Sedgwick Co. Commission: Change In Philosophy
A new conservative-leaning majority on the Sedgwick County Commission is changing the direction of some county business.
Since the new term began in January, several key items passed on a three-to-two vote…some involving the county health department. KMUW’s Deborah Shaar has the story.
The five-member Sedgwick County Commission makes decisions every week on how to spend taxpayer money. It’s their job to manage the county’s finances, roads and bridges, zoning policies and the county health department among other things.
Political analysts like Jeff Jarman say this year the majority on the commission has slid to the right following Jim Howell’s election.
“The commission was split 3-2 with the two most conservative members in the minority on some of those votes," he says. "And now with the introduction of a new member who is as conservative, those 3-2 votes are now going in favor of a more conservative orientation on the commission.”
Jarman is an associate director and communications professor at Wichita State University.
“The three members and the voting block they have right now represent a very significant conservative ideology, and that is new," Jarman says.
That conservative majority generally consists of Chairman Richard Ranzau, Karl Peterjohn and Howell, with Commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh on the other side.
In the past few weeks, the commissioners voted 3-2 to withdraw from the National Association of Counties and the Regional Economic Area Partnership, two groups that represent local government.
Commissioner Dave Unruh is in his fourth term on the commission and in recent years he was in the majority. He says he has wrestled with some of the commission’s recent decisions.
“We have rescinded several actions of the last year’s commission that's already been accomplished," Unruh says. "But to try and predict the future, I’m not able to do it. There’s clearly a difference in philosophy of what is the best way we can provide core and essential services. A question comes up then I guess; what is a core service?”
Unruh says that question is often at the heart of the discussions among commissioners leading up to a vote.
Commissioner Jim Howell agrees. As a new commissioner, he says he’s trying to be accountable to the people who put him into office.
“When we take someone’s property taxes, it is under the assumption or agreement with the taxpayer that we are going to use this money for something for essential government. This is really necessary," Howell says. "We have to have your money to run public services in our community; things like fire, police, streets and infrastructure."
The Sedgwick County Health Department is also a mandated service under the direction of the county commission.
Recently, the commissioners voted 3-2 to modify the county’s legislative platform to basically disregard the health department's national accreditation status.
It took the health department three years of documentation, updating processes and site visits to receive its accreditation last September.
Interim Health Director Adrienne Byrne-Lutz says it was an intense process, but worth it to obtain such a huge milestone.
“It means that our health department stands out among the best in the nation. People expect their hospitals and schools to be accredited, and so finally, health departments have that opportunity.”
However, the commission’s vote means the county will oppose any restrictions or requirements as a result of accreditation.
Commissioner Howell was one of the three who voted to change the platform because he was worried about giving up authority.
“The accreditation is not absolutely needed for us to run a successful health department," Howell says. "This is a relatively new thing to our county. We’ve operated for years and years without any federal accreditation. There seems to be no benefit to accreditation except we have to provide data, and they get involved in what we do and how we do it.”
Adrienne Byrne-Lutz says being accredited is not about outside influence; it’s about becoming a high-functioning and quality health department.
“What it means is that we’ve met national standards for high-quality public health services, leadership, accountability," she says. "It’s not someone coming in telling us what to do.”
As a part of the accreditation process, the health department conducted a community health assessment. The evaluation identified five health priorities in the community: access to health care, obesity and diabetes, oral health, mental health and health disparities.
In order to improve these areas, the health department launched a “Community Health Improvement Plan” that calls for implementing strategic measures by the end of this year.
To help curb Sedgwick County’s 30 percent obesity rate, a $2.3 million federal health grant was awarded to the county last month, and the health department was set to run the program.
But the commissioners voted 3-2 to reject it.
Commissioner Dave Unruh says, “It was our tax money that was coming to be able to be used for the benefit our citizens to solve a problem. That was clearly identified. It seems to me that we should have access to those resources and try to apply them in a way to help change behavior, help educate people on better habits.”
After that vote, the Medical Society of Sedgwick County negotiated to be the lead organization to keep the grant coming to the county, despite the commission’s rejection.
Dr. Donna Sweet, a longtime member and past-president of the Medical Society, says, “The Sedgwick County Medical Society was very distraught over the county commission’s lack of understanding of the need in this community. We know that Sedgwick County has the largest obesity problem of any of the counties in Kansas. We have increasing diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease.”
Continuing the turn in policy shift, commissioners voted in January to reduce its funding to Project Access by $34,000 this year. This reduction occurred, even though, the county commission approved the requested amount of about $209,000 in the budget last August.
The non-profit affiliate of the Medical Society coordinates health care for uninsured patients through its network of doctors and hospitals willing to provide their services for free. Dr. Sweet says it’s important to remember that public health is a part of a governmental function.
“I’m hoping that this trend--on the part of the commission to minimize the health needs and what the community needs--goes away," she says. "The physicians of the Medical Society of Sedgwick County are going to be watching very closely at what goes on and do what we can to make sure that the health of our public is protected. There are many, many partners and organizations thinking it is important.”
As for what’s next, Commissioner Jim Howell says it’s likely that the commission will reconsider some issues that have already been decided in the past.
“There are two commissioners who have been in the minority on many votes in the past," he says. "And they have made notes of things that they would like to go back to visit. Revisiting decisions - that maybe unwinds government a little bit and maybe undoes some of those decisions they made. Reducing how much money we spend. I think that’s in line with what people have messaged out with the last election especially.”
Political analyst Jeff Jarman says it might take until the next election to find out if the commission’s decisions will be viewed as good public policy or negative for the community.
“So the real question is months and years down the line, whether enough attention and scrutiny will be paid to these decisions and whether the voters will change course in a few years,” he says.
Commissioners serve a four-year term, so the next election will be in 2016 for the districts represented by Karl Peterjohn and Tim Norton.
Listen to part one of Deborah Shaar’s series looking at the county commission‘s recent decisions involving health issues in the community here:
To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.