Category Archives: Sedgwick county government

In Sedgwick County, choosing your own benchmarks

The Sedgwick County Commission makes a bid for accountability with an economic development agency, but will likely fall short of anything meaningful.

Greater Wichita Partnership 01The Greater Wichita Partnership is a reorganization of local economic development agencies. It has asked the Sedgwick County Commission for $300,000 to fund a portion of its activities this year. Those on the commission who are skeptical of GWP and its predecessors have asked for measurable outcomes of the progress GWP makes.

Here is a paragraph from the agreement with GWP that commissioners will consider this week:

9. Measurable Outcomes. GWP shall be subject to measureable outcomes as it shall determine, subject to review by the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. GWP shall present an annual report to the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners at a regularly-scheduled Commission meeting no later than December 31, 2016.

I appreciate the attempt by members of the county commission to ask for accountability. But this paragraph is so weak as to be meaningless. The nature of the measurable outcomes is not defined, even in broad strokes. Further, GWP gets to decide, at an unknown time, what constitutes the measurable outcomes. Then the county commission gets to “review” them, which is a weak — really, nonexistent — form of oversight. We ought to ask that the county commission “approve” them, and sooner rather than later.

Sedgwick County Courthouse 2014-03-23But there is a bit of good news. Paragraph 10 of the agreement calls for a separate accounting fund to be created for the money the taxpayers of Sedgwick County will give to GWP. Then: “GWP agrees and understands that, by entering into this funding Agreement, any and all of its records, documents, and other information related to the Fund and the activities financed thereby shall be open and made available to the public upon request, in accordance with the Kansas Open Records Act.”

That’s good news, and a move towards the type of transparency and accountability that local governments — especially the City of Wichita — promote but finds difficult to actually deliver. Although this provision applies to only the county-supplied funds, hopefully GWP will realize that being transparent is better than being secretive.

Sedgwick County financial document archive

Sedgwick County Working for YouSedgwick County Kansas doesn’t make available online budgets for more than two years, so I’ve obtained both recommended and adopted budgets and deposited them here. There are also other documents such as comprehensive annual financial reports.

The documents are also available through DocumentCloud below.



Richard Ranzau on core American values in Sedgwick County

Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Richard Ranzau spoke on the topic “Returning Core American Values to Sedgwick County” before a luncheon audience of the Wichita Pachyderm Club Friday, August 28, 2015. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Videography by Paul Soutar.

Wichita Chamber speaks on county spending and taxes

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce urges spending over fiscally sound policies and tax restraint in Sedgwick County.

Today the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce issued a “key vote” alert. This procedure, used by political groups of all persuasions, alerts elected officials that the Chamber prefers a certain outcome on an issue. Those who vote in harmony with the Chamber are likely to receive support in their next election, while the noncompliant are implicitly threatened with opponents the Chamber will support.

Here’s what the Chamber sent to commissioners:

From: Barby Jobe
Sent: Tuesday, August 11, 2015 2:47 PM

TO: SEDGWICK COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS

FROM: WALTER BERRY, Vice Chair, Wichita Metro Chamber Government Relations Committee

RE: KEY VOTE ALERT

While we have not recently had many “key votes” at the local level, the Wichita Metro Chamber would like to alert you that we will be key voting the 2016 Budget.

The Chamber would like to encourage the Commission to consider a compromise by leaving the property tax rate as it is currently and reducing the amount of cash-funded roads thus allowing a reallocation of funds for economic development and education, culture and recreation, city partnerships, and health and human services.

Thank you for your consideration.

Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city's 2012 Performance Measure Report
Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city’s 2012 Performance Measure Report
It’s unclear precisely what the Wichita Chamber is asking commissioners to do. It seems likely the Chamber is asking for support of “Plan C.” That is the plan drafted by commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh, which proposes deferring road maintenance in order to free funds for current spending. That plan sets the county on the course chosen by the city of Wichita some years ago. That is, defer maintenance on streets and other infrastructure to support current spending. That policy lead to declining quality of streets and a large backlog of other maintenance, with a recent report from the city finding that the “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is an additional $45 to $55 million per year.

This deferral of maintenance needs is a form of deficit spending. It’s curious that a purportedly conservative organization like the Wichita Chamber of Commerce would support that.

Well, it’s not really surprising. The Wichita Chamber has long advocated for more taxation and spending, taking the lead in promoting the one cent per dollar sales tax proposal in Wichita last year. The Chamber has supported big-spending Republicans over fiscal conservatives for office at several levels.

Your chamber of commerce radio buttonsIn Wichita, and across the country, local chambers of commerce support crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.

That may be surprising to read. Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce — since their membership is mostly business firms — support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s usually not the case. It’s certainly is not the case in Wichita, where the Chamber supports higher taxes, more government spending, more business welfare, more government planning and control, more cronyism — and less economic freedom. The predictable result is less prosperity, which has been the case in Wichita under the leadership of the Wichita Chamber, its policies, and the politicians and bureaucrats it supports.

Here, in an excerpt from his article “Tax Chambers” economist Stephen Moore — formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now with Heritage Foundation — explains the decline of the local chamber of commerce:

The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda — but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government.

In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes in his recent book, “Rip-Off,” “state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes.”

In the states, chambers have come to believe their primary function is to secure tax financing for sports stadiums, convention centers, high-tech research institutes and transit boondoggles. Some local chambers have reportedly asked local utilities, school administrators and even politicians to join; others have opened membership to arts councils, museums, civic associations and other “tax eater” entities.

“I used to think that public employee unions like the NEA were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions,” says Mr. Caldera of the Independence Institute. “I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself ‘the business community’ and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations.”

From Stephen Moore in the article “Tax Chambers” published in The Wall Street Journal February 10, 2007. The complete article is here.

Cost of restoring quality of life spending cuts in Sedgwick County: 43 deaths

An analysis of public health spending in Sedgwick County illuminates the consequences of public spending decisions. In particular, those calling for more spending on zoos and arts must consider the lives that could be saved by diverting this spending to public health, according to analysis from Kansas Health Institute.

Kansas Health Institute is concerned about proposed reductions in public health spending in Sedgwick County. Sunday it released a fact sheet titled Decreases in Public Health Spending Associated with More Deaths from Preventable Causes, subtitled “Analysis of how proposed public health funding reductions in Sedgwick County could lead to more preventable deaths over time.”

Kansas Health Institute infographic
Kansas Health Institute infographic
KHI’s analysis is based on the paper “Evidence Links Increases In Public Health Spending To Declines In Preventable Deaths,” Glen P. Mays and Sharla A. Smith, Health Affairs, 30, no.8 (2011):1585-1593, available here. Excerpts from the paper are below. KHI summarizes the findings of the paper as: “In short, the research showed that increased spending by local public health agencies over the thirteen-year period studied was linked to statistically significant declines in deaths from some preventable causes such as infant mortality, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”

KHI developed a model based on the paper’s findings to conclude that the proposed reductions in spending on public health in Sedgwick County would result in the deaths show in the nearby table from their fact sheet. The total of these numbers is an additional 65 deaths per year.

