Rep. Jim Howell says he couldn’t help but notice that Sedgwick County commissioners approved spending what he considers a lot of money in the past few months:
▪ $5.3 million to help the Sedgwick County Zoo build a new elephant exhibit.
▪ About $5 million to buy the former IRS building in downtown Wichita to house a new tag office, the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department, the Metropolitan Area Planning Department, the appraiser’s office, environmental resources and the Sheriff’s Office’s professional standards unit.
▪ $1 million for the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County’s “Behind Closed Doors” campaign to renovate the former Lincoln Elementary School into a place to help abused and neglected children.
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▪ $250,000 in a forgivable loan to Figeac Aero North America, an aviation supplier that said it would make Wichita its North American headquarters.
Howell is leaving his legislative seat to join the County Commission, and the new representative for District 5 in southeast Wichita and Derby believes the flurry of projects has something to do with him.
“There’s fear of another majority,” he said. “There was an election and the people have spoken and said, ‘We want more conservative government.’”
Howell said he wished the board would have waited on him to make some of the decisions.
“It’s hard not to take it personally,” he said, “that they don’t think I would be reasonable and thoughtful.”
Commission Chairman Dave Unruh disagreed that the board pushed through items before Howell’s term started.
“The commission carried on business as usual and took up some agenda items as they were presented,” Unruh said.
Howell’s first meeting will be Jan. 14. When the board disagrees, Howell probably will side with Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau. Their “no” votes on issues such as the IRS building and the Figeac loan sent a message but didn’t change the outcome. With Howell, their votes could carry more weight.
Howell cautioned others during the campaign to not assume he always would vote with Peterjohn and Ranzau.
But watching results with fellow Republicans on Election Night at the Wichita Marriott, Howell posed for photographs with Peterjohn and Ranzau and exclaimed, “We have a new majority!”
That new majority could affect a lot of county business.
Howell said he would not have supported buying the IRS building; he agreed with Peterjohn and Ranzau that it was an expensive option.
He said he would not have signed off on the loan to Figeac because some information, such as the security agreement, was missing.
Ranzau made that the basis for his vote against the loan. He tried to get the commission to defer a vote until commissioners had the full agreement before them, but that motion failed with Commissioners Tim Norton, Skelton and Unruh wanting to push forward on the agreement that carried the promise of jobs.
A staff report that commissioners received said the company would not expand in Wichita without the forgivable loan. Figeac plans to use the money to buy land in the Webb Business Park near Webb Road and 40th Street North. As part of its agreement with the county, Figeac agreed to add 200 full-time jobs paying an average annual salary of at least $39,520 during the next five years.
Figeac earlier this year purchased aviation supplier Sonaca NMF Wichita with plans to grow.
Howell said that signifies that Figeac already was sold on making Wichita its North American headquarters.
Asked about Howell joining the board, Ranzau said, “I feel fairly certain that we don’t approve any contracts with substantial parts of them missing.”
Howell also stands to be a pivotal force in the future of how the county handles juvenile offenders.
As a lawmaker, he pushed to keep the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch at Lake Afton open, seeking more funding for the program, which the county operated for the state. Peterjohn and Ranzau voted against closing the ranch but lacked majority support.
County Manager William Buchanan has appointed a task force to look at juvenile justice issues, including the possible re-opening of the ranch, which closed in July. The state paid the county $126 per day per boy, but the county’s cost to operate the ranch was about $200 per day per boy.
“The goal is to reduce recidivism and keep kids out of trouble,” he said. “If we’re going to spend ‘X’ amount of dollars on JRBR, are there other programs that are appropriate? Are there other programs that are more beneficial to the community?”
And if the county is to reopen the ranch, “What do we need to do to that building?” Buchanan asked.
The county estimated in 2013 that the ranch, as a youth residential center II, needed a minimum of $2.6 million in repairs.
Before doing anything, the county should wait for the results of a rate study on youth residential centers that should be available to the Legislature in January, Buchanan said. Howell pushed for the rate study as a legislator.
Ranzau said he wants to reopen the boys ranch as soon as possible.
Howell said he is willing to consider other options as well.
“Whatever is the best model to get juvenile offenders to not re-offend, I’m all for it,” he said. “I think JRBR is certainly on the table. But whatever works the best, that’s what we should do.”
He said his discussions with Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts did not turn up any concerns about the state not being willing to give the county a contract to operate the ranch as a youth residential center. He also said the state is looking at home-based juvenile justice programs. Howell said he needs to see more data about their success before he would be willing to sign off on county funding for them.
Although the majority of the board will most certainly shift, Ranzau said he thinks the board will continue to be unanimous about most issues.
“We may disagree, but we always try to not be disagreeable,” Ranzau said. “I think we will reach consensus and move things forward.”