Politics & Government

Sedgwick County manager: Privatization could help guide 2017 budget

County Manager Michael Scholes says the guiding principles for the 2017 budget were inspired by the 2016 budgeting process.
County Manager Michael Scholes says the guiding principles for the 2017 budget were inspired by the 2016 budgeting process. File photo

Flat spending and privatizing more county services will be guiding principles for next year’s Sedgwick County budget, said County Manager Michael Scholes.

Many health department functions, human services, community development and the planning department could be the most likely areas for the potential privatization of services, a county document on the 2017 budget suggests.

“We’re trying to look for options in which the private sector can participate more and provide service instead of using taxpayer money to do it,” Scholes said at a staff meeting Tuesday.

County department heads will be encouraged to look for opportunities for nonprofits to take over county services, Scholes said.

That would be similar to the County Commission effort to explore options to transfer some or all Comcare mental health services to one or more nonprofits, he said.

Commissioners have encouraged Comcare staff to look for efficiencies throughout the county-run mental health department. The county has also drafted a request to the nonprofit community to run Comcare services. It has not been issued yet.

This will be Scholes’ first budget as county manager. The manager crafts the budget that is recommended to commissioners in July.

The county manager’s guiding principles for the 2017 budget echo the goals of the commission majority for the 2016 budget.

“There is no change in the commission this year,” Scholes said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to kind of understand the direction of where the commissioners will go and where the votes were last year.”

The guiding principles:

▪ Continued focus on core services like public safety, elections and roads and bridges

▪ Reducing funding to services that can be provided by the private sector instead

▪ Reduced debt and reduced use of bonds for road and bridge projects

▪ Keeping property tax rates flat.

The County Commission, led by a new majority in 2015, approved a budget in August that reduced the county’s use of bonds to finance road and bridge improvements. Chairman Richard Ranzau and commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Jim Howell voted for the budget.

Commissioners Dave Unruh and Tim Norton voted against it, saying the decision to reduce use of bonds led to cuts for Exploration Place, the health department and arts and culture funding, as well as a reduction in expected county money for the Sedgwick County Zoo. Members of the public protested the cuts at two budget hearings and in online feedback to the county.

The 2017 budget guidelines divide county government functions into three tiers.

The third tier provides the “most opportunity” for nonprofits to take over services. This tier includes county services related to culture and recreation, health, the planning department, community development and some human services functions. It also includes county support for the Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place.

The first tier includes public safety, elections, infrastructure and the County Commission. The second tier includes the county’s legal, management, financial, technology and human resources staff.

Scholes says the guidelines are meant to help county staff better understand the direction of the commission.

“There was a lot of friction last year because of the new commission coming in and not really understanding where the focus was,” Scholes said. “… I thought it was better this time to put something out at the beginning of the process as opposed to toward the end.”

“It was strictly my desire to give the different departments a way to try and plan,” Scholes added.

The tiers and guidelines could change based on how the budget season unfolds.

“As we go through the process, we can determine that we want to re-prioritize,” Scholes said.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn spoke favorably about the guiding principles.

“This is just a small step down a long road,” Peterjohn said. “But it provides kind of an outline that the departments can start from.”

“I think it’s important for us to make sure the taxpayers are getting the best for every dollar being spent,” he added.

Commissioner Dave Unruh said privatizing some services could be worth it.

“If we have a great opportunity, we ought to take advantage of it if it makes sense,” he said. “I just didn’t want us to go out and actively try to find those opportunities like we’re trying to offload everything.”

But he’s still worried about the possibility of a repeat of last year’s cuts.

“I’m concerned about that, and we’ll have to wait until we get further into the budget process to see how much of an issue that becomes,” Unruh said. “… I do not want to jeopardize those county services, whether they are cultural or health and human services.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

County budget calendar

Budget director Lindsay Poe Rousseau presented commissioners with a preliminary schedule for the 2017 budget, which will be adopted in August. The county’s fiscal calendar lines up with the actual calendar year, unlike those of the state and federal governments.

▪ From now until the end of January: Departments inventory their programs

▪ Feb. 18: Financial retreat to shape commission priorities for 2017

▪ March 28: Departmental budget requests due

▪ April 18-22: Departmental budget meetings with county manager

▪ May 2-13: Department budget requests presented to commission

▪ July 13: Recommended budget presented to the public, commissioners

▪ July 20: Budget, tax levy capped under state law

▪ July 27: First public budget hearing (morning)

▪ Aug. 4: Second public budget hearing (evening)

▪ Aug. 10: Budget adopted