Perhaps in response to these findings, two Sedgwick County Commissioners have proposed eliminating the proposed cuts. To help understand the effects of this spending, I duplicated the analysis performed by KHI. I took the proposed increases in spending (or reductions in cuts) and subtracted the spending for public health, leaving $1,019,499 in spending that loosely qualifies as “quality of life” spending. It’s for things like the zoo, Exploration Place, economic development, and the like.

Sedgwick County spending analysis based on Kansas Health Institute model. Click for larger version.
Sedgwick County spending analysis based on Kansas Health Institute model. Click for larger version.
As can be seen in the nearby illustration, if this quality of life spending was instead spent on public health, we could save 43 lives per year. Based on the methodology used by KHI, this is the human cost of restoring only the proposed cuts to quality of life spending in Sedgwick County. If we were to use the totality of quality of life spending, or even just a subset like the $5.3 million spent on an elephant exhibit, the cost in human lives is large. This, of course, assumes that the KHI methodology is valid and reliable.

In its summary, the KHI report states: “Budget decisions have real consequences.” Those supporting spending on quality of life issues instead of public health have some explaining to do.

Excerpts from Mays et al.

“On balance, there is very little empirical evidence about the extent to which differences in public health spending levels contribute to differences in population health. Several cross-national studies have found weak and conflicting associations between spending and health outcomes at a national level.”

In a section titled “Limitations” the authors note “Several limitations of this analysis are worthy of emphasis. Although we used strong statistical controls to address possible sources of bias, it remains possible that factors distinct from, but closely correlated with, public health spending may explain some of the observed associations between spending and mortality.”

Also, “Local public health activities may have important and perhaps more immediate effects on these other indicators of health … this analysis may underestimate the health consequences of changes in local public health spending.”

In conclusion, the authors write: “Our analysis supports the contention that spending on local public health activities is a wise health investment. Increasing such investments in communities with historically low levels of spending may provide an effective way of reducing geographic disparities in population health. However, more money by itself is unlikely to generate significant and sustainable health gains.”

In Sedgwick County, a moral crusade

In Sedgwick County the debate over the budget has the dimension of a moral crusade, except for one thing.

As Sedgwick County debates next year’s budget, the arguments against a three percent cut in spending have been heated. Proponents of spending say the commissioners are not honoring commitments (see here and here), the commissioners are being short-sighted and foolish for proposing cuts, the county has a moral obligation to use taxes to care for the needy, and that county spending has a great economic benefit.

But what isn’t often mentioned is the nature of taxation and government spending. A new video from Learn Liberty offers a perspective on the morality of government that seems to be totally missing in the debate. View the video below, or click here.

In summary, the video poses these questions:

1. Is it moral for you to donate your money and time to (the zoo, Exploration Place, arts, health care for the poor, vocational education, payments to companies so they remain in the county instead of moving, a livestock show, the river festival, the sports commission, etc.)?

2. Is it moral for you to force other people to donate their time and money to (same list as in question one)?

3. Is it moral for government to force people to donate their time and money to (same list as in question one)?

If you answer “no” to question two, then how do you justify answering “yes” to question three? All sorts of rationalizations are available to support these two answers, such as:

1. Society is like a club, and taxes are the dues.
2. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.
3. Government owns the nation (state, county, city, school district), and if you want to live or do business there, you must pay rent.
4. Government gives (most) people back more in services and benefits than they pay in taxes.
5. Government makes investments with our taxes that earn it even more tax revenue.

Some of these have a grain of truth, such as taxes providing for the national defense and a justice system. These two things make it possible for us to be safe from foreign aggressors and to have our rights and property protected. It doesn’t take a whole lot — comparatively speaking — to provide these functions, but government goes way beyond.

In fact, the truth behind number four leads to a most uncivil society, where people spend vast amounts of time and money lobbying for government to take even more time and money away from others and give it to them — or to the things they think your money should be spent on. We end up fighting over things like zoos and arts, instead of cooperating to attain these desirable amenities.

And fight we do. The techniques are known in advance. The book Economics In One Lesson, first published in 1946 and available to read at the Foundation for Economic Education, explains fallacies (false or mistaken ideas) that are particularly common in the field of economics and public policy. At the very start of the book the author Henry Hazlitt explains:

Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine — the special pleading of selfish interests. While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for then plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.

In addition to these endless pleadings of self-interest, there is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.

An example of using the “best buyable minds” is the promotion of government spending on arts as having some magic power not present in other spending. These buyable minds have produced an impressive document titled Arts & Economic Prosperity III: The Economic Impact of the Nonprofit Arts and Culture Industry in the State of Kansas. It explains that when a theater company (presumably operating with a government grant) buys a gallon of paint, it sets off a chain of economic activity that benefits many people. True enough. It’s called commerce. But anyone buying the paint sets off the same chain of activity. The same, that is, except that homeowners spending their own money on paint are doing so voluntarily, while the government-subsidized theater company has used the force of government to take money from others.

That’s a big difference, and one lost on most residents of Sedgwick County. I’m hopeful that the people pleading for more taxation and spending are simply unaware of these considerations, as if so, their minds can change. The alternative is much more bleak.

In Sedgwick County, expectation of government entitlements

In Sedgwick County, we see that once companies are accustomed to government entitlements, any reduction is met with resistance.

When an executive of Spirit Aerosystems accused the Sedgwick County Commission of “working against us,” the company may have forgotten the assistance and special treatment the company has received from local governments and taxpayers. This assistance has amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades, when we consider both Spirit and its predecessor, Boeing.

Now, Spirit objects to a proposed reduction in funding to Wichita Area Technical College, and also cuts to local attractions such as the zoo. The proposed cut to WATC is less than the cut made the year before, although part of that cut was rescinded, making the proposed cut equal to last year’s cut. These cuts follow a trajectory recommended by the former county manager, who was widely praised as understanding and accommodating the needs of area business firms.

So when Spirit accuses county taxpayers as working against the company, it’s a little hard to stomach. Residents of Sedgwick County pay higher taxes so that Spirit can pay less.

Especially glaring is when companies ask for forgiveness of paying sales tax, as Spirit routinely does. In Kansas, low-income families must pay sales tax on their groceries, and at a rate that is among the highest in the country. Even more difficult to fathom are the companies that campaigned for a higher sales tax in Wichita, but engage in financial maneuvers designed to avoid paying any sales tax. Sometimes companies campaign for higher property taxes, especially school bonds, but then ask for exemption from paying those taxes. 1 2 3

Following, a discussion of a Spirit Aerosystems tax abatement request from 2014.

