Jail, budget key topics in District 1 county race

Billboards for incumbent county commissioner Dave Unruh tower over Douglas and Central avenues, while on the northeast end of Wichita, yard signs for Betty Arnold grant muted support.

The District 1 race for Sedgwick County Commissioner is between the 10-year commissioner and the challenger Arnold, who has been a Wichita school board member since 2007.

District 1 spans the northeast end of Sedgwick County and leans heavily Republican.

Of the 57,998 voters in the county, 26,431 are registered Republicans. Meanwhile, 15,936 are registered Democrats. Another 15,275 voters are unaffiliated, according to voter registration statistics released Sept. 30.

That advantage has shown in the fundraising numbers, too.

From the start of the year to July 22, the Republican Unruh has raised $51,033.47.

During the same period, Arnold, a Democrat, has raised $3,610.

Unruh has spent $3,899 on postage alone, more than the entire amount Arnold has raised.

All of this leaves Arnold with an uphill battle in terms of the district's voting demographics, fundraising and the name recognition of her opponent.

So why run?

"I'm a strong believer in that if you want something to happen

and it's not happening, you don't sit around and talk about it, you get up and do something about it," said Arnold, 61.

Arnold, a retired auditor with the Department of Labor, said she can address inefficiencies within the county jail system, particularly with overcrowding.

It's an issue that has been on the minds of county commissioners for at least a decade, Arnold said, and yet problems still exist.

The county jail system needs to look to how other counties have successfully handled their jail processing procedures in order to streamline those in Sedgwick County, she said.

"We also need to address the root cause," Arnold said, referring to why more offenders need to be detained in the county jail.

In response, Unruh urged patience.

The County's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council was formed in 2004 and in 2006 created several programs that have since cut down on jail overcrowding, he said. Those need continued time to develop.

"It doesn't happen overnight," said Unruh, 67.

Unruh's record

Unruh calls himself a card-carrying Republican, but admitted that some would disagree.

At a recent forum of the Wichita Pachyderm Club, the commissioner was asked to make a pledge that all new taxes or tax increases would need to be approved by voter referendum. While two other Republican candidates seemed supportive of such a measure, Unruh declined it.

"I said, 'You guys aren't going to like me very much,' " he recalled, adding that making that kind of promise can "become a nightmare."

If the cost of services increases by no fault of Sedgwick County, Unruh said, the county shouldn't have to eat those fees elsewhere.

Unruh's political career has been marked by a willingness to change course on controversial projects. When Unruh first sought his county commissioner seat, his main issue was advocating for development of a new county landfill held within the limits of Sedgwick County.

However, Waste Connections eventually built a landfill for Wichita's trash in Harvey County. With a landfill so close to Sedgwick County, Unruh chose not to push for a Sedgwick County landfill.

It was a divisive move; Unruh said. Some credited him as a hero for keeping the landfill out of their neighborhood, while others looked at him as a flip-flopper.

That happened again in 2006 when he supported a tax increase.

Some of that funding went toward creation of the National Center for Aviation Training; part of it was also to expand the jail.

Eventually, Unruh and other commissioners changed course and decided against jail expansion. Although he voted for the 2006 increase, Unruh said he has since supported a reduction to the Sedgwick County mill levy for three straight years.

In seeking re-election, he said he hopes to continue the County's work with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and also the further development of the National Center for Aviation Training.

Arnold's plans

Arnold also has supported controversial measures during her time on the school board, notably a 2008 Wichita public schools bond issue.

Arnold said she would vote against jail expansion, in favor of first finding efficiencies within the current system. As a former auditor, she is confident in her ability to do so.

Arnold also criticized Sedgwick County's plan to purchase the former Coleman building at Second and St. Francis in downtown Wichita.

The county recently agreed to buy the site and has plans to demolish the vacant building in order to create a parking lot, to serve the downtown area and Intrust Bank Arena.

In addition to buying the site for $600,000, the county will pay an estimated $600,000 in paving costs. They will also pay $300,000 to demolish the 96,000-square-foot building, which has severely deteriorated since 1990.

Arnold questioned the timing of the purchase, considering budget troubles around the area.

The arena has been full before, Arnold said, and parking has still been available in the area.

"Was it that pressing of a need?" Arnold said.

If elected, Arnold said she also hopes to build a more collegial environment among the board and make customer service a county priority.