As I start my second year on the County Commission, I’m excited about several significant opportunities. There will be advances in our community approach to issues of behavioral health, homelessness and economic development, as well as a noticeable change in our collaboration with the City of Wichita.
These are really good things for our region. There will also be challenges.
Of the many things that are valid causes for concern, the rising cost of government is near the top of my list. To be clear, the steady increases in the cost of government are not due to frivolous spending – at least not for our county’s budget. The discretionary spending in our budget is only around 3.5 – 4.0%. The pressures on our future budgets are largely due to the increases in compensation; necessary, important and significant changes in how we pay the nearly 2800 employees working for the 46 departments of Sedgwick County Government.
A large part of my 2022 campaign to win the district four seat was based on the stability of county government. Staffing vacancies had left a sizable impression on our ability to perform effective and efficient services – and there is a noticeable and dangerous effect of instability when dealing with public safety departments like EMS, Fire, Sheriff and 911 Communications. The same impact is felt in public health departments like COMCARE.
Competitive compensation is a big part of the equation. The path to staffing stability comes at a cost.
When such a large organization, such as Sedgwick County Government, increases compensation the undeniable result is more financial health for our families and local economy. That is most certainly a terrific and tangible benefit. So why the concern? The challenge is that these costs are funded through more taxation – primarily property taxes – and the impact of these sharp rises in taxes has a significant impact on our people.
As I see it, there are three options to counteract the rising cost of government:
1- Continue as is. Grab some of the assessed growth each year to fund nominal increases for compensation, etc, and continue business as usual while trying our best to keep property taxes in check.
2- Cut services. The bulk of what we do is public safety, public health and public works, so the obvious targets of any cuts would need to be with areas of discretionary investments – Economic Development Funds, Zoo, Exploration Place, Arts, Parks, etc.
3- Reform the model. Find a new method to fund important quality of life investments in this community, focus on the core functions of county government, and look for opportunities to share and consolidate services where applicable.
As we move through 2024, I hope to present the case that OPTION 3 is the best route for this community. I believe we can reduce the cost of government, particularly property taxes, while also protecting investments into other vitally important areas that are traditionally deemed as non-core functions. The way forward is REFORM. I hope to find willing partners that are as eager to modernize our local government as I am.