County should heed public hearings

The proposed Sedgwick County spending cuts for 2016 have drawn opposition too overwhelming to ignore.
The proposed Sedgwick County spending cuts for 2016 have drawn opposition too overwhelming to ignore.

Nothing requires local elected officials to do as they’re told in public budget hearings. But the proposed Sedgwick County spending cuts for 2016 have drawn opposition too overwhelming to ignore.

One speaker at Thursday’s second forum about the $412.3 million recommended budget, which would spend 3 percent less than last year, suggested that many thousands of residents had endorsed the proposed cuts by electing the current County Commission. The 2014 primary and general elections shifted the commission to the far right ideologically, giving Commissioner Richard Ranzau the chairmanship in January and leading to what’s been called “the chairman’s budget.”

But slashing the health department’s budget by $780,000 wasn’t on the ballot last year. Neither was breaking long-term funding agreements with the Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place in order to scale back county support for them and newly pay cash to build roads and bridges. And it’s hard to believe 2014 voters foresaw plans to zero out 2016 county funding for Project Access, the Arts Council, Riverfest, the GED completion school KANSEL and a Foster Grandparents program, nor abruptly change or end funding partnerships with the city of Wichita.

Now, going through with the budget as proposed would mean heeding only 11 of the 90 people who addressed the commissioners in eight hours of testimony during two overflowing public hearings. Interim County Manager Ron Holt told commissioners Thursday night that in the online public hearing to that point, only eight of 116 comments favored following through on the cuts.

The vast majority of the people who have responded to the budget plan at hearings think it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish, and that it won’t help attract and keep the young professionals Sedgwick County and Wichita need to thrive. They also told commissioners the plan fails to recognize the cost efficiency of prevention in community health programs, such as for immunizations and cancer screenings, and how much impact the county gets for its modest investments in Project Access, the arts and attractions, the Nonprofit Chamber of Service and the like.

Physician Donna Sweet strongly warned the commission Thursday against cutting health programs, saying that gonorrhea and syphilis are “on the rise in this community” and that the health department helps “us keep these diseases in check. Without it we are going to see further increases in our kids with all of these preventable communicable illnesses,” she said.

Thomas Bloxham, physician and president of the Central Plains Health Care Partnership, spoke of how the county’s $200,000 a year to Project Access leverages $3.4 million in donated medical care to residents in need, calling the proposed elimination of the funding “drastic.”

Bloxham also offered commissioners wise advice echoed by others in the community: “If it’s the public’s wish to change the direction of county government, then surely we don’t need to do so all at once.”

Commissioner Dave Unruh and others have argued for avoiding some of the cuts by deferring some roadwork. The county’s sound fiscal condition and AAA credit rating should offer some other options as commissioners prepare to adopt the budget Wednesday.

There has to be a better way – one that reflects commissioners’ conservative principles but poses less risk to the community’s health, quality of life and economy.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman