A small slice of the 2023 Sedgwick County budget set aside for senior-related services generated the longest and most contentious debate of any section before county commissioners approved the spending plan Wednesday.
The back-and-forth came after 5th District Commissioner Jim Howell suggested adding $125,000 to the Department on Aging budget, a move seconded by 4th District Commissioner Lacey Cruse. The department’s $13.9 million budget is about 2.7 percent of the overall $497.5 million budget.
2nd District Commission Sarah Lopez said she was “a little bit frustrated” by Howell’s motion.
“This is the first time I’ve heard this come out,” Lopez said. “To have it be an ambush on the day of … I mean, it’s an election year. Like, let’s be honest about the reasons why here.”
Howell, Cruse and 1st District Commissioner Pete Meitzner are up for reelection in November. “I have supported seniors since I stepped foot on this bench,” Cruse said. “To insinuate things otherwise, I think, is disheartening.”
Howell noted that the aging department budget had been discussed extensively previously. “This is not an ambush. I’ve been advocating this the entire time.”
In other comments, commission Chairman David Dennis, who represents the 3rd District, inflated the amount of the aging department’s budget, saying “We’re putting over $14 million in senior services a year — over $14 million. Now we’re talking about $125,000 going to be some kind of Band-Aid some place, I guess.”
Dennis said he was “not saying I’m against the idea” of adding the money but wanted to delay a vote until at least the next commission meeting. Dennis later said he relying on his memory for the $14 million figure.
During the meeting, Dennis also mischaracterized a 1982 vote by county residents that authorized commissioners to levy up to 1 mill in property taxes for senior-related services.
“That vote that was taken years and years ago was an advisory vote,” Dennis said. “It wasn’t anything that mandates that we do anything. You could have zero mills. Well, you could probably have point one mill. You’d probably have to have something in there to comply with whatever that advisory was.”
The aging mill levy generates about 18 percent of the aging department’s budget, with the rest coming from federal and state sources.
Howell asked Michael Pepoon, the county counselor, if the county can hold advisory votes.
“No, you cannot have an advisory,” Yost replied.
“It is illegal, correct?” Howell asked.
“It is illegal,” Pepoon said.
Howell also noted that Dennis proposed giving $500,000 in contingency funds to the aging department late in the budget process last year, a measure all the commissioners backed.
“That’s just something that came out of the blue, right?” Howell said. He went on to say the money has not been spent. “It’s still sitting there. That’s another problem.”
Lopez, like Dennis, seemed to question the significance of the 1982 vote, which passed by a 2-1 margin.
“I didn’t get a say on that in 1982,” she said. “I wasn’t born. I definitely couldn’t vote at that time.”
Howell had asked that the county’s Advisory Council on Aging and Disabilities be given “discretion” on how the additional $125,000 would be spent, although final spending decisions would be made by the commission. Currently, Howell said, the aging department staff makes all recommendations on how the aging mill levy funds are spent.
“They’re not asked” their opinion, Howell said of the advisory council, whose members are appointed by commissioners. “This is done around them, not by them, and that’s not fair to them.”
“They have no purpose in this world as an advisory board because they’re not listened to about anything.”
Dennis and Lopez criticized that idea, with Lopez saying the advisory council members favor senior centers over other providers of senior-related services. Lopez referenced an analysis of senior center attendance that she said had been distributed to commissioners by Tim Kaufman, the deputy county manager. That analysis stated that the total average daily attendance at the county’s 17 senior centers is 475 people.
“There are so many senior needs out there that we need to not be focused on just the one area,” Lopez said.
Commissioners eventually approved the budget as well as Dennis’ motion to delay consideration of the additional aging department funds, with Howell the only no vote on both counts.