This week the Wichita City Council will hold a public hearing concerning the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds to Spirit AeroSystems, Inc. The purpose of the bonds is to allow Spirit to avoid paying property taxes on taxable property purchased with bond proceeds for a period of five years. The abatement may then be extended for another five years. Additionally, Spirit will not pay sales taxes on the purchased property.

City documents state that the property tax abatement will be shared among the taxing jurisdictions in these estimated amounts:

City: $81,272
State: $3,750
County: $73,442
USD 259: $143,038

No value is supplied for the amount of sales tax that may be avoided. The listing of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is likely an oversight by the city, as the Spirit properties lie in the Derby school district. This is evident when the benefit-cost ratios are listed:

City of Wichita: 1.98 to one
General Fund: 1.78 to one
Debt Service: 2.34 to one
Sedgwick County: 1.54 to one
U.S.D. 260: 1.00 to one (Derby school district)
State of Kansas: 28.23 to one

The City of Wichita has a policy where economic development incentives should have a benefit cost ratio of 1.3 to one or greater for the city to participate, although there are many loopholes the city regularly uses to approve projects with smaller ratios. Note that the ratio for the Derby school district is 1.00 to one, far below what the city requires for projects it considers for participation. That is, unless it uses one of the many available loopholes.

We have to wonder why the City of Wichita imposes upon the Derby school district an economic development incentive that costs the Derby schools $143,038 per year, with no payoff? Generally the cost of economic development incentives are shouldered because there is the lure of a return, be it real or imaginary. But this is not the case for the Derby school district. This is especially relevant because the school district bears, by far, the largest share of the cost of the tax abatement.

Of note, the Derby school district extends into Wichita, including parts of city council districts 2 and 3. These districts are represented by Pete Meitzner and James Clendenin, respectively.

The city’s past experience

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer Facebook 2012-01-04Spirit Aerosystems is a spin-off from Boeing and has benefited from many tax abatements over the years. In a written statement in January 2012 at the time of Boeing’s announcement that it was leaving Wichita, Mayor Carl Brewer wrote “Our disappointment in Boeing’s decision to abandon its 80-year relationship with Wichita and the State of Kansas will not diminish any time soon. The City of Wichita, Sedgwick County and the State of Kansas have invested far too many taxpayer dollars in the past development of the Boeing Company to take this announcement lightly.”

Along with the mayor’s statement the city released a compilation of the industrial revenue bonds authorized for Boeing starting in 1979. The purpose of the IRBs is to allow Boeing to escape paying property taxes, and in many cases, sales taxes. According to the city’s compilation, Boeing was granted property tax relief totaling $657,992,250 from 1980 to 2017. No estimate for the amount of sales tax exemption is available. I’ve prepared a chart showing the value of property tax abatements in favor of Boeing each year, based on city documents. There were several years where the value of forgiven tax was over $40 million.

Boeing Wichita tax abatements, annual value, from City of Wichita.
Boeing Wichita tax abatements, annual value, from City of Wichita.
Kansas Representative Jim Ward, who at the time was Chair of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation, issued this statement regarding Boeing and incentives:

Boeing is the poster child for corporate tax incentives. This company has benefited from property tax incentives, sales tax exemptions, infrastructure investments and other tax breaks at every level of government. These incentives were provided in an effort to retain and create thousands of Kansas jobs. We will be less trusting in the future of corporate promises.

Not all the Boeing incentives started with Wichita city government action. But the biggest benefit to Boeing, which is the property tax abatements through industrial revenue bonds, starts with Wichita city council action. By authorizing IRBs, the city council cancels property taxes not only for the city, but also for the county, state, and school district.

Sedgwick County WATC funding trajectory following manager’s recommendations

Sedgwick County taxpayers have been generous with funding for Wichita Area Technical College, and the former county manager has recommended reducing its funding.

During the July 16, 2014 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, county manager Bill Buchanan presented the recommended budget for 2015. It included a cut in funding for Wichita Area Technical College in the amount of $150,000. In response to a question, Buchanan told the commissioners:

“The new president has been assertive and aggressive in trying to deal with their financial issues. They have, he has turned that financial, that institution around financially. They are in pretty healthy shape. They have a fund balance that’s relatively strong, and it’s in my opinion that our subsidy, although it was critical in the beginning, is less critical in their operations now, and perhaps it would be time for us, when we face our own fiscal issues, to reduce their funding so we can address some of ours.”

Under the leadership of Chair Dave Unruh, this reduction in funding was approved.

At the January 7, 2015 meeting of the commission, again under the leadership of Unruh, the commission heard an off-agenda item to restore $50,000 of the funding for 2015, making the cut $100,000. That item passed. Being an off-agenda item, there is little or no public notice. Commissioner Karl Peterjohn noted this in his remarks: “I frankly would feel much more comfortable if we postponed this issue until we could get it published in the paper and have at least whatever public attention that that would generate provided, as opposed to taking another Off Agenda item that’s going to increase county spending.”

In support of Peterjohn’s motion to delay the decision for a week, Commissioner Richard Ranzau expressed concern over the lack of financial information made available to commissioners. He also repeated the manager’s recommendation that WATC needs less county funding: “Well, I’d like to have more financial information. It’s my understanding that since the state has increased funding for Vocational Ed, they’re doing very well, their reserves increased significantly, and that’s why, I mean, I was told the reason we could reduce it $150,000 was because they were doing so well. I support what they’re doing out there, but if they’ve had an influx of money from the state, a result of Vocational Ed legislation then I think it’s appropriate to adjust our spending, and I’m not prepared to increase it by $50,000 without more financial information, and that’s why I support Commissioner Peterjohn’s motion to postpone this a week so we can get more information and make a more educated decision on this. There is really no reason for hurry through this in my estimation.”

In summary, the Sedgwick County manager recommended that commissioners reduce funding to WATC, as its need for county funding has declined. Under commission chair Unruh, the commission did so, in the net amount of $100,000. The same amount is proposed for cuts this year. In light of this, the criticism of WATC beneficiaries like Spirit Aerosystems is unfounded.

By the way, the commission has been criticized for considering off-agenda items since Ranzau became chair in January, with the Wichita Eagle editorial board describing one off-agenda vote as “abrupt.” In another op-ed, Rhonda Holman complained that “The move came in an off-agenda item, with little opportunity for GWEDC and the business community to argue against it.”

Whether off-agenda items are good or bad public policy seems to depend on the whim of the Eagle editorial board.

Sedgwick County spending beneficiaries overwhelm others

That so many speakers at a public hearing were in favor of government spending is not surprising.

In a letter to the editor of the Wichita Eagle the writer stated “But apparently few of them felt strongly enough to come to the commission hearing and express their support of budget cuts.” He was referring to the public hearing on Wednesday July 29, when some 50 people spoke, and just three supported cuts.

This lopsided ratio is not surprising. It’s an example of the well-known phenomenon of concentrated benefits and dispersed (or diffuse) costs. Explained in this video, it observes that for most government spending programs, the benefits are showered on a few very visible recipients who benefit greatly. There were 47 of these speaking at last week’s public hearing.

But the costs of these spending programs are spread across everyone, or at least a large group. For them, the cost is small. In fact, politicians use this argument in favor of their spending programs. Dave Unruh observed that the proposed county property tax cuts amount to savings of $1.37 per year for a $100,000 house. His arithmetic is correct, and so is his understanding of human nature. Most people look at the small cost of any single government spending program and realize it’s not worth much personal effort to save $1.37 (or whatever) per year.

Since the costs of each spending program is small for any single person, not many get worked up and take action. That’s why only three of 50 speakers opposed the spending programs. Politicians and beneficiaries of spending programs rely on this imbalance of motives.

Not often mentioned is that most of the organizations seeking county funding are charities. Anyone may make contributions directly to them. Some people have testified that they don’t need a cut in taxes, or that they would be willing to be taxed more so that these organizations could have more funding. Perhaps these people don’t realize that it is within their power to make contributions to these charities at any time.

It seems we have forgotten that charity is a voluntary act, and that government taxation and spending is not charitable. This is evidence of further drift from a civil society where things like zoos and medical care for the poor are handled on a voluntary and cooperative basis. Instead, we fight.

Sedgwick County Zoo funding

The Sedgwick County Commission has been generous with zoo funding, spending far more than agreed upon and granting a moratorium on loan payments and interest.

Funding agreement from 2013.
Funding agreement from 2013.
In September 2013 the Sedgwick County Commission agreed on a new funding plan with the Sedgwick County Zoo for years 2014 through 2018. For 2016 the recommended budget calls for keeping funding the same as the 2015 level instead of a 6.9 percent increase as indicated by the 2013 plan.

That’s the plan. What actually happened is quite different.

In September 2014 the commission voted to give the zoo $5.3 million to help pay for a new elephant exhibit. This contribution was not in any funding agreement, and the money was paid in January 2015. This extra funding is almost as large as the planned funding for 2015, which was about $5.6 million.

Sedgwick County Zoo funding, planned and actual.
Sedgwick County Zoo funding, planned and actual.
For next year the commission proposes drawing back just a little, proposing that 2016 funding be the same as 2015 planned and actual funding.

But instead of being grateful for the contribution of $5.3 million for the elephant exhibit, zoo boosters are bitter because the commission is proposing to keep zoo funding level from 2015 to 2016. Level, that is, if one ignores an extra $5.3 million from the county in 2015.

When considering zoo funding we also need to factor in the zoo’s failure to keep its commitment to the county. The zoo has borrowed money from the county so it could build a restaurant. Now the zoo is enjoying a deferral of loan payments and a break from accumulating interest charges. See For Sedgwick County Zoo, a moratorium on its commitment.

By the way, the 2013 funding plan holds that “either party may terminate this agreement by giving written notice.” The parties contemplated that one may not be able or willing to meet the plan.

For Sedgwick County Zoo, a moratorium on its commitment

As the Sedgwick County Zoo and its supporters criticize commissioners for failing to honor commitments, the Zoo is enjoying a deferral of loan payments and a break from accumulating interest charges.

In 2007 the Sedgwick County commission authorized a loan of up to $2.4 million to the zoo to build a restaurant. The idea for this is credited to just-retired County Manager Bill Buchanan. According to meeting minutes from February 21, 2007, the Manager told the commissioners “A new restaurant in the zoo will make some money for the zoo, it is a feature that zoos around the country use as a way to attract people and as an additional revenue source.” As for the county’s role in the venture, the manager said “I’ve viewed this as a way to invest our money, rather than with a Treasury note[,] with a partner.”

Buchanan pitched the loan as a way for the county to earn a little bit more interest than a Treasury note, and as a way for the Zoo to save over $100,000 in interest. If the Zoo was not able to repay the loan, the manager said the county’s annual contribution to the Zoo could be a repayment source. “No one is anticipating that,” said Buchanan.

Immediately after the manager spoke Chris Chronis, the county’s Chief Financial Officer, told the commissioners that “despite what you may have concluded from what the Manager just said, we do not consider this an investment. In fact, it would not be a permitted investment under State law.” Instead, he told the commissioners it should be considered “a loan for economic development purposes.”

Mark Reed, the Zoo Director, told the commissioners “it is my desire and hope to have this paid off in five to seven years.”

What has been the result of this loan?

The zoo borrowed a total of $2,251,100 in two draws in 2007 and 2008. Payments were made through 2013. As of the end of 2014 the zoo owed $936,044 on this loan, according to the county’s annual financial report and other documents.

In 2013 the commission authorized a five-year moratorium on loan payments, to start in 2014. Besides deferring loan payments, the commission decided that interest will not accrue during the moratorium. The deferred payments are in the amount of $234,011.11 for each year.

Sedgwick County budget outlook

The Sedgwick County recommended budget for 2016 reduces projected deficits.

Sedgwick County budget outlook as presented to commissioners in February.
Sedgwick County budget outlook as presented to commissioners in February.
In February Sedgwick County Commissioners were presented with a forecast of budget deficits through 2020, as can be seen in the nearby illustration provided by the county. (Click charts for larger versions.)

Sedgwick County budget outlook as contemplated by recommended budget in July.
Sedgwick County budget outlook as contemplated by recommended budget in July.
The recommended budget reduces the deficits in each year, as can be seen in the second chart provided by the county. The bar chart provides a different view of the same figures.

During a meeting with commissioners, the county’s financial officer said “In each year this budget provides for a reduction in the anticipated deficit.” He also added that it improves the county’s financial picture.

The recommended budget cuts spending in some areas. An alternative that could be proposed by commissioners is to raise taxes, either property or sales.

An alternate presentation of the projected deficits based on the recommended budget.
An alternate presentation of the projected deficits based on the recommended budget.

Sedgwick County commissioners oppose Westar rate increase

The following resolution was voted on during the July 22, 2015 meeting. All five Sedgwick County commissioners voted in favor. More about the proposed rate increase may be found from Westar, from the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, and also the Kansas Corporation Commission.

A RESOLUTION OPPOSING $152 MILLION ELECTRIC RATE HIKE

WHEREAS, electricity is a key utility needed for life and a strong, functioning economy in the 21st century; and

WHEREAS, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) as measured by the federal government’s measurement is well under two percent a year; and

WHEREAS, the $152 million dollar rate hike proposed by Westar would average an increase of almost 8 percent for rate payers; and

WHEREAS, between 2009 and 2014 Westar has received 22 electric rate hikes that have totaled $536.9 million (this is the net that also includes two rate reductions that totaled $6 million during that same period of time) at a time when the Sedgwick County economy was struggling and with almost no growth in the assessed value of the taxable property base; and

WHEREAS, residential rates would see another dramatic increase of 12.1 percent if this request is approved as requested according to the Citizens Utility Rate Board (CURB); and

WHEREAS, further electric rate hikes of $24 million are either pending or projected within the next year according to CURB; and

WHEREAS, the competitiveness of this region is dependent upon having competitive rates for basic utility functions, with electricity production a vital key; and

WHEREAS, we are aware that the federal government is opposing carbon based energy production and intent on raising costs, while limiting low cost energy production.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF SEDGWICK COUNTY, KANSAS, that:

1. Sedgwick County opposes this proposed $152 million rate hike by Westar. This opposition also extends to any other rate hikes sought by Westar this year.

2. Sedgwick County opposes unfunded federal mandates onto energy production that would raise costs, inhibit production, and make Kansas and the rest of the U.S. less energy competitive with foreign competition and does so without significant environmental benefits.

Wichita Eagle editorial board on county budget

When someone invokes “ideology” in their criticism of you, you know that they’ve either run short of actual arguments based on fact, or they don’t know what ideological means.

In its op-ed this Sunday, the Wichita Eagle editorial board blasts the Sedgwick County Commission for cuts to various programs, mentioning “Sedgwick County Zoo, Exploration Place, the Arts Council and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition” specifically.

I might invite the Eagle editorialists to revisit the county’s recommended budget for 2013, prepared under the leadership of then-chairman Tim Norton, the body’s sole Democrat, both then and now. According to county documents, Norton’s recommended budget made these cuts:

Zoo: $255,889
Exploration Place: $112,405
Arts Council: $0
GWEDC: $0

So this is not the first time the zoo and Exploration Place have been cut.

Additionally, Norton’s recommended budget cut 113.80 employees from the county payroll. Of these, 60.75 were from the closure of the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch Juvenile Detention Program, leaving 53.05 in cuts from other county programs. The 2016 recommended budget calls for cuts of 10.00 employees.

I wonder: Did the Eagle editorial writers rail against commissioners Norton, Unruh, and Skelton for the cuts in the 2013 recommended budget? Yes, there was criticism of budget cuts then, but no ideological bashing.

This year the Eagle editorial board also criticizes the commission majority for its plan to eliminate routing borrowing for county roads and bridges. Last year the Eagle recommended Wichitans vote in favor of a sales tax. One of its components, viewed favorably by the city and the Eagle, was the avoidance of borrowing for a large public works project.

But now that conservatives on the county commission propose avoiding debt — some debt, not all debt — the Eagle is opposed.

The shifting sands underlying the Eagle editorial board’s criticism is evidence of an ideology, and a rather shallow one. Cuts made by conservatives? Bad. There will be damage, says the headline.

Much larger cuts made by progressives? The editorial board acknowledges “the county needs to tighten its belt and prioritize its services.”

That’s quite a contrast.

Here are excerpts from the 2013 and 2016 Sedgwick County recommended budgets showing recommended cuts.

Intrust Bank Arena loss for 2014 is $5 million

The depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita recognizes and accounts for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. But no one wants to talk about this.

The true state of the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita are not often a subject of public discussion. Arena boosters promote a revenue-sharing arrangement between the county and the arena operator, referring to this as profit or loss. But this arrangement is not an accurate and complete accounting, and hides the true economics of the arena. What’s missing is depreciation expense.

In February the Wichita Eagle reported: “The arena’s net income for 2014 came in at $122,853, all of which will go to SMG, the company that operates the facility under contract with the county, Assistant County Manager Ron Holt said Wednesday.” A reading of the minutes for the February 11 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission finds Holt mentioning depreciation expense not a single time. Strike one.

Last December, in a look at the first five years of the arena, its manager told the Wichita Eagle this: “‘We know from a financial standpoint, the building has been successful. Every year, it’s always been in the black, and there are a lot of buildings that don’t have that, so it’s a great achievement,’ said A.J. Boleski, the arena’s general manager.” Strike two.

I didn’t notice the Eagle opinion page editorializing this year on the release of the arena’s profitability figures. So here’s an example of incomplete editorializing from Rhonda Holman, who opined “Though great news for taxpayers, that oversize check for $255,678 presented to Sedgwick County last week reflected Intrust Bank Arena’s past, specifically the county’s share of 2013 profits.” (Earlier reporting on this topic in the Eagle in 2013 did not mention depreciation expense, either.) Strike three in the search for truthful accounting of the arena’s finances.

The problem with the reporting of Intrust Bank Arena profits

There are at least two ways of looking at the finance of the arena. Most attention is given to the “profit” (or loss) earned by the arena for the county according to an operating and management agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.

This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. For 2103, the accounting method used in this agreement produced a profit of $705,678, to be split (not equally) between SMG and the county. The county’s share, as Holman touted in her Eagle op-ed, was $255,678. (Presumably that’s after deducting the cost of producing an oversize check for the television cameras.)

For 2014, the arena’s profit was $122,853. All that goes to SMG, based on the revenue-sharing agreement.

The Operations of Intrust Bank ArenaWhile described as “profit” by many, this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

That bears repeating: This is not a reckoning of profit and loss in any recognized sense. It is simply an agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG as to how SMG is to be paid, and how the county participates.

A much better reckoning of the economics of the Intrust Bank Arena can be found in the 2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Sedgwick County. This document holds additional information about the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena. The CAFR, as described by the county, “… is a review of what occurred financially last year. In that respect, it is a report card of our ability to manage our financial resources.”

Regarding the arena, the CAFR states:

The Arena Fund represents the activity of the INTRUST Bank Arena. The facility is operated by a private company; the county incurs expenses only for certain capital improvements or major repairs and depreciation, and receives as revenue only a share of profits earned by the operator, if any, and naming rights fees. The Arena had an operating loss of $5.0 million. The loss can be attributed to $5.2 million in depreciation expense.

Financial statements in the same document show that $5,157,424 was charged for depreciation in 2014, bringing accumulated depreciation to a total of $26,347,705.

Depreciation expense is not something that is paid out in cash. Sedgwick County didn’t write a check for $5,157,424 to pay depreciation expense. Instead, depreciation accounting provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets over their lifespan. It provides a way to recognize opportunity costs, that is, what could be done with our resources if not spent on the arena.

But not many of our public leaders recognize this. In years past, Commissioner Dave Unruh made remarks that show the severe misunderstanding that he and almost everyone labor under regarding the nature of the spending on the arena: “I want to underscore the fact that the citizens of Sedgwick County voted to pay for this facility in advance. And so not having debt service on it is just a huge benefit to our government and to the citizens, so we can go forward without having to having to worry about making those payments and still show positive cash flow. So it’s still a great benefit to our community and I’m still pleased with this report.”

