Tag Archives: Carl Brewer

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer

Wichita City Budget Cover, 2015

Wichita city budget to have public hearing

This week the Wichita City Council holds the public hearing for the budget. Following are several observations.

(To view the budget, click here to go to wichita.gov. The best document to read is Volume I. The most important parts to read are the City Manager’s Policy Message (eleven pages) and the Budget Issues section (seven pages). Don’t worry; there are lots of pictures to skip over.)

The mill levy

The city says — many times — that the mill levy has not risen for a long time: “The 2015 Proposed Budget is based on City Council policy direction. It will not require a mill levy rate increase, for the 21st consecutive year.” (page 21)

Wichita mill levy rates. This table holds only the taxes levied by the City of Wichita and not any overlapping jurisdictions.
Wichita mill levy rates. This table holds only the taxes levied by the City of Wichita and not any overlapping jurisdictions.
In 2002 the City of Wichita mill levy rate was 31.845. In 2013 it was 32.509, based on the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. That’s an increase of 0.664 mills, or 2.09 percent, since 2002. In one year the mill levy rate increased .038 mills, or 0.12 percent. (These are for taxes levied by the City of Wichita only, and do not include any overlapping jurisdictions.)

Recent Wichita mill levy rates.
Recent Wichita mill levy rates.
The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to Wichita taxation.

Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative.
Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative.
While the city doesn’t have direct control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend.

The city may dismiss small changes in the mill levy as the result of errors in estimating assessed value. If there are errors in estimation, we would expect the errors to be random. That is, in some years we would expect the city to have estimated that assessed values would be lower than the actual value. In those years, the mill levy could go down. But that happened for only one year since 2002.

No matter what the cause, the Wichita city mill levy today is 2.09 percent higher than in 2002. The city should recognize this in its budget documents.

Stewardship of assets

Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city's 2012 Performance Measure Report
Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city’s 2012 Performance Measure Report
While the city boasts that the mill levy has not risen, part of the reason why it is (relatively) low is the city has not been taking care of the assets that citizens purchased and trusted the city to maintain. For example: “Pavement condition has slowly deteriorated over the last decade in Wichita. New pavement strategies will enhance the effectiveness of City efforts; however, additional funds would expedite improvements to streets in poor condition and help to more rapidly stabilize overall pavement conditions in Wichita.” (page 33)

Earlier this year the council received a document from the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee. It measured the amount by which the city is behind in maintaining its assets: “Decades of under-investment in infrastructure maintenance … 38% of Wichita’s infrastructure is in ‘deficient/fair’ condition.”

The cost to remedy this lack of maintenance is substantial. The document says that on an annual basis, Wichita needs to spend $180 million on infrastructure depreciation/replacement costs. Currently the city spends $78 million on this, the presentation indicates. The “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is given as an additional $45 to $55 million per year.

This is spending that the city has deferred to future years. The city knows this, too. The Wichita Eagle recently quoted Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”

The question is this: Does this budget make plans for correcting this maintenance deficit? The answer is: Yes, it does something, as described by the city: “In 2012, staff developed a new model to determine the impact of street treatment options. This model focuses on maximizing the return on investment of each treatment option. This method attempts to match the timing and method of treatment with the projected remaining service life (RSL) and value of the street network to ensure treatments maximize Wichita’s return on investment (ROI).” (page 34)

But this change is tiny compared to the magnitude of the problem. The budget talks about the proposed one cent per dollar sales tax that voters may be asked to approve. Of the nearly $80 million per year the sales tax might raise, only $5.5 million per year is allocated towards maintenance of infrastructure, in this case additional street maintenance. Remember, the city believes it needs to spend an additional $45 to $55 million per year “to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards.”

Outsourcing

The budget lists the areas in which Wichita has made use of outsourcing, which are the mowing of parks and security screening at city hall. The budget says that in 2015 the intergovernmental relations function will be outsourced. Also, the city will contract with private firms to supplement snow removal, and the removal of dead trees. The city is also soliciting proposals for some street maintenance activities.

But if this is all the city is doing regarding outsourcing, Wichita is missing out on many opportunities to improve service to citizens and reduce costs.

There’s a difference between government and business. As an example, consider city golf courses. Recently an advisory board recommended that the city improve customer service and salesmanship through training of golf staff and management. Successful businesses know that customer service and salesmanship are what business is all about, especially in a service-oriented product like golf. Businesses seek to provide good customer service because that is how they earn profit. But too often government sees customers as a burden, not an asset.

Outsourcing changes city services from being a burden placed on government employees, to something that a company actually wants to do.

Waste

Street lights in downtown Wichita, July 22, 2014.
Street lights in downtown Wichita, July 22, 2014.
I’ve illustrated many instances where the city is using electricity to light streetlights during the day. If the city seems unconcerned about such blatant and visible waste that surely must be easy to avoid, what does that tell us about waste that is not easily seen?

Wichita City Council Chambers

For Wichita leaders, novel alternatives on water not welcome

A forum on water issues featured a presentation by Wichita city officials and was attended by other city officials, but the city missed a learning opportunity.

This week Kansas Policy Institute held an educational form on the issues of water in the Wichita area. The event featured four presentations with questions and answers, with most being about one hour in length.

This was a welcome and important event, as the city is proposing to spend several hundred million dollars on an increased water supply. It is likely that citizens will be asked to approve a sales tax to pay this cost. It’s important that we get this right, and citizen skepticism is justified. The city has recently spent $247 million on a water project that hasn’t yet proved its value over a reasonably long trial. A former mayor has told audiences that he was assured Wichita had adequate water for the next 50 years. It was eleven years ago he was told that. Wichita’s current mayor has admitted that the city has not spent what was needed to maintain our current infrastructure, instead pushing those costs to the future.

Most of the information that Wichitans have access to is provided by city government. So when an independent group produces an educational event on an important topic, citizens might hope that Wichita city officials take part.

And, Wichita city officials did take part. The second of the four presentations was delivered by Wichita public works director Alan King and council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita). City governmental affairs director Dale Goter and council member Lavonta Williams were in the audience.

But after this presentation ended, the four city officials left.

What did they miss? They missed two additional presentations, or half the program. The city officials did not hear a presentation by Dr. Art Hall of Kansas University which presented novel ideas of using markets for water resources. Particularly, how Wichita could secure increased water supply by purchasing water rights and using the infrastructure it already has in place.

In the final presentation, the audience asked questions that the presenter was not able to answer. City officials like public works director King would have been able to provide the answers.

I understand that city council members are part-time employees paid a part-time salary. Some have outside jobs or businesses to run. But that’s not the case with the city’s public works director or its governmental affairs director.

Come to think of it, where was the city manager? Assistant city manager? Other council members? The city’s economic development staff?

Where was Mayor Carl Brewer?

If you’ve attended a city council meeting, you may have to sit through up to an hour of the mayor issuing proclamations and service awards before actual business starts. Fleets of city bureaucrats are in the audience during this time.

But none of these would spend just one hour listening to a presentation by a university professor that might hold a solution to our water supply issue.

I understand that city officials might not be the biggest fans of Kansas Policy Institute. It supports free markets and limited government.

But city officials tell us that they want to hear from citizens. The city has gone to great lengths to collect input from citizens, implementing a website and holding numerous meetings.

About 70 people attended the KPI forum. Citizens were interested in what the speakers had to say. They sat politely through the presentation by the two city officials, even though I’m sure many in the audience were already familiar with the recycled slides they’d seen before.

But it appears that Wichita city officials were not interested in alternatives that weren’t developed by city hall. They can’t even pretend to be interested.

Growth in Local Government Jobs, Wichita and Visioneering Peers. Wichita is the dark line.

Wichita performs well in local government job creation

The Wichita metropolitan area compares well creating jobs in local government, but trails in private sector jobs.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics through 2013 allows us to compare the Wichita metropolitan area with the peers selected by Visioneering Wichita. I’ve gathered BLS data divided by industry sector.

Growth in Local Government Jobs, Wichita and Visioneering Peers. Wichita is the dark line.
Growth in Local Government Jobs, Wichita and Visioneering Peers. Wichita is the dark line.
When considering only government jobs, especially local government jobs, Wichita ranks high. When looking at private sector jobs, however, Wichita is in last place, and by a wide margin.

This is a problem. It is the private sector that generates the taxes that pay for government. When government grows faster than the private sector, economic activity is shifted away from productive activities to unproductive. The economist Dan Mitchell has proposed what he calls the “Golden Rule of Fiscal Policy,” which is: “The Private Sector should Grow Faster than Government.”

In Wichita, we see our local government proposing to grow itself even more by recommending that voters approve increased sales taxes to pay for more government programs. Officials tell us the increased spending is needed so that government can correct problems with Wichita’s economy, water supply, transit, and streets.

Growth in Private Sector Jobs, Wichita and Visioneering Peers. Wichita is the dark line.
Growth in Private Sector Jobs, Wichita and Visioneering Peers. Wichita is the dark line.
On these and other issues, the Wichita Eagle recently quoted Mayor Carl Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”

Wichita’s government has created problems, by the mayor’s admission. Now, Wichita politicians and bureaucrats ask that we rely on government to fix the problems.

The interactive visualization I’ve created from BLS data lets you compare Wichita’s job growth with our Visioneering peers. You can select various industry sectors for display.

Data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public. Click here to open the visualization in a new window.

WichitaLiberty.TV set 2014-04-29 01 800

WichitaLiberty.TV: The harm of cronyism, local and national

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Does Wichita have a problem with cronyism? The mayor, city council, and bureaucrats say no, but you can decide for yourself. Then, from LearnLiberty.org, the harm of cronyism at the national level. Episode 48, broadcast June 22, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

In Wichita, the news is not always news the city thinks you should know

In February 2012 the City of Wichita held an election, but you wouldn’t have learned of the results if your only news source was the city’s website or television station. In the following article from March 2012, I wonder why news of the election results was overlooked by the city.

After last week’s election results in Wichita in which voters canceled an ordinance passed by the city council, I noticed there was no mention of the election results on the city’s website. So I dashed off a note to several responsible authorities, writing this:

The City of Wichita's website reports news stories like this, but not the results of a city election held two weeks later.
The City of Wichita’s website reports news stories like this, but not the results of a city election held two weeks later.
“I notice that the city’s website carries no news on the results of the February 28th election. Is this oversight unintentional? Or does the city intend to continue spending its taxpayer-funded news producing efforts on stories with headlines like ‘Valentine’s at Mid-Continent Airport,’ ‘Rain Garden Workshops in February,’ and ‘Firefighter Receives Puppy Rescued at Fire Scene’?”

It’s not as though city staff doesn’t have time to produce a story on the election. The city’s public affairs department employs 15 people with an annual budget of some $1.3 million. While some of these employees are neighborhood assistants, there are still plenty of people who could spend an hour or two writing a story announcing the results of the February 28th election.

Except: That doesn’t fit in with the city’s political strategy. That strategy appears to be to ignore the results of the election, or to characterize the election as a narrowly-focused referendum on one obscure economic development tool.

At one time, however, the attitude of city hall was that the election was over the entire future of downtown Wichita. Mayor Carl Brewer said the election would cause “turmoil inside the community, unrest.” Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said we needed to have an early election date so “avoid community discourse and debate.” He later backpedaled from these remarks.

But now that city hall and its allies lost the election, the issue is now cast as having been very narrow, after all. Citizens aren’t against economic development incentives, they say. They’re just against hotel guest tax rebates.

This narrow interpretation illustrates — again — that we have a city council, city hall bureaucracy, and allied economic development machinery that is totally captured by special interests. Furthermore, the revealed purpose of the city’s public affairs department, including its television channel, is now seen as the promotion of Wichita city government, not Wichita and its citizens. These are two very different things.

Wichita logic Brewer fishing

Before asking for more taxes, Wichita city hall needs to earn trust

Before Wichita city hall asks its subjects for more tax revenue, it needs to regain the trust of Wichitans. Following, from February, an illustration of the problems city hall has created for itself. And, how it would be helpful if the editorial board of the state’s largest newspaper acted as though it cared about ethics, cronyism, government transparency, and corruption.

When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.
– P.J. O’Rourke

Your principle has placed these words above the entrance of the legislative chamber: “whosoever acquires any influence here can obtain his share of legal plunder.” And what has been the result? All classes have flung themselves upon the doors of the chamber crying:
“A share of the plunder for me, for me!”
– Frederic Bastiat

Mayor's Downtown VisionTomorrow the Wichita City Council considers a policy designed to squelch the council’s ability to issue no-bid contracts for city projects. This policy is necessary to counter the past bad behavior of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and several council members, as well as their inability to police themselves regarding matters of ethical behavior by government officials.

The proposed policy is problematic. For some projects the developer will have to pay for “a third party expert to verify construction estimates and contracts with respect to reasonable market costs and appropriate allocation of costs between public and private funding.”

Ambassador Hotel sign 2014-03-07Why are measures like this necessary? The impetus for this policy is the no-bid contract awarded to Key Construction for the construction of the garage near the Ambassador Hotel, originally called Douglas Place, now known as Block One.

A letter of intent passed by the council on August 9, 2011 gives the cost of the garage: “Douglas Place LLC will administer the construction of the garage and urban park on behalf of the City and the City will pay the cost of designing and constructing the same at a cost not-to-exceed $6,800,000.” Of that, $770,000 was for the urban park, leaving about $6 million cost for the garage. The motion to approve the letter of intent passed with all council members except Michael O’Donnell voting in favor.

By the time the item appeared for consideration at the September 13, 2011 city council meeting, city documents gave the cost of the constructing the garage structure at an even $6 million. The motion to spend that amount on the garage passed with all members except O’Donnell voting in favor, except Brewer was absent and did not vote.

Hockaday sign explanationThen the city manager decided that the project should be put to competitive bid. Key Construction won that competition with a bid of about $4.7 million. Same garage, same company, but $1.3 million saved.

The Wichita Eagle tells the story like this: “The Ambassador garage at Douglas Place, awarded at $4.73 million to Key Construction — a partner in the hotel project and the project’s contractor — came in about 20 percent under estimates provided the City Council, on the heels of some city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled over budget.” (“Wichita City Council to consider bidding policy extension”, Wichita Eagle, Sunday, February 2, 2014)

Reading the Eagle story, citizens might conclude that due to excellent management by Key Construction, the garage was built at a 20 percent savings under “estimates.”

But that’s not at all what happened. It’s not even close to what really happened.

Without the intervention of O’Donnell, the city manager, and — according to press reports — city council member Pete Meitzner, the garage would have been built for $6 million. That was the intent of a majority of the council. The $6 million price tag for the no-bid contract was in the ordinance that passed, and in the letter of intent that passed a month before. There were no “estimates” as the Eagle reported. There was only the expressed desire of the council to spend $6 million.

Doesn't Wichita have a newspaperSo there were no “estimates” that Key Construction bested. But there was an objectionable no-bid contract that the council agreed to. Fortunately for Wichita, a few people objected and overrode the council’s bad decision.

We’re left to wonder why the Eagle retold the story with Key Construction in the role of hero. That’s about 180 degrees away from the role this company plays.

Key Construction is intimately involved in city politics. Its principals and executives contribute heavily to mayoral and city council election campaigns. Company president David Wells is a personal friend of the mayor.

Did Key’s political involvement and campaign contributions play a role in the council awarding the company a no-bid garage contract? Key Construction executives and their spouses are among a small group who routinely make maximum campaign contributions to candidates. These candidates are both liberal and conservative, which rebuts the presumption that these contributions are made for ideological reasons, that is, agreeing with the political positions of candidates. Instead, Key Construction and a few companies are political entrepreneurs. They seek to please politicians and bureaucrats, and by doing so, receive no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded benefits. This form of cronyism is harmful to Wichita taxpayers, as shown by the Ambassador Hotel garage.

The harm of pay-to-play

When it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

Wait a minute: Doesn’t Wichita have a newspaper that keeps a watchful eye on cronyism and corruption? With an editorial board that crusades against these ills?

The answer is no. No such newspaper exists in Wichita.

We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. The Ambassador Hotel garage contract is just one example. Citizens are working on this initiative on several fronts. Some find the actions of these candidates so distasteful and offensive that they are willing to take to the streets to gather thousands of signatures to force the Wichita City Council to act in a proper manner.

That huge effort shouldn’t be necessary. Why? The politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t give to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a “pay-to-play” law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

There is a law, sort of

Citizens who believe that city council members ought not to vote on matters involving their friends and business associates, we already have such a law. Sort of. Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008 (full section below):

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

Mayor Carl Brewer voted for this law, by the way. When asked about a specific application of this city law, the Wichita city attorney supplied this interpretation:

Related to the Mayor’s participation in the item, yes, City Code advises Council members to “refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors. … ” but the Code does not provide definitions or limits to these broad categories of constituents. Further, the City Code clearly requires Council members to “vote on all matters coming before the City Council except in those particular cases of conflict of interest. …” The city Code does not define what constitutes a conflict but the Council has historically applied the State law for that definition.

Applying that State law specific to local municipalities, the Mayor does not have any substantial interest in Douglas Place LLC, and therefore no conflict. Under the State ethics law, there was no requirement that the Mayor recuse himself from voting on the Ambassador Project.

So we have statutory language that reads “shall refrain,” but the city attorney interprets that to mean “advises.”

We also have statutory language that reads “business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” But the city attorney feels that these terms are not defined, and therefore the mayor and city council members need not be concerned about compliance with this law. We’re left to wonder whether this law has any meaning at all.

Council members shall refrain 01Be advised: If you ask the mayor to adhere to this law, he may threaten to sue you.

If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Giving that impression, through, would be false — and unethical.

Here’s the Wichita city code:

Sec. 2.04.050. — Code of ethics for council members.

Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of such elected officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of such transactions. In addition to the matters of pecuniary interest, council members shall refrain from making use of special knowledge or information before it is made available to the general public; Wichita logic Brewer fishingshall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors; shall refrain from repeated and continued violation of city council rules; shall refrain from appointing immediate family members, business associates, clients or employees to municipal boards and commissions; shall refrain from influencing the employment of municipal employees; shall refrain from requesting the fixing of traffic tickets and all other municipal code citations; shall refrain from seeking the employment of immediate family members in any municipal operation; shall refrain from using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates; and shall comply with all lawful actions, directives and orders of duly constituted municipal officials as such may be issued in the normal and lawful discharge of the duties of these municipal officials.

Council members shall conduct themselves so as to bring credit upon the city as a whole and so as to set an example of good ethical conduct for all citizens of the community. Council members shall bear in mind at all times their responsibility to the entire electorate, and shall refrain from actions benefiting special groups at the expense of the city as a whole and shall do everything in their power to ensure equal and impartial law enforcement throughout the city at large without respect to race, creed, color or the economic or the social position of individual citizens.

Warren Theater sells Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer's BBQ sauce

Problems with the Wichita economy. Is it cronyism?

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita economy has not performed well. Could cronyism be a contributing factor? Mayor Carl Brewer says it’s time to put politics and special interests aside. Is our political leadership capable of doing this? View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita government prefers rebates to markets

Today the Wichita City Council may decide to revive a program to issue rebates to persons who purchase water-saving appliances. The program was started last summer, but less than half the allocated rebate money was claimed. The city will argue that this program has no cost, as the funds are left over from last year’s program. Except: The city could use the money not spent on rebates to either reduce water rates or retire water system debt. Following is an article from last year on this topic.

Wichita begins rebates and regulation

Instead of relying on market forces, Wichita imposes a new tax and prepares a new regulatory regime.

Equus BedsAt today’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, the city decided to spend up to $1 million this year on rebates to encourage people to buy water-efficient appliances. This will save a vanishingly small amount of water at tremendous cost.

The worst realization from today’s city council meeting is how readily citizens, politicians, and bureaucrats will toss aside economic thinking. The antimarket bias that Bryan Caplan explains in The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies was in full display — even by the conservative members of the council.

It’s also clear that some council members want to go down the road of austerity rather than abundance.

What did we learn today? Many speakers used the terms “conservation” and “judicious.” Conservation is good. Judicious use is good. But each person applies different meanings to these concepts. A great thing about living in a (relatively) free economy is that each person gets to choose to spend their time and money on the things that are important to them, and in the amounts they want. We make these choices many times each day. Sometimes we’re aware of making them, and sometimes we’re not.

For example: If you’re watching television alone in your home, and you go to the kitchen to get a snack, do you turn off the television for the moment that you’re not watching it? No? Well, isn’t it wasting electricity and contributing to global warming to have a switched-on television that no one is watching, even for just a moment?

Some people may turn off the television in this scenario. But most people probably decide that the effort required to save a minute’s worth of electricity consumption by a television isn’t worth the effort required.

(By the way, the type of television programs you watch each evening: Is it worth burning dirty coal (or running precious water through dams, or splitting our finite supply of uranium atoms, or spoiling landscapes and killing birds with wind turbines) just so you can watch Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow rant? Or prison documentaries? Or celebrity gossip? Reruns of shows you’re already seen? And I’ve seen you fall asleep while watching television! What a monumental waste. We should require sleep sensors on all new televisions and rebates to retrofit old sets.)

But when people leave their homes empty to go to work, almost everyone turns off the television, lights, and other appliances. Many may adjust their thermostats to save energy. People make the choice to do this based on the costs of leaving the lights on all day versus the cost of turning them on and off. No one needs to tell them to do this. The relative prices of things do this.

(You may be noting that children have to be told to turn off televisions and lights. That’s true. It’s true because they generally aren’t aware of the prices of things, as they don’t pay utility bills. But adults do.)

In most areas of life, people use the relative prices of things to make decisions about how to allocate their efforts and consume scarce resources. Wichita could be doing that with water, but it isn’t.

The conservation measures recommended by speakers today all have a cost. Sometimes the cost is money. In some cases the cost is time and convenience. In others the cost is a less attractive city without green lawns and working fountains. In many cases, the cost is shifted to someone else who is unwilling to voluntarily bear the cost, as in the rebate program.

At least we’ll be able to measure the cost of the rebate program. For most of the other costs, we’re pretending they don’t exist.

Instead of relying on economics and markets, Wichita is turning to a regulatory regime. Instead of pricing water rationally and letting each person and family decide how much water to use, politicians and bureaucrats will decide for us.

All city council members and the mayor approved this expansion of regulation and taxation.

(Yes, it’s true that the rebates will be funded from the water department, but that’s a distinction without meaningful difference.)

The motion made by Mayor Carl Brewer contained some provisions that are probably good ideas. But it also contained the appliance rebate measure. Someone on the council could have made a substitute motion that omitted the rebates, and there could have been a vote.

But not a single council member would do this.

It’s strange that we turn over such important functions as our water supply to politicians and bureaucrats, isn’t it?

The city has no trouble creating laws, but sometimes has trouble following them.

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 4

Wichita’s city attorney is retiring, and the city will select a replacement. There are a few questions that we ought to ask of candidates, such as: Can the city disregard charter ordinances when they inconvenience the council’s cronies?

In awarding a contract for an apartment development, city leaders seem to have overlooked a Wichita City Charter Ordinance that sets aside the development area to be “open space, committed to use for the purpose of public recreation and enjoyment.” But the land was desired by a group of campaign contributors, friends, and business partners of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. Many of the partners had also received taxpayer subsidy from the city under the mayor’s leadership. In other words, it appears that the city legal staff disregarded a charter ordinance because it was not convenient for the mayor’s cronies.

The city creates laws, but sometimes has trouble following them.
The city creates many laws, but sometimes has trouble following them.
This begs a few questions, such as: Did the city attorney advise the mayor and council of this charter ordinance? We’ll probably never know due to attorney-client confidentiality.

But there is this really important question: Who does the Wichita city attorney represent? Whose interest does the city legal staff protect? The answer is the city attorney works for the city manager, who in turn works for the mayor and city council. These are the city attorney’s clients.

Which leads to this question, which the most important: Who represents the citizens of Wichita?

Some cities have an ombudsman, whose duty is to look out for the interests of citizens. You might think this is the raison dêtre of the mayor and council members — “the most important reason or purpose for someone or something’s existence.” We’ve learned, however, that this is not the case in Wichita.

Background: In 2013 the Wichita City Council selected a development team to build apartments on the West Bank of the Arkansas River, between Douglas Avenue and Second Street. But city leaders may have overlooked a Wichita City Charter Ordinance that sets aside this land to be “open space, committed to use for the purpose of public recreation and enjoyment.”

Click for larger version.
Click for larger version.

The building of apartments on this land would seem to be contrary to the language of this ordinance.

Section 10, paragraph (b) of Charter Ordinance No. 144 defines two tracts of land and specifies restrictions on their future use. The proposed apartment development, as can be seen in the nearby illustration, lies in the second tract. The ordinance says this land “shall be hereafter restricted to and maintained as open space.”

Following is the relevant portion of Charter Ordinance No. 144. Emphasis is added.

SECTION 1. Charter Ordinance No. 125 of the City of Wichita is hereby amended to add the following section:

“Section 10. (a) All real property subject to this Section and owned by the City of Wichita or the Board of Park Commissioners shall be subject to the restrictions on use established by this Section. Such restrictions shall apply to such property owned on the date of this ordinance and shall continue to apply to the property whether owned by the City, Board of Park Commissioners, or some other person or entity. These restrictions may hereafter be reduced to a less restrictive use or removed from any or all of the property by action of two-thirds of the members elect of the governing body. Any such action to reduce or remove restrictions shall be by resolution of the governing body.

“(b) This Section shall apply to that property located between McLean Boulevard and the Arkansas River and between Central Avenue and Douglas Avenue. The street boundaries shall continue to apply in the event of the relocation of any street.

That portion of the property North of Second Street shall be hereafter restricted to public use, meaning that such property shall be publicly owned and accessible to the public.

That portion of the property South of Second Street shall be hereafter restricted to and maintained as open space, committed to use for the purpose of public recreation and enjoyment.

Wichita fails at open government and trustworthiness

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: At a time when Wichita city hall needs to cultivate the trust of citizens, another incident illustrates the entrenched attitude of the city towards its citizens. Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1967

In Wichita, everything that can be done has been done, except this

Discussions of Wichita’s deteriorating infrastructure and economy should lead us to ask: Who has been in charge, and is this all we can do?

Recently the City of Wichita decided to use a new method to measure the condition of city streets. The new method is Remaining Service Life (RSL). It’s a measure of the condition of city streets. The city has also used a Pavement Condition index.

A recent white paper from the city held this analysis of the city’s streets and their future condition:

The model demonstrated that, with the current level of $8 million in annual funding, the City’s street network would decline in value from the current $444.9 million to $79.6 million over the 40-year period. In addition, the current RSL value of 42,213 lane mile years would fall to 5,524 lane mile years. In other words, the continuation of past strategies with the current level of funding would result in a deterioration of the Wichita street infrastructure in the long term. However, over the same 40-year period, utilizing new strategies, the current level of funding would result in streets in basically the same condition as today, with the Network Service Value increasing by $14 million (to $458.3 million) and the RSL slightly higher at 42,898.

Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city's 2012 Performance Measure Report
Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city’s 2012 Performance Measure Report
The takeaway from this passage is that the city has not been maintaining its streets adequately. The city’s analysis finds that at current funding levels, the overall condition of Wichita’s streets will continue to decline. This message is not new. As you can see in this chart from the city, the Pavement Condition Index has been deteriorating, and as of its publication in the 2012 Performance Measures Report was projected to continue to decline. The black line running horizontally near the top of the chart is the city’s benchmark as to where it would like the pavement condition index to be.

In its explanation, the Performance Measure Report says “Because many streets in residential areas have deteriorated significantly, an increased investment in street maintenance will be necessary to raise Wichita’s street condition to the benchmark.” This represents future spending that will be required in order to correct the city’s lack of care for its capital assets.

Political leadership and long-term thinking

On these and other issues, the Wichita Eagle recently quoted Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”

Carl Brewer as bystanderIt’s often said that business is interested only in short term results. Driven by the pressures of profit, business firms can’t invest for the long term. Investments and decisions involving a long time horizon, it is contended, must be left to government.

But here we see the city failing to maintain the assets we need to survive. Instead of proactively managing its assets, we have Wichita’s mayor telling us that we have to raise taxes to “catch up” with what we haven’t been doing. That is lack of long-term thinking and decision making.

When discussing the deteriorating condition of city assets or the city’s poor economy, Mayor Carl Brewer speaks as though he was a bystander. But he’s been mayor for over seven years, and was on the city council before that time. During that time, he and other city leaders have boasted of not increasing property taxes. While the property tax rate has been stable (in fact it has risen slightly), property tax revenue has increased due to development of new property and rising assessment values. Even with this rising revenue, the city has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. The way to interpret this is that the city has really been engaging in deficit spending under Brewer’s leadership. The city didn’t spend what was needed to maintain its assets — assets like streets, water, and sewer infrastructure — and now the mayor tells us we need to increase taxes and spending to make up for this.

The economist Milton Friedman told us that it’s more important to look at government spending rather than the level of taxation. That’s because spending must eventually be paid for, either through current taxes or future taxation. The federal government generate deficits and can pay for spending through creating inflation. Fortunately, cities and states can’t do that.

But as we’ve seen, cities like Wichita can incur costs without paying for them. This is a form of deficit spending. By deferring maintenance of our infrastructure, the city has pushed spending to future years. The magnitude of this deferred spending is huge.

This form of deficit spending is “off the books” and doesn’t appear in city financial statements. But it’s real, as the mayor now admits.

Everything that can be done, has been done

City leaders often tell us that budgets have been cut, services have been pared, salaries have been frozen, and there’s nothing more the city can do except to raise taxes.

But now and then, the city lets us know that there are alternatives. From the recent white paper: “Using the new model, street maintenance will be done more efficiently, matching treatment options to streets in the most efficient manner possible.”

Can we conclude that everything that can be done has been done, except operating more efficiently?

Wichita logic Brewer fishing

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 3

Wichita will soon select a new city attorney. There are a few questions we ought to ask of candidates, such as: Will the next city attorney advise council members to refrain from making decisions worth millions to their friends and significant campaign contributors?

Two years ago as the Wichita City Council prepared to handle the appeal of the award of a Wichita Eagle Appearance Matters editorialconstruction contract, the Wichita Eagle editorialized that “appearance matters” on city contracts: “There will be an elephant in the Wichita City Council chambers today as Mayor Carl Brewer and the rest of the council formally consider Dondlinger and Sons’ long-shot final appeal of its loss of the contract to build the new airport terminal — the close ties of Brewer and other City Council members to Key Construction, including a letter Brewer wrote last year recommending Key to build the Cabela’s store in northeast Wichita.” (Eagle editorial: Appearance matters on city contracts, July 17, 2012)

The Eagle probably didn’t know at that time what we learned a short while later: There was Jeff Longwell district 5 2010unusual interest in Michigan about the airport contract decision, and the campaign bank account of Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell benefited financially.

On July 16, 2012 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner. Walbridge is a Michigan-based construction company that is partnering with Key Construction on the airport job. The contract is worth about $100 million.

Then on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign, and they’ve also been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns.

It is wrong to accept thousands in contributions from those who benefit directly from your vote. In many states it is illegal. But not in Kansas. Though legal, the timing of these contributions to Longwell’s campaign is indelicate.

Wichita logic Brewer fishingThe political influence of Key Construction and its partners extends beyond campaign contributions. Mayor Brewer’s personal Facebook profile has a photo album holding pictures of him on a fishing trip with Dave Wells of Key Construction.

Should the Wichita City Council have made the decision on the airport contract? City documents did not indicate whether the hearing was of a quasi-judicial nature, as it is sometimes when the council rules on certain matters involving appeal of decisions made by city authorities. But the council was asked to make decisions involving whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied.

That sounds a lot like the role of judges. In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in the words of legal watchdog group Judicial Watch, “… significant campaign contributions or other electoral assistance pose a risk of actual bias. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said: ‘Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause so too can fears of bias arise when a man chooses the judge in his own cause.’”

Judicial Watch also noted “The ruling will likely affect judges in 39 states that elect them — including Washington, Texas and California — from presiding over cases in which their campaign contributions could create a conflict of interest. The nation’s judicial code has long said that judges should disqualify themselves from proceedings in which impartiality might reasonably be questioned, but the Supreme Court ruling is the first to address hefty election spending.”

The mayor and council members are not judges. But they were asked to make a judge-like decision. If held to the same standards as the U.S. Supreme Court says judges must follow, Mayor Brewer and the five council members who accepted campaign contributions from Key Construction should not have participated in the decision on the Wichita airport construction contract. A similar argument can be made for city manager Robert Layton and all city employees. Directly or indirectly they serve at the pleasure of the council.

Question: Did the outgoing city attorney advise the mayor and council members on this topic? We’ll probably never know due to attorney-client privilege. But a good question to ask city attorney candidates is how they would advise council members if another matter like this comes before the council.

Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.

Wichita, again, fails at government transparency

At a time when Wichita city hall needs to cultivate the trust of citizens, another incident illustrates the entrenched attitude of the city towards its citizens. Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know.

At its May 20, 2014 meeting the Wichita City Council considered approval of a sublease by Shannon No. 2, LLC. The subject property had received subsidy from the city under an economic development program, which is why council approval of the sublease was required. I’ll cover the economics of the lease and its importance to public policy in another article. For now, the important issue is the attitude of the city towards government transparency and citizen participation.

Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
In the agenda packet — that’s the detailed and often lengthy supplement to the council meeting agenda — some information regarding the Shannon lease was redacted, as you can see in the accompanying illustration. This piqued my interest, so I asked for the missing details.

Timing

The agenda packet is often made available Thursday afternoon, although sometimes it is delayed until Friday or even Monday. I sent an email message to the city’s chief information officer at 11:16 pm Thursday. After the message worked its way through several city departments, I received the information at 5:06 pm Monday. Since city council meetings are Tuesday morning, that left little time for research and contemplation.

This isn’t the first time citizens have been left with little information and even less time before council meetings. I was involved in an issue in 2008 where there was little time for citizens — council members, too — to absorb information before a council meeting. About this incident, former Wichita Eagle editorial board editor Randy Brown wrote this in a letter to the Eagle:

I’m fairly well acquainted with Bob Weeks, our extraconservative government watchdog. It’s fair to say that I agree with Weeks no more than one time in every 20 issues. But that one time is crucial to our democracy.

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. Randy Brown: Reopen Downtown Wichita Arena TIF Public Hearing

little-time-review-warren-loan-termsThe Wichita officials involved in this matter were council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). Longwell’s behavior and attitude is part of a pattern, because in another incident in the same year the Wichita Eagle reported “Wichita City Council members and the public got a first look at the contracts that could send a $6 million loan to the owners of the Old Town Warren Theatre just hours before today’s scheduled vote on the matter.” (Little time to review Warren terms, July 1, 2008)

That article quoted council member Longwell thusly: “It’s unlikely many residents would read the full contract even if it had been made public earlier.” This attitude is common among Wichita elected officials and bureaucrats, in my experience. The city formally lobbies the Kansas Legislature opposing any expansion of the Kansas Open Records Act, for example.

Consent agenda

The Shannon item was placed on the consent agenda. This is where items deemed to be non-controversial are voted on in bulk, perhaps two dozen or more at a time. Unless a council member asks to have an item “pulled” for discussion and a possible vote separate from the other consent items, there will be no discussion of any issues.

In 2012 there was an issue on the consent agenda that I felt deserved discussion. I researched and prepared an article at For Wichita’s Block 1 garage, public allocation is now zero parking spaces. At the council meeting, then-council member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) requested that I be able to present my findings to the council. But Mayor Carl Brewer and all five other city council members disagreed. They preferred to proceed as though the issue didn’t exist or was non-controversial. The message — the attitude — was that no time should be spent receiving information on the item. See For Wichita City Council, discussion is not wanted.

Wichita city officials, including Mayor Carl Brewer, say they are proud of the open and transparent city government they have created. But this episode, as well as others described in In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency, lets everyone know that transparency is dispensed, and accountability accepted, at the whim of the mayor, city council, and their bureaucratic enablers.

On his Facebook page, Clinton Coen wrote this about his city council representative James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and this incident:

“I am once again ashamed of my City Councilman. Councilman Clendenin should have stood alongside his colleague, Councilman O’Donnel, and allowed a citizen to address his concerns on an agenda item. All Mr. Clendenin had to do was say “second” and Mr. Weeks could have addressed the council, provided that a majority of the council voted to allow it. Instead, Mr. Clendenin chose to censor someone that has a differing opinion. By bringing it to a vote, accountability would have been created, instead the remainder of the council chose to take the cowardly path.”

Why redacted in the first place?

As shown in the earlier illustration, the city redacted a large chunk of information from the agenda packet that it made available to the public. The city did — after some time — positively It's easy to say value transparencyrespond to my request for the complete document. Which begs these questions: Why did the city feel that some information needed to be kept secret? Did city council members have access to the redacted information? Did any members of the public besides myself ask for the information? How many citizens might have been discouraged from asking by fear of the the hassle of asking city hall for information like this?

There’s also the consideration that the citizens of Wichita are parties to this transaction. How well these incentive programs work and what effect they have on the Wichita economy is an important matter of public policy. Without relatively complete information, citizens are not in a position to make judgments.

Cost

Often council members and bureaucrats complain that providing information to citizens is a financial burden to the city. But in this case, I’m sure the city would have been dollars ahead if it had simply published the complete lease in the agenda packet. My request bounced around several city offices — three that I know of — and I imagine that each handling of my request added cost.

Attitude

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. wichita-wins-transparency-award-2013For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

The incidents describe above, combined with others, demonstrate that it’s easy for officials to say they value transparency and accountability. The actual delivery, however, is difficult for our current leaders.

Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. The incident described in this article is one more example of a divergence between the proclamations of city officials and their acts. It’s an attitude problem. All city hall has to do is get a new attitude.

For more on this topic, see A transparency agenda for Wichita.

china-home-4315_1280

Missing from Wichita’s white papers: China

The City of Wichita has recently prepared a group of white papers examining issues facing Wichita, such as water supply, infrastructure, and “quality of life” improvements such as a new library, and convention center. These white papers may be found under the “Workshops” tab on this page at wichita.gov.

Mayor - Investors in China are interested in Wichita projects 2013-12-19 pageThere’s something missing from these papers. When Mayor Carl Brewer returned from a recent trip to China, he told us that Chinese investors could be a source of funds for Wichita’s needs. The city council now seems posed to recommend that Wichita voters approve a sales tax increase to pay for these items. The possibility of foreign investors cannot be found in these white papers, as far as I can see.

Here’s what the Wichita Eagle reported in December:

Chinese investors stand ready to plow money into Wichita, Mayor Carl Brewer told The Eagle on Wednesday: investing in commercial real estate, aviation businesses and – much to the mayor’s surprise — city projects like the Century II renovation or rebuild, water and sewer improvements, libraries and a new water source.

Sometime in 2014, two groups of potential Chinese investors — aviation investors and private partners with the city — will be in Wichita to examine opportunities. Then, a reciprocal trip of Wichita business people will be organized, said Brewer and Karyn Page, president of Kansas Global Trade Services. (Mayor: Chinese investors interested in Wichita December 18, 2013 Wichita Eagle)

Now, just six months after the mayor’s trip to China, the possibility of Chinese investors in Wichita’s projects like a new water source, water and sewer improvements, libraries, and convention center seems to be forgotten.

Wichita businesses dying faster than they’re being born

What do you get when you combine Sam Brownback, Carl Brewer, and Barack Obama?

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 2

Wichita’s city attorney is retiring, and the city will select a replacement. There are a few questions that we ought to ask of candidates. Will the next city attorney continue to obstruct government transparency or be an advocate for citizens’ right to know?

Hockaday sign explanationSince 2009 I have advocated for greater transparency regarding spending data for three quasi-governmental agencies. Others have since joined the quest. The agencies are Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. (See Open Government in Kansas for more information.)

Each agency contends it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and all council members except former Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and legislative attempts have been taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. I call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

In some council meetings, Rebenstorf has cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

Will the next city attorneyThe legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. It’s contrary to both the letter and spirit of the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), which opens with: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.

But the attitude of Rebenstorf and the city council towards open records and government transparency, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the unmistakably clear meaning and intent of the law.

Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example. In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking these agencies to act as though they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking these agencies from acting as though they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law. Will the next Wichita city attorney agree with the closed stance of the current regime, or be an advocate for greater government transparency?

city-council-chambers-sign-b

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 1

Wichita City Hall SignWichita’s city attorney is retiring soon, and the city will select a replacement. There are a few questions that we ought to ask of candidates, such as the following.

Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008 (full section below):

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

Wichita city attorney candidate, here’s a question: If a member of the Wichita city council had a business relationship with a person, and then that person was involved in a matter that the city council was called to vote on, how would you advise the council member?

It’s not a hypothetical question. Last year the Wichita city council had to make a decision regarding two development teams that had applied to build a project. (See Wichita contracts, their meaning (or not) for video.) It included various forms of subsidy. Here are some facts that no one disputes:

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

1. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is a member of the Wichita City Council and was in position to make a decision.

2. Bill Warren was one of the parties applying for the project.

3. Bill Warren also owns movie theaters.

4. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer owns a company that manufactures barbeque sauce.

5. Brewer’s sauce was sold at Warren’s theaters.

It seems straightforward, doesn’t it? The mayor should not have participated in a decision involving his business partner. That seems to be the clear meaning of the city code. But the mayor proceeded to participate in the discussion and vote.

Now, I don’t know what happened behind the scenes. Did the mayor ask the city attorney for his opinion on whether he should abstain from voting? If so, what did the city attorney say? Did the mayor follow or disregard the advice?

Wichitans ought to be interested in the tenor of the advice the next city attorney will provide to council members and the city’s staff of bureaucrats. Will the next city attorney ignore the plain meaning of laws in order to provide legal cover for the council and staff? Or, will the attorney provide advice that respects citizens and the rule of law?

We probably won’t ever know.

Here’s the Wichita city code:

Sec. 2.04.050. — Code of ethics for council members.

Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of such elected officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of such transactions. In addition to the matters of pecuniary interest, council members shall refrain from making use of special knowledge or information before it is made available to the general public; shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors; shall refrain from repeated and continued violation of city council rules; shall refrain from appointing immediate family members, business associates, clients or employees to municipal boards and commissions; shall refrain from influencing the employment of municipal employees; shall refrain from requesting the fixing of traffic tickets and all other municipal code citations; shall refrain from seeking the employment of immediate family members in any municipal operation; shall refrain from using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates; and shall comply with all lawful actions, directives and orders of duly constituted municipal officials as such may be issued in the normal and lawful discharge of the duties of these municipal officials.

Council members shall conduct themselves so as to bring credit upon the city as a whole and so as to set an example of good ethical conduct for all citizens of the community. Council members shall bear in mind at all times their responsibility to the entire electorate, and shall refrain from actions benefiting special groups at the expense of the city as a whole and shall do everything in their power to ensure equal and impartial law enforcement throughout the city at large without respect to race, creed, color or the economic or the social position of individual citizens.

Wichita City Hall

Wichita develops plans to make up for past planning mistakes

On several issues, including street maintenance, water supply, and economic development, Wichita government and civic leaders have let our city fall behind. Now they ask for your support for future plans to correct these mistakes in past plans.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.
Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

In February the City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The amounts of money involved are large, and portions represent deferred maintenance. That is, the city has not been taking care of the assets that taxpayers have paid for. When Wichita city leaders ask for more taxes to pay for this lack of stewardship, citizens need to ask for better accountability than what they’ve received.

The time frame of this planning process is the period 2013 to 2035. Under the heading “Trends & Challenges” we find some troubling information. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer hinted at the problem last year in his State of the City Address when he said the city would need to spend $2.1 billion over 30 years on maintenance and replacement of water and sewer systems. The city’s performance measure report also told us that our pavement condition index has been deteriorating, and is projected to continue to decline.

So if we’ve been paying attention, it should not have been a surprise to read this in the presentation: “Decades of under-investment in infrastructure maintenance … 38% of Wichita’s infrastructure is in ‘deficient/fair’ condition.”

The cost to remedy this lack of maintenance is substantial. The document says that on an annual basis, Wichita needs to spend $180 million on infrastructure depreciation/replacement costs. Currently the city spends $78 million on this, the presentation indicates.

The “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is given as an additional $45 to $55 million per year.

This is a lot of money. To place these numbers in context, here are some figures that help illustrate Wichita city finances:

Property tax collected in 2013: $105 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for fire department: $44 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for police department: $79 million

The amounts by which the city is deficient in maintaining its assets is staggering, compared to other expenses the city has. The size of the deficiency overwhelms possible sources of new revenue. A one cent per dollar increase in sales tax would not cover the deficiencies in maintaining our current assets. Then, remember the things Wichita wants to increase spending on — a new library, economic development, expanded public transit, new convention center, economic development, and perhaps other things.

The report lists three scenarios for future growth: Maintaining current trends, constrained suburban growth, and suburban and infill growth mix. Whenever we see words like “constrained” we need to be cautious. We need to be on guard. The Wichita Eagle reported this: “In the city’s recently completed series of 102 public meetings, citizens were clear, City Manager Robert Layton said: Redevelop the core. We’ve had enough suburban growth for awhile.”

It’s unclear how closely the findings from the public meetings reflects actual citizen preference. Cynics believe that these meetings are run in a way that produces a predetermined outcome aligned with what city officials want to hear. At any rate, when you ask people about their preferences, but there is no corresponding commitment to act on their proclaimed preferences, we have to wonder how genuine and reliable the results are.

There is a very reliable way to find out what people really want, however. Just let them do it. If people want to live downtown on in an inner city neighborhood, fine. If they want suburban-style living, that’s fine too. Well, it should be fine. But reading between the lines of city documents you get the impression that city planners don’t think people should live in suburban-style settings.

Community input

The survey that Wichita used has its own problems. Here’s an example of a question respondents were asked to agree or disagree with: “Local government, the school district, community organizations and the business community should work together to create an investment climate that is attractive to business.”

The meaning of an attractive investment climate means different things to different people. Some people want an investment climate where property rights are respected, where government refrains from meddling in the economy and transferring one person’s property to another. An environment free from cronyism, in other words. But the Wichita way is, unfortunately, cronyism, where government takes an active role in managing economic development. We in Wichita never know when our local government will take from us to give to politically-favored cronies, or when city hall will set up and subsidize a competitor to your business.

Wichita flights compared to the nation.
Wichita flights compared to the nation.

Sometimes the questions are misleading. A question relating to the subsidy program at the Wichita airport read “I’m willing to pay increased taxes or fees to support investment … that uses public dollars to reduce the cost and increase the number of commercial flights at Mid-Continent Airport.”

This is an example of a question which has a false premise. Since the subsidy programs have been in place, the number of flights from the Wichita airport has declined, not increased as the question would lead readers to believe. See Wichita flight options decrease, despite subsidies and Wichita airfare subsidy: The negative effects.

Leadership of city officials

On these and other issues, the Wichita Eagle quoted mayor Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”

It’s almost as if the mayor is speaking as a bystander. But he’s been mayor for nearly seven years, and was on the city council before that time. During that time, he and other city leaders have boasted of not increasing property taxes. While the property tax rate has been (fairly) stable, property tax revenue has increased due to development of new property and rising assessment values. Still, of this, the city has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. The way to interpret this is that the city has really been engaging in deficit spending under Brewer’s leadership. We didn’t spend what was needed to maintain our assets, and now the mayor tells us we need to increase spending to make up for this.

The economist Milton Friedman told us that it’s more important to look at government spending rather than the level of taxation. That’s because spending must eventually be paid for, either through current taxes or future taxation. The federal government generate deficits and can pay for spending through creating inflation. Fortunately, cities and states can’t do that.

But, as we’ve seen, cities like Wichita can incur costs without paying for them. This is a form of deficit spending. By deferring maintenance of our infrastructure, the city has pushed spending to future years. The report released in February gives an idea of the magnitude of this deferred spending: It’s huge.

This form of deficit spending is “off the books” and doesn’t appear in city financial statements. But it’s real, as the mayor now admits. The threat to our freedom to live where we want is real, too. We must be watchful and diligent.

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.

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

Wichita City Council fails to support informing the taxed

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.
Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.
It’s enlightening to look back at some examples of discussion at the Wichita City Council so that we remember the attitudes of council members and city bureaucrats towards citizens. In the following example, the council was considering whether Wichitans and visitors should be notified of the amount of extra sales tax — or even the existence of extra tax — they will pay when shopping at merchants located within Community Improvement Districts (CIDs). Did the council side with special interests or citizens?

At its December 7, 2010 meeting, the Wichita City Council considered whether stores in CIDs should be required to post signs warning shoppers of the amount of extra tax being charged. Some, including myself, felt that shoppers should have this information before deciding to shop in such a store.

In discussion from the bench, Jeff Longwell, who was Vice Mayor at the time, said it is important that we disclose these “types of collections” as they are taxing the public. But in a convoluted stretch of reasoning, he argued that posting a sign with a specific tax rate would be confusing to citizens: (View video below, or click here to view at YouTube.

“I was leaning to putting a percentage on there, but again if we have a website that spells out the percentage, I think that’s important. And number two, I guess I would be a little bit concerned how we would work through it — if you put a percentage on a development over here in downtown that’s only collecting one percent and someone walks in and sees a CID tax collected of one percent and just assumes every CID tax is one percent it would be confusing when they go to the next one, and it may scare them off if they see one that’s two percent, they’ll never go to one that’s maybe only one percent. So I think that proves an additional concern for some confusion. So having something on the front door that says we are financing this with a CID tax, where they’re made well aware that it’s collected there, I think to try and include a percentage might even add some confusion as we collect different CID taxes around the city.”

Longwell is content to tell people as they enter a store that they’re being taxed, but not how much tax they’re required to pay. We can summarize his attitude as this: Giving citizens too much information will confuse them.

Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp
Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp
Council Member Sue Schlapp (who left office in 2011 after reaching the city’s limit on length of service) said she supported transparency in government:

“Every tool we can have is necessary … This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion. Either we do it, and we do it in a way that it’s going to be useful and accomplish its purpose. … I understand totally the discussion of letting the public know. I think transparency is absolutely vital to everything we do in government. So I think we’re doing that very thing.”

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams
Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams
Schlapp understood and said what everyone knows: That if you arm citizens with knowledge of high taxes, they’re likely to go somewhere else to shop. Well, maybe except for women, as Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), noted that women would still want to shop at a store in a CID if it is “very unique.”

Mayor Carl Brewer said he agreed with Schlapp and the other council members.

In the end, the council unanimously voted for requiring signage that reads, according to minutes from the meeting: “This project made possible by Community Improvement District Financing and includes the website.”

This sign doesn’t mention anything about the rate of extra sales tax that customers of CID merchants will pay. In fact, reading the sign, shoppers are not likely to sense that they’ll be paying any additional tax. The sign almost makes the Community Improvement District seem benevolent, not predatory.

Contrary to Schlapp’s assertions, this is not anything like government transparency.

Here’s what is really troubling: What does it say about Wichita’s economic development strategy that if you fully inform citizens and visitors on what they’re asked to pay, it renders the tool “useless,”as Schlapp contended?

It’s just another example of the council and staff being totally captured by special interests, preferring advancing the interests of their cronies rather than protecting citizens.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: For whose benefit are elections, school employment, wind power, unions, unemployment

Wichita City HallIn this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The controversy over the timing of city and school board elections provides an insight into government. Then: Can a candidate for governor’s claims about Kansas school employment be believed? Wind power is expensive electricity, very expensive. A Wichita auto dealer pushes back against union protests. Finally, what is the real rate of unemployment in America? Episode 36, broadcast March 23, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1960

During Sunshine Week, here are a few things Wichita could do

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1960The City of Wichita says it values open and transparent government, but the city could improve several areas of providing information and records to citizens.

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Attitude

Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. Here’s perhaps the most glaring example of how the city goes out of its way to conduct public business in secret.

Citizen watchdogs need access to records and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Each of these agencies refuses to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas law that’s designed to provide citizen access to records.

The city backs this interpretation. When legislation was introduced to bring these agencies under the umbrella of the Kansas Open Records Act, cities — including Wichita — protested vigorously, and the legislation went nowhere. Now, just this week the City of Wichita added a new tax to hotel bills that may generate $3 million per year for the convention and visitors bureau to spend. Unless the city changes its attitude towards citizens’ right to know, this money will be spent in secret.

Another example of the City of Wichita’s attitude towards citizens and open government took place at a Kansas Legislature committee hearing last year. I had asked for email to or from a certain official for a certain period of time. The response from the city was that my request would encompass some 19,000 email messages, and the city denied the request as too burdensome. Fair enough.

But the city’s lobbyist told legislators that my request for 19,000 emails was an example of abuse of the Kansas Open Records Act, and cited it as evidence as to why reform was not needed. But I did not request 19,000 email messages. I made a request for messages meeting a certain criteria, and I had no way of knowing in advance how many email messages this would entail. The City of Wichita denied this request as burdensome, so there was either no cost or very little cost for the city. No harm, no foul.

But the City of Wichita used this incident and a similar incident involving the Kansas Policy Institute as reasons that the Kansas Open Records Act needs no reform. This illustrates a problem with the attitude of Wichita city government towards citizens’ right to know.

This attitude may be noticed by the citizenry at large. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.

Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement."
Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.”

The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey.

Website

An important way governments can communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. With the launching of the new City of Wichita website, the city has actually taken a step backwards in providing information to citizens.

From the former version of the City of Wichita website, showing budgets available for many years.
From the former version of the City of Wichita website, showing budgets available for many years.

Here’s an example. The old city website had budgets going back a long way, back to the budget for 1960 — 1961. The oldest budget I can find on the present website is for 2006.

Looking for minutes of important boards such as the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, we find similar results. On the old website, minutes of MAPC were available back to 1999. The new version of the website seems to have minutes back to only 2012.

Also, something that had been very useful is missing, and hasn’t been replaced: MyWichita.

mywichita_logo

As described here, MyWichita was a useful service. By using it, you could receive by email notices of new press releases, city council agendas and minutes, district advisory board agenda and minutes, agendas and minutes of other boards, and other items. Using MyWichita was much easier than having to check multiple sections of the city’s website looking for newly-released agendas, minutes, etc.

This email reminder service was very valuable. It’s a basic customer service feature of many commercial and governmental websites. But MyWichita didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing that replaces its function. When I asked about this missing functionality, the city said it was working on a replacement that should be available in a month or two. It’s been almost a year since I asked.

Spending data

Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, and also the Wichita school district. Not so the City of Wichita.

Wichita spending data.
Wichita spending data.

Even after asking for checkbook spending data, Wichita can supply data of only limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult and 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 it would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Legal notices

Kansas law requires that local government agencies publish legal notices for a variety of topics. Presently these are published in the Wichita Eagle at great cost to taxpayers. These notices could also be published on the city’s website, where they could be searched and archived. This would increase the usability of these documents at very little cost to the city.

Publish requests

When governmental agencies like the City of Wichita fulfill records requests, they could also publish the records on their websites. Most of the time the records are supplied electronically, so this is an additional simple (and low cost) step that would leverage the value of the city’s effort.

Leveraging our lobbyists

What do lobbyists, including taxpayer-funded lobbyists, do in Topeka? One thing they do is testify before committees, in both verbal and written form. Another thing they do is to prepare reports for the clients, advising them on upcoming legislation, analyzing how it affects them, and what the prospects for the bill might be. They also meet with legislators and their clients, which are your elected officials.

Here’s a proposal that will help citizens make best use of their taxpayer-funded lobbyists:

I see nothing in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows local governmental units in Kansas to refuse to disclose these documents: testimony, reports by lobbyists to their government clients, and the lobbyists’ calendars (or billing records for contract lobbyists). Instead of making citizens ask for these records, possibly paying fees to obtain what they’re already paying for, why don’t local governments post these documents immediately on their websites?

Citizens could then benefit from the activities of the lobbyists they’re paying for. They could learn more about legislation as it works its way through the process. Citizens could judge whether the positions taken by the government lobbyists they’re paying for are aligned with their policy preferences.

If the actions taken by taxpayer-funded lobbyists are truly in the public interest, you’d think that cities, counties, and school boards would already be making this information easily available. In any case, there should be no resistance to starting this program.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s missing water, beyond politics and special interests

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The people of Wichita have told officials that water is an important issue. What has the city done in this regard? Then, Wichita Mayor Brewer Carl says it’s time to put politics and special interests aside. Is our political leadership capable of this? Episode 34, broadcast March 9, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

wichita-taxi regulations

Regulation failure leads to tragedy in Wichita

wichita-taxi regulations

When the Wichita City Council passed new taxicab regulations in 2012, the focus was on dirty cabs and slovenly drivers who were not acting as goodwill ambassadors for the city. Mayor Carl Brewer said he was “tired” of hearing complaints about drivers.

So the council passed new regulations regarding taxicabs, including the requirement that drivers attend customer service training provided by Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. Other regulations determine taxicab office staffing levels and level of supervision.

Bryon Scott Spohn, a taxi driver accused of raping a passenger.

But something very important slipped through the cracks. The Wichita Eagle has reported the city didn’t competently enforce regulations designed to protect passenger safety:

A Wichita taxicab driver now in prison for raping a passenger last year shouldn’t have been allowed to operate a taxi in the first place.

That’s because at the time Bryon Scott Spohn applied for a taxi driver’s license in late 2012, he was on a state sex offender registry for possession of child pornography. A city ordinance that went into effect in July 2012 says a taxi driver’s license shall not be issued to anyone who “is now or has ever been registered as a sexual offender with any state, county or local government.”

Spohn shouldn’t have received a taxi license but did because the new change banning registered sex offenders wasn’t communicated to staff members doing background checks on taxi driver applicants, city officials told The Eagle on Friday. The city has fixed the problem that led to the oversight in Spohn’s case, they said. Taxi driver in prison for raping passenger was on sex offender registry, March 3, 2014

The regulations regarding customer service training were implemented. But the really important regulations? Lack of oversight, says the city.

I wonder: Who is regulating the regulators?

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Government planning, taxes, and carbon

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The document holds some facts that ought to make Wichitans think, and think hard. Then: What is the purpose of high tax rates on high income earners? Finally: Advances in producing oil and natural gas make for a more competitive and carbon-efficient economy. Episode 33, broadcast March 2, 2014. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

Wichita planning documents hold sobering numbers

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.
Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

This week the City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The documents hold information that ought to make Wichitans think, and think hard. The amounts of money involved are large, and portions represent deferred maintenance. That is, the city has not been taking care of the assets that taxpayers have paid for.

The time frame of this planning process is the period 2013 to 2035. Under the heading “Trends & Challenges” we find some troubling information. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer hinted at the problem last year in his State of the City Address when he said the city would need to spend $2.1 billion over 30 years on maintenance and replacement of water and sewer systems. The city’s performance measure report also told us that our pavement condition index has been deteriorating, and is projected to continue to decline.

So if we’ve been paying attention, it should not have been a surprise to read this in the presentation: “Decades of under-investment in infrastructure maintenance … 38% of Wichita’s infrastructure is in ‘deficient/fair’ condition.”

The cost to remedy this lack of maintenance is substantial. The document says that on an annual basis, Wichita needs to spend $180 million on infrastructure depreciation/replacement costs. Currently the city spends $78 million on this, the presentation indicates.

The “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is given as an additional $45 to $55 million per year.

This is a lot of money. To place these numbers in context, here are some figures that help illustrate Wichita city finances:

Property tax collected in 2013: $105 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for fire department: $44 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for police department: $79 million

It’s thought that an additional one cent per dollar city sales tax would generate around $80 million per year.

The amounts by which the city is deficient in maintaining its assets is staggering, compared to other expenses the city has. The size of the deficiency overwhelms possible sources of new revenue. A one cent per dollar increase in sales tax would not cover the deficiencies in maintaining our current assets. Then, remember the things Wichita wants to increase spending on — a new library, economic development, expanded public transit, new convention center, economic development, and perhaps other things.

The report lists three scenarios for future growth: Maintaining current trends, constrained suburban growth, and suburban and infill growth mix. Whenever we see words like “constrained” we need to be cautious. We need to be on guard. The Wichita Eagle reported this: “In the city’s recently completed series of 102 public meetings, citizens were clear, City Manager Robert Layton said: Redevelop the core. We’ve had enough suburban growth for awhile.”

It’s unclear how closely the findings from the public meetings reflects actual citizen preference. Cynics believe that these meetings are run in a way that produces a predetermined outcome aligned with what city officials want to hear. At any rate, when you ask people about their preferences, but there is no corresponding commitment to act on their proclaimed preferences, we have to wonder how genuine and reliable the results are.

There is a very reliable way to find out what people really want, however. Just let them do it. If people want to live downtown on in an inner city neighborhood, fine. If they want suburban-style living, that’s fine too. Well, it should be fine. But reading between the lines of city documents you get the impression that city planners don’t think people should live in suburban-style settings.

Sometimes we don’t have to read between the lines. Sometimes the attitude of planners is explicit. In 2010 the city — actually the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation — employed Goody Clancy, a Boston-based planning firm, to help plan the revitalization of downtown Wichita. In the article Goody Clancy market findings presented to Wichita audience I reported on some of what the planners said. For example, David Dixon, the Goody Clancy principal for this project, told how that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is found only at the core. “Have dinner someplace, pass a cool shop, go to a great national music act at the arena, and then go to a bar, and if we’re lucky, stumble home.”

This idea that only downtown people are socially and culturally rich is an elitist attitude that we ought to reject. By the way, when I presented to the Wichita City Council on this topic, I noted that no council members, except for possibly one, lived in neighborhoods that might be described as in “the core.”

Other speakers from Goody Clancy revealed a condescending attitude towards those who hold values different from this group of planners. One presenter said “Outside of Manhattan and Chicago, the traditional family household generally looks for a single family detached house with yard, where they think their kids might play, and they never do.”

This, again, is an elitist attitude. No, it’s worse than that. It’s condescending. It reveals that the professional planning class thinks that the ordinary people of Wichita can’t decide for themselves what they really want. Somehow, people are duped into buying homes that don’t really meet their needs, and they’re not smart enough to realize that. That is the attitude of the professional planning class. It’s an elitism that Wichitans ought to reject.

The planning process

The planners tells us that the process is based on data. “Data-driven” is a term they use. But when we look under the covers at the data, we realize that we need to be very skeptical of claims.

Returning to the Goody Clancy plan for downtown Wichita, the principal planner used Walk Score in a presentation delivered in Wichita. Walk Score is purported to represent a measure of walkability of a location in a city. Walkability is a key design element of the master plan Goody Clancy has developed for downtown Wichita.

Walk Score is not a project of Goody Clancy, as far as I know, and Dixon is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of the Walk Score website. But he presented it and relied on it as an example of the data-driven approach that Goody Clancy takes.

Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, as presented by planning firm Goody Clancy. Click image for a larger version.
Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, as presented by planning firm Goody Clancy. Click image for a larger version.

The score for 525 E. Douglas, the block the Eaton Hotel and Wichita Downtown Development Corporation is located in and mentioned by Dixon as a walkable area, scored 91, which means it is a “walker’s paradise,” according to the Walk Score website.

But here’s where we can start to see just how bad the data used to develop these scores is. For a grocery store — an important component of walkability — the website indicates indicates a grocery store just 0.19 miles away. It’s “Pepsi Bottling Group,” located on Broadway between Douglas and First Streets. Those familiar with the area know there is no grocery store there, only office buildings. The claim of a grocery store here is false.

There were other claimed amenities where the data is just as bad. But the chairman of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation at that time said that Walk Score has been updated. I should no longer be concerned with the credibility of this data, he told me through a comment left on my website.

He was correct in one regard: Walk Score had been updated. For the same location the walk score was revised to 85%, which is considered “very walkable.” The “grocery store” is no longer the Pepsi Bottling Group. It’s now “Market Place,” whose address is given as 155 N. Market St # 220.

Someone strolling by that location would notice that address, 155 N. Market number 220, is the management office for an office building whose name is Market Place.

Still no grocery store. Nothing even resembling a grocery store.

I looked this week at the Walk Score website. It’s been updated and redesigned. Now for the same block in the heart of downtown Wichita the walk score is 74, which is “very walkable,” according to the site. In a narrative explanation, the site says this: “The closest grocery stores are Ray Sales Co, Market Place and The Hot Spot Detox Shop.”

Ray Sales Co., in the shadow of Intrust Bank Arena.
Ray Sales Co., in the shadow of Intrust Bank Arena.

I don’t know if you’ve been to Ray Sales, but it’s a tiny store with a very limited product selection. It’s not the type of place that will attract people to downtown Wichita. We know that because officials say a grocery store is one of downtown’s most pressing needs, despite the existence of Ray Sales.

Market Place is listed again as evidence of a grocery store in downtown Wichita. Remember, Market Place is the name of an office building located on Market Street. It’s not a grocery store.

The third location listed as a grocery store is a shop that sells kits to help people pass drug tests. It’s nothing like a grocery store.

Again, David Dixon and Goody Clancy did not create the Walk Score data. But they presented it to Wichitans as an example of the data-driven, market-oriented approach to planning that they use. Dixon cited Walk Score data as the basis for higher real estate values based on the walkability of the area and its surrounding amenities. But anyone who relies on the evidence Dixon and Goody Clancy presented would surely get burnt unless they investigated the area on their own.

Keep in mind that the presentation of this Walk Score data was made after Goody Clancy staff had spent considerable time in Wichita. That someone there could not immediately recognize how utterly bogus the data is: That should give us cause for concern that the entire planning process is based on similarly shoddy data and analysis.

Constraining growth

Returning to the city’s presentation: How does the city “constrain” suburban growth? By taking away the freedom for people to live where they want. Why would the city want do that? City leaders say that suburban development is expensive. It’s not sustainable. Suburban living depends on the personal automobile. And remember the attitude of the professional planners Wichita Downtown Development Corporation hired: People can’t be trusted to know what they really want for themselves.

Special taxes paid on a residential home.
Special taxes paid on a residential home.

If it really is more expensive to develop new suburban areas, the city should simply charge what it costs. To some extent this already happens. Anyone who builds a new home in a new area will pay for the residential street and other infrastructure through special taxes. If the city feels it needs to charge for building arterial streets to serve new suburban areas, it should do so. But the city should realize that people spending their own money to buy or rent a residence — this is the best indication of their true preferences. What people say in focus groups or on paper survey forms is nowhere near as reliable.

Community input

The survey that Wichita used has its own problems. Here’s an example of a question respondents were asked to agree or disagree with: “Local government, the school district, community organizations and the business community should work together to create an investment climate that is attractive to business.”

The meaning of an attractive investment climate means different things to different people. Some people want an investment climate where property rights are respected, where government refrains from meddling in the economy and transferring one person’s property to another. An environment free from cronyism, in other words. But the Wichita way is, unfortunately, cronyism, where government takes an active role in managing economic development. We in Wichita never know when our local government will take from us to give to politically-favored cronies, or when city hall will set up and subsidize a competitor to your business.

Wichita flights compared to the nation.
Wichita flights compared to the nation.

Sometimes the questions are misleading. A question relating to the subsidy program at the Wichita airport read “I’m willing to pay increased taxes or fees to support investment … that uses public dollars to reduce the cost and increase the number of commercial flights at Mid-Continent Airport.”

This is an example of a question which has a false premise. Since the subsidy programs have been in place, the number of flights from the Wichita airport has declined, not increased as the question would lead readers to believe. See Wichita flight options decrease, despite subsidies and Wichita airfare subsidy: The negative effects.

Leadership of city fathers

On these and other issues, the Wichita Eagle quoted mayor Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”

It’s almost as if the mayor is speaking as a bystander. But he’s been mayor for nearly seven years, and was on the city council before that time. During that time, he and other city leaders have boasted of not increasing property taxes. While the property tax rate has been stable, property tax revenue has increased due to development of new property and rising assessment values. In spite of this, the city has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. The way to interpret this is that the city has really been engaging in deficit spending under Brewer’s leadership. We didn’t spend what was needed to maintain our assets, and now the mayor tells us we need to increase spending to make up for this.

The economist Milton Friedman told us that it’s more important to look at government spending rather than the level of taxation. That’s because spending must eventually be paid for, either through current taxes or future taxation. The federal government generate deficits and can pay for spending through creating inflation. Fortunately, cities and states can’t do that.

But, as we’ve seen, cities like Wichita can incur costs without paying for them. This is a form of deficit spending. By deferring maintenance of our infrastructure, the city has pushed spending to future years. The report released this week gives an idea of the magnitude of this deferred spending: It’s huge.

This form of deficit spending is “off the books” and doesn’t appear in city financial statements. But it’s real, as the mayor now admits. The threat to our freedom to live where we want is real, too. We must be watchful and diligent.

File folder and documents

Kansas Open Records Act and the ‘public agency’ definition

Update: The bill has been referred to another committee, and the February 19 hearing is canceled.

File folder and documents

Despite the City of Wichita’s support for government transparency, citizens have to ask the legislature to add new law forcing the city and its agencies to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act.

Open records laws allow citizens to ask government agencies for records. While these laws are valuable, we find that in practice governmental agencies find many ways to avoid filling records requests. Because the City of Wichita does not live up to the standards of open government — even through it proclaims its support for government transparency — citizens are working to have the law changed.

Locally, the City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Contrary to what the mayor and manager say, when we look at some specific areas of government transparency, we find that the city’s efforts are deficient. That’s a problem, because citizen watchdogs and journalists need access to records and data.

The City of Wichita has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

I have asked each organization for checkbook-level spending data. Each has refused to comply, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But consider the WDDC: At the time I made my records request, its percent of revenue derived from taxes was well over 90 percent in every year but one. In many years the only income WDDC received was from taxes and a small amount of interest earned.

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter at my request, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position.

So what is the next step? The Kansas Attorney General is of no help in this matter. His office refers all cases to the local District Attorney. That’s a problem right there, and there is some talk that the AG may open a small bureau to work with records requests problems.

One course of action open to me as a citizen watchdog is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit. The irony of this is that citizens will find their own tax dollars being used against them as the city and other agencies defend secrecy.

Another course of action is persuading the city and these agencies to release the records. While these agencies believe the law doesn’t require them to release the records, the law does not prohibit or restrict releasing the records. They could fulfill requests if they wanted to. That would be in line with what the mayor and city manager say they want for Wichita. I and others have tried that.

But that didn’t work. The true attitude of the city was expressed eloquently by Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner last month in a television news story about the inability of citizens to see how their money is being spent by these organizations. Meitzner said “The public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.”

The vice mayor also told the reporter that these organization have review boards. Therefore, citizen oversight is not necessary. These boards, however, are usually filled with insiders whose interests may not be aligned with the interests of citizens and promoting good government.

Another course of action is to change the law, and that’s what I and others are trying to do. This week a committee of the Kansas House of Representatives will hear testimony on HB 2567, which will expand the definition of public agency.

The current law says this in defining what agencies are subject to the open records law: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The proposed law contains this additional definition: “Further, on and after July 1, 2014, ‘public agency’ shall include any nonprofit organization supported in whole or in part by public funds, which organizations are engaged in economic development, tourism or general marketing activities for the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof.”

This language, if passed into law, would appear to bring the three problematic agencies under the Kansas Open Records Act. That doesn’t mean that they’ll have to turn over all and any records that are asked for, as the Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions. But we should be able to get spending data and other records that will help citizens oversee the operation of their government and the spending of tax dollars.

It’s a little distressing that citizens have to pass new legislation in order to get government to behave well. Citizens have to resort to these measures even though city leaders say they value open and transparent government.

Following is the testimony I will deliver this week.

Testimony to house of Representatives Committee on Judiciary as proponent of HB 2567, concerning public records.
Bob Weeks, February 19, 2014

Chairman Kinzer and members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present testimony in support of HB 2567, regarding the Kansas Open Records Act.

Cities and other local governmental bodies have set up non-profit organizations to conduct business such as economic development. These agencies, as in the case of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, may in some years receive as much as 98 percent of their revenue from taxation. They often have only one client, that being the governmental agency that provides their tax revenue. They perform functions that are governmental in nature. Yet the Sedgwick County District Attorney says they are not public agencies for purposes of the Kansas Open Records Act. Based on that, these agencies, particularly the WDDC, have refused to fulfill my records requests. This flies in the face of the Legislature’s declared intent in the preamble of the Act: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

There can be large amounts of money involved. The City of Wichita may soon add a 2.75 percent tax to hotel bills as a “City Tourism Fee.” These new taxpayer-provided funds, estimated at $2.5 million per year, would be spent by Go Wichita Convention and Tourism Bureau. This agency, despite receiving nearly all its revenue from taxation, maintains that it is not a public agency as defined by the Kansas Open Records Act. It refused to fulfill my records request.

Citizen watchdogs and journalists need the ability to examine the spending of tax money. When government creates quasi-governmental bodies that are almost totally funded through taxes and then refuses to disclose how that money is spent, we have to wonder why the city doesn’t want citizens to know how this money is spent.

Recently the vice mayor of Wichita told a television news reporter that these organization have review boards. Therefore, citizen oversight is not necessary. These boards, however, are usually filled with insiders whose interests may not be aligned with the interests of citizens and promoting good government.

There is much that Kansas can, and should do, to strengthen its Open Records Law to give citizen watchdogs and journalists better access to records and documents. Restricting the ability of local governments to erect a protective wall under the guise of non-profit corporations that are almost totally funded by taxation is an important step.

I have additional information about the Kansas Open Records Act and its problems at wichitaliberty.org/open-records.

Respectfully submitted,
Bob Weeks

Wichita Chamber presentation. Click for larger version.

Wichita Chamber of Commerce: Why these panelists?

wichita-chamber-commerce-2013-11-05

Last week the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce conducted a panel discussion about economic development and job creation in Wichita. The experts selected as panelists tells us a lot about why the Wichita economy has suffered.

In case anyone is not aware of the performance of the Wichita-area economy, the Wichita Eagle reported “Exhibit No. 1 in their presentation was a Chamber of Commerce chart showing that, five years after the recession ended, Wichita had regained few, if any, jobs from the depths of the economic downturn — while other cities across the region have rebounded strongly.” (Wichita must step up efforts to attract jobs, civic leaders say, Thursday, February 6, 2014)

Wichita Chamber presentation. Click for larger version.
Wichita Chamber presentation. Click for larger version.

On the same event, the Wichita Business Journal reported “But the luncheon opened with a somber look at Wichita’s ranking among peer cities in the Midwest region. The chart shows Wichita area employment growth since January 2005 well below the other cities, barely above its 2005 employment.” (Chamber luncheon speakers: Wichita needs to compete better for jobs)

The news about the poor performance of Wichita in this regard is no surprise to readers of this site, although I’m not sure that those in charge, such as Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, believe the numbers. Brewer, along with Dave Unruh and Chamber president Wayne Chambers were the three panelists on Wichita economic development.

What is surprising is that Brewer and Unruh were selected as experts in this field, given the city’s poor performance and the tenure of these two leaders. Brewer has been mayor for nearly seven years, and has served on the city council 2001. Unruh has been in office since 2003, and has been chair of the commission several times, as he is currently.

Brewer — after 13 years holding city office — had this to say, according to the Eagle: “Brewer said the Wichita City Council will look at the results of a recent community engagement survey to see how high a priority to place on economic development.”

Imagine that. Our city’s longtime leader, as he enters the last year of his mayorality: Now he’s going to get serious about economic development, and will do so by relying on a citizen survey.

To use interactive visualizations that explore the Wichita economy, see Wichita’s growth in gross domestic product and For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure.

Wichita considers policy to rein in council’s bad behavior

city-council-chambers-sign-b

When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.
– P.J. O’Rourke

Your principle has placed these words above the entrance of the legislative chamber: “whosoever acquires any influence here can obtain his share of legal plunder.” And what has been the result? All classes have flung themselves upon the doors of the chamber crying:
“A share of the plunder for me, for me!”
– Frederic Bastiat

Update: The council deferred this item to a later date.

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers a policy designed to squelch the council’s ability to issue no-bid contracts for city projects. This policy is necessary to counter the past bad behavior of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and several council members, as well as their inability to police themselves regarding matters of ethical behavior by government officials.

The proposed policy is problematic. For some projects the developer will have to pay for “a third party expert to verify construction estimates and contracts with respect to reasonable market costs and appropriate allocation of costs between public and private funding.”

Why are measures like this necessary? The impetus for this policy is the no-bid contract awarded to Key Construction for the construction of the garage near the Ambassador Hotel, originally called Douglas Place, now known as Block One.

A letter of intent passed by the council on August 9, 2011 gives the cost of the garage: “Douglas Place LLC will administer the construction of the garage and urban park on behalf of the City and the City will pay the cost of designing and constructing the same at a cost not-to-exceed $6,800,000.” Of that, $770,000 was for the urban park, leaving about $6 million cost for the garage. The motion to approve the letter of intent passed with all council members except Michael O’Donnell voting in favor.

By the time the item appeared for consideration at the September 13, 2011 city council meeting, city documents gave the cost of the constructing the garage structure at an even $6 million. The motion to spend that amount on the garage passed with all members except O’Donnell voting in favor, except Brewer was absent and did not vote.

Then the city manager decided that the project should be put to competitive bid. Key Construction won that competition with a bid of about $4.7 million. Same garage, same company, but $1.3 million saved.

The Wichita Eagle tells the story like this: “The Ambassador garage at Douglas Place, awarded at $4.73 million to Key Construction — a partner in the hotel project and the project’s contractor — came in about 20 percent under estimates provided the City Council, on the heels of some city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled over budget.” (“Wichita City Council to consider bidding policy extension”, Wichita Eagle, Sunday, February 2, 2014)

Reading the Eagle story, citizens might conclude that due to excellent management by Key Construction, the garage was built at a 20 percent savings under “estimates.”

But that’s not at all what happened. It’s not even close to what really happened.

Without the intervention of O’Donnell, the city manager, and — according to press reports — city council member Pete Meitzner, the garage would have been built for $6 million. That was the intent of a majority of the council. The $6 million price tag for the no-bid contract was in the ordinance that passed, and in the letter of intent that passed a month before. There were no “estimates” as the Eagle reported. There was only the expressed desire of the council to spend $6 million.

So there were no “estimates” that Key Construction bested. But there was an objectionable no-bid contract that the council agreed to. Fortunately for Wichita, a few people objected and overrode the council’s bad decision.

We’re left to wonder why the Eagle retold the story with Key Construction in the role of hero. That’s about 180 degrees away from the role this company plays.

Key Construction is intimately involved in city politics. Its principals and executives contribute heavily to mayoral and city council election campaigns. Company president David Wells is a personal friend of the mayor.

Did Key’s political involvement and campaign contributions play a role in the council awarding the company a no-bid garage contract? Key Construction executives and their spouses are among a small group who routinely make maximum campaign contributions to candidates. These candidates are both liberal and conservative, which rebuts the presumption that these contributions are made for ideological reasons, that is, agreeing with the political positions of candidates. Instead, Key Construction and a few companies are political entrepreneurs. They seek to please politicians and bureaucrats, and by doing so, receive no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded benefits. This form of cronyism is harmful to Wichita taxpayers, as shown by the Ambassador Hotel garage.

The harm of pay-to-play

When it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. The Ambassador Hotel garage contract is just one example. Citizens are working on this initiative on several fronts. Some find the actions of these candidates so distasteful and offensive that they are willing to take to the streets to gather thousands of signatures to force the Wichita City Council to act in a proper manner.

That huge effort shouldn’t be necessary. Why? The politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t give to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a “pay-to-play” law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

There is a law, sort of

Citizens who believe that city council members ought not to vote on matters involving their friends and business associates, we already have such a law. Sort of. Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008 (full section below):

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

Mayor Carl Brewer voted for this law, by the way. When asked about a specific application of this city law, the Wichita city attorney supplied this interpretation:

Related to the Mayor’s participation in the item, yes, City Code advises Council members to “refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors. … ” but the Code does not provide definitions or limits to these broad categories of constituents. Further, the City Code clearly requires Council members to “vote on all matters coming before the City Council except in those particular cases of conflict of interest. …” The city Code does not define what constitutes a conflict but the Council has historically applied the State law for that definition.

Applying that State law specific to local municipalities, the Mayor does not have any substantial interest in Douglas Place LLC, and therefore no conflict. Under the State ethics law, there was no requirement that the Mayor recuse himself from voting on the Ambassador Project.

So we have statutory language that reads “shall refrain,” but the city attorney interprets that to mean “advises.”

We also have statutory language that reads “business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” But the city attorney feels that these terms are not defined, and therefore the mayor and city council members need not be concerned about compliance with this law. We’re left to wonder whether this law has any meaning at all.

Be advised: If you ask the mayor to adhere to this law, he may threaten to sue you.

If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Giving that impression, through, would be false — and unethical.

Here’s the Wichita city code:

Sec. 2.04.050. — Code of ethics for council members.

Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of such elected officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of such transactions. In addition to the matters of pecuniary interest, council members shall refrain from making use of special knowledge or information before it is made available to the general public; shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors; shall refrain from repeated and continued violation of city council rules; shall refrain from appointing immediate family members, business associates, clients or employees to municipal boards and commissions; shall refrain from influencing the employment of municipal employees; shall refrain from requesting the fixing of traffic tickets and all other municipal code citations; shall refrain from seeking the employment of immediate family members in any municipal operation; shall refrain from using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates; and shall comply with all lawful actions, directives and orders of duly constituted municipal officials as such may be issued in the normal and lawful discharge of the duties of these municipal officials.

Council members shall conduct themselves so as to bring credit upon the city as a whole and so as to set an example of good ethical conduct for all citizens of the community. Council members shall bear in mind at all times their responsibility to the entire electorate, and shall refrain from actions benefiting special groups at the expense of the city as a whole and shall do everything in their power to ensure equal and impartial law enforcement throughout the city at large without respect to race, creed, color or the economic or the social position of individual citizens.

WichitaLiberty.TV February 2, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A Kansas college professor claims that college costs are rising only a tad faster than inflation. We’ll take a look at the actual numbers. Then, this week Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered the annual State of the City address. A few things deserve comment. Episode 30, broadcast February 2, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

The state of Wichita, 2014

Wichita city hall

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered the annual State of the City address. He said a few things that deserve discussion.

This week Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered his annual State of the City address. We expect a certain amount of bragging and over-the-top community pride, things like “Wichita is the BEST place to work and raise a family!” That’s good, to a point. Because if we take these boasts seriously, and if they are not based on factual information, then we have a problem. We may believe that everything is fine in Wichita. But if the actual state of the city is otherwise, we may take unwise action that ultimately is harmful.

(While the city took prominent measures to promote the mayor’s speech, so far the text has not been made available on the city’s website. But you may click here to read it.)

Here’s an example, and perhaps the most important. The mayor said “Our community partnerships have helped us overcome the challenges of the great recession — which brought layoffs to many sectors of our economy.” But the problem is that we haven’t overcome the recession.

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

If we take a look at job growth in Wichita over the last two decades, we see Wichita performing very poorly. That’s not only on an absolute basis, but relative to our self-chosen peer cities. The relative part is important, because the recession was nation-wide. All cities suffered. Note that there are a few cities over which Wichita ranked higher: Springfield, Illinois, and Wichita Falls, Texas. These cities are relevant because we recently hired people from these cities to lead our economic development efforts.

wichita-chamber-job-growth-2013-12

I’ve shown data like this to the city council. I don’t think they believed me. I can understand their reluctance, as it’s not easy to admit things like this. Few like to admit failure. But that doesn’t excuse a reluctance to face facts. I also believe that some council members think that city hall critics take joy in presenting these figures. At least for me, that’s not true. I realize that these statistics tell a story of human hardship. So for those who don’t believe or trust my research, here’s a chart prepared by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce for a presentation to its leadership committee. It uses a different time frame and a slightly different set of peers for comparison, but the results are the same: Wichita lags behind in terms of job growth.

Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition

Despite this evidence, the mayor thinks we’re doing well, and he is proud of our economic development efforts. In his address, he told the audience this: “For the past five years — the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition has helped generate nearly 10,000 jobs and more than 400 million in capital investment.”

That sounds like a lot of jobs. But we have to temper that number. We know that we don’t update our job statistics to reflect jobs that didn’t last for very long. We also must realize that some of these jobs would have been created without the involvement of our economic development agencies. We also must realize that these economic development efforts have a cost, and that cost is harmful to our economy and job creation.

But even if we give our economic development agencies sole credit for these 10,000 jobs, let’s apply a little arithmetic to provide some context. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that the labor force in the Wichita Metropolitan area is about 302,000 people. that number, by the way, has been declining since 2009. If we take the 10,000 jobs — recognizing that was for five years — that averages to 2,000 jobs per year. That’s in the neighborhood of six percent of the labor force.

Does that represent a significant factor in the Wichita area economy? Remember, that calculation gives government more credit that it deserves. When we combine this with Wichita’s lackluster performance in creating jobs compared to our peers, I really don’t think we should be proud of our government’s economic development efforts.

In his State of the City Address, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer also said we need to “continue to diversify our economy.” But we’re not doing that. Our economic development programs heavily favor the aviation industry, which makes it more difficult for aspiring companies in other diverse industries to start and thrive.

wichita-airport-dashboard-2013-07-29

The mayor told the audience that “We will also continue to support our successful affordable airfares program.” This is the program whereby Wichita and the state of Kansas pay a discount airline to provide service in Wichita. It was AirTran, but is now Southwest. It is thought that if one airline has low fares, others will reduce their fares to match. That’s probably the case. But I’ve done the research, and there is another effect. As can be seen in the nearby chart, the number of flights and the number of available seats is declining in Wichita. These measures are also declining on a national level, but they are declining faster in Wichita than for the nation.

The mayor also asked for cooperation in using Southwest Airlines, advising the audience: “So when you make your corporate travel plans, please remember our community’s commitment to supporting low-cost carriers.” Well. How would you feel if you worked for one of our air carriers that don’t receive a subsidy, such as American, United, and Delta? How would you feel if you owned stock in one of these airlines, as does nearly everyone who holds broad-based index funds in their retirement or investment accounts?

In the past, the subsidized discount carrier has carried around ten percent of Wichita’s passengers. So we are vitally dependent on the legacy, or major, airlines, and we don’t need to insult them, as I believe the mayor did.

(To help you explore Wichita airport data, I’ve created an interactive visualization. Click here to open the visualization in a new window. You may add or remove any number of airports. Or, if you’d like to watch a video, click on Wichita Airport statistics: The video.)

Water was another topic that the mayor touched on. He told the audience: “The city has also invested in the second phase of the aquifer storage and recovery project known as ASR. New construction was completed in time to help with the drought. More than 100 million gallons were diverted from the little Arkansas River directly to customers.” 100 million gallons sounds like a lot of water. But what is the context? Well, 100 million gallons is about how much water we use on a single hot summer day.

And what about the ASR, or aquifer storage and recovery program? Its cost, so far for Phases I and II, is $247 million. Two more phases are contemplated. Despite this investment, and despite the plan’s boasts, Wichitans were threatened with huge fines for excessive water usage. The Wichita City Council also started a rebate program so that citizens were forced to pay for other people to buy low-water usage appliances. Expensive city decorative fountains were dry for a time.

Why were these measures necessary? A document created in March 2013 — that’s just as Wichita realized the city was running out of water — is titled “Wichita Area Future Water Supply: A Model Program for Other Municipalities.” It states: “In 1993 the Wichita City Council adopted an Integrated Local Water Supply Plan that identified cost effective water resources that would be adequate to meet Wichita’s water supply needs through the year 2050.” This squares with what former mayor Bob Knight recently told the Wichita Pachyderm Club, that when he was in office, Wichita had sufficient water for the next 50 years. He was told that about 10 years ago.

Just to give you an idea of how seriously we should take the claims made in speeches like this, here’s what the mayor told us in his 2009 State of the City Address: “We will continue work on the state-of-the art water supply system, known as the ASR project. It will provide the Wichita area with sufficient water for the next 50 years. Economic Development is not possible without an adequate water supply.” The mayor’s right. We need an adequate water supply. But it appears that despite huge expense and the boasts of city officials — including the mayor — we don’t have a secure water supply.

The mayor also addressed transit. He asked the community to answer a few questions, such as:

Should we have more stops to drop off and pick up riders?
Should we run later hours during the week and on the weekends?
Should we find new partners to extend our service area and help with costs?

The problem with questions like these are that citizens don’t have all the information needed to make an informed answer. Would we like to have more bus service? Who could answer no to such a question?

But if the mayor had told us that the cost per passenger mile for Wichita transit buses is 95 cents, or that only 30 percent of the operating costs are paid by fares, people might answer these questions differently. (That 30 percent would be lower if we included the cost of capital, that is, the cost of the buses.) And when the mayor asked citizens to weigh in at the Activate Wichita website: I looked, and there’s no topic for transit.

But even if citizens were informed of these costs, their answers are still not fully reliable. That’s because of the disconnect between the payment for the service and the actual bus service. Because so much of the cost of providing bus service is paid for someone else, we don’t really see the total cost of a bus trip. That’s often a problem with services provided by the government. Since someone else is paying, there’s not the same concern for receiving value as there is when people spend their own money.

activate-wichita-rate-this-idea

The Activate Wichita website, by the way. When citizens are asked to rate ideas, to express their approval or — well, that’s the problem. Your choices for voting on an idea are: “I Love It!” … “I Like It!” … “It’s OK.” … “Neutral.” That’s it. There’s no voting option for expressing disagreement or disapproval with an idea. “Neutral” is as much dissent as Wichitans are allowed to express in this system. On this system that city leaders say they rely on for gathering citizen input, there needs to be a voting selection that expresses disagreement or disapproval with an idea. Otherwise when votes are tallied, the worst that any idea can be is “neutral.” City planners may get a false impression that all these ideas a fine and dandy.

wichita-citizen-involvement-2012

On the topic of citizen involvement: The mayor also told us this: “A few weeks ago – the city launched the Office of Community Engagement.” That’s something that the city needs, based on data the city has gathered. The Wichita Performance Measures Report holds some data from a survey called the National Research Center National Citizen Survey. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart I created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question. The values for the last three administrations of the survey are between 35 percent and 39 percent. The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center. The report tells us that the city expects to re-survey citizens in 2014. For that year, the city has given itself the lofty target of 40 percent of citizens rating the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement as excellent or good. Maybe an Office of Community Engagement will help.

Last year the city conducted an extensive survey of residents. Of this survey, the mayor said: “We learned that more than 70% of our residents are willing to rise above their personal interests to do what’s best for the community.”

The problem with this is that it relies on the false concept of a conflict between personal interests and what is good for the community. In the marketplace, which is the opposite of government, people advance their self-interest in one legitimate way: By finding out the goods and services that others want, and then providing them. If you can do this well and efficiently, you can earn profits. It’s the quest for profits — that’s self interest — that drives people to figure out what others want, and then to work hard to provide that. Everyone benefits.

This quest for profits could, and should, apply to areas that are under the control of government. But people are so afraid that someone will earn a profit by serving their fellow man. Recently John Stossel spotlighted a park in New York City that is run by a private corporation with the aim of earning a profit. People are happy with the new park. They feel safe, even though the park doesn’t discriminate and still lets homeless people stay there. There’s commerce going on, selling food, for example. People like that, and evidence of that is the profit being earned. But Stossel’s guest was critical and unhappy because someone was earning a profit, even though park patrons were happy with the park and most were unaware of its private sector operation.

So when the park was operated by the city — for the common good, that is — not many people used it. It was dirty and trashy, and people didn’t feel safe. Under the profit motive, people like the park and they use it. So where is the conflict between personal interest and what is good for the community?

Now, not everything government does is bad. But when government dabbles in areas that the private sector can do very well, we see problems. As an example, the city wants to help real estate developers, but the city handled a recent situation so badly that the mayor apologized in his address, saying “We are also taking steps to ensure we have integrity and openness when we solicit proposals for development in the core area.”

Citizens that pay attention at city hall also note there are several small groups that contribute heavily to campaigns. Then the mayor and council members vote to give financial benefits to these people. These are not isolated incidents. This behavior is repeated over and over. Some cities have laws against this type of behavior. But in Wichita, while we’re being encouraged to put “what is good for the community” above our personal self-interest, we see city hall run over by cronyism. That is, by people using city government for their own interests. In the name of the “common good,” of course.

At the end of his speech, the mayor asked citizens to “get into the game,” saying: “We need you to be a player — not a spectator — to win a better and brighter tomorrow.”

But we’ve seen what happens when people want to be involved, but not in the way the mayor and council want. Do you remember the chart of airport data? Last year I presented that information to the city council. It so happened that Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn had appointed me to the Airport Advisory Board, and later in that same meeting the city council voted on my appointment. I was rejected. Only one council member voted in my favor. The Wichita Eagle reported: “Mayor Carl Brewer was clear after the meeting: The city wants a positive voice on the airport advisory board, which provides advice to the council on airport-related issues.” A positive voice is more valued than a critical voice, it seems.

Council members shall refrain 01

You may also remember how Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity testified at a meeting of the Wichita City Council. She cited a section of the Wichita City Code that says council members shall refrain from making decisions involving, among other things, friends and business associates. She asked the mayor to observe that part of the city code. But the mayor lashed out at Estes and others and threatened a lawsuit.

At least this year the mayor didn’t mention the importance of open and transparent government, as he usually does. Because based on Activate Wichita — where there is no disagreement allowed, to rejecting board appointments simply because someone might be critical of the city’s programs, to threatening those who ask the mayor and council members to follow the laws that they passed, to the city’s hostile attitude towards the citizen’s right to know: The message we get is this: The city welcomes your involvement, but only up to a point. Question the authority, and you’re not welcome.

That’s the state of Wichita government, that government to be distinguished from the many wonderful people who live here. We can be thankful for the difference.

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)

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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)

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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.

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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.

WichitaLiberty.TV January 5, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look back at a few problematic issues regarding ethical government in Wichita in 2013. Topics include: Campaign contributions, the timing of city and school board elections, Mayor Carl Brewer’s integrity and threats, the need for campaign finance reform, the firing of a television news reporter, the apparently non-transparent way the city formulates policy, and the useless feedback systems the city relies on. Episode 26, broadcast January 5, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

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: Worth higher taxes?

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita city and business leaders are likely to ask Wichitans to support a higher sales tax in order to support additional economic development efforts. Should Wichitans vote in favor of this? View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Another thing that a tax increase in Wichita might be used for is for economic development. That is, paying subsidies to companies so that they will provide jobs in Wichita.

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It’s felt that Wichita needs to step up its economic development efforts because things haven’t been going well lately. Not that everyone agrees. You’ve seen the charts I showed you, showing the growth of jobs in Wichita and also other economic indicators. When we compare Wichita with the nation as a whole and with our Visioneering peer cities, Wichita is almost always in last place. When I presented this data to the Wichita city Council, the Council members did not believe these numbers. So here’s a chart that was presented recently at a Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce meeting. It uses the same data source that I use, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and it shows the same data using the same methodology. It comes to the same conclusion: Wichita performs poorly.

Our chamber of commerce and its leadership will use this poor performance to argue that Wichita needs to spend more money on economic development. And that’s a problem.

Your chamber of commerce radio buttons
Very often, local chambers of commerce support principles of crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.

Now you may be confused. Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce, since their membership is mostly business firms, support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s not always the case. Here, in an excerpt from his Wall Street Journal article “Tax Chambers” Stephen Moore explains:

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

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

This is the argument that the Wichita Chamber of Commerce and the city council will be making: We don’t spend enough on business welfare. Capitalism and the free market: These things don’t work, they will tell us. Only government can save Wichita from decline. Business leaders will tell us we need more taxes for more spending on economic development. But be careful here:

There’s a difference between “business leaders” and “capitalists.”

Last year Charles Koch explained the difference in an article in the Wall Street Journal. He wrote:

“Far too many businesses have been all too eager to lobby for maintaining and increasing subsidies and mandates paid by taxpayers and consumers. This growing partnership between business and government is a destructive force, undermining not just our economy and our political system, but the very foundations of our culture.”

He continued:

“The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

In his article, Koch makes an important observation when he defines cronyism: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.”

You regular viewers know that we have a problem with cronyism in Wichita. This is exemplified by incidents like where a mayor votes to send millions of taxpayer dollars to a man who owns movie theaters, and then the mayor sells his barbeque sauce in those theaters. It’s when a real estate developer lists the mayor and city manager as business references when bidding for a city project and thinks that no one will care or notice. It’s when a city council member receives thousands in campaign contributions from an out-of-state construction company right at the time he votes to award a contract to that company. It’s when the city council votes to give over-priced no-bid construction contracts to their significant campaign contributors.

In other words, instead of allowing people to direct resources to where they believe they will be most useful, our local government direct resources to their cronies. Where it’s useful for their political careers.

I’m of the opinion that it has harmed Wichita’s economic growth. It’s one of the reasons why Wichita is the bottom line in the charts we’ve seen. But many of our business leaders, and almost all of our political leaders, propose more of the same.

That’s right. Instead of focusing on things like water and sewer pipes, government wants to raise taxes so that it can direct more of our economy. Having neglected our water and sewer infrastructure to the point where the mayor says we need to spend at the rate of $70 million dollars per year for the next 30 years, our city leaders are going to ask us for more tax money so that they can try to fix the Wichita economy.

Returning to Stephen Moore’s article. Here he quotes Jon Caldera of the Independence Institute. “I used to think that public employee unions like the National Education Association were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions. I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself ‘the business community’ and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations.”

Let’s ask our business and political leaders some questions. First, will we acknowledge Wichita’s poor economic performance, or will we continue to ignore the facts and statistics? Second: Will we realize that the cozy relationship between city hall and a small group of insiders — Wichita’s cronies, if you will — is harmful and corrosive? Third: Will we realize that free enterprise and capitalism work better than cronyism?

Wichita can advocate for government transparency, or not

Wichita City Hall

Government should be responsive to citizens when they make legitimate requests for records. Wichita should not hide behind non-profit entities and tortured interpretations of the law in order to keep records secret.

When the Wichita City Council considers renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, the council has another opportunity to decide whether it is truly in favor of open government and citizen access to records.

Go Wichita, along with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, contends that it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and most council members are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and action may be taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. We can call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

The legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking Go Wichita to act as though it was a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

It’s easy to bluster about open government. In one of his “State of the City” addresses, Mayor Brewer promoted the city’s efforts in accountability and transparency, telling the audience: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” Many other city documents mention transparency as a goal for the city.

Earlier this year, the city won an award for government transparency regarding the city’s website. In a statement, the city manager said the city “will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law.

Why open records are important

labette-community-college-donationHere’s an example as to why this issue is important: In 2009 Mike Howerter, a trustee for Labette Community College, noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Based on his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a political contribution. While it was determined that the college president committed no crime by making this political contribution using college funds, this is an example of the type of information that citizens may want regarding the way public funds are spent.

This is the type of information that I have requested. It is what is needed to perform effective oversight. It is what the City of Wichita has decided to avoid.

This item in the past

Two years ago I asked that the city council approve the contract with Go Wichita only after adding a provision that Go Wichita consider itself a public agency under the Kansas Open Records Act. Following are a few notes from the meeting (video may be viewed here or at the end of this article):

Discussion of this matter at the meeting reveals that city staff believes that the annual reports filed by Go Wichita along with periodic checks by city staff are sufficient oversight.

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Misunderstanding the scope of KORA

In remarks from the bench Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Is the city overwhelmed with records requests?

Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].”

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I have made one request this year to the city citing the open records act. It was denied. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to his concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is typical of elected officials — disdain for providing records to citizens. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent. The city should not hide behind non-profit entities and torture the law in order to keep records secret.

Wichita’s attitude towards citizens

Randy Brown’s remarks are an excellent summation of the morality and politics of the city’s action and attitude regarding this matter.

The council ought to be wary of taking legal advice from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf. He has been wrong several times before when issuing guidance to this council regarding the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which is similar to the Open Records Act. He’s taken the blame and apologized for these violations. He was quoted in the Wichita Eagle as saying “I will make every effort to further a culture of openness and ensure that like mistakes are avoided in the future.”

But Rebenstorf’s attitude, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the clear meaning and intent of the law.

Why city council members would be opposed to what I have asked is unknown. Perhaps they know that among the public, issues relating to open records generally aren’t that important. Citizens ought to note the actions of Mayor Brewer. The mayor could easily put this matter to an end. He speaks of wanting to have open and transparent government, but when it comes time to make a tough call, his leadership is missing.

It’s becoming evident that Kansans need a better way to enforce compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act. It seems quite strange that local district attorneys are placed in a quasi-judicial role of deciding whether citizen complains are justified. If citizens disagree — and nearly everyone I’ve talked to thinks that the opinion issued by the Sedgwick County District Attorney is this matter is nonsensical and contrary to the letter and spirit of the law — they find themselves in the position of suing their government. That is costly, and citizens soon realize their own taxpayer dollars are used against them.

Wichita logic open records

WichitaLiberty.TV November 24, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV.09In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Host Bob Weeks takes a look at proceedings of a Wichita City Council meeting and uses it to illustrate some of the reasons why the Wichita-area economy is not growing very rapidly. Episode 21, broadcast November 24, 2013. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita economic development, a few issues

wichita-chamber-commerce-2013-11-05What should we conclude when the incoming chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce uses the threat of moving his company out of Wichita to extort tax breaks from the Wichita City Council?

What lesson should we learn when the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce is likely to recommend higher taxes for Wichitans, but its incoming chair asks to be excused from paying these taxes?

What example do we establish when the incoming chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce asks for tax breaks on office space he will rent, thereby giving him an advantage over other downtown landlords that do pay their full share of taxes?

Should we ask how Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer will achieve his goal of building the tax base when people ask to be excused from contributing to that base?

These are some of the issues the council should weigh tomorrow. For more on this matter, see In Wichita, the case for business welfare.

Downtown Wichita tax base: Growing?

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There’s been much investment in downtown Wichita, we’re told, but the goal of increasing the tax base is farther away rather than closer.

Wichita city leaders have promoted public investment in downtown Wichita as wise because it will increase the tax base.

In his State of the City Address for 2013, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer told the audience (based on his prepared remarks):

As you know, revitalizing downtown has been a key part of growing our community in recent years, recognizing that a healthy and thriving downtown improves our ability to attract new business, keep our young people here, and expand our tax base. With $100 million in completed downtown projects in 2012 and another $115 million starting this year, we’ve made extraordinary progress toward having the downtown that Wichitans have dreamed of. … As development continues downtown, we are closer to reaching our goals of increased pride, an increased tax base, and bringing more businesses and jobs to Wichita.

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In its report on the economics of downtown Wichita redevelopment, the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation says:

The Downtown SSMID (Self Supported Municipal Improvement District — shown above) has seen a ten-year total amount of $396,850,538 in public investment and $564,776,159 in private investment. SSMID property values have increased over $300 million in the last ten years.

The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation sold the planning process to Wichitans by making the argument that “it will grow existing tax base revenues.”

Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID) boundary map

To evaluate the success of the city’s efforts, we might look at the change in assessed property valuation in downtown Wichita over past years. A way to do that is to look at the valuations for property in the Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID). This is a region of the city that pays an additional property tax to fund the activities of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Its boundaries are roughly the Arkansas River east to Washington, and Kellogg north to Central.

Assessed valuation is the basis for levying property tax. The process starts with an appraised value, which is targeted to be fair market value for the property. Then, that is multiplied by 25 percent for commercial property, or by 11.5 percent for residential property. This produces the assessed value. Multiply that by the sum of the several mill levy rates that apply to the property, and you have the total property tax for that property.

With all the new projects coming online in downtown Wichita, we should expect that the assessed valuation is rising. As someone converts an old, dilapidated property into something more valuable, appraised and assessed values should rise. As new buildings are built, new appraised and assessed value is created where before there was none (or very little). This process is the success story that Mayor Brewer and boosters of public investment in downtown trumpet, as the mayor did twice in one paragraph in his State of the City Address.

So what has happened to the assessed valuation of property in downtown Wichita, using the SSMID as a surrogate?

The answer is that after a period of increasing values, the assessed value of property in downtown has has been declining. The peak was in 2008. The nearby table holds the figures.

This is the opposite of what we’ve been promised. We’ve been told that public investment in downtown Wichita builds up the tax base.

Some might excuse this performance by noting there’s been a recession. That’s true. But according to presentations, there has been much activity in downtown Wichita. Hundreds of millions of dollars in worth, we are told.

So why isn’t the assessed valuation rising? Why is it falling during the time of huge successes?

Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID) assessed property valuation

Data can be viewed here.

Curious Wichita ethics enigmas

Wichita City Hall

As he has done previously, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer decided not to vote on a matter involving Spirit Aerosystems at the November 5, 2013 meeting of the Wichita City Council.

The mayor didn’t give a reason for recusing himself, but it’s probably because he was formerly an employee at Spirit. So it’s good that he did this. But if we’re going to observe ethics protocols like this — and we should — let’s do them correctly. The mayor should have announced at the start of this item that he had to recuse himself, and then he should have left the bench and probably also the council chambers. Instead, Brewer presided over the presentation and discussion of the item, and then stated he wouldn’t be voting. It’s a small matter, but we might as well do things right.

What is much more important — and curious — is this: Brewer feels he can’t vote on an item involving a company where he was an employee. But, he has no such compunction about voting on matters that send taxpayer money to his fishing buddy, even via no-bid contracts.

Even more curious: Brewer thought it was ethical to vote to send taxpayer money to the movie theater owner who also sells his barbeque sauce.

Add to this confusing mix of ethical judgment calls: The mayor feels he can’t shop for his personal automobile in Wichita because he doesn’t want to be accused of getting a “special deal,” in his words.

If someone can explain this line of reasoning by the mayor and/or the city, I’d appreciate being enlightened.

It’s good to know that this mayor is concerned about ethical behavior when shopping for a car or voting on matters concerning his former employer. But I’m surprised, as this concern for virtue doesn’t match the behavior of the mayor and many members of the Wichita City Council. Shall we run down the list?

Exhibit 1: In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. Both of these parties are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members. Brewer and the head of Key Construction are apparently friends, embarking on fishing expeditions.

What citizens need to know is that Brewer and the Wichita City Council were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. At the time, no city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Exhibit 2: In July 2012 Brewer participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. Brewer’s judgment was in favor of Key Construction, even though its bid had the same defect as the lower bid. This decision cost taxpayers and airport users an extra $2 million, to the benefit of a major campaign donor and fishing buddy.

Exhibit 3: In a Wichita Eagle story that reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget” we learned this: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.”

Despite this personal experience, Brewer wrote a letter recommending Key Construction (and only Key), observing “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.”

Exhibit 4: In 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to movie theater owner Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

Warren’s theaters have received other financial benefits from the city under Brewer’s leadership, too. Then — and I swear I am not making this up — when Brewer started manufacturing and selling barbeque sauce, it was sold at Warren’s theaters.

Really. It happened.

What can we say about a mayor who is concerned about the appearance of impropriety when voting on economic development incentives for his former employer, but is not able to understand the problems with his own behavior in office?

That he feels he needs to shop for a car outside the city, but at the same time has no problem voting for overpriced no-bid contracts for campaign contributors and friends?

That he feels he can’t vote to give a tax break to his former employer, but votes to give millions to a campaign contributor, and then sells his barbeque sauce in that person’s business?

It’s difficult to understand or reconcile these decisions.