May 10–Mayor Jeff Longwell came out hard Thursday against a proposal by Wichita’s police and fire unions for a quarter-cent sales tax to fund public safety services.

In his weekly news conference, Longwell said the City Council is already working toward implementing a consultant study that recommended more money for law enforcement, including sworn officers and administrative support.

“We’re already looking at the budget and how we can move monies over to that,” Longwell said. “So these folks obviously didn’t sit down and talk to us about is there a lack of funding at this point.

“We’re already looking at moving those resources, so I think they might have been premature in trying to go out to the public and ask for dollars that we’re not sure that we need allocated for this particular use.”

On Tuesday, a coalition of the Fraternal Order of Police, International Association of Fire Fighters and Downtown Neighborhood Alliance announced plans to seek a public vote on establishing a citywide sales tax that would add a quarter of a percentage point to the sales tax rate with the income earmarked for public safety.

At present, the sales tax rate is 7.5 percent in most of the city, 6.5 percent to the state and 1 percent to Sedgwick County.

However, Wichita is dotted with pockets of higher city sales taxes to fund public projects and developer business districts.

Police and firefighters say it’s been frustrating for them. They say they’ve watched funding for safety services stagnate or drop, while the city’s been quick to set up special taxing districts for projects ranging from a new municipal library to a privately held pickle-ball theme restaurant.

“We’re just saying let’s do the same for (police and fire services) as we do for everybody else,” Jeff Van Sickle , an apartment developer and president of the Downtown Neighborhood Alliance, said Tuesday.

Longwell said the projects cited by the sales tax proponents are among what he sees as extras in city services, while police and fire should be part of core spending and supported by the regular budget.

“We’ve always said public safety is one of our top priorities,” Longwell said. “If that’s your top priority, fund it as if it’s your top priority and that’s my intention. So then if you want extras, and in my mind extras are right now multiple pieces that include sometimes investment, sometimes quality of life, then people have to pay extra for that. But if public safety is your top priority, you shouldn’t have to pay extra for that.”

The police and firefighters said their plan is to work through their management to request that the council put a sales tax measure on the November election ballot.

If that doesn’t work, they say they’re prepared to gather petition signatures to put it before voters as a citizen-sponsored ballot initiative.

In 2014, the council put a measure on the ballot for a citywide one percent sales tax to fund water supply improvements, street repairs, business development and public transit. It was voted down 62 percent to 37 percent.

Proponents of a public-safety sales tax say they think they would fare better because it would be a straight-up-or-down vote to fund one area of the budget.

(c)2018 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)


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