If the new Sedgwick County Commission majority votes to shred multiyear funding agreements with the Sedgwick County Zoo, Exploration Place and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the damage will extend to the community’s ability to trust the county and its word.
The commissioners propose to break the five-year funding commitment to the zoo, signed in 2013, and to seek year-to-year agreements instead. Also at next week’s meeting, the commission could terminate ongoing agreements with Exploration Place, the 15-year-old science and children’s museum, and with GWEDC, the public-private partnership that seeks to recruit and grow businesses and has come under the umbrella of the new Greater Wichita Partnership. The current county budget includes $5.6 million for the zoo, $2.2 million for Exploration Place and $300,000 for GWEDC.
True, the new majority has the undisputed power to tailor county government to its liking, including via do-overs of decisions that Commissioners Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn voted against when they were in the minority. For one, they opposed covering half the $10.6 million cost of the new Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit, which will open next May.
But just proposing to do anything to hurt the zoo – the top tourist attraction in Kansas and one of the best zoos in the country – burns up goodwill in the community and makes the commissioners seem not just out of touch but out of their minds. The zoo attracts 550,000 visitors each year and has a $43 million economic impact on Sedgwick County. As zoo director Mark Reed said, the zoo has agreed to cuts in the past and is willing to negotiate within the five-year agreement.
As zoo trustee Scott Redler, co-founder and chief operating officer of Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers, aptly put it: “We’re jumping off an airplane with a parachute, and halfway down they say, ‘You don’t get the parachute anymore.’ It’s not the right way to do things.”
And by breaking the county’s multiyear commitments to the zoo, Exploration Place and GWEDC, the commissioners would weaken, or worse, the bonds and promises between those groups and their private donors. They also will destroy the certainty that was part of the point of the agreements for the private organizations.
And even though the county faces a projected $7.9 million budget deficit, it expects to have a reserve balance of $59.5 million by the end of 2015 and maintains the highest possible bond ratings. “There is no financial crisis,” said County Manager William Buchanan.
The Sedgwick County commissioners now in charge don’t have to like what the past commission did. But they should abide by it and focus on the future, and seek budget savings and ideological satisfaction elsewhere.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman