Stuck in the box in Wichita, part one


To pay for a new water supply, Wichita gives voters two choices and portrays one as bad. But the purportedly bad choice is the same choice the city made over the last decade to pay for the last big water project. We need out-of-the-box thinking here.

In November Wichita voters will decide whether to create a sales tax of one cent per dollar. By far the largest intended purpose of the funds is to create a new water supply.

Set aside for a moment the question whether Wichita needs a new water source. Set aside the question of whether ASR is the best way to provide a new water source. What’s left is how to pay for it.

City of Wichita information on proposed sales tax
City of Wichita information on proposed sales tax
To pay for a new water source, the city gives us two choices: Either (a) raise funds through the sales tax, or (b) borrow funds that Wichitans will pay back on their water bills, along with a pile of interest.

As you can see in the nearby chart prepared by the city, the costs are either $250 million (sales tax) or $471 million (borrow and pay interest). The preference of the city is evident: sales tax. The “Yes Wichita ” group agrees.

Here’s what is happening. City hall gives us two choices. It’s either (a) do what we want (sales tax), or (b) we’ll do something that’s really bad (borrow and pay interest). Wichitans shouldn’t settle for this array of choices.

Are there other alternatives for raising $250 million for a new water source? Of course there are. The best way would be to raise water bills by $250 million over five years. In this way, water users pay for the new water supply, and we avoid the long-term debt that city council members and “Yes Wichita” seem determined to avoid.

Water bills would have to rise by quite a bit in order to raise $50 million per year. But it’s important to have water users pay for water. The benefit of having water users pay for a new water source is that water users will become acutely aware of the costs of a new water supply. That awareness is difficult to achieve. Many citizens are surprised to learn that the city has spent $247 million over the past decade on a water project, the ASR program.

It will be easier to let people know how much a new water supply costs and how it affects them personally when its cost appears on their water bills. The money that is collected through water bills can be placed in a dedicated fund instead of flowing to the city’s general fund. Then, after the necessary amount is raised, water bills can be immediately adjusted downwards. That’s more difficult to do with a sales tax.

If we pay for a new water supply through a general retail sales tax, the linkage between cost and benefit is less obvious. There is less transparency, and ultimately, less accountability. And we need more accountability. Eleven years ago former mayor Bob Knight was assured that the city had adequate water for the next 50 years. Since then we’ve spent $247 million on the ASR project. Yet, the city says there is a water crisis that demands passage of a sales tax.

Speaking of accountability: Last week the city issued $147,391,828 in long-term bonds to permanently finance short-term bonds used to pay for phase II of the ASR project. That’s right. The ASR project, which by any account has been under-performing, was largely paid for with borrowed funds.

If borrowing to pay for a new water supply is bad, was it also bad to borrow to pay for ASR? Who do we hold accountable for that decision?


One response to “Stuck in the box in Wichita, part one”

  1. Thomas F. Schippers, CPA

    The Water Supply issue should be addressed on an annual basis year-by-year by the City. To look at anything else differently, suggests that future water technology advancement would be totally blocked. Also, some of the cost build-up computed by the City ( $ 250 Million ) assumes cost estimates for future drought. Now who wants to tackle such
    a future uncertainty along with an associated cost – not advisable in my conventional thinking.

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