Politics & Government

Wichita breezes through 2016 budget approval

File photo

Not without poking a little fun at the Sedgwick County Commission and state legislators over their contentious budget processes, Wichita City Council members on Tuesday approved next year’s $227 million budget – in a matter of minutes.

“This is the best budget I’ve ever seen. You ought to get together with the county and show them how to do it,” said Wichita resident Om Chauhan to the council.

Chauhan was the only resident to comment during Tuesday’s meeting.

Council member Pete Meitzner said the city’s budget situation is the result of several years of work by the council and city staff.

“It’s been a three-year process to get this down to where it’s done in an orderly fashion and within the numbers. We didn’t do this just in the last month because of some of the turmoil that’s been going on in other government agencies, including the state,” Meitzner said during the meeting.

“Speaking of that, I was thinking of making a motion if any of the council members are wanting to run for state office and are willing to debate this until four in the morning.”

The legislature passed its final budget at 4 a.m.

This year’s city budget process included two social media town hall meetings in June, a series of District Advisory Board Meetings and one public hearing last week.

The budget, which won’t raise taxes or cut spending, will keep a steady mill levy rate and reserves at just under $27 million – about 12 percent of general fund expenditures, said City Manager Robert Layton.

Some new areas of focus in next’s year’s budget include deploying more than 400 police body cameras, projects to improve fire department response times, increased street maintenance and targeting illegal dumping, which has become an issue in some neighborhoods.

“The day of packing the council chambers for the public hearing is probably over unless for some reason there’s a controversial issue that carries all the way to the end,” Layton said.

“It’s really what you do on social media and other outreach efforts. I don’t believe I’ve ever received 1,000 comments on the budget through the normal traditional public hearing process. But through social media, that was really easy to do and determine what community priorities were as a result of that. People were pretty vocal and I think this budget reflects the feedback we got.”

As part of a stopgap measure to save Wichita’s transit system, the city is moving a one-time $2 million to transit for 2016. City staff will use the next several months to think of new permanent funding sources for the struggling transit system.

County impact

Now, the only questions remaining with the city budget are how the county will fund the joint planning department with the city and whether the county will continue to fund day reporting, which is a court-sponsored program for non-violent offenders.

Several positions were targeted as potential cuts within the planning department if county funding doesn’t pull through.

But Mayor Jeff Longwell said the city will not recommend cuts to the planning department staff even if the county cuts the funds.

“There's such a level of uncertainty and I don't believe it's fair to have people in a state of flux where they have no idea if they're going to have a job,” Longwell said.

An alternative county budget was proposed Monday by County Commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh, which would reinstate the roughly $155,000 in funding for the planning department.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with that,” Layton said of the new proposal.

Day reporting cuts could potentially cost the city more, he said. If the county drops the program, the city would have to pay $400,000 next year and $800,000 for years after – if it decides to keep the program.

“You’ve got some core issues about how do you treat non-violent offenders and the day reporting has had good results in terms of recidivism for those who go through that program, so that’s something we’ll have to take a look at,” Layton said. “It’s not like we have $800,000 in the budget that can easily be (moved).”

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

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