County budget could have been worse

As adopted, the 2016 Sedgwick County budget is less damaging than proposed.
As adopted, the 2016 Sedgwick County budget is less damaging than proposed.

The people spoke. The Sedgwick County Commission responded somewhat. As adopted, the 2016 county budget is less damaging than proposed. Some credit is deserved, though the budget’s rationale remains suspect.

The majority commissioners restored about $650,000 of the proposed cuts, softening what would have been bigger blows to the Sedgwick County Zoo, Exploration Place, Wichita Area Technical College and area economic development efforts.

With $175,000 of the requested $200,000, Project Access should be able to keep coordinating physician-donated care for uninsured residents; the original budget had proposed ending all county support.

But the county’s health department still sustained a $539,000 hit, with commissioners labeling the targeted programs bureaucratic and ineffective. The county is no longer a partner in the Arts Council and Riverfest, and inexplicably shorted its commitment to the city-county planning department by $155,000.

And no one should doubt that county government is a changed place.

It cares much less these days about public health, arts and attractions, economic development and city-county partnerships. It views commitments and agreements as breakable.

Its higher priority is now building and maintaining roads and bridges in unincorporated areas, preferably with cash rather than the judicious bonding that long has served Sedgwick and other counties so well.

And the transformation now underway is a matter of choice – “self-imposed by a new financing strategy,” as Commissioner Dave Unruh said in explaining his vote against the budget.

In the end Wednesday, that new commitment by majority commissioners to move toward cash-funded road and bridge projects prevailed. They wouldn’t even allow Unruh and Commissioner Tim Norton to forgo some construction in their districts in order to avoid further spending cuts.

But this noble-sounding new strategy to shun debt and use cash merits much more expert and community input going forward.

Ken Kriz, a Kansas Regents distinguished professor of public finance at Wichita State University, told KSN, Channel 3, before the budget vote that the county shouldn’t be too concerned about it debt load. “The county has some debt outstanding, but it’s nowhere near what other counties of similar size have,” he said, adding that “there’s really not a debt problem that we need to address in such a radical manner.”

Kriz also said that a certain level of debt can be beneficial, because it reflects that a county is investing in itself. KSN reported that Sedgwick County’s per capita debt is $348, while statewide the county average is $858 per capita and the U.S. county average is $986.

Citizens should expect more big and small changes ahead, as the new conservative majority led by Commission Chairman Richard Ranzau seems far from satisfied in its efforts to get the county to spend, borrow and tax less.

There will be consequences to the County Commission’s every move in this budget. The people need to watch closely, and vote carefully in future elections.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman