Politics & Government

As Sedgwick County vote looms, three budget plans

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

Decision day for the Sedgwick County budget has arrived.

County commissioners are scheduled to approve a 2016 budget Wednesday. After three weeks of discussions and public feedback, the five-member board is still deeply divided over county commitments ranging from public health to roads and bridges.

As a result, there are three different visions for the budget ahead of Wednesday’s vote.

The recommended budget released last month was called a budget of transformational change by senior county staff. Based on goals by the commission’s majority, it eliminated paying for county road and bridge projects with debt, lowered property taxes and boosted core county services such as elections and juvenile corrections.

That budget also cut public health programs, participation in economic development groups, city partnerships and support for arts and culture. It also reshaped funding agreements with local attractions like the Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place.

Chairman Richard Ranzau and commissioner Karl Peterjohn largely support the recommended budget in its original form.

Commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh are pushing for an alternative budget that would scale back road projects to prevent the cuts. They say this plan was inspired by the public backlash to the cuts, such as an Old Town rally, billboards across Wichita and two lengthy public hearings dominated mostly by speakers opposed to the cuts.

The commission’s newest member, Jim Howell, is advocating for some of those cuts in the recommended budget. But he also wants to restore some funding to economic development, public health and recreation spending.

The five commissioners will meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the county courthouse, 525 N. Main, to approve a budget. Three commissioners are needed for majority approval for the budget. No public hearing is planned.

A ‘starting point’

Howell said revenue from keeping property taxes flat with last year, instead of lowering property taxes, will restore funding to some organizations and programs facing cuts.

He said his plan will restore about $750,000 by softening cuts to health and economic development and by partially restoring funding to the agreements with the zoo and Exploration Place.

It would restore $150,000 to the Sedgwick County Zoo for personnel costs. The zoo was expecting a $388,302 increase from 2015 funding that would go to pay keepers for the new elephant exhibit. The county’s contribution to the zoo in 2015 was $5.6 million.

“We have no requirement in the operating agreement to fund anything more than salaries,” Howell said.

Howell said the new elephant exhibit will boost gate revenue, which can go to the zoo’s facility upgrades.

The plan would also restore $40,000 to Exploration Place, which was facing a $75,000 cut in funding.

It would restore most of the funding for Project Access, which provides medical care to uninsured and low-income residents, and the Foster Grandparent program, and completely restore the Health Navigator program in the county’s health department.

It would also restore a cut to the funding agreement with the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and partially restore cuts to the Wichita Area Technical College and the South Central Kansas Economic Development District.

Howell said he’s undecided whether the county should restore funding for the Kansas School for Effective Learning, which provides GED classes for at-risk youth. About a dozen speakers at the public hearings spoke in favor of KANSEL.

He said supporting some partners, like the Wichita Arts Council, is not the county’s responsibility.

“Every city in Sedgwick County has its arts efforts,” Howell said. “I do not understand why Sedgwick County puts emphasis on Wichita.”

Other community partners, such as the River Festival or the Greater Wichita Sports Commission, could be funded if there’s room in the adopted budget in 2016.

“There’s going to be a lot of pain in this budget,” Howell said. “We got to figure out a way to dial down operations and costs somewhere.”

He said he hopes commissioners are open to compromise to restoring some funding and upholding some cuts.

“That’s my starting point for a middle position,” Howell said. “It can still change.”

‘Overwhelming response’

Commissioners Dave Unruh and Tim Norton, who oppose the proposed cuts, held a Monday news conference outlining an alternative to the recommended budget.

By keeping property taxes flat and delaying 5 miles of gravel road projects, they said almost all of the major cuts would be avoided.

“I’m hopeful we restore most of the things that were cut,” Norton said.

Norton said protecting public health programs and community partnerships was a personal cause.

“For me, I’ve been intimately involved over 15 years with most all of those items that were cut in some matter,” Norton said.

Unruh said the two commissioners worked over the weekend crafting the alternate proposal.

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

Unlike Howell’s plan, this proposal would prevent more cuts by delaying 5 miles of road projects under a $1.25 million gravel road replacement program.

“As we’ve talked around, public works understands that that’s something to be sacrificed pretty easily,” Norton said at the news conference.

Howell said any plan that Unruh and Norton put forth can’t pass without his vote. He said those commissioners need to be more skeptical of whether programs deserve county support.

“They want to do full funding for everything and gut the roads,” Howell said.

But Unruh said restoring funding to the county’s commitments has popular support.

“This pretty well reestablishes all the programs all the citizens spoke about and had particular interest (in),” Unruh said.

‘The chairman’s budget’

Ranzau and Peterjohn have largely defended the recommended budget since its release.

County staff have said Ranzau was heavily involved in crafting the recommended budget, calling it “the chairman’s budget” at the budget’s rollout in July.

Ranzau and Peterjohn have criticized multiple plans that would either delay road and bridge projects or pay for them with debt.

“The zoo is important, but core county functions like roads and highways have to be the primary focus for allocating county spending,” Peterjohn said.

“We have to be careful because there really is no plan about how you proceed after next year,” Ranzau said of Unruh and Norton’s proposal.

Although Peterjohn said he is open to restoring some funding for Project Access and the Health Navigator program, he said most health programs slated to be cut symbolize governmental overreach.

“They fit more into the expanded role of government involvement in health care,” Peterjohn said.

Ranzau said he is still evaluating both alternatives.

“We can’t be short-sighted because we could end up in the same place we are now (next year),” he said.

Howell said the final budget could resemble the recommended budget if he can’t find middle ground with Unruh and Norton.

“If (they) don’t do that, I think Ranzau is going to get pretty much the budget he wants,” Howell said.

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

Howell’s proposal would restore:

▪ $512,094 in property tax revenue, keeping property taxes the same as last year

▪ $114,626 for two more elections workers

▪ $150,000 to the Sedgwick County Zoo

▪ $40,000 to Exploration Place

▪ $175,000 to Project Access

▪ $91,099 to Health Navigator program

▪ $20,000 to Foster Grandparents program

▪ $50,000 to Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition

▪ $60,000 to South Central Kansas Economic Development District

▪ $50,000 to Wichita Area Technical College

Original recommended budget would cut:

▪ $512,094 in property taxes or $1.37 in taxes on a $100,000 house

▪ $388,302 from funding agreement with Sedgwick County Zoo

▪ $75,000 from funding agreement with Exploration Place

▪ $1 million from health and human services programs and grants

▪ $155,483 in county funding for Metropolitan Area Planning Department programs

▪ $1.76 million in economic development funding

Unruh and Norton’s alternative budget would:

▪ Keep property taxes flat, restoring $512,094 in property tax revenue

▪ Delay $1.25 million in gravel road projects

▪ Restore $871,832 in proposed health and human services cuts

▪ Restore full funding for the Sedgwick County Zoo, Exploration Place

▪ Restore $233,875 in economic development funding

▪ Restore funding to River Festival, Arts Council, Sports Commission

▪ Restore $155,483 in county funding for Metropolitan Area Planning Department programs

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