Earlier in this article we saw examples of the Sedgwick County Assistant Manager, the Intrust Bank Arena manager, and several Wichita Eagle writers making the same mistake.

Intrust Bank Arena commemorative monument
Intrust Bank Arena commemorative monument
The contention — witting or not — of all these people is that the capital investment of $183,625,241 (not including an operating and maintenance reserve) in the arena is merely a historical artifact, something that happened in the past, something that has no bearing today. There is no opportunity cost, according to this view. This attitude, however, disrespects the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to raise those funds. Since Kansas is one of the few states that adds sales tax to food, low-income households paid extra sales tax on their groceries to pay for the arena — an arena where they may not be able to afford tickets.

Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take depreciation into account. While Unruh is correct that depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow, it is an economic fact that can’t be ignored — except by politicians, apparently. The Wichita Eagle aids in promoting this deception.

We see our governmental and civic leaders telling us that we must “run government like a business.” Without frank and realistic discussion of numbers like these and the economic facts they represent, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information.

Who decides? When it comes to planning, is it the people, the politicians, or the bureaucrats?

By Karl Peterjohn, Sedgwick County Commission

The Wichita Eagle editorial page is unhappy with the county commission’s decision to terminate the county’s participation in the federal government’s “sustainability planning grant.” When this controversial grant was first voted upon by the county in 2010, it was rejected by a vote of three to two. This also led the county to withdraw from the Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP).

Karl Peterjohn
Karl Peterjohn
In 2011, a new county commission reversed this decision and decided to participate in this joint federal grant from three often controversial national agencies: Housing and Urban Development, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Transportation. HUD has played a key role in federal housing mandates and failed federal urban programs going back to the odious urban renewal era. The federal housing failures led to the 2008 financial crisis.

EPA is focused on creating new and complicated federal mandates. These are having a small impact on improving environmental problems but are becoming a new power center for the leftist, statist agenda out of Washington, D.C.

President Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” Ike also said, “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”

The key question for a free people who cherish their liberty is the question, who decides? Why is government planning, which up until the New Deal, was largely left to the private sector and local government becoming a federal problem?

I believe that the state government is better than the federal government in trying to project what public needs might appear in the future. I believe that the local government, county or city, is better than the state government. I believe that a great deal of the current “planning,” should be left to the people and not the government.

Today, there are over-lapping, and duplicative planning efforts underway. The new 20 year Comprehensive Plan that was presented to Sedgwick County earlier this month is one case. The city of Wichita is also involved in this effort. The members of this planning effort were appointed by the city and county managers and included a couple of elected officials as well as over 20 other private citizens.

A 25 year transportation plan is being work on by the Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WAMPO) for a region that includes all of Sedgwick County as well as Andover, Rose Hill, and Mulvane that covers western Butler and northern Sumner counties.

A third plan was this “sustainability” planning grant that would be followed with an “implementation” grant. The fact that Sedgwick County has withdrawn from this plan does not guarantee that other cities and counties in this region could not continue to proceed in this process. The sustainability grant has continued despite the opposition to it from both Butler and Sumner county commissions. I believe the sustainability implementation grant, if it proceeds, would probably supersede the other two plans.

REAP has been closely tied to this controversial “sustainability” grant. I want to repeat my reasons for voting against participating in this grant and REAP. I have voted against participating in this grant every time it has appeared on the county agendas in 2010, 2011, and again this year. I also opposed the doubling of the county’s dues for REAP membership. REAP’s legislative agenda has been cited as a reason for supporting this organization. I believe that each local government should have their own agenda. I oppose seeing REAP’s taxpayer funds from being used for statehouse lobbying.

I firmly believe that local government’s role is to provide a firm rule of law where there is a level playing field in it with clear rules for everyone to build their future for themselves and their families. This is the very limited role of government for a free people in a liberty loving society.

Economic development in Sedgwick County

The issue of awarding an economic development incentive reveals much as to why the Wichita-area economy has not grown.

At the December 17, 2014 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission an economic development incentive was considered. The proceedings are of interest as a window into how economic development works.

The proposal was that Sedgwick County will make a loan to Figeac Aero in the amount of $250,000 as an economic development incentive in conjunction with its acquisition of a local company and a contemplated expansion. It’s likely the county will also participate in forgiving property taxes, although that decision will be made by the City of Wichita on the county’s behalf.

Sedgwick County Chief Financial Officer Chris Chronis presented the item to the commissioners, telling them “the company has been very successful in Europe.”

Chronis also presented the benefit-cost analysis from calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. He said the proposed county property tax abatement has a value of just over $473,000, although the award of the exemption is controlled by the city. The present value of county’s cost over ten years, considering both the property tax abatement and the $250,000 loan, is $687,793. The present value of the benefit is just over $1,000,000, so the county’s net benefit is $317,834. Therefore, the net public financial benefit ratio to the county of 1.46 to one.

The final review of the contract is still to be performed. Chronis asked the commission for authorizing him to execute an agreement “in substantially the same form as the one we have given you, subject to final review by the county counselor.”

Commissioner Richard Ranzau asked if the commission had in its possession the final form of the document. The answer was no. Chronis said that the document is substantially in final form, subject to some tweaking. Later questioning by Ranzau revealed that there are many parts of the contract that are not present. The agreement the commissioners had referenced the missing parts, such as a security agreement.

Ranzau also brought up the fact that the commission had changed its policy so that forgivable loans are no longer used. Chronis said this is not a forgivable loan. Ranzau asked “what is it?” Chronis replied it is a loan. Ranzau asked if the company had to repay the loan. Chronis said if they don’t fulfill their end of the agreement, then yes, they will have to pay it back. If the company does not repay the loan, this is because the company has met the employment targets, and the county gets its repayment in the form of economic benefit to the community and to Sedgwick County government, he added.

In the end, Chronis admitted that this agreement has the same elements of past forgivable loans, but is different because now there is better protection in case the company does not satisfy commitments.

In support of the incentive, Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce president Gary Plummer said he is here in a “positive environment.” He told the commissioners that staff worked very hard. He mentioned how much tax the company has paid to Sedgwick County. He said this is a great moment in Sedgwick County economic development history.

Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition Chair Gary Schmitt appeared to mention the return to the county in the form of tax revenue.

Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition president Tim Chase promoted the security that the county is receiving in case the loan needs to be repaid. There is a lien on tangible assets, for example. But the company still must agree to specific provisions for the security of the loan. Chase said this is “not, in any way, shape, or form a done deal.”

French air parts maker Figeac has plans to grow in WichitaCommissioner Karl Peterjohn mentioned a newspaper article from May that quoted Figeac Aero’s vice president of business development as saying “the heart of Figeac North America will be Wichita.” Chase explained there had been personnel changes since then. Also, Chase said that Figeac hired a consultant that advised the company to inquire about “standard” incentives. When GWEDC did not supply an answer the company considered satisfactory, Chase said he was told “that starts the clock over. We’re going to begin looking at other locations.” The article Peterjohn referred to is French air parts maker Figeac has plans to grow in Wichita May 9, 2014 Wichita Eagle.

