Sedgwick County commissioners disrespecting seniors, resident charges

By Joe Stumpe | August 5, 2022

Sedgwick County Commissioners are being “disrespectful” to older residents through their handling of the Department on Aging budget, a member of the county’s Advisory Council on Aging and Disabilities told them Wednesday.

A commissioner, meanwhile, reported that one of five senior centers in Wichita is badly in need of maintenance. The comments came during the commissioner’s first public hearing on the proposed 2023 county budget.

Jim Burgess of Derby said commissioners are not following the spirit of the 1982 vote by county residents that established a property tax of up to 1 mill for aging-related services. Commissioners have gradually lowered the rate, in effect leaving millions of dollars on the table each year. The proposed levy of .391 mill in the 2023 budget would be the smallest yet.

“I find this disrespectful of the senior population and I find it a dereliction of your duty to meet the needs of the seniors in Sedgwick County,” Burgess said.

Burgess, who’s also a member of the Derby Senior Center Advisory Board, said he was speaking as a private citizen and not representing either organization. Area senior centers, nutrition programs, medical transportation and about a dozen other services are funded by the aging mill levy.

Burgess said there are “at least two senior centers — Oaklawn and La Familia — that are struggling to stay open because of a shortage of funding from the county or from any other source. Both serve low-income communities and offer services heavily used and badly needed by their members.”

Noting that the senior population has increased rapidly since 1982, Burgess said the amount of revenue generated by the aging mill levy should grow rather than shrink or remain stagnant. The aging mill levy revenue makes up about 18 percent of the aging department’s overall budget this year, which is projected to rise 3.2 percent, to $13.95 million. Most of that comes from federal and state sources.

“Just to keep up with inflation, we would have expected to see an increase of at least 9 percent in funding of seniors in Sedgwick County,” Burgess said. “Instead, it’s virtually the same number of dollars as last year.”

“Is it that you don’t care?” Burgess asked commissioners. “Or that you’re not interested in taking care of the seniors needs? Or is just that – I hate to use the word – that you’re stingy?”

5th District Commissioner Jim Howell said he “completely agreed with everything (Burgess) said today.” As he has in the past, Howell called for putting the aging mill levy to another vote of residents, this time with a clearly defined rate. That way, revenue from it would grow as property valuations rise.

“I am confident it would pass,” Howell said.

4th District Commissioner Lacey Cruse said she spent several hours at the Northeast Senior Center on Monday and was disturbed by its condition.

“When I walked in, the lighting was so terrible for me, as a 40-year-old, that I was concerned at tax time, when our seniors go to do their taxes in this building, that they can’t even see to do their paperwork.”

Cruse said she asked the center staff for an estimate of what it would cost to “get the lighting up to snuff.”

She said the center also has a ceiling “falling down” in its crafts room and had been cited by city inspectors “because it can’t take care of its trees.”

Another senior center, La Familia, has security concerns, she said. Cruse said it’s time for the commission to reevaluate how much money is allocated to each center in the county. Noting that Northeast and La Familia now get $57,000 each from the county, she said that “doesn’t really cut the mustard when you’ve got to pay for things.”

Cruse appeared to agree with Howell about the need for another ballot measure.

3rd Commissioner David Dennis, however, said his chief concern is that all five county districts receive the same amount of aging-related services. Dennis, who chairs the commission, said the number of seniors in each district is fairly equal.

“However, the funding going into each district is not close to equal,” Dennis said. “We have some senior centers that are getting as much for one senior center as I’m getting for my entire district.”

“I will continue to fight for senior services but until we can figure out a way to make sure we are providing an equal level of services to all seniors instead of selected pockets, I will continue to object.”

Sedgwick County is the primary provider of aging-related services in Wichita and the rest of the county. The aging department budget represents about 2.7 percent of the overall county budget. The commission’s second and final budget hearing is Aug. 24.