Mailers are flying back and forth in the race for southern Sedgwick County’s District 2 seat on the County Commission.
One mailer features a photo of a county commissioner with a cigar in his mouth and a message about raising taxes. Another features a keg stand. Several trade claims and counterclaims about taxes.
The race pits Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton, a Democrat, against state Sen. Michael O’Donnell, a Republican who is also a former Wichita City Council member. O’Donnell has outraised and outspent Norton during the course of the campaign.
On Tuesday, voters in District 2, which includes parts of south and southwest Wichita, Haysville and Clearwater, will decide the winner.
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The Eagle checked the facts in several mailers. Here’s what we found.
About the candidates
▪ Photo of a cigar-chomping Norton (from a Kansas Republican Party mailer)
The mailer shows a photo of a smiling Norton with a cigar in his mouth next to the words, “Raising your taxes. Enriching himself.”
The photo, which crops out a table and a pot of chili, was taken by Haysville resident Cathy Hurley at a 2015 fundraiser for the Haysville library.
No one had permission to use the photo for political mailers, Hurley said.
“I saw that and got ticked off, especially since they slandered him,” Hurley said. “They cut off all the chili and showed the cigar in his mouth. I was not happy.”
Norton got second place for his chili at the fundraiser. He said the cigar was a prop and that he stopped smoking years ago.
O’Donnell said the company he hires to do his mailers found the photo and used it, and he said he did not know where it came from. He then said the Norton campaign had used photos of him without permission as well. He didn’t give details.
▪ “Sen. Michael O’Donnell says he brought beer to student party, police investigating” (from dark money group Kansas First)
The mailer features an unidentified man doing a keg stand – he’s held over a keg drinking beer – along with the above headline from a March 4 article in The Eagle.
O’Donnell called the decision to take beer to a student party a mistake in a Sept. 22 debate with Norton. Norton did not comment about the controversy.
The phrase “police investigating” highlighted in bold is no longer the case. Wichita police closed the investigation in early April because of a lack of evidence.
Police said at the time a potential witness informed investigators that she would not make a statement.
Kansas First and another group, Wichita First, have sent out mailers criticizing O’Donnell. The groups do not have to identify who is behind them.
Norton said the groups are not tied to his campaign.
O’Donnell did not want to comment on specific claims made by the mailers.
“I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth with a group that refuses to identify themselves,” O’Donnell said.
▪ “Who do you trust with your tax dollars?” juxtaposed with photos of “A tax relief champion” versus “A typical career politician” (from the Republican Party)
O’Donnell, 32, ran unsuccessfully to be the Bel Aire mayor in 2005. He ran for the Wichita City Council in 2007, but was disqualified after questions arose about whether he lived in Bel Aire or south Wichita. O’Donnell ran again in 2011 and defeated Joshua Blick for the District 4 City Council seat in southwest Wichita. He’s been a senator since 2013. He also does communication for Wink Hartman’s companies.
Norton, 69, started working for Target in 1977, which took him to Wichita in 1980. He became more well-known in the 1980s and 1990s as the manager of Target East.
He was first elected to Haysville’s City Council in 1988. He became mayor in 1996 after the previous mayor resigned. He then won mayoral races in 1997 and 1999 and worked full time as Haysville’s mayor in the recovery effort after a 1999 tornado leveled parts of the town. He was elected to the Sedgwick County Commission in 2000.
Mailers provide competing claims:
▪ “As State Senator, Michael introduced legislation to eliminate the sales tax on food and voted against Governor Brownback’s tax increases” (from a Republican Party mailer)
▪ “In 2015, O’Donnell cast the deciding vote for the LARGEST TAX INCREASE in STATE history” (from a mailer sent by the dark money group Wichita First)
O’Donnell introduced and voted in favor of legislation to eliminate sales tax on food in 2015. But that vote also included increasing the overall sales tax. Here’s what happened:
In 2015, in order to make up for lost revenue from income tax cuts and the business income tax cuts, legislators voted twice to increase the sales tax, eventually passing a bill that included an increase in sales tax on food. Food is exempt from sales tax in most states.
O’Donnell was the 21st and deciding vote on Senate Substitute for HB 2109, which increased sales and cigarette taxes. That was the bill that also cut the sales tax on groceries.
He voted against a subsequent tax bill that dropped the future cut to the sales tax on food.
O’Donnell is a staunch critic of Kansas fully taxing food and groceries. He has said he wanted to take the opportunity to lower those taxes.
“What are we doing for people on fixed incomes? What are we doing for seniors? What are we doing for the working poor?” O’Donnell asked. “That’s a lot of money at the end of the month. It could be a substantial amount of money. That’s why I think it needs to be addressed.”
▪ “Tim Norton. Raising your taxes. Enriching himself” (from the Republican Party)
▪ “Tim cut taxes three consecutive years” (from Norton’s campaign)
Norton has voted to both raise and lower the county’s mill levy, which helps determine how much property tax revenue the county will receive.
He voted in 2006 and 2007 for mill levy increases. Jail overcrowding was a huge, costly issue facing county commissioners at the time.
Norton noted in his 2006 vote the costs of providing for the Juvenile Detention Center, the jail and alternative criminal justice programs.
“We’ve been able to go eight years with no mill levy increase,” Norton said in an Aug. 9, 2006, meeting. “This year it’s just not going to happen … we have to take this kind of step, but it’s mostly because of those things that are considered important, critical, public safety issues.”
The Sedgwick County Jail did not expand with more jail space, but the county used the money from the mill levy increase to invest in alternative criminal justice programs and the National Center for Aviation Training, achievements Norton also touts on his mailer.
“I kind of held my nose a little bit to raise taxes, but I thought the National Center for Aviation Training was critical for the community and I tried to listen to the sheriff,” Norton said.
“I don’t run away from (those votes).”
Later, county commissioners voted in 2008, 2009 and 2010 to lower the mill levy, according to meeting minutes.
Norton voted for all three of those budgets, which applied to the county’s 2009, 2010 and 2011 budget years.
▪ “O’Donnell voted to cut $4.4 million from WSU just this year” (Wichita First mailer)
In early March, Brownback ordered the Kansas Regents universities to reduce their spending for the 2016 fiscal year. Wichita State University’s share was about $2.2 million. The Legislature did not vote on that cut.
At the end of the Legislature’s regular session, lawmakers including O’Donnell passed SB 249. That bill did a number of things, including enabling the governor to cut $2.2 million from WSU for the following fiscal year.
So WSU was cut $4.4 million as a result of decisions made this year, but O’Donnell did not vote on the initial $2.2 million cut.
O’Donnell said the mailer was unfairly tying his record to Brownback’s allotment cuts.
▪ Tim Norton “Voted to increase his salary nine times by more than $30,000” (from Republican Party mailer)
An Eagle analysis of County Commission minutes and budget documents going back to 2001 show that Norton voted at least nine times to approve the county budget and – indirectly – his own salary.
Commissioner pay raises are rolled into the budget process for the entire county and are considered the same as pay raises for most employees. It’s usually part of one vote for approval of the year’s budget instead of a line item.
Norton said he couldn’t remember how he voted every single year.
“That’s a long arduous process we go through,” Norton said. “I voted for 16 different budgets. There were quite a few years in a row that I didn’t take the raise.”
According to county payroll records, Norton did not receive a pay raise between 2010 and the first half of 2014.
In the 16 years he’s been on the commission, Norton’s pay – like several other commissioners’ – has increased. It started at $63,959 in 2001 and is now $91,285 – a 43 percent increase.
That’s an increase of more than $27,000, but not the “more than $30,000” increase mentioned in the mailer.
▪ “As city councilman, Michael saved taxpayers almost $2 million by killing no-bid contracts” (from a Republican Party mailer)
O’Donnell says that statement references the City Council’s contracts for a parking garage at the Ambassador Hotel.
The contracts became an issue in 2012 after O’Donnell and and fellow council member Pete Meitzner forced the city to take bids on the city-financed 300-stall parking garage adjacent to the privately financed Ambassador Hotel Wichita at Douglas and Broadway.
Bids for the garage came in almost $1.3 million under some project estimates. That’s less than the $2 million the mailer said was saved. But O’Donnell says the change of not using no-bid contracts has likely led to more savings for taxpayers.
“It’s really hard to quantify how much money has been saved,” O’Donnell said.
▪ “Investing $80 million in District 2 infrastructure since 2001” (from Norton mailer)
The mailer listed five different public works or public safety improvements in the district: the 47th St./I-135 corridor, the I-235/Kellogg interchange, 135th Street from Kellogg to Clearwater, southside drainage projects and Fire Station 34 in Haysville.
Norton said the $80 million figure refers to county money for all roadwork done in the district during his 15-year tenure, not just the five major improvements.
“This is an add-up of all the roads and paving projects and critical infrastructure that have been built in my district over the years,” Norton said.
The county chipped in for the two interstate projects — such as $11.6 million for the Kellogg interchange and $500,000 for right-of-way at 47th Street South. But the rest of the projects were mostly funded by federal or state money.
Most of 135th Street from Kellogg to Clearwater lies in Commissioner Karl Peterjohn’s district, District 3.
There have been improvements to 135th Street in both districts. Norton says any work on 135th Street benefits Clearwater residents in his district since it’s a major corridor for them to get to Kellogg.