November’s resounding “no” vote on a citywide sales tax guarantees a challenging 2015 for City Hall.
In the coming campaigns for mayor and City Council, candidates will need to pick up where the sales-tax defeat left off – with more big-ticket and time-sensitive needs than money to address them.
Recall that the community priority list considered by council members last spring, after an extensive public engagement process, came with a potential $3 billion bill. By the time leaders had winnowed it into a ballot question, the $400 million proposal consisted of $250 million to expand the recharge project at the Equus Beds and $80 million earmarked for economic infrastructure, workforce training and business recruitment, with the rest dedicated to sustaining the bus system and repairing streets.
Those spending priorities can’t be expected to fend for themselves, though that may be the fate of residents with disabilities and the working poor who rely on the buses if Wichita Transit doesn’t find a stable long-term fiscal course.
Also recall that August 2015 once was predicted to be when Cheney Reservoir would be empty, due to an extended drought that spurred planning for a future water supply. Procrastination and inaction won’t ready Wichita for the inevitable droughts to come.
And if voters were unconvinced of the need to get Wichita in the high-stakes game of recruitment of new businesses with what sales-tax opponents labeled a “slush fund,” other cities and states won’t be deterred from using rich incentives to try to poach Wichita’s aircraft companies and other well-paying employers. Wichita needs a strategy not only to defend itself and its existing economy but to try to recover from the recession’s job losses.
Among the other items on a to-do list for 2015:
▪ Show some political will on a new downtown public library, which has seen its plans scaled back and kicked down the road long enough. Meanwhile, the 48-year-old current Central Library’s shortcomings of infrastructure and space aren’t getting any better.
▪ Seek a plan for upgrading convention facilities, and with them Wichita’s ability to land and profit from more conferences and meetings. The 2013 discussion of whether to bulldoze Century II revealed needs among the facility’s anchoring arts tenants as well.
One high point of the year is already in sight: when the new $160 million terminal opens in the spring and Wichita Mid-Continent Airport is reborn as Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport.
The city’s elected and business leaders and Wichita-area legislative delegation will need to protect the $5 million in annual state funding for affordable airfares that has helped ICT keep and improve service. Given the state’s budget forecast, that and other regional appropriations may be targeted for reduction or elimination.
Two others that tie directly to Wichita’s hopes for an economic rebound must be zealously promoted in Topeka – $5 million each for Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research and the National Center for Aviation Training, as recommended in the city’s legislative agenda.
City Manager Robert Layton also faces a crucial decision – and decision-making process – regarding a new police chief, who will need to carry out the city’s smart commitment to outfit all officers with body cameras by year’s end. Layton and other city leaders should seek better cooperation and perhaps additional functional consolidation with Sedgwick County, which will be seeking a new county manager this year. Plus, the city and county finally need to settle on a new site for the joint law enforcement training center.
As 2015 marks 145 years since Wichita was incorporated, voters will need to seek the right leaders to succeed Mayor Carl Brewer – who has reached the two-term limit on his dedicated service to Wichita – and to help make sound, foresighted City Council decisions that will position Wichita well through this decade and beyond.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman