. “We just put the dollars where the need is.”

Sedgwick County commissioners decided last December not to push for the ability to start a stormwater sales tax. But the 2018 budget approved last month included more money to clear streams of debris and a reserve fund for storm cleanup.

“For Sedgwick County to tackle our stormwater problems, we’re going to have to have a dedicated funding source,” said Chairman Dave Unruh. “The way budgets are tight right now, it’s going to have to be something new.”

Unruh said he doubt there was a desire to raise property taxes, but that a tenth of a cent sales tax could be “something we’d talk about.”

“Whether or not we advance that, I don’t know,” Unruh said. “But if we don’t do that, we’re just going to continue to chat about it with no progress.”

A slow-moving storm system brought heavy rains to Sedgwick County on Thursday night, Sept. 8, 2016, prompting flash flood warnings throughout south-central Kansas. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)