Tag Archives: Allen Bell

Wichita economic development policies questioned

One of the themes of the recent Wichita mayoral campaign was the need to restore trust in city hall. Following, from April 2013, an example of how city hall has created the trust deficit. Although this story was covered nowhere but here, it it exemplary of how Wichita city hall operates. Since then the city’s economic development director has retired, but we have the same city manager and nearly all the same council members, with one having moved up to mayor. For an update on this story, see Wichita: No such document.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, I was prepared to ask the council to not approve issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds. My reason, explained here, was that the cost-benefit analysis did not meet the standard the city has established in its economic development incentives policy.

At the meeting, though, Urban Development Director Allen Bell and Wichita city manager Robert Layton both explained that for downtown projects, the city’s policy that the debt service fund must show a cost-benefit ratio of 1.3 to one or better doesn’t apply. (Video of Bell explaining this policy is here, and of Layton doing the same, here.)

I thought I should have known about that policy. I felt bad — embarrassed, even — for not being aware of it.

There’s a certain logic to their arguments. The parking garage is available to the public — at least some parking stalls. But the garage was not built until the Ambassador Hotel project was finalized. And the number of parking spots actually available to the public is difficult to determine. One analysis shows that the number of spots available to the public is zero, although the city says otherwise.

So the next day I sought to inform myself of this policy regarding the cost-benefit ratio for the city’s debt service fund for downtown projects.

I found a document titled “City of Wichita Downtown Development Incentives Policy” as approved by the Wichita City Council on May 17, 2011. It doesn’t address cost-benefit ratios for any funds, at least by my reading.

(By the way, that document, which was available on the city’s website at wichita.gov, wasn’t available after the city recently transitioned to a new website.)

There is also the evaluation matrix for downtown projects. It includes as a criterion “Extent City’s ROI exceeds benefit/cost ratio of 1.3:1 on CEDBR Model.”

I don’t see either of these documents supporting what was stated by two top city officials at Tuesday’s meeting, that the cost-benefit ratio of 1.3 to one requirement does not apply to the debt service fund for downtown projects.

I’ve asked the city to provide such a policy document. So far, city officials have searched, but no such document has been provided. You’d think that if there is a document containing this policy, it would be readily accessible.

Whether the “new” policy explained Tuesday by Messrs. Bell and Layton is sound public policy is something that should be discussed. It might be a desirable policy.

But this entire episode smacks of molding public policy in order to fit the situation at hand.

The city relies on cost-benefit analysis produced by Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research. The positive result produced for the general fund — the 2.62 that Bell referred to — was used to justify the public investments the city asked taxpayers to make in September 2011.

We didn’t know about the unfavorable result for the city’s debt service at that time. City officials, however, knew, as it’s contained in the analysis provided to the city from CEDBR.

City officials could have — if they had wanted to — explained this special debt service policy for downtown projects at that time. City officials or the mayor could have explained that part of the Ambassador Hotel project doesn’t meet the city’s economic development policies, but here’s why the project is a good idea nonetheless.

City officials and the mayor could have used that opportunity to inform Wichitans of the special policy for downtown projects regarding the debt service fund, if such a policy actually existed at that time.

But they didn’t do that. And if the policy actually existed at that time, it was a well-kept secret, and was until Tuesday.

I’m sure some will say that we should just shrug this off as an innocent oversight. But this project is steeped in cronyism. It is the poster child for why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws so that city council members are prohibited from voting to send millions to their significant campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.

Soon the city will probably ask Wichitans to trust it with more tax revenue so the city can do more for its citizens. The city commissioned a survey to justify this. Also, the mayor wants a dedicated stream of funding so that the city can spend more on economic development.

In other words, the city wants its citizens to trust their government. But in order to gain that trust, the city needs to avoid episodes like this.

Errors in Wichita Union Station development proposal

Documents the Wichita City Council will use to evaluate a development proposal contain material errors. Despite the city being aware of the errors for more than one month, they have not been corrected.

On August 19, 2014 the Wichita City Council considered an agenda item titled “Resolution Considering the Establishment of the Union Station Redevelopment District, Tax Increment Financing.” The purpose of the item was to set October 7, 2014 as the date for the public hearing on the formation of a TIF district. The council passed this resolution.

On August 27 Bob Weeks inquired this of Wichita city officials based on information contained in city documents that were prepared for the August 19 meeting:

“On the Union station TIF proposal, there is mentioned ‘$3,766,156 in monetized historic tax credits.’ Do you know whether these are federal or state tax credits, and the face value of the credits? I presume that ‘monetized’ means the value the developers expect to receive when selling the credits at a discount.”

That same day he received this response from Allen Bell, the city’s Director of Urban Development.

“The Developer has not yet provided the City with details on the tax credits. However, staff analyzed the project to ascertain a ballpark estimate of how much it could generate in both state and federal tax credits and came up with a similar amount. We assume that $3,766,156 is the amount of net proceeds to be injected into the project from the sale of tax credits and that it is discounted from the face value of the credits.”

On follow up, Weeks asked this:

“I was also wondering which incentive program allows for the sales tax exemptions included in the CEDBR analysis.”

The response from Bell was:

“The only incentive program available to Union Station that would provide a sales tax exemption is IRBs. The Developer did not request IRBs or a sales tax exemption. I would guess that CEDBR factored it into the cost-benefit analysis to be extra conservative.”

CEDBR is the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.

In addition to Bell, other city officials participating in these emails were Van Williams, Public Information Officer; Mark Elder, Development Analyst; and Scott Knebel, Downtown Revitalization Manager.

On October 2, when the city released the agenda packet for the October 7 meeting, the tax credits and sales tax information was not changed.

By the city’s admission, the value of tax credits for this project is a guess, and we don’t know if the project is actually eligible for these tax credits. The sales tax exemption included in the CEDBR is an incentive this project is not eligible for and will not receive. Despite several city officials being aware of these errors, the material the city council will consider on October 7 has not been corrected.

‘Transforming Wichita’ a reminder of the value of government promises

When Wichita voters weigh the plausibility of the city’s plans for spending proposed new sales tax revenue, they should remember this is not the first time the city has promised results and accountability.

Do you remember Transforming Wichita? According to the city, “Transforming Wichita is the journey by which we are fundamentally changing the way we measure, report and perform the work of delivering services to the citizens of Wichita.”

In more detail, the city website proclaimed: “TW is the journey by which we will be fundamentally changing the way we deliver services to the citizens of Wichita. Our vision is for Wichita to be a premiere Midwestern city where people want to visit, live and play and for the city government to be a model of world class city governance where citizens receive the best possible value for their tax dollars and have confidence in their city government.”

At the end of this article I present the complete page from the city’s website as captured on November 10, 2007. That’s just seven years ago. There are officeholders (Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, City Council member Jeff Longwell, City Council member Lavonta Williams) and many bureaucrats still in office from that year. It’s not ancient history.

Some of the most frequently-mentioned concepts in this document are:

  • performance
  • accountability
  • trust
  • confidence
  • measure and report

Wichita spending data.
Wichita spending data.
The document mentions “supported by modernized information systems that facilitate collaboration with our partners.” That promise was made seven years ago. Today, do you know what you get when you ask the City of Wichita for spending records? The city can supply data of only limited utility. When I asked for spending records, what was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult — beyond the capability of most citizens — to translate the data to useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think the data would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

How does Wichita compare to other jurisdictions in this regard? Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites, having mastered this aspect of accountability and trust years ago. Not so the City of Wichita.

Speaking of websites: The new and “improved” wichita.gov website is actually less useful than the city’s website in 2007. For more on this see A transparency agenda for Wichita.

Regarding performance: One of the most important functions city leaders say they perform is economic development, specifically the creation of jobs. Last year when the Wichita Eagle asked for job creation figures, it reported this:

“It will take us some time to pull together all the agenda reports on the five-year reviews going back to 2003. That same research will also reveal any abatements that were ‘retooled’ as a result of the five-year reviews,” city urban development director Allen Bell said.

One might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. If the city had these figures available, it would be evidence of trustworthiness, performance, accountability, and measuring and reporting. But the city isn’t doing this.

Regarding values for dollars spent: During the past decade Wichita spent $247 million on the Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program, or ASR. As that project was contemplated, Wichita was told there was sufficient water for the next 50 years. We should ask: What value did we receive for those dollars?

Speaking of accountability: Much of the money used to pay for the ASR project was borrowed in the form of long-term debt. Now we are told that long-term borrowing to pay for a new water supply would be bad fiscal management. So was it was prudent and advisable to borrow over $200 million for water projects during the last decade? Who do we hold accountable for that decision, if what city leaders now say is correct?

Here’s a page from the city’s website as captured on November 10, 2007:

Transforming Wichita

Transforming Wichita is the journey by which we are fundamentally changing the way we measure, report and perform the work of delivering services to the citizens of Wichita. Our Vision:

  • For Wichita to be a premiere Midwestern city where people want to visit, live and play (as envisioned in Visioneering Wichita).
  • For Wichita City government to be a model of world class city governance — where citizens are getting the best possible value for their dollars and the City has the public’s confidence and trust. For this vision to be attained, we have to adapt to change!

twWhile we are doing a lot of things right, we can’t be complacent, resting on our laurels from past successes. The paradox is that we must retain faith that the future is bright, while being willing to face challenges of our current situation. We must be willing to challenge every aspect of how we’re doing things today. We must position ourselves for the future.

We will do this by transforming City government into a high performance organization that:

  • Focuses on results
  • Understands what results matter most to their customers
  • Makes performance matter
  • Moves decision-making down and out to the front-line, closest to customers; and
  • Fosters an environment of excellence, inclusiveness, accountability, learning and innovation.

Through Transformation Wichita:

  • We deliver outstanding results that matter to our customers and are trustworthy stewards of the funds with which citizens have entrusted us;
  • We utilize team work and the best business processes, supported by modernized information systems that facilitate collaboration with our partners;
  • We measure and report on our work, using a balanced scorecard that shows progress and results in how we carry out programs and activities, so that performance matters; and
  • We engage in work that produces results that matter for our customers; we will work with colleagues in an environment where learning enriches us and innovation expands our potential.

More about TW

TW is the journey by which we will be fundamentally changing the way we deliver services to the citizens of Wichita. Our vision is for Wichita to be a premiere Midwestern city where people want to visit, live and play and for the city government to be a model of world class city governance where citizens receive the best possible value for their tax dollars and have confidence in their city government.

While the City is doing a lot of things right, we can’t be complacent. We must be willing to challenge every aspect of how we’re doing things today and position ourselves for the future.

We will accomplish this by transforming City government into a high performance organization that:

  • Delivers outstanding results that matter to our customers and is a trustworthy steward of the funds with which citizens have entrusted us;
  • We utilize team work and the best business processes, supported by modernized information systems that facilitate collaboration with our partners;
  • We measure and report on our work, using processes that show progress and results in how we carry out programs and activities; and
  • We engage in work that produces results that matter for our customers.

What the Wichita city council could do

While the proposed Wichita city sales tax is a bad idea, the city could do a few things that would not only improve its chance of passage, but also improve local government.

This week the Wichita City Council passed an ordinance that starts the process of placing a sales tax measure on the November ballot. The one cent per dollar tax will be used for several initiatives, including an economic development jobs fund.

The city will need to gain the trust of citizens if the measure is to have any chance of passage. While I am personally opposed to the sales tax for some very good reasons, I nonetheless offer this advice to the city on what it could do to help pass the sales tax.

