Sedgwick County Commissioners Pete Meitzner, Sarah Lopez, David Dennis, Lacey Cruse and Jim Howell shared their top budget priorities for the upcoming 2023-24 budget, which they will vote on in August. (Photos courtesy Sedgwick County)
Sedgwick County Commissioners Pete Meitzner, Sarah Lopez, David Dennis, Lacey Cruse and Jim Howell shared their top budget priorities for the upcoming 2023-24 budget, which they will vote on in August. (Photos courtesy Sedgwick County)

It’s budget season for Sedgwick County. 

This year, that means that the county’s five commissioners must grapple with how to run the local government as nationwide economic challenges, including rising inflation and an increasingly tight labor market, prevail.

The Wichita Beacon asked each commissioner to list their top three budget priorities for this year. All five of them included compensation in their list — a particularly pertinent item as the county struggles to staff the COMCARE crisis center, the county mental health authority, the Sedgwick County Jail and other departments

The county will propose its budget on July 13 and commissioners will vote to adopt it by Aug. 24. The new budget takes effect on Jan. 1. The current 2022 budget topped $480.2 million.

The responses from commissioners are edited only for length or clarity. 

District 1, Pete Meitzner

I am respectful of my fellow commissioners’ opinions, realizing the final budget that is passed requires a majority (three or more) of the commission to approve. As of now, my three priorities:

  1. Continue to provide and improve services to the citizens, which includes recruiting and retaining staff (mainly, investing in compensation). 
  2. Maintaining existing assets in the county; facilities, roads/bridges, drainage and technology updates. 
  3. Finally, not increasing the property tax mill levy rate. Especially in these times where we all are battling inflation and other financial strains on our citizens and property values.

District 2, Sarah Lopez

My top three budget priorities are all the same. Our main focus has to be compensation for our staff this year. Mental health, public safety and everything else are so important to running the county. We are at a point where we are not retaining enough staff to provide the services we have today. If we don’t drastically improve our compensation packages, I fear we will have to start cutting services.

District 3, David Dennis

My top three priorities are: Compensation, compensation and compensation.

Every division in the county is behind the market rate for similar services and experiencing numerous vacancies. This drives up over time, contributes to burn-out and impacts the services that we provide to the citizens. Inflation is making this issue even more dire for our workforce as it is throughout the nation. Every one of us is facing challenges in our personal budgets, and the county is facing similar challenges. We are experiencing long lead times for goods and services and then having to pay much more even if we can find a provider. This is placing stress across the board within every division.

The Consumer Price Index increased 8.5 percent for the year ended March 2022, following a rise of 7.9 percent from February 2021 to February 2022. The 8.5-percent increase in March was the largest 12-month advance since December 1981. This impacts both our planning for the 2023 budget and has a significant impact on the 2022 budget that we passed last August. To retain our workforce and recruit new employees, we will need to increase pay now and again in the 2023 budget. 

Every employee performs a critical mission to support our citizens. However, we must ensure adequate staffing for public safety, and behavioral health.

District 4, Lacey Cruse 

Top three priorities for 2023:

  1. Paying county employees a livable, meaningful wage to retain and recruit talent.
  2. Fully fund a behavioral health emergency model like ICT1
  3. Funding the Meals on Wheels program. Vulnerable seniors rely on this for nutrition and social interaction. 

Long-term goals:

  1. Current systems need a strategic redesign focused on outcomes and how citizens access and use services. This strategic plan will focus on how and where services are being delivered to produce the best outcomes and eliminate waste or duplication. 
  2. Fund prevention and rehabilitation programs and positions for behavioral and mental health and addiction recovery to reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system.

Decisions must stop being led by an easy button and developer influence. When the status quo continues, taxpayers pay more than needed, outcomes are less than favorable and the revolving door spins without any step in the right direction. 

District 5, Jim Howell

This year’s budget is unprecedented in challenges ahead. Inflation is affecting government service costs just like your family budget. Higher wages, more judges, and increased costs in all ways such as food, utilities, and materials for county services will be difficult to balance with needs and keeping property taxes level. My personal priorities for the budget include: 

Retaining and Recruiting Employees: Labor shortage and wage wars are causing staff shortages throughout the county. Priority must be to keep employees by raising wages. However, I am concerned that some services may have to be cut due to having less employees overall in order to stay within budget. 

Expanded Mobile Mental Health Services: How do we effectively serve the most cases? 

Juvenile Services and Department of Aging: Both areas need better services and more focused attention. 

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Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership...