Politics & Government

City, county at odds over economic development funding agreement

The Wichita Eagle

County funding for the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition – about 20 percent of the organization’s budget – may be on the chopping block.

Last week, the Sedgwick County Commission voted 4-1 to push back a yearly termination amendment for the five-year contract from June 1 to Sept. 1. Commission members wanted more time before committing to the funding promised in the agreement.

But the Wichita City Council, which is also a party to the agreement with the coalition, on Tuesday blocked the county’s ability to amend it.

Voting 6-1, City Council members cited the need for local governments to be good partners and to stand by their original agreements with organizations. Council members said that it’s bad business to cancel or change contracts halfway though an agreement.

“Either it’s important to you and you budget for it, or it’s not important to you and you don’t budget for it,” said Mayor Jeff Longwell.

“Now is the time we need to know: Are you in or are you out? And we want to know what kind of commitment you’re going to make.”

Under the current five-year funding agreement, which expires at the end of 2018, both the city and the county give $300,000 a year to the development coalition for marketing efforts. The private sector gives about $1 million to the organization to cover staffing, said Gary Schmitt, chairman of the coalition.

Council member Pete Meitzner was the lone dissent on the council vote, saying that if the development group supported the amendment, the council should also.

But the coalition and other entities didn’t have much choice and had to agree to the amendment in order to maintain their funding relationship with the county, replied council member Janet Miller.

“Telling GWEDC ... that we want to change the terms of an existing agreement is a slap in the face to the good work they’re doing at a time when they’re trying to get even better,” said council member Bryan Frye.

“Forget the money for a second. Why risk the human capital? We’ve got some of the best and brightest minds in Wichita working on this effort. Do we really want to tell them that it could potentially be over in a couple of months?”

Likely termination

Commissioner Jim Howell said the city has forced the county’s hand and cited “budget pressures” as the reason for the initial amendment. He said the county is having to evaluate all of its funding.

“I don’t think it was the best decision that (the City Council) made,” Howell said. “All we asked was to change this date.”

The county probably will vote during its meeting Wednesday to notify the development coalition that it now intends to terminate its contract effective at the end of the year, Howell said.

Schmitt said that would be very disappointing.

“I do think the partnership between the city, county and GWEDC has been positive for the community. And with the restructuring of GWEDC into the Greater Wichita Partnership, we’re doing everything we can to try to build an economic development model that benefits the community,” he said.

Depending on how the county’s budget shakes out, Howell said, it’s possible the county could create a new funding agreement between it and the coalition alone. He said that terminating the agreement doesn’t mean he and his colleagues don’t support economic development.

Show of unity

The events are the most recent example of growing discord between the two local governments.

“We need to have a visible public appearance of being unified with all of the community partners in our effort to promote Wichita, Sedgwick County and south-central Kansas,” said Commissioner Dave Unruh.

“I think not everyone understands GWEDC is the front door and welcoming committee for anybody with interest in Wichita, and we need to be supportive of them financially in any way we can as they try to attract people here and show them our assets,” he said. “If we pull out of that arbitrarily, from our side, it sends not only a wrong message to prospects but weakens the strength of the partnership.

“I think three people already made up their mind (on terminating the contract),” Unruh said, referencing the new majority on the commission – Howell, Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn.

Other organizations with long-term funding agreements with the county include the Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place.

Fourteen other county-backed organizations – the Child Advocacy Center, Wichita Area Technical College, the Sedgwick County Extension Office and the Kansas African American Museum among them – are expected to receive letters from the county notifying them of possible funding reductions for 2016.

Last year, their funding ranged from $5,000 to just more than $825,000.

Tim Goodpasture, economic analyst for the city, said Wichita intends to honor its contract commitment. The city has helped fund the development coalition since its inception in 2003, with subsequent five-year agreements signed in 2008 and 2013.

The council’s vote comes a day after the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University downgraded its jobs forecast for the area from earlier projections.

Now it estimates the Wichita area will end the year with about 2,500 more jobs, less than it previously estimated. Since May 2014, the Wichita area has had just 0.1 percent job growth.

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

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