On Thursday and Friday the candidates for the Republican party nomination for Sedgwick County Commission from the fourth district met in two forums. The Thursday forum was part of the monthly meeting of the Sedgwick County Republican Party, and on Friday the candidates met as part of the Wichita Pachyderm Club luncheon meeting.
Unlike some campaigns, where voters complain they can’t tell the difference between the candidates, voters in this district should not have this trouble, as the two Republicans offer different perspectives in many areas. The district is currently represented by Kelly Parks of Valley Center, who decided not to run for re-election.
For the fourth district, the two Republican candidates are former commission member and business owner Lucy Burtnett and physician assistant Richard Ranzau. The fourth district is diverse, extending as far south in Wichita to Lincoln and Broadway, and including College Hill, near northeast Wichita, downtown Wichita, Riverside, north-central Wichita, near northwest Wichita, Park City, and Valley Center. In the Democratic Party primary, Kansas Senator Oletha Faust-Goudeau faces former Wichita City Council member Sharon Fearey.
On Thursday, Burtnett started with her opening statement, telling the audience that she is a lifelong forth district resident, having grown up in Valley Center and then moving to Riverside after she married. She said she’s been extremely involved in community activities. Referring to her previous experience as a Sedgwick County commissioner, she said she learned a great deal about county government and how it works.
She said there are many issues the county needs to deal with, including some that were there four years ago and have not been dealt with in the meantime, in her opinion.
She is pleased with the current commission’s decision to keep the Kansas Coliseum — now named the Kansas pavilions — open. She said we need to make better use of the RV park there and also figure out what to do with the Britt Brown Arena.
On Friday she expanded on her community involvement, telling the audience that at one time her printing business printed newsletters for 24 neighborhood organizations. She also told of how she was recruited by Kansas Senator Carolyn McGinn, then the commissioner for the fourth district, and how she was elected by the precinct committee process to fill the remaining two years of McGinn’s term.
In his opening statement on Thursday, Ranzau said he grew up in the Valley Center area and has lived in Park City, north Wichita, and was a student teacher in Maize. He said he is married with three young children and works as a physician assistant. He is a veteran of the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars.
He said he decided to get involved for three reasons — naming his three children — saying he is concerned about the direction of government at all levels, particularly spending and debt. He said he believes the economy will get worse before it gets better, and so we’re going to have to make some tough decisions, saying no to some programs. He said we need strong leadership at all levels of government, and that’s why he’s in this race.
On Friday he said he would be very hesitant to expand the role of government, saying he believes in less government, not more government. He criticized Republicans who say they are conservative at election time, then raise taxes once in office.
Questions for the candidates included these:
Real estate taxes are rising. How can we keep taxes low and how do we give incentives for builders to build?
Ranzau said first, stop raising property taxes at the county level. Second, address the problem at its origin, which he said is tax policy at the state level. Businesses pay property tax at the rate of 25% of assessed value, while homeowners pay at 11.5%. This difference should be eliminated, he said, which requires amending the Kansas Constitution. Taxes should be uniform, he said, rather then the system of abatements for some businesses only. “We do it for all, or it we do it for none.”
Burtnett referred to a Wichita Eagle news story from last year that reported that Sedgwick County property taxes are low compared to other counties in Kansas. She said she believes we can keep property taxes low, but you have to pay a price for that. We need a tax base in order to run government, she said, adding that in order to keep taxes where they are, we will have to make cuts in some places in order to fund other projects.
A question asked if the candidates lost the primary with they register as an Independent and run a write-in campaign. This question may have been directed at Burtnett, as when she finished in second place in the Republican primary for this office in 2006, she waged a write-in campaign.
Burtnett said if she loses the primary, she will travel to visit her grandchildren. She said that in 2006 she did not register or file as an independent for the 2006 general election, but simply ran as a write-in candidate. Ranzau said he would not run as a write-in candidate.
“Should we expand the jail?”
Saying again that he expects the economy to get worse before it gets better, Ranzau said he would be reluctant to get involved in any big new projects, including projects he might favor in the future. He said the current commission has been able to manage the jail population without an expansion. He said that in the future if we need to expand the jail it could be done through user fees, suggesting a fee on bail bonds.
Burtnett said that four years ago, the county commission took the advice of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and decided that the jail needed expansion and new programs to reduce the jail population. The commission voted 5 to 0 that the jail should be expanded and these programs undertaken. Three and one-half years later she said we are still overpopulated in the jail, she said, and while the programs have been started, they are doing some good, but not enough. She said an expansion will most likely have to happen at some time.
A question asked about the future of the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita: will it always be self-funding?
Ranzau said that time will tell, and his goal will be to have the arena fund itself so that it does not become a drain on taxpayers. Burtnett said it will take a couple of years to see how the management company will do, and said the county should not be losing money on the arena.
A question asked about specific areas in which the commission could reduce spending.
Burtnett said it’s important for department heads to know what their costs are and to work to reduce those costs. She said it’s possible to reduce costs across-the-board rather than seeing one particular program canceled, adding that all programs are important and it’s very difficult to cancel them. She said she didn’t think that zero-based budgeting would be possible very soon.
Ranzau said that department heads should prioritize employees and services. He recommended not filling positions as people leave, looking at sharing or consolidating some services, perhaps with Wichita, adding that this is a suggestion he often receives. He said we should get out of some things, like the subsidies for AirTran. Capital expenditures, especially those funded by debt, should be put off until the economy recovers.
On Friday, a question was asked about the subsidies used to keep discount airline service in Wichita, thereby creating lower airfares on other airlines.
Ranzau said that these subsidies are called revenue guarantees, and he does not believe it is the role of government to guarantee revenue for any business. He said that conservatives should act like conservatives, calling for less government intervention. “It’s not the governments job to make economic development happen, its job is to let it happen,” adding that we should be able to have good economic development without government subsidy.
Burtnett said that the airfares subsidy is a good deal, but that the government needs to be careful in what it gets involved in. She cited cost-benefit studies that say every dollar spent on those subsidy produces six dollars of benefit.
Another question on Friday asked about public-private partnerships such as TIF districts and STAR bonds.
Burtnett said that in theory, TIF districts and star bonds sound great, but that they don’t always work in real life. She said the job of county commissioners and county staff is to do the research to determine whether a project is good.
Ranzau said these programs are band-aids on the real problem, which is property taxes. He contrasted subsidized downtown development with other development taking place in the free market without the benefit of subsidy. He said that the way to create jobs and economic development is the free market, not government interference.
Another question on Friday asked if the candidates would run county government like a business, looking to reduce costs. Ranzau answered yes, as did Burtnett, although she added that some county government programs must be funded, and that “government really shouldn’t be a business.”