Politics & Government

Sedgwick County residents try to persuade commissioners on budget plan

2015: Residents make their voices heard on proposed Sedgwick County budget cuts

Residents came out to make their opinions known during a public hearing on the proposed county budget cuts by the Sedgwick County Commission at the Sedgwick County Courthouse on Thursday. (Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle/Aug. 6, 2015)
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Residents came out to make their opinions known during a public hearing on the proposed county budget cuts by the Sedgwick County Commission at the Sedgwick County Courthouse on Thursday. (Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle/Aug. 6, 2015)

Cleveland wasn’t the only debate stage Thursday night.

Sedgwick County residents passionately tried to sway commissioners to either prevent or keep proposed county budget cuts.

It was the final opportunity for constituents to address all five commissioners in person on the 2016 recommended budget before it is adopted next week. Commissioners are sharply divided over the budget’s major goals, such as the county’s shift to paying for road projects with cash and a focus on core services of county government.

The recommended budget includes cuts to economic development coalitions, nonprofits, the health department and cultural organizations, as well as reshaped county commitments to the Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place.

About 45 people addressed commissioners during the three-hour hearing. The majority of those people spoke against the cuts.

They voiced support for public health programs and cultural and recreational funding alike under a message of upholding the quality of life in Sedgwick County.

“We will suffer as citizens if these services are not maintained,” said Ed Hett, a local family physician.

“I’m concerned about the direction we’re going,” said Brandon Johnson. “Think about the quality of life that we’ve all ignored.”

Several speakers voiced support for the cuts, saying they were necessary. Some criticized opponents of the cuts.

“I don’t believe the people that protest represent (the full county population),” said Max Weddle.

“I’m not here for a freebie, unlike some of these people,” said Charlie Peaster. “You got to do what you got to do to keep Sedgwick County solvent.”

Many people criticized the about $800,000 in cuts to county health programs and grants, including cuts to Project Access, which provides medical services to low-income and uninsured residents.

“Project Access has empowered me to move forward with my life in good health,” said Rochelle Thompson, who used the health care program.

Preventative programs are “where we know where we’ll get the most bang for our buck,” said KU medical student Nathan Davis.

Residents also disagreed about the county’s funding for rural bridges and roads.

“Choose people over pavement,” said Carolyn Gaughan of the Kansas Association of Family Physicians.

“I look at the roads and bridges as very important,” Michael Brincefield said. “They have to be a priority.”

Supporters of the Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place asked commissioners to uphold funding levels consistent with previous funding agreements the county had made.

“We do believe the county committed to previous commitments, and it should stand by those,” said Thomas Dalton.

The speakers said the two attractions drive money to the county and benefit Sedgwick County’s quality of life.

“Educators view the zoo... as a critical resource for teaching science,” said local teacher Laurel Nichols.

Others said the county needs to rethink those commitments in trying economic times.

“If you’re in the wrong partnership and spending money where you shouldn’t, then you’re doing the wrong thing,” said John Dailey, who lives in the unincorporated part of the county.

It was the second public hearing over the budget. The first was a five-hour session on July 26.

Residents can view the recommended budget and add their comments to the online budget hearing at www.sedgwickcounty.org/finance/2016budget.asp.

The final budget is scheduled to be approved at the commission’s Aug. 12 meeting. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. at the Sedgwick County Courthouse, 525 N. Main.

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

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