Oversight commissions

Presentations made by city hall state that the city council will appoint a private-sector led jobs commission. It would examine potential projects and make recommendations to the council. There will also be a citizens oversight committee and a jobs commission audit committee.

Wichita Investing in Jobs, How it WorksThe problem is that committees like these are usually stacked with city hall insiders, with people who want to personally gain from cronyism, and with people the city believes will be quietly compliant with what the city wants to do.

As an example, consider my appointment to the Wichita Airport Advisory Board last year. I had to be confirmed by the city council. I’ve been critical of the subsidy paid to airlines at the Wichita airport. I’ve researched airfares, air traffic, and the like. I’ve presented findings to the city council that were contrary to the city’s official position and that discovered a possible negative effect of the subsidy effort. Because of that, the council would not confirm my appointment. The city was not willing to have even one person on the airport board who might say wait, let’s take a look at this in a different way, and would have facts to support an alternative.

At Tuesday’s meeting the council assured citizens that it would not be the same group of city hall insiders serving on these boards. According to meeting minutes, council member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) said “Over the next few months there is going to be a lot more detail given to the public so that they can make an informed decision at the time this comes up to a vote in November.”

If the council is serious about this it could take a simple step: Appoint the members of these boards well in advance of the November election. Also, define the structure of the boards, such as the number of members, how appointed, term of appointment, and other details.

Transparency

The city says that the operations of the committees and the jobs fund will be transparent. But the city’s record in transparency is poor. For many years the city’s quasi-independent agencies have refused to release spending records. Many, such as I, believe this is contrary to not only the spirit, but the actual language of the Kansas Open Records Act. There is nothing the city has said that would lead us to believe that the city plans to change its stance towards the citizens’ right to know.

If the city wants to convince citizens that it has changed its attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know how tax money is spent, it could positively respond to the records requests made by myself and Kansas Policy Institute.

The city is also likely to engage in an educational and informational campaign on its cable television channel. If it does, a welcome gesture would be to offer time on the channel for citizen groups to present their side of the issues. The city’s cable channel is supposed to be a public access channel, but as of now, citizens have no ability to produce content for that channel.

In presentations to the council, reports released by the Texas Enterprise Fund have been used as examples of what Wichita might do to inform citizens on the economic development activities funded by the sales tax. But many in Texas are critical of the information provided about the fund’s operation.

Even when information is provided, it is subject to different interpretations by self-interested parties. On the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, the Houston Chronicle recently reported “Whether or not the fund has lost taxpayer money depends on which accounting method is applied. The Associated Press says a method common to government entities placed the fund’s value at $175 million, with a loss of $30 million. The governor’s office uses a private accounting standard that places the fund’s value at $230 million, a $25 million profit.”

In 2011 the Wall Street Journal reported on how job creation numbers can be stretched far beyond any sense of reason:

In Texas, Mr. Perry in a 2011 report to the legislature credited the Texas A&M Institute for Genomic Medicine with already producing more than 12,000 additional jobs. That’s ahead of the 5,000 promised by 2015.

According to the institute’s director, however, 10 people currently work in its new building. A Houston-area biotech firm that agreed to produce about 1,600 of the project’s jobs has instead cut its Texas staff by almost 400 people, and currently employs 220 people in the state.

What accounts for the discrepancy? To reach their estimate of 12,000-plus jobs created by the project, officials included every position added in Texas since 2005 in fields related sometimes only tangentially to biotechnology, according to state officials and documents provided by Texas A&M. They include jobs in things ike dental equipment, fertilizer manufacturing and medical imaging.

William Hoyt, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky who studies state economic-incentive programs across the U.S., said similar efforts elsewhere have been dogged by controversy over how many jobs they actually created. Even so, Mr. Hoyt said he hasn’t come across a definition as broad as that employed by Texas. “It’s hard to see jobs in dental supplies in El Paso being related to a genome clinic in College Station,” where Texas A&M’s main campus is located, he said.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Perry’s office in Austin, Texas, said the job totals for the A&M project were provided by the grant recipients, using figures compiled by the Texas Workforce Commission, the state’s labor agency, and hadn’t yet been “verified.” (Behind Perry’s Jobs Success, Numbers Draw New Scrutiny, October 11, 2011)

Locally, Wichita has had difficulty making information available. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on the problems.

The Eagle asked the city last week for an accounting of the jobs created over the past decade by the tax abatements, a research project that urban development staffers have yet to complete.

“It will take us some time to pull together all the agenda reports on the five-year reviews going back to 2003. That same research will also reveal any abatements that were ‘retooled’ as a result of the five-year reviews,” city urban development director Allen Bell said. “I can tell you that none of the abatements were terminated.” (Wichita doubles property tax exemptions for businesses, October 20, 2013)

wichita-economic-developmentOne might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. But apparently that isn’t the case.

We need to recognize that because the city does not have at its immediate disposal the statistics about job creation, it is evident that the city is not managing this effort. Or, maybe it just doesn’t care. This is a management problem at the highest level.

gwedc-office-operations

In fact, the city and its economic development agencies don’t even keep promotional websites current. GWEDC — that’s the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition credited with recruiting a company named InfoNXX to Wichita — doesn’t update its website to reflect current conditions. InfoNXX closed its facility in Wichita in 2012. When I looked at GWEDC’s website in October 2013, I found this on a page titled Office Operations:

Wichita hosts over a dozen customer service and processing centers — including a USPS Remote Encoding Center (985 employees), InfoNXX (950), T-Mobile (900), Royal Caribbean (700), Convergys (600), Protection One (540), Bank of America (315) and Cox Communications (230.) (emphasis added)

Observe that the official Wichita-area economic development agency touted the existence of a company that no longer exists in Wichita, and claims a job count that the company never achieved. Also, at that time the USPS facility was in the process of closing and eliminating all Wichita jobs.

What is Wichita doing to convince citizens that it has moved beyond this level of negligence?

Wichita not good for small business

The Wichita Business Journal reports today:

When it comes to having good conditions to support small businesses, well, Wichita isn’t exactly at the top of the list, according to a new ranking from The Business Journals.

In fact, the Wichita metro area’s small-business vitality score is nearly at the bottom — 99th out of the 101 U.S. metro areas included in the study. (Wichita near bottom for small-business vitality score, April 2, 2014)

Many in Wichita don’t want to recognize and confront the bad news about the performance of the Wichita-area economy. Last year, when presenting its annual report to local governmental bodies, the leaders of Visioneering Wichita would not present benchmark data to elected officials.

wichita-peer-job-growth-1990-2014-01

So what is the record of the Wichita metropolitan area regarding job creation, that seeming to be the most popular statistic our leaders cite and promote? I’ve prepared statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor for Wichita and a broad group of peer cities. I included our Visioneering peer cities, cities that Visioneers traveled to on official visits, and a few others. The result, shown nearby, is not pretty. (Click on charts for larger versions, or click here to use the interactive visualization)

wichita-peer-job-growth-2007-2014-01

If we look at job creation starting in 1990, Wichita lags behind our Visioneering peers, but not behind all the peer cities that I selected. Wichita does better than Springfield, Illinois, for example. I chose to include that as a peer metropolitan area because that’s the immediate past city that Gary Plummer worked in. He was president of that city’s Chamber of Commerce, and is now president of the Wichita Chamber. Note the position of Springfield: Last place.

In next-to-last place we see Wichita Falls, Texas. I chose to include it because it is the immediate past home of Tim Chase. He was the head of Wichita Falls Economic Development Corporation. He’s now president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development for the Wichita area.

In second-to-last place we see Pittsburgh, which I added because Visioneering leaders recently made a visit there.

Then, we come to Wichita.

If we look at job creation since 2007 we find Wichita in a common position: Last place in job creation, and by a wide margin except for two cities. One is Wichita Falls, where our present GWEDC president recently worked. The other city that barely out-performs Wichita is Chattanooga, which I included because Visioneering civic leaders recently traveled there to learn from that city.

Over the decades in which Wichita has performed poorly, there have been a few common threads. Carl Brewer has been council member or mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for decades. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for more than two decades. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. It is these officials who have presided over the dismal record of Wichita.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But he’s becoming part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

toolbox-29058_640

These leaders often complain that Wichita does not have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete with other cities in economic development. Wichita does, however, have and use incentives. The State of Kansas regularly offers incentives so generous that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Incentives: We have them. They haven’t worked for us.

It is nearly certain that this year Wichitans will be asked to approve a higher sales tax in order to pay for many things, including the more aggressive approach to job creation that Brewer mentioned. Based on the track record of our elected officials and bureaucrats, we need to do this: Before approving the tax and expenditures, Wichitans need to take a long look at the people who have been in charge, and ask what will be different going forward.

For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure

Delano Clock Tower, WichitaCompared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. As Wichita embarks upon a new era of economic development, we need to ask who to trust with this important task.

The good news: In a recent op-ed, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer wrote that the city needs to make a decision regarding “A more aggressive approach to job creation.” (Carl Brewer: Wichita can have a great next year, December 22, 2013 Wichita Eagle)

The bad news: Wichita has performed very poorly in job creation in recent decades, and even if we decide on a more aggressive approach, pretty much the same crew is in charge.

Many in Wichita don’t want to recognize and confront the bad news about the performance of the Wichita-area economy. Last year, when presenting its annual report to local governmental bodies, the leaders of Visioneering Wichita would not present benchmark data to elected officials.

Some, however, have recognized the severity of the problem. In 2008 Harvey Sorensen, who has been chair of Visioneering Wichita, chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, and has held other civic leadership positions, wrote in the pages of the Wichita Eagle: “We are losing ground competitively with our peer communities.” (Community Needs a Common Vision, August 24, 2008 Wichita Eagle)

wichita-peer-job-growth-1990-2014-01

So what is the record of the Wichita metropolitan area regarding job creation, that seeming to be the most popular statistic our leaders cite and promote? I’ve prepared statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor for Wichita and a broad group of peer cities. I included our Visioneering peer cities, cities that Visioneers traveled to on official visits, and a few others. The result, shown nearby, is not pretty. (Click on charts for larger versions, or click here to use the interactive visualization)

wichita-peer-job-growth-2007-2014-01

If we look at job creation starting in 1990, Wichita lags behind our Visioneering peers, but not behind all the peer cities that I selected. Wichita does better than Springfield, Illinois, for example. I chose to include that as a peer metropolitan area because that’s the immediate past city that Gary Plummer worked in. He was president of that city’s Chamber of Commerce, and is now president of the Wichita Chamber. Note the position of Springfield: Last place.

In next-to-last place we see Wichita Falls, Texas. I chose to include it because it is the immediate past home of Tim Chase. He was the head of Wichita Falls Economic Development Corporation. He’s now president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development for the Wichita area.

In second-to-last place we see Pittsburgh, which I added because Visioneering leaders recently made a visit there.

Then, we come to Wichita.

If we look at job creation since 2007, the year before Sorensen wrote his op-ed, we find Wichita in a common position: Last place in job creation, and by a wide margin except for two cities. One is Wichita Falls, where our present GWEDC president recently worked. The other city that barely out-performs Wichita is Chattanooga, which I included because Visioneering civic leaders recently traveled there to learn from that city.

Over the decades in which Wichita has performed poorly, there have been a few common threads. Brewer has been council member or mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for decades. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for more than two decades. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. It is these officials who have presided over the dismal record of Wichita.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But he’s becoming part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

toolbox-29058_640

These leaders often complain that Wichita does not have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete with other cities in economic development. Wichita does, however, have and use incentives. The State of Kansas regularly offers incentives so generous that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Incentives: We have them. They haven’t worked for us.

It is nearly certain that this year Wichitans will be asked to approve a higher sales tax in order to pay for many things, including the more aggressive approach to job creation that Brewer mentioned. Based on the track record of our elected officials and bureaucrats, we need to do this: Before approving the tax and expenditures, Wichitans need to take a long look at the people who have been in charge, and ask what will be different going forward.

Wichita’s policymaking on display

Wichita city hall logoWhen asked to provide documents that establish the city’s proclaimed policy, Wichita city hall is not able to do so, leaving us to wonder just how policy is made.

At an April meeting of the Wichita City Council, both Urban Development Director Allen Bell and Wichita city manager Robert Layton explained that for downtown projects, the city’s policy that the debt service fund must show a cost-benefit ratio of 1.3 to one or better doesn’t apply. (Video of Bell explaining this policy is here, and of Layton doing the same, here. Meeting minutes are here.)

More about this policy is available in In Wichita, economic development policies are questioned.

In that article, I mentioned that I attempted to find a document that states this policy. I asked the city to provide this document, or perhaps tell me when the city council acted to approve this policy, just as it has approved other similar policies.

After two days of searching, city officials have said that there is no such document that establishes this policy.

The people of Wichita ought to ask city hall just when this policy was made. City officials say Wichita has a transparent, open government. The Public-Private Partnership Evaluation Criteria for the redevelopment of downtown Wichita states “The business plan recommends public-private partnership criteria that are clear, predictable, and transparent.”

But in the first project to be approved under this plan, the city finds itself apparently making policy on the fly to fit the needs of a group of politically-connected developers. This is not economic development. Instead, it’s cronyism.

Some have said that we should just shrug this off as an innocent oversight. But this project is steeped in cronyism. It is the poster child for why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws so that city council members are prohibited from voting to send millions to their significant campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.

Soon the city will probably ask Wichitans to trust it with more tax revenue so the city can do more for its citizens. The city commissioned a survey to justify this. Also, the mayor wants a dedicated stream of funding so that the city can spend more on economic development.

In other words, the city wants its citizens to trust their government. But in order to gain that trust, the city needs to avoid episodes like this.

Wichita economic development not being managed

The Wichita Eagle has reported that Wichita has increased its granting of property tax exemptions in recent years. (Wichita doubles property tax exemptions for businesses, October 20, 2013) Buried in the story is the really important aspect of public policy. In his reporting, Bill Wilson wrote:

The Eagle asked the city last week for an accounting of the jobs created over the past decade by the tax abatements, a research project that urban development staffers have yet to complete.

“It will take us some time to pull together all the agenda reports on the five-year reviews going back to 2003. That same research will also reveal any abatements that were ‘retooled’ as a result of the five-year reviews,” city urban development director Allen Bell said. “I can tell you that none of the abatements were terminated.”

wichita-economic-development

One might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. But apparently that isn’t the case.

We need to recognize that because the city does not have at its immediate disposal the statistics about job creation, it is evident that the city is not managing this effort. Or, maybe it just doesn’t care.

This is a management problem at the highest level. In January when the city council awarded city manager Robert Layton a large raise, the praise from council members was effusive. This means one of several things: (a) that the mayor and city council have not asked for these job creation numbers, or (b) city council members don’t care about the numbers, or (c) they’re not interested in knowing the numbers. There could be other explanations, but all point to a lack of bureaucratic management and political oversight.

I wonder why the city officials didn’t explain that according to their analysis and way of thinking, these tax abatements don’t have a cost. When presented to the council, each abatement opportunity is generally accompanied by a benefit-cost analysis that purports to show that the city, county, school district, and state gain more in tax revenue than they forego from the abatement. Does this extra government revenue create jobs?

In any case, the number of jobs stemming from our economic development efforts is small. In his State of the City Address for 2012, Mayor Carl Brewer said that the city’s efforts in economic development had created “almost 1000 jobs.” While that sounds like a lot of jobs, that number deserves context. According to estimates from the Kansas Department of Labor, the civilian labor force in the City of Wichita for December 2011 was 192,876, with 178,156 people at work. This means that the 1,000 jobs created accounted for from 0.52 percent to 0.56 percent of our city’s workforce, depending on the denominator used. This minuscule number is dwarfed by the normal ebb and flow of other economic activity. (The mayor didn’t mention job creation figures in his 2013 address.)

The case of InfoNXX

Here’s an example of property tax abatements granted for which the city received little in return. In 2005, with great fanfare, the city announced that its economic development recruitment efforts had landed InfoNXX, an operator of call centers. The council agenda report of November 15, 2005 recommended that the council approve a letter of intent for tax abatements. The report stated this:

The Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition has worked with a national site consultant to recruit a new company to Wichita. InfoNXX, Inc., major provider of telephone directory assistance and enhanced information services to leading communications companies, businesses and consumers located principally in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Italy. As a result of the recruitment effort, InfoNXX will locate a large customer service center in the former MCI Building, near Rock Road and K-96 in northeast Wichita, and hire over 900 customer care representatives. As an economic development incentive, the City offered InfoNXX Industrial Revenue Bonds (IRBs) and property tax abatement on equipment and furnishings, subject to City Council approval.

RECOMMENDED ACTION: Approve a Letter of Intent to InfoNXX Inc. for Industrial Revenue Bonds in an amount not-to-exceed $6 million, subject to the Letter of Intent conditions, for a term of six-months, approve a 100% tax abatement on all bond-financed property for an initial five-year period plus an additional five years following City Council review, and authorize the application for a sales tax exemption on bond-financed property.

On December 13, 2005 the council approved the ordinance granting the tax abatements.

Fast forward to the February 15, 2011 council agenda packet. The five year initial property tax abatement granted in 2005 was over, and the council could extend it for another five years if the committed goals had been met. The agenda report gave this summary for capital investment: “Purchase furniture, fixtures and equipment for a capital investment of $6 million.” Results, according to city documents, were “Invested $7,331,379 million [sic] in FF&E.”

For job creation, the 2005 commitment was “Create 944 new jobs in five years.” Results, according to city documents, were “Created 870 new jobs; current job level is 185.”

InfoNXX was short of its job creation commitments, but the city used a loophole to grant a one-year extension of the tax abatement. That one-year extension was never the subject of further consideration, as InfoNXX changed its name, and in January 2012 closed the Wichita facility that was the subject of these incentives.

It’s unfortunate for Wichita and the InfoNXX employees that the facility closed. The important public policy consideration is that we learn from this. So, when Wichita counts the number of jobs created, does it adjust for short-lived jobs like these?

The answer, I believe, is no. We don’t adjust our job creation statistics, and we don’t learn.

gwedc-office-operations

In fact, we don’t even keep current. GWEDC — that’s the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition credited with recruiting InfoNXX to Wichita — doesn’t update its website to reflect current conditions. InfoNXX closed its facility in Wichita in 2012, and as we saw above, city documents said that at its peak the company employed 870 in Wichita. As of today, here’s what GWEDC says on a page titled Office Operations:

Wichita hosts over a dozen customer service and processing centers – including a USPS Remote Encoding Center (985 employees), InfoNXX (950), T-Mobile (900), Royal Caribbean (700), Convergys (600), Protection One (540), Bank of America (315) and Cox Communications (230.) (emphasis added)

So the official Wichita-area economic development agency proclaims the existence of a company that no longer exists in Wichita, and claims a job count that the company never achieved. This is beyond careless negligence. This is malpractice.

The USPS Remote Encoding Center mentioned? It’s being closed this year.

Going forward

In his State of the City address for 2013 the Wichita mayor lamented the fact that Wichita has no dedicated funding source for economic development. It’s likely that Wichitans will be asked to approve increased taxes for economic development, as well as for many other things we want like a new central library, new water and sewer pipes, improved public transit, and downtown development.

But before Wichita officials ask for more taxes so there can be more spending, they need to convince us that they care about measuring and managing results. They haven’t shown this so far.

Wichita: No such document

Wichita city hall logo

When asked to provide documents that establish the city’s proclaimed policy, Wichita city hall is not able to do so, leaving us to wonder just how policy is made.

At last week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, both Urban Development Director Allen Bell and Wichita city manager Robert Layton explained that for downtown projects, the city’s policy that the debt service fund must show a cost-benefit ratio of 1.3 to one or better doesn’t apply. (Video of Bell explaining this policy is here, and of Layton doing the same, here. Meeting minutes are here.)

More about this policy is available in In Wichita, economic development policies are questioned.

In that article, I mentioned that I attempted to find a document that states this policy. I asked the city to provide this document, or perhaps tell me when the city council acted to approve this policy, just as it has approved other similar policies.

After two days of searching, city officials have said that there is no such document that establishes this policy.

The people of Wichita ought to ask city hall just when this policy was made. City officials say Wichita has a transparent, open government. The Public-Private Partnership Evaluation Criteria for the redevelopment of downtown Wichita states “The business plan recommends public-private partnership criteria that are clear, predictable, and transparent.”

But in the first project to be approved under this plan, the city finds itself apparently making policy on the fly to fit the needs of a group of politically-connected developers. This is not economic development. Instead, it’s cronyism.

In Wichita, economic development policies are questioned

For an update on this story, see Wichita: No such document.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, I was prepared to ask the council to not approve issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds. My reason, explained here, was that the cost-benefit analysis did not meet the standard the city has established in its economic development incentives policy.

At the meeting, though, Urban Development Director Allen Bell and Wichita city manager Robert Layton both explained that for downtown projects, the city’s policy that the debt service fund must show a cost-benefit ratio of 1.3 to one or better doesn’t apply. (Video of Bell explaining this policy is here, and of Layton doing the same, here.)

I thought I should have known about that policy. I felt bad — embarrassed, even — for not being aware of it.

There’s a certain logic to their arguments. The parking garage is available to the public — at least some parking stalls. But the garage was not built until the Ambassador Hotel project was finalized. And the number of parking spots actually available to the public is difficult to determine. One analysis shows that the number of spots available to the public is zero, although the city says otherwise.

So the next day I sought to inform myself of this policy regarding the cost-benefit ratio for the city’s debt service fund for downtown projects.

I found a document titled “City of Wichita Downtown Development Incentives Policy” as approved by the Wichita City Council on May 17, 2011. It doesn’t address cost-benefit ratios for any funds, at least by my reading.

(By the way, that document, which was available on the city’s website at wichita.gov, wasn’t available after the city recently transitioned to a new website.)

There is also the evaluation matrix for downtown projects. It includes as a criterion “Extent City’s ROI exceeds benefit/cost ratio of 1.3:1 on CEDBR Model.”

I don’t see either of these documents supporting what was stated by two top city officials at Tuesday’s meeting, that the cost-benefit ratio of 1.3 to one requirement does not apply to the debt service fund for downtown projects.

I’ve asked the city to provide such a policy document. So far, city officials have searched, but no such document has been provided. You’d think that if there is a document containing this policy, it would be readily accessible.

Whether the “new” policy explained Tuesday by Messrs. Bell and Layton is sound public policy is something that should be discussed. It might be a desirable policy.

But this entire episode smacks of molding public policy in order to fit the situation at hand.

The city relies on cost-benefit analysis produced by Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research. The positive result produced for the general fund — the 2.62 that Bell referred to — was used to justify the public investments the city asked taxpayers to make in September 2011.

We didn’t know about the unfavorable result for the city’s debt service at that time. City officials, however, knew, as it’s contained in the analysis provided to the city from CEDBR.

City officials could have — if they had wanted to — explained this special debt service policy for downtown projects at that time. City officials or the mayor could have explained that part of the Ambassador Hotel project doesn’t meet the city’s economic development policies, but here’s why the project is a good idea nonetheless.

City officials and the mayor could have used that opportunity to inform Wichitans of the special policy for downtown projects regarding the debt service fund, if such a policy actually existed at that time.

But they didn’t do that. And if the policy actually existed at that time, it was a well-kept secret, and was until Tuesday.

I’m sure some will say that we should just shrug this off as an innocent oversight. But this project is steeped in cronyism. It is the poster child for why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws so that city council members are prohibited from voting to send millions to their significant campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.

Soon the city will probably ask Wichitans to trust it with more tax revenue so the city can do more for its citizens. The city commissioned a survey to justify this. Also, the mayor wants a dedicated stream of funding so that the city can spend more on economic development.

In other words, the city wants its citizens to trust their government. But in order to gain that trust, the city needs to avoid episodes like this.

Wichita economic development and the election

Ballot boxAs Wichitans decide their preference for city council members, voters should take a look at the numbers and decide whether they’re satisfied with our city’s performance in economic development.

As shown in the article Wichita economic statistics, Wichita is not doing well in key economic statistics. Debt has risen rapidly in recent years. Growth of private sector jobs lags far behind the nation and the state of Kansas, and government jobs have grown faster than private sector jobs. While inflation-adjusted spending per person is holding relatively steady, the city is cutting services and generally sending a message of budgetary distress.

Perhaps most astonishing: With all the public money poured into downtown redevelopment, with all the claims of new projects being competed, and with all the talk of building up the tax base, assessed valuation in downtown Wichita is declining.

In his recent State of the City Address, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer called for increased effort and funding for economic development, specifically job creation. He, and most of Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leaders, believe that more targeted economic development incentives are needed to boost Wichita’s economy.

Whether these incentives are good economic development policy is open for debate. I don’t believe we need them. Kansas and Wichita should chart another course to increase economic freedom in Kansas. That, in turn, will make our area appealing to companies. But our local bureaucrats, most business leaders, and nearly all elected officials believe that targeted incentives are the way to attract and retain business.

Even if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best, we have to conclude that our efforts aren’t working. In most years, the number of jobs that officials take credit for creating or saving is just a small part of the labor force, often less than one percent.

Rarely mentioned are the costs of creating these jobs. These costs have a negative economic impact on those who pay them. This means that economic activity and jobs are lost somewhere else in order to pay for the incentives.

Also, some of these jobs would have been created without the city’s efforts. All the city should take credit for is the marginal activity that it purportedly created. Government usually claims credit for everything, however.

Several long-serving politicians and bureaucrats that have presided over this failure: Mayor Carl Brewer has been on the city council or served as mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for many years.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But he’s starting to become part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

The incumbents running for reelection to city council have been in office varying lengths of time. All, however, subscribe to the interventionist model of economic development championed by the mayor. That’s the model that hasn’t been working for Wichita.

If voters in Wichita are truly concerned about economic development for everyone, next week’s election provides an opportunity to make a positive change by bring new voices to the city council.

Wichita economic development solution, postponed

Recent reporting in the Wichita Business Journal on Wichita’s economic development efforts has many officials saying Wichita doesn’t have enough incentives to compete with other cities. That is, we are not spending enough on incentives.

Whether these incentives are good economic development policy is open for debate. I don’t believe we need them, and that we in Kansas and Wichita can chart another course to increase economic freedom in Kansas. That will make our area appealing to companies. But our local bureaucrats, most business leaders, and nearly all elected officials believe that targeted incentives are the way to attract and retain business.

(Charts at the end of this article illustrate the record in Wichita on jobs.)

Our leaders have identified what they believe is a solution to a problem, but have not implemented that solution effectively, in their own words.

I should say have not implemented the solution on a widespread basis, because Wichita has devoted more tax money to economic development. According to the 2010 City Manager’s Policy Message, page CM-2, “One mill of property tax revenue will be shifted from the Debt Service Fund to the General Fund. In 2011 and 2012, one mill of property tax will be shifted to the General Fund to provide supplemental financing. The shift will last two years, and in 2013, one mill will be shifted back to the Debt Service Fund. The additional millage will provide a combined $5 million for economic development opportunities.”

So the city has decided to spend more tax dollars on economic development, but this allocation is being phased out — at the same time nearly everyone is calling for more to be spent in this area.

Isn’t this a failure of political and bureaucratic leadership? We have a long-standing problem, officials have identified what they believe is a solution, but it is not being implemented. These leaders have the ability to spend more on economic development, as illustrated by Wichita’s shifting of tax revenue.

Even if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best (and I don’t believe that), we have to conclude that our efforts aren’t working. Several long-serving politicians and bureaucrats that have presided over this failure: Mayor Carl Brewer has been on the city council or served as mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for many years. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for 21 years. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. Unruh has said he wants to be Wichita’s next mayor.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But as he approaches his fourth anniversary in Wichita, he starts to become part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

Wichita’s job creation record

Two charts illustrate the record of job growth in Wichita. The first shows Wichita job growth compared to Kansas and the nation. Data is from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, and indexed with values for 2001 set to 1.00.

As you can see, job growth in Wichita trails both Kansas and the nation.

The next chart shows Wichita job growth by sector.

Private sector job growth is prominently lower than government. This is a problem, because more economic activity is directed away from the productive private sector to inefficient government.

Wichita revises economic development policy

The City of Wichita has passed a revision to its economic development policies. Instead of promoting economic freedom and a free-market approach, the new policy gives greater power to city bureaucrats and politicians, and is unlikely to produce the economic development that Wichita needs. Sedgwick County will also consider adopting this policy.

The city wants to have policies that everyone can understand, but it also wants flexibility to waive policies and guidelines in light of mitigating factors.

Here’s an illustration of how difficult it is to adhere to policies. The draft proposal of the new economic development policy states: “The ratio of public benefits to public costs, each on a present value basis, should not be less than 1.3 to one for both the general and debt service funds for the City of Wichita; for Sedgwick County should not be less than 1.3 overall.”

The policy also states that if the 1.3 to one threshold is not met, the incentive could nonetheless be granted if two of three mitigating factors are found to apply. But there is a limit, according to the policy: “Regardless of mitigating factors, the ratio cannot be less than 1.0:1.”

Last August the city council passed a multi-layer incentive package for Douglas Place, which is better known as the Ambassador Hotel and environs. Here’s what the material accompanying the letter of intent that the council passed on August 9, 2011 held: “As part of the evaluation team process, the WSU Center for Economic Development and Business Research studied the fiscal impact of the Douglas Place project on the City’s General Fund, taking into account the requested incentives and the direct, indirect and induced generation of new tax revenue. The study shows a ratio of benefits to costs for the City’s General Fund of 2.62 to one.

So far, so good. 2.62 is greater than 1.3. But the policy applies to both the general fund and the debt service fund. So what about the impact to the debt service fund? Here’s the complete story from the WSU CEDBR report:

                                   Cost-benefit ratio
City Fiscal Impacts General Fund         2.63
City Fiscal Impacts Debt Service         0.83
City Fiscal Impacts                      0.90

The impact on the debt service fund is negative, and the impact in total is negative. (A cost-benefit ratio of less than one is “negative.”)

Furthermore, the cost of the Ambassador Hotel subsidy program to the general fund is $290,895, while the cost to the debt service fund is $7,077,831 — a cost factor 23 times as large.

So does the city have the wherewithal to stick to the policies it formulates? In my experience, not always. In this case, the city didn’t make this negative information available to the public. It was made public only after I requested the report from WSU CEDBR. It is not known whether council members were aware of this information when they voted.

There are, however, other factors that may allow the city to grant an incentive: “In addition to the above provisions, the City Council and/or County Commission may consider the following information when deciding whether to approve an incentive.” A list of 12 factors follows, some so open-ended that the city can find a way to approve almost any incentive it wants.

At yesterday’s city council meeting, when explaining the policy to the council, Wichita economic development chief Allen Bell said there should be “rational criteria” for when exceptions can be considered. We should also ask for truthfulness and complete disclosure, including negative factors.

When considering cost-benefit ratios, we also need to realize that the “benefits” in the calculation are in the form of increased tax revenue paid to the city, county, etc. There is no consideration of actually rewarding the taxpayers that pay for — and assume the risk of — economic development incentives. Furthermore, these benefits are not like profits that business firms earn. Instead, they are in the form of taxes that government takes.

Speculative industrial buildings

A new feature of the policy implements property tax forgiveness for speculative industrial buildings. The proposed plan had a formula that grants a higher percentage of tax forgiveness as building size increases, but the council eliminated that and voted a 100 percent tax abatement for all buildings larger than 50,000 square feet.

Given tax costs and industrial building rents, this policy gives these incentivized buildings a cost advantage of about 20 percent over competitors. That’s very high, and makes it difficult for existing buildings to compete. Probably no one will build these buildings unless they qualify for and receive this incentive.

While the city hopes that these incentivized buildings will generate new jobs in Wichita, there appears to be nothing in the policy that prevents existing companies in Wichita from moving to these buildings. This simply moves jobs from one location to another, and would harm existing landlords.

While the policy was designed to encourage large buildings instead of small, there appears to be no limitation on the size of space someone can rent. A building 100,000 square feet in size gets 100 percent tax abatement. But the space could be rented out in smaller parcels to multiple tenants, making it easy to steal local tenants from another landlord.

Finally, are pre-built facilities really necessary? Wind energy firms in Newton and Hutchinson built their plants from ground up.

Tax costs

Since many of the economic development incentives involve relief from paying taxes, we have to ask whether our tax levels and tax policies are discouraging business investment. Now we have an answer.

This year the Tax Foundation released a report that examines the tax costs on business in the states and in selected cities in each state. The news for Kansas is worse than merely bad, as our state couldn’t have performed much worse: Kansas ranks 47th among the states for tax costs for mature business firms, and 48th for new firms. Wichita was cited in the report, and the city did not do well. See Kansas and Wichita lag the nation in tax costs.

Wichita’s record on economic development

Earlier this year Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition issued its annual report on its economic development activities for the year. The shows us that power of government to influence economic development is weak. In its recent press release, the organization claimed to have created 1,509 jobs in Sedgwick County during 2011. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force in Sedgwick County in 2011 was 253,940 persons. So the jobs created by GWEDC’s actions amounted to 0.59 percent of the labor force. This is a very small fraction, and other economic events are likely to overwhelm these efforts.

In his 2012 State of the City address, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer took credit for creating a similar percentage of jobs in Wichita.

Rarely mentioned are the costs of creating these jobs — the costs of the incentives and the cost of the economic development bureaucracy. These costs have a negative economic impact on those who pay them, meaning that economic activity and jobs are lost somewhere else in order to pay for the incentives.

Also, at least some of these jobs would have been created without the efforts of GWEDC. All GWEDC should take credit for is the marginal activity that it purportedly created. Government usually claims credit for all that is good, however.

The targeted economic development efforts of governments like Wichita and Sedgwick County fail for several reasons. First is the knowledge problem, in that government simply does not know which companies are worthy of public investment. In the case of the Wichita and Sedgwick County policy, do we really know which industries should be targeted? Are we sure about the list of eligible business activities that subsidies can be used to pay? Is 1.3 to one really the benchmark we should seek, or we be better off and have more jobs if we insisted on 1.4 to one or relaxed the requirement to 1.2 to one?

This lack of knowledge, however, does not stop governments from creating policies for the awarding of incentives. This “active investor” approach to economic development is what has led to companies escaping hundreds of millions in taxes — taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form.

Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business is critical of this approach to economic development. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”

In the same paper, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers that Wichita and other cities engage in: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”

In making his argument, Hall cites research on the futility of chasing large employers as an economic development strategy: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. To quote from the most comprehensive study: ‘The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.'”

There is also substantial research that is it young firms — distinguished from small business in general — that are the engine of economic growth for the future. We can’t detect which of the young firms will blossom into major success — or even small-scale successes. The only way to nurture them is through economic policies that all companies can benefit from. Reducing tax rates is an example of such a policy. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like IRBs and other economic development programs is an example of precisely the wrong policy.

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach. We need to advocate for policies — at Wichita City Hall, at the Sedgwick County Commission, and at the Kansas Statehouse — that lead to sustainable economic development. We need political leaders who have the wisdom to realize this, and the courage to act appropriately. Which is to say, to not act in most circumstances. Wichita and Sedgwick County are moving in the wrong direction.

Carl Brewer: State of the City for Wichita, 2012

Last night Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered his annual State of the City Address. The text of the address may be read at State of the City Address.

In his speech, Brewer several times criticized those who act on “partisan agendas.” This is quite a remarkable statement for the mayor to make. Partisan usually refers to following a party line or platform. The mayor didn’t mention who he was criticizing, but it’s likely he was referring to myself and others like John Todd, Susan Estes, and Clinton Coen, as we appear regularly before the city council, usually in disagreement with the mayor and his policies.

What’s remarkable is that the council, even though it has four Republican members, almost always votes uniformly with Democrat Brewer and the other two politically liberal members of the council. The only exception is Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita), who is often in a minority of one voting in opposition to the other six. The other Republican members — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) — routinely vote in concert with the Democrats and liberals on the council.

Remarkable also are the many members of the business community who appeal to the council for subsidies, increased government intervention, and more central planning from city hall: many of these are Republicans. Conservative Republicans, many have personally told me.

This describes a lack of partisanship. Most of the mayor’s critics, such as myself, are more accurately characterized not as acting along party lines, but as acting on their belief in economic freedom, free markets, and limited government.

Economic development

The mayor said that the city’s efforts in economic development had created “almost 1000 jobs.” While that sounds like a lot of jobs, that number deserves context.

According to estimates from the Kansas Department of Labor, the civilian labor force in the City of Wichita for December 2011 was 192,876, with 178,156 people at work. This means that the 1,000 jobs created accounted for from 0.52 percent to 0.56 percent of our city’s workforce, depending on the denominator used. This miniscule number is dwarfed by the normal ebb and flow of other economic activity.

The mayor did not mention the costs of creating these jobs. These costs have a negative economic impact on those who pay these costs. This means that economic activity — and jobs — are lost somewhere else in order to pay for the incentives.

The mayor’s plan going forward, in his words, is “We will incentivize new jobs.” But under the mayor’s leadership, this “active investor” policy has produced a very small number of jobs, year after year. Doubling down on the present course is not likely to do much better.

But there are those who disagree, despite all evidence to the contrary. Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh — a conservative Republican, for those keeping track of partisanship — recently called for a “deal-closing” fund of $100 million. A funding source of this magnitude would undoubtedly require a new tax. There are many who feel there should be a new sales tax devoted to economic development and downtown Wichita development. We should not be surprised to see such a proposal emerge, and not be surprised that civic and business institutions will support it.

The mayor repeatedly said that the city has been “courageous.” In reality, Wichita does about the same as everyone else. But there is a way Wichita could distinguish itself among cities.

Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business has made a convincing case that Kansas needs to move away from the “active investor” approach to economic development. This is where government decides which companies will receive special treatment, be it in the form of tax abatements, tax credits, grants, tax increment financing, community improvement district special taxes, and other forms of subsidy. Being an “active investor” has been the approach of the City of Wichita, and according to the mayor’s vision, this plan is to be stepped up in the future.

In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”

Later, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers that Wichita and Kansas rely on for economic development: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”

We need business and political leaders in Wichita and Kansas who can see beyond the simplistic imagery of a groundbreaking ceremony and can assess the effect of our failing economic development policies on the entire community. Unfortunately, we don’t have many of these — and Mayor Brewer leads in the opposite direction.

Critical of misinformation campaigns

In his speech, Brewer was critical of those who “spread misinformation.” He was not specific as to who he’s criticizing, and I wouldn’t expect him to name specific people in a speech like this.

But when the mayor criticizes people for being uninformed or misinformed, he needs to look first at himself. He and city staff also need to engage their critics and be responsive to requests for information.

As an example of misinformation, the mayor cited this evidence that city policies are working: “The proposed Ambassador Hotel with a 3-to-1 private to public investment ratio.”

The city arrived at this ratio by employing a very narrow definition of public investment. When tax credits from the State of Kansas and federal government as well as other sources of public subsidy are accounted for, the ratio drops to less than two to one.

It’s true that considering only the city’s artificially narrow definition of public funding, the ratio does reach three to one. But Wichitans also have to pay part of the costs of the tax credits and other subsidies.

The city has also been less than honest in its promotion of the cost-benefit ratio for the Ambassador Hotel project. The city officially cites a cost-benefit study produced by Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research. Part of that study produced a cost-benefit ratio of 2.63 to one, and that’s what the city uses as justification for its participation in the project.

But the full story of the costs and benefits of this project are contained in these numbers from the WSU analysis:

                                    ROI   Cost-benefit ratio
City Fiscal Impacts General Fund  163.2%        2.63
City Fiscal Impacts Debt Service  -17.2%        0.83
City Fiscal Impacts                -9.8%        0.90

WSU evaluated the impact of the Ambassador Hotel on the City of Wichita’s finances in two areas: The impact on the city’s General Fund, and separately on the city’s Debt Service Fund. The two were combined to produce the total fiscal impact, which is the bottom line in this table.

The City of Wichita cites only the positive impact to the General Fund figure. But the impact on the Debt Service fund is negative, and the impact in total is negative.

It’s true that the ROI and cost-benefit ratio for the General Fund indicate a positive investment return. But the cost of the Ambassador Hotel subsidy program to the General Fund is $290,895, while the cost to the Debt Service Fund is $7,077,831 — a cost factor 23 times as large.

Citizens ought to ask: Who is spreading misinformation?

It is difficult to get a response from city hall regarding questions like these. So far city economic development director Allen Bell has not agreed to meet with representatives of Tax Fairness for All Wichitans, a group opposed to the subsidies for the Ambassador Hotel. (I am part of that group.) The city and its allied economic development groups will not send representatives to participate in a public forum on this matter.

Simplistic answers

The mayor criticized those who “provide simplistic answers to very complicated challenges.” He may be — we don’t really know — referring to those like myself who advocate for free market solutions to problems rather than reliance on government. Certainly the mayor believes that government must act — “courageously” he said — to confront our problems.

A problem with the mayor’s plan for increased economic interventionism by government is the very nature of knowledge. In a recent issue of Cato Policy Report, Arnold King wrote:

As Hayek pointed out, knowledge that is important in the economy is dispersed. Consumers understand their own wants and business managers understand their technological opportunities and constraints to a greater degree than they can articulate and to a far greater degree than experts can understand and absorb.

When knowledge is dispersed but power is concentrated, I call this the knowledge-power discrepancy. Such discrepancies can arise in large firms, where CEOs can fail to appreciate the significance of what is known by some of their subordinates. … With government experts, the knowledge-power discrepancy is particularly acute.

Relying on free market solutions for economic growth and prosperity means trusting in the concept of spontaneous order. That takes courage. It requires faith in the values of human freedom and ingenuity rather than government control. It requires that government officials let go rather than grabbing tighter the reins of power.

Mayor Brewer, five of six city council members, and the city hall bureaucracy do not believe in these values. Wichita’s mayor is openly dismissive of economic freedom, free markets, and limited government, calling these principles of freedom and liberty “simplistic.” Instead, his government prefers crony capitalism and corporate welfare. This is the troubling message that emerges from Brewer’s State of the City address.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Thursday November 10, 2011

Occupy Wall Street. One of the most troubling things about OWS is the anti-semitism. FreedomWorks has a video which explains. Also from FreedomWorks, president Matt Kibbe contributes a piece for the Wall Street Journal (Occupying vs. Tea Partying: Freedom and the foundations of moral behavior.). In it, he concludes: “Progressives’ burning desire to create a tea party of the left may be clouding their judgment. Even Mr. Jones has grudgingly conceded that tea partiers have out-crowd-sourced, out-organized, and out-performed the most sophisticated community organizers on the left. ‘Here’s the irony,’ he said back in July. ‘They talk rugged individualist, but they act collectively.’ He and his colleagues don’t seem to understand that communities can’t exist without respect for individual freedom. They can’t imagine how it is that millions of people located in disparate places with unique knowledge of their communities and circumstances can voluntarily cooperate and coordinate, creating something far greater and more valuable than any one individual could have done alone. In the world of the contemporary Western left, someone needs to be in charge — a benevolent bureaucrat who knows better than you do. They can’t help but build hierarchical structures — a General Assembly perhaps — because they don’t understand how freedom works.”

Johnson Controls. Rhonda Holman’s recent Wichita Eagle editorial criticized those who spoke against the award of a forgivable loan to Johnson Controls, specifically mentioning the claim by Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau that Johnson was going to move these jobs to Wichita “no matter what.” No one has disputed Ranzau. I specifically asked at the commission meeting that someone from Johnson address this assessment. The Johnson people in the audience chose not to answer. It would be helpful if someone at the newspaper or county at least pretended as through they cared about the truth of these matters. … At one time newspapers might have objected to Commission member Jim Skelton voting on this matter due to a family member working at Johnson. True, Kansas law says he was eligible to vote on the matter. Sedgwick County has no code of ethics that prohibited it, either. But Skelton could have acted as though the county had a code of ethics, and a model code of ethics says Skelton should not have voted on this matter.

Save-A-Lot store opens. Yesterday a Save-A-Lot grocery store opened in Wichita’s Planeview neighborhood. This is a store that was said to be impossible to build without subsidy in the form of tax increment financing (TIF) and an extra community improvement district (CID) sales tax of two cents per dollar. The Sedgwick County Commission exercised its veto power over the TIF district, and developer developer Rob Snyder canceled his plans for the store. But someone else found a way. Said Snyder at the time to the Wichita City Council: “We have researched every possible way, how do we make this project work with the existing funding that’s available to us. … We might as well say if for some reason we can’t figure out how to get this funding to go through, there won’t be a shopping center over there.” As part of his presentation to the council Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development explained that to be eligible for TIF, developers must demonstrate a “gap,” that is, an analytical finding that conventional financing is not sufficient for the project, and public assistance is required: “We’ve done that. We know, for example, from the developer’s perspective in terms of how much they will make in lease payments from the Save-A-Lot operator, how much that is, and how much debt that will support, and how much funds the developer can raise personally for this project. That has, in fact, left a gap, and these numbers that you’ve seen today reflect what that gap is.” … This episode has severely harmed the credibility of those who plead for incentives and subsidies, and also of the city hall bureaucrats who plead their cases for them. For more see For Wichita, Save-A-Lot teaches a lesson.

Teacher pay. A look at public school teacher pay by American Enterprise Institute finds that — opposite of the myth spread by school spending advocates — teachers are paid much more than they could earn in the private sector. While teachers are paid less than private sector workers with similar college degree attainment, the course of study for teachers is less demanding than most other fields. Fringe benefits for teachers are much higher than for private sector workers. Job security, even in the face of recent layoffs, is much greater for teachers and has a value: “Consider that one-fifth of the highest-performing public school teachers in Washington, D.C., recently declined to give up even part of their job security in exchange for base salary increases of up to $20,000.” … The authors note the study is based on averages: “Our research is in terms of averages. The best public school teachers — especially those teaching difficult subjects such as math and science — may well be underpaid compared to counterparts in the private sector.” But teachers have formed unions that ensure that all teachers are paid the same without regard to ability. See Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid: Our research suggests that on average — counting salaries, benefits and job security — teachers receive about 52% more than they could in private business. … Naturally, the best way to set teacher salaries is through voluntary exchange in markets. That doesn’t happen with public school teachers.

Ranzau, Skelton to speak. This week’s meeting (November 11th) of the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Sedgwick County Commission Members Richard Ranzau and Jim Skelton, speaking on “What its like to be a new member of the Sedgwick County Board of County commissioners?” The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club. … Upcoming speakers: On November 18th: Delores Craig-Moreland, Ph.D., Wichita State University, speaking on “Systemic reasons why our country has one of the highest jail and prison incarceration rates in the world? Are all criminals created equal?” … On November 25th there will be no meeting.

Making economics come alive. On Monday November 14th Americans for Prosperity Foundation will show the video “Making Economics Come Alive” with John Stossel. Topics included in this presentation are Economics of Property Rights, Private Ownership and Conservation, Property Rights and the Status of Native Americans, Atlas Shrugged: Selfishness and the Economics of Exchange, Economics and the Military Draft, Regulation and Unintended Consequences, Regulation: Louisiana Florist, The Unintended Consequences of the Ethanol Subsidies, The Unintended Consequences of Minimum Wage Laws, Public Choice Economics and Crony Capitalism, Trade Restrictions and Crony Capitalism, Stimulus Spending and Crony Capitalism, and Political Versus Market Choices. This free event is from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm at the Lionel D. Alford Library located at 3447 S. Meridian in Wichita. The library is just north of the I-235 exit on Meridian. For more information on this event contact John Todd at john@johntodd.net or 316-312-7335, or Susan Estes, AFP Field Director at sestes@afphq.org or 316-681-4415.

Economics in two minutes. In two minutes, Art Carden explains the important ideas of economics in Economics on One Foot: “Individuals strive to achieve their goals in the best ways possible, every action has a cost, incentives matter, value is determined on the margin, profits and losses help gauge value creation and destruction, and government interventions often have unintended and undesirable consequences.” … This video is from LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies, and many other informative videos are available.

Wichita city council: substance and process

Today the Wichita City Council will conduct a public hearing for the second time. The reason the council must hold the hearing again is that a mistake was made in the official notice of the hearing.

While I commend the city for realizing the mistake and following the letter of the law in conducting the hearing again, we must contrast this behavior, which is following the process according to the law, with the council’s past behavior, which has shown no regard for the spirit and substance of the law regarding public hearings.

The most recent example is when the city council approved a letter of intent to do something for which it had yet to hold a public hearing. That act made the public hearing a meaningless exercise. The council approved everything that was contained in the letter of intent, except that one item was modified, and that was not a result of the public hearing.

Another example is from 2008, when the council conducted a public hearing essentially in secret, making last-minute changes to the substance to be heard. At the time, Randy Brown, former editorial page editor for the Wichita Eagle and Executive Director of Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, agreed with my contention that the hearing was a “bait and switch” operation. Writing in a letter to the Eagle, Brown said:

Weeks is dead-on target when he says that conducting the public ‘s business in secret causes citizens to lose respect for government officials and corrupts the process of democracy (“TIF public hearing was bait and switch,” Dec. 5 Opinion). And that’s what happened when significant 11th-hour changes to the already controversial and questionable tax-increment financing plan for the downtown arena neighborhood were sneaked onto the Wichita City Council’s Tuesday agenda, essentially under cover of Monday evening’s darkness.

This may not have been a technical violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but it was an aggravated assault on its spirit. Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue.

The Wichita officials involved should publicly apologize, and the issue should be reopened. And this time, the public should be properly notified.

It turns out that the council’s actions regarding this hearing were permissible under the letter of the law, according to the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office.

We are left with the realization, however, that we have a city with elected officials and bureaucratic leaders that are careful to follow the letter of the law, but are unable — or unwilling — to see the larger picture regarding public policy. Substance is of little concern.

Following is my op-ed from the December 5, 2008 Wichita Eagle:

On Tuesday December 2, 2008, the Wichita City Council held a public hearing on the expansion of the Center City South Redevelopment District, commonly known as the downtown Wichita arena TIF district. As someone with an interest in this matter, I watched the city’s website for the appearance of the agenda report for this meeting. This document, also known as the “green sheets” and often several hundred pages in length, contains background information on items appearing on the meeting’s agenda.

At around 11:30 am Monday, the day before the meeting, I saw that the agenda report was available. I download it and printed the few pages of interest to me.

At the meeting Tuesday morning, I was surprised to hear council member Jim Skelton expressed his dismay that a change to the TIF plan wasn’t included in the material he printed and took home to read. This change, an addition of up to $10,000,000 in spending on parking, is material to the project. It’s also controversial, and if the public had known of this plan, I’m sure that many speakers would have attended the public hearing.

But the public didn’t have much notice of this controversial change to the plan. Inspection of the agenda report document — the version that contains the parking proposal — reveals that it was created at 4:30 pm on Monday. I don’t know how much longer after that it took to be placed on the city’s website. But we can conclude that citizens — and at least one city council member — didn’t have much time to discuss and debate the desirability of this parking plan.

The news media didn’t have time, either. Reporting in the Wichita Eagle on Monday and Tuesday didn’t mention the addition of the money for parking.

This last-minute change to the TIF plan tells us a few things. First, it reveals that the downtown arena TIF plan is a work in progress, with major components added on-the-fly just a few days before the meeting. That alone gives us reason to doubt its wisdom. Citizens should demand that the plan be withdrawn until we have sufficient time to discuss and deliberate matters as important as this. What happened on Tuesday doesn’t qualify as a meaningful public hearing on the actual plan. A better description is political bait and switch.

Second, when the business of democracy is conducted like this, citizens lose respect for both the government officials involved and the system itself. Instead of openness and transparency in government, we have citizens and, apparently, even elected officials shut out of the process.

Third, important questions arise: Why was the addition of the parking plan not made public until the eleventh hour? Was this done intentionally, so that opponents would not have time to prepare, or to even make arrangements to attend the meeting? Or was it simple incompetence and lack of care?

The officials involved — council members Jeff Longwell and Lavonta Williams, who negotiated the addition of the parking with county commissioners; Allen Bell, who is Wichita’s director of urban development; and Mayor Carl Brewer — need to answer to the citizens of Wichita as to why this important business was conducted in this haphazard manner that disrespects citizen involvement.

At Wichita City Council, facts are in dispute

Some Wichita City Council members, including Mayor Carl Brewer criticize people who speak at council meetings for using inaccurate information. Although most citizens who speak are willing to take questions at the time they present their testimony, most council members will not engage in dialog with them, instead choosing to level their criticism at a time when the speakers are not able to defend themselves.

So let’s take a look at some of the statements made by city council members at the September 13th meeting, where the council approved by a six to one vote a package of incentives for the Douglas Place project, a downtown hotel.

James Clendenin

At the September 13th meeting, James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita) said “I heard a lot of misinformation, and I heard a lot of good information.” He seemed to be most interested in the jobs that the hotel will create. Referring to the contention that the hotel will create 100 jobs, he said: “That’s all people ask me about — how many jobs. Just tell me jobs. I want to know jobs — jobs, jobs, jobs — people want to know jobs. I know that when Old Town was started 20 years ago, no jobs where in that part of the city. 20 years later we have jobs. … But I see people employed 20 years later that would never would have been employed unless a developer stepped up.”

I can understand the concern for jobs and how council members want to be seen doing things that they believe will create jobs. But it’s difficult to see how this hotel will create new jobs, except perhaps on the several times each year that the hotel might be used to support the larger conventions the city hopes to draw.

Instead, it’s much more likely that the hotel will simply draw most of its customers from the pool of people already planning to come to Wichita. And this hotel will have a big advantage in competing for these existing customers, especially those looking for a high-end hotel. As reported in the Wichita Eagle, the hotel developers said that without the city subsidy, the rooms would cost $250 per night. Their plans, however, are to offer the rooms for $150.

So with the help of taxpayers, the developers get to offer a $250 product for $150. That’s quite a competitive boost. My research shows that currently there are four downtown Wichita hotels offering rooms at that rate or higher. I wonder how they will feel when undercut by a taxpayer-subsidized competitor? (First, the owners of these hotels will have to realize that they, too, have received substantial subsidy.)

As to the impact of subsidies like Tax increment financing, or TIF: The important paper Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development by Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman comes to these conclusions:

If the use of tax increment financing stimulates economic development, there should be a positive relationship between TIF adoption and overall growth in municipalities. This did not occur. If, on the other hand, TIF merely moves capital around within a municipality, there should be no relationship between TIF adoption and growth. What we find, however, is a negative relationship. Municipalities that use TIF do worse.

We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF. (emphasis added)

Later, the paper concluded: “TIF subsidies might be helping growth within the TIF district, but they are hurting growth outside the district by a larger amount.”

This paper addresses economic growth, which is not, strictly speaking, equivalent to jobs, although the two are closely related. A paper that does address the impact of TIF on jobs is from Paul F. Byrne of Washburn University. The title of the report is Does Tax Increment Financing Deliver on Its Promise of Jobs? The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Municipal Employment Growth, and in the abstract we find this conclusion regarding the impact of TIF on jobs:

Increasingly, municipal leaders justify their use of tax increment financing (TIF) by touting its role in improving municipal employment. However, empirical studies on TIF have primarily examined TIF’s impact on property values, ignoring the claim that serves as the primary justification for its use. This article addresses the claim by examining the impact of TIF adoption on municipal employment growth in Illinois, looking for both general impact and impact specific to the type of development supported. Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment. These results are consistent with industrial TIF districts capturing employment that would have otherwise occurred outside of the adopting municipality and retail TIF districts shifting employment within the municipality to more labor-efficient retailers within the TIF district. (emphasis added)

I would ask that council member Clendenin and the others read research like this before they come to their conclusions.

Furthermore, we might ask the hotel developers if they are going to run their hotel as a jobs program, or are they going to seek to minimize the use of labor, employing only as much as is required to run the hotel the way they want? In a competitive marketplace, this is what businesses are forced to do, if they want to stay in business.

Finally, the contention of Clendenin that there are people who are employed only because of Old Town is laughable.

Pete Meitzner

Newly-elected council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) seemed impressed and secure in that the hotel developers have agreed to personally guarantee any shortfall in property tax revenue below what is necessary to cover the payments on the bonds the city is issuing under tax increment financing.

This guarantee is quite unlikely to ever be tapped, and is an example of offering something at little risk and no cost to the developers. Then, gullible city council members lap it up.

Here’s how the arithmetic works: According to city documents, the projected debt service required to pay the TIF bonds in 2016 is $340,000. For the same year, the projected revenue from the hotel’s property tax that is applicable to the TIF bond repayments is $262,000. (Remember these property taxes are taxes the hotel must pay, no matter what they’re used for.)

For the hotel owners to become in a position where they would have to pay to cover a shortfall, the value of the hotel would have to drop by 23 percent. That’s not likely to happen, and if something like that did, it would be a signal of severe problems across the entire city, or country, for that matter.

Jeff Longwell

Speaking from the bench when he could not be rebutted by citizens, Council Member Jeff Longwell criticized citizens who testified, saying they are using “wrong numbers.” Longwell’s criticisms deserve scrutiny.

During the council meeting, there were several ratios presented as a way to evaluate the hotel, and Longwell confused them. He said: “You can argue if it’s 6 to 1, or 5 to 1, but I’ll tell you, even if it’s as low as 2.6 to 1 return, folks, that’s a great investment.”

The 6 to 1 ratio is the ratio of private investment to public investment, as calculated by the city.

The 2.6 to 1 return is a payback to the city, based on expected increased tax revenues compared to the city’s cost. This is calculated by the Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research.

The 6 to 1 ratio is based on balance sheet concepts. It refers to assets.

The 2.6 to 1 ratio is a calculation from an income statement. It refers to income relative to expenses.

The only conclusion to draw is that Longwell is sorely confused. Perhaps worse, Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development had just explained these numbers in response to a question by Meitzner. But Bell didn’t correct Longwell. Neither did the city manager, who undoubtedly knows the difference between the two sets of numbers.

Besides this, the 6 to 1 ratio is calculated using an extremely narrow view of the city’s investment in the project, and an overly expansive assessment of the developer’s investment. It ignores many subsidies being provided to the developers, some at city expense, and also at the expense of state and federal taxpayers.

Further, for that ratio to make any sense, you have to assume city ownership of the hotel. “We” — meaning the city of Wichita — don’t own the “6” part of the ratio. The hotel developers do. It’s not a public asset.

Janet Miller

Like Clendenin and Longwell, Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) criticized the inaccurate information presented by citizens: “A lot of the information that was shared this morning was not accurate. … I’m not going to be able to address everything.”

Here’s an example of the reasoning of Miller. Referring to the issue of tax money being diverted to the Douglas Place project, she said: “Other taxes, such as the historic and federal tax credits are not property taxes, they’re not sales taxes, those are credits toward income taxes. So unless you’re paying the income taxes those are not your taxes.”

Here Miller is ignoring the effect of tax credits on the budgets of states and the federal government. Tax credits reduce the revenue of the issuing body by the amount of the credit. So when the state of Kansas issues $3,800,000 in tax credits to the Douglas Place project, it reduces revenue to the state by that same amount.

Now if the state were to reduce its spending by that same amount, specifically based on the issuance of this tax credit, we’d be left with no impact on the state’s budget.

But the state isn’t going to to that — it never has. So taxpayers across the state must make up the difference — directly contradicting Miller’s contention that “those are not your taxes.”

The same reasoning applies to the federal tax credits of $3,500,000 that this project is seeking.

Miller also contended that the guest taxes paid by this hotel are “not your taxes.” According to the city’s budget, the purpose of the Tourism and Convention Fund, which is funded by the guest tax, is to “support tourism and convention, infrastructure, and promotion of the City.” Its outlined priorities are to be “debt service for tourism and convention facilities, operational deficit subsidies, and care and maintenance of Century II.”

So, yes, I would say that the guest tax is “our” tax. There are those who are asking for millions to renovate Century II. Since this hotel’s guest tax — most of it — will not be going to that goal, someone else has to pay.

Further, to the extent that the new hotel draws guests from other hotels, that guest tax is being diverted away from the Tourism and Convention Fund. (Of course, we have to remember that many other hotels have a similar deal to benefit from their guest taxes. Last year the city gifted the Fairfield Inn & Suites Wichita Downtown, part of the heavily subsidized WaterWalk project, $2,500,000, to be paid back by the hotel’s guest tax receipts.)

Miller also took issue with those who contend that the original plan called for Key Construction to build the parking garage: “While there was a general contractor, and that part of the project would not have been bid out, the rest of it would have been bid thorough the city’s process. So the vast majority, except for about 6 percent of the project, would have been bid out through the city’s bid project.”

Miller is specifically contradicted by the letter of intent that she voted for at the August 9th meeting of the council. The letter states: “Douglas Place LLC, will acquire and rehabilitate the Douglas Building and will construct the parking garage and urban park.”

Does she think that the principals of Key Construction — who are part of the development team of the Douglas Place project, and who have made heavy campaign contributions to Miller and others — would let someone else build the garage?

Furthermore, at the same meeting City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf said it was the developer’s preference that the garage be built without competitive bidding — again contradicting Miller’s contention that the garage would be bid on.

And if we take Miller’s statement at face value — “the vast majority, except for about 6 percent of the project, would have been bid out” — does this imply that 94 percent of the project will be bid out? This would imply that the hotel itself would be placed for public bid, and I don’t think there’s been any consideration of that.

Miller also addressed the issue of special assessment financing. That is part of the Douglas Place project, with $1,500,000 to be used for facade improvement and lead paint and asbestos removal. Miller said: “Just as a reminder: The facade improvement and asbestos removal expenses, all of that — those dollars are being repaid through special assessments. For those of you who are critical of special assessment financing, I would encourage you to look at your annual tax bill and see if it says special assessment on there. If it does, we have loaned your developer money to put in public improvements around your property. There’s a very large share of Wichita’s outstanding debt that is developers’ specials. So if we want to be critical of developers specials, that’s gonna be a really big conversation that will include all the housing developers in this city and how those dollars are lent and repaid over years.”

There’s a big distinction between the way special assessment financing is used for new development as compared to this project. On new developments, special assessment financing is used to pay for public improvements like streets, sewers, water mains, and storm water drainage. After they are built, these assets are then owned by the city. They become city assets, but were paid for by the developer.

That’s not going to happen with this hotel. Its owners will not deed over the building’s facade to the city. It will remain a private asset.

Furthermore, in new development, the assets that special assessment financing is used to pay for support development that generally ends up on the tax roles, providing the tax revenue stream that city council members promote as good. But not so with this hotel. Being in a TIF district, its property taxes — except for 30 percent — do not benefit the city, as they are used to benefit the developers.

For Wichita’s Project Downtown, goal keeps slipping

In selling a plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita, promoters started with a promise of much private investment for just a little public investment. But as the plan proceeded, the goal kept slipping, and the first project to be approved under the final plan will probably not come close to meeting even the modest goals set by the Wichita City Council.

At the time agitation for a downtown plan started in 2008, research indicated that the ratio of private to public investment in downtown was approximately one to one. A March 2009 document hinted that we could do better, noting “Cities with successful downtown turnarounds have shown that for every $1 of public investment there will be $10 to $15 of private money invested.”

Soon after that Mayor Carl Brewer and others started promoting a 15 to one ratio of private to public investment. At a city council meeting in October 2009, Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) said “I’ve heard the city manager talk about moving us toward a return more in the neighborhood of 15 to one, private contribution to public.” She described this as an “important benchmark.”

Before long, some may have realized that a 15 to one ratio was unrealistic. In the briefing city officials gave the city council in December 2010 when it approved the Project Downtown plan, the information presented to the council called for “$500 million in private-sector capital investment over the next 15-20 years.” The plan also called for “An estimated $100 million in parking, streets, and parks/open space improvements,” establishing a five-to-one ratio of private investment to public investment. The document also gave officials a lot of wiggle room, as the $500 million of private investment is qualified: “As much as $500 million.”

It seems that some didn’t get the message and still pitched the original promise. In his January 2011 State of the City Address, Mayor Brewer said “In efforts to keep people working, the completion of the community-driven Downtown Master Plan will lead us to a point where ultimately the private investment exceeds public investment by a 15 to 1 ratio.”

Then in May 2011 the council approved a document titled “City of Wichita Downtown Development Incentives Policy.” This policy calls for “Minimum private to public capital investment ratio of 2 to 1.”

So we’ve gone from 15, to five, to two.

Now, for the first project to be considered under the new plans and polices: Douglas Place, a downtown Wichita hotel being proposed by a development team led by Wichitan David Burk.

According to minutes of the August 9 meeting of the Wichita city council, Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development, said that the ratio of private to public investment for this project, as calculated by his office, was 2.2 to one.

I’m not quite sure how they arrived at that value, as at the same council meeting Bell presented information that the total developer costs were $21,640,000, and the city investment would be $7,710,000. That’s a ratio of 2.8 to one.

This calculation, however, does not come close to capturing the total public investment in this project. For example, it leaves out the $7,300,000 in tax credits the developers will receive. It doesn’t include the benefit of allowing the hotel to keep 75 percent of the guest tax it generates, or the two percent extra sales tax the city will let it charge and keep. It doesn’t include the revenue the developers will get from renting out retail space the city provides to them at a cost of $1.00 per year. It doesn’t include $600,000 in sales tax exemptions the city will grant the hotel. It doesn’t include the value of 125 parking spaces reserved for the hotel’s exclusive use at below market rent.

(I’m sure we’ll hear explanations that the tax credits aren’t paid for by Wichita taxpayers. They’re paid for by state and federal taxpayers. This is the type of reasoning we’re accustomed to from the mayor and city council.)

So in just two years the plans for downtown Wichita have gone from a lofty promise of $15 dollars in private investment for each $1 of public investment, down to $5, then down to $2. And an honest evaluation of the first project under the plan would find that it, almost certainly, doesn’t meet the $2 threshold.

In Wichita, historic preservation tax credits an inefficient form of developer welfare

As part of the subsidy plan for Douglas Place, a downtown Wichita hotel being proposed, developers plan to make extensive use of historic preservation tax credits to fund their project. This form of developer welfare, besides being inefficient, is largely hidden from public view.

According to Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development, the project’s team, which is lead by David Burk, plans to tap $3.8 million in state tax credits and $3.5 million in federal tax credits, for a total of $7.3 million in this form of subsidy.

Tax credits may be a mystery to many, but there is no doubt as to their harmful effect on state and federal budgets. When using tax credits, the government, conceptually, issues a slip of paper that says something like “The holder of this document may submit it instead of $500,000 when making a tax payment.”

This is a direct cost to the government, according to both reason and the Kansas Division of Legislative Post Audit. Last year, after conducting an audit of Kansas tax credit programs, auditors explained: “Tax credits, which the government offers to try to induce certain actions by the taxpayer, reduce income tax revenues because they are subtracted directly from the amount of taxes due.” (emphasis added)

The audit found that in 2001, when the Kansas historic preservation tax credit program was started, the anticipated cost to the state was about $1 million per year. By 2007, the actual cost to the state was reported at almost $8.5 million.

Further, the audit found what many already knew: tax credit aren’t an efficient way of transferring subsidy to developers. Most of the time, the developers sell the credits to someone else at a discount, as the audit explains: “The Historic Preservation Tax Credit isn’t cost-effective. That credit works differently than the other three because the amount of money a historic preservation project receives from the credit is dependent upon the amount of money it’s sold for. Our review showed that, on average, when Historic Preservation Credits were transferred to generate money for a project, they only generated 85 cents for the project for every dollar of potential tax revenue the State gave up.”

The audit concluded this is not efficient: “That’s not a cost-effective means of generating funds for these projects because 15% of the money gets pulled out and never actually goes for preservation activities.”

(Besides this efficiency problem the audit also found that the Kansas Department of Revenue was not accurately tracking the tax credits after their issue. See Kansas historic preservation tax credits audit reveals inefficiency, data problems.)

In the case of the Douglas Place project in Wichita, the inefficiencies that Legislative Post Audit found are present. According to Bell, the developers plan to sell the tax credits for 87 cents on the dollar. So they’re doing a bit better than the average project.

Still, Kansas taxpayers will give up $3.8 million in tax revenue in order to give Burk and his team about $3.3 million cash. Federal taxpayers will give up $3.5 million in order to give Burk $3 million.

And it is a gift. It’s not an exemption from paying property or sales taxes, or letting a hotel keep 75 percent of the guest tax it generates, or tax increment financing for a garage, or the state charging customers extra sales tax that the hotel keeps, or sweetheart lease deals. Burk and his partners are getting all that, too.

The tax credits stand out as a direct transfer of money from taxpayers to private parties. But being accomplished through the tax system shrouds the process in mystery. And, no direct action is required by any legislative body. The tax credit program is in place. The developer applies, and if accepted, the credits are granted. No one — at least no one elected by and accountable to voters — votes to grant the specific credits.

The historic preservation tax credit program, in a short time, has grown from a program designed to help spruce up a few old buildings here and there to a developer welfare program on steroids. The Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview in downtown Wichita benefited from this program too, costing Kansas taxpayers over $4 million to pay for its tax credits, and that’s on top of other forms of subsidy.

Wichita City Council bows to special interests

Yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council revealed a council — except for one member — totally captured by special interests, to the point where the council, aided by city staff, used a narrow legal interpretation in order to circumvent a statutorily required public hearing process.

The issue was a downtown hotel to be developed by a team lead by David Burk of Marketplace Properties. The subsidies Burk wants, specifically tax increment financing (TIF), require a public hearing to be held. The city scheduled the hearing for September 13th.

That schedule, however, didn’t suit Burk. In order to provide him a certain comfort level, the council agreed to issue a letter of intent stating that the council intends to do the things that the public hearing is supposed to provide an opportunity for deliberation.

I, along with others, contend that this action reduces the September 13th public hearing to a meaningless exercise. This action is not good government, and it’s not open and transparent government, despite the claims of Mayor Carl Brewer. It goes against our country’s principle of the rule of law, part of which holds that our laws are more important than any single person.

Several times council members — and once city attorney Gary Rebenstorf — explained that the letter of intent is non-binding on either party. But: No matter what information is presented at the September public hearing, no matter how strong public opinion might be against the incentives involved, is there any real likelihood that the council would not proceed with this plan and its incentives, having already passed a letter of intent to do so? I think there is very little possibility of that.

Persuasive arguments will be made that since the city issued a letter of intent, and since the developers may have already taken action based on that letter, it follows that the city is obligated to pass the plan. Otherwise, who would ever vest any meaning in a future letter of intent from this city?

During the discussion, no one was able to explain adequately why a letter of intent — if it is non-binding and therefore does not commit the city — was asked for by the developers. Despite the lawyerly explanation of Rebenstorf and council members — including the mayor — the letter does have meaning. Practically, it has such a powerful meaning that it makes the holding of the public hearing on September 13th a mere charade, a meaningless exercise in futility.

It’s not just me and a handful of others who contend this. The Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman, who is usually in favor of all forms of public spending on downtown, wrote: “Even though the letter of intent will be nonbinding, it risks making the Sept. 13 public hearing on tax-increment financing seem like a pointless afterthought.”

In his remarks, City Manager Bob Layton explained that the meeting was the first time for council members to “formally vet this project and all of the incentives.”

He added: “If the council were to say, for instance, there were two or three pieces of that that you had discomfort with, that would then put everyone on notice that the deal may not go forward.” He said this is the purpose of today’s action, and he added that the action is non-binding.

I would suggest that since the council, with the exception of Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita), found no problems with issuing the letter of intent, it has no problems with the deal, and this is what makes the September public hearing, as Holman said, a “pointless afterthought.”

Astonishingly, the manger said while this is “not intended to be the normal process,” he said that he “kind of like it” as it gave an initial opportunity to gauge the sentiment of council members.

I’m glad the manager didn’t mention the sentiment of the public, as with little notice as to the content of the deal and its incentives, citizens had no meaningful opportunity to prepare.

An example of the contorted logic council members use to justify their action: Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) explained that issuing letters of intent is a common practice in real estate deals. He confused, however, agreements made between private parties and those where government is a party. Private parties can voluntarily enter into whatever agreements they want. But agreements with government are governed by laws. Yesterday, the city council announced its intent to do something for which it is required to hold a public hearing. That didn’t violate the letter of the law, but it certainly goes against its spirit and meaning. Longwell said he has no problem with that.

Their bureaucratic enablers helped out, too. Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President Jeff Fluhr, in his testimony, said we are working towards becoming a “city of distinction.” That we are, indeed — a city distinguished by lack of respect for the rule of law and its disregard for citizens in favor of special interests.

A few observations from the meeting follow.

Public investment

In response to a question from the mayor, Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development, said that the ratio of private dollars to public dollars for this project is about 2.2 to 1. Whether these numbers are correct is doubtful. It will take an analysis of the deal to determine the true numbers, and the details have been available for only a short time. But if correct, this ratio falls well short of the stated goals. Two years ago, when agitation for a new round of downtown planing started, boosters spoke of a ratio of 15 to 1. Eventually planners promised a ratio of 5 to 1 private to public investment for downtown. This project, while of course is just a single project and not the entirety of downtown development, doesn’t reach half that goal.

Order of events and media coverage

During the meeting, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) conceded that “the order of events is confusing.”

Before that, Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) claimed that there had been much media coverage of the proposed hotel, and that the public was actually getting two opportunities to talk about this project. She said that the media had published information about today’s meeting and the public hearing on September 13th.

Miller is gravely mistaken. Until a Wichita Eagle article on Saturday, I saw no mention of the letter of intent, and no detail of the form of subsidies to be considered for this project. The city’s list of legal notices contains no mention of the action that was taken at this meeting.

Questions not answered

During my remarks to the council, I related how last year the Wichita Eagle alleged that David Burk, the managing member of this project — and I quote here: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

This Eagle article and a companion article went on to quote these people as having trouble with and being concerned, to varying degrees, with Burk’s acts: City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf; City Council member Jeff Longwell; City Council Member Lavonta Williams, now serving as vice mayor; then-Vice Mayor Jim Skelton, now on the Sedgwick County Commission; and City Manager Robert Layton.

In particular, the manager said, according to the Eagle, that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.'”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. Despite the fact that nearly all the property taxes Burk pays directly enriches himself and only him, he still doesn’t want to pay them. And according to the Wichita Eagle — not me — he engaged in deception in order to reduce them.

None of the four people in the council chambers — Rebenstorf, Longwell, Williams, and Layton — explained their apparent change of mind with regard to Burk’s acts.

Burk, who addressed the council immediately after I asked if he cared to explain his actions, decided to avoid the issue. In his shoes, I probably would have done the same, as there is no justification for the acts the Eagle accused him of doing. He, and his political and bureaucratic enablers in Wichita city hall, have to hope this issue fades.

Campaign contributions

Council member O’Donnell asked about a parking garage to be built at a cost of $6 million to the city: Will the city be putting this project out to competitive bid? Bell replied no, that is the developer’s request. City attorney Rebenstorf added that there is a charter ordinance that exempts these types of projects from bidding requirements.

O’Donnell said that awarding the construction contract to a company that has made campaign contributions to all council members (except him) “seems a little questionable.”

The company in question is Key Construction. Its principals regularly appear on campaign finance reports, making the maximum allowed contribution to a wide variety of candidates. Similarly, Burke and his wife also frequently make the maximum contribution to city hall candidates.

O’Donnell is correct to publicize these contributions. They emit a foul odor. In our political system, many people make contributions to candidates whose ideology they agree with, be it conservative, liberal, or something else.

But Burk and others routinely make the maximum contribution to all — or nearly all — candidates, even those with widely varying political stances. How can someone explain Burk’s (and his wife’s) contributions to liberals like Miller and Williams, and also to conservatives like Longwell, Meitzner, and former council member Sue Schlapp?

The answer is that Schlapp and Longwell, despite their proclamations of fiscal conservatism, have shown themselves to be willing to vote for any form of developer welfare Burk and others have asked for. They create tangled webs of tortured logic to explain their votes. Meitzner, along with his fellow new council member James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita), seems to be following the same path.

Several council members and the mayor took exception to O’Donnell’s raising of this matter. Clendenin, for his part, objected and said that the public has had over 30 days to consider and take exception with this project. This contention, like Miller’s, isn’t supported by any facts that I am aware of. It appears that the first mention of any of the details of the plan and the subsidies is contained in a MAPC agenda that appears to have been created on July 29. Besides not being 30 days in advance, the MAPC agenda is an obscure place to release what Clendenin believes is adequate public notice.

Regarding the issue of campaign contributions, the mayor — without mentioning his name — strongly criticized O’Donnell for bringing up this matter. Many people watching this meeting felt that the extreme reaction of Brewer and others to O’Donnell’s observation reveals a certain uneasiness regarding these contributions. I don’t believe the mayor and council members are taking illegal bribes, although when any city is enriching people with millions of dollars of developer welfare there is always that threat, and in some cities and states such practices are commonplace.

The fact remains, however, that there is a small group of campaign contributors who — over and over — ask for and receive largess from city hall.

The mayor’s criticisms

In his comments, Mayor Brewer accused opponents of providing only partial facts about matters, because the full facts did not support their case. He was referring to my remarks that a lawsuit brought against the city by a party who felt the city had reneged on a letter of intent was litigated all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court. In my remarks I didn’t mention who won that case — the city did — and the mayor believes this is an example of slanting the facts.

The mayor went on to make accusations of “grandstanding” from some of the public and “some council members” because there are cameras in the council chambers. He mentioned that news media are present at every meeting and that council meetings are broadcast on television.

The mayor should take notice, however, that most people who care about public affairs and policy are severely disappointed with news media coverage of city hall events. The resources of news gathering agencies, especially newspapers, are severely depleted as compared to the past. In my coverage of a talk given by former Wichita Eagle editor Davis Merritt, I wrote this: “A question that I asked is whether the declining resources of the Wichita Eagle might create the danger that local government officials feel they can act under less scrutiny, or is this already happening? Merritt replied that this has been going on for some time. ‘The watchdog job of journalism is incredibly important and is terribly threatened.’ When all resources go to cover what must be covered — police, accidents, etc. — there isn’t anything left over to cover what should be covered. There are many important stories that aren’t being covered because the ‘boots aren’t on the street anymore,’ he said.” See Former Wichita Eagle editor addresses journalism, democracy, May 11, 2009.

In addition, Bill Wilson, the reporter the Wichita Eagle sent to cover the meeting, has a documented bias against the concept of free markets, and against those who believe in them.

The mayor, when delivering his criticism, does not use the names of those he criticizes. It would be useful if he did, but it would mean he has to take greater accountability for his remarks.

Following are links to excerpts of testimony from the meeting — perhaps examples of the “grandstanding” the mayor complained about: John Todd, Shirley Koehn, and Bob Weeks.