Wichita, it’s time to consider a tax increase. It’s past time, actually

Wichita’s City Hall.
Wichita’s City Hall. File photo

Wichita’s $600 million budget was approved this week. Library branches, Cowtown and the city’s arts scene were spared harmful cuts. Street maintenance took one for the team.

There are reasons to feel relief over this budget. We should never want library branches to close, especially in lower-income areas of the city. CityArts, the core of arts in the community, is an important piece of Wichita’s quality of life. Same for Cowtown and its link to our history.

But city budgets have an ongoing problem, and it should lead to a serious conversation among residents.

Wichita, it’s time to consider a tax increase. It’s past time, actually.

From the moment the budget was first proposed in July, city leaders made a point of emphasizing the city’s mill levy — the rate by which property is taxed — hasn’t been increased in 25 years.

The 25-year figure wasn’t followed by exclamation points of pride or emojis of sadness. It’s just a fact: For one reason or another, the city’s mill levy hasn’t been increased.

But isn’t it time we think about a 1-mill raise? Before some Wichitans plunk anti-tax signs into their lawns or threaten to picket City Hall, let’s get real about what this kind of tax hike means.

A 2019 budget can’t be expected to function properly under 1994 tax rates. Nearly everything a city does costs more a quarter-century later. But when a budget works under similar conditions year after year, spending cuts are inevitable. So are more public-private partnerships that put more control in a business or nonprofit’s hands. These may cost the city less, but they contain the risk of services that are not of the same quality.

A 1-mill increase would cost a property owner $11.50 annually for every $100,000 of appraised value of a home. The city budget would gain $3.5 million to $4 million.

Under a healthier budget, all of those quality-of-life items would remain fully funded, but so would street maintenance. Road improvements are taking a $1 million hit — half the added funding first proposed by City Manager Robert Layton — in 2019.

And it’s not as if the City Council can raise the mill levy itself. State law mandates that mill levies may only be raised by city governing bodies for narrow purposes such as public safety improvements — not for overall budget use.

The City Council would have to approve a mill-levy increase going to a city-wide vote. Voters would have the final say.

This becomes a necessary conversation because of the city’s other revenue streams. City leaders have said declines in revenue are from cable television and telephone land line franchise fees. Online sales also eat into local sales-tax revenue.

Tax hikes, when put before voters, have a spotty past in Wichita. Residents in the 2000s approved two property-tax increases for the Wichita school district that pumped more than $650 million into new schools, school expansions, air conditioning and other improvements.

In 2006, Sedgwick County voters approved a three-year, half-cent sales tax to build Intrust Bank Arena.

But in 2014, a citywide 1-cent sales tax referendum was defeated with 62 percent of the vote. The five-year, $400 million proposal was aimed toward water-supply expansion, job development, transit and street maintenance.

A similar campaign now might be a hard sell — even in convincing Council members to put it on a ballot. But proponents would have ammunition. Wichita’s current mill levy is lower than all but nine of the state’s largest cities, and those nine all impose a sales tax. Wichita doesn’t have a city-wide sales tax.

It’s hard to make the argument that Wichitans are overtaxed by their city government. It’s time for the community to look at how it helps the city grow. A responsible plan that asks Wichita families to chip in the cost of a family meal should be part of the conversation.