Elections

Ranzau, County Commission challengers spar over grant funding in health forum

Richard Ranzau defends health grant decisions

Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau defended his health grant decisions at a forum on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, in Wichita.
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Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau defended his health grant decisions at a forum on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, in Wichita.

A Sedgwick County commissioner who faces a primary election was challenged on his past positions on health grants at a forum Tuesday.

Republican Richard Ranzau, who will face Hugh Nicks in a Republican primary election, responded to Democrat challengers’ allegations of cutting the Women, Infants and Children and the Healthy Babies programs.

Candidates at the Health Board Forum were supposed to address their answers to the audience and not to other candidates. But Ranzau’s previous votes came up when District 4 candidates were asked about their position on applying for and accepting public and private grant funding.

“Public health is an investment in our future,” Democrat Lacey Cruse said. “Programs such as WIC are an investment in our community. At the age of 19, I was a young mother struggling to provide for my daughter. I needed WIC. I needed that assistance to survive. The fact that we cut that funding for this program based on racist principles is shameful.”

Cruse faces fellow Democrat Michael Kinard in the primary election. They both said the county should accept federal grants.

“Federal dollars are our tax dollars,” Kinard said. “Why shouldn’t we accept federal grants? It’s just downright foolish that we did not accept the healthy baby grant in 2015.”

Ranzau said he first asks, “Does this program actually work?” and, “Is this something that can or should be done by the private sector?” before accepting a grant. He disagreed that federal dollars are necessarily “our money.”

“Not all the money that comes from the federal government is our money,” he said. “It’s our children’s money in a lot of respects, because we borrow money because we’re in debt.”

In 2014, Ranzau opposed accepting a $1 million federal grant for the Healthy Babies program. At the time, he cited a University of Kansas study when questioning the effectiveness of the Healthy Start portion of the program.

A year later, the commission renewed a $1 million grant to Healthy Babies but cut a county-funded position in the public health program.

“I’m not aware of this turning down any Healthy Babies funding, and in respect to WIC, we didn’t turn down any funding for that as far as benefits,” Ranzau said on Tuesday. “We made a decision with respect to the administration cost. Every year we were asking for more than what we needed.”

In 2015, Ranzau and other commissioners voted to cut the federal Women, Infants and Children program grant by $320,000 to $1.9 million. He said at the time that WIC could be more efficient because it was serving fewer clients.

The county health department used only $1.83 million of the $2.15 million it was awarded the year before.

Ranzau and other commissioners also wanted to bar immigrants in the country illegally from receiving WIC benefits.

“There’s some misinformation out there that creates an emotional reaction, and when you add in the word racism well obviously that gets everybody worked up, but it’s just factually incorrect,” Ranzau said on Tuesday.

In 2013, Ranzau opposed a grant to train mental health employees to help clients sign up for coverage through the federal health care exchange. He said at the time that employees should concentrate on other duties.

Ranzau’s Republican primary opponent, Hugh Nicks, said elected officials should “know what you’re getting into” and be careful of “any strings attached” when accepting grants. He said federal grants are already funded, so they don’t put an extra burden on taxpayers.

“If you don’t find any cause to expect unintended consequences, I think Sedgwick County should be applying for any grants that would help the community, particularly if the grant doesn’t require matching funds, I don’t know why we wouldn’t apply for it,” Nicks said.

He also called the WIC program “one of the saddest things I’ve seen recently.”

“When it comes to infants and children, I’m not too worried about politics, but I am concerned about children’s health and safety,” Nicks said. “The commission has a duty to protect the most vulnerable among us, particularly when they have nowhere else to turn.”

District 4 is the only one where county residents will vote in a primary election. Republican Pete Meitzner and Democrat Renee Duxler from District 1 and Republican Jim Howell and independent Jim Skelton from District 5 also participated in the forum.

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