In an effort to make up for millions of dollars in revenue lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wichita's proposed 2021 budget includes cuts in several departments — while other departments are getting a boost.
Wichita City Manager Robert Layton presented the nearly $630 million proposal to City Council members for the first time Tuesday morning after months of budget retreats, presentations and public input.
Cuts are proposed to forestry, with tree removal prioritized over new tree planting; arts and cultural services, with a private firm brought on to operate Century II beginning in 2021; and animal control. Branch libraries could receive less funding for new materials, and the city plans to continue its hiring freeze.
Eighteen projects will be delayed for up to three years in the city's new 10-year Capital Improvement Program.
The budget proposal reflects the estimated $11 million shortfall in 2020, $17 million shortfall in 2021, and more projected losses in 2022.
"That means that next year if nothing else changes financially," Layton told council members, "we’ll still have some hard work in order to get us to a balanced budget in 2022 and beyond."
Meanwhile, Layton said residents who responded to public surveys and participated in the city's budget simulator indicated they don't want to see cuts to the police department, fire department, or public works.
Together, the three make up about 75% of the operating budget, Layton said.
"That’s a reminder of why it’s so difficult to balance a budget when ... so much of what you do is in three service areas that are considered high priorities," Layton said.
The general fund includes more than $99 million for the police department, up almost $6 million from the current budget. The city plans to create a Central Bureau because of increased residential, business and entertainment activity downtown, and 26 new positions will be added to the department.
The increased safety budget comes at a time when local activists are calling for the city to defund the police.
"We want that money to go to the root causes of crime," said Gabrielle Griffie with Project Justice ICT. "Namely poverty, ... housing the homeless, giving medical attention and drug and rehabilitation and addiction prevention.
"People who are in prisons are not inherently criminals. It's usually something outside of that that leads to them getting involved in crime."
Layton said in an interview earlier this year that any discussion about reallocating funding for things like mental health resources is "ultimately a council decision."
"We need time to look at it on a comprehensive basis," he said. "I don't think it does justice to say it's defunding the police. It's what do we do? What's the right balance of services to serve this community?"
The City Council will hold a second public hearing on the budget Aug. 4 and vote to adopt it Aug. 11.