Politics & Government

Wichita police and firefighters to seek tax increase to boost public safety

Jason Van Sickle and Ofcr. Robert Schmeidler are among those proposing an increase in Wichita's sales tax to pay for public safety improvement.
Jason Van Sickle and Ofcr. Robert Schmeidler are among those proposing an increase in Wichita's sales tax to pay for public safety improvement. The Wichita Eagle

After years of watching City Hall create special tax districts for businesses, public buildings and sports complexes, Wichita's police and firefighters plan to ask for a sales tax increase dedicated to public safety.

Representatives of the police and fire unions and the Downtown Neighborhood Alliance announced plans Tuesday to push for a citywide vote to raise the sales tax, adding one fourth of one percent.

Robert Schmeidler, president of Wichita's Fraternal Order of Police union, said he understands that the city needs to offer tax breaks and other incentives to bring new amenities and businesses to grow the city.

But with that growth comes a need for increased public safety and those budgets have plateaued or declined, he said.

"It's frustrating," Schmeidler said. "We see things, the baseball stadium, the brand new libraries, the road projects, which are needed, but it does become frustrating with us . . . We just want to see equal parts being spent across the city everywhere."

Matt Schulte, president of the local International Order of Fire Fighters, said he agrees 100 percent.

"We're just sitting here saying bring us along with it," he said. "We want this city to grow and be prosperous and collect those new businesses in, and we know it takes incentives to get them here.

"They're going to create jobs, but you're going to need the police and fire departments to serve those people. What business is going to want to come here if we don't have attractive public safety? We want them to come here, but you got to bring the police and fire right along with them."

The base sales tax rate in Wichita is 7.5 cents per dollar of sales — 6.5 percent for the state and 1 percent for Sedgwick County.

However, Wichita is dotted with pockets of higher city sales taxes to fund special projects and business areas.

"They want to bring a new restaurant into town, they create a special tax district," said Jason Van Sickle, president of the neighborhood alliance and an apartment developer. "They want a new library, they do STAR bonds and things along those lines.. And we're just saying let's do the same for (police and fire services) as we do for everybody else."

The police and firefighter representatives said they feel like they're falling further behind after years of stagnant funding.

For example, the city is considering cutting costs by eliminating small units that can respond quickly to medical emergencies, Schulte said.

That means a full-size fire engine would need to respond, tying up a complete crew for as long as it takes, even if a fire breaks out while they're there.

Lack of funding has put police in a situation where they're constantly responding to calls and don't have the time needed for patrol work, Schmeidler said.

"We do well at what we call priority one calls, which are your emergency calls," he said. "But when we go to priority two, priority three, which are your lower levels . . . that's where you start to see it being very, very diminished."

At times, it takes 45 minutes to respond to a car accident or two hours to get to a burglary report, he said.

"What we want to do is get back to where we were before, where you have response times of 20 minutes or less no matter what type of call it is," he said.

Van Sickle said the coalition will meet with police and fire management and then take a proposal to the City Council to put the tax on the ballot. If the council won't, the coalition will gather signatures for a ballot initiative, he said.

They hope to have the measure before voters in the November general election, when voter turnout is expected to be high, he said.

Council member Jeff Blubaugh said it was the first he's heard of the proposal, but city officials have talked about a public safety sales tax before.

He said it was pretty much rejected then because it's not a reliable enough source of revenue. If the city were to hire people and then a recession cut local spending on taxable sales, there might not be dollars there to continue to pay the salaries., he said.

"We need more police, that's for sure," Blubaugh said. But he added that he thinks the city might be able to marshal more dollars for that from the existing budget.

"I don't know an additional tax is the way to go," he said.

He said he wouldn't support any tax increase without a public vote.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas