Politics & Government

Police or projects? Wichita is shifting money so it can hire more officers

The Wichita City Council wants to add more police officers so those on patrol have more opportunities to build relationships - like Officer Donielle Watson is here in his northeast Wichita beat in 2013.
The Wichita City Council wants to add more police officers so those on patrol have more opportunities to build relationships - like Officer Donielle Watson is here in his northeast Wichita beat in 2013. File photo

You'll start seeing more police officers around Wichita early next year, but it will mean delaying potentially significant projects elsewhere.

The City Council has instructed City Manager Robert Layton to shift money from a fund for capital improvement projects to the general budget to pay for 32 new positions in the police department, most of them officers on the streets.

The city's capital improvement plan includes money for fire equipment, police stations and equipment. Money also is earmarked for parks, bridges and arterial streets, as well as improvements downtown.

The directive will allow police officials to start hiring cadets for the academy class that starts in July, although the change in won't be official until the budget is formally approved in August.

"We’ve got to move public safety up to the forefront" of priorities, council member Jeff Blubaugh said.

A consultant’s study released last year said the Police Department is understaffed and recommended adding 73 positions to bring it up to what would be about average for a city of Wichita’s size.

City officials want to add those 73 positions over three years. That total includes 49 officers and 24 support staff positions, at an estimated cost of $7.3 million.. The first phase is projected to cost $3.2 million.

"That's something I've been supportive of from Day One" of his term, council member Brandon Johnson said. "We need more officers so they don't go call to call to call.

"They can get out of their vehicles, interact with the community and build that relationship and trust."

Community engagement emerged as the biggest challenge the department faces going forward, according to a survey of residents.

'When will it come back?'

Shifting money from the capital improvement budget "buys us a year" until city officials have a clearer idea how substantial looming budget deficits will be, Mayor Jeff Longwell said.

Some council members expressed concern about whether the shift would have to be extended if the deficits aren't eliminated by increased revenues.

"When will it come back?" Johnson asked. "While I’m happy that law enforcement is getting funding, in the long term I’m still looking for ways to get that money back to our neighborhoods.

That fund "is where we fund a lot of our much-needed projects and our neighborhood projects."

"Living Well" projects in the plan include bicycle paths, a new stadium on the west bank of the Arkansas River, an aquatics master plan and the Stryker complex next to K-96 in east Wichita.

It's too soon to know which — and how many — projects in the plan will be affected by the change. Council members say they want to see the results of the Project Wichita surveys underway now so they have a sense of what people want the city to look like in 10 years.

Those results could help shape priorities.

Knowing that the city has shifted capital improvement money before and then brought the money back "was good for me to hear," council member Cindy Claycomb said. "I don't want us to permanently spread out our CIP projects."

Economy has changed

Layton had proposed raising property taxes in 2019 to pay for the new police positions, but council members rejected that idea.

"I’m totally against trying to increase any kind of taxes whatsoever," Blubaugh said. "We’re going to have to make cuts."

The city faces a projected deficit of $1.7 million in 2019, and the deficit grows steadily until it reaches $5.1 million in 2022. Without shifting the money from capital improvements, adding the new police staffing would raise the deficit to nearly $5 million in 2019. That figure would grow to $8.5 million in 2022.

The deficits are being fueled by substantial declines in franchise fees generated by cable television subscribers and telephone land lines.

"The economy has changed," council member Bryan Frye said. "We’re a 20th century budget in a 21st century economy."

As online sales have boomed, local sales tax collections have also declined.

City officials are awaiting a Supreme Court ruling this summer to see if cities can begin collecting sales tax from online transactions. They're also banking on new growth and new construction to boost revenues.

The new growth "will help a lot with some of the revenue picture," Layton said, "but we can’t just count on that only."