Politics & Government

Alternate Sedgwick County budget proposal would prevent cuts

Sedgwick County Commissioners, from left, Tim Norton, Karl Peterjohn, Richard Ranzau, Jim Howell and Dave Unruh, listen to public comments during a budget hearing. (Aug. 6, 2015)
Sedgwick County Commissioners, from left, Tim Norton, Karl Peterjohn, Richard Ranzau, Jim Howell and Dave Unruh, listen to public comments during a budget hearing. (Aug. 6, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

Two county commissioners launched their bid to prevent county budget cuts that could be approved this week.

Commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh unveiled an alternative budget plan to keep the county’s current commitments to Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place and to prevent most health, economic development and cultural cuts in the proposed budget.

“We have a really easy, simple-to-understand solution that will support the commission goals and would reinstate all the major cuts,” Unruh said at a Monday morning news conference.

The budget would add about $1.8 million in potential revenue to the $412.3 million recommended budget by keeping property taxes flat and delaying 5 miles of road projects.

The original budget included a small property tax rollback of $512,094. However, that no longer has a majority of commissioners on board. Commissioner Jim Howell has joined Norton and Unruh in wanting to keep property tax rates flat with last year.

The alternative budget also would not fund a $1.25 million program to replace existing asphalt roads in poor condition or to pave gravel roads.

Unruh and North need one more commissioner to have majority support on the five-member Sedgwick County Board of County Commissioners for the budget’s Wednesday adoption.

But there is hesitancy among some commissioners to ditch road projects they had expected for their districts.

‘We can restore funding’

The commissioners said the additional $1.76 million in revenue from delaying the road replacement program and keeping taxes flat could prevent most of the cuts in the county’s 2016 recommended budget.

“The beauty of it is that it’s so simple,” Unruh said.

About $870,000 in planned cuts to health and human services could be funded with the revenue, according to the proposal blueprint.

Project Access, which helps provide health care to low-income county residents, would receive its $200,000 in county funding. Health department programs related to health education, immunizations, cancer screenings and community health assessments that were previously cut would be funded as well.

“It keeps whole many of our most vulnerable people in the community,” Norton said.

Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place would also receive the amount of money originally outlined in their funding agreements with the county.

“We can also maintain our city partnerships with the Metropolitan Area Planning Department,” Unruh said. “It allows us to restore these major areas that have been reduced in the proposed budget.”

The Wichita Area Technical College, the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and the South Central Kansas Economic Development District would get the same funding they received in 2015. This amounts to $233,875 in increased economic development spending from the recommended budget.

Unruh said the plan keeps with commission majority goals of reduced use of debt and setting aside cash for future road and bridge projects.

He had previously advocated that the county borrow money through bonds to pay for road and bridge projects. But most commissioners are in favor of Sedgwick County setting aside $3.29 million in cash for future, unspecified road and bridge projects.

“I think the commissioners are pretty set that they don’t want to (pay for roads by borrowing money),” Unruh said.

‘Small sacrifice’

The alternative budget that Norton and Unruh unveiled Monday would delay an annual cold mix and gravel road replacement program.

That program currently in the recommended budget funds 5 miles of road projects per year to replace existing asphalt roads in poor condition or to pave gravel roads, whether they are county roads or township roads.

Public Works Director David Spears said the program alternates each year between fixing asphalt roads he wants to fix and paving gravel roads commissioners want fixed.

In budget years like 2015 and 2017, “I pick the roads that are already county roads that are in bad shape and need repair,” Spears said.

But, for 2016’s budget, it’s the county commissioners’ turn to pick county or township gravel roads they wanted paved.

“(Commissioners) pick roads that they have been receiving a lot of complaints from the citizens,” Spears said.

Those 5 miles are typically divided equally among the five county commissioners, who approve a mile of improvements in their respective districts.

Spears said it’s a good program and that it is “less bad” to delay the program this year than next year.

“I would not want to sacrifice it in 2017,” Spears said.

Unruh and Norton said delaying the program to prevent budget cuts may be worthwhile.

“It requires each commissioner to make one small sacrifice,” Unruh said.

Norton said delaying the road replacement program has happened before.

“There have been years where we’ve canceled them because of financial conditions,” said Norton, referring to the five miles of roads under the program.

‘Good roads are important’

Unruh and Norton said they would talk to the other commissioners about their plan.

But time is short for one-on-one discussions between commissioners. They’re set to meet Wednesday at 9 a.m. to approve a final budget.

Chairman Richard Ranzau said he didn’t know enough about the plan, but he had questions about what to do with the road program for 2017’s budget under the alternative proposal.

“I’ll consider any options that commissioners bring forward,” Ranzau said.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said the road program is important to his largely rural, third district, which covers about 45 percent of the county’s land area in western Sedgwick County.

“If we got road and bridge challenges, there’s a good chance they’re going to be in the third district” Peterjohn said.

Commissioner Jim Howell said he had already planned to pave two gravel roads in the Derby area through the program.

“This program provides opportunities to fix things in my district and that, to me, is not an easy place to say ‘I don’t need that,’” Howell said.

Norton and Unruh said the public response to the recommended budget, through two public hearings and e-mails, inspired the restored cuts in the alternative budget, which they crafted late last week and over the weekend.

“We have heard the public speak to us, and they are speaking pretty much in a common voice,” Unruh said.

“This was motivated really by the overwhelming response that the citizens have put forth.”

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

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