Monthly Archives: July 2011

State plans to offer health-care extensions to entice older employees to retire early

In an effort to cut payroll, the state expects to start offering older employees five years of continued health care coverage if they agree to retire early, the state’s administration chief told a Wichita Republican group Friday.

But a leader of a state employee union said the union hasn’t agreed to any such buyouts — and has to before they can be put into effect.

At a Friday meeting, Secretary of Administration Dennis Taylor told the Wichita Pachyderm Club: “Next week, we’re going to be announcing a retirement incentive program that’s going to be designed to reduce the size of government.

“Obviously we’re in a situation that’s making that more necessary than ever, given the urgency associated with the disparity between revenues and expenditures.” After the meeting, he said health coverage — and in some cases cash — would be the main incentives to encourage employees to retire early and save the state their salaries. “What’s been talked about has been providing an incentive of five years of the state picking up the health care for people who would agree to retire — (coverage) for five years or up to the age of 65, whichever came first,” he said.

“That’s the primary option,” he added. “There’s a secondary option of lump-sum cash payment for people who might not be on the state (health) plan.”

Jane Carter, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said the workers represented by her union haven’t agreed to that.

Read More »

Tequila Party bows to the heat, moves to Friday night at the NoMar Marketplace

The ongoing heat wave has prompted organizers to change the plan for this weekend’s inaugural Tequila Party political event in Wichita.

The group is moving the event from Saturday afternoon to Friday evening and will share the stage at the Nomar International Marketplace with a local band instead of bringing in outside talent, said Dennis Romero, Kansas state director for the Tequila Party.

The Tequila Party had planned to launch its drive to register and mobilize Latino voters for the 2012 election with an outdoor concert by PGEEZ, a Chicago rap artist of Mexican and Brazilian descent.

But organizers decided it’s simply too hot right now and plan to reschedule his appearance for the fall, when it will be cooler and the show will draw a larger turnout, Romero said.

In Kansas, the Tequila Party’s primary goal is to register as many voters as possible before a new state law takes effect requiring new registrants to provide documental proof of citizenship. Opponents of the new law say it will render mass public registration drives impractical because few people carry their birth certificate, passport or other required citizenship documentation with them. Read More »

Blind workers picket for equal salary rights outside Wichita Senate office

Randy Phifer used to work with architectural firms designing houses for a living — but everything changed when he lost his sight five years ago.

“Diabetes took my sight,” he said. “It started with driving and working in December of ’05 and I was totally blind in June of ’06.”
Today, he was one of about 20 people chanting “Equal work, equal pay!” on a hot sidewalk in front of a Wichita Senate office, protesting in what he believes to be one of the last frontiers of the civil rights movement — equality for people with disabilities.
The demonstrators, organized by the National Federation of the Blind, are opposed to a provision in a bill under consideration in the Senate that they say would make it easier to pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage.
“If there’s a minimum wage, there should be a minimum wage for everyone,” said Phifer, who traveled from his home in Overland Park for the demonstration. “It shouldn’t even be a question.”

Emily Schlenker, a student at Wichita State University who is blind, protests a bill in Congress that would solidify businesses' ability to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage.

Not far away Wichita State University student Emily Schlenker waved a sign reading “Do you support equality or exploitation?”
Schlenker, who can sense light and darkness but can’t see shapes, is working toward a master’s degree that she hopes will lead to a career in facilitating health services for underserved populations.
“I’m going to be college educated and I don’t feel that my being blind should make any difference as to what I’m being paid or whether or not I’m employed,” she said.
Although the demonstration took place outside the Wichita office of Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, relations between the picketers and the senator’s staff were cordial and organizers emphasized that Roberts was not the target.
The group was the local part of a national demonstration that put pickets at the door of every member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which is scheduled to consider the Workforce Investment Act early next month.
Several of the demonstrators were invited into Roberts’ office, where they met with Mel Thompson, the senator’s agricultural representative.
The demonstrators told Thompson of their displeasure with a provision in legislation to reauthorize the Federal Workforce Investment Act.
They said the new legislation would solidify and expand the opportunity for employers to pay disabled workers less, which they say is nothing but discrimination.
The federation for the blind also contends the bill would also encourage rehabilitation case agents to take the easy route of steering clients with disabilities toward sub-minimum-wage jobs in sheltered workshops, where people are generally paid by the piece for products they produce.
The wages often come out to less than the federal and state mandated minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Diane Fleming of Wichita, with husband Tom, participates in a demonstration for equal wages for people with disabilities. Diane Fleming, who is blind, has had trouble finding work since being laid off when the Air Force outsourced the phone system at McConnell Air Force Base.

The demonstrators are hoping to convince Roberts to offer an amendment to remove the language the don’t like from the bill.
They thanked Thompson for hearing them out. And he gave them some free tickets to the Get Motivated seminar held Tuesday at the Intrust Bank Arena.
“We admire you, and we thank you, and we commend you, and want to work with you,” he told the demonstrators.
The senator has not made a decision on the bill yet, but has been in contact with groups representing disabled people on both sides, said his press secretary, Andrea Candrian.
The provision at issue is supported by organizations such as Easter Seals, Goodwill Industries and others who operate sheltered workshops, she said.
Phifer had to change careers when his blindness rendered him unable to design houses. He now sells water filtration systems and works as a motivational speaker.
“When you talk to me on a phone, you don’t believe I’m blind,” he said.
A former baseball player, Phifer said he thinks of blindness as another sport to master.
“In this particular sport, you have to carry a cane — and you can’t peek,” he said.

Bill sparks people with blindness, other disabilities to picket at Sen. Roberts office

Persons with disabilities and their supporters will be picketing Tuesday morning in front of Sen. Pat Roberts’ Wichita office, part of a nationwide protest against a federal bill to make it easier to employ disabled workers at less than the minimum wage.

The picketers are opposed to new rules in a bill to reauthorize the Federal Workforce Investment Act. The bill is before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, of which Roberts is a member.

Similar demonstrations are planned across the country at the district offices of all of the committee members.

The Kansas demonstrators are characterizing their 10 a.m. event as an “educational” picket after Roberts indicated he’s willing to hear their concerns, said Donna Wood, state president for the National Federation of the Blind, the group organizing the demonstrations.

Roberts press secretary Andrea Candrian said the senator has not made up his mind on the issue, and has also been contacted by other disability organizations that support the proposal.

“Before any changes are made, he wants to fully understand the consequences, and will continue to reach out and study it,” Candrian said.

Chris Danielson, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind in Washington, said the bill would solidify language in federal law allowing some employers to pay disabled workers less than the federal minimum wage. The NFB contends the bill would also encourage rehabilitation case agents to take the easy route of steering clients who have disabilities toward sub-minimum-wage jobs in “sheltered” workshops.

Wood said she sees it primarily as an issue of equal pay for equal work.

She said she doesn’t think it’s justifiable to pay a worker with a disability less than minimum wage when they bring “equal time, equal energy and equal skill” as other workers.

The bill is currently scheduled for a committee vote on Aug. 3.

However, “It’s been scheduled numerous times and been pushed back,” Candrian said, so it’s uncertain whether the committee will actually take action next week.

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Ambulance fees to go up in Sedgwick County for some users

Ambulance fees in Sedgwick County will increase for the first time since 2003.

Commissioners voted 3 to 2 today to raise fees for services provided by EMS crews. The increase will affect about 35 percent of users.

The increase will not affect the 65 percent of patients who have Medicare, Medicaid or Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

Under the fee schedule approved today, non-emergency ambulance trips, say from a nursing home to another facility, will rise from $250 to $350 or $350 to $450 depending on the level of care.

Emergency responses will rise from $500 to $600 or $600 to $650 depending on the level of care.

Rides for some critical care patients will increase from $600 to $700.

The mileage fee also will increase from $7 to $10.

County staff have estimated the higher fees will bring in more than $648,000.

Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau voted against the increases.

