By Joe Stumpe
A Sedgwick County commissioner says more money is needed now for senior-related programs and services, along with a way to make sure that funding grows in the future.
Jim Howell, who represents the 5th district, said the current system of allocating money for programs such as Meals on Wheels, in-home care and community senior centers has failed to keep pace with overall county spending and ignores the fact that the elderly population is growing rapidly.
County budget figures provided to the active age by Howell show that from 2000 to last year, the amount of property taxes annually collected and dedicated to aging programs grew from $1,951,474 to $2,309,816. That’s about an 18 percent increase, or some half-million dollars less than if the growth had been tied to the average annual inflation rate of 2 percent.
Meanwhile, total property taxes collected annually by Sedgwick County grew from $74,600,943 to $137,441,377, or 84 percent, during that same period.
“As the economy expands, there should be a natural increase in funding” of senior-related programs, Howell said.
In the early 1980s, county voters overwhelmingly authorized the county to collect “up to” 1 mill for that purpose. But the county has never fully used that option. A mill is a tax of $1 applied to every $1,000 of a property’s assessed value. The aging mill levy rate is set each year to generate enough money for the budget approved by commissioners.
Through the years, the county has cut the rate of the aging mill levy as overall property valuations have risen, keeping revenue flat or even reducing it. Last year, for instance, the aging mill levy rate fell to .494 from .523 in 2017, generating $60,000 less for senior programs. The highest mill rate the county ever used was .864 in 1989.
“Our process today is that we politically fund what we want to fund and don’t want to fund,” Howell said. “Then we backwards calculate the (aging) mill levy. To me, that’s the not the process voters approved.”
Howell says commissioners should establish a static rate for the aging mill levy, similar to 1.5 mills collected each year for Wichita State University.
Howell’s comments come as the county commission begins work on the county’s 2020 budget.
Chairman David Dennis called it “early in the budget process to be thinking about taking a certain mill levy and earmarking it for certain services.”
“All of our different programs compete for a finite amount of dollars”.
Commissioner Michael O’Donnell agreed with Howell that funding for aging services hasn’t kept up with the overall county budget, but says that reflects the public’s demand for more spending in other areas, chiefly law enforcement and roads. O’Donnell supports spending more on services such as the senior centers, but thinks a static mill levy “is going to be a hard sell based on other needs in the budget.”
Two new commissioners – Lacey Cruse and Pete Meitzner – are starting work on their first county budget. Both said senior-related issues need attention but that they want to become more familiar with county finances before committing to specific actions.
The aging levy currently helps pay for 15 different programs. The biggest – 16 senior centers and smaller clubs located in the county – have had their funding frozen since 2010.
“I think aging is just not a priority with anybody,” said Laurel Alkire, executive director of Senior Services, Inc., a nonprofit that runs Meals on Wheels, four senior centers and other programs.
Alkire said her agency appreciates the county money it receives and could not operate without it, but notes that there’s currently a four-week waiting list for people to receive Meals on Wheels because it can’t afford to hire enough people.
“We can’t accomplish what we need to do because there’s no money.”
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