Pass prudent county budget

All it will take is for three Sedgwick County commissioners to come together on a middle ground.
All it will take is for three Sedgwick County commissioners to come together on a middle ground.

The county’s stated mission is “to assure quality public services that provide for the present and future well-being of the citizens of Sedgwick County.”

The mission of the county’s proposed 2016 budget is something else – to show public health and quality of life matter less than roads and bridges, and to treat borrowing money as suddenly so wrong that avoiding it justifies breaking commitments and even risking health and lives.

The three weeks since the unveiling of the $412.3 million budget favored by Commission Chairman Richard Ranzau have provided some eye-opening public input about its proposed cuts to the health department, Project Access, the Sedgwick County Zoo, Exploration Place, the Arts Council, economic development and more. Now, the feedback needs to open minds and lead to passage of a more responsible and responsive budget.

Majority commissioners have downplayed the plan’s potential to do harm with its cuts to health education, immunizations, cancer screenings and community health assessments. They blasted a Kansas Health Institute analysis’ conclusion that the cuts could contribute to 65 preventable deaths each year as irresponsible and political – missing the mark in dismissing the life-and-death consequences of the action the county is about to take.

They’ve also suggested that affected social services and nonprofits and even the city of Wichita can get along fine without the county’s continued funding support and partnership.

But the public has said otherwise, overwhelmingly. “Choose people over pavement,” Carolyn Gaughan, executive director of the Wichita-based Kansas Association of Family Physicians, urged the commission last week.

This is not a debate about tax cuts or hikes. Commissioners Jim Howell, Dave Unruh and Tim Norton already have acted to ensure property tax rates will be consistent with the 2015 budget year rather than lowered to enable a $1.37-a-year windfall for the average property owner.

The issue is fiscal management and the county’s responsibility to the community.

On Monday Unruh and Norton pointed to one option that deserves consideration. By delaying 5 miles of road projects, on top of forgoing the minuscule tax cut, the commission can restore the funding for health and human services, attractions and economic development, they argued. Their proposal would still serve the original budget’s goal of trying to avoid debt for transportation projects. Norton, the commission’s longest-serving member, said road replacement had been similarly deferred in the past as financial conditions required.

But Howell, new to the bench, has his own ideas about softening some of the proposed cuts to health and other priorities. He can make a decisive difference on this vote, and demonstrate real leadership.

Or perhaps Commissioner Karl Peterjohn will again show a willingness to listen and act accordingly and pragmatically.

As the budget is adopted at Wednesday’s meeting, all it will take is for three commissioners to come together on a middle ground that is both conservative and prudent.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman