Tag Archives: Allen Bell

Wichita City Hall

‘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.
Wichita City Hall 2014-08-05 11

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 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 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.

Despite allegations, Wichita’s Dave Burk remains favored

As Wichita proceeds with the redevelopment of its downtown, one developer seems to be on the cutting edge of harvesting corporate welfare — despite his past behavior. Last year this person, Dave Burk of Marketplace Properties, acted in a way the Wichita Eagle described as deceptive in order to reduce his property taxes. Yet, Burk remains a favored developer at city hall, and he’s soon going to ask taxpayers to pay higher taxes for his benefit. These are the same taxes he himself doesn’t like to pay. The following article from February 2010 explains.

Today’s Wichita Eagle contains a story about a well-known Wichita real estate developer that, while shocking, shouldn’t really be all that unexpected.

The opening sentence of the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property) tells us most of what we need to know: “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.”

Some might say it’s not surprising that Burk represented himself in the way the Eagle article reports. When a person’s been on the receiving end of so much city hall largess, it’s an occupational hazard.

And when you’ve been the beneficiary of so much Wichita taxpayer money, you might even begin to think that you shouldn’t have to pay so much tax anymore.

At the state level, you might seek over a million dollars of taxpayer money to help you renovate an apartment building.

Burk has certainly laid the groundwork, at least locally. A registered Republican voter, Burk regularly stocks the campaign coffers of Wichita city council members with contributions. These contributions — at least for city council candidates — are apparently made without regard to the political leanings of the candidates. How else can we explain recent contributions made to two city council members who are decidedly left of center: Lavonta Williams and Janet Miller? Burk and his wife made contributions to their campaigns in the maximum amount allowed by law.

This is especially puzzling in light of Burk’s contributions to campaigns at the federal level. There, a search at the Federal Election Commission shows a single contribution of $250 to Todd Tiahrt in 2005.

It’s quite incongruous that someone would contribute to Tiahrt, Williams, and Miller. Except Williams and Miller can — and have — cast votes that directly enrich Burk. Politicians at the federal level don’t have the same ability to do that as do Wichita city council members. Well, at least not considering Wichita city business.

So which is it: is Burk a believer in Republican principles, a believer in good government, or someone who knows where his next taxpayer handout will come from?

Burk’s enablers — these include Wichita’s lobbyist Dale Goter, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation president Jeff Fluhr and chairman Larry Weber, Wichita City Manager Robert Layton, Wichita economic development chief Allen Bell, and most importantly Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and various city council members — now have to decide if they want to continue in their efforts to enrich Burk. Continuing to do so will harm their reputations. The elected officials, should they run for office again, will have to explain their actions to voters.

At the state level, the bill that will enrich Burk will likely be voted on in the Kansas Senate this week. Then, similar action may take place in the Kansas House of Representatives. Let’s hope they read the Wichita Eagle in Topeka.

For Wichita, Save-A-Lot teaches a lesson

The announcement that a Save-A-Lot grocery store will proceed — contrary to the claims of developers and city staff who rely on their information — should provide a lesson that yes, economic development in Wichita can and will happen without public assistance. Additionally, examination of the public hearing for this matter before the Wichita City Council last September should teach us to be very cautious in relying on the claims of people who have a huge economic stake in obtaining public assistance.

At a city council public hearing on both the Community Improvement District and Tax Increment financing district last September, developer Rob Snyder sought public assistance in the form of a tax increment financing district (TIF) and a Community Improvement District (CID). Over a period of years, the two forms of subsidy were estimated to be worth $900,000 to the developer. The project’s total cost was presented as slightly over $2 million.

(By the way, in its recent coverage of this matter, the Wichita Eagle has an incorrect recording of events. The Eagle reported, referring to the Wichita City Council and Sedgwick County Commission: “The boards ultimately rejected the financing, despite support from some officials.” Actually, the city council unanimously approved both the CID and TIF. Then, the county commission exercised its statutory prerogative to veto the formation of a TIF district. The commission has no authority to intervene in the formation of CIDs.)

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.”

Snyder told the council that without the public assistance, there will be no grocery store: “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.”

Greg Ferris, a former city council member who lobbies local government on behalf of clients, was adamant in his insistence that the grocery store could not be built without public financing: “There will not be a building on that corner if this is not passed today. … That new building would not be built. I absolutely can tell you that because we have spent months … trying to figure out a way to finance a project in that area. A grocery store is not going to move into the Planeview area to service those people just like they didn’t move into the area at 13th and Grove until the city subsidized that with several hundred thousand dollars of city money. … What you’ve heard is misinformation. … This project just won’t happen and the people of Planeview will suffer.”

Now, we see that the financing gap has been closed, and without government assistance. The claims that a grocery store can’t be built in that neighborhood without welfare for developers have been demonstrated to be false.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer has referred to those who oppose government intervention like TIF and CID as “naysayers.” Here’s an example where free markets, capitalism, and economic freedom have overcome Wichita’s true naysayers: those who say it can’t happen without government intervention.

A message from John Todd: “This Wednesday (June 8th) at 2:00 pm there will be a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Planeview Save-A-Lot grocery store located on the southeast corner of George Washington Boulevard and Pawnee. This project was initially proposed with $900,000 in CID and TIF public subsidies for the developer that were approved by the Wichita City Council last fall. When the Sedgwick County Commission rejected giving the county’s portion of the TIF generated real estate taxes to the developer and away from the public treasury, the project appeared to be dead. The Wichita Eagle recently reported that the Save-A-Lot grocery store owner has now decided to develop the project on his own with his own financing. Perhaps it is appropriate for those citizens who appreciate businesses who develop market-driven projects in Wichita and Sedgwick County on their own nickel to show their appreciation to the grocery store owner/developer by attending the groundbreaking ceremony and personally thanking him.”

Wichita on corporate welfare, again

Yesterday’s award of $2.5 million by the City of Wichita to aircraft manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft to ward off a threatened move to Louisiana stands out as an example of corporate welfare given for its own sake, and not in response to any real threat.

Hawker will also ask Sedgwick County for the same amount, in addition to receiving $40 million in credits and incentives from the State of Kansas.

It was widely reported that Hawker had received an offer, said by some to be worth as much as $400 million, to move to Louisiana. But that offer was not a valid threat of Hawker leaving Kansas, as in a December 2010 television news report, Louisiana’s governor said “they couldn’t guarantee the number of jobs that would have been required for them to come here.”

Further evidence of the payment being corporate welfare for its own sake is lack of a cost-benefit analysis that usually accompanies such matters. Generally, the city justifies spending on economic development by citing a cost-benefit analysis performed by Wichita State University. By giving up some tax revenue or making a payment, the city feels it will gain even more tax revenue in the future. But no such numbers were cited as justification for this payment to Hawker Beechcraft.

Speaking from the bench, new council member James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita) said “At the end of 10 years, I don’t think anyone wants to have to go this process again.” He asked economic development director Allen Bell if there was a process in place so that we wouldn’t be blindsided, so that we could “come up with solutions ahead of time.” A streamlining of the corporate welfare, so to speak. Bell said there is such an effort: IDEA (Industrial Development and Expansion Assistance), plus informal discussions between high level city officials and businesses.

Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) brought out the fact that although it has been widely reported that the agreement requires Hawker to keep employment at 4,000 or more, it’s not until employment falls below 3,600 that clawback provisions become triggered. O’Donnell said he wanted to protect these 400 jobs, but Bell said the agreement was negotiated between Hawker and the State of Kansas (under former governor Mark Parkinson), and that O’Donnell was correct. O’Donnell expressed his concern: “I think that we definitely need to get the word out that we’re voting for something that could be 3,601 jobs and not 4,000 jobs like’s been sold to us and the public. … I think that’s problematic when we’re dealing with multi-millions of dollars.”

Two members of the public addressed the council on this matter, including myself based on my remarks in Hawker Beechcraft to receive subsidy from Wichita City Council.

In a lecture delivered to Clinton Coen, a young man who spoke against the Hawker incentive, Mayor Brewer spoke of the “employment rate [sic] before the recession” at Cessna, which the mayor cited as 12,000 employees, noting that there are only 6,000 today. The mayor said “That’s part of what contributed to this,” but did not make a connection between the decline in employment at Cessna and requirement of the subsidy being offered to Hawker. Cessna, by the way, received approval of similar incentives from the state and local governments for an expansion to be made in Wichita, but the declining aviation market led Cessna to cancel the expansion and the incentives.

The mayor also mentioned how we lost 1,500 jobs from one company because another state paid the company $1 million per job. The mayor did not mention the company, and inquiries to the mayor’s office and the city’s information office and staffers could not produce an answer. The mayor might have been referring to a 2008 offer by North Carolina to Spirit Aerosystems to build a plant there. That deal, as reported by the Triangle Business Journal, was an offer worth up to $250 million for employment expected to reach 1,031 within six years. That’s about $242,000 per job — a long way from a million. Furthermore, the report listed Jacksonville, not Wichita, as the main competition for the plant, even through Spirit is headquartered in Wichita.

The mayor also lectured Coen, as he has to others, about “philosophies or a theory” one may have concerning economic development, and how it is easy to say the things Coen did “if you really truly don’t know.” He also mentioned the threat of losing the entire company, not only to Louisiana, which he said is not the only competition, but the entire world.

All council members except O’Donnell voted for the measure.

Hawker as Wichita corporate citizen

At the city council meeting, I noted that the Hawker Beechcraft campus, although entirely surrounded by the city of Wichita, is not itself within the city limits. Apparently this does not limit the ability of Wichita to spend its citizens’ money on Hawker, but no one on the council or staff wanted to tackle that issue at the meeting.

Being outside the city limits of Wichita, Hawker pays no property tax to the city, as confirmed by examining tax records maintained by the Sedgwick County Treasurer’s Office.

Aviation summit

In his lecture to Coen, the mayor mentioned the recent aviation summit held by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback in Wichita. At that event, the attitude of the industry towards government assistance was clear: much is demanded.

Lynn Nichols, who is President of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and also owner of an aviation service business, answered several questions, including one asking which state incentives and tax and regulatory polices are important?

Nichols listed the sales tax exemption on aircraft service, repair, and modification; business expensing on capital expenditures; and reasonable and practical compliance policies from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Then, he added: “And of course, we can’t wait for Secretary [of Commerce Pat] George’s new cookie jar with his proposed economic development discretionary deal-closing fund. So we support you on that one, Secretary.”

The choice of language by Nichols — “cookie jar” — was found to be offensive by Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau, and he commented on that at a recent commission meeting:

Overall, the tone of the summit was that the Kansas aviation industry is dependent on support and incentives from state and local governments. Without that, industry leaders said it will be difficult to survive or resist offers to move to other states.

But as we saw yesterday at the Wichita City Council, perceived threats need not be credible in order to extract taxpayer funds in the form of corporate welfare. The taxpayer-funded cookie jar is open for business.

Wichita forgivable loan action raises and illustrates issues

Today the Wichita City Council decided to grant a forgivable loan of $48,000 to The Golf Warehouse. This subsidy was promoted by the city as necessary to properly incentivize the applicant company to expand its operations in Wichita rather than Indiana, where the company has other operations and had also received an offer of subsidy. For more information, see Forgivable loan a test for new Wichita City Council members.

In presenting the item to the council, Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development said the forgivable loan was a “deal-closing” device intended to “win a competition with other locations.”

Further discussion brought out the fact that companies often “test the waters,” asking for incentives from cities like Wichita as a location they might consider moving to, only to us that as leverage for getting more incentives back home. (Wichita has suffered at the hands of this ruse, most recently granting a large forgivable loan to a company when the city used as leverage says they did not have discussions with the company.)

Council Member Michael O’Donnell asked if there was another form of economic development that The Golf Warehouse could have received. Bell said that in this case there wasn’t, that IRB financing with accompanying tax abatements wasn’t available for this project. As he has in the past, Bell pointed to the lack of tools in the toolbox, or “arrows in our quiver” he said today.

When the CEO of the applicant company spoke to the council, it was easy to get the impression that this company — like the many other companies that plead for incentives and subsidy — feel that because of their past and pending investment in Wichita, they are entitled some form of incentive. When the company’s outside site selection consultant spoke, this sense of entitlement became explicit. She told how the company has made “significant investment and has employed a lot of people and kept a lot of families employed.” She said that instead of forgivable loan, this should be called an “act of goodwill.” She said the company has made a huge investment, never asking for incentives, and that the loan allows the company to continue making investment into the community.

She also said that the offer made by Indiana amounted to twice Wichita’s offer, on a per-job basis.

Citizens spoke against the forgivable loan. John Todd asked if this is the economic formula that has blessed our city and county with the wealth and prosperity we enjoy today.

Clinton Coen told the council that these incentives are a bargaining tool, allowing cities to blackmail each other.

Susan Estes asked a question that built on O’Donnell’s earlier remarks: Why would we see this forgivable loan as egregious? On the surface, we see jobs, which is good, she said. But the money to pay for this loan comes from other taxpayers, she said, and there are many companies that need help, citing the number of companies filing for bankruptcy and having tax liens filed against them. “Why I find it egregious is that we’re doing something that helps one company at a time. We really need to take an overall look at our tax policy and address the tax issue. We have one of the highest tax rates on the Plains, and that’s why we get in these situations where we have to compete. If we had a better competitive tax rate we could spare all of this.”

Of interest for the political theater was the vote of three new council members, based on statements they made regarding forgivable loans on the campaign trail (see Forgivable loan a test for new Wichita City Council members). In making the motion to accept staff recommendation of the forgivable loan, council member Pete Meitzner said of the loan: “It is an investment, incentive, whatever you want to call it. It is not a give-away.”

Meitzner and James Clendenin voted with all the veteran council members to approve the forgivable loan. Only O’Donnell voted consistent with how he campaigned.

Analysis

This item before the Wichita City Council today requires analysis from two levels.

First, the economics and public policy aspects of granting the forgivable loan are this: It is impossible to tell whether The Golf Warehouse would not expand in Wichita if the forgivable loan was not granted. The companies that apply for these subsidies and that cite competitive offers from other states and cities have, in some cases, multi-million dollar motives to make Wichita think they will move away, or not invest any more in Wichita. Most politicians are scared to death of being labeled “anti-job,” and therefore will vote for any measure that has the appearance of creating or saving jobs.

Particularly inappropriate is the attitude of many of these companies in that they deserve some sort of reward for investing in Wichita and creating jobs. First, companies that make investments do, in fact, deserve a reward. That reward is called profit, but it has to be earned in the marketplace, not granted by government fiat. When a company earns profits in free markets, we have convincing evidence that wealth is being created and capital has been wisely invested. Everyone — the investors certainly but also the customers and employees — is better off when companies profit through competition in free markets.

But when government steps in with free capital, as was the case today, markets are no longer free. The benefits of capitalism are no longer available and working for us. The distortion that government introduces interferes with market processes, and we can’t be sure if the profit and loss system that is so important is working. Companies, as we saw today, increasingly revert to what economists call rent seeking — profiting through government rather than by pleasing customers in market competition.

Entrepreneurship, of which Wichita has a proud tradition, is replaced by a check from city hall.

Wichita’s own Charles Koch explained the harm of government interventionism in his recent recent Wall Street Journal op-ed: “Government spending on business only aggravates the problem. Too many businesses have successfully lobbied for special favors and treatment by seeking mandates for their products, subsidies (in the form of cash payments from the government), and regulations or tariffs to keep more efficient competitors at bay. Crony capitalism is much easier than competing in an open market. But it erodes our overall standard of living and stifles entrepreneurs by rewarding the politically favored rather than those who provide what consumers want.”

A forgivable loan — despite Council Member Meitzner’s claim to the contrary — is a cash payment to business, which Mr. Koch warns against.

The focus on job creation is also a confounding factor that obscures the path to true wealth and prosperity for Wichita. When companies ask the city, county, and state for subsidy and incentive, they tout the number of jobs and the payroll that will be created. But jobs are a cost, not a benefit, to business and most firms do all they can to minimize their labor costs just as they seek to minimize all costs. For Wichita to prosper, we need to focus on productivity and wealth creation, not merely employment.

The actions of the city council today keep Wichita on its path of piecemeal economic development and growth. Movement to a system that embraces economic dynamism, as advocated by Dr. Art Hall and as part of Governor Sam Brownback’s economic development plan for Kansas, is delayed. Economic development in Wichita keeps its present status as a sort of public utility, subject to policy review from time to time, as was mentioned today by the city manager.

Politically, Wichitans learned today the value of promises or statements made by most candidates while campaigning. Most candidates’ promises along with $3.75 will get you a small cappuccino at Starbucks — if you don’t ask for whipped cream.

Particularly interesting is the inability of politicians to admit they were wrong, or that they made a mistake, or that they were simply uninformed or misinformed when they made a campaign promise or statement. It was refreshing to hear Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, when he was in Wichita a few weeks ago, forthrightly admit that he was wrong about his initial position on cap-and-trade energy policies. City council members Clendenin and Meitzner could not bring themselves to admit that their votes today were at odds with their statements made while campaigning. This lack of honesty is one of the reasons that citizens tune out politics, why they have such a cynical attitude towards politicians, and perhaps why voter turnout in city elections is so low.

As one young Wichitan said on her Facebook page after sharing video of the three new council members today, obviously referring to city council district 2’s Pete Meitzner: “How to use your mouth: 1. Campaign under the guise that you are a fiscal conservative. 2. Insert foot.”

Economic development planning in Wichita on tap

Tuesday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council features four public hearings concerning Community Improvement Districts. One CID also will have a public hearing on its application for tax increment financing (TIF).

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from the 2009 session. They allow merchants in a district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. The extra sales tax is used for the exclusive benefit of the CID.

Under tax increment financing (TIF), developers get to use their property taxes to pay for the same infrastructure (or other costs) that everyone else has to pay for. That’s because in TIF, the increment in property taxes are used to pay off bonds that were issued for the exclusive benefit of a development. Or, as in the case with a new form of TIF called pay-as-you-go, the increment in property taxes are simply given back to the developer. (Which leads to the question: why even pay at all?)

The developments seeking this form of public financing include a grocery story in Plainview, a low-income and, according to the application, underserved area of town. Material on this hearing provided by the city is at Plainview Grocery Store CID and TIF in Wichita, Kansas.

A second applicant asks to charge an extra one cent per dollar sales tax for Central Park Place, a proposed suburban shopping center. Read more here: Community Improvement District at Central Park Place, Wichita, Kansas.

Then the developers of Bowllagio, a proposed bowling alley and entertainment district, will make their pitch to add two cents per dollar sales tax. Read more here: Community Improvement District for Bowllagio (Maize 54 Development).

Finally, the developers of the downtown Wichita Broadview Hotel will ask to add two cents per dollar sales tax on purchases made by the hotel’s visitors. Read more here: Community Improvement District for Broadview Hotel, Wichita, Kansas.

All of these applications should be turned down by the city council, and for a variety of reasons.

For example, the goal of the Plainview grocery store is to serve a low-income area of town. To do that, however, the store will be charging its customers an extra $1 for every $50 spent. Supporters make the case that many of the potential customers presently shop at Quik-Trip, which is not an inexpensive store, so the city is really doing these people a favor. The developer makes the case that he’s just trying to do something for the community, giving back something.

But if the developer really wants to do something for the community, he should agree to pay his share of property taxes like almost everyone else pays. That won’t happen, as most of the taxes he will pay will be routed right back to him through the TIF district.

The extra sales tax is a consumer protection issue, both in the case of the Plainview grocery store and the suburban shopping center. Shoppers won’t have any idea that they’re going to be paying extra sales tax by shopping at these merchants until after they get their receipt. Most people probably won’t notice then.

There are several council members who normally would be in favor of exposing greedy merchants who overcharge people, but they haven’t shown this concern so far regarding Community Improvement Districts.

The Broadview hotel is already the recipient of potentially $4.75 million in Kansas historic preservation tax credits. Despite the name of the program, the tax credits are in effect a grant of money to the developers — the state might as well write the developers a check. The City of Wichita has also assisted the hotel in several ways. But now it’s back at the government trough asking for even more corporate welfare.

We ought to ponder the wisdom of renovating this hotel if it can’t survive without so much government assistance. And having plowed so much into an economically unfeasible project, we can easily see sometime a few years down the road where owner Drury Hotels come to the city saying they can’t make a profit, and they need some other form of assistance.

Having given so much already, the city won’t be able to turn down the request for a little more. It’s happened before.

Even pointing out how the city works at cross-purposes with itself doesn’t impress the council. We spend millions every year subsidizing airlines so that airfares to Wichita are low. Then we turn around and add extra tax to visitors’ hotel bills, with Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell and the Wichita Eagle editorial board approving this as a wise strategy.

People remember high taxes. I don’t think it’s a good strategy to establish high-tax districts designed to capture extra tax revenue from visitors to our city. A good strategy for Wichita to pursue would be to establish itself as a low-cost destination, but we’re going the other way.

Then we must consider: does all this economic development planning work? The answer, emphatically, is: No. City leaders tell us that they do these things to grow Wichita’s economy. The activity of developers who seek subsidy like this is called, in economic terms, rent seeking, and city leaders encourage it. But evidence shows that rent seeking activity harms economic growth.

It’s usually pretty good for the favored developers who receive such economic rents (subsidy). But it’s a bad deal for everyone else. It illustrates one of the primary problems with government taxation and spending. John Stossel explains:

The Public Choice school of economics calls this the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Individual members of relatively small interest groups stand to gain huge rewards when they lobby for government favors, but each taxpayer will pay only a tiny portion of the cost of any particular program, making opposition pointless.

We see this in play nearly every week in Wichita as the city seeks to manage economic development. City leaders portray “success stories” (that’s when a company accepts subsidy from the city to build something) as evidence of people having faith in Wichita. Someone has confidence in Wichita because they’re investing here, they say.

But I wonder why these people won’t invest in Wichita unless they receive millions of dollars through preferential tax treatment such as tax abatements, CID, TIF, STAR bonds, forgivable loans, and other forms of local corporate welfare.

These preferential tax treatments increase the cost of government for everyone else in the city. That fuels the cycle of people coming to city council saying their plans are not feasible unless they receive tax breaks. This expanding role of Wichita in centralized economic planning is great if you’re a city hall bureaucrat like Wichita city manager Bob Layton and Wichita economic development director Allen Bell. It satisfies the incentives and motivations of bureaucrats. But it’s bad for economic freedom and the people of Wichita.

Finally, perhaps the simplest public policy issue is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? Why the roundabout process of the state collecting extra sales tax, only to ship it back to the merchants in the CID?

For downtown Wichita, Mayor Brewer has a vision

In Sunday’s Wichita Eagle, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer penned a piece that states his belief in the importance of downtown and prepares the people of Wichita for the start of a prescriptive planning process, with accompanying subsidy to politically-favored developers willing to fulfill the plan.

The mayor used the word “vibrant” twice. Asking citizens a question like “Would you like to have a vibrant downtown?” is meaningless. Who doesn’t? It’s only when the question is accompanied by context that citizens can start to understand how they should answer.

For example, in the mayor’s article, he mentions the use of special assessment financing that funded suburban infrastructure, and that this is not sufficient for downtown needs. This statement reveals a misunderstanding by the mayor about the various forms of financing that might be used to help development.

Special assessment financing means that the city spends money to build something, like the new street to serve a site where someone wants to build a house or a shopping center. The cost of this street, plus interest, is added to the property’s tax bill over a period of years. The property owner doesn’t get anything for free.

But in the forms of financing that the mayor and city hall planners favor for downtown, developers do get something for free. Under tax increment financing (TIF), developers get to use their property taxes to pay for the same infrastructure that everyone else has to pay for. That’s because in TIF, the increment in property taxes are used to pay off bonds that were issued for the exclusive benefit of a development. Or, as in the case with a new form of TIF called pay-as-you-go, the increment in property taxes are simply given back to the developer. (Which leads to the question: why even pay at all?)

Some deny that TIF directly enriches the developer. They’ll make arguments such as “it’s only used for infrastructure and eligible expenses” or “it’s not lending, it’s bonding” or “it wouldn’t happen but for TIF” or the biggest lie: TIF doesn’t have any cost. But despite these claims, TIF has a cost, and it does directly enrich the developer. That’s its entire purpose; its reason for being. If TIF didn’t enrich the developer, how does it change something that is claimed to be not economically feasible into something that is?

While city leaders say that public participation in the revitalization of downtown is to be limited, we should be cautious and skeptical. Goody Clancy planners have said that public participation will be limited to TIF. This is bad in its own right and should be opposed on its merits.

We need to be skeptical of the mayor and downtown planners because there isn’t enough TIF money available to do what they want to do. I fully expect a citywide sales tax, probably in the amount of one cent per dollar, to be proposed for the benefit of downtown subsidized developers. City leaders speak fondly of such a tax that Oklahoma City has used for many years.

City leaders have already shown themselves to be not averse to imposing additional sales taxes in Wichitans and our visitors, having granted several Community Improvement Districts the ability to charge up to an additional two cents per dollar sales tax. This means that when visitors check out of the Fairfield Inn in downtown Wichita, they’ll be faced with a sales tax rate of 9.3 percent. That’s in addition to the six percent guest tax, which in the case of this hotel is collected for the exclusive benefit of itself, rather than funding general government and tourism activities.

More community improvement districts are in the works. Wichita may soon be peppered with them.

No faith in free markets means no faith in people

The unwillingness of Wichita city leaders to let Wichitans freely decide where they live, and Wichita businesses freely decide where to locate, is a sign of lack of confidence in free markets and the people of Wichita. Because Wichitans do not choose to live and locate their business firms where politicians like Carl Brewer and Janet Miller — to name just two — and city hall bureaucrats like Wichita city manager Bob Layton and Wichita economic development director Allen Bell want them to, they deliver a slap in the face. It appears in the form of a vision backed up by planning, regulation, and the power to dish out favorable tax treatment, as outlined above.

Once formed, a vision is a powerful force. Randal O’Toole, author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future has written about visionaries and government planning:

The worst thing about having a vision is that it confers upon the visionary a moral absolutism: only highly prescriptive regulation can ensure that the vision overcomes an uncaring populace responding to a free market that planners do not really trust. But the more prescriptive the plan, the more likely it is that the plan will be wrong, and such errors will prove extremely costly for the city or region that tries to implement the plan.

An example of planning that many see as having gone wrong is the government planning that led to growth on the city’s fringes. An example that helped make this possible is the government’s decision to build the northeast expressway also known as K-96. Acts of government like this are claimed to have caused the demise of downtown, the very situation that planners now want to correct.

With government making “mistakes” (their claim, not mine) like this on a grand scale, why are we willing to trust that politicians and bureaucrats are making correct decisions now? Especially when you look at the campaign finance reports of most city council members and see the same names giving repeatedly to all council members, with these same names appearing repeatedly before the council asking for their subsidy. This is not a decision making process that gives citizens confidence.

It bears repeating: the existence of the downtown planning process tells Wichitans they’ve made a mistake in where they chose to buy a home or build a business. Not only will Wichitans have to pay for what they freely chose, they’re going to be asked to pay again so that those with purportedly superior vision can have their way.

Wichita Warren Theater IRB a TIF district in disguise

On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider an economic development incentive for a local business. The process the city is using to grant this incentive bypasses the scrutiny that accompanies the formation of TIF districts while providing essentially the same benefit.

The proposal provides Industrial Revenue Bond financing to American Luxury Cinemas, Inc., d.b.a. 21st Street Warren Theatre, a company owned in part by Wichita theater operator Bill Warren. Under the city’s IRB program, no city money is lent to Warren, and the city does not provide any guarantee that the bonds will be repaid.

Instead, the benefit of the IRB to Warren is that he will escape paying property taxes on the new theater. Also, he will likely avoid paying sales taxes on purchases made with the bond money. (The city-supplied material doesn’t mention the sales tax exemption, but this incentive is commonly granted, and mention of it was likely omitted by mistake from the agenda report.)

This project is a TIF district in effect. It has the same economic benefit to the applicant. But the way this deal is structured means it doesn’t have to go through the normal approval process of a TIF district. Specifically, the Sedgwick County Commission will not have a chance to consider approval of these incentives. That approval would probably not be granted.

The process being used also allows the city to bypass the 30 day notice of a public hearing required for formation of a TIF district.

In a TIF district, the city borrows money and spends it immediately for the benefit of the TIF district. What the city spends money on isn’t important, as long as it’s spent on things that the owners of the property in the TIF district would have to pay for themselves, if not for the city. This is important to remember, as defenders of TIF districts say that the city money is spent “only on infrastructure,” as if most developers don’t have to pay for their own infrastructure.

As improvements to property in the TIF district are made — buildings being built or renovated, etc. — the property taxes on the property go up. This increase in the tax payments — that’s the increment in TIF — goes to pay off the borrowed money that was spent on the TIF district.

Since the TIF district spending was for the exclusive benefit of of the TIF district applicant, and the increased property taxes are paying off the bonds that provided that spending, TIF districts, in effect, let the applicants keep the increase in their own property taxes for their exclusive benefit.

Whenever anyone else improves their property and has to pay higher taxes, those taxes go to fund the general operations of government.

(If this sounds confusing and complicated, it is. It is confusing by design. A while back I told the council: “I’ve come to realize that this confusion serves a useful purpose to this council, because if the people of Wichita knew what was really happening, they’d be outraged.”)

In the Warren deal that the council will consider on Tuesday, no TIF district is being created. But because the property is in the IRB program, property taxes will be forgiven. Warren is agreeing to make payments equal to the present tax bill on the property (plus a small annual increase).

The net effect is that the Warren group will not pay property taxes on the value of the new project. It’s the same economic effect as a TIF district, without the scrutiny that accompanies formation of a TIF district.

Some city politicians and bureaucrats — particularly Mayor Carl Brewer, council member Jeff Longwell, and the city’s economic development chief Allen Bell — have complained that the city doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” when it comes to dishing out economic development incentives.

This applicant has been the recipient of economic development incentives, including a TIF district formed for its benefit. When that business was failing, the city created a special tool for Warren’s benefit: a no-interest and low-interest loan.

Here we see another new tool being created — the formation of what is, in effect, a TIF district without accompanying scrutiny.

Warren IMAX Theater Project

Wichita city council signals possible change in economic development incentive policy

At today’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, discussion by council members and their vote may signal a change in the city’s stance toward economic development incentives.

At issue was a request for extension of economic development incentives for a Wichita company. Five years ago the city council approved an economic development package for the company that included a tax abatement. As is the city’s policy, the council revisits the issue in five years to see if the company has meet its goal commitments. In the case of this company, one commitment — the building of a new facility — was met. The other commitment — creation of a certain number of jobs — was met early on during the period of the tax abatement, but employment has been declining in recent years, and employment is currently 100 jobs below the goal.

Recently the city council adopted new guidelines for companies that are not meeting their goals at the time of review. These guidelines make it easier for companies to qualify for the extension of the abatement. If the WSU Current Conditions Index has declined since the awarding of the incentives, the company will qualify for an extension if a majority of the goals are met. A company will also qualify for extension if their peak job creation numbers exceeded the goal, even if the number has fallen, as is the case with the company under consideration today.

Based on the new guidelines, city staff recommended to approve the extension of the incentives.

Council member Lavonta Williams asked if it was possible if, as an company receiving an incentive, could “I hire five people today and fire them by Friday and then meet my criteria?” The answer by city economic development director Allen Bell is that the policy contains no such guideline as to minimum period of employment.

Wichita city manager Bob Layton interjected that staff’s recommendation to approve the extension is a difficult one to make, as this company is in a declining pattern of employment. Additionally, the newly calculated benefit-to-cost ratios are low, and he said he is uncomfortable with that: “We’re actually subsidizing this business, so to speak, or others are subsidizing or bearing their load for debt service.”

Council member Sue Schlapp asked a question not covered by policy: if we deny the extension today, and next year the company improves its situation, could they come back and ask for the extension of the tax abatement then? There is no definitive answer to this question at this time, according to Bell and Layton.

Schlapp added that it seems like we’re “lowering the bar all the time” as to the granting of incentives.

Council member Paul Gray remarked that the council makes itself look bad in these situations, as it always grants extensions even though the city has created policies that should hold companies accountable to their committed goals. The reason for awarding the incentives, he said, was for the increase in employment, and that employment level has not been kept. “We need to start taking a harder stand on this, as we’re going to run out of money if we keep giving it all away.” Vice mayor Jim Skelton agreed.

No one from the public was there to speak on this matter.

Wichita mayor Carl BrewerWichita Mayor Carl Brewer was on the losing end of a 6 to 1 vote.

Gray made a motion to deny the staff recommendation of approval of the extension. Mayor Carl Brewer said that this vote, if it proceeds in the direction it appears to be going, will change the direction of many things that affect businesses in Wichita. He said that the intent of the council is to start holding individuals accountable, and there’s not been a track record of that. It’s been worse since the economy entered the recession, he said. He urged council members to make sure they know which way they’re going with this action. “This will be the direction that we’ll be going as we start working on policy, and it will be effective for everyone, whether it be large or whether it be small. … Just making sure that when we press that button and we head down this path, that we know what we’re doing.”

The vote was 6 to 1 in favor of Gray’s motion, with the mayor being the lone “No” vote.

Analysis

This action by the Wichita city council, being nearly unanimous, is very much different from its action just one week ago, when it employed one new method plus several existing methods to heap millions in subsidy on a downtown hotel developer.

Today’s discussion is another illustration of just how difficult it is to pick winners and losers, and how difficult it is to choose which companies the city should invest in. This is why I have recommended that Wichita grant tax abatements on all new capital investment.

Today’s action is especially cruel to the subject company. In the past, city staff has argued that withdrawing tax abatements when a company is struggling is harmful. In December 2008, economic development director Bell said this regarding a company that had not met its performance commitments: “I don’t think it would be productive at this time to further penalize them — as the market has already penalized them — by putting them back on the tax roles at this time.” This is further evidence that taxes are harmful to business and economic growth.

Council member Williams’ question about hiring and then quickly firing employees indicates that she must not be familiar with the costs of hiring and firing. Furthermore, a company’s unemployment insurance premiums are based on its history, and actions like this would certainly raise premiums by a large amount.

Extension of EDX Tax Exemption (Sharpline Converting, Inc.)

With downtown Wichita hotels doing well, why the need for subsidy?

At a recent presentation by Wichita’s downtown revitalization planning firm Goody Clancy, data was presented that is at odds with the city’s plans.

Goody Clancy consultants presented data showing that downtown Wichita hotels are doing better than hotels in the entire Wichita market. Data from the charts shows that Wichita market hotels command an average daily rate of about $78. The rate for downtown hotels is about $110.

Occupancy rates tell a similar story. For all Wichita hotels the occupancy rate is about 65%, while for downtown hotels the rate is 70%.

According to Goody Clancy consultant Sarah Woodworth, when occupancy rates are at 65% or higher, the area is ready for new hotel rooms. So it seems that more hotels are needed in downtown Wichita, and that new hotels could be profitable.

But we’re getting a different story from Wichita’s bureaucratic class. According to them, a proposed Fairfield Inn in the downtown WaterWalk development is not feasible unless the city supplies some $3 million in subsidy to the developer.

This is according to Wichita Urban Development chief Allen Bell, who says there is a “gap” in the business plan for the proposed hotel. Unless the city steps in and fills the gap, the hotel won’t be built, according to Bell.

The figures that show the gap, however, are provided by someone who has a multi-million dollar motive to create a gap. Bell says his office checks the arithmetic on these figures, but that doesn’t count for due diligence, especially with the city’s recent history of overlooking important facts about proposed projects.

Here’s the real question: with the city’s planning firm saying the downtown Wichita hotel market is strong with the market clamoring for new rooms, why does the city say a new hotel can’t be built without subsidy?

Wichita city council discusses economic development incentives, again

At this week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, underperforming companies that have received economic incentives was at issue.

Wichita grants incentives — usually in the form of an escape from paying property taxes — to companies. Usually there are conditions attached to the incentives, such as a certain amount of capital investment or employment targets. Recently — and in the past two or so years — several companies that received incentives have not met employment goals. Should the city rescind the tax breaks in these cases? Or should there be recognition that there’s a tough economy at the moment, and should the company be excused from meeting the goals it pledged?

During a period of questions from the bench, council member Sue Schlapp remarked: “We have to be flexible, don’t we? … Especially in today’s economy, we need to be very careful that we’re not too rigid in what we’re doing.”

Council member Jeff Longwell said he’d like to see something that rewards companies that bring in business from outside our community. Economic development head Allen Bell answered that the policy is limited to companies that bring in wealth from outside. Businesses that are here because their customers are here are not eligible for economic incentives, he said.

Longwell also expressed concern about companies that use temporary employees. Should that increase in payroll be included as a benefit, even if the employees are only temps? Bell said yes, even though these jobs are not as good as direct hire placements. Wichita City Manager Bob Layton interjected that we shouldn’t count seasonal peak employee ramp-up in benefit calculations.

Longwell added that we ought to include the fact that some companies drive up hotel occupancy rates due to the nature of their business. Bell said that this is a factor in the WSU analysis.

Vice-mayor Jim Skelton inquired about details of the model that WSU uses to calculate the economic benefit of incentives. These calculations, Bell said, are required by the Kansas Legislature. The model presently used is unique to WSU. It focuses on the fiscal impact that an economic development project has on cities, counties, school districts, and the state. It takes into account jobs created, capital that is invested, and other factors. It includes such factors as the need for additional police and other government services, additional sales and bed tax, and other revenue sources. It then performs a present value calculation and produces a ratio. A value greater than one means the benefits exceed the costs.

City manager Layton said that these incentives represent a contract between the business and the city. The business promises to grow the economy, and the city makes an investment in the company. The council presently is struggling with how to judge the performance of companies that have received incentives in a down economy. The WSU index makes sense, he said. If economic conditions are poor, we now have a tool to judge the performance of the companies that received incentives. There are now extenuating circumstances, he said.

Mayor Carl Brewer said that we recognize there are challenges, and that in an ideal world we shouldn’t have to provide incentives. But he said we have several options: Be competitive and provide incentives and fight to keep what we have, or don’t provide incentives and see what happens. He said we know what would happen in that case. Businesses will go where they can get these incentives, he said, and we can’t argue that. There will always be incentives, he said, and we have to be competitive.

The council unanimously approved a revision to the policy that recognizes down periods of economic activity. Then, it approved the extension of tax breaks to three companies that had not met all their performance goals. Passage was not unanimous in two cases, with some council members voting against the extension of the incentives. Dion Lefler’s reporting in the Wichita Eagle is at Wichita City Council eases rules on tax abatements.

Analysis

Contrary to the belief of the mayor, council members, and city hall bureaucrats, economic development incentives aren’t all they’re promoted to be. The state of Kansas spent some $1.3 billion on incentives over five years. In a recent report produced by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit, one of the summary points is this: “Most studies of economic development incentives suggest these incentives don’t have a significant impact on economic growth.” See In Wichita, let’s have economic development for all for more on this report and a link to the document.

There is an interesting academic paper titled The Failures of Economic Development Incentives, published in Journal of the American Planning Association. A few quotes from the study, with emphasis added:

Given the weak effects of incentives on the location choices of businesses at the interstate level, state governments and their local governments in the aggregate probably lose far more revenue, by cutting taxes to firms that would have located in that state anyway than they gain from the few firms induced to change location.

On the three major questions — Do economic development incentives create new jobs? Are those jobs taken by targeted populations in targeted places? Are incentives, at worst, only moderately revenue negative? — traditional economic development incentives do not fare well. It is possible that incentives do induce significant new growth, that the beneficiaries of that growth are mainly those who have greatest difficulty in the labor market, and that both states and local governments benefit fiscally from that growth. But after decades of policy experimentation and literally hundreds of scholarly studies, none of these claims is clearly substantiated. Indeed, as we have argued in this article, there is a good chance that all of these claims are false.

The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state or 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 their expectations about their ability to micromanage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing the foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.

On the surface of things, to the average person, it would seem that spending (or granting tax breaks, it’s the same thing) to attract new businesses makes a lot of sense. It’s a win-win deal, backers say. Everyone benefits. This is why it is so appealing to politicians. It lets them trumpet their achievements doing something that no one should reasonably disagree with. After all, who could be against jobs and prosperity? But the evidence that these schemes work is lacking, as this legislative audit and article show.

I have suggested to the city council that a broad-based tax abatement on new capital investment could propel economic growth in Wichita. See Wichita universal tax exemption could propel growth.

But a plan like this doesn’t give bureaucrats much to do, and gives politicians little to crow about to their constituents at election time. All it’s good for is the people who want economic growth.

Wichita city council discusses economic development incentives

Last week a Wichita company that’s expanding made an application for industrial revenue bonds and accompanying property tax abatements. The company’s application wasn’t timely, and for that reason is not likely to receive the requested help. The discussion surrounding the item provides insight into city council members’ ideas about the role of the city in economic development.

Industrial revenue bonds, or IRBs, are not a loan from the city, and the city does not make any guarantee that the bonds will be repaid. The primary benefit to the recipient of IRBs is that the property purchased with the bonds will generally be exempt, in whole or in part, from property taxes for some period. Also, the company may not have to pay sales tax on the property purchased with the bonds.

The agenda report for this item is at Request for Letter of Intent for Industrial Revenue Bonds, Michelle Becker, Inc. (District V).

In introducing the item, the city’s economic development chief Allen Bell said that because the project has already started construction, it falls outside the guidelines for the city’s IRB program. The construction is 85% to 90% complete.

A question by council member Sue Schlapp established that if the company had made application before the building was started, the application would have been approved as routine.

She also asked that if we approve this action today, will we have to go back and look at other businesses that are in the same place? Wichita City Manager Bob Layton asked that the council establish guidelines that if a project has already started, a project is not eligible for this type of assistance.

There was also some discussion about whether this company would move away from Wichita if the tax abatement was not granted. Since the building is already under construction, Bell said this is evidence that the company is intending to stay in Wichita. “It’s difficult to think of an incentive as something that’s given after the fact,” he said.

A question by council member Paul Gray established that there have not been many cases where companies have asked for tax breaks retroactively, according to Bell’s answer. Bell also said that he didn’t think that approving the current application would spur an avalanche of similar requests.

Gray also noted that we can create economic disparities between companies by granting incentives, so how do we justify doing this? Bell’s answer was that an important consideration is bringing business from out of state instead of taking business away from other local companies.

Layton added that an important consideration is whether the project can more forward without public assistance.

Council member Jeff Longwell remarked that “we really don’t have that many tools in our toolbox for emerging businesses.” Bell agreed.

In later discussion, Longwell said “I hate to penalize this emerging company … I should have got them in on this process long before we did and we wouldn’t even be having this argument. So I suppose I am at fault in part of this delay.”

Gray said that because we’re not competing against another community for this company — the normal use of incentives — he can’t support this application.

Council member Janet Miller said that the appropriate time to look at incentives is, as the manager said, when we think a company can’t move forward without the incentive. She also noted that we’re being asked to approve an action for which we’re going to soon have a policy against.

Schlapp, indicating a desire to approve the incentive, asked for justification: “We have a company here that doesn’t need an incentive but wants an incentive … can somebody justify that?”

Longwell said it’s not as simple as a need and a want. He said the applicant is a smart, well-managed company. But we shouldn’t use the qualifier of helping only the companies that couldn’t succeed without the city’s help. “Why not reward some some of those companies that are very well managed and run smart and have the ability to grow even more with our help than without it?” Again he referred to the lack of tools for emerging businesses. “We ought to be helping these types of companies that we think can truly prosper even more with our help … I think they fully warrant our help because they’re successful …”

Mayor Carl Brewer said that we have a proven track record of trying to help businesses and to get businesses to come to our area. He agreed with Longwell in that we need additional tools to use for economic development, as other communities have been competing successfully. We don’t have the same tools that other communities have, he said.

Longwell suggested the city visit with the applicant about her financing. He made a motion to defer this item. Council member Williams asked about the impending completion of the project, since it’s scheduled to be completed at the end of December. The answer from the manager was that with regard to IRBs, the project would not be eligible after it’s complete. The motion passed with Council member and Vice-mayor Jim Skelton opposed.

Analysis

What’s striking about the discussion are these two things:

First, many council members and some city staff believe that the city doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” for shoveling incentives on companies for economic development purposes. Evidently the ability to grant exemptions from property taxation — and not only the city’s property tax levy, but also that of the county, school district, and state — along with the ability to make outright gifts of money is not enough.

Second, many council members and some city staff believe that they can determine which companies are worthy of incentives.

According to city manager Layton, the city is going to revisit its economic development policies soon. This would be a good time for Wichita to come up with ideas that would benefit all companies, not only those that fall within guidelines that the council or city staff creates. My suggestion, explained in Wichita universal tax exemption could propel growth, is to give all new capital investment a tax abatement for a period of five years.

At the state level, there has been some discussion about the costs of tax abatements or exemptions. In a recent debate in Wichita, Kansas Secretary of Revenue Joan Wagnon used the term “tax expenditures” to describe these giveaways of the state’s income. The idea is that if the state (or other governmental body) didn’t create tax abatements or exemptions, revenue to the government would be higher. Her debate opponent Alan Cobb said it’s wrong to term these tax giveaways as “expenditures,” as the money belongs to the people first, a position I agree with.

There is the related issue of these tax abatements or exemptions really being appropriations of money that, if processed through the normal process of legislative hearings, etc., would be noticed for what they are. In Wichita city government we don’t have hearings quite like the Kansas Legislature, but the idea is the same: if this company had asked for a grant from the city for $22,253 (that’s the value of the first year of the requested tax abatement, with a similar figure for the following nine years, less $2,500 a year to the city for administrative fees), citizens — news media too — would quite likely look at this matter differently. Presented as industrial revenue bonds — just what are those anyway? — and a tax abatement, well, it all seems so … so innocent, so municipal.

A few more observations:

Council member Jeff Longwell’s confession of being at fault for the lateness of this company’s application should be remembered by voters in the next election, should he decide to seek to retain his current post, or — as some have told me — he seeks the mayorship of the city.

There’s also Longwell’s use of the term “reward,” in that the city should “reward some some of those companies that are very well managed and run smart.” I’d like to remind him and the rest of the council that the free enterprise system contains a very powerful reward mechanism for companies that do well: profit. That alone is sufficient.

Coverage from the Wichita Eagle is at Wichita City Council puts off tax breaks for accounting firm.

At Wichita city council, special pleading of selfish interests

At yesterday’s meeting of the the Wichita City Council, a matter was presented to the council that provided an illustration of basic economic principles that are foreign to the council.

A condominium homeowners association asked for special assessment tax financing to make repairs to the building. My remarks that I delivered at the meeting were based on my post In Wichita, waiving guidelines makes for bad policy.

David M. Bryan, a Wichita attorney and resident of the building, represented the the homeowners association that is asking for the special assessment financing. He spoke after I did. His wife accompanied him to the podium.

Bryan’s case for help was based on factors that — besides being irrelevant — show just what a fiasco this matter is. It also illustrates just how selfish these condominium owners are in expecting the city to bail them out of their problem.

First, he says that he and the other condo owners represent one of the goals of downtown redevelopment. “We all took that leap of faith and bought the lofts” when the building was still under construction.

He didn’t know what tuckpointing was when he moved in to this building, and he and the other residents didn’t know that this [the need for repair] was going to happen.

He said that he thinks the building represents a sound and good investment in downtown redevelopment, and that the building is part of what the city council wants to accomplish.

Conventional financing for these repairs would, Bryan said, require personal guarantees by all residents, and that would prevent the individual units from being sold unless the entire loan was paid off.

(In my testimony, I made the point that the amount that each condominium owner needs to pay to fix the building is on the order of what it would cost to paint a conventional house of the same value as these units. There’s also a defect in the ownership structure of this building if there is no way to pay for repairs like the present situation, as things like this are foreseeable.)

Council member Paul Gray, speaking from the bench, expressed concern that approval of this request sets a precedent for other condominium buildings in Wichita to make the same request that this building has made.

In the end, council member Lavonta Williams made the motion to approve the financing. All members except Gray voted for it. Vice-Mayor Jim Skelton was not present.

After the council voted, Mrs. Bryan gave Wichita economic development director Allen Bell a pat on the back, and Bell and Mr. Bryan shared a congratulatory handshake. You can see these things by attending the meetings in person.

It appears that the city’s desire for downtown redevelopment is an unsustainable goal that can’t be maintained without continued subsidy. The message is this: When a downtown development gets in financial trouble, make a beeline to city hall. This was the case last year when the Warren Theater received a no- and low-interest loan from the city, propping up the city’s ill-conceived investment in a TIF district benefiting that theater.

Recently we learned that rehabilitation of a downtown hotel is on hold because historic tax credits — that is, outright gifts to developers — are on hold because the state can’t afford to grant them.

Now, buildings that need small repairs that can be deemed to be part of the city’s plan for downtown redevelopment are eligible for special assessment financing.

I don’t think the council is aware of the corrosive effect of these special favors. No news media reported this story. It is a small amount of money that is involved in this case. This matter is emblematic, however, of an activist city council and city staff who believe they can direct economic investment in Wichita better than its citizens can on their own.

While listening to Bryan make his case, I thought this is an illustration of the lessons Henry Hazlitt taught us in his classic work Economics in One Lesson. The first chapter may be read at One Lesson, which I excerpt here:

Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics, or medicine — the special pleading of selfish interests.

While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. …

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

At Wichita city council, citizens are frustrated

Yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council provided a lesson in how frustrating it can be for citizens to interact with city government.

You might even have to endure a slight insult from our mayor.

The matter in question involved real estate developer Dave Burk and the city’s economic development office.

Regarding this matter, I wrote Mr. Burk by email early Monday morning with a question. He didn’t reply. I should have followed-up with a telephone call, but I didn’t have time.

Monday afternoon I called the city’s economic development office with a few questions. The person I talked to was confused by the questions I asked, and suggested that I make records requests to get what I was asking for. There wasn’t time for that.

So I wrote by email to Allen Bell the city’s economic development director. He didn’t reply. I don’t necessarily fault him for that, as it was around 3:00 Monday afternoon when I wrote. But he still hasn’t replied, and it’s Wednesday afternoon now.

In my questions before the council, which you can read by clicking on Wichita facade improvement loan program: questions to answer, I asked if Burk had been investigated through background checks by the city, as the city has pledged to conduct thorough background investigations of its partners. Bell replied that he had been through checks in the past with regard to other deals.

But we now know, based on events from last December, that the checks the city conducted were cursory, and failed to uncover important facts about a developer. At that meeting, the mayor sternly scolded city staff for their lack of diligence in performing these checks.

Bell said that Burk is “well known in the community.” It hardly bears mentioning that sitting in the Sedgwick County jail at this moment is another developer who was very well known and very highly regarded in his time. So having a familiar face is not sufficient.

Bell also revealed that now Burk has equity partners, and the city will be vetting them. That’s too late, however. The ordinance has been passed.

Bell said that the risk analysis has been performed. That was subject of the inquiry I made in my email to Bell. But there was no mention of that in the agenda materials, and Bell didn’t answer my email.

Mr. Burk then spoke. He said that the fee being paid to the developer ($39,277) is not being paid to him personally, but is instead “overhead and profit for the contractor doing the work.”

This is hair-splitting at its finest. If that money wasn’t supplied by this loan, Burk would have to pay it himself.

He also questioned a figure of 6.5% for an interest rate that I used. That figure is from the agenda material Bell’s office prepared. If citizens can’t rely on that — and remember I contacted Burk and Bell’s office too — what can they rely on?

Burk said that in today’s market it’s difficult to borrow adequate funds from commercial banks. There’s a reason for that, I would submit.

He mentioned also that he’d been vetted. Again, this would have been from the time when the vetting process wasn’t rigorous enough to be meaningful.

Additionally, any vetting process of Burk should take into account his involvement as part of the development team for Waterwalk. This highly-subsidized development in downtown Wichita is recognized as a failure by even the Wichita Eagle editorial board.

Mayor Carl Brewer thanked Burk for answering questions, because “sometimes information is put out there that’s inaccurate and that’s the way it’s left, as being inaccurate.”

To the extent that my questions were based on inaccurate information — and that something that’s far from true — some things could have been cleared up if my inquiries the day before had been successful. While it may seem that inquiring the day before a meeting is waiting until the last minute, the agenda and accompanying material for the Tuesday meetings of the council isn’t available until the Thursday or Friday before. So there’s not a lot of time for citizens to act.

In the end, anything I might have said or questions I might have raised probably would have made little difference in the council’s action. Burk and his wife have made generous campaign contributions to most members of the council, including a total of $2,000 to Janet Miller’s recent successful campaign (that’s the maximum amount it’s possible for two people to contribute). If I’d paid that much, I’d probably feel like I didn’t have to answer questions from pesky citizens.

A question to raise, and one that needs answering, is if this is a new strategy the city will use in the future: Don’t answer questions from citizens. Provide incomplete or erroneous information in the material you make available. Then, if citizens ask questions, you get to point out all the ways they’re wrong — and on television, too.

Wichita City Hall confusion leads to evaporation of confidence

New procedures and perhaps new personnel are required to regain citizens’ trust.

Reporting in the Wichita Eagle by Brent Wistrom (City vows to better vet its partners, Sunday December 15, 2008) has revealed a city staff confused as to basic procedures for safeguarding citizens’ taxes, not to mention their trust.

I won’t go into the details of Mr. Wistrom’s reporting, except to quote him as concluding that “city officials offered confusing and sometimes conflicting versions of how they analyze private business partners who ask for city assistance.” The city officials referred to include interim city manager Scott Moore, Allen Bell, Wichita’s director of urban development, and Van Williams, Wichita’s Public Information Officer and former Wichita Eagle reporter. Also mentioned was the city’s law department, which is headed by Gary Rebenstorf.

It appears that the city uses Google to gain information about its potential business partners. But there’s a few problems with relying only on free public search engines like Google and its competitors. For example, not everything on the Internet is in Google. Court records and other documents may reside on the “hidden Internet,” websites that require a user account and perhaps a subscription fee. Google and other search engines generally can’t see and index material on these sites.

But what’s really troubling is that while the city extract guarantees from developers that they will cover any shortfalls in tax revenues that will pay off the TIF bonds, evidently no credit checks are performed. What good does it do to get a guarantee of responsibility for potentially millions of dollars in tax revenue shortfall, when the guarantor person or company has few assets and little ability to make good on their promise?

It appears that a citizen wanting to finance an automobile or obtain a credit card is scrutinized more closely than are potential city business partners.

The ownership of the business entities behind the Renaissance Square project in the C.O.R.E. Redevelopment District has been restructured to eliminate the developer whose past problems lead to delay. But there’s still a taint on this project. As reporting in the Wichita Eagle has revealed, there is no money available to borrow for projects like this. Even if the city council were to approve this project this week, it would likely be some time before the project gets moving.

Time is not of the essence. Let’s wait before proceeding. Given the confusion at Wichita city hall that Mr. Wistrom reported, citizens can have no confidence in proceeding with any projects like this until better procedures are put in place. Then, we’re not going to take Allen Bell’s word that these procedures are in place, as recent events give us little confidence in his capabilities or judgment. We’ll need some independent confirmation that city staff and council members are to be trusted in matters such as these.

Wichita TIF Developer’s Ownership Restructuring not Very Reassuring

Recent reporting by the Wichita Eagle uncovered troubling facts from the past of a developer the city is considering partnering with. (See the Wichita Eagle story 35 suits in developer’s past and my blog post Wichita’s Faulty Due Diligence.)

Referring to the C.O.R.E. Redevelopment District project, Wichita Eagle reporter Dion Lefler said this on the KPTS television public affairs program Kansas Week yesterday: “This is a project the city has been working on for years, and it was absolutely astonishing to me that in a relatively short period of time I was able to come up with something — I mean, they have a development department, they have a legal department, they have a police department, they have two ex-investigative reporters on staff. So why this came to light literally on the day of the vote was just astonishing to me.”

So now that it’s been reported that this potential city business partner has some problems in his past. What to do? Here’s some material from the agenda report for the December 16, 2008 Wichita city council meeting:

“ICDC, LLC was formed by Grant Gaudreau and Joel Associates, LLC several years ago to undertake real estate development projects. Joel Associates, LLC is wholly owned by Joseph L. Cramer and Len Marotte. Due to recent developments, ICDC has been reorganized to vest sole ownership of ICDC in Joel Associates. To eliminate any possibility that former ownership interests could adversely impact the viability of the development project, Joseph L. Cramer and Len Marotte have formed a new entity to act as developer of the project. The new entity is Renaissance Square, LLC (the “Developer”), whose sole member is Joel Associates, LLC.”

So in less than two weeks, the person that Wichita economic development director Allen Bell referred to as “principal developer” is now thrown under the bus so that the project can proceed. I would submit, however, that a little shuffling of the ownership structure of the project is hardly assurance to Wichitans that this project is on the up-and-up.

(There’s some confusion as to the spelling of the name “Cramer.” On the document he is to sign, his name is spelled “Kramer.”)

Here’s some unanswered questions:

  • Did Allen Bell and city staff know everything about the background of Grant Gaudreau that the Wichita Eagle was able to uncover in a day and a half of reporting? If no, then why not, given the resources the city has at its disposal?
  • If they knew these things, what should we make of Allen Bell and city staff’s judgment, in that they thought these things weren’t a problem?
  • How much did Joel Associates, LLC pay Grant Gaudreau for his ownership interest in ICDC, LLC?
  • And finally, the most important question: when did Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and city council members learn of these problems?

Until we get some definitive answers to these questions, approval of this TIF development should be not be considered.

No Diligence in Wichita City Hall

Rhonda Holman’s Wichita Eagle editorial today (Need vetting of City Hall partners) correctly states that city staff “missed the mark in vetting negotiator Grant Gaudreau.” Or is the proper title “principal developer,” as stated by Wichita’s director of urban development Allen Bell? (See Wichita’s Faulty Due Diligence for video.)

There’s a lot of confusion over this matter, and times like this let us get a closer look at what’s going on in city hall. We can also learn a lot about the attitudes of government officials and city staff. For example, a Wichita Eagle news story reported this:

“Grant was never a big money player in this,” Fearey said. “He’s always just been the person who had time to come to the city and work through things and also knew a lot about who to go to in the city and how to work the system.”

First, note the disparity between Allen Bell’s “principal developer” and Wichita city council member Sharon Fearey’s “never a big money player.” But what’s really troubling is that Fearey acknowledges that there’s a “system” at city hall that someone knows “how to work.” This doesn’t say a lot for openness and transparency in Wichita city government. It also perpetuates the realization that there’s a network of insiders who know how to milk the halls of government power for their own benefit.

Then, the Eagle news story contains this: “[Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said he wants to ensure that developers can complete the project in a reasonable time and that there are no other problems.” If our mayor can figure out some way to eliminate the risks that entrepreneurs take, more power to him. If successful, I might consider voting for him, should he decide to run for re-election.

The fact is, however, that real estate development is a tremendously risky endeavor. Entrepreneurs — people with their own money at stake, with their ears to the ground every day and the experience, power, and discretion to alter plans as the situation dictates — are the people best suited to assume and negotiate this risk. Politicians operate in a different environment with a different set of incentives.

Wichita’s Faulty Due Diligence

In the Wichita city council meeting on December 2, 2008, council member Jim Skelton questioned Allen Bell, Wichita’s director of urban development, about developers the city is considering working with on a TIF district. Specifically, Skelton asked if there was anything in the backgound of the developers that the council should be concerned about. Bell referred specifically to Grant Gaudreau, naming him as the “principal developer.” He said that the matters in Gaudreau’s past had been “resolved,” and had “no bearing” on this project. Video is available below.

According to Wichita Eagle reporting in the story 35 suits in developer’s past, Gaudreau’s past problems include bankruptcy and lawsuits regarding bounced checks and nonpaid bills. The bankruptcy is not troubling to me, as many entrepreneurs suffer through this as part of their acceptance of risk. Bounced checks at the grocery store and pet clinic, plus a recent auto repossession, are troubling. If someone won’t make good the checks they write at the grocery store, that’s a problem. The city should not partner with such a person.

Further, the Eagle story reports that the developer has an outstanding warrant for unpaid taxes in a neighboring county. That would contradict Mr. Bell’s claim that matters have been resolved.

Here’s the problem I have, and I think many citizens share this concern: Either Allen Bell and city staff didn’t know of all these things in Gaudreau’s past, or they knew about them but didn’t think they were a problem. The first case tells us that Mr. Bell’s office is not doing a thorough job. The second case tells us that Mr. Bell’s judgment does not reflect the concerns of the citizens of Wichita. In either case, there’s a problem at city hall.

Wichita Penalizes Companies Through Taxation

Five years ago, the City of Wichita granted Big Dog Motorcycles industrial revenue bonds (IRB). The benefit of these bonds is that the company escapes paying property tax (and often sales tax) on the property purchased with the proceeds from the bonds.

At the December 2, 2008 meeting of the Wichita City Council, the council reviewed the tax abatement to see if the company had lived up to the projections and promises it made as part of its application for the IRBs. Unfortunately for this company, their fortunes have reversed, and while at one time their employment was above what they committed to, their present employment is less than half what it was five years ago.

There are two illuminating things to take from this video clip. First, council member Jim Skelton wonders why the benefit-to-cost ratio for Sedgwick County is negative, but city staff still recommends approving the tax abatement. Allen Bell, Wichita’s director of urban development, didn’t know why. No council members except for Skelton seemed to be bothered by this.

But what’s really troubling is this quote from Bell: “I don’t think it would be productive at this time to further penalize them — as the market has already penalized them — by putting them back on the tax roles at this time.”

So is taxation by the City of Wichita equivalent to a penalty? That’s what Mr. Bell seems to be saying.

Further, the fact that the council voted to extend the tax abatements because this company is going through lean times is tacit recognition that property taxes are bad for business. I wonder how many companies have gone out of business because Wichita’s taxes were too high? And how many companies are never formed, or have put off expansion plans because of Wichita’s taxes? Here’s an example of one: Wichita Taxes Cancel Development.

Wichita TIF public hearing was bait and switch

This appeared in today’s 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.

Additional coverage:
Wichita TIF Districts Mean Central Government Planning
Downtown Wichita Arena TIF District Testimony
Jim Skelton is Frustrated
Downtown Wichita Arena TIF District Still a Bad Idea
Wichita Mayor and City Council Prefer to Work Out of Media Spotlight
Wichita’s Naysayers Are Saying Yes to Liberty
Tiff over Wichita TIFs
Downtown Wichita Arena TIF District
Do Wichita TIF Districts Create Value?
Wichita City Council’s Misunderstanding of Tax Increment Financing
Tax Increment Financing in Wichita Benefits Few
Tax Increment Financing in Iowa

Urban Renewal: A Flawed Idea That Failed 50 Years Ago

Thank you to Karl Peterjohn for this excellent, well-researched article.

Urban Renewal: A Flawed Idea That Failed 50 Years Ago
By Karl Peterjohn, Executive Director Kansas Taxpayers Network

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

1) Urban renewal failed across the United States in the 20th century. The urban renewal efforts from the 20th century that are the foundation for the newly proposed redevelopment agency in Wichita rely upon these old Kansas laws that require an increase in local government’s powers. There are no clearly defined steps that will avoid repeating these past mistakes in the public hearing discussions so far.

2) The financing mechanism for this new redevelopment agency is not clear. Other communities might have agencies with this label and operate their Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) money through them, but integrating the current CDBG programs into this new agency have not been made clear. The revenue need to fund this agency is unspecified. The city has property, sales, and fee revenues that can be raised to provide the substantial funding needed for this proposed new agency.

3) No efforts have been clearly defined to avoid repeating the mistakes that occurred in the 20th century urban renewal redevelopment process. If the city is going to make mistakes, let’s not repeat the errors of the past.

4) Current city activities will be impacted by this redevelopment agency. This includes and is not limited to central inspection, zoning, and planning.

5) The city will need to restore the eminent domain powers that the 2006 legislature removed from state law for many of the proposed redevelopment efforts to work. While the eminent domain reform enacted in 2006 does not take effect until July 1, 2007, the city needs a plan that will fit within the boundaries of state law.

6) A disproportionate amount of the burden created by urban renewal fell upon low income and largely minority groups. Urban renewal programs provided disproportionate benefits to high income, developers, and citizens with close ties to these programs at city hall.

INTRODUCTION ON WICHITA

The Wichita City Manager is promoting a new city redevelopment agency and using the existing urban renewal statutes that exist in Kansas law for this community. Sedgwick County officials have joined both appointed and elected city officials in discussing this concept.

Urban renewal was an important post World War II program that tried to rehabilitate and improve cities all over the United States. Unfortunately, urban renewal and the government dominated and controlled redevelopment process that was the essence of urban renewal in the 20th century failed. It was also a very expensive failure.

Wichita has gone through two rounds of urban renewal. The first effort was in parallel with the national efforts that ran from 1949 to 1974.(1) Downtown Wichita changed significantly when urban renewal programs used their eminent domain powers to acquire large chunks of property in Wichita. The City of Wichita has been one of the largest property owners in this community since this program began. Century II was one of the major redevelopment projects in downtown Wichita during this period of time.

Fortunately, the troubled history of urban renewal is one that is readily available. This is particularly critical for a city like Wichita that went through a second stage that it has been following with a city directed special redevelopment program since the late 1980’s.

Developer Jack DeBoer issued his “DeBoer Plan” for downtown redevelopment in Wichita almost 20 years ago. DeBoer’s vision was for the construction and development of a large number of new and enhanced existing facilities in downtown Wichita. The focus would be in turning the downtown area into an entertainment/tourist destination with a variety of primarily enhanced public facilities. The DeBoer plan was largely implemented in stages with the “crown jewel” being the recently approved downtown arena. This private-public partnership was expected to transform and revitalize downtown Wichita. A large amount of public and private funds were expected to be spent to turn this vision into a reality.

The centerpiece for this revitalization proposal was three major projects downtown: a 500 foot keeper of the Plains that would be for Wichita what the space needle is for Seattle; a new downtown hotel; a new downtown arena. In addition a variety of other attractions would be built to attract people, particularly tourists, to downtown Wichita. The Wichita ice arena and Childrens Museum were two of the other significant attractions that were built.

The irony of the DeBoer proposal, was the fact that almost 20 years later, DeBoer is most prominently attached to the East Bank/Waterwalk development proposal and was NOT specifically part of his 1980’s era proposal. This redevelopment project, which included a large amount of city owned parcels, included land that had originally become city property back in the urban renewal era.

The DeBoer redevelopment proposal went well beyond the arena and a 500 foot Keeper of the Plains statue. Downtown Wichita was supposed to become an urban tourist destination location with a variety of attractions to get both residents and out-of-town tourists to flock to see. Naturally, accommodations like a new hotel would be needed to go with the recent expansion of the Bob Brown convention center complex attached to Century II.

The expansion of museums on and by the river, a new ice rink, remodeled Lawrence-Dumont stadium (roughly 20 years ago) and other improvements were all supposed to stimulate a new form of local development that went beyond the traditional businesses and industries existing in Wichita. The City of Wichita and Sedgwick County spent huge sums to build, expand, or remodel facilities in and around downtown. Meanwhile, the private sector that was already downtown quietly continued to shrink and diminish.

A new local bus station was built downtown in the 1990’s. Macy’s retail store disappeared to be replaced by the Finney State Office Building that the city helped arrange by providing a nearby parking facility.

The initial reaction to the DeBoer revitalization plan was mixed. The family of the late Black Bear Bosin quickly sank the idea of inflating his statue into a 500 foot city landmark. That was the only idea that was not substantially implemented, and by raising the base, a good argument can be made that the intent of the DeBoer plan to increase the height of the keeper has been partially met.

The city has just finished spending a large amount of tax funds raising the pedestal for the Keeper of the Plains statue so that the original statue is more visible to the public. However, it is not clear to what degree this statue is attracting either local or outside the Wichita area visitors into downtown. The city supported Indian Museum that is adjacent to the Keeper of the Plains statue has continued to struggle and this facility continues to have a variety of operational problems that continue to appear in the news from time-to-time.

Both the city’s ice arena as well as the Children’s Museum have struggled over financial operating costs and budget problems at several points since these facilities were opened. Downtown Wichita’s Old Towne area has seen an influx of restaurants and nightclubs. Many of the private projects have required a variety of taxpayer funded support that included but is not limited to parking. The high amount of turnover in the ownership and operation of many of these private facilities raised performance questions. Similar firms outside of the downtown area did not receive the same benefits that many of the downtown firms received. This situation raised equity issues for similar businesses. Is local government capable to step in? The sizable financial losses from the operations of the now city owned Hyatt Hotel during its first few years of operation raises questions about the effectiveness of the public-private redevelopment efforts that occurred in the last few years of the 20th century in Wichita.

Wichita has struggled both with the explicit urban renewal along with the rest of the country in the middle of the 20th century. Follow up redevelopment programs during the last 20 years have created a number of changes downtown but the growth in this community had largely eluded the downtown area. This Wichita history is important for city council and other local officials to keep in mind when examining the redevelopment agency proposal and resurrecting urban renewal.

I. NATIONAL URBAN RENEWAL: A BRIEF HISTORY

Urban renewal failed. Even before the federal urban renewal efforts ended in the 1970’s the academic critics were pointing out major problems. The goals were not being met and costs far exceeded initial projections.

In my September 6, 2006 letter to city leaders discussing urban renewal I pointed out the wide range of literature discussing urban renewal and redevelopment that dated back over 40 years ago. This history was wide ranging and featured prominent scholars from that era who included several who went on to national prominence in other public realms like the late Senator Patrick Moynihan who was also a White House staffer for several presidents, and White House staffer to former President Reagan, Martin Anderson. In addition, major urban scholars like Jane Jacobs, Harvard professors Edward Banfield, and Nathan Glazer who focused upon city improvements and trying to reduce and ameliorate the urban poverty problem had a major impact at looking at city issues.

Now a case can be made that urban renewal has never totally ended. That is a certainly a reasonable position in light of the existence in some states of the urban renewal statutes in state law that were enacted roughly 50 years ago. The late Ronald Reagan jokingly commented that there was nothing as eternal as a government program. The echoes of urban renewal and similar redevelopment efforts continue like a governmental version of the scientists “Big Bang” echoes detected by the Bell Laboratory scientists who won Nobel Prize in Physics for their effort.

As far back as 1963 then professors Glazer and Moynihan wrote in their classic “Beyond the Melting Pot” described urban renewal and its ethnic and sociological impact this way, “There have been difficult (sociological) problems, but not different from those in other great American cities. The major attempt to deal with these problems has been through urban renewal—the rebuilding of the area so as to reduce the low-income and increase the middle- and high-income population. This movement has been supported by all the middle-class groups and institutions in the area, who of course would like to see less crime and disorder and crowding and dirt around them.” (2)

Urban renewal had impacted the natural evolution of the neighborhoods that were in transition in New York City in the 1950’s as the Irish, Jews, and Germans moved out to be replaced back then what Glazer and Moynihan referred to as “Negroes” and Puerto Ricans. Glazer and Moynihan comment on the paucity of Puerto Rican community organizations and attribute this in part to the impact of urban renewal, “Aside from the storefront churches, organizational life is not strong among the Puerto Ricans….but Puerto Rico, just as the rest of Latin America, has always been weak in spontaneous grass-roots organization. Probably the rise of organization has been inhibited too by the factors that have dispersed the population and prevented the development of a great center for the Puerto Rican population—housing shortage, slum clearance, and the availability of public housing….The demolition of the houses that affront the neighborhood means precisely the demolition of those that house vast numbers of Puerto Ricans—families living in single rooms, families taking in migrant relatives, displaced children, and temporarily homeless friends. Ironically, ‘improving a neighborhood’ means moving out those who are most crowded, have the least room, and whose resettlement offers the most difficult problem for themselves and city agencies.”(3)

Slum clearance is just a synonym for urban renewal. Slum clearance is the argument being put forth by the advocates for new city redevelopment agency. Glazer and Moynihan identified over 40 years ago simply bulldozing buildings does not address the underlying problems. These are problems of crime that result in the dilapidation that is being used to justify a new city agency.

What will be done differently in 2006 than what was done in 1956? If local officials are going to make build a new city bureaucracy and expand the city’s role in controlling property within the city limits, Wichitans need to know why the local officials should repeat the same mistakes that were exposed over 40 years ago?

Aesthetically, urban renewal was a failure creating a monotonous diversity that the leading urban scholar of her day Jane Jacobs described, “Anything looks ugly if it is done badly. But this belief implies something else. It implies that city diversity of uses is inherently messy in appearance; and it also implies that places stamped with homogeneity of uses look better, or at any rate are more amenable to pleasant or orderly esthetic treatment. But homogeneity or close similarity among uses, in real life poses very puzzling esthetic problems. If the sameness of use is shown candidly for what it is—sameness—it looks monotonous.”(4)

In fact, the converse according to Jacob is true for cities, “Intricate minglings of different uses in cities are not a form of chaos. On the contrary, they represent a complex and highly developed form of order…Nevertheless, even though intricate mixtures of buildings, uses and scenes are necessary for successful city districts, does diversity carry, too, the disadvantages of ugliness, warring uses and congestion that are conventionally attributed to it by planning lore and literature? These supposed disadvantages are based on images of unsuccessful districts which have not too much, but too little diversity. They call up visions of garish, sprawling, unremitting commerce. None of these conditions, however, represent flourishing city diversity. On the contrary, these represent precisely the senility that befalls city neighborhoods in which exuberant diversity has either failed to grow or has died off with time…. Flourishing city diversity, of the kind that is catalyzed by the combination of mixed primary uses, frequent streets, mixture of building ages and overheads, and dense concentration of users does not carry with it the disadvantages of diversity conventionally assumed by planning pseudoscience.(5) Jacob then proceeds to criticize the urban planners and urban renewal advocates of her day for their failures to understand the intricacies or the spontaneous order created by the marketplace operating under a rule of law.

The problems outlined in a practical sense by Jacob are examined in much greater detail that extends well beyond urban renewal and municipal revitalization and into a broader discussion of the role of urban experts, government planners, city residents trying to live their lives and how this exists in an America where the role of the government has been expanding during the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century.(6)(7)

The most recent national explosion of this issue is the eminent domain battles that lead up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent and highly controversial, Kelo decision ratifying forced land acquisition powers for private developers at the expense of current landowners when exercised by local units of government. That has led some Wichita city leaders to put this city behind an effort to have broad based powers to condemn private land using eminent domain and then be able to turn that property over to other private hands. This led the 2006 Kansas legislature to pass legislation that will limit municipal eminent domain powers for redevelopment beginning July 1, 2007.

These failures go far beyond the sociological analysis offered by Glazer, Jacob, Anderson, and Moynihan. Hoover Institute scholar Martin Anderson identified a number of problems with urban renewal.

In addition, liberty and control over property by citizens was diminished for all and in some cases eradicated for the people living in the targeted “redevelopment” areas. “Who wants urban renewal? Certainly not the lower income groups—they get displaced from their homes to make way for the modern apartments they cannot afford to rent. It is hard to know whether the middle class is much concerned with the changes that have occurred in the cities…Then who is behind the tremendous push for urban renewal? Raymond Vernon, former Director of the New York Metropolitan Region Study, has speculated that the main stimulus for urban renewal comes from two elite groups—the wealthy elite and the intellectual elite. Both groups have strong economic and social attachments to the central city.”(8)

In a book examining eminent domain abuse and its ties to urban renewal, Steven Greenhut looked at Anderson’s analysis and warned: “Nothing much has changed today.”(9)

Greenhut also pointed out, “Without eminent domain, very little of the destruction could have taken place. But once the government had the right to take whatever it pleased in the name of the ‘higher good’ then the sky was the limit.”(10)

Urban renewal did do massive amounts of damage. Let’s look at one well examined and very costly case: Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis that was described: “Few people could have missed the demolition of St. Lous’ Pruitt-Igoe and other hideous housing projects that came to epitomize wht the urban-renewal program was all about: creating high-rise, crime-ridden slums that eventually had to be dynamited before any real urban progress could be made.”(11)(12)

Von Hoffman’s Harvard University study went on to describe this redevelopment tragedy this way, “St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project is arguable the most infamous public-housing project ever built in the U.S. A product of the postwar federal public-housing program, this mammoth high-rise development was completed in 1956…Only a few years later, disrepair, vandalism, and crime plagued Pruitt-Igoe. The project’s recreational galleries and skip-stop elevators, once heralded as architectural innovations, had become nuisances and danger zones. Large number of vacancies indicated that even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe. In 1972, after spending more than $5 million in vain to cure the problems at Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis Housing Authority, in a highly publicized event, demolished three of the high-rise buildings. A year later, in concert with the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, it declared Pruitt-Igoe unsalvageable and razed the remaining buildings.”(13)

If the city of Wichita is going to resurrect the urban renewal that led in it worst cases to problems like the one listed above, a specific program is needed to make sure that these past mistakes are not repeated. In addition, it must be clear where the public funding sources will come from to provide for this redevelopment.

Avoiding the government redevelopment/urban renewal model is needed. This problem remains a national challenge for communities across the country. In Abuse of Power, Steven Greenhut describes the 21st century challenge this way: “For as bad as the old urban renewal was—and almost everyone from every political perspective has criticized the outcome of this massive federal program—at least it was done to remedy what its proponents saw a genuine urban problems of substandard housing and rundown neighborhoods. Since at least the early 1980s, urban renewal has morphed into something known mainly as redevelopment. Advocates of modern redevelopment projects often use the same language of blight to justify their efforts, but the purpose has changed dramatically.”

“Whereas the old urban renewal was designed largely to wipe away areas that unquestionably were down on their heels, the new urban renewal is basically about filling city coffers with money. It’s about building tax bases. It’s about luring new commercial retailers into older areas to bring in additional property and sales taxes. Just because these financial motives are sometimes (but not always) dressed up in the language of the New Urbanism or downtown revitalization or blight removal should not fool one into thinking that the new urban renewal is about anything more than money.”(14)

For local government to proceed, it must have eminent domain powers to remove the wrong people from the targeted property. This has led to condemnations of property across the country and destroyed the property rights for homeowners in many cases. Lakewood, Ohio is one example but books have been written outlining a large number of cases that cross the country.

“As there were no structural problems with the houses, the City (Lakewood, OH) relied upon terms like ‘economic and functional obsolescence’ to find blight. Translation: The houses lack two-car attached garages and second bathtubs and their yards are too small. No modern family could possibly want a historic, well maintained house without a two-car attached garage.”(15)

The author of this study “Public Power, Private Gain,” issued by the Institute for Justice in 2003 provided numerous abuses similar to Lakewood’s that are occurring throughout the country. Dana Berliner’s book is filled with outrages to individuals, a variety of businesses, churches, farmers, and others in the name of eradicating “blight” or “neglect” or “distressed” properties.

Many of these outrages occurred in Kansas. “Unfortunately, for the citizens of Kansas, their state is one of the worst abusers of eminent domain, especially in comparison to other states with similar population size.”(16) Problems with redevelopment in the context of eminent domain abuses were specifically cited in Kansas City, the infamous Gross case out of Merriam, and Topeka. Kansas was ranked second worst out of the 50 states behind only California in this national study.

In the Gross case a small businessman operating a used car lot lost his property because the city of Merriam condemned it so a neighboring BMW dealership could acquire the property.(17)

These abuses were part of the foundation for the effort to reform Kansas eminent domain laws in the wake of the Kelo decision on eminent domain by the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition, there is also a similar and even more anti-property owner case coming out of the Kansas Supreme Court recently. Unlike Kelo that has been extensively covered in the news media, the Kansas case has received almost no local news coverage.

“A good example is the Kansas Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in the case of General Building Contractors and Robert Tolberg v. Board of Shawnee County Commissioners. The justices not only affirm the county’s right to take virtually any property they chose in the name of economic development, but they also show open disdain for the property owners who are challenging the taking of their properties. Throughout the ruling, one sees an emphasis on process rather than on rights. As long as the government followed the letter of the law and the proper redevelopment process, then the court couldn’t see what the controversy was about. Yet, courts are supposed to serve as a check on the government’s edicts, holding them up to timeless constitutional principles rather than the planning ideologies of the day.”(18)

This was the perspective of a California eminent domain author in looking at the problems in Kansas recently. The Kansas events where eminent domain was used to favor private parties helped set the stage in 2006 for the legislature’s efforts to limit eminent domain takings for non public purposes. This is primarily for economic development efforts but in some other states even the traditional eminent domain powers for public purposes are now being questioned or even limited. In other states, the voters have been specifically asked to decide the proper role for eminent domain powers in the case of redevelopment.

November 7, 2006 the voters in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, and South Carolina all passed initiatives that would restrain the government’s power to seize private property. If Kansas powers would receive a similar opportunity, a similar outcome by voters speaking out to defend their property rights is likely.

Naturally, for an elite few who are at the center of local government power, this is not an outcome that they approve of in their vision to improve their communities. The genius of the founders in providing a system where power was supposed to be spread widely among the people also puts a crimp in the utopian planners. “As in all utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.”(19)

In the wake of the Berman, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 1950’s that provided the foundation for the expanded eminent domain powers for government became the foundation for the loss of private property rights and a sizable expansion in government’s ability to modify property ownership into the hands that the state prefers.(20)

Lower court decisions had problems with this concept but their argument, “One man’s land cannot be seized by the Governmnt and sold to another man merely in order that the purchaser may buildupon it a better house or a house which better meets the Government’s idea of what is appropriate or well designed.”(21)

II. CONCLUSION

Urban renewal failed nationally over 35 years ago across this country. Wichita’s effort to redevelopment within the national urban renewal and outside it have at best a record that is incomplete and continues to require significant public support even for nominally private, albeit many are not-for-profit entities.

The city should not proceed precipitously in once again proceeding down the “urban renewal/redevelopment” path. The experiences in the last 20 years should make city leaders sanguine in proceeding down the proposal coming out of the city manager’s office.

All possible avenues should be examined. “By the end of the federal urban-renewal program in 1974, cities that refused Title I funds and let the market hold sway over downtown redevelopment projects generally had more more impressive downtown revitalizations than those that relied so heavily on federal power and that abused property rights so egregiously.”(22)

Wichita needs to avoid repeating past mistakes. Providing a strong level of property rights actually enhances development. A stable system of government that is not excessively large and expensive is a stronger incentive to growth than a new governmental body promoting “redevelopment.”

Individual states are engaging in a number of experiments: on November 7, 2006, the voters in the city of Nashville, TN approved an ordinance requiring that the city get voter approval before any and all taxes could be raised. This question arose in light of that community’s high property tax rates.

FOOTNOTES

1) Abuse of Power, Greenhut, 2004, page 107
2) Beyond the Melting Pot, Glazer & Moynihan, page 179.
3) Ibid, page 107-8.
4) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, J. Jacobs, 1961, page 223.
5) Ibid, page 223.
6) Constitution of Liberty, F.A. Hayek.
7) Vision of the Anointed, T. Sowell.
8) The Federal Bulldozer: A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal, 1949-1962, page 218.
9) Abuse of Power, Greenhut, page 111.
10) Ibid, page 110.
11) Ibid, page 111.
12) “Why They Built Pruitt-Igoe,” A. Von Hoffman, Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard U., 2000, http://www.soc.iastate.edu/sapp/PruittIgoe.html.
13) Ibid.
14) Abuse of Power, page 114.
15) Public Power, Private Gain, D. Berliner, Institute for Justice, Washington, D.C., 2003, page 166
16) Ibid, page 78.
17) “Condemnation Is Used to Hand One Business Property to Another,” D. Starkman, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 2, 1998, page A1.
18) Abuse of Power, page 150.
19) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, J. Jacobs, 1961, page 17.
20) Takings Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain, R. Epstein, 1985, page 178.
21) Ibid, page 178-9.
22) “Urban Renewal and Its Aftermath,” J.C. Teaford, page 458 cited in Greenhut.

Tax increment financing in Wichita benefits few

Recently the City of Wichita formed a TIF (tax increment financing) district to aid a developer who wishes to build in the College Hill neighborhood.

How does a TIF district work? The Wichita Eagle reported: “A TIF district doesn’t cost local governments any existing tax money. It takes property taxes paid on new construction that would ordinarily go into government coffers and redirects it to the bond holders who are financing the project.”

In the present case, the value of the benefit the developer sought is estimated to be worth $3.5 million to $4 million. Whether this benefit is given at no cost to existing government, as The Wichita Eagle article implies, is open to debate. If the new development does not use any local government services, then perhaps there is no cost in giving the benefit. But if that’s true, we might ask this question: if the development does not consume any government services, why should it have to pay taxes at all?

There is evidence that TIF districts are great for the developers — after all, who wants to pay taxes — but not so good for the rest of the city and county. The article “Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development” by economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman states, in its conclusion:

TIF districts grow much faster than other areas in their host municipalities. TIF boosters or naive analysts might point to this as evidence of the success of tax increment financing, but they would be wrong. Observing high growth in an area targeted for development is unremarkable.

So TIFs are good for the favored development — not a surprising finding. What about the rest of the city? Continuing from the same study:

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.

So TIF districts may actually reduce the rate of economic growth in the rest of the city.

There’s also evidence that TIF districts are simply a transfer of wealth from the taxpayers at large to a privileged few. In the paper titled “Do Tax Increment Finance Districts in Iowa Spur Regional Economic and Demographic Growth?” by Iowa State University economists David Swenson and Liesl Eathington, we can read this:

There is indirect statistical evidence that this profligate practice [establishing TIF districts] is resulting in a direct transfer of resources from existing tax payers to new firms without yielding region-wide economic and social gains to justify the public’s investment.

This analysis suggests that the enabling legislation for tax based incentives deserves revisiting. … there is virtually no evidence of broad economic or social benefits in light of the costs.

In the present case in Wichita, the developer says that without the benefit the TIF provides, the project is not economically viable. This is the standard rationale given for the requirement of the TIF district. Without the TIF, the development would not take place.

It may be true that this project in College Hill is not economically viable. If so, we have to wonder about the wisdom of investing in this project. More importantly, we should ask why our taxes are so high that they discourage investment and economic activity.

It may also be that the developer simply wishes to gain an advantage over the competition by lobbying for a favor from government. As government becomes more intrusive, this type of rent-seeking behavior is replacing productive economic activity.

There is one truth, however, if which I am certain: when businesses and individuals pay less tax, they have the opportunity to invest more. TIFs and tax abatements are tacit recognition that the cost of government is onerous and serves to decrease private economic activity and investment.

Here’s a better idea: reduce taxes for everyone, instead of only for companies and individuals that are successful in extracting favors from our local governments.

Wichita City Council Meeting, April 19, 2005

Some quotes and my remarks from the April 19, 2005 meeting of the Wichita City Council, where the AirTran subsidy was considered. Representatives from Delta attended and spoke.

Allen Bell, Economic Development Director for the City of Wichita:

Previous contracts had a dollar amount cap on them. The new contact, we refer to it as a no-cap contract. There is not, in the terms of the agreement, a specific dollar amount that is the not-to-exceed amount. In place of that there is a termination clause that allows the City to terminate its contract with 75 days notice for whatever reason. And the reason, of course, the major reason, would be that we know that within that 75 days, we will deplete the funds that the City believes is appropriate to spend on this.

I was startled to hear this information, that the new contract has no dollar cap, as this has not been, in my memory, reported. It has been reported that AirTran sought a no-cap contract, but that Wichita would not agree to that. But it turns out that the city has agreed to what, in effect, is a no-cap contract. Yes, I believe Mr. Bell when he says that Wichita can cancel the contract, with notice, if the city believes it will spend more than the $2.5 million it has committed to. I would submit, however, that if the City spends the $2.5 million and realizes it needs to spend more to keep AirTran in town, the City Council would vote to do so. Therefore, the no-cap contract is in effect.

Councilmember Schlapp extracted an admission from the Delta representative that Delta is not profitable on the Wichita route now, but they believe they will be soon. Ms. Schlapp concluded that there is no need, then, for a subsidy to Delta.

Mayor Mayans said we have been discriminated against, rate-wise.

Mayor Mayans: “Many of us, actually, are opposed philosophically to government interventions, because we feel that sometimes tilts the playing field.” The Mayor says one thing, but acts in a different way. What good is it to have a philosophical belief if it doesn’t guide your actions?

Mayor Mayans and the Delta representative disagreed on who made telephone calls to whom and at what time. (Mayor Mayans: “So you didn’t call me back!” “Communications is a two way street!” Delta: “My recollection of it differs slightly from yours.” “I don’t recall it was my responsibility to get back to you.”) It is disheartening to realize that major public policy decisions may be made based on incomplete information, because someone didn’t get a telephone message.

Councilmember Martz:

“I guess to me, when I look at competition, if you’re losing money, then you ought to raise your rates enough so that you’re not losing money.”

“I’m a firm believer in competition.”

“I would prefer not having any financial help from the city, but rather through pure competition, all carriers reduce their rates to a level that they number one, can make a profit, at the same time make it economical for the citizens of the whole state of Kansas to be able to fly in and out of Wichita …”

Like the mayor, Mr. Martz says one thing but acts in a different manner. His advice to airlines on how to set their fares is misplaced. We have to assume that businesses act in their best interests, and let it go at that.

Sam Williams, Chairman of Fair Fares, who evidently is so well-known to Council members that he doesn’t introduce himself when he started to speak:

“You know, Kansas in 1861 became a very important state in the history of this country, just before we went into the great dark area of the civil war. You know, we were a key state. What we did at that time had a lot to do with what happened and where we went from there. I would submit that little old Wichita, Kansas is doing that to the airline industry right now. Because of your vision, you are looking at different ways to bring fair pricing in an industry that is kind of broken, in getting them to look at themselves, us to look at ourselves, and how can we partner together to do this. Kansas again is a key, integral part of a change in this country.”

First, to equate our state’s role in the civil war with subsidizing an airline is ludicrous. Second, I feel very sad that Kansas may become the leader in subsidies, and that business leaders applaud this. Mr. Williams, I would ask you if you would welcome a governmental body deciding whether the rates that your business charges are fair, and if not fair, subsidizing your competitor?