Preparedness & Recovery

County Budget Plan Would Boost Public Safety, Flood Prevention

The budget would provide additional funds to pay for a better emergency communications system.

by Daniel Salazar, The Wichita Eagle / July 12, 2017
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(TNS) - Sedgwick (Kan.) County’s proposed budget would give the county more resources to protect public safety, more polling locations and more tools to prevent flooding.

The 2018 recommended budget would also change the way the county pays for bridge projects, does preventive road maintenance and attracts new employees.

And it would provide some funding to the Wichita Arts Council, restoring one of the cuts that drew heavy public interest during a contentious budget cycle in 2015.

Better-than-expected property values helped the county’s outlook for its recommended budget, which comes in at about $425.2 million in county government and fire district spending.

“We did see some increased valuations that helped us out this year,” County Manager Michael Scholes said.

Scholes said he was satisfied with how the county’s process played out with a reorganized management structure.

“We’re using our Strategic Plan as a means to aid in the budget process,” Scholes said. “That was really what was new this year.”

Outlook for the county

The recommended budget keeps the mill levy rate, which determines how much property tax revenue the county raises, flat at 29.359 mills. Even with a flat mill levy, residents could still see higher tax bills if their home values went up.

Chief financial officer Lindsay Poe Rousseau said county staff worked to keep spending low enough to not trigger a public vote, which is required under the state’s new property tax lid that went into effect this year.

“They (Commissioners) expected the budget…would not require an election under the tax lid,” Poe Rousseau said. “The process was designed with that in mind.”

She said they also worked to prevent a “substantial reduction of services” and a deficit in the general fund. There is about a $500,000 deficit in all county property tax-supported funds.

Poe Rousseau said the county is seeing assessed value grow at about 3.3 percent over last year. That’s higher than the growth they were seeing earlier in the year.

“That was unanticipated revenue that the manager could use to support those higher priority items,” Poe Rousseau said. “This is an improved situation from where we’ve been in past years.”

Sedgwick County Fire District One, a legally separate entity that has struggled at times with its fiscal solvency, will see a surplus thanks to higher property values in the unincorporated areas and the way the district is managing its vehicle fleet.

What’s in the budget

The budget would provide additional funds to pay for a better emergency communications system, a database for the corrections department, a server for the Sheriff’s Office and more crime analysts to help the District Attorney’s Office process video data from law enforcement body cameras.

“We continue to see public safety demands as being a trend that we certainly had to take care of in this budget, across the spectrum,” Scholes said.

The budget also includes future capital spending for a remodel of the courthouse to accommodate the District Court and District Attorney, which are running out of room in their current locations. It also includes spending in later years for a new county administration building and elections building.

“There were a lot of space needs,” Scholes said. “There were some space needs that have come up. I had to address that.”

Flooding in Mulvane, Derby and rural southern Sedgwick County last year prompted a boost in programs and projects that will mitigate the effect of stormwater on homes and businesses.

“Stormwater is an issue and we’ve got to figure out a way to develop a long-term solution,” Scholes said.

A public works crew that works to clear streams of debris would receive $382,322 in more equipment and personnel.

A dollar increase in the solid waste fee would generate $226,000 for remote collection events after storms. And the budget would reinstate $250,000 for a storm debris contingency fund that was eliminated in the budget a couple of years ago, Poe Rousseau said.

“There’s been an increased emphasis on that (flood control) from citizens and commissioners in the last year,” Poe Rousseau said.

Poe Rousseau said the county could save money by shifting how often the public works department does preventive road maintenance on its county roads. Maintenance on every road would shift from every five years to every six years under the proposal.

The budget would also pay for 10 bridges next year with debt by issuing bonds, instead of paying for them in cash. Scholes said commissioners are interested in the “strategic” use of bonding on capital projects, an issue that’s been divisive during the last two budget cycles.

“That shows you how targeted it is,” Scholes said. “It’s focused specifically on bridges. We changed our model on how we do bridges and that is going to serve us well into the future.”

The budget would also restore $15,000 in funding to the Wichita Arts Council, one of the cultural groups that was cut in a contentious budget cycle two years ago.

“We’re in a different environment right now because we have seen increased valuations,” Scholes said. “There is an opportunity to put back in some of those things that we’ve cut in the past.”

“I think that’s important, especially in terms of …human services and cultural experiences to support opportunities to give back to the community,” he added.

Under the new agreement with the nonprofit zoo board, the Sedgwick County Zoo would receive funds for infrastructure improvements and maintenance.

Poe Rousseau said the budget includes more money for utility costs and medical services for inmates at the Sedgwick County Jail.

“Just like at home, costs go up every year,” she said. “We knew we had to accommodate for that as well.”

The budget would also provide additional funds for community engagement efforts and 10 new polling locations.

Poe Rousseau said the budget includes a 2.5 percent pay adjustment for employees across the board. It would also include a 0.5 percent pay adjustment to better recruit new employees and to boost veteran employees who have hit the maximum pay level.

What’s next

The county will host budget morning and evening budget hearings on July 19 and July 31, respectively. There will also be a social media town hall on July 25.

Commissioners are scheduled to adopt a final 2018 budget on Aug. 2. This is the first budget considered by new commissioners David Dennis and Michael O’Donnell since Karl Peterjohn and Tim Norton left the commission following last year’s elections.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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