Special Reports

Transfer of arena sales tax money challenged

A state representative is challenging a recent decision by Sedgwick County commissioners about Intrust Bank Arena, prompting Commissioner Kelly Parks to call the downtown venue a "boat" he can't wait to see torn down.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr has questioned commissioners' 3-2 vote in March to transfer $1.6 million from the arena sales tax fund to the county's general fund to cover the cost of staff time spent on the venue.

Commissioners Parks, Karl Peterjohn and Gwen Welshimer voted to move the money, saying no property tax money was to be spent to build the arena. Voters in 2004 approved a 30-month, 1 percent sales tax to finance a downtown arena.

But Landwehr said the Legislature, which had to approve the arena sales tax, was told it would be used only for the arena and to renovate the Kansas Coliseum and not for expenses such as staff time.

The county's decision "is in opposition to the promises the board made to the State legislature when you asked for permission to implement the sales tax retroactively for the arena. We were told that the money would only be used for the purposes spelled out in the arena ballot question," Landwehr wrote in an April 21 e-mail to all commissioners. Her e-mail and commissioners' responses to it were obtained by The Wichita Eagle through a request under the Kansas Open Records Act.

"I believe the recent actions by the county commissioners have violated the trust of the people as well as the agreement made with the State Legislature," she wrote.

She asked commissioners for a response and suggested a meeting if necessary. She also asked for an accounting of how the county has spent about $11 million in interest earned from the sales tax, saying it should have more than covered staff salaries for those who worked on the arena.

County Manager William Buchanan told Landwehr that the county handles interest income according to state law and that the interest income helped allow the county to reduce its property tax mill levy.

Parks said he stands by the commission's decision.

"The 'yea' people said not a dime of your property tax money will be used for the arena," he said Monday. "I think that's a promise that we had to keep and we needed to keep. I don't think there's any choice in that."

Not reimbursing for staff time spent on the arena — estimated to eventually reach $2.6 million when all audits are complete — would be a "fraud to the people," Parks said.

He said that when he leaves office — he announced earlier this year that he does not plan to seek re-election —"I will still be a resident of the north end, where 80 percent of the people think the ballot question and the downtown arena was a fraud....

"If it comes up on the agenda, I will vote to sell this boat to the City of Wichita for a dollar. I can't wait for another 34 years to go by and see the (arena) torn down."

Parks is an avid supporter of the Kansas Coliseum. Britt Brown Arena, which Parks told Landwehr many people in his district consider to be "the" Coliseum, has been mothballed. The county still is operating the pavilions at the Coliseum complex. Parks noted that Britt Brown was 34 years old last year.

Landwehr called Parks' e-mail "not coherent." She said he, Peterjohn and Welshimer didn't seem to grasp what was at stake.

Commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh voted against moving the money, contending that the county promised voters that arena sales tax money would be used only for the arena and improvements at the Kansas Coliseum and not to bolster the county's general fund.

Unruh responded to Landwehr saying he agreed with her and didn't vote to reimburse the general fund.

Parks copied Unruh's reply to all commissioners except Unruh, to a reporter at The Eagle and to one of the county's attorneys, saying "Here's Dave's feeble reply."

Peterjohn, who led opposition to the arena sales tax before he was a commissioner, said he voted to move the money because "I made a firm commitment that not a penny of property tax money would be spent on Intrust Bank Arena."

Peterjohn said "reasonable people can disagree."

Welshimer told Landwehr in an e-mailed reply that Landwehr's opinion that the commission violated the public trust needed facts.

"We went over all the legal requirements before we did what we rightfully needed to do," Welshimer wrote. "The initial expenditures for the arena project, paid for with property tax, have been reimbursed to the property taxpayers for use where property taxes are legally supposed to be spent."

Welshimer also said that the state "is pushing more and more costs down to the local level and the local level has nothing but property tax to pay them with."

Commissioners said they had not received replies from Landwehr, who said Tuesday that she plans to meet with the south-central delegation about the issue. Welshimer said she would welcome a meeting.

"That would open a door for me that I would love to have," she said.

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