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Cost Of Containing COVID-19 In Sedgwick County Continues To Rise

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Sedgwick County leaders say the COVID-19 crisis could impact the county’s budget through 2022.

The projection comes as county staff begin the process of establishing next year’s budget, fiscal year 2021, while still navigating the current challenging situation. Sedgwick County’s costs and responsibilities have grown each week since the beginning of March as the coronavirus spread throughout the community.

The county’s unexpected coronavirus-related expenditures reached nearly $1 million this week, with no firm end date for response efforts. The county is taking another hit from the loss of sales tax revenue.

As a result, County Manager Tom Stolz is planning to present a flat budget with what he calls “strategic cuts and freezes” along with proposals of service cuts.

“[The] service cuts being contemplated are as much as 3% across the board for 2021," he says. "All a moving target at this time based on federal stimulus monies possible."

Last August, Sedgwick County commissioners approved a $457 million budget for 2020 that included pay raises for county employees and increased staffing for Emergency Communications and Comcare, a community mental health center.

As of Monday, the county so far has spent more than $940,000 related to the coronavirus outbreak. County spokeswoman Kate Flavin says that covered the costs of testing supplies, protective gear, disinfection services and personnel costs, such as “hero pay stipends” for emergency essential employees and temporary positions to assist the Health and Emergency Management departments.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Sedgwick County reached 283 on Tuesday, and there are five related deaths in the county. The Sedgwick County Health Department is monitoring at least five clusters of coronavirus infections.

The county expanded its testing capabilities last week. The Sedgwick County Health Department revised the testing criteria allowing residents to be tested if they have a fever and at least two o ther symptoms of COVID-19. There are no restrictions on age or underlying condition.

The Sedgwick County Health Department offers an appointment-only drive-through COVID-19 testing at its clinic on West Central in Wichita. More than 100 people per day can be tested.

Sedgwick County is using two labs to process samples: the Kansas Department of Health and Environment lab in Topeka and a local private Quest lab. Flavin says there is no charge to the county or resident for testing through KDHE. Quest tests are free for residents with insurance, and the county is paying the $67 fee for uninsured residents with funding through the Public Health Emergency Preparedness.

Residents with symptoms who want to be tested should dial 211 to be screened and scheduled for an appointment.

County leaders heard the harsh reality of the coronavirus response effort on county finances from their peers in New York and Washington state during a conference call in mid-March. A group of county leaders and commissioners learned one large county in Washington projected its costs could reach about $80 million.

County Commissioner David Dennis says the county needs to prepare for its own pending coronavirus-related expenses going forward.

“We’re going to have to make sure that we are making wise budget decisions,” he says. “Some things that are in our budget for 2020 we may have to take a look whether or not that we are going to be funding them currently or pushing them back to the end of the year.”

In an effort to stabilize its finances during the COVID-19 crisis, Sedgwick County commissioners approved a furlough policy last week.

Flavin says 179 county employees were approved for the voluntary unpaid furlough that began Monday and lasts until May 23. The county will save about $860,000 in payroll costs over the five-week period.

Stolz says more furloughs may come later this year.

“It’s possible that in the fourth quarter of this year, we will ask all employees top to bottom to take a particular period of a furlough — maybe a week of furlough,” Stolz says.

The county employs about 2,800 people.

Stolz says the county is also considering reducing some services as part of a long-term strategy to avoid layoffs.

“This is going to be a matter that will stretch not only into the remainder of the 2020 budget year, but definitely into the 2021 budget and probably the 2022 budget, so we are trying to make sure the organization is stabilized and viable,” Stolz says.

Sedgwick County is one of at least 27 counties nationwide that have furloughed or laid off workers due to COVID-19 impacts on budgets, according to the National Association of Counties. Johnson County also adjusted its workforce recently.

The county is also facing a loss of sales tax revenue due to stay-at-home orders that have kept people home and shut down businesses for more than a month.

The county was expected to collect about $31 million in local retail sales and use tax receipts (tax paid on tangible personal property purchased in other states and used, stored, or consumed in Kansas where no sales tax was paid) this year, making them the county’s second-largest revenue source.

Stolz says the county’s budget process timeline is on track at this point. A recommended budget is expected to be released in early July, with public hearings to be held before commissioners vote on the plan in August.

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.