Politics & Government

7 things to know about Sedgwick County budget hearings

The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, in competition for prospective employees with the higher-paying Wichita Police Department, is requesting another $2.1 million in employee compensation in the county budget. (June 19, 2015)
The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, in competition for prospective employees with the higher-paying Wichita Police Department, is requesting another $2.1 million in employee compensation in the county budget. (June 19, 2015) File photo

Sedgwick County’s budget season is right around the corner.

The 2017 county budget will be the first recommended by county manager Michael Scholes. And it will be the second under the county commission’s conservative majority, which voted for this year’s $412.3 million budget that drew packed crowds to public hearings last summer.

The recommended budget comes out on July 13, and the final budget will be approved on Aug. 10.

$413.1 million in county budget requests

$9.9 million in additional funding requests

The Eagle attended or reviewed more than 12 hours of departmental budget hearings. Those hearings ended Thursday and are now available online.

Here are some key takeaways ahead of the heart of the budget cycle.

Compensation looms large

One theme courses through a lot of county meetings these days: The county needs to pay its people better.

“Employees are leaving county employment in increasing number,” Scholes said at the beginning of the hearings. Fourteen percent of employees voluntarily left the county in 2015. The county currently employs 2,757 people.

He told commissioners at the end of the hearings that he’d work to solve “compensation issues that we have across the departments that I think you also saw as a trend.” And they largely agree that there’s a problem.

It appears to me that the big elephant in the room will be compensation.

Tim Norton, Sedgwick County commissioner

“It appears to me that the big elephant in the room will be compensation,” commissioner Tim Norton said. “There’s no way to look at that that doesn’t increase the budget.”

The sheriff’s office, for instance, is requesting another $2.1 million in employee compensation. That would give a 4 percent pay increase for detention deputies and an 8 percent increase for deputies, sergeants, lieutenants, captains and clerical workers.

“The current retention and recruitment statistics show an unacceptable and dangerous trend,” said Sheriff Jeff Easter, referring to competition for prospective employees with the higher-paying Wichita Police Department.

Millions in public safety requests

Scholes said the other large priority for the 2017 budget has to be boosting public safety, which commissioners repeatedly call one of the most important purposes of county government.

“There is a lot of need,” Scholes said. “I think that’s where a lot of the priority will be in terms of trying to help them in their request to help fund some core and essential functions.”

County departments asked for almost $10 million in additional funding requests. A majority of that came from departments like the sheriff’s office, the fire district, Emergency Medical Services, the Regional Forensic Science Center, Emergency Communications and Management and the Emergency Medical Services System.

Twenty-four of the 30 additional full-time employee positions that county departments requested come from those offices.

Some of the requests would pay for more detention staff members or for personnel to handle increased 911 call demand. Other budget requests would pay for equipment like better radios for firefighters or a more modern 911 system.

We’re going to be very thoughtful on what we can do here.

Jim Howell, Sedgwick County Commission chairman

“We’re going to be very thoughtful on what we can do here,” commission Chairman Jim Howell said. “Is it an emergent issue, or is it something we can manage over some period of time?”

Potential boosts to DA, election offices

The offices of district attorney and election-related duties are also considered “core” county functions. They’re on the top tier of three levels of priorities that Scholes outlined in his guiding principles for the budget.

Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman is asking for an additional $1.5 million to help purchase new voting machines.

The district attorney’s office is asking for two more attorneys to handle the increased workload expected from the police department’s complete rollout of body cameras.

“DA (Marc Bennett) made a very compelling case,” Howell said. “That’s one of those things we just have to do. I don’t think there’s any real choice on our part.”

Cuts elsewhere may be considered

Commissioners say addressing the county’s compensation and public safety needs may raise the possibility of squeezing the budget elsewhere.

“I’d hate to predict where that would happen. I’d like to see the manager’s budget first and let him solve the problem for us on the front end,” Howell said. “But clearly that is one of the options we have to consider is the shifting of priorities.”

Norton argued the county’s health and human services contributions to things like Comcare and the health department shouldn’t be downplayed.

We are a big provider of public health and human services in this community. It is critical to the economy and the quality of life of our community no different than public safety and public works.

Tim Norton, Sedgwick County commissioner

“We are a big provider of public health and human services in this community,” Norton said. “It is critical to the economy and the quality of life of our community no different than public safety and public works.

“I’m not going to be real warm to diminishing too many services to accommodate raises on the top end,” Norton said.

County spokeswoman Jill Tinsley said that the county manager’s office has not discussed notifying community organizations about whether their funding may be cut, as it did last year.

Zoo funding a question mark

The Sedgwick County Zoo was one of the only county-funded organizations that did not submit a formal budget request.

“That’s an entirely discretionary thing we’ve got to hone in on whatever the right number is,” Howell said.

The zoo got $5.6 million in the 2016 budget. There’s another $150,000 earmarked for the zoo if personnel funds run out by the end of the year.

The Sedgwick County Zoo will receive $5.6 million in 2016, the same amount it got in 2015. But, as part of budget discussions last summer, the zoo did not receive a $388,302 boost it was expecting based on its funding agreement.

But the funding agreement between the zoo board and the county was terminated near the end of last year. The zoo’s operating agreement is also under negotiation.

“I’m expecting that the manager will recommend pretty much flat funding for the zoo from last year so that issue will be settled, over and done with,” commissioner Dave Unruh said. “I would be surprised if the zoo was expecting any more than that.”

No desire for higher taxes

Despite the strains on the county budget, don’t expect a long discussion about raising more revenue through taxes.

In March, the county commission set a couple of fiscal targets for the county, including limits to its ability to borrow money and a flat mill levy rate for property taxes for the next six years.

“It provides certainty to the community in the direction the county is trying to go,” commissioner Karl Peterjohn said.

It provides certainty to the community in the direction the county is trying to go.

Karl Peterjohn, Sedgwick County commissioner

Commissioners say there’s little appetite to increase the mill levy that has a role in determining what people pay in property taxes.

“I don’t think that there’s any need to even think about a mill levy increase. We’re not going to do that,” Unruh said. “I don’t think that’s possible in an election year.”

A homeowner with a $150,000 house would pay about $507 annually just to the county at the current mill levy rate.

County road fight may be revisited

Last year, the county commission moved to pay for road and bridge maintenance with cash only. The county used to pay for that type of work with money it borrowed by issuing bonds.

The majority shepherded through this change last summer, saying it reduces the county’s reliance on debt and improves the county’s fiscal standing.

Other commissioners say it’s worth revisiting given the budget requests the county is considering. Unruh asked staff members to look at how an alternate funding plan would affect the budget.

That can … relieve a lot of pressure on our budget without causing us to have to just totally invade our cash reserves.

Dave Unruh, Sedgwick County commissioner

“I think that amounts to a significant amount of money that can legitimately be bonded to spread the payments, which would relieve a lot of pressure on our budget without causing us to have to just totally invade our cash reserves,” Unruh said.

“The use of debt and debt service is not out of the realm of what governments have done,” Norton added.

But Howell and Peterjohn still take issue with those arguments and want to continue the cash-funding of road and bridge work.

“Debt should be used for significant purchases, big things,” Howell said. “But routine things, small in nature, doesn’t fit that model.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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