Public hearing under way on Sedgwick County budget

Several speakers are urging Sedgwick County commissioners not to cut the extension center’s budget the roughly 15 percent recommended by staff.

From master gardeners and 4-H leaders, supporters of the center say the cut would devastate the agency.

County Manager William Buchanan asked county department heads to cut their budgets 6.6 percent, except for those involved in public safety, where he asked for cuts of 3.3 percent.

Buchanan presented his recommended budget to commissioners last week.

Buchanan has recommended a nearly 15 percent cut for the Sedgwick County Extension Center. He said in an Eagle story Monday that the center’s budget had increased 9.8 percent during the past five years while the county’s general fund had increased 1.7 percent. He said that was why he had recommended a higher cut for the center.

Today is the first of two public hearings before commissioners vote on the budget Aug. 3.

The next public hearing will be at 7 p.m. Aug. 2 in the commission’s chambers on the third floor of the courthouse, 525 N. Main.

Wichita City Council revokes bar owner’s liquor license

In an emotional and contentious vote, Wichita City Council members today voted 4-3 to revoke liquor licenses from both Doobley’s bars — one at 767 N. West St., the other at 2415 W. 31st Street South.

Bar owner Robert Crandell said the move will likely kill his business. But his attorney, Jim Thompson, said he’ll file for a temporary injunction in district court that would allow the bar to stay open until the revocation is appealed in district court.

The revocation followed about two hours of testimony from police, city lawyers, Crandell and Thompson. The city argued that Crandell lied to police about what he knew after someone stomped on the head of an intoxicated patron in the Doobley’s parking lot on West Street in the early morning hours of June, 1, 2010. The victim barely survived. A suspect was charged with attempted homicide and later pleaded guilty to aggravated battery.

Crandell pleaded no contest to obstruction of justice in district court, but he said that was only because he couldn’t afford a legal battle and didn’t think it would lead to the revocation of his liquor license. Crandell said he did not provide false statements to police. Read More »

Sedgwick County might move Kansas Coliseum bulls to Delano

The shiny chrome bulls at the former Kansas Coliseum complex could go to a new home: Historic Delano west of downtown Wichita.

Staff has recommended that the longhorn John Kearney sculptures be moved to Delano because of the area’s ties to cattle drives. The Historic Delano website says that “Delano sprang up as a cowtown at the end of the Chisholm Trail and quickly gained a reputation as a place where trail-weary cowboys could take their rest and recreation in the many saloons and brothels.”

The sculptures need about $87,000 in repairs. One can’t be moved without them, staff said.

Maize South High School also has expressed interest in the bulls.

Commissioner Jim Skelton said he thinks whatever group gets the bulls should share in the cost of repairing them. Commissioner Richard Ranzau noted that Maize said they would move and repair the bulls at no cost to the county.

County commissioners consider options for former Kansas Coliseum

Sedgwick County commissioners this morning are considering options for the future of the former Kansas Coliseum complex.

Options include issuing a new request for proposals to developers, hiring a commercial broker to sell off all or parts of the property or auctioning off the complex.

County Manager William Buchanan said the ideal would be to find a developer who would want to operate the Kansas Pavilions, which remain open, “to get us out of that business.”

Buchanan said there are a few “tire kickers” who have expressed interest in the complex.

Britt Brown Arena has been closed at the complex since last year. The county made a commitment to keep the pavilions, popular for equestrian events, dog shows and swap meets, open through 2016.

But the county operates the pavilions at a loss. The budgeted subsidy for the complex next year is $584,000.

In 2009, the county asked developers for their ideas for the complex. Three groups submitted ideas, all of which the county rejected. One idea was a rodeo complex.

Commissioners vote 3 to 2 to approve AirTran subsidy

Sedgwick County commissioners voted 3-2 this morning to approve a subsidy for AirTran to continue low-cost air service out of Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau voted against the subsidy, saying it is not government’s job to support private business and guarantee revenue.

The agreement calls for $6.5 million of revenue guarantee, most of which is coming from the state. The city and county are kicking in $1.75 million, or $875,000 each.