Editorial: Time for county to step up

An editorial from the board of the active age:

It’s time. 

Over the past decade, the governing bodies of Wichita and Sedgwick County have made impressive investments in projects designed to improve the quality of life. Prime examples are Intrust Bank Arena, a new main library and a $75 million minor league ballpark to be constructed on the riverfront.

Our community seems to be on the upswing, and amenities like these have undoubtedly contributed.

Now it’s time for programs and services aimed at senior citizens to get a little love. While it’s true that many readers of the active age enjoy concerts, reading and baseball games, it’s also true that they are not primarily the intended beneficiaries. That honor goes to younger individuals and families who are seen as vital to the area’s future – the so-called millennials and others near them in age. 

But while focusing on the future, we shouldn’t forget the fact that older residents will be part of it, too. While striving to make our community a great place to make a living and raise a family, why don’t we also make it a fantastic spot in which to retire and live out our older years?

The truth is that as things now stand, it’s not, at least not for all older residents. Currently, there are waiting lists for services such as home-delivered meals and wheelchair modifications, which no one should be denied. Some senior centers are in disrepair, squeezed for space or unable to afford the kind of programs that members deserve. 

In Sedgwick County, the city of Wichita has abdicated virtually all responsibility for helping seniors to the county government. City leaders justify this by noting that in 1982, voters overwhelmingly approved collecting a portion of the county property tax known as the aging mill levy for programs and services specifically benefiting seniors. The vote allows county commissioners to collect up to 1mill in property tax for that purpose. One mill currently costs the owner of a $100,000 Sedgwick County home about $11.50.

Unfortunately, county commissioners have never fully used the power to help seniors that was entrusted to them by voters. Instead, in recent years they have reduced the aging services mill levy rate as overall property values have risen, keeping the total amount collected more or less stagnant. This year’s rate was set at .428 mill, down from .494 the year before. That generated $2.1 million for senior programs, or less than half of what is potentially available (and just 1.7 percent of all property taxes collected). 

Nearly 12 percent of county residents are now 65 and older, a demographic that’s growing. While not all of them need home-delivered meals or attend a senior center, these kinds of programs are vital to many, providing nutrition, exercise, education, opportunities for socialization and other benefits. Altogether, the aging mill levy helps fund 15 programs ranging from commodities distribution and medical transportation to health screenings and adult day care. These programs help residents stay in their homes longer more cost effective than the alternativesand live more fulfilled lives. It’s worth remembering that millennials, too, will one day reach this stage in life. 

County commissioners are now in the process of creating a budget for 2020. It’s within their power to increase funding for senior programs, either by raising the aging mill levy or shifting money from elsewhere in the proposed $440 million budget. One idea would be to set the aging mill levy at a static rate, so that it would naturally grow with the economy and remove some of the political considerations that now factor into the commission’s budget decisions. 

Sedgwick County enjoys one of the lowest effective property tax rates in Kansas. Adequately funding senior programs would not change that. If you believe older residents deserve more from their county government, consider contacting your commissioner or attending one of the upcoming budget hearings at 9 a.m. on Wednesday  July 24, and 6 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 5. Both take place in commission chambers at the courthouse, 525 N. Main St., where the public can speak. 

It’s past time.

SEDGWICK COUNTY COMMISSIONERS

Commissioners can be reached by email or by calling (316) 660-9300.

Pete Meitzner, 1st District
(Pete.Meitzner@sedgwick.gov)

Michael O’Donnell, 2nd District
(Michael.O’Donnell@sedgwick.gov)

David Dennis, 3rd District and chairman (David.Dennis@sedgwick.gov)

Lacey Cruse, 4th District
(Lacey.Cruse@sedgwick.gov)

Jim Howell, 5th District
(Jim.Howell@sedgwick.gov)

Signed,

The active age board

Mary Corrigan, president

Spike Anderson, vice president

Susan Howell, secretary

Diana Wolfe, treasurer

Ruth Ann Messner

Shana Gregory

Julie Schaar

Linda Matney

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