By Bryan Horwath
A group led by a local real estate developer says Wichita needs about $20 million in additional funding for police officers and firefighters.
The group says it is ready to petition for signatures in an effort to get a city sales tax increase question on the ballot this fall.
"Let's solve our own problems," says Jason Van Sickle, the organizer of a group backed by Wichita police and firefighter union officials. "It came down to the thinking that, as a community and as firefighters and police officers, let's get together and figure out how to solve this."
Van Sickle and his group — he's calling it the Wichita Community Safety Coalition — hope to drum up enough grassroots support to open a dialogue about getting more funding for Wichita's police and fire departments. Specifically, Van Sickle says, more police feet on the street and more funding for fire department equipment.
Van Sickle says the group decided that the best way to push for additional funding is to get a sales tax increase question on the ballot in November. That's if the group can't convince the City Council to place the question on the ballot itself.
"We know that taxes aren't popular — they aren't even popular with us," Van Sickle says. "We don't want to pay more taxes, but in order to achieve the millions of dollars per year that both departments need to be adequately funded, we're talking about something in the neighborhood of a 0.25 percent sales tax."
"We're asking for a quarter-percent to help make this community safer for individuals and businesses. We're asking that if you're spending $100 on groceries, would you be willing to add a quarter to that to help make your community safer?"
Robert Schmeidler, president of the Wichita Lodge 5 Fraternal Order of Police, and Matt Schulte, president of the Wichita Firefighters Local 135, say they're behind the effort.
"The city's been at a slow boil for a while now," Schmeidler says. "We've been able to maintain and keep services at a level that we've always been able to keep them, but we're getting to a point where it's about to boil over. We're getting close to the point where, from our side of the fence, we're there just as responders now. It's not a prevention effort. This has the potential to get really bad."
According to Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman, a successful petition would require signatures from no less than 10 percent of the registered voters in Wichita. Currently, Lehman said, 215,887 voters are registered in Wichita, which means that at least 21,588 signatures would be needed.
The last time an initiative petition was successfully placed on the ballot was 2015 when a marijuana question was added, Lehman said.
"Our deadline for a ballot question for the general election is Sept. 4," Lehman said in an email. "Meaning, a petition would have to be submitted, processed, found sufficient and the city would have to call the election before Sept. 4."
Brandon Johnson said talks are underway with city departments for the next budget cycle, adding that more will be known about what the police and fire departments will receive in the coming weeks and months.
"If you look at some of the development downtown, the city has the STAR bond district and other downtown TIF districts," Schulte said. "We think that's great, we want those things here, but we need a tax district for police and fire. That's what we're saying."
Van Sickle is a Wichita real estate developer and the former president of the Old Town Association. Van Sickle recently started a group called the Wichita Downtown Neighborhood Alliance, which earlier this year hosted a meeting that centered on downtown safety.
Wichita City Manager Robert Layton declined to comment for this story, citing a need to be neutral. Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said he doesn't know enough about the Van Sickle group's proposal to comment, but he did point to a 2016 staffing study that indicated the department did need additional staff.
The Wichita Community Safety Coalition had a news conference scheduled for early Tuesday afternoon.