Many want to cut budgets … but

Last week Sedgwick County Commissioners were unable to come to agreement on a level of funding for Project Access. The county needs to cut spending this year, as Commissioner Karl Peterjohn explains below. Differences in attitudes towards spending were revealed when a motion to keep spending on this program at the same level as the year before failed to advance, with two commissioners wanting to increase spending. It’s not as though Commissioners Peterjohn and Ranzau wanted to cut the program, although since the original county budget contained an increase in funding for the program, some will want to portray level spending as a budget cut.

Project Access funding

By Karl Peterjohn, Sedgwick County Commission

Should Sedgwick County increase property tax funding for expanded local health care spending through the private program Project Access 37.3 percent over last year’s level? That $68,000 spending hike was the question facing county commissioners at their April 20 meeting.

Last year, one of the reasons I cast the only no vote against the county’s 2011 budget, was it raised spending too much. The 2011 county budget increased spending over the 2010 adopted budget by $13 million taking county spending over $411 million. I warned that if the economic gurus and politicians in Washington were wrong, and the economic recovery did not occur, local governments that are dependent upon property tax would be facing even more difficult fiscal problems than we’ve had since the 2008 economic downturn began.

That 2011 county budget included raises for county employees that totaled over $2.5 million. Some highly paid county employees received thousands in raises by this action. I voted against this increased spending last December. I was the only no vote at that time too. Neither of these votes got much news or editorial attention last year.

Sedgwick County is now looking at having to cut $17 million from county spending due to a decline in tax revenues led by the property tax. The county is starting a voluntary early retirement program before looking at layoffs as part of a two year spending reduction effort that the commission approved recently. The tough spending decisions must begin now. This is occurring while we still face the larger challenge of trying to help our local economy and expand jobs and income in these tough times of rapidly soaring inflation.

The inaccurate commentary on the April 24 Wichita Eagle editorial page stated that Commissioner Richard Ranzau and I were unwilling to increase funding for this program. The Wichita Eagle ran a correction April 22 on this point following their news article that ignored this salient fact and incorrectly stated what happened at this meeting.

It is a fact that Commissioner Ranzau and I did propose a much smaller increase than the other two commissioners wanted after an initial vote to freeze spending at 2010 levels failed. Commissioner Skelton was absent for this vote and this explains how we repeatedly deadlocked two votes to two.

The entire commission acknowledged the value of this program. However, there are limits on increasing spending to pay for personnel within Project Access at the same time the county is facing layoffs of employees in the Health Department and other health related areas. I was also concerned that more than half of the $250,000 that was sought would have been for Project Access personnel instead of for medicine.

At the February commission retreat county staff described our increasingly troubled fiscal outlook. At that meeting I heard several of my commission colleagues express a desire to increase county spending. I asked my colleagues if there was a majority of this commission that had two new members that was willing to raise property taxes to pay for additional spending. The answer I heard at this public meeting was there was no desire by commissioners to raise property taxes.

If this is still the case, then the Sedgwick County Commission will have to make some tough spending choices. Public Access was one of them. It won’t be the last.

While Project Access is a small part of the county’s overall spending, if you don’t make the tough decisions with your “nickels and dimes,” you can’t make the much tougher decisions when the big bucks are on the line. That challenge will not end with Project Access but will face this commission and all local governments holding the line on property taxes later this year.

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