Eagle editorial: Keep pledge on preparedness center

Once touted for its potential to be the nation’s first homeland defense facility to merge military and public safety operations, the Heartland Preparedness Center is now making news for the cold feet of one of its partners, Sedgwick County. But what seemed like a good idea at the time still is. Leaders involved need to work things out, perhaps by jointly scaling down their ambitions.

The project was born of the National Guard’s need for a new readiness center, taking on urgency after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Construction of that 120,000-square-foot facility is well under way at the high-profile 45-acre site at I-135 and K-96. The new home of 330 Kansas Army National Guard personnel, including the 287th Sustainment Brigade, the center should be finished this summer, with a field maintenance shop to come in 2014.

The city of Wichita and the county already have expended funds on the site, splitting $3.8 million for infrastructure for the military facility.

So it came as a surprise last summer when county officials signaled a reluctance to spend $15 million on a planned $30 million joint law enforcement training center at the location. Meant to replace an aging facility on 37th Street North near Meridian where county sheriff’s office deputies and Wichita police officers now train, the center is in the pipeline of capital improvements for the city and county but not yet scheduled for construction.

Then last week County Manager William Buchanan told county commissioners that the local governments could train their officers jointly for less elsewhere, mentioning the option of identifying and remodeling an existing building. “It can be done for cheaper,” Buchanan said.

A majority of commissioners have made statements that reflect similar second thoughts, prompting Mayor Carl Brewer’s stated hope that county officials are “people of their word” and a reminder from the Kansas Adjutant General’s spokeswoman that “we did select a site with the understanding that the city and county facilities would be constructed in the future.”

It’s good to know that Brewer, County Commission Chairman Jim Skelton and others are scheduled to meet Feb. 8 with Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, the state’s adjutant general. They should try to find a way forward that keeps the players involved and the project moving ahead at the site, perhaps by resizing the plan.

Unlike his county counterpart, new Sheriff Jeff Easter, Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams can take the long view on the project, and he told The Eagle that “we’ve spent a decade working with representatives of the Kansas National Guard with the understanding that this is a joint venture that’s going to benefit all of these different entities.” Williams added: “The thing that’s also important to keep in mind is that partnerships are critical to the 21st century. Partnerships leverage resources at a time when we see resources being reduced.”

The chief is right. And whether the partnership proceeds or falls apart will be a telling test of the ability of the current leadership at the county and city to communicate and collaborate.

Costs matter, especially as the county and city continue to strain to keep their budgets under control after the downturn. But commitments matter, too, especially when public safety is at stake.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman