Sedgwick County Commissioner Races Heat Up
Voters in Sedgwick County will be picking three people to serve on the County Commission with terms beginning in January.
One race is already decided--David Unruh, a Republican, will continue to represent the First District because he is not opposed in the election.
As KMUW’s Deborah Shaar reports, the other two contested races aren’t that easy.
Four people are trying to join the Sedgwick County Commission to make taking care of the county their full-time job.
The candidates for the 4th and 5th District seats all have public service experience: as a county commissioner, or a state representative, or a mayor.
And Richard Ranzau, Melody McCray-Miller, Jim Howell and Richard Young all say this line of work--politics--is more of a calling than a job.
“Publicly they make me out to be the bad guy when privately they say you’re probably right," Ranzau says. "I guess that’s the type of politics that got me so frustrated that I decided to give up my private sector job and try to run for office because stuff like that has to stop.”
“I went from the county to the state and I want to go back to the county because that’s where the action is," McCray-Miller says. "That’s where the people are. They’re right here, right next to you.”
“I think southeast Sedgwick County has really not had a champion fighting for them as they need," Howell says. "There are some things that have been neglected we’ve got a lot of blight a lot of empty buildings.”
“I saw that there was a need for another candidate, a different view point and nobody was stepping up so there I stepped up," Young says. "Sometimes I wonder if it was good idea or not. It’s hard!”
Commissioners are paid nearly $90,000 a year to control the county’s finances, levy taxes, manage the county’s roads and bridges and approve zoning policies, among other things.
Most of their decisions on how to spend taxpayer money are routine and non-controversial. But when it comes to proposals for economic incentives to attract new business, the five-member commission often splits votes.
The 4th District
One of the “no” votes generally comes from Richard Ranzau, a republican candidate and the current commissioner for the 4th District.
“The local officials get played time and time again and it’s very frustrating because 70% of our jobs are created by small businesses," he says. "All of the efforts in economic development are incentives for mostly large businesses that were going to do what they were going to do anyway.”
Ranzau’s opponent, Democrat Melody McCray-Miller, says tax incentives can be useful, but there has to be oversight.
“I want to make sure transparency is built in," she says. "If we’re going to use public dollars--public tax dollars--then taxpayers have the right to know what exactly we are using them for, what the outcome should be and if indeed those outcomes have been met.”
The 5th District
In the 5th District, Jim Howell, a Republican, and Richard Young, a Democrat, are going for the seat being vacated by Jim Skelton who decided to leave the commission. Howell is against the use of tax incentives.
“As far as us pursuing those businesses and throwing money at things that aren’t going to naturally happen, those have not worked very well in the past and I don’t think will work very well in the future," he says. "I’m not sure that’s the role of the county government anyway.”
Howell’s opponent, Richard Young, is in favor using public dollars for private ventures.
"Taxpayers’ money needs to be watched very carefully so it’s spent wisely," he says. "Some tax benefit areas for businesses I think are a good idea but they have to be very carefully studied so that we are not wasting our money.”
Local political analysts say the result of this election could ultimately shift the balance of power in the county commission and affect future votes.
As it stands now, commissioners Tim Norton, Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton often make up the majority, with commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Ranzau in the opposition. Ranzau says there’s some influence going on behind the scenes.
“The majority is the majority and they know that they’re going to be able to pass whatever they want so they really haven’t seen a need to really compromise at all," he says. "There’s been numerous times that I’ve offered compromises to no avail because quite frankly they’ve said we don’t really need to. That’s been frustrating but it doesn’t mean I don’t try.”
Analysts say if Ranzau keeps his seat and Howell is elected, Howell would be the swing vote. Howell says he’s not like anyone else on the commission.
“My opinion is that we need to do more deliberation in the public eye, explore things as we discuss them," he says. "But simply because someone thinks they have three votes to put that on the agenda and quickly bring the issue up, make motions and pass it out without much discussion to me is not what the public wants.”
Howell’s opponent, Richard Young, says his voting record would be based on what’s best for the county.
“I would be a steward of the money that’s collected from the taxpayers of the county," he says. "It’s a very interesting job because there are so many things you have to look for and balance as far as well, is it good for the county or is it an expense that we can’t really afford.”
Ranzau’s challenger, Melody McCray Miller, says she has strong opinions but likes to work collaboratively.
“It really does matter to me what someone else is thinking," she says. "To be able to look at the information and accurately assess it and interpret it such that we’re doing what’s in the best interest of all as opposed to an individual personal interest.”
One thing is certain in this county commission race: months of campaigning, going door to door and putting up yard signs will come to end on election night, and two of these candidates will have new jobs come January.