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Politics

Two Republicans Vying For Sedgwick Co. Commission 3rd District Seat

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Deborah Shaar
/
KMUW
Sedgwick County Commission incumbent Karl Peterjohn, left, and Republican primary opponent David Dennis.

Next week’s Republican primary election is the first real test for the conservative majority on the Sedgwick County Commission. The longest-serving member of the majority, Commissioner Karl Peterjohn, is up for re-election. KMUW’s Deborah Shaar tells us how the results of this race could determine the future of the commission’s majority.

    

When Karl Peterjohn began serving on the Sedgwick County Commission back in 2008, he brought with him a constitutional conservative philosophy.

That thinking has guided his work and decisions through the years. He says his record for voter empowerment started on Day One.

"My campaign has been consistent in terms of fiscal responsibility, supporting voter empowerment, requiring voter approval for property tax increases and supporting the new legislation from the state on limiting property tax growth," Peterjohn says.

Peterjohn represents the commission’s 3rd District, which is basically the western half of the county. The district spans from west Wichita to Cheney, north to Mount Hope and Bentley, and south to Viola. It is the largest of the county’s five districts. Peterjohn is banking on voters who support his philosophy to give him a third term in office.

"I’ve been pleased with the feedback I've received from folks who do not want to see their property taxes increased," he says. "And I think a majority of this community—a substantial majority—would prefer that we keep a keep a lid on local property taxes."

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Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW/File photo
Sedgwick Co. Commissioners Karl Peterjohn, Jim Howell and Richard Ranzau

Peterjohn’s push for the county’s conservative fiscal strategy strengthened as a new majority developed on the county commission in 2015 with the election of Jim Howell.

Peterjohn often votes in step with Chairman Howell and Commissioner Richard Ranzau. So when the five commissioners don't agree on key issues, the majority generally decides the outcome.

"The county government I think is working great," Peterjohn says. "We're getting some great projects and good things done, and we're doing it in a way that is improving public services for the people who are dependent upon what Sedgwick County provides."

Peterjohn says the commission is being a good steward of Sedgwick County’s tax resources by limiting county debt and targeting spending on core services such as public safety and roads.

The majority was successful in using this approach for this year’s operating budget, which was approved last August. But the policy shift came with a cost: The county cut large amounts of funding to arts, recreation, economic and public health programs, and ignited a firestorm of public criticism.

Peterjohn stands by his decision.

"If we allow county spending to increase, for whatever reason, you're going to have to raise taxes and property taxes, and we've been split on whether taxes should be raised," he says. "We've got two commissioners on our current commission who have voted to raise property taxes in the past. I am not one of them."

The county commission’s financial strategy is one of the main reasons why David Dennis entered the race for Karl Peterjohn’s 3rd District seat.

Dennis describes himself as a conservative Republican alternative to Peterjohn. He is critical of how the commission majority is managing the county finances, and he says cutting arts and recreation budgets is short-sighted.

"With those type of cuts, it affects the quality of life. It affects what happens in the city. It affects whether or not we can continue to grow," Dennis says.

Dennis is retired and currently serves on the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and other advisory boards. He used to teach at Wichita North High School. He served two years as chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education.

Education was his second career. Dennis spent 29 years in the Air Force, retiring at the rank of colonel.

"I like to believe that I can work with just about anyone and get results," Dennis says. "I proved that when I worked over in the former Soviet Union. I was working at very high levels of government over there, and the first word out of their mouth was always nyet. And yet, we were able to accomplish our mission."

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Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW/File photo
Karl Peterjohn, Anabel Larumbe, Dan Giroux and David Dennis at a candidate forum on Sunday.

Dennis says the county’s shift to using cash instead of bonds to pay for road and bridge maintenance work is creating unnecessary deficit spending.

As it stands now, the proposed 2017 county budget includes a $4.5 million dollar deficit.

Dennis worries the cash reserves won’t be there when the county faces a downturn in the economy or gets hit with a natural disaster.

"They had deficit spending last year, and the current budget for the next several years also has a deficit, and again that differentiates me a little bit from Karl Peterjohn," Dennis says. "I don't believe that we need to be running deficits right now."

Dennis says he knows he faces big challenges in his campaign: He’s not as well known as his opponent, and he has to crack Peterjohn’s strong base of support in the 3rd District. Dennis has been participating in candidate forums and campaign events, and making the rounds in neighborhoods to get his message out. He picked up key endorsements recently from Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell and city council members Bryan Frye and Pete Meitzner.

"I'm getting some strong support from some people that really care that Wichita and Sedgwick County work together," Dennis says. "Rather than having walls between them, we need to build bridges."

County commissioners earn about $90,000 a year and serve a four-year term. It’s a full-time job that includes managing county property, awarding contracts and approving zoning policies.

Earlier this month, the commissioners approved a non-binding resolution asking the state Legislature to tighten restrictions on undocumented immigrants. It was a split vote.

Dennis says the commission’s public meetings should stay focused on county business.

"Focusing on issues that they have no control over at the state level or the federal level doesn't do any good for anyone," he says. "It just kind of detracts from what their primary mission is, and that's to take care of citizens in Sedgwick County."

Campaigning won’t end with Tuesday’s primary election. Whoever wins the 3rd District race will likely face independent candidate Marcey Gregory, the mayor of Goddard, in the November general election.

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Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar

 
To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.