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Sedgwick County seeking solutions to projected budget deficits in 2025, 2026

County commissioner chair Ryan Baty, left, and commissioner Jim Howell.
Celia Hack
Sedgwick County Commissioner Ryan Baty, left, and Commissioner Jim Howell.

The county’s budget office says the commission could face a $2 million shortfall in 2025 and $4.9 million shortfall in 2026 if spending continues as usual.

Sedgwick County is predicting an unbalanced budget in 2025 and 2026 if spending continues at its current pace.

The county increased pay for many employees in the past three years to contend with labor shortages, including at the Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office and EMS.

Many of those departments now have more stable staffing. But the county’s budget office says the pay hikes – which totaled $52.9 million, according to manager Tom Stolz – are contributing to an unbalanced budget. The county’s general fund is facing a $2 million shortfall in 2025 and a $4.9 million shortfall in 2026.

“We can’t continue what we’re doing today and continue to maintain these services long term,” said Chief Financial Officer Lindsay Poe Rousseau at a February budget workshop. “... We don’t want to cut, but I don’t know any other way to do it.”

Staff say budgets in the next two years – 2025 and 2026 – should be used to fix the imbalance. The county manager will present the 2025 draft budget in July, and commissioners are currently in discussions about how that document can bring the county out of the red.

They also must decide whether to grant what adds up to millions of dollars in requests from county department heads for things like more ambulances or a new 911 dispatching program.

Most commissioners say raising property taxes, one potential solution, is unlikely. Property valuations for many residents have soared in recent years as the housing market deals with limited inventory.

“I am very guarded against passing through property tax increases,” said Commissioner Ryan Baty. “I think that we've reached a level of property taxation in this community that I don't think our constituents can handle much more.”

Raising the mill levy isn’t “even a thought here at this point,” said Commissioner Sarah Lopez.

But commissioners are light so far on specific places where they could reduce spending, with several saying they want to hear from community members before making any decisions. The county is hosting two public roundtables to discuss the budget in coming weeks.

“We're going to look at all discretionary things that we do here at Sedgwick County government,” Baty said. “And we're going to take that with a fine-tooth comb to make sure that we're efficient, and there might be some reductions in some of those areas.”

The forecasted budget assumes county staff will receive a 5% pay raise across the board. Commissioner Jim Howell said reducing that raise could offer some savings.

“That may be one way to solve this problem,” Howell said. “That may be part of the answer.”

Howell has also suggested introducing a new sales tax to pay for “quality of life” investments like the zoo or Exploration Place, instead of funding them with property tax dollars. Other money-saving ideas include combining county services with other governments to improve efficiencies.

The city of Wichita and Sedgwick County met to discuss the possibilities of combining their parks and recreation departments in April.

“If we could look at all of the services that we have overlap with between the city of Wichita and the other cities that are in Sedgwick County, I think there's a lot of possibility … as far as cost savings,” Lopez said.

But neither the sales tax – which would require legislative action – nor combining government agencies are likely to take place before the budget is voted on in August.

Baty says, though, that the problem doesn’t have to be solved entirely this year.

“I don't think that we have to make up that structural imbalance in year one,” Baty said. “I think we can look at spreading that over two or three years to make sure that we are doing things responsibly.”

Sedgwick County is hosting two public roundtables to gather feedback on the budget on May 20th and June 4th. More information is here.

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 Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.