There was a question about state participation in incentives. Chronis did not know what, if anything, the state would be offering.

In further discussion, Ranzau said that Figeac has already bought a company here and is hiring. They have plans to be here, he said, meaning that the “but for” argument does not apply. By his calculation, if the average salary was reduced by 12 cents per hour, that would amount to the value of the incentive Sedgwick County is offering, $250,000 over five years. He expressed his concern that the contract the commission is being asked to approve is incomplete, and that the City of Wichita has yet to vote on it. Ranzau made a motion that the item be tabled until the agreement is complete. That motion failed, with only Peterjohn voting in support.

In other discussion, Ranzau repeated his concern over approving an incomplete document, telling commissioners that this would not be done in the private sector, adding that this is what it means that you can’t “run government like a business.”

In his remarks, Peterjohn quoted a government official famously who said “you have to pass the document to find out what’s in it.” Peterjohn expressed concern that the analysis provided by CEDBR is based on numbers provided by the company. This qualification is standard, he said, and always a concern.

The measure passed by a vote of three to two, with Peterjohn and Ranzau opposed.

Excerpt from the meeting

Discussion

Capacity
The labor force in the Wichita metropolitan area is about 298,000 people. The 50 jobs to be created in the first year by Figeac represents 0.017 percent of the labor force, or one job for every 5,960 people in the labor force.

Another way to place the 50 Figeac jobs in context is to look at them in comparison to jobs created, not the labor force. In Kansas in recent years, job gains in the private sector are about six percent of employment. (Figures are not available for Wichita alone.) Employment in the Wichita metropolitan area is about 284,000. Six percent of that is 17,040. So the 50 Figeac jobs are now 0.29 percent of all jobs created in a year, or one out of 341 jobs.

It’s good that 50 people will have jobs. Recall, however, that the president of the chamber of commerce told commissioners that staff worked very hard to acquire these jobs. He called this “a great moment.”

This illustrates a problem with targeted economic development incentives. Making deals takes a lot of time and effort. Three top officials attended the commission meeting, and they will likely attend the Wichita city council meeting where the incentive is presented. Much time of county staff was required.

Our economic development agencies and local governments do not have the capacity to strike enough deals to account for significant job growth. A better strategy is to create an environment where business firms can form and expand organically, without requiring or depending on government assistance.

Is the incentive necessary?
The quotation from a newspaper article seven months old that described Figeac’s commitment to grow in Wichita raises suspicions of what is commonly alleged: That companies make location and expansion plans for business reasons. Then, some may seek incentives, even though the decision has already been made. Local economic development officials are eager to accommodate the request for incentives, as they need to justify their existence and notch a few sure wins. Most politicians, of course, are more than willing to take credit for creating jobs.

Are there other incentives?
The Sedgwick County commissioners had to make a judgment on the wisdom of incentives without knowledge of all the incentives the company may receive. The City of Wichita had not acted on a similar loan request and property tax abatements. The State of Kansas would not disclose what incentives it had offered to Figeac.

We don’t know, but a program that Figeac may qualify for is PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas. This program allows companies to retain 95 percent of the payroll withholding tax of employees. This can be a substantial sum. Tables available at the Kansas Department of Revenue indicate that for a single person with no exemptions earning $40,000 annually, the withholding would be $27 per week, or $1,404 annually. For a married person with two children, withholding would be $676 annually. Under PEAK, the company retains 95 percent of these values.

(Since unmarried workers have higher withholding rates than married workers, and those with fewer exemptions have more withheld than those with many, does this provide incentives for companies in the PEAK program to adjust their hiring preferences?)

Who benefits?
As is common, incentives are justified by a benefit-cost analysis that purports to show that more comes in to government coffers than goes out due to the incentive. But the “benefits” that go into this calculation are quite different from the profits that business firms attempt to earn.

Here’s a question: In his presentation, the county’s chief financial officer said the benefit to the county over ten years is $317,834. What will the county do with that money? Will it reduce taxes by that amount? That is what would benefit the taxpayers that paid to provide the incentive. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, the benefit is spent.

The entire process assumes that these benefit-cost ratios are valid. This is far from certain, as follows:

  1. The benefits in the calculation are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of projected higher tax revenues collected by governments. This is very different from the profits that private sector companies earn from their customers in voluntary market transactions.

  2. Government claims that in order to get these “benefits,” incentives are necessary. But often the new economic activity (relocation, expansion, etc.) would have happened without the incentives.

  3. Even if government collects more tax by offering incentives, it should not be the goal of government to grow just for the sake of growing.

  4. Why is it that many companies are able to grow without incentives, but only a few companies require incentives? What is special about these companies? Why do some companies receive incentives year after year?

Diversification
wichita-detroit-job-industry-concentrationWe’ve been told for many years that Wichita needs to diversify its economy. The Wichita economy is highly dependent on one industry — aircraft manufacturing — and Figeac is in the aircraft industry. When citizens have told the Wichita City Council that offering incentives to aircraft companies serves to make it more difficult to diversify, the president and chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce complained in an op-ed: “Would the anti-business voices’ diversification strategy be to send aviation jobs to other cities and states, thereby crippling our economy? Where’s the logic in that?” This says a great deal about the problems with economic development in Wichita, namely that our leaders see no difference between business and capitalism, and that the need for diversification is merely a slogan that is not followed to in any meaningful way.

The nature of the game
The explanation by Chase spotlights some of the difficulties in economic development. The negotiations are not complete, but government approval is needed. More broadly, economic development officials are not negotiating the use of their own capital or capital that has been entrusted to them. They’re spending someone else’s money, for which there is little incentive to bargain wisely.

Commissioners were told that Figeac is a successful company. Why, then, does it need incentives?

Sedgwick County meeting video, not for everyone

Trying to view video of Sedgwick County Commission meetings could be frustrating for many citizens.

Sedgwick County video 2014-12-27Viewing video of meetings of the Sedgwick County Commission could be difficult unless you use a specific web browser. Viewing the video — either live or of past meetings — requires Windows Media Player. The problem is that support for this is not built in to some web browsers. Following are results from trying to view meeting video using the three most popular browsers using a Windows PC:

Google Chrome: “Microsoft® Windows Media Player™ is required to view this video.” Clicking on the Download and Install now” button takes you to a generic page at Microsoft that doesn’t seem to be of immediate help.

Firefox: Same message as Chrome.

Internet Explorer: It worked.

Using an IPhone, the video could not be viewed using either the Safari or Chrome browsers.

It is not possible to download the video to a computer for viewing.

There are a number of ways to measure the market share for different browsers, and results vary upon methodology used. But Internet Explorer is on a downward trajectory and is not used by anywhere near a majority of internet users, especially when mobile use is counted. At Voice for Liberty, Internet Explorer is used by about 19 percent of visitors.

In Wichita, running government like a business

In Wichita and Sedgwick County, can we run government like a business? Should we even try? Do our leaders think there is a difference?

Sedgwick County Working for YouAs Wichita considers the future of its economy, a larger role for government is contemplated. The views of the people leading the effort to expand government management of the local economy are important to explore. Consider Gary Schmitt, who is an executive at Intrust Bank. Following is an excerpt from the minutes of the May 22, 2013 meeting of the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. The topic was a forgivable loan to Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. These loans are equivalent to a cash grant, as long as conditions are met. At the time of this meeting Schmitt was vice chair of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

This discourse shows the value of elected officials like Karl Peterjohn, and also Richard Ranzau, as he too contributed to the understanding of this matter. When Michael O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council, he also contributed in this way.

Here’s what Schmitt told the commissioners, based on the meeting minutes: “I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future.”

Shortly after that he said “Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing.”

Wichita leaders need to understand businessThe problem is that when the bank Schmitt works for makes a loan, there are several forces in play that are not present in government. Perhaps the most obvious is that a bank loans money and expects to be repaid. In the case of the forgivable loan the commission was considering, the goal is that the loan is not repaid. These loans, remember, are a grant of cash, subject to a few conditions. If the recipient company is required to repay the loan, it is because it did not meet conditions such as job count or capital investment. In these circumstances, the company is probably not performing well economically, and therefore may not be able to repay the loan.

Another example of how a bank is different from government is that at a bank, both parties enter the loan transaction voluntarily. The bank’s shareholders and depositors are voluntary participants. Perhaps not explicitly for each loan, but if I do not like the policies or loans my bank has made, I can easily move my shares and deposits to another bank. But for these government loans, I personally have appeared several times before governmental bodies asking that the loan not be made. I did not consent. And changing government is much more difficult than changing banks.

Another difference between Schmitt’s bank and government is that bank’s goal is to earn a profit. Government doesn’t calculate profit. It is not able to, and when it tries, it efforts fall short. For one thing, government conscripts its capital. It faces no market test as to whether it is making good investments. It doesn’t have to compete with other institutions for capital, as a private bank does. Ludwig von Mises taught us that government can’t calculate profit and loss, the essential measure that lets us know if a business is making efficient use of resources. Thomas DiLorenzo elaborated, writing: “There is no such thing as real accounting in government, of course, since there are no profit-and-loss statements, only budgets. Consequently, there is no way of ever knowing, in an accounting sense, whether government is adding value or destroying it.”

An example of this lack of accounting for capital comes from the same governmental body making this forgivable loan. In Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense is important, even today, I explain that proper attention given to the depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita would recognize and account for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. But the county doesn’t do that, at least not in its most visible annual reporting of the arena’s financial results.

Governments locally do have a measure of what they consider to be “profit.” It’s the benefit-cost ratio calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. This is the source of the “$1 invested and get a return of over $2.40” that Schmitt referenced. But the “benefits” that go into this calculation are quite different from the profits that business firms attempt to earn. Most importantly, the benefits that government claims are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of additional tax revenue paid to government. This is very different from the profits companies earn in voluntary market transactions.

Government usually claims that in order to get these “benefits,” the incentives must be paid. But often the new economic activity (expansion, etc.) would have happened anyway without the incentives. There is much evidence that economic development incentives rank low on the list of factors businesses consider when making investments. A related observation is that if the relatively small investment government makes in incentives is solely or even partially responsible for such wonderful outcomes in terms of jobs, why doesn’t government do this more often? If the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners has such power to create economic growth, why is anyone unemployed?

Those, like Gary Schmitt, who are preparing to lead Wichita’s efforts in stimulating its economy believe that government should take on a larger role. We need to make sure that these leaders understand the fundamental differences between government and business, and how government can — and can’t — help business grow.

Following is an excerpt from the meeting minutes:

Chairman Skelton said, “Okay, thank you. Anybody else who wishes to speak today? Please state your name and address for the record.”

Mr. Gary Schmitt, (address redacted to respect privacy) greeted the Commissioners and said, “I work at Intrust Bank and I am the Vice-Chair of GWEDC. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I want to thank all of you also for just saving the county $700,000 by refinancing the bond issue. I think that was a great move. I think that’s exactly what we need to do to help support our county.

Mr. Schmitt said, “Also want to say I think Starwood coming to Wichita with 900 jobs in the very near future is a big win for Wichita, for Sedgwick County and our community. And I just want to encourage you to support the $200,000 investment. I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future. And I think having 900 people employed in basically starter jobs, or jobs to fill the gap in their financial needs for their families is very important also. So thank you very much for the opportunity to speak. I encourage you to support positive vote on this.”

Chairman Skelton said, “Commissioner Peterjohn.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Mr. Schmidt, I thank you for coming down and speaking today and your efforts on behalf of GWEDC. One of the things I struggle with these issues when they come before the Commission is what is the, how do we come up with an optimum number? I mean, why is $200,000 the right figure for the county’s contribution. And also, I mean, other than the fact that the city approved a similar amount yesterday, and when this comes to us and the calculations are coming from a, I think, a basic input and output model that fluctuates, depending on what assumptions you feed into it, I struggle with, you know, how do we determine, when you get a proposal at the bank, somebody comes in and says, hey, I would like to borrow x number of dollars for this project, we expect a net present value or rate of return of so much, and based on a loan cost of a certain interest rate, we get those very specific calculations. Can you provide any insight, in terms of why $200,000 is the optimal number for this forgivable loan over 5 years, and help me out on that point?”

Mr. Schmitt said, “I’ll try. GWEDC basically is a cooperation between businesses, business community leaders and also the city and the county government. We sort of have all the players at the table. And it’s very similar to what we do at the bank, when somebody comes in and asks for a proposal, we have to understand what our capacity is, what our expectations are, and we analyze all that. By using WSU calculate return on investment, that’s similar to what we do at the bank to calculate our return on investment. Now, I’m sure Starwood would be very excited if we said we will give you $2 million instead of $200,000, but we negotiated a number that we thought was acceptable to Starwood and also us.

“Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing. So, Mr. Peterjohn, I think we’ve tried to do everything we can to bring the best deal to the community we possibly can.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Well then help me out, in terms of the point that was raised over, we’ve got a forgivable loan for five years, but the calculation, in terms of return and so on are over 10 years. So basically our clawback provisions don’t exist from year 6 through 10.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “Well…”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “And then you’ve got that disparity.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “You know, the other interesting thing is they have a 15 year lease out there on the building. So our expectation is they will be a minimum of 15 years. So do we do it on 5, 10, or 15 years. So, I understand your question. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Okay. Thank you for coming down and providing…” Mr. Schmitt said, “You are welcome. Thank you.”