Tag Archives: Carl Brewer

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer

Where is the downtown Wichita tax base?

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.

ssmid-investment-quote-2013

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.

WichitaLiberty.TV July 21, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks recommends the Crony Chronicals website and explains the harm of cronyism. Westar, our electric utility, is asking for a rate increase, and cronyism is part of the application. Finally, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer feels he can’t shop for his personal car in Wichita, but dishes out no-bid contracts and millions in subsidies to his cronies. Episode 5, broadcast July 21, 2013.

Concern over state office building decision politics

Speculation that politics might influence a decision over the location of State of Kansas offices is amusing, given that one of the players has a history of awarding campaign contributors and friends. Will he now advocate for keeping politics out of governmental decision-making?

When the State of Kansas said it is going to move offices from its downtown location, a local politician expressed concern to the Wichita Eagle:

“It raises a red flag,” says Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita). “I have a concern there is a history of the governor rewarding financial contributors with state contracts. I know he has contributors in Wichita that own (buildings) that fall into that category. … I don’t want that to be the reason we’re moving.”

In another Eagle article, Ward said his second priority is “to find out who owns the building where the departments may move ‘to make sure this isn’t going to help a political contributor.’”

I welcome Rep. Ward’s concern regarding politicians rewarding financial contributors with government contracts. Of course, he might have taken a moment to find out who actually owned the building before making charges of political payback.

It would be interesting to know if Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer shares Ward’s concern about political payback as he intervenes and tries to keep the state offices in their current location.

Will Brewer argue that the state should keep politics out of this decision? If so, this will be the same Carl Brewer who operates in this fashion:

Votes for no-bid overpriced contracts to political contributors: 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. Then Brewer was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to him and many other council members.

Sits in judgment of campaign contributors: 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.

Recommends his cronies, even when they’ve harmed city finances: 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 the city’s experience with this company, 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.”

warren-theater-brewers-best-bbq-sauce-small

Entangles business welfare and personal business: 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’s theaters have received other financial benefits from the city under Brewer’s leadership. Then when Brewer started manufacturing and selling barbeque sauce, it was sold at Warren’s theater.

Given this history, it’s difficult to imagine Brewer arguing that the office location decision should be made free from political considerations. His behavior — and that of some other council members as well — shows that making investments in Wichita politicians is highly lucrative.

This decision is being made in Topeka at the state level, not at Wichita City Hall. It’s still amusing, however, to see Rep. Ward express concern over political campaign contributions influencing Wichita government.

WichitaLiberty.TV July 14, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks explains the attitude of the Wichita City Council regarding ethical behavior and reports on incidents that illustrate the need for campaign finance reform and pay-to-play laws in Wichita and Kansas. Also, Bob notices a document produced this year titled “Wichita Area Future Water Supply: A Model Program for Other Municipalities” and wonders why the city boasts of expensive water projects and long-term planning at the same time it’s forcing an austerity campaign on its citizens. Episode 4, aired July 14, 2013.

The speck and the logs

car-lot-calls-cops-shopper-wichita-mayor

When Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer recently shopped for a car, it made the front page of the newspaper, and for a reason that doesn’t seem very newsworthy. Buried in the story, however, is a short passage that holds actual news. Carrie Rengers reports in the Wichita Eagle:

[Brewer] says he knows a lot of dealers in Wichita … but he says he has to be careful about trying to get a good deal while shopping in the city.

“I don’t want to be accused of getting any type of special deals or anything else,” he says. “You have that handful of people that’s always searching for some type of conspiracy.”

It’s good to know that this mayor is concerned about ethical behavior when shopping for a car. 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.

Do we need to 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-brewers-best-bbq-sauce-small

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 shopping for his personal automobile, 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’s worried that a car dealer might feel he can gain something by giving the mayor a “special deal,” 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 two behaviors: Hyper-sensitivity to ethics when buying his personal car, as contrasted to total numbness to unethical cronyism that is against the law in some states and cities.

Wichita personal income growth benchmark

When Visioneering Wichita recently presented its annual report to the Wichita City Council, Wichita City Council members received benchmark documents. Whether the mayor and council members actually looked at and considered these measurements is unknown.

We do know that Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, as memorialized in the official meeting minutes, praised Visioneering: “Mayor Brewer stated this is one of the smartest moves that the City of Wichita has done because it was the primary catalyst that pulled the public and the private together and laid out a vision for our City.”

Other council members also expressed enthusiastic approval for Visioneering.

As shown in Wichita job growth and Visioneering peers, the benchmark data for Wichita as compared to its peer cities shows poor relative performance of the Wichita economy. That article looked at job growth, which is one of the areas Visioneering is benchmarking.

Another area Visioneering benchmarks is per capita income. The chart provided by Visioneering is difficult to read and recognize emerging trends. I’ve prepared an interactive visualization of Wichita and the peer areas that Visioneering uses.

Wichita and peer per capita income, 1969 to 1989

To the left is a chart of Wichita and peer personal income per capita, from 1969 to 1989. (Click for a larger version.) During this time period, Wichita compares well to the peer metropolitan areas that Visioneering uses.

Wichita and peer per capita income, 1990 to 2011

To the left is a chart of of the same data, but from 1990 to 2011. (Click for a larger version.) It’s during this stretch that Wichita starts to fall behind its peers in per capita income, until finally Wichita ranks last in this measure, as it also does in job growth.

Soon Visioneering will make a presentation to members of the Sedgwick County Commission. Perhaps commissioners will ask a few questions about these benchmarks. If I were a commissioner, I might ask these questions:

Is Visioneering satisfied with the performance of Wichita, as measured by these benchmarks?

Is Wichita’s trend in these benchmarks moving in the right direction, or is Wichita falling farther behind?

Are these the correct benchmarks we should be using?

Is it possible that Visioneering is in fact making the Wichita economy better than it would be without Visioneering?

Does Visioneering need additional resources to fulfill its mission?

Visioneering News, captured June 5, 2013

On the Visioneering website, why are no future events listed? Are none planned?

On the Visioneering website, under the “News” section, is it true that there has been no news to post since August 2011 or September 2012 (there are two streams of news)?

Citizens might also wonder why no members of the Wichita City Council asked any questions like these.

Explore the data yourself by using the visualization below, or click here to open it in a new window, which may work better for some people. Use Ctrl+Click to highlight metropolitan areas for comparison. Data is from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public.

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?

Wichita job growth and Visioneering peers

Wichita has set ambitious goals in job growth, but it doesn’t seem that the Visioneering program has produced results. But apparently Wichita government officials are satisfied.

In 2004 Wichita leaders created Visioneering Wichita. The self-described goals of Visioneering are “To provide citizen input in developing our future, to facilitate communications so reality and perceptions are aligned, and to create a strategic plan that ensures a quality of life and encourages our young people to live, learn, work and play in our regional community.”

One of the benchmarks of Visioneering is “Exceed the highest of the annual percentage job growth rate of the U.S., Omaha, Tulsa, Kansas City and Oklahoma City.”

In May, Suzie Ahlstrand of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce presented Wichita City Council members with the benchmark documents, but didn’t elaborate on these in her presentation.

I can understand her reluctance to focus on these numbers. They’re not good.

We don’t know what the Wichita economy would look like in the absence of Visioneering. There’s no way to rewind and watch what would have happened had Visioneering not been created.

What we do know, however, is that the Wichita-area economy is not performing well. Consider job growth, since that is the first of Visioneering’s benchmarks. The chart Visioneering presented to council members is available here. It’s a difficult chart to read, and doesn’t lend to ready comparison of how Wichita is doing compared to our peers.

Following are charts I created from similar data. These charts are different from Visioneering’s in that they show the cumulative change in job growth from a starting point. My data goes back to 2001, and since the visualization is interactive, you may adjust the range of years.

Here is a static chart of job growth, considering all jobs. (Click for a larger version.)

Wichita and Peer Job Growth, Total Employment

Here is a static chart of job growth, this time considering only government jobs. (Click for a larger version.)

Wichita and Peer Job Growth, Government Employment

Can we be satisfied with this performance? Considering all jobs types, Wichita is in last place. There are those who might take comfort that when including government jobs, Wichita does better. But as growth in the government sector outpaces growth in the private sector, Wichita becomes less prosperous than if we were creating private sector jobs.

In the light of this, consider the reaction of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, as presented in the official minutes: “Mayor Brewer stated this is one of the smartest moves that the City of Wichita has done because it was the primary catalyst that pulled the public and the private together and laid out a vision for our City.”

Other council members also expressed enthusiastic approval for Visioneering. (For coverage of all council members’ reactions, see Wichita city council reacts to Visioneering presentation.)

We need to ask, however, these questions: First, were the mayor and council members aware of these job creation numbers? Second, if they were aware, are they satisfied with this performance?

Explore the data yourself by using the visualization below, or click here to open it in a new window, which may work better for some people. Use Ctrl+Click to highlight metropolitan areas for comparison. Data is from Bureau of Economic Analysis by way of U.S. Department of Labor. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public.

Wichita mayor said to be ‘under lockdown’

When Wichita ABC affiliate KAKE Television ran a news story critical of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, reporter Jared Cerullo wasn’t able to interview Brewer to get his reaction to his critics. The mayor refused to talk to Cerullo.

Jeff Herndon, KAKE Television news anchor, speaking at Wichita Pachyderm Club, May 17, 2013. Herndon is speaking for himself, and not on behalf of KAKE.

Speaking last week at the Wichita Pachyderm Club, KAKE news anchor Jeff Herndon said that KAKE has “repeatedly” tried to get an on-camera interview with Brewer. But the mayor is always busy, Herndon said: “They’ve got him on lockdown. He’s not going to answer that.”

Herndon was speaking for himself, and not for his employer. In his talk to the Pachyderms, he was critical of Wichita news media — both television and print — for not covering city government rigorously, telling the audience: “We need more reporters on that city government beat, and not just on decisions they make. We need to hold them accountable for the decision. We don’t do that.”

Brewer is sometimes mentioned as a candidate for higher office, perhaps challenging Kansas Governor Sam Brownback next year. Brewer’s term as mayor ends in April 2015. He is not eligible for election to another term as mayor because of Wichita’s term limits law.

KAKE Television news story: Controversy over hotel sales tax vote

Notes:

  • The KAKE news story referred to is Wichita Mayor Scrutinized For Controversial Vote. Both text and video are available.
  • On his radio program, Joseph Ashby had an interesting take on Herndon’s remarks and Wichita new media.
  • Video of the city council meeting that was the subject of the KAKE news story is here.
  • Explanation of the public policy angle that drove citizens to testify at the April 16 city council meeting is here.
  • The original article that identified the problem and to solutions is Pay-to-play laws are needed in Wichita and Kansas. In that article I wrote: “When one looks at the candidates these people contribute to, you notice that often there’s no commonality to the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some people contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. Then, when these people appear in the news after having received money from the Wichita City Council, it snaps into place: These campaign donors are not donating to those whose ideals they agree with. They’re donating so they can line their own pockets.”

Joseph Ashby on local news media, anti-conservative bias

Wichita city hall logoLast week KAKE Television news anchor Jeff Herndon addressed the Wichita Pachyderm Club. Today, on the Joseph Ashby Show, the host commented on Herndon’s views on Wichita news media, and drew some conclusions about anti-conservative bias in Wichita news media.

Joseph Ashby Show, May 23, 2013 (excerpt).

The KAKE Television news story referred to is Wichita mayor comes under scrutiny for controversial vote.

Starwood calls on Wichita

Office worker using telephone and computer

This Tuesday the Wichita City Council considers economic development incentives to Starwood Hotels & Resorts for a call center to open in Wichita.

Besides the usual problems with cronyism and corporate welfare (see Wichita-area economic development policy changes proposed for explanation of some problems), there are a few issues to consider regarding this item.

First, the site where the Starwood call center will be located is owned by Max Cole. He and his wife are significant campaign contributors to Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita). Under the concept of pay-to-play laws that Wichita needs, Clendenin should refrain from voting on this matter.

Second, a table of salaries supplied in the agenda packet makes an implied promise that probably won’t be kept. The table shows numbers of jobs (actually full-time equivalents), the hourly pay rate, and the annual wage. The annual wage, in all cases, is 2,080 times the hourly rate, meaning it is assumed that workers will work 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year.

Information from the Kansas Department of Commerce offers more detail. Initially, 495 full-time and 55 part-time jobs will be created. In year five, the total will be 860 full-time and 95 part-time total. There is also this notation: “The company will pay at least 50% of employee health insurance benefits.”

As you may be aware, one of the provisions of Obamacare is that if employees work over 30 hours per week, the employer must provide health insurance or be fined. As a result, many companies across the county are scaling back weekly work hours to less than 30.

We ought to ask if Starwood intends to hire employees who will work 40 hours per week, if they want to. Will the liberals on the Wichita City Council — Mayor Carl Brewer, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), and Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) — ask that Starwood operate under the standards of Obamacare? The table presents data as “full-time equivalents,” which provides room for Starwood to go either way.

Starwood is asking for a forgivable loan of $200,000 from Wichita, and another of the same amount from Sedgwick County. I asked the Kansas Department of Commerce if it would reveal the programs and incentives that Starwood will receive from the State of Kansas. It would not supply that information at this time, but I obtained the information by another means. The state describes its offer to Starwood as worth “up to $1,583,272.” Of this, $750,000 would be in the form of direct cash grants.

Here is a link to the relevant pages from the Wichita city council agenda: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Economic Development Incentive Agreement with City of Wichita, Kansas. Also, from the Department of Commerce: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Economic Development Incentives offered by State of Kansas.

Governing by extortion destroys freedom

By Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute.

Government takes and gives

Merriam-Webster defines extortion as the “… exaction of money or property through intimidation or undue exercise of authority.” It’s illegal for individuals or corporations to engage in extortion, but some governments are increasingly using forms of extortion to exact higher taxes, make citizens more dependent upon government and ultimately, strip away economic and political freedom.

Government intimidation may not come with Soprano-like threats of violence. Some government officials may not even realize they are extorting the populous — the practice of presenting the government solution as the only option has become that commonplace. But no matter how politely or subtly phrased, the message is “give us what we want or else …” The “or else” comes in many forms.

The federal government punishes citizens with flight delays and service cuts to senior citizens while continuing to lavish taxpayer money on favored political friends and countless other examples of waste and duplication. The federal government will either get to borrow and spend as much as it wants or innocent citizens will pay the price.

Some state officials in Kansas want to extend a temporary sales tax and/or take away deductions for home mortgage interest and property taxes. They say it’s necessary to avoid massive budget deficits that would de-fund schools and services. The message is that higher taxes are the only alternative, when in fact they could choose to bring down the cost of government services and stop giving out corporate welfare in the name of economic development.

University officials in Kansas say they will raise tuition, eliminate professors, and restrict student admissions if state aid is even slightly reduced. They say nothing of reducing administrative costs that rose three times faster than inflation or using large cash reserves that accumulated from a 137 percent increase in tuition and fees over the last ten years. Give them what they want or students, parents, and staff will suffer.

Local governments routinely tell citizens that taxes must be increased to avoid police and fire layoffs, pool closings and other direct service reductions. Why not consolidate overlapping government programs and bureaucracy instead of raising taxes? Or maybe stop giving taxpayer money away to friendly developers who support the growth of government and help underwrite campaigns for public office?

Our state and nation were founded on the principles of freedom and limited government. Yet those who stand in defense of freedom are often met with ridicule. Carl Brewer, the Mayor of Wichita, recently issued a thinly veiled threat to sue a woman for asking him to recuse himself from a vote to give a $700,000 sales tax exemption to a campaign contributor (and fishing buddy). A columnist for the Hutchinson News falsely blamed those who want less government intrusion in our lives for poverty, high property taxes and other woes as opposed to following his prescription for progressive, big government solutions.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Government exists for the interests of the governed, not for the governors.” Some in our state seems to have forgotten that and are working to prove another of his maxims, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”

Citizens must be persistent and vocal in reminding elected officials of the former or we shall continue to suffer the loss of liberty.

Without government, there would be no change: Wichita Mayor

It’s worse than President Obama saying “You didn’t build that.” Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer tells us you can’t build that — not without government guidance and intervention, anyway.

City of Wichita logoWhen President Barack Obama told business owners “You didn’t build that,” it set off a bit of a revolt. Those who worked hard to build businesses didn’t like to hear the president dismiss their efforts.

Underlying this episode is a serious question: What should be the role of government in the economy? Should government’s role be strictly limited, according to the Constitution? Or should government take an activist role in managing, regulating, subsidizing, and penalizing in order to get the results politicians and bureaucrats desire?

Historian Burton W. Folsom has concluded that it is the private sector — free people, not government — that drives innovation: “Time and again, experience has shown that while private enterprise, carried on in an environment of open competition, delivers the best products and services at the best price, government intervention stifles initiative, subsidizes inefficiency, and raises costs.”

But some don’t agree. They promote government management and intervention into the economy. Whatever their motivation might be, however it was they formed their belief, they believe that without government oversight of the economy, things won’t happen.

But in Wichita, it’s even worse. Without government, it is claimed that not only would we stop growing, economic progress would revert to a previous century.

Mayor Carl Brewer made these claims in a 2008 meeting of the Wichita City Council.

In his remarks (transcript and video below), Brewer said “if government had not played some kind of role in guiding and identifying how the city was going to grow, how any city was going to grow, I’d be afraid of what that would be. Because we would still be in covered wagons and horses. There would be no change.”

When I heard him say that, I thought he’s just using rhetorical flair to emphasize a point. But later on he said this about those who advocate for economic freedom instead of government planning and control: “… then tomorrow we’ll be saying we don’t want more technology, and then the following day we’ll be saying we don’t want public safety, and it won’t take us very long to get back to where we were at back when the city first settled.”

Brewer’s remarks are worse than “You didn’t build that.” The mayor of Wichita is telling us you can’t build that — not without government guidance and intervention, anyway.

Many people in Wichita, including the mayor and most on the city council and county commission, believe that the public-private partnership is the way to drive innovation and get things done. It’s really a shame that this attitude is taking hold in Wichita, a city which has such a proud tradition of entrepreneurship. The names that Wichitans are rightly proud of — Lloyd Stearman, Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, W.C. Coleman, Albert Alexander Hyde, Dan and Frank Carney, and Fred C. Koch — these people worked and built businesses without the benefit of public-private partnerships and government subsidy.

This tradition of entrepreneurship is disappearing, replaced by the public-private partnership and programs like Visioneering Wichita, sustainable communities, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP), and rampant cronyism. Although when given a chance, voters are rejecting cronyism.

We don’t have long before the entrepreneurial spirit in Wichita is totally subservient to government. What can we do to return power to the people instead of surrendering it to government?

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, August 12, 2008:

“You know, I think that a lot of individuals have a lot of views and opinions about philosophy as to, whether or not, what role the city government should play inside of a community or city. But it’s always interesting to hear various different individuals’ philosophy or their view as to what that role is, and whether or not government or policy makers should have any type of input whatsoever.

“I would be afraid, because I’ve had an opportunity to hear some of the views, and under the models of what individuals’ logic and thinking is, if government had not played some kind of role in guiding and identifying how the city was going to grow, how any city was going to grow, I’d be afraid of what that would be. Because we would still be in covered wagons and horses. There would be no change.

“Because the stance is let’s not do anything. Just don’t do anything. Hands off. Just let it happen. So if society, if technology, and everything just goes off and leaves you behind, that’s okay. Just don’t do anything. I just thank God we have individuals that have enough gumption to step forward and say I’m willing to make a change, I’m willing to make a difference, I’m willing to improve the community. Because they don’t want to acknowledge the fact that improving the quality of life, improving the various different things, improving bringing in businesses, cleaning up street, cleaning up neighborhoods, doing those things, helping individuals feel good about themselves: they don’t want to acknowledge that those types of things are important, and those types of things, there’s no way you can assess or put a a dollar amount to it.

“Not everyone has the luxury to live around a lake, or be able to walk out in their backyard or have someone come over and manicure their yard for them, not everyone has that opportunity. Most have to do that themselves.

“But they want an environment, sometimes you have to have individuals to come in and to help you, and I think that this is one of those things that going to provide that.

“This community was a healthy thriving community when I was a kid in high school. I used to go in and eat pizza after football games, and all the high school students would go and celebrate.

“But, just like anything else, things become old, individuals move on, they’re forgotten in time, maybe the city didn’t make the investments that they should have back then, and they walk off and leave it.

“But new we have someone whose interested in trying to revive it. In trying to do something a little different. In trying to instill pride in the neighborhood, trying to create an environment where it’s enticing for individuals to want to come back there, or enticing for individuals to want to live there.

“So I must commend those individuals for doing that. But if we say we start today and say that we don’t want to start taking care of communities, then tomorrow we’ll be saying we don’t want more technology, and then the following day we’ll be saying we don’t want public safety, and it won’t take us very long to get back to where we were at back when the city first settled.

“So I think this is something that’s a good venture, it’s a good thing for the community, we’ve heard from the community, we’ve seen the actions of the community, we saw it on the news what these communities are doing because they know there’s that light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve seen it on the news. They’ve been reporting it in the media, what this particular community has been doing, and what others around it.

“And you know what? The city partnered with them, to help them generate this kind of energy and this type of excitement and this type of pride.

“So I think this is something that’s good. And I know that there’s always going to be people who are naysayers, that they’re just not going to be happy. And I don’t want you to let let this to discourage you, and I don’t want the comments that have been heard today to discourage the citizens of those neighborhoods. And to continue to doing the great work that they’re doing, and to continue to have faith, and to continue that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that there is a value that just can’t be measured of having pride in your community and pride in your neighborhood, and yes we do have a role to be able to help those individuals trying to help themselves.”

Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense is important, even today

Proper attention given to the depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita recognizes and accounts for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena.

Sedgwick County Working for You

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

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

This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. For 2102, the accounting method used in this agreement produced a profit of $703,000, to be split (not equally) between SMG and the county.

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

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

A much better reckoning of the economics of the Intrust Bank Arena can be found in the county’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for 2012. It states: “The Arena had an operating loss of $4.8 million. The loss can be attributed to $5.3 million in depreciation expense.”

Depreciation expense is not something that is paid out in cash. Sedgwick County didn’t write a check for the $5.3 million in depreciation expense. Instead, it provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets over their lifespan. It provides a way to recognize opportunity costs, that is, what could be done with our resources if not spent on the arena.

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

The contention of Unruh and other arena boosters such as the Wichita Eagle editorial board is that the capital investment of $183,625,241 (not including an operating and maintenance reserve) on the arena is merely a historical artifact, something that happened in the past, something that has no bearing today. This attitude, however, disrespects the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to raise those funds.

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

Without frank and realistic discussion of numbers like these and the economic facts they represent, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information. This is especially important as civic leaders such as Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer ask for a dedicated revenue stream for economic development, or for another sales tax or other taxes to pay for more public investment.

Joseph Ashby Show: Mayor Carl Brewer and cronyism

Today on the Joseph Ashby Show, the host had a few comments regarding a television news story about Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. An excerpt follows.

Joseph Ashby Show, April 23, 2013 (excerpt)

The KAKE TV news story referred to may be seen here. Background on this issue is here.

In Wichita, economic development policies are questioned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, incorrectly, deflects attention

Wichita City Hall SignWhen Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer was asked to refrain from voting on a matter when he has a relationship with one of the parties that will benefit from his vote, here’s what the mayor said:

“What you’re basing your information on is basically what’s been disclosed on Mr. Weeks’ website, and for his information I think he needs to get it correct. I’ve never been to the Caribbean, and most people ask me can’t he tell that that’s Lake Texoma. So I start questioning those types of things.” (Video is here.)

On his radio show, Joseph Ashby deconstructed Brewer’s remarks. Audio is here, and it’s worth listening to.

Regarding the mayor’s remarks quoted above: First, I never reported that the photograph of the mayor was taken at any location. I didn’t know where the photo was taken until the mayor said Lake Texoma at Tuesday’s council meeting. Last year I asked the mayor by email that and other questions regarding this photograph, but he chose not to respond.

Clinton Coen reports the Wichita Post published that the picture was taken in the Caribbean. As far as I know, the Wichita Post is owned by Wichita businessman Craig Gabel. Some time ago I gave that newspaper blanket permission to use my material, just as I always grant permission for any newspaper, blog, radio station, television station, think tank, advocacy group, or website to use my material. I don’t have editorial control over what they do with the material, and the mere fact that my content appears somewhere does not mean that I endorse or approve of its use.

So if the mayor has quibbles with facts that someone reported, let him direct his criticism at the responsible outlet.

But here’s the real problem with Mayor Brewer’s remarks, from Ashby on his radio show: “What does it matter how we found out about it?” And does it matter whether the mayor vacations with someone in the Caribbean or Lake Texoma?

The important fact is that on Tuesday Brewer voted to give his significant campaign contributors and fishing buddy $703,017. That’s what the mayor tried to deflect attention away from.

Ambassador Hotel Industrial Revenue Bonds

The City of Wichita should not approve a measure that is not needed, that does not conform to the city’s policy (based on relevant information not disclosed to citizens), and which is steeped in cronyism.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider authorizing industrial revenue bonds (IRB) for the Ambassador Hotel project in downtown Wichita.

In most cases, the major benefit of IRBs is exemption from paying property taxes. Since the Ambassador Hotel is located within a tax increment financing (TIF) district, it’s not eligible for property tax abatement. (Because of the TIF, the developers have already achieved the diversion of the majority of their property tax payments away from the public treasury for their own benefit.)

Instead, in this case the benefit of the IRBs, according to city documents, is an estimated $703,017 in sales tax that the hotel won’t have to pay.

The Ambassador Hotel has benefited from many millions of taxpayer subsidy, both direct and indirect. So it’s a good question as to whether the hotel deserves another $703,017 from taxpayers.

But if we follow the city’s economic development policy, the city should not authorize the IRBs. Here’s why.

The Sedgwick County/City of Wichita Economic Development Policy states: “The ratio of public benefits to public costs, each on a present value basis, should not be less than 1.3 to one for both the general and debt service funds for the City of Wichita; for Sedgwick County should not be less than 1.3 overall.”

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

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

The same 2.62 to one ratio is cited as a positive factor in the material prepared by the city for Tuesday’s meeting.

So far, so good. 2.62 is greater than the 1.3 that city policy requires. But the policy applies to both the general fund and the debt service fund. So what is the impact to the debt service fund? Here’s the complete story from the WSU CEDBR report (the report may be viewed at Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research Study of Ambassador Hotel):

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

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

Furthermore, the cost of the Ambassador Hotel subsidy program to the general fund is $290,895, while the cost to the debt service fund is $7,077,831 — a cost factor 23 times as large. That’s why even though the general fund impact is positive, the negative impact of the much larger debt service fund cost causes the overall impact to be unfavorable.

The city didn’t make this negative information available to the public in 2011, and it isn’t making it available now. It was made public only after I requested the report from WSU CEDBR. It is not known whether council members were aware of this information when they voted in 2011.

So the matter before the council this week doesn’t meet the city’s economic development policy standards. It’s not even close.

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

A note: The policy cited above was passed in August 2012, after the Ambassador Hotel incentives package passed. But the 1.3 to one threshold was de facto policy before then, and whether a proposed incentive package met that standard was often a concern for council members, according to meeting minutes.

Timing and campaign contributions

Citizens might wonder why industrial revenue bonds are being issued for a hotel that’s complete and has been operating for over three months. The truly cynical might wonder why this matter is being handled just two weeks after the city’s general election on April 2, in which four city council positions were on the ballot. Would citizens disagree with giving a hotel $703,017 in sales tax forgiveness? Would that have an effect on the election?

Campaign contributions received by James Clendinin from parties associated with Key Construction. Clendenin will vote tomorrow whether to grant sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017 to some of these donors.Campaign contributions received by James Clendinin from parties associated with Key Construction. Clendenin will vote tomorrow whether to grant sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017 to some of these donors. (Click for larger view.)

Combine this timing with the practice of part of the hotel’s ownership team of engaging in cronyism at the highest level. Dave Burk and the principals and executives of Key Construction have a history of making campaign contributions to almost all city council candidates. Then the council rewards them with overpriced no-bid contracts, sweetheart lease deals, tax abatements, rebates of taxes their customers pay, and other benefits. The largesse dished out for the Ambassador Hotel is detailed here. This hotel, however, was not the first — or the last time — these parties have benefited from council action.

Campaign contributions received by Lavonta Williams from parties associated with Key Construction. Williams will vote tomorrow whether to grant sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017 to some of these donors.Campaign contributions received by Lavonta Williams from parties associated with Key Construction. Williams will vote tomorrow whether to grant sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017 to some of these donors. (Click for larger view.)

Campaign finance reports filed by two incumbent candidates illustrate the lengths to which Key Construction seeks to influence council members. Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received a total of $7,000 from Key Construction affiliates in 2012. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. For Williams, these were the only contributions she received in 2012.

A table of campaign contributions received by city council members and the mayor from those associated with the Ambassador Hotel is available here.

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer will vote tomorrow whether to grant a company Wells is part owner of sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017.

This environment calls out for campaign finance reform, in particular laws that would prohibit what appears to be the practice of pay-to-play at Wichita City Hall.

There was a time when newspapers crusaded against this type of governance. Unfortunately for Wichitans, the Wichita Eagle doesn’t report very often on this issue, and the editorial board is almost totally silent. Television and radio news outlets don’t cover this type of issue. It’s left to someone else to speak out.

Wichita economic development and the election

Ballot box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita downtown tax base: Rising?

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.

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?

More research is needed.

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

Data can be viewed here.

Downtown Wichita economic development numbers questioned

When the Wichita City Council recently received the 2012 Project Downtown Annual Report, a city council member took the opportunity to question and clarify some of the facts and figures presented in the report.

Wichita Project Downtown Annual Report 2012

In his questions, Wichita City Council Member Paul Gray (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) asked whether the amount of public investment presented did, in fact, include all public investment.

In his answer, Scott Knebel, who is Downtown Revitalization Manager, said no, not all forms of public investment were included in the figures presented in the report. He told the council that an analysis is being prepared, perhaps to be available in May.

Gray urged Knebel to be more forthcoming when reporting on the level of public investment in order to gain a better level of community buy-in: “If you truly want a greater level of community buy-in, being as forthcoming as we can with the financial analysis of these projects and truly demonstrating what we as a community are putting in through all the different public financing mechanisms available. You may not persuade the people who don’t like public participation in projects — you’re not going to change their viewpoints by that and I don’t expect you to — but the difference is you may get more trust and buy-in from the community that thinks you’re not being forthcoming and honest with them.”

Regarding Wichita news media, Gray said the media may say “‘See, it’s a 90 percent private funded ratio versus 10 percent’ which is not really the case. We’re skewing actual numbers to demonstrate our successes downtown, but I think our successes downtown speak for themselves.”

Knebel and Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President Jeff Fluhr promised to be more forthcoming with investment figures in the future.

Gray also asked about the city’s practice of building retail space and practically giving it away to developers, who can then lease the space and earn outsized returns at taxpayer expense. I reported this at the time this lease was under consideration by the city council:

According to a letter of intent approved by the city council — and sure to become law after a public hearing at a meeting of the Wichita City Council on September 13th — the city is planning to build about 8,500 square feet of retail space in a downtown parking garage. The garage is being built, partly, to serve a hotel Burk and partners are developing.

Here are the details of the deal Burk and his partners are getting from the taxpayers of Wichita: The city plans to lease this space to Burk and $1.00 per year. Not $1.00 per square foot, but $1.00 for the entire space — all 8,500 square feet.

That’s the plan for the first five years. For the next 10, the city would charge $21,000 rent per year, which is a rate of about $2.50 per square foot.

For years 15 through 20, the rent increases to $63,000, or $7.41 per square foot. At the end of this period, Burk will have the option of purchasing the space for $1,120,000, which is a cost of about $132 per square foot.

That cost of $132 per square foot is within the range of what sources in the real estate industry tell me top-quality retail space costs to build in Wichita, which is from $130 to $140 per square foot. Rents asked for that space would be from $15 to $18 per square foot per year.

Using the low figure, Burk could expect to collect about $127,500 in annual rent on space he rents for $1.00, leaving a gross profit of $127,499 for him. As the $15 rent is a net figure, Burk’s tenants will pay taxes, insurance, and maintenance.

Wichita city manager Robert Layton answered Gray by saying that real estate leasing is not an area of the city’s expertise.

Without Gray’s questions, these important matters of public policy would likely not have been brought to public attention. For mentioning these topics, Gray was — in an attempt at humor by Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) — branded as “Debby Downer.”

Citizens might expect that as millions in public funds are invested, someone in city hall is keeping track, and that there is a plan for reporting these numbers. Citizens should ask why Mayor Brewer, City Manager Layton, and current council members are not concerned that there appears to be no such plan for accountability.

The notion of reporting that there was only $10.7 million in “public projects” in 2012 is absurd. Just one project, the Ambassador Hotel, received $15,407,075 in taxpayer funds to get started, and then was slated to receive $321,499 per year for the first five years, with smaller amounts for 22 years. Wichita voters rejected a small part of the ongoing subsidy, but the rest remained.

As to city manager Layton’s answer that the city is not experience in real estate leasing, my response is well, why then did you get involved? It’s not the first time the city has made such a sweetheart lease deal with some of the same parties. It’s become almost routine, as I reported at the time this lease was being considered:

While most citizens might be shocked at the many layers of subsidy offered to Burk, he’s accustomed to such treatment. In 2003, the city offered a similar deal to Burk and his partners for retail space that is part of the Old Town Cinema project. That deal was made with Cinema Old Town, LLC, whose resident agent is David Burk. According to the Wichita Eagle, other partners in this corporation include Wichita theater owner Bill Warren, real estate agent Steven Barrett, Key Construction and seven others.

David Wells, one of the owners of Key Construction, is a partner with Burk on the new hotel project, and Key is slated to build the garage under a process that doesn’t require competitive bidding, even though city money is used to pay for it. Note: Later the garage was put out for competitive bid.

The Old Town project let Burk and his partners lease 17,500 square feet of retail space from the City of Wichita for $1.00 per year for the first five years. Like the proposed project, that’s not $1.00 per square foot, but $1.00 per year for all 17,500 square feet.

I wonder: Is the fact that these parties — Burk, Key Construction, Bill Warren — are reliable campaign contributors to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members, does that mean anything?

Wichita Eagle reporting on this meeting is at City Council member Paul Gray questions numbers by Wichita Downtown Development.

In Wichita, Jeff Longwell has the solution to cronyism

Wichita City Hall Sign

At a recent Wichita City Council meeting, Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) was critical of topics broached by two speakers, admonishing them to “take a different approach.”

The speakers had mentioned votes made and actions taken by the council and the appearance of influence or linkage to campaign contributions.

Longwell’s concern is understandable. As perhaps the most accomplished practitioner of cronyism on the council, he’s dished out millions in taxpayer subsidy to his significant campaign contributors. His acceptance of campaign contributions last summer from a Michigan construction company that had business before the council lifted cronyism to new heights.

After that, I thought that we wouldn’t ever see a more blatant instance of the appearance of impropriety. That is, until Mayor Carl Brewer started selling his barbeque sauce at a movie theater he’s voted to grant taxpayer subsidy to, several times.

These incidents are embarrassing for Wichita. So I can understand that Longwell doesn’t want them mentioned in public. I’m sure that’s what he would prefer.

That’s why it’s surprising that he would speak out at a council meeting. Why call additional attention to your bad behavior?

I think I know the answer: It is not possible to shame Longwell, Brewer, and most other council members. They believe their conduct is honest, forthright, and above reproach. They believe it is their critics who are harming the city’s reputation.

But in many cities, the routine practice of most Wichita City Council members would be a violation of the city’s ethics code, or even of city law. An example is from Westminster, Colorado. Its charter reads:

The acceptance or receipt by any Councillor or member of that Councillor’s immediate family, or an organization formed to support the candidacy of that Councillor, of any thing of value in excess of one-hundred dollars ($100) from any person, organization, or agent of such person or organization, shall create a conflict of interest with regard to that Councillor’s vote on any issue or matter coming before the Council involving a benefit to the contributing person, organization, or agent, unless such interests are merely incidental to an issue or question involving the common public good.

In commenting on this ordinance, CityEthics.org noted:

Westminster goes right to the heart of the matter — not the contribution itself, which is central to citizens’ expressions of their political preferences — but the effect of the other sort of contribution, the large contribution intended, possibly, not only to express a political preference (or not even, since often large contributions are given to both or all candidates by the same individual or entity), but also to influence the candidate.

If the contribution was not intended to influence the candidate, then the contributor won’t mind that the candidate cannot participate or vote on any matter dealing with the contributor’s interests. In addition, the candidate will not be placed in the position of appearing to favor someone who gave him or her a sizeable contribution or — and this is certainly possible if the candidate is truly independent — having to vote against a strong supporter. It’s a win-win situation for everyone, so long as there was no intent to influence.

In Wichita, we don’t have any laws or codes of ethics that prohibit or discourage what Westminster, Colorado does. We don’t even have many council members who think these are desirable.

Instead, the solution preferred by Wichita’s political class is to follow Jeff Longwell’s advice: Just don’t talk about it.

Troubling incidents involving Council Member Jeff Longwell

In August 2011 the 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.

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. In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table complied from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member, led the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project: $6,000. When Longwell ran for Sedgwick County Commission this summer, these parties donated generously to that campaign, too.

What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was 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. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Then, last summer while Longwell was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission, campaign contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance reports. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Why should we in Wichita care if they do?

These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.

On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently 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.

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. Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members.

When asked about the Michigan contributions, Longwell stated “We often get contributions from a wide variety of sources, including out-of-town people,” according to the Wichita Eagle.

But analysis of Longwell’s July 30, 2012 campaign finance report shows that the only contributions received from addresses outside Kansas are the Walbridge contributions from Michigan, which contradicts Longwell’s claim. Additionally, analysis of ten recent campaign finance reports filed by Longwell going back to 2007 found only three contributions totaling $1,500 from addresses outside Kansas.

Hawker job numbers a lesson in economic development

Hawker 1000 exterior

In December 2010, the State of Kansas, City of Wichita, and Sedgwick County teamed to offer economic development incentives to Wichita-based Hawker Beechcraft. The incentives were offered not to create new jobs, but to retain existing jobs.

Economic development officials took credit for saving 4,000 jobs. Now that Hawker employment has fallen to 3,372, will we update our economic development scorecard?

Past practice suggests we won’t. I can imagine officials arguing that after all, these jobs were preserved for between one and two years. Also, the amount of subsidy Hawker will receive is trimmed a little as a result of the reduced employment.

In his State of the City address in January 2011, just after the Hawker deal was reached, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer told the audience that “We responded to the realities of the new economy by protecting and stabilizing jobs in the aviation industry.”

Later he added “The deal with Hawker Beechcraft announced last December keeps at least 4,000 jobs and all existing product lines in Wichita until at least 2020.”

Well, not quite. Now there are 15.7 percent fewer jobs than the mayor promised. The news that Hawker will shed its business jet line means the loss of a product line, and probably more lost jobs.

There’s no joy in reporting this news. People have been hurt. Investors have lost money. Sadly, it’s quite certain that Wichita will not learn from this sad news, as Mayor Brewer and others want to double down on the strategy of targeted economic development investment. Brewer called for a dedicated funding source for this in his State of the City address delivered yesterday.

The danger we in Kansas, and specifically the Wichita area, face is the overwhelming urge of politicians to be seen doing something. We see this now in the call for more spending on economic development. In response to the departure of Boeing last year, Brewer called for the community to “launch an aggressive campaign of job recruitment and retention.”

It is likely that we will become susceptible to large-scale government interventions in an attempt to gain new jobs or retain what we have. But our best course would be to take steps to make Kansas and Wichita an inviting place for all firms to do business. The instinct of politicians such as Brewer, however, is to take action, usually in the form of targeted incentives to spur economic development.

We’ve seen the disappointing results — not only with Hawker and Boeing, but also in a report showing that Wichita has declined in economic performance compared to other areas.

There’s other evidence that Wichita is not growing and prospering, compared to other cities: “The inflation-adjusted gross domestic product for the Wichita metro area declined 0.4 percent in 2010, according to initial estimates from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. The decline slowed from the year before, when this measure of economic growth plummeted by 7.7 percent. … Wichita’s decline came even as GDP grew by 2.5 percent nationwide in 2010. GDP increased in 304 of 366 metro areas nationwide.” (Wichita Business Journal, Wichita’s real GDP declined in 2010 amid national recovery, database shows.)

For those who prefer pictures, charts here and here illustrate.

The targeted economic development efforts that Wichita uses fail for several reasons. First is the knowledge problem, in that government simply does not know which companies are worthy of public investment. This, however, does not stop governments from creating policies for the awarding of incentives. It also doesn’t stop the awarding of incentives willy-nilly without a policy, as the Wichita City Council has done for a hotel.

This “active investor” approach to economic development is what has led to Boeing and other companies escaping hundreds of millions in taxes — taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form.

Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Brewer: The state of Wichita, 2013

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, State of the City Address, January 29, 2013

Much like President Barack Obama in his recent inaugural address, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer displayed his collectivist instincts in his “State of the City” address for 2013. His speech, as prepared, may be read here.

Opening, the mayor said “Wichita has overcome great challenges in the past and will overcome these as well, but we’ll need to work together.”

Near the close, the mayor said “THE TIME FOR ACTION IS NOW! We have reached a point where we MUST come together as a community, and create a plan that defines our priorities and the City we are to become.” And then: “For all of our differences, I have never doubted this community’s ability to come together and protect what matters most.” (The capitalization is in the mayor’s prepared text.)

But what’s really important to Wichita is economic development. Regarding that, Brewer said this:

As we struggle to compete for new businesses and new jobs, especially in light of job losses in aviation, we must face the reality that we are competing with other cities that offer economic incentives for business development and expansion. If we want to be IN the game, we need to PLAY the game, but we have no dedicated funding source for economic development. If we’re serious about finding new jobs for our people — and I am — we must change this scenario as soon as possible. Where will those incentive dollars come from? (Capitalization, again, is from the original.)

The idea of a dedicated funding source for economic development is something that many in Wichita would support. Many would oppose it, too. But instead of just lobbing rhetorical questions (Where will those incentive dollars come from?), the mayor should give us some answers. Or, at least make a specific proposal. Does the mayor recommend a sales tax increase? Or allocating specific levels of property tax to economic development? (The city is doing this on a temporary basis.) Or asking the state legislature to fund Wichita’s economic development, as we insist the legislature fund our airline subsidy program?

Whatever it is, Mayor Brewer, give us some specific ideas as to how you want to raise this money, and how you would spend it.

It’s that spending, I think, that people in Wichita have concern over. The cumulative record of Brewer, the city council, and city bureaucratic staff hasn’t inspired trust and confidence. Giving the city additional dollars to spend on economic development is not a wise investment.

For example, the mayor says that subsidizing downtown development is good economic development strategy. But we see the mayor and nearly all council members voting to give an overpriced no-bid contract to their significant campaign contributors. This happened despite the company’s large cost overruns on previous no-bid contracts awarded by the city. Is that good economic development practice?

We see the city council sitting in a quasi-judicial role, adjudicating the award of an airport construction contract when one of the parties is a significant campaign contributor. In fact, Key Construction — the company that prevailed in that decision — through its principals and executives, was the sole source of campaign funds raised by Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) in 2012 as she prepared to run for reelection this spring.

Key’s executives also contributed heavily to James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) last year. He’s running this spring, too.

At the time this airport contract was being handled, Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission. Campaign finance reports revealed contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan construction company. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new airport terminal, and that Longwell would be voting on that contract, provide a clue?

Or: A movie theater owner and business partners contribute to the mayor’s (and other) campaigns. Mayor and council vote to give a no-interest and low-interest loan and tax breaks to theater owner and his partners. Mayor goes into barbeque sauce business. Mayor’s barbeque sauce is now sold at movie theater.

Doesn’t Carl Brewer see anything wrong with this? Don’t his advisors tell him that this creates the appearance of impropriety? Does the mayor consider whether these actions make a positive impression on those who might want to invest in Wichita?

We see the city awarding economic development incentives that were not necessary for the project to proceed. It took a special election to teach the mayor and council that lesson. By the way, that unneeded and rejected incentive was awarded to the significant campaign contributors of Mayor Brewer and most council members.

We see the city taking credit for building up the tax base, yet giving away tax revenue in the form of property tax abatements, IRBs, tax increment financing, and STAR bonds.

The bureaucratic missteps: The Southfork TIF district is just the latest example.

The lack of respect for citizens’ right to know how taxpayer funds are spent is another troubling aspect of Brewer’s tenure as mayor. None of the words “accountability,” “transparency,” or “open government” were mentioned in the mayor’s address this year, as they have been in the past. No sense in calling attention to an area where the city has failed, I suppose.

All this is done in the name of economic development and jobs. But Wichita is underperforming Kansas and the nation in these areas. Under Brewer’s leadership, however, we are overachieving in the advancement of cronyism and its ills.

The record indicates that our officeholders, and those who advise them, are not worthy of our trust, and certainly not more taxes for economic development.

After last year’s State of the City speech, I noted “Wichita’s mayor is openly dismissive of economic freedom, free markets, and limited government, calling these principles of freedom and liberty ‘simplistic.’ Instead, his government prefers crony capitalism and corporate welfare.”

I also wrote: “Relying on economic freedom, free markets, and limited government for jobs and prosperity means trusting in free people, the energy of decentralized innovation, and spontaneous order. A government plan for economic development is the opposite of these principles.”

This year, the outlook for economic freedom and limited government in Wichita is gloomier than ever before. The door for those who wish to profit through cronyism is wide open. We’ll have to hope that, somehow, Wichita can learn to thrive under this regime.

Economic development in Wichita: Two tales

Tonight as Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivers his State of the City address, Wichitans will want to remember past addresses, statements, admonitions, and projections from the mayor.

Here’s one for the record book: In his 2008 address, Brewer promised specific development at the struggling Waterfront development, which is heavily subsidized. Beaming with pride, Brewer said to the audience: “And, great strides are being made at Wichita Waterwalk. The topping out ceremony for Waterwalk Place is scheduled for this Thursday and I invite everyone to this event. I am pleased to announce two more national tenants that will be a part of the WaterWalk restaurant and entertainment development. … I am pleased to announce two more national tenants that will be a part of the WaterWalk restaurant and entertainment development. Joining Saddle Ranch Chop House will be Funny Bone Comedy Club and Wet Willies restaurant and daiquiri bar. These are just a couple of the fun and exciting tenants that will help make WaterWalk — Wichita’s Next Great Gathering Place.” (The repeated sentence is still in the original text, after five years, so it must mean something.)

Five years later, none of these establishments have started construction at Waterwalk. In fact, no restaurant or entertainment venue has. We still subsidize it, though. That hasn’t changed.

Here’s another — and more substantial — example of a deal pitched to Wichitans as a unique situation. Something too good for Wichita to pass on.

In 2010 Wichita movie theater owner Bill Warren proposed building an Imax theater in west Wichita. When the Wichita City Council considered this matter …

Wait. Stop right there. Why, if someone wants to build a movie theater, does the city council have to be involved? We’ll see.

The city staff’s agenda report for the item stated “The proposed new IMAX Theater will provide a regional tourism/entertainment attraction that is expected to draw visitors from throughout Kansas and parts of Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska.” This so impressed Wichita politicians and bureaucrats that they approved Warren’s request for Industrial Revenue Bonds. The effect of these bonds is that American Luxury Cinemas, Inc. escapes paying property taxes on the new theater, estimated by the city to be $136,099 each year. The company also avoided paying an estimated $630,000 in sales taxes, according to the city document.

So with Wichita having this unique attraction that will spur people to drive all the way to Wichita from Texas to watch movies, I was surprised, just one year later, to see the Wichita Business Journal report that Warren might open a similar Imax theater in Moore, Oklahoma. That’s between Wichita and Texas.

Recall that just one year earlier Warren received economic development incentives from the city based partly on the singular nature of the proposed theater in the region. At that time Wichita city officials said the Wichita theater would be a “major tourism attraction,” drawing from as far away as Texas. But with another Warren IMAX built in suburban Oklahoma City, I think we can now acknowledge that we were mislead by someone. As political head of Wichita, that would be Mayor Carl Brewer.

When Warren applied to the Wichita City Council for favored tax treatment for the Wichita theater, Mayor Brewer bought into the myth that there can be only one Warren IMAX theater in the region when he said: “A lot of other cities want this IMAX … they’re on the internet watching this city council meeting to see what we’re going to do because they’re going to make a bid for this IMAX.”

Evidently the mayor couldn’t imagine that there could be more than one IMAX theater in the region.

By the way, Warren received incentives from the Moore City Council, too. Minutes from a council meeting report on “the proposed agreement between the City of Moore/Moore Economic Development Authority and Oklahoma Warren Theatres is a sales tax rebate agreement for the construction and operation of an IMAX Theatre to be located directly north of the existing Warren Theatre. … The ending date is set for December 2019 or when the agreed upon rebate amount of $2 million is reached, whichever comes first. The rebate will be made up of 100% of the City’s 3% sales tax, excluding the ½ cent sales tax added on for the purpose of residential roads and public safety.”

warren-theater-brewers-best-bbq-sauce-small

Well, at least that city isn’t shortchanging residential roads and public safety to pay for movie theaters.

I wonder: Do the Warren theaters in Oklahoma sell Mayor Brewer’s barbeque sauce, as is the case in Wichita?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Wichita movie theater expands product line, now selling groceries

warren-theater-brewers-best-bbq-sauce-smallPossibly seeking to take advantage of impulse purchases while patrons buy movie tickets, a Warren Theater in Wichita has started carrying a limited line of grocery items.

A reader submitted this photo, commenting: “I went to the taxpayer-subsidized Warren Theater this weekend, and who was staring back at me across the counter — none other than the smiling face of the mayor. Warren has a display set up to sell Brewer BBQ sauce and my sandwich included an (unrequested) cup of the stuff.”

The sauce in the photo is produced and marketed by Brewer’s Best, a company recently founded by Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer.

It is unknown whether Mayor Brewer plans to create other grocery products for Warren Theaters to sell.

Wichita economic development: We can’t be satisfied with this

Today as the Wichita City Council approved another round of cronyism and business welfare in the name of economic development, Mayor Carl Brewer spoke approvingly of the city’s efforts in this regard.

As quoted by the Wichita Eagle, Brewer said this of his critics:

“We recognize you can make any argument you choose,” Mayor Carl Brewer said. “Cities that prosper, the things they have to do … is make investments to do things. As long as we’re putting people to work and creating an environment … where new businesses come to our community, it provides the opportunity to grow new business.”

If the mayor and council believe what we’ve been doing has created prosperity and jobs, I wish he would take a look at numbers. When we compare the Wichita MSA to other areas and the country as a whole, we realize we’re not doing well at all.

Wichita MSA GDP growth

This illustration shows GDP growth for the Wichita MSA (purple line) as compared to U.S. metropolitan areas (blue line) and all other MSAs (dimmed lines). I use data for MSAs because that is what is made available. Also, the city and county like to talk about a regional approach.

The top two charts show the growth in GDP for government, and then for the private sector. The bottom chart shows growth in GDP per capita (per person).

What can we observe from these charts? First, when considering output generated by government, Wichita tracks right along with the average U.S. MSA.

But when looking at GDP generated by private industry, Wichita does worse than the average of U.S. MSAs. There are not many MSAs that perform worse than Wichita.

Considering GDP Per Capita, we see the same story: Wichita underperforms.

If you would rather measure jobs instead of gross domestic product, see here for charts that tell the same story in different words: Wichita economic development solution, postponed.

Even if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best (and I don’t believe that), we have to conclude that our efforts aren’t working. Carl Brewer has been on the city council or served as mayor since 2001, which is the time period illustrated in these charts.

Brewer, most city council members, and the city’s bureaucratic staff believe in taking an active role in economic development. Their vote to approve such action today is another in a long line of efforts to improve the economic performance of Wichita.

But I would ask Mayor Brewer and the council: How can you argue that this record reflects success?

(Dollar amounts are in chained 2005 dollars to eliminate the effects of inflation. Each metropolitan area is indexed to start at 100% so we can see the relative rates of growth. Data from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). The interactive version of this visualization is at Growth in Gross Domestic Product by metropolitan area.)

Wichita economic development solution, postponed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita’s job creation record

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

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

The next chart shows Wichita job growth by sector.

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

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “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.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

Wichita could do better regarding open government, if it wants

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. The renewal will provide another opportunity for the council 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 all council members except 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 action may be taken there soon 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 his “State of the City” address last year, 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.

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

Here’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, last year

Last year 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.

John Rolfe, president of Go Wichita, told the council that he has offered to provide me “any information that is relevant” regarding Go Wichita. He mentioned the various financial reports his organization provides. He said he is unclear on the transparency question, and what isn’t transparent.

Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) asked Rolfe if he had ever denied a KORA request. Rolfe replied no, perhaps not remembering that Go Wichita denied my request.

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 no requests this year to the city citing the open records act. 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 troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

As for a workshop for city council on the topic of open records: This would probably be presented by Rebenstorf, and his attitude towards the open records law is known, and is not on the side of citizens.

O’Donnell made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

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 — except for Michael O’Donnell — 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.

O’Donnell critics should look inward first

Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) made a mistake when he recently offered his opinion to the Sedgwick County Commission. The mistake was noted and corrected before the commissioners voted, so it had no influence on how the commissioners voted.

Yet, all members of the Wichita City Council have “expressed varying degrees of anger” over O’Donnell’s statement, according to Wichita Eagle reporting. (O’Donnell won’t be censured for remarks to County Commission)

Before these council members and the mayor express much more angst, they should take a look at their own actions, and how O’Donnell successfully opposed their assault on Wichita taxpayers.

In September 2011, all council members except O’Donnell voted to award a no-bid contract to a construction company for a parking garage and retail space as part of the Ambassador Hotel project, then known as Douglas Place and now known as Block One. (Mayor Carl Brewer was absent that day, but earlier he voted for the letter of intent to do the same.)

Then, thanks to O’Donnell and Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), the city put the contract out for competitive bid. The result was a price about 20 percent less, saving taxpayers over $1.2 million. (Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects, February 5, 2012 Wichita Eagle.)

Ironically, the company that submitted the winning bid was the same company that received the no-bid contract: Key Construction, a company well-known for its owners’ and executives’ campaign contributions to Mayor Brewer and nearly all council members, regardless of political ideology. Also involved in the project was Dave Burk, who along with his wife also make large and regular contributions to a broad range of council members.

Wichitans need to know that all except O’Donnell — and belatedly, Meitzner — thought it was proper to award their significant campaign contributors with a padded contract that awarded excess profits to Key at the expense of taxpayers.

Wastefully squandering taxpayer money in order to reward significant campaign contributors is not productive economic development. Instead, it’s cronyism of the worst kind, and illegal in some places. In Wichita, however, this is standard operating practice for some council members.

Such blatant cronyism reduces the prosperity of our community. It causes citizens to lose confidence in government. It stirs citizens to petition their government for redress. That literally happened in Wichita, motivated in part by behavior like this.

The bad behavior of the Wichita City Council has received national attention. In its commentary on the successful referendum in Wichita this year, the Wall Street Journal remarked: “Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.”

Now citizens are investigating campaign finance reform laws that would, hopefully, reduce the incentive for the shameful practice of awarding no-bid contracts to significant campaign contributors. As the Wichita City Council, except for O’Donnell, has shown no interest in reforming itself, citizens must do it themselves.

Instead of being angry with the departing O’Donnell, the council and mayor should look at themselves first and reform their proven harmful practices.

In Wichita, a quest for campaign finance reform

Actions of the Wichita City Council have shown that campaign finance reform is needed. Citizen groups are investigating how to accomplish this needed reform, since the council has not shown interest in reforming itself.

Consider recent actions by the council and its members:

The common thread running through these incidents? Council members voting to enrich their campaign contributors. Each of these — and there are others — are examples of a “pay-to-play” environment created at Wichita City Hall. It’s harmful to our city in a number of ways.

First, overpriced no-bid contracts and other giveaways to campaign contributors isn’t economic development. It’s cronyism. It’s wasteful and abusive of taxpayers and erodes their trust in government.

Second: Citizens become cynical when they feel there is a group of insiders who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. At one time newspaper editorial pages crusaded against cronyism like this. But no longer in Wichita.

Additionally, 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. A model law for Wichita is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

We’d also need to add — as does New Jersey law — provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. Additionally the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses, are considered to be from the business itself for purposes of the law. These provisions are important, as many city council members in Wichita receive campaign contributions from business owners’ family members and employees as a way to skirt our relatively small contribution limits.

Such campaign finance reform would not prohibit anyone from donating as much as they want (under the current restrictions) to any candidate. Nor would the law prevent candidates from accepting campaign contributions from anyone.

This reform, however, would remove the linkage between significant contributions and voting to give money to the contributor. This would be a big step forward for Wichita, its government, and its citizens.

Proponents see three paths towards campaign finance reform. One would be to press for a law in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. Such a law would be statewide in scope, and could apply to city councils, county commissions, school boards, and other elective bodies.

A second path would be to use the municipal initiative process, which was used by community water fluoridation advocates in Wichita this year. Under this process, a group writes a proposed ordinance. Then, it must collect about 6,200 valid signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is verified, the city council must either (a) pass the ordinance as written, or (b) set an election. For the fluoridation initiative the council voted to call an election, which was held as part of the November general election. (The initiative failed to obtain a majority of votes, so the proposed ordinance did not take effect.)

There is also a third path, which is for the Wichita City Council to recognize the desirability of campaign finance reform and pass such an ordinance on its own initiative.

If we take the affected parties at their word, this third path should face little resistance. That’s because politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t do it to influence votes.

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

Incidents

In 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to 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.”

When questioned about election donations:

“I would never do anything because of a campaign contribution,” said [former council member Sharon] Fearey, who received $500 from David Burk and $500 from David Wells.

“I don’t think $500 buys a vote,” said [former council member Sue] Schlapp.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said.

Also in 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

In August 2011 the 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.

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. In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table complied from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member, led the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project: $6,000. When Longwell ran for Sedgwick County Commission this summer, these parties donated generously to that campaign, too.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was 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. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Finally: This summer while Longwell was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission, campaign contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance reports. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new Wichita Airport terminal provide a clue?

These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.

On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently 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.

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. Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members.

Wichita economic development initiatives to be announced

Tomorrow the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce will announce, according to the Wichita Eagle, new economic development initiatives. Said to be the product of months of discussion, past history suggests that the efforts will not be fruitful for the Wichita area. The inclinations of the parties involved in this effort are for more government intervention and less reliance on economic freedom and free markets.

Do economic development incentives work?

Judging the effectiveness of economic development incentives requires looking for the unseen effects as well as what is easily seen. It’s easy to see groundbreaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies. It’s more difficult to see that the harm that government intervention causes.

That’s assuming that the incentives even work as advertised in the first place. Alan Peters and Peter Fisher, in their paper titled The Failures of Economic Development Incentives published in Journal of the American Planning Association, wrote on the effects of incentives. A few quotes from the study, with emphasis added:

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

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

The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state or local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering their expectations about their ability to micromanage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing the foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.

Other economists have studied tax increment financing (TIF) and have concluded that it is an overall negative factor for the entire region where it is used. Another study found that TIF districts created for retail use had a negative effect on municipal employment.

Last week Dave Trabert wrote in the Kansas Policy Institute blog: “There’s a very simple reason that these well-intended initiatives haven’t worked: local government and their public-private partners are offering employers what they want them to have instead of what they need to create jobs. The Wichita Chamber’s own survey of business owners said taxes were too high. WIBA’s member survey identified tax and regulatory issues as their top concerns, as did the US Chamber of Commerce. Yet government and their public-private partners ignore what the customer wants because they don’t want the same things.”

Wichita’s record on economic development

Earlier this year Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said that the city’s efforts in economic development had created “almost 1000 jobs.” While that sounds like a lot of jobs, that number deserves context.

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

It’s also likely that the city’s economic development efforts were not responsible for a large proportion of these jobs. But government still takes credit. Also, the mayor did not mention the costs of creating these jobs. These costs have a negative economic impact on those who pay them. This means that economic activity — and jobs — are lost somewhere else in order to pay for the incentives.

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

There’s even confusion over whether our efforts are working. In 2005, a Wichita Eagle editorial commented on a GWEDC report: “Among the points in Thursday’s report worthy of pride was this: the observation by coalition president J.V. Lentell that he’s never seen the cooperation on economic development between the public and private sectors as good as it is now. ‘I’m here to tell you, I think it’s on track,’ Lentell said, emphatically.” (July 29, 2005)

But in January of this year, an Eagle article listed several things Wichita needs, such as free land and buildings, money for closing deals, and a larger promotions budget. The reporter concluded “The missing pieces have been obvious for years, but haven’t materialized for one reason or another.”

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

These people all believe in government-directed economic development. We need to hold them accountable.

Finally, consider Wichita job growth. As shown in the accompanying chart, the growth in government employees has outstripped private sector job growth. The increase in local government employees is particularly striking.

Wichita job growthWichita job growth. Data is indexed, with 1990 equal to 1. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What our leaders want

I don’t know what will be in the economic development plan, but it is possible — likely, even — that there will be a call for a tax revenue stream for economic development. In February a company location consultant told Wichita leaders “Successful communities need a dedicated stream of money for economic development.” The news story reported “He was preaching to the choir. GWEDC leaders have been saying for some time that now is the time to go to the business community and the public to make the case for more money and resources.” (Consultant: Wichita needs sites, closing fund to lure business, Wichita Eagle February 16, 2012.)

Wichita leaders continually call for more “tools in the toolbox” for economic development. They have spoken approvingly of a sales tax for such purposes. Money, of course, is what funds the tools.

At one time local chambers of commerce would oppose tax increases. They would promote free market principles as the way to create a positive business environment. But this year it was the official position of the Wichita Chamber that eight government subsidy programs was not enough for a downtown hotel, and that there should be a ninth.

A few years ago Stephen Moore wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal that that shows how very often, local chambers of commerce support principles of crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that support free enterprise and genuine capitalism: “The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda — but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government. … In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes in his recent book, ‘Rip-Off,’ ‘state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes.’”

Does Wichita have the will?

Dr. Art Hall, who is Director of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business has made a convincing case that less government involvement, not more, is needed. He argues that a dynamic economy is what Kansas needs, not one where government directs taxpayer investment for economic growth.

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

Hall’s paper on this topic is Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy.

We need to recognize that government as active investor doesn’t work. A serious problem with a plan for increased economic interventionism by government is the very nature of knowledge. In a recent issue of Cato Policy Report, Arnold King wrote:

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

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

Relying on economic freedom and free market solutions for economic growth and prosperity means trusting in the concept of spontaneous order. That takes courage. It requires faith in the values of human freedom and ingenuity rather than government control. It requires that government officials let go rather than grabbing tighter the reins of power, as will probably be the key feature of Wichita’s new economic development plan.

But Wichita’s mayor is openly dismissive of economic freedom, free markets, and limited government, calling these principles “simplistic.” Instead, he and most others prefer cronyism and corporate welfare. That hasn’t worked very well so far, and is not likely to work in the future.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

Responses to records requests made by Kansas Policy Institute are bringing attention to shortcomings in the Kansas Open Records Act.

Those who have made records requests in Kansas are probably not surprised that KPI has had difficulty in having its records requests respected and filled. In 2007 Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas a letter grade of “F” for its open records law. Last year State Integrity Investigation looked at the states, and Kansas did not rank well there, either. See Kansas rates low in access to records.

This week KPI president Dave Trabert appeared before the Sedgwick County Commission to express his concerns regarding the failure of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to fulfill a records request made under the provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act. Video is at Open government in Sedgwick County Kansas.

While commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau spoke in favor of government transparency and compliance with records requests, not all their colleagues agreed.

Dave Unruh asked Trabert if GWEDC had responded to his records request. Trabert said yes, and the response from GWEDC is that the agency believes it has complied with the open records law. This, he explained, is a common response from agencies.

Commission Chair Tim Norton expressed concern that any non-profit the commission gives money to would have to hire legal help, which he termed an unintended consequence. He made a motion to receive and file Trabert’s remarks, which is routine. His motion also included taking this matter under advisement, which is what politicians do in order to bury something. Unruh seconded the motion.

Peterjohn made a substitute motion that a representative from GWEDC would appear before the commission and discuss the open records act. This motion passed four to one, with Unruh in the minority. Even though Norton voted in favor of Peterjohn’s motion, it’s evident that he isn’t in favor of more government transparency. Unruh’s vote against government transparency was explicit.

Wichita school district records request

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, also declined to fulfill a records request submitted by KPI. In a press release, KPI details the overly-legalistic interpretation of the KORA statute that the Wichita school district uses to claim that the records are exempt from disclosure.

In a news report on KSN Television, school board president Lynn Rogers explained the district’s reason for denying the records request: “But some school board members with USD 259 in Wichita say, the numbers brought up in court are preliminary numbers. That’s the reason they are not handing them over to KPI. ‘We have worked very hard over the years to be very forthright and we’ve tried to disclose the information when we have it,’ says Lynn Rogers.’”

This claim by Rogers — if sincere — is a break from the past. In 2008 Rogers told me that it is a burden when citizens make requests for records.

Until recently the Wichita school district had placed its monthly checkbook register on its website each month, and then removed it after a month had passed. Rogers explained that the district didn’t have space on its servers to hold these documents. That explanation is total nonsense, as the pdf check register documents are a very small fraction of the size of video files that the district hosted on its servers. Video files, by the way, not related to instruction, but holding coverage of groundbreaking ceremonies.

City of Wichita

KPI has made records requests to other local governmental agencies. Some have refused to comply on the basis that they are not public agencies as defined in Kansas statutes. This was the case when I made records requests to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In 2009 I addressed the Wichita City Council and asked that the city direct that WDDC follow the law and fulfill my records requests. (Video is at Video: City of Wichita and the Kansas Open Records Act.)

In my remarks, I told Mayor Carl Brewer and the council this:

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “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 in my recent experience, our city’s legal staff has decided to act contrary to this policy. It’s not only the spirit of this law that the city is violating, but also the letter of the law as well.

Recently I requested some records from the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Although the WDDC cooperated and gave me the records I requested, the city denies that the WDDC is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

This is an important issue to resolve.

In the future, requests may be made for records for which the WDDC may not be willing to cooperate. In this case, citizens will have to rely on compliance with the law, not voluntary cooperation. Or, other people may make records requests and may not be as willing as I have been to pursue the matter. Additionally, citizens may want to attend WDDC’s meetings under the provisions of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Furthermore, there are other organizations similarly situated. These include the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. These organizations should properly be ruled public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act so that citizens and journalists may freely request their records and attend their meetings.

Here’s why the WDDC is a public agency subject to the Open Records Act. KSA 45-217 (f)(1) states: “‘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 Kansas Attorney General’s office offers additional guidance: “A public agency is the state or any political or taxing subdivision, or any office, officer, or agency thereof, or any other entity, receiving or expending and supported in whole or part by public funds. It is some office or agency that is connected with state or local government.

The WDDC is wholly supported by a special property tax district. Plain and simple. That is the entire source of their funding, except for some private fundraising done this year.

The city cites an exception under which organizations are not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.”

The purpose of this exception is so that every vendor that sells goods and services to government agencies is not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act. For example, if a city buys an automobile, the dealer is not subject simply because it sold a car to the city.

But this statute contains an important qualifier: the word “solely.” In this case, the relationship between the City of Wichita and the WDDC is not that of solely customer and vendor. Instead, the city created a special tax district that is the source of substantially all WDDC’s revenue, and the existence of the district must be renewed by the city soon. The WDDC performs a governmental function that some cities decide to keep in-house. The WDDC has only one “customer,” to my knowledge, that being the City of Wichita.

Furthermore, the revenue that the WDDC receives each year is dependent on the property tax collected in the special taxing district.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that in terms of both funding and function, the WDDC is effectively a branch of Wichita city government.

The refusal of the city’s legal department to acknowledge these facts and concede that the WDDC is a public agency stands reason on its head. It’s also contrary to the expressly stated public policy of the state of Kansas. It’s an intolerable situation that cannot be allowed to exist.

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, it doesn’t take a liberal application of the Kansas Open Records Act to correct this situation. All that is required is to read the law and follow it. That’s what I’m asking this body to do: ask the city legal department to comply with the clear language and intent of the Kansas Open Records Act.

The following year when WDDC’s contract was before the council for renewal, I asked that the city, as part of the contract, agree that WDDC is a public agency as defined in Kansas law. (Video is at Kansas Open Records Act at Wichita City Council.) Then-council member Paul Gray, after noting that he had heard all council members speak in favor of government transparency, said that even if WDDC is not a public agency under the law, why can’t it still proceed and fulfill records requests? This is an important point. The Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions that agencies use to avoid releasing records. But agencies may release the records if they want.

Any council member could have made the motion that I asked for. But no one, including Gray, former council member Sue Schlapp, former member Jim Skelton (now on the Sedgwick County Commission), Mayor Carl Brewer, and council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) would make a motion to increase government transparency and citizens’ right to know. Wichita city manager Robert Layton offered no recommendation to the council.

Last year I appeared again before the council to ask that Go Wichita agree that it is a public agency as defined in the open records act. 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.

Discussion on this matter revealed a serious lack of knowledge by some council members regarding the Kansas Open Records Act. In remarks from the bench 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.

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].” Such a workshop would probably be presented by Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf. His attitude towards the open records law is that of hostility, and is not on the side of citizens.

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 made no requests that year to the city citing the open records act. 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 Meitzner’s 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 troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Brown and I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas to discuss this matter. Video is at In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency.

Enforcement of Kansas Open Records Act

In Kansas, when citizens believe that agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Act, they have three options. One is to ask the Kansas Attorney General for help. But the policy of the Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local District Attorney, which is what I did. The other way to proceed is for a citizen to pursue legal action at their own expense.

After 14 months, Sedgwick County DA Nola Foulston’s office decided in favor of the governmental agencies. See Sedgwick County DA Response to KORA Request to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

When newspapers have their records requests refused, they usually give publicity to this. The Wichita Eagle is aware of my difficulties with records requests in Wichita, as their reporters have attended a number of meetings where my records requests were discussed, sometimes at length. But so far no coverage of an issue that, were the newspaper in my shoes, would undoubtedly covered on the front page. Something tells me that KPI won’t get any coverage, either.

Additional information on this topic is at:

For Wichita City Council, discussion is not wanted

Governmental bodies use consent agendas for two reasons. One is to speed up the handling of issues considered to be non-controversial. Today’s meeting of the Wichita City Council had a consent agenda with 31 items. The plan was for all to be passed with a single vote. Therefore, speedy meetings.

But sometimes we see items placed on consent agendas that are of such significance that they should be placed on the regular agenda, where there is the potential of discussion. Council members will also be on record as having voted on the item independently of others.

So sometimes we see items placed on consent agendas because elected officials don’t want discussion, they don’t want their vote to be on record, and they hope the public won’t notice.

If a council member feels a consent agenda item should be discussed or debated and be voted on separately from the other items, the member can ask that the item be “pulled.” That happened today at the request of Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita). But Mayor Carl Brewer and all five other city council members disagreed. They preferred to proceed as though the issue didn’t exist, and that no time should be spent receiving information on the item.

The consent agenda item and its importance is explained at For Wichita’s Block 1 garage, public allocation is now zero parking spaces.

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 and 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):

“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.”

“This is the second time in recent weeks that Mr. Clendenin has done something that I am utterly appalled by.”

“The treatment of Councilman O’Donnell by the majority is childish, unnecessary and unproductive.”

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer on role of government

When President Barack Obama told business owners “You didn’t build that,” it set off a bit of a revolt. Those who worked hard to build businesses didn’t like to hear the president dismiss their efforts.

Underlying this episode is a serious question: What should be the role of government in the economy? Should government’s role be strictly limited, according to the Constitution? Or should government take an activist role in managing, regulating, subsidizing, and penalizing in order to get the results politicians and bureaucrats desire?

Historian Burton W. Folsom has concluded that it is the private sector — free people, not government — that drives innovation: “Time and again, experience has shown that while private enterprise, carried on in an environment of open competition, delivers the best products and services at the best price, government intervention stifles initiative, subsidizes inefficiency, and raises costs.”

But some don’t agree. They promote government management and intervention into the economy. Whatever their motivation might be, however it was they formed their belief, they believe that without government oversight of the economy, things won’t happen.

But in Wichita, it’s even worse. Without government, it is claimed that not only would we stop growing, economic progress would revert to a previous century.

Mayor Carl Brewer made these claims in a 2008 meeting of the Wichita City Council.

In his remarks (transcript and video below), Brewer said “if government had not played some kind of role in guiding and identifying how the city was going to grow, how any city was going to grow, I’d be afraid of what that would be. Because we would still be in covered wagons and horses. There would be no change.”

When I heard him say that, I thought he’s just using rhetorical flair to emphasize a point. But later on he said this about those who advocate for economic freedom instead of government planning and control: “… then tomorrow we’ll be saying we don’t want more technology, and then the following day we’ll be saying we don’t want public safety, and it won’t take us very long to get back to where we were at back when the city first settled.”

Brewer’s remarks are worse than “You didn’t build that.” The mayor of Wichita is telling us you can’t build that — not without government guidance and intervention, anyway.

Many people in Wichita, including the mayor and most on the city council and county commission, believe that the public-private partnership is the way to drive innovation and get things done. It’s really a shame that this attitude is taking hold in Wichita, a city which has such a proud tradition of entrepreneurship. The names that Wichitans are rightly proud of — Lloyd Stearman, Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, W.C. Coleman, Albert Alexander Hyde, Dan and Frank Carney, and Fred C. Koch — these people worked and built businesses without the benefit of public-private partnerships and government subsidy.

This tradition of entrepreneurship is disappearing, replaced by the public-private partnership and programs like Visioneering Wichita, sustainable communities, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP), and rampant cronyism. Although when given a chance, voters are rejecting cronyism.

We don’t have long before the entrepreneurial spirit in Wichita is totally subservient to government. What can we do to return power to the people instead of surrendering it to government?

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, August 12, 2008: You know, I think that a lot of individuals have a lot of views and opinions about philosophy as to, whether or not, what role the city government should play inside of a community or city. But it’s always interesting to hear various different individuals’ philosophy or their view as to what that role is, and whether or not government or policy makers should have any type of input whatsoever.

I would be afraid, because I’ve had an opportunity to hear some of the views, and under the models of what individuals’ logic and thinking is, if government had not played some kind of role in guiding and identifying how the city was going to grow, how any city was going to grow, I’d be afraid of what that would be. Because we would still be in covered wagons and horses. There would be no change.

Because the stance is let’s not do anything. Just don’t do anything. Hands off. Just let it happen. So if society, if technology, and everything just goes off and leaves you behind, that’s okay. Just don’t do anything. I just thank God we have individuals that have enough gumption to step forward and say I’m willing to make a change, I’m willing to make a difference, I’m willing to improve the community. Because they don’t want to acknowledge the fact that improving the quality of life, improving the various different things, improving bringing in businesses, cleaning up street, cleaning up neighborhoods, doing those things, helping individuals feel good about themselves: they don’t want to acknowledge that those types of things are important, and those types of things, there’s no way you can assess or put a a dollar amount to it.

Not everyone has the luxury to live around a lake, or be able to walk out in their backyard or have someone come over and manicure their yard for them, not everyone has that opportunity. Most have to do that themselves.

But they want an environment, sometimes you have to have individuals to come in and to help you, and I think that this is one of those things that going to provide that.

This community was a healthy thriving community when I was a kid in high school. I used to go in and eat pizza after football games, and all the high school students would go and celebrate.

But, just like anything else, things become old, individuals move on, they’re forgotten in time, maybe the city didn’t make the investments that they should have back then, and they walk off and leave it.

But new we have someone whose interested in trying to revive it. In trying to do something a little different. In trying to instill pride in the neighborhood, trying to create an environment where it’s enticing for individuals to want to come back there, or enticing for individuals to want to live there.

So I must commend those individuals for doing that. But if we say we start today and say that we don’t want to start taking care of communities, then tomorrow we’ll be saying we don’t want more technology, and then the following day we’ll be saying we don’t want public safety, and it won’t take us very long to get back to where we were at back when the city first settled.

So I think this is something that’s a good venture, it’s a good thing for the community, we’ve heard from the community, we’ve seen the actions of the community, we saw it on the news what these communities are doing because they know there’s that light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve seen it on the news. They’ve been reporting it in the media, what this particular community has been doing, and what others around it.

And you know what? The city partnered with them, to help them generate this kind of energy and this type of excitement and this type of pride.

So I think this is something that’s good. And I know that there’s always going to be people who are naysayers, that they’re just not going to be happy. And I don’t want you to let let this to discourage you, and I don’t want the comments that have been heard today to discourage the citizens of those neighborhoods. And to continue to doing the great work that they’re doing, and to continue to have faith, and to continue that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that there is a value that just can’t be measured of having pride in your community and pride in your neighborhood, and yes we do have a role to be able to help those individuals trying to help themselves.

Energy subsidies exposed

On the campaign trail, President Barack Obama calls for an end to energy subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. It turns out, however, that this industry receives relatively little subsidy, while the president’s favored forms of energy investment — wind and solar — receive much more. Additionally, coal, oil, and gas industries paid billions in taxes to the federal government, while electricity produced by solar and wind are a cost to taxpayers.

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal piece The Energy Subsidy Tally: Wind and solar get the most taxpayer help for the least production gathers the facts: “The nearby chart shows the assistance that each form of energy for electricity production received in 2010. The natural gas and oil industry received $2.8 billion in total subsidies, not the $4 billion Mr. Obama claims on the campaign trail, and $654 million for electric power. The biggest winner was wind, with $5 billion. Between 2007 and 2010, total energy subsidies rose 108%, but solar’s subsidies increased six-fold and wind’s were up 10-fold.”

When looking at subsidy received per unit of power produced, the Journal found that oil, gas, and coal received $0.64 per megawatt hour, hydropower $0.82, nuclear $3.14, wind $56.39, and solar $775.64. Commented the Journal: “So for every tax dollar that goes to coal, oil and natural gas, wind gets $88 and solar $1,212. After all the hype and dollars, in 2010 wind and solar combined for 2.3% of electric generation — 2.3% for wind and 0% and a rounding error for solar. Renewables contributed 10.3% overall, though 6.2% is hydro. Some ‘investment.’”

In Kansas, there is disagreement among elected officials over wind power. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and U.S. Senator Jerry Moran favor the production tax credit that makes wind feasible. Together they penned an op-ed that tortures logic to defend the tax credits. Each has spoken out on his own on the national stage. See Brownback on wind, again and Wind energy split in Kansas.

Brownback has also supported, at both federal and state levels, renewable portfolio standards. These in effect mandate the production of wind power. Recently Kansas Policy Institute produced a report that details the harmful effect of this law: “Renewable energy is more expensive than conventional energy, so government mandates are necessary to ensure that more renewable energy is purchased. However, the unseen consequences of well-intended efforts to increase energy independence are rarely considered. The authors estimate that by 2020, the average household’s electricity bill will increase by $660, approximately 12,000 fewer jobs will have been created, and business investment in the state will be $191 million less than without the mandate.” See The Economic Impact of the Kansas Renewable Portfolio Standard.

In Wichita, Mayor Carl Brewer is recruiting wind power companies to come to Wichita. If he is successful, you can be sure it will be at great cost to Kansas and Wichita taxpayers.

Contrast with the position taken by U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican who represents the Kansas fourth district, which includes the Wichita metropolitan area. Recently he wrote: “Supporters of Big Wind, like President Obama, defend these enormous, multi-decade subsidies by saying they are fighting for jobs, but the facts tell a different story. Can you say ‘stimulus’? The PTC’s logic is almost identical to the President’s failed stimulus spending of $750 billion — redistribute wealth from hard-working taxpayers to politically favored industries and then visit the site and tell the employees that ‘without me as your elected leader funneling taxpayer dollars to your company, you’d be out of work.’ I call this ‘photo-op economics.’ We know better. If the industry is viable, those jobs would likely be there even without the handout. Moreover, what about the jobs lost because everyone else’s taxes went up to pay for the subsidy and to pay for the high utility bills from wind-powered energy? There will be no ribbon-cuttings for those out-of-work families.”

Pompeo has introduced legislation in Congress that would end tax credits for all forms of energy production. See H.R. 3308: Energy Freedom and Economic Prosperity Act.

The Energy Subsidy Tally
Wind and solar get the most taxpayer help for the least production.

President Obama traveled to Iowa Tuesday and touted wind energy subsidies as the path to economic recovery. Then he attacked Mitt Romney as a tool of the oil and gas industry. “So my attitude is let’s stop giving taxpayer subsidies to oil companies that don’t need them, and let’s invest in clean energy that will put people back to work right here in Iowa,” he said. “That’s a choice in this election.”

There certainly is a subsidy choice in the election, but the facts are a lot different than Mr. Obama portrays them. What he isn’t telling voters is how many tax dollars his Administration has already steered to wind and solar power, and how much more subsidized they are than other forms of electricity generation.

Continue reading at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Wichita revises economic development policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speculative industrial buildings

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

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

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

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

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

Tax costs

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

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

Wichita’s record on economic development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita voters reject cronyism — again

Tuesday’s primary election in Kansas was notable for the large number of victories by conservative challengers over Republican senate incumbents. Also important is that voters in Wichita and the surrounding area rejected, for the second time this year, the culture of political cronyism that passes for economic development in Wichita.

On Tuesday incumbent Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn defeated a challenge by Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell. The contrast was clear: Peterjohn with his long-time, outspoken advocacy for limited government and free market principles, although perhaps tempered a bit based on some votes he’s made. Longwell, however, advocates for “more tools in the toolbox.” In other words, a larger role for government in economic development and centralized planning.

The result: Peterjohn won, 57 percent to 43 percent.

Longwell had the endorsements of many Wichita-area politicians, including Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and all other Wichita City Council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita): Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) and council members Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita).

Sedgwick County Commission members Tim Norton, Jim Skelton, and Dave Unruh also endorsed Longwell.

In addition to these endorsements, Longwell had a large money advantage over Peterjohn. According to campaign finance reports filed July 30, Longwell had raised nearly $62,000.

Peterjohn’s July 30 report showed about $20,000 raised, so as of that date Longwell had over three times as much campaign money at his disposal than Peterjohn.

The money advantage and the endorsements are linked. On Longwell’s July 30 campaign finance report we learned that executives of a Michigan construction company made campaign contributions immediately before and after Longwell participated in a city council voted that benefited them. Key Construction, a heavy contributor to Longwell’s campaign, also benefited from Longwell’s vote that day. This was just another episode in Longwell’s history of voting for overpriced no-bid contracts and no-interest city loans for his large campaign contributors.

The day after Peterjohn held a news conference questioning Longwell’s Michigan contributions, Longwell held the news conference that announced the above-mentioned endorsements. Many of those endorsers also receive campaign money from those they award with no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded largesse.

Despite the advantage in campaign funds and the endorsements, voters in west Wichita and west Sedgwick County rejected the political cronyism that is Jeff Longwell’s legacy in government service.

It’s the second time this year voters have rejected cronyism. In February Wichita voters voted down a tax giveaway to the Ambassador Hotel by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

Longwell played a role in that election, too. When citizens exercised their constitutional right to challenge the taxpayer-funded giveaway to the hotel, Jeff Longwell said it was “disappointing,” and a “stunt.” He said that using this fundamental aspect of democracy causes citizens to “lose credibility.”

When it came time for the council to set the date for the special election on the hotel tax, Longwell attempted to have the election commissioner set the date as early as possible, obviously thinking that a short campaign would benefit the hotel developers.

Those hotel developers, by the way, included many of Longwell’s long-time campaign contributors.

After Wichita voters rejected this special tax deal, the Wall Street Journal in a column titled “A Wichita Shocker: You can beat city hall” wrote: “Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.”

It’s no wonder Longwell was disappointed when citizens petitioned their government. Voters soundly rejected the political cronyism and sweetheart deals that are Longwell’s legacy.