Economic Health – We must GROW!

There are significant issues facing Sedgwick County.  We see challenges in public safety departments, surging crime, deteriorating mental health, and instability in our economic fundamentals.  

These issues are sizable and very complex.  

Each day it becomes more apparent that the five elected County Commissioners will soon have decisions and opportunities that will significantly influence the health and stability of this community for an entire generation.  We are in a pivotal season and there is a heavy burden of responsibility on county leadership to move us forward in a meaningful way.  

The one thing that has become painfully obvious – We must GROW.  

Understanding the need for growth isn’t complicated when you take an honest review of the current landscape.  As our population increases so do the needs to scale government services, such as fire protection, EMS, law enforcement and public health.  Scaling services isn’t as easy as flipping a switch or putting an ad in the paper to hire more people.  There is considerable strategy involved to ensure the decisions being made lead to government that is both responsible and sustainable.  It’s fair to say, as I have been for the last 10 months, that we have not scaled our services in a way that sufficiently meets the rising demands of our community.  

“So you are calling for growing the government?”  That was a question I received at a recent event.  No, this isn’t an issue of “more government.”  I’m contending for the government services we need to become more efficient and effective.  If you call 911 you want to be assured that there are enough EMS or Fire staff available to actually service your emergency promptly.  You want to know that the Sheriff’s office has the resources needed to fight crime and effectively run our county jail.  You need to be assured that we have a robust health department that can deal with our growing mental health and substance abuse crisis.  These are examples of government services that are essential for a community and it’s imperative that they are stable and meeting the needs.  

How do we scale and properly service our citizens?  Here are 3 options:

[1] Raise Taxes – The most common way a county government could provide more resources for services is simply to raise property taxes.  For Sedgwick County, the options would be to increase the mill levy rate (29.359 mills in 2023) or just leave the mill levy rate unchanged and absorb the increases we have experienced in rising accessed property values.  Both options would bring increased revenues to the general fund in order to pay for government services.  The latter option, an unchanged mill levy rate despite increases in accessed property values, is the option that our current BOCC chose in the 2023 budget.  This results in a tax increase to the vast majority of property owners in the county.

Sedgwick County Government faces a challenging math problem.  Even with every penny of the captured accessed value increases going to fund our growing demands, we still have projected deficits of $6 million in 2023 and $11 million in 2024.  Those numbers are daunting.

There will be incredible temptation to raise taxes again in future budgets to meet the needs.  That would be the wrong decision for long term health of our community.  Increasing property taxes disproportionately effects small businesses, our working-class families and our senior citizens living on fixed income.  This squeeze is compounded when we consider the underlying factor of surging inflation where people are paying more for nearly all goods and services.  Further increases in property taxes would adversely affect a large portion of citizens in our community and cause further economic stagnation.   

[2] Cut Services – The second most common way a county government can fix their financial statements is simply to start cutting services.  At the time of the 2023 budget adoption, there were 670 vacant staffing positions in Sedgwick County Government.  This significantly impacts the level of service provided.  We had 245 positions paying under $15 per hour.  Our EMS lost 1/3 of its workforce between 2018-2021.  County Fire had a starting wage nearly 25% lower than other area fire departments.  The Sheriff was down 112 deputies at the Jail and Comcare was down nearly 200 full time positions.  

Where would we even cut?  The departments that service the people are already considerably depleted.  As a matter of principle, I’m someone who always advocates for lean, limited government, but anymore shrinkage of this workforce would further complicate the level of service that can be provided and people’s lives will be put in danger.  That’s the reality we learned the hard way from the recent EMS Crisis.  

[3] Economic Growth – The third option to find the needed revenue is to grow this economy and expand the tax base.  I believe economic growth is essential if local government is going to keep pace with providing effective public safety and public health services.  Increasing expenditures must ultimately be financed by greater tax revenues, and that should come from more taxpayers, not higher tax rates.  

A practical example of the importance of responsible revenue growth can be seen with our Sedgwick County Fire Department.  

There are 10 cities that make up Fire District 1.  The district has its own tax jurisdiction with a separate set of financial books, and the citizens that live in and utilize the Fire District pay close to 18 mills of property tax to fund it.  The challenges?  Wages for our County Fire Fighters lagged other area departments and we were experiencing an exodus of staff in search of better pay.  In order to find stability, a wage increase and restructuring of compensation plans was required, yet current tax revenues aren’t enough to pay for these growing expenditure needs of our Fire Department.  

The options remain – increase taxes, cut services, or grow revenues economically.  Fortunately, when we look at what is happening in Maize, Park City, Goddard and other FD1 cities, we see incredible growth forecasts.  New residential and commercial developments, surging populations and strong economic development.  The path towards more revenue in the Fire District is organically happening through economic growth and an expansion of the tax base, and this is happening without raising the mill levy rate for those citizens in the Fire District.  In fact, it’s reasonable to expect that we will soon be able to push through a reduction of property taxes and still maintain health and stability for Sedgwick County Fire.   

Fire Services is just one example of how we can better meet the increasing needs of our citizens through economic growth.  The same can be said across the board for Sedgwick County Government public safety and public health services.  

Economic growth is going to be needed, but how do we accomplish that and what is the county’s role?  Here are a few ways we can influence the outcomes:

1- Tax Policy.  Property tax policy in Kansas is complex and burdensome.  I am an advocate for property tax reform that simplifies our code and incentivizes home ownership and development.  

2- Workforce Pipelines.  We must be able to attract and retain our future workforce.  Diversification of industry must have an upstream mechanism that produces the necessary human resources.  We have those catalysts in our community with organizations like WSU Tech, KU Med, Vocational Schools, Labor Training Facilities and many, many others.  

3- Partnership with Cities.  The 20 cities in Sedgwick County are the catalysts for economic development.  The county is the conduit.  We need to strengthen our alliances, improve our channels of communication, and help champion their growth projects with our tools and support.  

4- Lean into Community Partners.  We have incredible organizations that work hard on development initiatives.  The county should lean into these relationships with Greater Wichita Partnership, WSU Tech, Wichita Chamber of Commerce and other sizable employers.  These are the groups that will fuel the growth and stability in our community and they need to see a valuable partner with the county.

5- Utilize Economic Development Funds.  The county has a significant line item for economic development that is rarely used.  These funds should be used for strategic investment into the greatest pocket of needs in our districts.  Better support for the areas that are most economically challenged is a bottom-up approach that will have ripple effects throughout the entire community.  

6- Quality of Life Awareness.  Talk to kids graduating from our area colleges.  Ask younger people what they want in the community they choose to live in?  Over and over again we hear about quality of life.  Parks, thriving downtown culture, arts, music, healthy economy, good schools and low crime.  These things matter in attracting and retaining the future generations of young families and we must be in a position to promote those development opportunities.  

7- Address Mental Health.  There is an economic impact to our lagging mental health plan.  Deteriorating health impacts productivity and the upward mobility of our most vulnerable populations.  A robust plan that involves a collaboration of partnerships will have significant impact on the overall health and vibrancy of our community.  

Our time is now.  All these wonderful things we want to accomplish can only be actualized with a growing economy – and I hope to champion these causes as a valuable partner and voice from county government.  

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