Politics & Government

In Sedgwick County budget fight, two different views on government’s scope

From left, Jim Howell, Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau pose for pictures at the Sedgwick County Republican Party election watch party in November. Howell’s election created a new majority on the Sedgwick County Commission.
From left, Jim Howell, Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau pose for pictures at the Sedgwick County Republican Party election watch party in November. Howell’s election created a new majority on the Sedgwick County Commission. File photo

Sedgwick County’s proposed budget is not just a fight over dollars and cents.

It’s also a larger, ideological struggle over what county government should do and how it should do it.

The $412.3 million recommended budget, about 3 percent smaller than last year’s, is the first considered by the new commission majority, composed of Chairman Richard Ranzau and commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Jim Howell.

In order to limit the growth of county debt, they say they want:

▪ A government focused on core county services.

▪ Reduced borrowing, which includes paying cash for county road and bridge projects.

▪ Lower county property taxes.

Commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh, in the commission’s minority, are critical of the shift to paying for roads with cash instead of borrowing money. That, they say, in addition to a proposed tax rollback, is forcing the county to make unnecessary cuts that will undermine partnerships tied to culture, public health and the quality of life.

Here’s a rundown of the key debates that will likely consume the process until the final budget is approved Aug. 12.

How to pay for roads

The majority of commissioners want to move away from using bonds to pay for year-round road and bridge maintenance and repair projects.

Road projects are “like the dirty laundry. It never stops,” Howell said. “You have to constantly fund this. To fund something like that with debt is fundamentally a wrong policy.”

Ranzau said the move to pay cash for roads and bridges isn’t solely to blame for other cuts in the budget.

“This is actually a good thing, but you have to think long-term and not short-term,” he said.

“When you habitually borrow like this, you dig yourself into a financial hole.”

Norton and Unruh say the change has significant consequences for the rest of the budget.

“A no-debt policy down the road will change the dynamic of what the county can do for this community,” Norton said.

Unruh says paying for roads and bridges by borrowing through bonds would prevent some budget cuts.

“We can do some reasonable bonding within restrictions that would allow us to fulfill our obligations to our community partners,” Unruh said.

He said there should have been more public discussion before the county unveiled what he called a “budget experiment.”

Taxes: lower or the same?

On Wednesday, commissioners set a budget ceiling that will allow them to keep the mill levy flat or lower it slightly.

The recommended budget originally included a $512,094 rollback of county property taxes. It would save the owner of a $100,000 house about $1.37 a year.

“We’re cutting a lot but their taxes aren’t really going down,” Norton said.

Other commissioners want to lower taxes to make sure that the mill levy doesn’t increase during the appraisal appeals process, which continues after the budget’s adoption.

“We shouldn’t be having technical adjustments and revisions that let it creep up,” Peterjohn said.

One thing commissioners agree on is that the county should avoid a property tax hike.

“To raise taxes is not being sensitive to the reality of the economy and the pressure it puts on people,” Howell said.

Government’s role

The recommended cuts would affect an array of programs run or supported by county government, from immunization to the arts and from economic development partnerships to the River Festival.

Members of the commission majority say tough decisions are required this year.

“We can continue a lot of spending if we are willing to raise taxes,” Peterjohn said. “Or we can tighten our belt and try to live within our means.”

Howell said the county has to cut optional things in the budget, like support for the Wichita Arts Council, to not hurt core services like the election office and juvenile corrections, which get a boost in the budget.

“If revenue streams come down as they have, it puts pressure on the discretionary things in our budget,” Howell said.

Norton said the county is moving to a new form of government that he doesn’t agree with.

“We have written, into at least my philosophy of local government, a social contract to make things better,” he said.

Unruh said the county is shirking its responsibilities to support community partners and improve the county’s quality of life.

“We’re supposed to provide quality public services that provide for the present and future well-being,” Unruh said. “This is a disruption of that fundamental mission.”

Promise or conditional commitment?

The recommended budget would give less money to groups like the Sedgwick County Zoo, Exploration Place and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition than originally stated in long-term funding agreements.

Zoo officials and supporters aren’t happy.

“This is the funding agreement that they made,” zoo director Mark Reed told The Eagle. “(It’s) their word.”

Unruh said the county can honor its agreements if it abandons some commission majority goals.

“We could keep our word to the Sedgwick County Zoo,” Unruh said. “We could keep our word with Exploration Place.”

Some commissioners reject the idea that the county is breaking its promises, including a 2013 agreement with the zoo that called for increased funding in the 2016 budget.

“It wasn’t a promise. It was a conditional commitment by the board of county commissioners,” Howell said. “And I wasn’t even here then, so it wasn’t my promise anyway.”

He says past county commissioners shouldn’t obligate future county commissioners to agreements.

“It was a commitment based on hopeful revenue,” Howell says. “And that revenue stream is not supporting a 7 percent increase to the zoo.”

The zoo would get $5.6 million in 2016, flat with 2015 funding.

“They’ll be fine. Exploration Place will be fine as well,” Ranzau said. “It’s a small percentage reduction. But we’ve had to make these sorts of decisions before.”

Reach Daniel Salazar at 316-269-6791 or dsalazar@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @imdanielsalazar.

How to weigh in on the budget

▪ First public hearing: 9 a.m. Wednesday

▪ Second public hearing: 6 p.m. Aug. 6

Both hearings are on the third floor of the Sedgwick County Courthouse, 525 N. Main., in downtown Wichita.

Look at the recommended budget and access the online budget hearing at www.sedgwickcounty.org/finance/2016budget.asp.

Key budget points

▪ County can spend up to $412.8 million this year

▪ About 3 percent smaller budget than last year

▪ $3.3 million in cash available for road and bridge projects

▪ Potential $512,094 rollback in taxes

▪ $780,000 in proposed cuts to health department

▪ No $388,302 increase to Sedgwick County Zoo

▪ Boosts “core” government functions, like elections and juvenile corrections

▪ Cuts commitment to economic development groups

▪ Eliminates county support for the Wichita Arts Council, River Festival

▪ Delays jail expansion and remodel, two EMS posts

▪ Defers or eliminates Forensic Science Center expansion

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