Politics & Government

Sedgwick County budget restoring health, road maintenance sails through

From left, commissioners Tim Norton, Karl Peterjohn, Jim Howell, Richard Ranzau and Dave Unruh listen to a staff presentation Wednesday before adopting the 2017 Sedgwick County budget.
From left, commissioners Tim Norton, Karl Peterjohn, Jim Howell, Richard Ranzau and Dave Unruh listen to a staff presentation Wednesday before adopting the 2017 Sedgwick County budget. The Wichita Eagle

Sedgwick County commissioners voted 4-1 Wednesday to adopt the county’s budget for next year.

The $424.2 million budget includes a significant boost to public safety departments by paying for more ambulance workers, 911 call center workers, sheriff’s office positions in the jail and staffers in the District Attorney’s Office to process evidence from body cameras. It also will help upgrade the 911 phone system and Fire District firefighters’ radios.

It also increases employee compensation, by providing millions in pay adjustments and pay-for-performance awards, to address turnover problems at the county.

Commissioners also voted to do more road maintenance and restore one health position cut last year so the health department can participate in a community health improvement plan.

The commissioners also voted to cut the health department’s program for travel immunizations, saying those vaccines are being provided in the private sector.

It was the first budget created by County Manager Michael Scholes, who started working at the county last November. Richard Ranzau was the only commissioner to vote against it.

Public safety and compensation weren’t extensively discussed in the budget’s final adoption on Wednesday.

“We went a long way to address those (needs),” Scholes said. “There was just overwhelming support for it because they (commissioners) understood the needs in what they haven’t been getting in the past five or seven years.”

“It was unanimous support for those two items, I felt,” Scholes said.

Sedgwick County’s mill levy, which helps determine what residents pay in property taxes, will remain the same.

Road maintenance

Chairman Jim Howell motioned to move $1.5 million from a gravel road replacement program to preventative road maintenance. The move applies only to the 2017 budget.

The county normally replaces five miles of gravel roads a year. The other program performs preventative maintenance on all county roads on a rotating basis. The recommended budget moved the schedule of when every road gets maintenance from every five years to every six years.

Howell said he wanted to give Public Works Director David Spears, who recommended the shift of funds, some latitude in running the public works department.

“He’s giving up his five miles next year in 2017 to add $1.5 million that he can use for materials and things to help him with his road maintenance and preservation program,” Howell said. “Which I think is a great trade-off.”

Commissioners approved the motion by a 4-1 margin, with Ranzau voting no. He said he’d prefer public works save money by extending the rotating schedule rather than stopping the gravel road replacement program for a year.

“I’m not quite sure why we need to eliminate this program, which I actually think is important,” Ranzau said.

Community health

Commissioner Tim Norton motioned that the budget restore a health department position that helps coordinate the community health improvement plan. The $48,634 position was eliminated last summer as part of more than $500,000 in cuts to the health department.

The community health improvement plan helps identify strategies to address major health problems facing Sedgwick County.

Howell joined Norton and Commissioner Dave Unruh in the 3-2 vote.

“We need to have persons who are involved in the community discussion with other partners and to have input,” Unruh said.

Ranzau said the position is “basically an assault on the taxpayer and is used in the long run to advance government involvement in our lives.”

“It is one of the worst expenditures that we could spend money on,” Ranzau said. “Spend that $50,000 on anything else in our budget and our community would be better off.”

Howell proved to be the swing vote. He said it would have been uncomfortable to delay the debate and that he would have set himself up for “a firestorm of people coming at me from both sides trying to get me to agree.”

“Politically, I just don’t want to go through that. It’s easier to make a decision today,” Howell said after the meeting. “I know how important this is to the health professionals. I heard them loud and clear.”

Debt debate (again)

The county held two budget hearings, as well as an online budget hearing.

Commissioners have been divided about paying for capital projects with the county’s cash reserves or with debt by issuing bonds. But Chief Financial Officer Chris Chronis called it a “non-issue” for the 2017 budget.

“There are no capital projects that are planned that would be appropriate to fund with debt,” Chronis said.

Chronis said a northeastern EMS post and the Law Enforcement Training Center would be the only projects that would be large enough to justify using debt. But he said it was appropriate to use cash reserves for both projects.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said using cash reserves instead of debt was prudent.

“It’s going to give us more financial flexibility in the future, and I think that’s going to benefit all the taxpayers in Sedgwick County going forward,” Peterjohn said.

Other commissioners more open to using debt to pay for projects made their concerns known.

“I think having the financial conditions we have and the good credit ratings gives us a tool in the toolbox that we should not diminish,” Norton said. “We’re going to hamstring ourselves to do really big projects in the future.”

Various county staff made presentations to answer concerns raised in the budget hearings, where several speakers criticized commissioners for not listening to speakers during last summer’s budget cuts.

“We took those questions down and addressed each and every one,” Howell said. “To me, with these accusations that we don’t listen, I think that the evidence is that we do listen.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar