Voters soundly defeat Wichita sales tax proposal

Vote Yes chairman Jon Rolph talks with Intrust Bank CEO Charlie Chandler, left, during the Vote Yes election watch party at the Hyatt on Tuesday. (Nov. 4, 2014)
Vote Yes chairman Jon Rolph talks with Intrust Bank CEO Charlie Chandler, left, during the Vote Yes election watch party at the Hyatt on Tuesday. (Nov. 4, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

With Wichitans loudly telling the city “no” Tuesday to its proposed 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase, the city’s biggest challenge now is to find out how to fund the different projects.

The measure was voted down 62 percent to 37 percent.

“We’re absolutely thrilled with the results,” Jennifer Baysinger, spokesperson for the Coalition for a Better Wichita, said Tuesday at the group’s watch party at the Pumphouse. “People wanted to vote on the tax (issues) separately and they wanted transparency, and I don’t think they thought they were going to get that.”

With the victory, members of the coalition say they want to stick together to address other issues facing the community in the future, Baysinger said.

The group in favor of the sales tax, Yes Wichita, conceded the vote at around 9:30 p.m.

Wichitans need to continue to find common ground and tap into their passion to find solutions in the future, said Jon Rolph, co-chair of Yes Wichita at the campaign’s watch party at the Hyatt Regency Wichita.

Several City Council members attended the Yes Wichita watch party at the Hyatt, including Mayor Carl Brewer.

“This is the democratic process,” Brewer said.

He said the City Council will now have to figure out what the priorities should be moving forward to provide the services that were outlined in the sales tax measure.

“Sometimes you just have to figure out how to provide citizens what they want,” Brewer said. “It may not be the same quality, but you try to provide them with what you can afford to do.”

That process will have to begin soon. The council has to have a completed budget submitted to the state by next August, he said.

“We’ll have to work aggressively and continue community engagement,” he said.

The City Council voted in August to put the sales tax on the ballot. The tax would have expired after five years and was projected to raise nearly $400 million for four projects: expanding an existing water source for a future water supply and to protect against a severe drought, street repair, job development and public transit.

The next step is for the City Council to discuss its policy options, said City Manager Robert Layton.

“We’ll have to have a meaningful discussion on how we move forward with each initiative,” he said in an interview before final election results.

The city does not have the capacity in its capital improvement program to repair the 111 miles of streets it had proposed to fix with the sales tax. In order to come up with the funding, the council may need to consider raising property taxes.

“When the capital improvement program is considered, that’s one opportunity for discussion,” he said, and streets have traditionally been funded through property taxes.

But Brewer said the council isn’t keen on raising property taxes.

“We have never touched property tax, and I don’t think the council is interested in touching property tax,” Brewer said. “We don’t like taxing to start with — that’s why you’ve never seen us increase mill levy.”

Water-source expansion will likely be paid through water rates, which city officials have said will increase with or without the sales tax, but more so without it.

Transit funding will be another issue for the city to sort out, since it learned a couple of years ago that raising fares did not create enough additional revenue for the system.

“We’ll have to explore other service alternatives or options,” Layton said.

As for Wichita’s loss of 20,000 jobs since the recession, Layton said the city will continue to work with consultants that Wichita State University and other groups have hired to look at diversifying the city’s economy.

“From there, we’ll have a better idea what ongoing investments will be needed to move forward,” he said.

Voter reaction

Kevin Jenks, 41, said he voted for the sales tax at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in the Riverside neighborhood.

“The big reason it stuck out for me was the fact that it’s only going to be for five years, and after that it’s over,” Jenks said.

“I think it’s going to save us money in the long run as opposed to, should the day come, our future taxpayers having to pay a bigger bill then.…

“I’m for improvement. I lived away from Wichita for 10 years, and I’ve seen in other cities what a short-term tax can do, and I think Wichita should step forward and pursue it.”

Meanwhile, Margaret Harshfield, 61, who also voted at Gloria Dei, said she voted against the sales tax, particularly because the jobs portion was bundled with the three other projects in one vote.

“I’m tired of the politicians downtown deciding who to give my money to, our money to,” Harshfield said.

“There are too many people in Wichita that are struggling right now. The economy has not come back in this area. Giving money away to businesses so that they can add 20 jobs isn’t the way to do it.”

Todd Dilbeck, 32, also said he voted against the sales tax at Olivet Baptist Church.

“They should work with what they have,” Dilbeck said. “It seems the city is being successful up to this point, so they should be able to work with what they’ve got.”

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle