In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: An episode this week at the Wichita city council meeting highlights the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita. We’ll examine a few incidents and see if there’s a way we can reform Wichita city government so that it is capitalism friendly instead of crony friendly. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 69, broadcast December 21, 2014.
Those seeking favors from Wichita City Hall use campaign contribution stacking to bypass contribution limits. This has paid off handsomely for them, and has harmed everyone else.
Not long ago a person who is politically active wrote a letter that was published in the Wichita Eagle. It criticized the role of campaign contributions in federal elections, noting “Corporations don’t spend money on politics because they are patriotic; rather, the companies expect a financial return.” Later the letter held this: “Locally, I understand that elections for the Wichita City Council underwent ideal, nonpartisan campaign-finance reform years ago, and that these limits are scrupulously practiced.”
The writer is correct, but only superficially. Our campaign contribution limits for city and school board offices are relatively small. What we find, however, is that the cronies, that is, the people who want stuff from city hall, stack contributions using family members and employees.
Here’s how a handful of cronies stack campaign contributions. In 2012 council members James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run again for their offices in spring 2013. Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, two groups of related parties accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents for an entire year. A group associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000 — $4,000 to Williams, and $3,000 to Clendenin. Another group of people associated with movie theater owner Bill Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.
The casual observer wouldn’t realize this stacking of campaign contributions by looking at campaign finance reports. That’s because for city offices, the name of the company a contributor works for isn’t required. Industry and occupation are required, but these aren’t of much help. Further, contribution reports are not filed electronically, so the information is not easy to analyze. Some reports are even submitted using handwriting, and barely legible handwriting at that.
So it’s not easy to analyze campaign contributions for Wichita city offices. It takes a bit of effort to unpack the stacking. You have to see a name and investigate who that person is. When you do that, you might find that a man from Valley Center who list his occupation and industry as Manager and Aviation Subcontractor is married to someone who lists her occupation and industry as Director of Marketing. Investigating her reveals that she is an executive of Key Construction.
That company, Key Construction, is a prominent company in Wichita. It is an example of a company that seeks to earn outsized profits through the political system rather than by meeting customer needs in the market. Profits through cronyism, that is. Here’s an example. 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.
Let me make sure you understand that. Carl Brewer, Lavonta Williams, and James Clendenin were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of your tax money to reward their benefactors through a no-bid contract. Since then reforms have been implemented to prevent this. Hopefully the reforms will work. I am skeptical.
In 2012 there was another incident involving Key Construction that show the need for campaign finance reform. Key and another construction company were engaged in a dispute as to who should build the new Wichita airport. The city council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner to decide the issue. Given all the campaign contributions Key was making at the time, and given the mayor’s well-known friendship with Dave Wells of Key Construction, can you guess who was awarded the contract? And can you guess whose contract was more expensive for taxpayers?
So back to the letter in the newspaper, which held: “Corporations don’t spend money on politics because they are patriotic; rather, the companies expect a financial return.” I’m not going to defend cronyism at the federal level. It exists and it is harmful. But I would like to let the writer of the letter know that cronyism also exists in Wichita city government. In fact, it may be worse in Wichita. At the federal level, Congress usually passes laws that benefit an entire industry — say the sugar industry or banks — to the detriment of consumers and taxpayers. (Sometimes the benefits are quite specific. American Enterprise Institute reports that the just-passed omnibus bill contains a section that provides protection from an Obamacare provision for exactly one entity: Blue Cross Blue Shield. Conservative writer Yuval Levin explained: “This section is, simply put, a special favor for Blue Cross/Blue Shield allowing them to count ‘quality improvement’ spending as part of the medical loss ratio calculation required of them under Obamacare. And it’s made retroactive for four years, saving them loads of money.”)
That’s bad enough. Here in Wichita, however, the cronyism is more concentrated and personal. The links between campaign contributions and handouts from city hall is much more direct. We should insist that the city council stop picking the pocket of your fellow man so it can give the proceeds to campaign contributors. Campaign finance reform can help.
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 council voted to give a movie theater operator a no-interest and low-interest loan, after having already received the benefit of tax increment financing.
- A minister dabbling in real estate development made a large contribution to his council representative just before he asked the city council for tax increment financing.
- The council voted to give a construction company a no-bid contract for a parking garage. When later put out for competitive bid, the same company won the contract, but with a bid 21 percent less costly to taxpayers.
- Executives of a Michigan construction company made contributions to the campaign of a city council member just before and after the council voted to give the company and its local partner a huge construction contract.
- When a group of frequent campaign contributors wanted to win a contest for the right to build an apartment project, the city’s reference-checking process was a sham. City and other government officials were listed as references without their knowledge or consent, and none of the people listed as references were actually contacted.
- A frequent campaign contributor, according to the Wichita Eagle, “represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city ‘s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza.” City officials expressed varying degrees of displeasure. But it wasn’t long before David Burk was receiving taxpayer subsidy again from the city council.
- The council voted to grant $703,017 in sales tax forgiveness to frequent campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.
What is the common thread running through these incidents? Council members have voted to enrich their significant campaign contributors. Each of these 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.
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. The Wichita Eagle has reported on some of these issues — sometimes in depth, sometimes in passing, but some have escaped notice. The editorial page of the newspaper sometimes takes notice, but is rarely critical of the council or mayor.
Third, 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?
Importantly: Will the Wichita city council prop up a competitor to my company with economic development incentives that place my company at severe disadvantage?
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. This is because for Kansas municipal and school district elections, only personal contributions may be made. Additionally the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses and children, 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. For two examples of how companies use family members, employees, and friends to stack up campaign contributions, see Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita.
Such campaign finance reform would not prohibit anyone from donating as much as they want (up to the current limits) 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, townships, and other elective bodies.
A second path would be to use the municipal initiative process. Under this process, a group writes a proposed ordinance. Then, it collects 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 to let the people vote whether the ordinance should become law.
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.
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 compiled 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.
Of interest to current mayoral politics: In 2012 while Jeff 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.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: While chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, a Wichita business leader strikes a deal that’s costly for taxpayers. A Kansas University faculty member is under attack from groups that don’t like his politics. Then, how can classical liberalism help us all get along with each other? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 68, broadcast December 14, 2014.
Does the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce support free markets, capitalism, and economic freedom, or something else?
Very often, local chambers of commerce support crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.
We saw this in Wichita this year, where the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce campaigned for a sales tax increase. The Chamber recommended that Wichitans vote in favor of a sales tax of one cent per dollar, with some of the proceeds to be dedicated for a jobs fund. (Other uses were to be for a new water supply, expanded bus transit, and accelerated neighborhood street repair.) Chamber leaders told the Wichita city council that if the jobs fund was not included in the package presented to voters, the Chamber would not support the sales tax.
Not long ago the Wichita Chamber was opposed to higher sales taxes. In March 2010, as chair of the Wichita Chamber, Sam Williams submitted a letter to the Wichita Eagle in which he wrote “Tax increases and government spending will not create employment or revive the state’s economic engine. Increasing the costs of goods and services will only lead to fewer purchases, more business closures, higher unemployment and less taxes being paid.”
In April of same year, he wrote again to the Eagle, advising Wichitans this: “Simply put, raising taxes hurts business, costs jobs and ultimately leads to fewer taxpayers and fewer taxes being paid to fund state and local government.”
Having espoused these anti-tax sentiments just four years ago, it’s curious that the Wichita Chamber would support and campaign for a sales tax for Wichita this year. This spills over to mayoral politics. As far as I saw, Sam Williams, — the Chamber’s chair in 2010 — did not take a public position on the sales tax this year. Except for this: Williams is chair of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and that organization endorsed the sales tax.
Regarding mayoral politics: Did you know that Sam Williams is running for mayor? And that it appears he has the support of the Wichita Chamber?
I have a request. If you see Sam Williams, would you ask him about his position on raising sales taxes?
Your chamber of commerce
Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce — since their membership is mostly business firms — support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s usually not the case. Here, in an excerpt from his article “Tax Chambers” economist Stephen Moore explains:
The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda — but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government.
In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes in his recent book, “Rip-Off,” “state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes.”
In the states, chambers have come to believe their primary function is to secure tax financing for sports stadiums, convention centers, high-tech research institutes and transit boondoggles. Some local chambers have reportedly asked local utilities, school administrators and even politicians to join; others have opened membership to arts councils, museums, civic associations and other “tax eater” entities.
“I used to think that public employee unions like the NEA were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions,” says Mr. Caldera of the Independence Institute. “I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself ‘the business community’ and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations.”
From Stephen Moore in the article “Tax Chambers” published in The Wall Street Journal February 10, 2007. The full article can be found here.
In Wichita, the chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce crafts a sweetheart deal for his company to the detriment of Wichita taxpayers.
In November 2013 the Wichita City Council granted an exemption from paying property and sales tax for High Touch Technologies, a company located in downtown Wichita. This item was of more than usual interest as the company’s CEO, Wayne Chambers, is now chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.
At the same time the city council voted to rent to High Touch up to 180 parking stalls at monthly rent of $35. These are located in the garage at 215 S. Market. The condition of the garage had deteriorated so much that it had been closed. In March 2014 the city council decided to rehabilitate the garage. According to city documents, the cost to rehabilitate the garage is $9,685,000, which creates 550 parking stalls. This is a cost per stall of $17,609.
A question is this: Who was the biggest beneficiary of this transaction: High Touch and its owners, or city taxpayers?
To evaluate real estate investments, a common metric is capitalization rate. The formula is
capitalization rate = annual net operating income / cost (or value)
For a parking stall in this garage as rented to High Touch, the capitalization rate is
($35 per stall per month * 12 months per year) / $17,609 cost = 2.4 percent
How do we place this number in context? Is this a good or bad deal for taxpayers? To answer this question, we need to find an appropriate capitalization rate. In major cities the capitalization rate for parking garages is lower than for other types of real estate, perhaps five percent. Local sources say the rate in Wichita for parking garages could be seven or eight percent, but there are no recent parking lot transactions to help gauge what the market wants for a capitalization rate. Taxpayers may remember when the city evaluated the Union Station project in October, part of which is a parking garage, the city used a capitalization rate of nine percent. That’s the capitalization rate the city felt the investor deserved to earn, and the city used that rate to justify taxpayer subsidy.
But on the 215 S. Market garage the city, on behalf of taxpayers, accepted a cap rate of just 2.4 percent.
What if the city wanted to earn a capitalization rate of nine percent for taxpayers? The annual rent for each parking stall would have to be $1,585, or $132 per month. At seven percent capitalization rate, the monthly rent would be $103.
But the city is renting the spaces for just $35, not $132 or $103.
It’s actually a better deal for High Touch — and a correspondingly worse deal for city taxpayers — than these numbers show. If High Touch was to build a parking garage itself, it would encounter expenses such as insurance, lighting, cleaning and sweeping, repairs and maintenance, and security. Not to mention taxes, which the city does not pay. But the city will pay these other expenses, except for insurance, as the city self-insures. That has an implicit cost that taxpayers bear.
All of these costs are contained in the $35 monthly rent the city will collect from High Touch. It’s a great deal for High Touch, and a bad deal for city taxpayers. It also establishes a template whereby private sector developers are unlikely to develop parking in downtown Wichita when there is a competitor that can undercut their rates, using taxpayer dollars to do so.
Taxpayers might remember that the biggest subsidy for High Touch — the property and sales tax breaks — started when the company CEO dropped hints that the company might add jobs elsewhere than Wichita. Chambers told the Wichita Business Journal that he considered moving the office to another city. All this happened while he was working his way up the leadership ladder to become chair of the Wichita Chamber.
As Wichita enters campaign season for mayor and city council, will any candidates call for implementing a reform that we desperately need in Wichita? Following, from 2012, explains.
In the wake of scandals some states and cities have passed “pay-to-play” laws. These laws may prohibit political campaign contributions by those who seek government contracts, prohibit officeholders from voting on laws that will benefit their campaign donors, or the laws may impose special disclosure requirements.
Many people make campaign contributions to candidates whose ideals and goals they share. This is an important part of our political process. But when reading campaign finance reports for members of the Wichita City Council, one sees the same names appearing over and over, often making the maximum allowed contribution to candidates.
And when one looks at the candidates these people contribute to, you notice that often there’s no common thread linking the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some people contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. But 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 political ideals they agree with. Instead, they’re donating so they can line their own pockets. These donors are opportunists.
As another example, for the 2008 campaign for a bond issue for USD 259 (Wichita public school district), my analysis found that 72 percent of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms, and others who directly stand to benefit from school construction. Do these companies have an especially keen interest in the education of children? I don’t think so. They are interested in themselves.
Some states and cities have taken steps to reduce this harmful practice. New Jersey is notable for its Local Unit Pay-To-Play Law. The law affects many local units of government and the awarding of contracts having a value of over $17,500, requiring that these contracts be awarded by a “fair and open process,” which basically means a contract process open to bidding.
Cities, too, are passing pay-to-pay laws. Notably, a recently-passed law in Dallas was in response to special treatment for real estate developers — the very issue Wichita is facing now as it prepares to pour millions into the pockets of a small group of favored — and highly subsidized — downtown developers who are generous with campaign contributions to almost all council members. Not that this is new to Wichita, as the city has often done this in the past.
Smaller cities, too, have these laws. A charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, 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.”
But Kansas has no such law. Certainly Wichita does not, where pay-to-play is seen by many citizens as a way of life.
In Kansas, campaign finance reports are filed by candidates and available to citizens. But many politicians don’t want campaign contributions discussed, at least in public. Recently Wichita Council Member Michael O’Donnell expressed concern over the potential award of a $6 million construction contract without an open bidding process. The contractor the city wanted to give the contract to was Key Construction, a firm that actively makes political contributions to city council members, both conservative and liberal.
For expressing his concern, O’Donnell was roundly criticized by many council members, and especially by Mayor Carl Brewer.
Here’s what’s interesting: Brewer and city council members say the campaign contributions don’t affect their votes. Those who regularly make contributions say they don’t do it to influence the council. Therefore, it seems that there should be no opposition to a pay-to-play law in Wichita — or the entire state — like the one in Santa Ana.
But until we get such a law, I can understand how Wichita city council members don’t want to discuss their campaign contributions from those they’re about to vote to give money to. It’s not about supporting political ideologies — liberal, moderate, or conservative. It’s about opportunists seeking money from government.
The practice stinks. It causes citizens to be cynical of their government and withdraw from participation in civic affairs. It causes government to grow at the expense of taxpayers. Pay-to-play laws can help reverse these trends.
You may download a printable copy of this article at Kansas Needs Pay-to-Play Laws.
In Sedgwick County, an unlikely hero emerges in the battle for capitalism over cronyism.
Now that the result of the 2014 general election is official, Richard Ranzau has notched four consecutive election victories over candidates endorsed by the Wichita Eagle and often by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. It’s interesting and useful to look back at what the Wichita Eagle wrote during each campaign as it endorsed Ranzau’s opponent.
In its endorsements for the 2010 Republican Party primary, the Eagle editorial board wrote:
In a district reaching from downtown Wichita north to include Maize, Valley Center and Park City, Republican voters would do well to replace retiring Commissioner Kelly Parks with the commissioner he unseated in 2006, Lucy Burtnett. Her business experience and vast community involvement, as well as her understanding of the issues and thoughtful voting record during her two years on the commission, make her the pick in this primary. She would like to see a new life for the Kansas Coliseum site, perhaps including a year-round RV park, and favors the county’s continued role in Fair Fares and the National Center for Aviation Training.
The other candidate is Richard Ranzau , a physician assistant retired from the Army Reserves who believes government is out of control, who would submit all tax increases to voters, and who opposes the county’s investments in air service and aviation training.
The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce political action committee contributed to Burtnett.
In this election, Ranzau received 55 percent of the vote.
Then for the general election in November 2010, the Eagle editorial board wrote this:
State Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, is by far the better choice in the race to replace Republican Kelly Parks, who is stepping down after one term representing the county’s north-central district. Her legislative experience, civic engagement and constituent service have prepared her for a seat on the county commission, where she wants to help attract businesses and jobs and would support efforts such as the new National Center for Aviation Training. “That’s a must,” she said. It’s a concern that Faust-Goudeau has been slow to address code violations at a house she owns, but the fact that neighbors have stepped up to help says a lot about her as a person and public servant. The first African-American woman elected to the Kansas Senate, Faust-Goudeau would make a hardworking and effective county commissioner.
Republican Richard Ranzau, a physician assistant retired from the Army Reserves, holds inflexible anti-tax, free-market views that would be disastrous for the county’s crucial efforts to support economic development and invest in affordable air service and aviation training.
In this election, Ranzau again earned 55 percent of the vote.
In the August 2014 Republican Party primary, the Eagle editorial board wrote:
Carolyn McGinn is the clear choice to represent this district that includes part of north Wichita as well as Maize, Park City and Valley Center. McGinn served on the commission from 1998 through 2004. Since then, she has served in the Kansas Senate, including as past chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. As a result, McGinn knows state and local issues well and understands how they intersect. She is concerned about the region’s stagnant economic growth. In order to get businesses to come and grow here, the county needs a stable government structure that provides essential services, she argues. McGinn is a productive problem solver who could have an immediate positive impact on the commission.
Her opponent is incumbent Richard Ranzau, who is completing his first term. He has been a fierce advocate for the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch and for fiscal responsibility. But he also frequently badgers county staff and delivers monologues about federal government problems. He argued that a planning grant was an attempt by President Obama “to circumvent the will of Congress, the states and the people.”
The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce also endorsed McGinn.
In this election, Ranzau received 54 percent of the vote.
For the 2014 general election, here’s what the Eagle editorial board had to say:
Democrat Melody McCray-Miller is the clear choice to represent District 4, which includes north Wichita, Maize, Park City and Valley Center. A former county commissioner and four-term state representative and a business owner, McCray-Miller understands government at both the state and local levels and how it affects communities, families and businesses. Her priorities include economic development and community livability and engagement. “I would like to put the public back in public policy,” she said, accusing her opponent of representing his ideological views and not the full district. McCray-Miller believes in a balanced, collaborative approach to dealing with issues and people, focusing on “what’s best for the county.” She also would not turn down federal funds, as her opponent has voted to do, and supports using economic incentives to attract and retain businesses.
Republican incumbent Richard Ranzau is completing his first term, which has not been productive. Though he has done some good work watchdogging county spending, Ranzau frequently badgers county staff and other presenters at commission meetings. He also has used his position as an ideological platform to rant about the federal government, including by claiming that a federal planning grant was an attempt by President Obama “to circumvent the will of Congress, the states and the people.” McCray-Miller would be a better, more-constructive commissioner.
The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce also endorsed McCray-Miller.
This election was closer, with Ranzau gathering 51 percent of the vote to McCray-Miller’s 49 percent.
As a private entity, the Wichita Eagle is free to print whatever it wants. So too is the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce free to contribute to and endorse anyone.
But these two institutions appear to be out of touch with voters.
Do you sense a pattern? Ranzau’s opponents are thoughtful, would make hardworking and effective county commissioners, are productive problem solvers, understand government at both the state and local levels, and have a balanced, collaborative approach to dealing with issues and people.
Ranzau, according to the Eagle, believes government is out of control and holds inflexible anti-tax, free-market views. He frequently badgers county staff. (Believe me, they deserve scrutiny, which the Eagle calls “badgering.”) Oh, and he’s ideological, too. That simply means he has “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.” As long as those ideals are oriented in favor of capitalism, economic freedom, and personal liberty, this is good. And that’s the way it is with Richard Ranzau. Would that the Wichita Eagle shared the same ideology.
I know what it is like to be on the losing side of issues year after year. Advocating for free markets and capitalism against the likes of the Wichita Eagle, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, most members of the Sedgwick County Commission, and all current members of the Wichita city council is a lonely job.
This makes it all the more remarkable that Richard Ranzau has won four consecutive elections running against not only his opponent, but also against the city’s entrenched establishment. Running against the crony establishment, that is, the establishment that campaigns against capitalism in favor of a “business-friendly” environment. The establishment that has presided over decades of sub-standard economic performance. The establishment that insisted on a sales tax that it hoped would gloss over the miserable results produced over the last two decades.
Thank goodness that defenders of capitalism are able to win an election now and then — or four in a row.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll look at the results of the Wichita sales tax election and what might happen next. Then, we’ll evaluate the Wichita Eagle’s coverage during the campaign. Also, this election raised issues of the privacy of voter data. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 65, broadcast November 16, 2014.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and the city council are proud of their citizen engagement efforts. Should they be proud?
The day after the November 2014 election in which Wichita voters rejected a proposed city sales tax, Mayor Carl Brewer and most members of the Wichita City Council held a press conference to discuss the election. A theme of the mayor is that the city reached out to citizens, gathered feedback, and responded. Here are a few of his remarks:
As elected officials, it’s our duty and responsibility to listen to citizens each and every day. And certainly any and every thing that they have to say, whether we agree or disagree, is important to each and every one of us. Anytime they are able to provide us that, we should continue to try to reach out and try to find ways to be able to talk to them. …
We appreciate the engagement process of talking to citizens, finding out what’s important to them. Last night was part of that process. …
We will certainly be engaging them, the individuals in opposition. As you heard me say, the city of Wichita — the city council members — we represent everyone in the entire city. From that standpoint, everyone’s opinion is important to us. As you heard me say earlier, whether we agree or disagree, or just have a neutral position on whatever issue that may be, it is important to us, and we’re certainly willing to listen, and we certainly want their input.
So just how does Wichita city government rate in citizen involvement and engagement? As it turns out, there is a survey on this topic. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.
The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey. It also tells us that the city expects to re-survey citizens in 2014. For that year, the city has given itself the lofty target of 40 percent of citizens rating the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement as excellent or good.
In the press conference Mayor Brewer also said “We did the Facebook and we did the Twitter.” Except, the city ignored many questions about the sales tax that were posted on its Facebook wall.
Here’s another example of how the mayor and council welcome citizen involvement. Wichita participates in a program designed to produce lower air fares at the Wichita airport. It probably works. But I’ve done research, and there is another effect. As can be seen in the nearby chart, the number of flights and the number of available seats is declining in Wichita. These measures are also declining on a national level, but they are declining faster in Wichita than for the nation. See also Wichita airport statistics: the visualization and Kansas Affordable Airfares program: Benefits and consequences.
About this time Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn had appointed me to serve on the Wichita Airport Advisory Board. That required city council approval. Only one council member vote to approve my appointment. In its reporting, the Wichita Eagle said: “Mayor Carl Brewer was clear after the meeting: The city wants a positive voice on the airport advisory board, which provides advice to the council on airport-related issues. ‘We want someone who will participate, someone who will contribute,’ Brewer said. ‘We want someone who will make Affordable Airfares better, who will make the airport better. You’ve seen what he does here,’ Brewer went on, referencing Weeks’ frequent appearances before the council to question its ethics and spending habits. ‘So the question becomes, ‘Why?'”
As far as I know, I am the only person who has done this research on the rapidly declining availability of flights and seats available in Wichita. You might think the city would be interested in information like this, and would welcome someone with the ability to produce such research on a citizen board. But that doesn’t matter. From this incident, we learn that the city does not welcome those who bring inconvenient facts to the table.
Then there’s this, as Carrie Rengers reported in the Wichita Eagle in October 2013:
“I don’t normally spend this much time having a conversation with you because I know it doesn’t do any good.”
— Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to conservative blogger Bob Weeks as the two argued over cronyism during Tuesday’s City Council meeting
“I really wasn’t offended today … because the mayor’s been ruder to better people than me.”
— Weeks’ response when asked about the exchange after the meeting
At least Mayor Brewer didn’t threaten to sue me. As we’ve seen, if you ask the mayor to to live up to the policies he himself promotes, he may launch a rant that ends with you being threatened with a lawsuit.
So much for welcoming citizen engagement.
Campaign activity by the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation appears to be contrary to several opinions issued by Kansas Attorneys General regarding the use of public funds in elections.
While the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation presents itself as a non-profit organization that is independent of the City of Wichita, it receives 95 percent of its revenue from taxes, according to its most recent IRS Form 990. While Kansas has no statutes or court cases prohibiting the use of public funds for electioneering, there are at least two Kansas Attorney General opinions on this topic.
One, opinion 93-125, states in its synopsis: “The public purpose doctrine does not encompass the use of public funds to promote or advocate a governing body’s position on a matter which is before the electorate. However, public funds may be expended to educate and inform regarding issues to be voted upon by the electorate.”
The “governing body” in this instance is the Wichita City Council.
While some governing bodies spend taxpayer funds to present information about ballot measures, this is not the case with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. It explicitly campaigns in favor of the issue. It displays pro-sales tax campaign signs at its office. It publicly endorsed passage of the sales tax.
A more recent Kansas Attorney General opinion, 2001-13, holds this language: “While the Kansas appellate courts have not directly addressed the issue of whether public funds can be used to promote a position during an election, there are a number of cases from other jurisdictions that conclude that a public entity cannot do so.”
The opinion cites a court case: “Underlying this uniform judicial reluctance to sanction the use of public funds for election campaigns rests an implicit recognition that such expenditures raise potentially serious constitutional questions. A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several competing factions.”
The opinion reaffirms 93-125, stating: “In Attorney General Opinion No. 93-125, Attorney General Robert T. Stephan concluded that public funds may not be used to promote or advocate a city governing body’s position on a matter that is before the electorate.”
Given these Kansas Attorney General opinions, and considering good public policy, Wichita voters need to ask: Should an organization that is funded 95 percent by taxes be campaigning for a ballot issue?
A Wichita company asks for property and sales tax exemptions on the same day Wichita voters decide whether to increase the sales tax, including the tax on groceries.
This week the Wichita City Council will hold a public hearing concerning the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds to Spirit AeroSystems, Inc. The purpose of the bonds is to allow Spirit to avoid paying property taxes on taxable property purchased with bond proceeds for a period of five years. The abatement may then be extended for another five years. Additionally, Spirit will not pay sales taxes on the purchased property.
City documents state that the property tax abatement will be shared among the taxing jurisdictions in these estimated amounts:
USD 259 $143,038
No value is supplied for the amount of sales tax that may be avoided. The listing of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is likely an oversight by the city, as the Spirit properties lie in the Derby school district. This is evident when the benefit-cost ratios are listed:
City of Wichita 1.98 to one
General Fund 1.78 to one
Debt Service 2.34 to one
Sedgwick County 1.54 to one
U.S.D. 260 1.00 to one (Derby school district)
State of Kansas 28.23 to one
The City of Wichita has a policy where economic development incentives should have a benefit cost ratio of 1.3 to one or greater for the city to participate, although there are many loopholes the city regularly uses to approve projects with smaller ratios. Note that the ratio for the Derby school district is 1.00 to one, far below what the city requires for projects it considers for participation. That is, unless it uses a loophole.
We have to wonder why the City of Wichita imposes upon the Derby school district an economic development incentive that costs the Derby schools $143,038 per year, with no payoff? Generally the cost of economic development incentives are shouldered because there is the lure of a return, be it real or imaginary. But this is not the case for the Derby school district. This is especially relevant because the school district bears, by far, the largest share of the cost of the tax abatement.
The city’s past experience
Spirit Aerosystems is a spin-off from Boeing and has benefited from many tax abatements over the years. In a written statement in January 2012 at the time of Boeing’s announcement that it was leaving Wichita, Mayor Carl Brewer wrote “Our disappointment in Boeing’s decision to abandon its 80-year relationship with Wichita and the State of Kansas will not diminish any time soon. The City of Wichita, Sedgwick County and the State of Kansas have invested far too many taxpayer dollars in the past development of the Boeing Company to take this announcement lightly.”
Along with the mayor’s statement the city released a compilation of the industrial revenue bonds authorized for Boeing starting in 1979. The purpose of the IRBs is to allow Boeing to escape paying property taxes, and in many cases, sales taxes. According to the city’s compilation, Boeing was granted property tax relief totaling $657,992,250 from 1980 to 2017. No estimate for the amount of sales tax exemption is available. I’ve prepared a chart showing the value of property tax abatements in favor of Boeing each year, based on city documents. There were several years where the value of forgiven tax was over $40 million.
Kansas Representative Jim Ward, who at the time was Chair of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation, issued this statement regarding Boeing and incentives:
Boeing is the poster child for corporate tax incentives. This company has benefited from property tax incentives, sales tax exemptions, infrastructure investments and other tax breaks at every level of government. These incentives were provided in an effort to retain and create thousands of Kansas jobs. We will be less trusting in the future of corporate promises.
Not all the Boeing incentives started with Wichita city government action. But the biggest benefit to Boeing, which is the property tax abatements through industrial revenue bonds, starts with Wichita city council action. By authorizing IRBs, the city council cancels property taxes not only for the city, but also for the county, state, and school district.
This is awkward.
The material below is from the agenda for the October 28, 2014 Wichita City Council meeting. It appeared on the consent agenda, which means it was handled in bulk with other items. The meeting minutes don’t show that there was any discussion on this item.
Without some background information, it may be difficult to interpret this material, so I’ll do it for you.
There is a company in Wichita named High Touch Technologies. Last year it asked the city council for relief from paying property taxes and sales taxes to help pay for the renovation of its headquarters building. Now it has asked for an extension of this tax relief period.
Shortly after receiving the tax exemptions the company CEO — a man named Wayne Chambers — became chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.
This year the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce is campaigning for a higher sales tax in Wichita.
Did you know that Kansas is one of only 14 states that apply sales tax to groceries? And that only Mississippi has a higher statewide sales tax rate on groceries than does Kansas?
I told you this is awkward.
Here’s an excerpt from the relevant city document.
On November 19, 2013 the City Council approved a one-year Letter of Intent for the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds (“IRBs”) in an amount not to exceed $2,000,000 for the purpose of financing the cost of acquiring and remodeling a 106,000 square foot office building located at 110 S. Main in downtown Wichita, for use as a corporate headquarters for High Touch. One Twenty South Main, LLC is the real estate holding entity that acquired the building and will sublease space to High Touch. One Twenty South Main, LLC originally intended to finance the acquisition and renovation with one bond issue. It is now planning on two bonds issues, one in late 2014 and one in late 2015. The first bond issue will finance the acquisition of the building and repairs to the elevators. The second will finance the cost of tenant improvements to occur in 2015. No additional bonding capacity is being requested. The current Letter of Intent and sales tax exemption expire November 19, 2014. One Twenty South Main, LLC is requesting an extension of the Letter of Intent and the sales tax exemption through December 31, 2015 to accommodate all work contemplated as part of this project.
Here’s a large sign that urges Wichita voters to approve a higher sales tax. This sign is located on the property of a restaurant that’s part of a chain. Its president actively campaigns for the higher sales tax. Say, did you know that restaurants do not pay sales tax on the food they purchase? But low-income Wichitans pay sales tax on their groceries, and at a rate that is nearly the highest in the nation. (Only 14 states have sales tax for groceries, and Kansas has the second-highest rate.)
Does this seem fair and just, that the president of a restaurant chain would campaign for higher sales tax on groceries? On top of this, almost two-thirds of the sales tax revenue would fund a project that protects wealthy neighborhoods from lawn irrigation restrictions during an extended drought. For this, low-income households are asked to pay higher sales taxes on their food.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll talk about the proposed Wichita sales tax, including who pays it, and who gets special exemptions from paying it. Then, can we believe the promises the city makes about accountability and transparency? Finally, has the chosen solution for a future water supply proven itself as viable, and why are we asking low-income households to pay more sales tax on groceries for drought protection? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 63, broadcast October 26, 2014.
A Wichita company CEO applied for a sales tax exemption. Now as chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, he wants you to pay more sales tax, even on the food you buy in grocery stores.
When High Touch Technologies wanted to purchase and improve the building that houses its headquarters in downtown Wichita, the company asked for and received property tax relief and an exemption from paying sales taxes.
So far this story is not unusual. Many companies receive this type of tax relief. Some get it year after year, to the tune of some $658 million in the case of Boeing.
But the case of High Touch Technologies is of more than usual interest. At the time of the request in November 2013 the company’s CEO, Wayne Chambers, had just been selected as chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber, along with its subsidiary Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, are the main agencies in charge of economic development for the Wichita area. Under Chambers’ leadership, these organizations recommended that the city council authorize a vote on raising the Wichita sales tax for the purposes of economic development. The council did that, and in November Wichita voters will decide whether to create a city sales tax of one cent per dollar. Twenty percent of the proceeds are earmarked for job creation.
To summarize: A Wichita company CEO applied for a sales tax exemption. Now he wants you to pay more sales tax, even on the food you buy in grocery stores.
A Wichita city report provides a somber look at the finances of a tax increment financing district.
The City of Wichita Department of Finance has prepared an update on the financial performance of the Old Town Cinema Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District. There’s not much good news in this document. The financial performance would be worse if the city had included the costs of the no-interest and low-interest loan made to the owners of property in this TIF district. But it doesn’t appear that those costs are included. Here’s an excerpt from the report:
In 2000, the appraised value of the southeast retail building and the Warren Theatre declined 12% (from $4.5 to $3.9 million) and 33% from ($4.4 to $2.9 million), respectively. These declines occurred as a result of property tax appeals, which were made by the TIF District’s primary developer. In addition, the total appraised value of the northeast and southeast retail buildings and the Warren Theatre remains more than $3.6 million below estimates in the project plan and overall values have not yet recovered to pre-2009 levels.
The “property tax appeals” referred to in this paragraph are the doing of David Burk. The Wichita Eagle reported at the time: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”
Several city officials expressed varying degrees of outrage with Burk’s action, with the city manager telling the Eagle that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.’”
Since then the city has granted several forms of subsidy to Burk and his partners.
The report from the finance department also told of problems with parking revenue:
Parking Revenue – The project plan assumed sufficient parking revenue cash flow over a fifteen-year period to provide $1.1 million towards principal debt obligations, assuming an interest rate of 4.5%. The Old Town Cinema TIF Fund has received substantially less parking revenue than was expected in the project plan. In some years, the TIF Fund has received no revenue from parking, and the highest amount received in any year was $51,130 (in 2008). From 2007, when the District first began receiving parking revenue, through 2013, a total of $153,130 in parking revenue has been transferred to the TIF Fund. Based on historical experience, additional parking revenue is not assumed and total parking revenue from 2004 to 2019 is conservatively projected at $153,130.
Later on, the report holds this:
Parking revenue collections are also substantially less than projected, because fees have not been increased as originally planned. The City’s general parking fee, which predates the Old Town Cinema TIF District, started at $7.50 per parking space per month. The fee was to increase to $25 per month over an eighteen-year period, with increases starting in approximately1996, according to Property Management. Fee increases never occurred, which were needed to pay for City parking activities. The general City fee differed slightly from that originally charged in the Old Town Cinema District, because the District initially charged a $10 per month fee, but this was reduced in about 2009 to $7.50 per month consistent with the parking fee charged elsewhere in the City, again according to Property Management.
The report also contains several financial statements. These statements do not contain a form of off-the-books support given to this TIF district. That was the no-interest and low-interest loan made to the Warren Theater, estimated to cost the city $1.2 million.
Click here to open the city’s report in a new window.
In a poll, about one-third of Wichita voters support local governments using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development.
In April Kansas Policy Institute commissioned SurveyUSA to conduct a scientific poll concerning current topics in Wichita. The press release from KPI, along with a link to the complete survey results, is available at Poll: Wichitans don’t want sales tax increase.
The second question the survey asked was “In general, do you agree? Or disagree? With the idea of local governments using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development?” Following are the results for everyone, and then divided by political party and political ideology.
Overall, 55 percent disagreed with using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development. 34 percent agreed.
The results are fairly consistent across political party and ideology, although Republicans are somewhat more likely to agree with using taxpayer funds for economic development incentives, as are those who self-identify as political moderates.
Testimony of John Todd to the Wichita City Council, October 7, 2014.
I want to complement the Union Station LLC group for tackling an important redevelopment project in downtown Wichita.
I am troubled however, by the developer’s request for $17.3 million in Tax Increment Finance (TIF) funding for his project because it diverts increases in future property tax revenues away from the public treasury and back to the developer for 20 years. Under current taxing levies this means that roughly one-third or $5 million plus of future Union Station property tax revenues would be diverted from the City of Wichita needed for public safety items like police and fire protection, and the building of public infrastructure. Plus, roughly one-third or $5 million plus would be diverted from the Sedgwick County treasury needed to provide for our Court System, the maintenance of property ownership records, the Sheriff’s office and detention center. The last one-third or $5 million plus would be diverted from Wichita Public Schools needed for the education of our children.
The diversion of future property tax revenues away from local governmental treasuries should concern every taxpaying citizen when one considers the many needs for these funds. On the city level, $5 million over 20 years could go a long way towards funding needed street maintenance and repairs, or providing the revenue needed for a viable public bus system, and finding a long-term solution to our cities’ future water needs. Sedgwick County could use $5 million to re-open the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch that helps turn boy’s lives around and makes our community a safer place to live and play by reducing recidivism and crime. And, just think of how many teachers could be hired with $5 million to prepare our young people for productive lives and jobs.
I am of the opinion that Mr. Gary Oborny has the track record to prove that he is one of the most creative and exceptional real estate developers in the City of Wichita and that he possesses the professional talents needed to make the Union Station project work without TIF public funding.
I believe at some point downtown redevelopment needs to be market driven, stand on its own, and pay taxes into the city treasury like other city development projects do.
Today, you have the opportunity to exercise your leadership skills in achieving this transformation. I urge you to seize it.
Wichita city hall promises policies that are clear, predictable and transparent, except when they’re not.
On July 22, 2104, a presentation to the Wichita City Council sought to assure the council and public that a proposed jobs fund created with money collected by the proposed sales tax would have policies that govern the spending of funds: “GWEDC – Finds businesses to expand, recruit, follows established policies for retention/recruitment.”
But there’s a problem. It’s difficult for governments to establish policies that will satisfy everyone. How do we know today what we’ll need five or ten years down the road? When governments change policies to fit particular circumstances, taxpayers are rightfully concerned that the alterations are to suit the needs of special people — the cronies that feed from the city hall trough of taxpayer money. When you couple in what public choice theory tells us, which is that the cronies who want money from government have a much stronger motive to succeed than the bureaucrats are motivated to protect citizens and taxpayers, we can have trouble.
This has happened before in Wichita. Last year when a project didn’t meet the (supposedly) required benefit-cost ratio, the city simply said that it didn’t apply in that case. See Wichita’s policymaking on display.
Now, Wichita seeks to modify its policies again in response to the wants and desires of one person.
Here’s the background you need to know. When the city passed a downtown development incentives policy in 2011, here’s what the city said was its goal: “The business plan recommends the development of a prudent public investment policy that is clear, predictable and transparent, maximizes public investment and enhances market-driven development.” (emphasis added)
The meeting minutes contained further elucidation: “Scott Kneibel Planning Department stated the purpose of the policy is to put in place something that is clear and predictable in terms of how the public would invest in downtown projects through partnership with the private sector. Stated that sort of statement by this governing body has not been made to date. Stated that is the purpose of this policy so that developers will know what types of investments the City of Wichita is interested in making and how the City of Wichita will make those decisions.” (emphasis added)
But as in the past, we find city proposing the change the standards in the middle of the game. Here’s an excerpt from the agenda packet for Tuesday’s meeting, in which a large incentive package for the redevelopment of Union Station may be considered: “In the opinion of the evaluation team, the established criteria do not adequately address projects such as Union Station where the requested incentives do not involve City debt.”
For this project we see that city policy is being modified on the fly to meet the circumstances of a particular project. This is not necessarily bad. Entrepreneurship demands flexibility. But the city promises policies that are clear, predictable and transparent, and city officials say Wichita has a transparent, open government.
Can you imagine conscientious developers who want to invest in downtown Wichita, but after studying the city’s policies, realize their projects don’t conform to the city’s published standards? How many moved on to other cities, not realizing that our standards can be altered and waived?
As Wichita voters consider the value to give to promises from city hall, they should consider these episodes when the city promises there will be “established policies” for the spending of economic development funds generated by the proposed sales tax.
Gary Oborny of Wichita appeared on Fox News in August to explain problems with onerous government regulations. Next week he will ask the Wichita City Council to use laws and regulations to grant him millions of tax dollars. For more, see Union Station TIF provides lessons for Wichita voters.
A proposed downtown Wichita development deserves more scrutiny than it has received, as it provides a window into the city’s economic development practice that voters should peek through as they consider voting for the Wichita sales tax.
Next week a Wichita real estate developer will ask the Wichita City Council to approve a package of incentives for the redevelopment of Union Station in downtown Wichita. The proposal contains many facets that citizens need to understand. Additionally, the city’s handling of this matter is something that voters will want to keep in mind as they make their decision on the proposed Wichita sales tax in November.
The city’s documents on this matter are available at Resolution Considering the Establishment of the Union Station Redevelopment District (Tax Increment Financing).
Tax increment financing
Union Station LLC is asking for TIF, or tax increment financing. Most commonly, TIF works like this: A city borrows money (by issuing bonds) and gives the cash to a development. After the project is built and has a higher assessed value, the city uses the increased property tax payments (the “increment” in TIF) from the development to pay off the bonds. This obviously is risky for cities, because if the development doesn’t generate sufficient increment in tax payments to cover the bond payments, the city will have to make up the difference. This has happened in Wichita.
In recent years a new type of TIF has been created by statute, the “pay-as-you-go” TIF. Here, instead of issuing bonds and paying off the bonds with the incremental taxes, the city simply refunds the incremental taxes to the development. City documents describe: “The TIF statute also allows for projects to be financed on a pay-as-you-go basis, to reimburse the developer for eligible costs as TIF funds are received.”
This has less risk for cities, because if the hoped-for incrementally higher property taxes don’t materialize, the development doesn’t receive TIF proceeds. There are no bonds that must be paid. The developer just doesn’t receive what was projected. This is why the city claims that pay-as-you-go TIF has no risk to the city.
(Under pay-as-you-go TIF, since the city is essentially refunding nearly all property tax payments back to the development, we have to wonder why the city requires the taxes be paid at all. Also, there is the charade of spending TIF money only on “eligible” project costs. But the criteria for eligibility is broad, and we can be sure that developers will do all they can to make sure costs are characterized as eligible. But the eligibility criteria allows cities to appear to be fiscally prudent. Cities say they don’t allow TIF proceeds to be spent on just anything, but only on eligible costs.)
Here’s what the agenda packet says about this TIF: “Union Station LLC proposes to combine pay-as-you-go TIF with private financing to finance the proposed redevelopment project. The developer will finance through private sources all costs of the redevelopment project, including TIF-eligible project costs. Pay-as-you-go TIF revenue will be used to reimburse the developer on an annual basis with proof of expenditure of TIF-eligible redevelopment project costs.”
Buried in this paragraph is some financial slight-of-hand. Wichitans need to understand this so that they can be fully informed on this proposed transaction.
The problem lies is the meanings of the terms “to finance” and “to pay for.” Financing is the process of securing money to pay the costs of acquiring something. If financing is in the form of a loan, the economics of the transaction is that the borrower receives cash (assets go up) but also incurs an obligation to pay back the cash (liabilities go up by the same amount).
Then, when the borrower uses this cash to buy something — like a historic train station — one form of asset is exchanged for another. Cash is exchanged for title to the property.
It’s in the future, as the loan is repaid, that needs examination. The goal of real estate development is that the developer creates a project that generates more money coming in than loan payments going out. If this happens, it is a signal that the developer has met customer needs and has used capital in a way that makes everyone better off.
But there’s a confounding factor involved in the “pay for” part of the transaction that the city council will consider next week. The burden of some of the loan repayments will be born by the taxpayer. We don’t know for sure, but undoubtedly Union Station LLC will borrow money to make the project work. Proceeds from the TIF will be used to make at least some of the loan payments.
This is where the slight-of-hand comes in. The city says “The developer will finance through private sources …” That much is true. The city is not loaning any money. But some of the money used to pay back the private loans will come from TIF proceeds. So it is property tax payments being re-routed back to the developer that actually pays for part of the development: “Pay-as-you-go TIF revenue will be used to reimburse the developer on an annual basis …”
This is the heart of the transaction. It’s what citizens need to understand. Instead of Union Station LLC’s property taxes being used to pay the cost of government, nearly all of these taxes will pay off the owner’s loans.
The purchase of the property
Here’s what city documents state regarding the purchase of the property: “The $6,226,156 in equity is proposed to be in the form of $1,500,000 from the purchase of the property that will be contributed as collateral, $3,766,156 in monetized historic tax credits, and $960,000 in cash.”
It’s the “purchase of the property” that needs scrutiny. More from the city documents: “The developer would be compensated for the fair market value of the land where public access improvements would be located, not to exceed the $1,500,000 actual site acquisition cost. The Public Access Easement attachment illustrates that the portions of the site where a public access easement would be acquired is 274,059 square feet and that the average land acquisition cost of 10 comparable downtown properties is $6.71 per square foot, placing the fair market value of the land where the public access improvements would be located at $1,839,147.”
What’s happening is that part of the land area of the project is being called “public access improvements.” These are things like, according to city documents, “parking structure, pedestrian boardwalk, paving, utilities, and landscaping.” The city is proposing to pay the developer $1,500,000 for these areas.
If the council agrees to this, new avenues will have been opened for spending taxpayer funds. It places other commercial developers and landlords at a disadvantage. Consider, say, the recent Whole Foods Market that opened in Wichita. What Union Station LLC wants is like that developer asking to be reimbursed for the shrubs and grass that was planted, or the parking spaces that are provided. The public will, after all, view the sunlight reflected from the grass and breathe the oxygen generated by the shrubs. And, the public will park in the spaces. These “public access improvements” are part of what is necessary to provide an attractive and desirable development. It’s part of what businesses do to attract customers and earn profits. But the Union Station developer is asking that the city pay him for providing these things. If the council agrees to this, we can expect to see this template applied repeatedly in the future.
The missing tax credits
City documents state this regarding the sources of funds for the project: “Private to Public Investment Ratio — The proposed private capital investment is $36,578,000, and the proposed public capital investment is $17,321,000, resulting in a private to public capital investment ratio of 2.1 to 1.” But missing from this calculation is the contribution of taxpayers in the form of historic preservation tax credits. As reported above, the city reports the project will receive $3,766,156 in monetized historic tax credits.
(Tax credits are economically equivalent to a grant of cash from government. Commonly their value is used to boost the “private” equity contribution to the project. But since the tax credits come from government, we ought to call it the “peoples’ equity.”)
I inquired of city officials whether the historic preservation tax credits are federal, state, or both. The answer I received: “The Developer has not yet provided the City with details on the tax credits. However, staff analyzed the project to ascertain a ballpark estimate of how much it could generate in both state and federal tax credits and came up with a similar amount. We assume that $3,766,156 is the amount of net proceeds to be injected into the project from the sale of tax credits and that it is discounted from the face value of the credits.”
So it seems like the city is surmising things that may or may not be part of the developer’s plan.
False sales tax exemption applied
There’s another level of uncertainty in the city documents. In the analysis performed by Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University, about $1.8 million in sales tax exemptions are included in the analysis. In my reading of the project documents, I didn’t see the project qualifying for sales tax exemptions. Upon inquiry to the city, I received this response: “The only incentive program available to Union Station that would provide a sales tax exemption is IRBs. The Developer did not request IRBs or a sales tax exemption. I would guess that CEDBR factored it into the cost-benefit analysis to be extra conservative.”
It appears there is a lack of communication between the city and CEDBR. More surmising. Exactly which incentives are available to be tapped by this project, and in what amount? Can we trust the analysis from CEDBR if it includes incentives that the project has not requested and is not eligible to receive?
The city has a policy that economic development projects should have a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to 1 or greater. For this project, CEDBR reports these ratios:
City General Fund, 1.04
City Debt Service Fund, 1.15
Total City, 1.08
Sedgwick County, 1.06
State of Kansas, 1.66
School district, 7.19
For the city and county, the ratios are far below 1.3 to 1. There are many exceptions and loopholes in the incentive policy that allows the city to participate in projects with less than the 1.3 ratio.
The (un)certainty of city policies
For this project we see that city policy is being modified on the fly to meet the circumstances of a particular project. This is not necessarily bad. Entrepreneurship demands flexibility. But the city promises certainty in its standards, and city officials say Wichita has a transparent, open government. The Public-Private Partnership Evaluation Criteria for the redevelopment of downtown Wichita states “The business plan recommends public-private partnership criteria that are clear, predictable, and transparent.”
But as in the past, we find the city’s policies are anything but predictable and transparent. City documents state: “In the opinion of the evaluation team, the established criteria do not adequately address projects such as Union Station where the requested incentives do not involve City debt.” So we see the “clear, predictable, and transparent” policies discarded and reformulated. How are future developers supposed to know which policies can be waived or rewritten? How are citizens supposed to trust that city hall is looking out for their interests when policies are so fluid?
Supporters of a proposed sales tax in Wichita promise there will be no conflicts of interest when making spending decisions. That would be a welcome departure from present city practice.
In November Wichita voters will decide on a new one cent per dollar sales tax, part to be used for economic development, specifically job creation. “Yes Wichita” is a group that supports the sales tax. Language on its website reads: “Conflict-of-interest policies will prohibit anyone from participating in decisions in which there is any self-interest.” The page is addressing the economic development portion of the proposed sales tax. It’s part of an effort to persuade Wichita voters that millions in incentives will be granted based on merit instead of cronyism or the self-interest of politicians, bureaucrats, and committee members.
The problem is that while the city currently has in place laws regarding conflicts of interest, the city does not seem willing to observe them. If the proposed sales tax passes, what assurances do we have that the city will change its ways?
Following, from October 2013, is one illustration of Wichita city hall’s attitude towards conflicts of interest and more broadly, government ethics.
Wichita contracts, their meaning (or not)
Is the City of Wichita concerned that its contracts contain language that seems to be violated even before the contract is signed?
This week the Wichita City Council approved a development agreement for the apartments to be built on the west bank of the Arkansas River. The development agreement the council contemplated included this language in Section 11.06, titled “Conflicts of Interest.”
No member of the City’s governing body or of any branch of the City’s government that has any power of review or approval of any of the Developer’s undertakings shall participate in any decisions relating thereto which affect such person’s personal interest or the interests of any corporation or partnership in which such person is directly or indirectly interested.
At Tuesday’s meeting I read this section of the contract to the council. I believe it is relevant for these reasons:
1. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is a member of a governing body that has power of approval over this project.
2. Bill Warren is one of the parties that owns this project.
3. Bill Warren also owns movie theaters.
4. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer owns a company that manufactures barbeque sauce.
5. Brewer’s sauce is sold at Warren’s theaters.
The question is this: Does the mayor’s business relationship with Warren fall under the prohibitions described in the language of section 11.06? Evidently not. After I read section 11.06 I asked the mayor if he sold his sauce at Warren’s theaters. He answered yes. But no one — not any of the six city council members, not the city manager, not the city attorney, not any bureaucrat — thought my question was worthy of discussion.
(While the agreement doesn’t mention campaign contributions, I might remind the people of Wichita that during 2012, parties to this agreement and their surrogates provided all the campaign finance contributions that council members Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin received. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita. That’s a lot of personal interest in the careers of politicians.)
I recommend that if we are not willing to live up to this section of the contract that we strike it. Why have language in contracts that we ignore? Parties to the contract rationalize that if the city isn’t concerned about enforcing this section, why should they have to adhere to other sections?
While we’re at it, we might also consider striking Section 2.04.050 of the city code, titled “Code of ethics for council members.” This says, in part, “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”
That language seems pretty clear to me. But we have a city attorney that says that this is simply advisory. If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is actually observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.
Readers of the Wichita Eagle might be excused for not understanding the economic realities of a proposed tax giveaway to a local development.
Tomorrow’s meeting of the Wichita City Council holds an item of economic development that might be confusing to citizens unless they read the meeting’s agenda packet. Here’s what the Wichita Eagle is reporting to readers: “The owner of the former Wichita Mall is seeking $3.6 million in industrial revenue bonds for a new parking lot — a request that the Wichita City Council will consider at its Tuesday meeting.” (Owners of former Wichita Mall seek IRBs for new parking lot, kansas.com, September 8, 2014)
The article doesn’t present much more about the economics of this transaction and its importance to public policy. That’s unfortunate, as after reading this article, citizens could be excused for thinking that the city is making a loan to a private entity.
But that isn’t the purpose of industrial revenue bonds, or IRBs, in Kansas. By issuing these bonds, the City of Wichita is not lending any money, and is not guaranteeing — not even hinting — that any loan will be repaid. Instead, city documents — but not Wichita Eagle reporting — tell us that Co-Co Properties, LLC will purchase the bonds. Who is Co-Co, you may be wondering? It’s the company that owns the Wichita Mall property, the same company that wants to borrow money to repair its parking lot. By purchasing the IRBs, the company is, in effect, lending money to itself. (It’s possible that Co-Co may seek other loans to get the funds to buy the IRBs, but if so, these would be private transactions and therefore not a matter of public policy.)
So if Co-Co is buying these IRBs itself, what is the purpose of the transaction? Why is Co-Co taking $3.6 million from one of its corporate pockets and transferring it to another pocket, and incurring costs in the process?
At this point, if all you’ve done is read the Wichita Eagle story, you may be confused. Actually, you’d be uninformed, because the Eagle story says nothing about who will purchase the IRBs. Further, the Eagle story tells us nothing about the reason for this transaction, which is to avoid paying two forms of taxes.
The city council agenda packet, available on the city’s website, explains that property tax forgiveness accompanies the IRBs. Specifically:
The one year estimated tax abatement on Co-Co’s proposed $3.6 million real property improvements when fully complete would be $108,541. … The value of a 100% real property tax exemption as applicable to taxing jurisdictions is:
City of Wichita, $29,258
Sedgwick County, $26,439
State of Kansas, $1,350
Wichita school district, $51,494
These annual numbers would be repeated for five years, plus another five years if the city council approves, based on council review. That’s potentially over one million dollars of forgiven property taxes.
That’s not all. City documents say city staff will also apply for a sales tax exemption. No value is given for how much sales tax Co-Co may avoid paying. If all purchases were taxable the value of the sales tax exemption would be $257,400, but it’s unlikely the value of the exemption would reach that level.
So there it is. The purpose of the industrial revenue bonds transaction is to avoid paying taxes. That inspires a question. In its application, Co-Co says it has spent millions renovating the building in order to attract tenants, done without public incentive or financing. But now we’re told the parking lot can’t be repaired without two forms of tax giveaways?
When the city finds it necessary to forgive taxes in order to make investment possible, it tells us that taxes in Wichita are too high. Those high taxes are blocking investment. It’s either that, or cronyism — a simple taxpayer-funded gift to a city council crony.
One more thing: Boosters of the proposed Wichita sales tax, part to be used for economic development, tell us that Wichita has only $1.65 million per year to fund incentives. The incentives being considered for Co-Co are worth over $1 million, but have no cash cost to the city. These incentives aren’t part of the $1.65 million annual budget for incentives. But the incentives do have a cost, paid by taxpayers when the city, county, state, and school district spend and expect taxpayers to make up this missing tax revenue.
When the City of Wichita tells citizens that it will thoroughly investigate and vet potential economic development projects and partners, remember what the city did just last summer.
Citizens of Wichita are rightly concerned whether our elected officials and bureaucrats are looking out for their interests, or only for the interests and welfare of a small group of city hall insiders — the cronies.
Now, selling a new sales tax, part of which would pay for economic development, city officials say they will really be careful. Officials have made these promises before, but just last summer an incident show just how little the city cares about citizens. The video below explains, or click here to view in high definition on YouTube. For an article on this topic, see Wichita performs a reference check, sort of.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Who would be most harmed by the proposed Wichita sales tax? Also: A look at updated airport statistics, and what the city could do if it wants to pass the sales tax. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 55, broadcast August 17, 2014.
While the proposed Wichita city sales tax is a bad idea, the city could do a few things that would not only improve its chance of passage, but also improve local government.
This week the Wichita City Council passed an ordinance that starts the process of placing a sales tax measure on the November ballot. The one cent per dollar tax will be used for several initiatives, including an economic development jobs fund.
The city will need to gain the trust of citizens if the measure is to have any chance of passage. While I am personally opposed to the sales tax for some very good reasons, I nonetheless offer this advice to the city on what it could do to help pass the sales tax.
Presentations made by city hall state that the city council will appoint a private-sector led jobs commission. It would examine potential projects and make recommendations to the council. There will also be a citizens oversight committee and a jobs commission audit committee.
The problem is that committees like these are usually stacked with city hall insiders, with people who want to personally gain from cronyism, and with people the city believes will be quietly compliant with what the city wants to do.
As an example, consider my appointment to the Wichita Airport Advisory Board last year. I had to be confirmed by the city council. I’ve been critical of the subsidy paid to airlines at the Wichita airport. I’ve researched airfares, air traffic, and the like. I’ve presented findings to the city council that were contrary to the city’s official position and that discovered a possible negative effect of the subsidy effort. Because of that, the council would not confirm my appointment. The city was not willing to have even one person on the airport board who might say wait, let’s take a look at this in a different way, and would have facts to support an alternative.
At Tuesday’s meeting the council assured citizens that it would not be the same group of city hall insiders serving on these boards. According to meeting minutes, council member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) said “Over the next few months there is going to be a lot more detail given to the public so that they can make an informed decision at the time this comes up to a vote in November.”
If the council is serious about this it could take a simple step: Appoint the members of these boards well in advance of the November election. Also, define the structure of the boards, such as the number of members, how appointed, term of appointment, and other details.
The city says that the operations of the committees and the jobs fund will be transparent. But the city’s record in transparency is poor. For many years the city’s quasi-independent agencies have refused to release spending records. Many, such as I, believe this is contrary to not only the spirit, but the actual language of the Kansas Open Records Act. There is nothing the city has said that would lead us to believe that the city plans to change its stance towards the citizens’ right to know.
If the city wants to convince citizens that it has changed its attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know how tax money is spent, it could positively respond to the records requests made by myself and Kansas Policy Institute.
The city is also likely to engage in an educational and informational campaign on its cable television channel. If it does, a welcome gesture would be to offer time on the channel for citizen groups to present their side of the issues. The city’s cable channel is supposed to be a public access channel, but as of now, citizens have no ability to produce content for that channel.
In presentations to the council, reports released by the Texas Enterprise Fund have been used as examples of what Wichita might do to inform citizens on the economic development activities funded by the sales tax. But many in Texas are critical of the information provided about the fund’s operation.
Even when information is provided, it is subject to different interpretations by self-interested parties. On the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, the Houston Chronicle recently reported “Whether or not the fund has lost taxpayer money depends on which accounting method is applied. The Associated Press says a method common to government entities placed the fund’s value at $175 million, with a loss of $30 million. The governor’s office uses a private accounting standard that places the fund’s value at $230 million, a $25 million profit.”
In 2011 the Wall Street Journal reported on how job creation numbers can be stretched far beyond any sense of reason:
In Texas, Mr. Perry in a 2011 report to the legislature credited the Texas A&M Institute for Genomic Medicine with already producing more than 12,000 additional jobs. That’s ahead of the 5,000 promised by 2015.
According to the institute’s director, however, 10 people currently work in its new building. A Houston-area biotech firm that agreed to produce about 1,600 of the project’s jobs has instead cut its Texas staff by almost 400 people, and currently employs 220 people in the state.
What accounts for the discrepancy? To reach their estimate of 12,000-plus jobs created by the project, officials included every position added in Texas since 2005 in fields related sometimes only tangentially to biotechnology, according to state officials and documents provided by Texas A&M. They include jobs in things ike dental equipment, fertilizer manufacturing and medical imaging.
William Hoyt, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky who studies state economic-incentive programs across the U.S., said similar efforts elsewhere have been dogged by controversy over how many jobs they actually created. Even so, Mr. Hoyt said he hasn’t come across a definition as broad as that employed by Texas. “It’s hard to see jobs in dental supplies in El Paso being related to a genome clinic in College Station,” where Texas A&M’s main campus is located, he said.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Perry’s office in Austin, Texas, said the job totals for the A&M project were provided by the grant recipients, using figures compiled by the Texas Workforce Commission, the state’s labor agency, and hadn’t yet been “verified.” (Behind Perry’s Jobs Success, Numbers Draw New Scrutiny, October 11, 2011)
Locally, Wichita has had difficulty making information available. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on the problems.
The Eagle asked the city last week for an accounting of the jobs created over the past decade by the tax abatements, a research project that urban development staffers have yet to complete.
“It will take us some time to pull together all the agenda reports on the five-year reviews going back to 2003. That same research will also reveal any abatements that were ‘retooled’ as a result of the five-year reviews,” city urban development director Allen Bell said. “I can tell you that none of the abatements were terminated.” (Wichita doubles property tax exemptions for businesses, October 20, 2013)
One might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. But apparently that isn’t the case.
We need to recognize that because the city does not have at its immediate disposal the statistics about job creation, it is evident that the city is not managing this effort. Or, maybe it just doesn’t care. This is a management problem at the highest level.
In fact, the city and its economic development agencies don’t even keep promotional websites current. GWEDC — that’s the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition credited with recruiting a company named InfoNXX to Wichita — doesn’t update its website to reflect current conditions. InfoNXX closed its facility in Wichita in 2012. When I looked at GWEDC’s website in October 2013, I found this on a page titled Office Operations:
Wichita hosts over a dozen customer service and processing centers — including a USPS Remote Encoding Center (985 employees), InfoNXX (950), T-Mobile (900), Royal Caribbean (700), Convergys (600), Protection One (540), Bank of America (315) and Cox Communications (230.) (emphasis added)
Observe that the official Wichita-area economic development agency touted the existence of a company that no longer exists in Wichita, and claims a job count that the company never achieved. Also, at that time the USPS facility was in the process of closing and eliminating all Wichita jobs.
What is Wichita doing to convince citizens that it has moved beyond this level of negligence?
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll take a look at some of the primary elections results this week. What did voters say, and what should we look for in the November general election and the future past that? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 54, broadcast August 10, 2014.
In Sedgwick County, two fiscally conservative commission candidates prevailed.
This year three of the five positions on the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners are up for election. Unlike the Wichita city Council, Sedgwick County commissioners run as members of a party, and compete in both primary and general elections. There can be independent and third-party candidates too. This year for one of the Sedgwick County commission districts the incumbent Republican ran unopposed. But in two other districts, there were spirited contests.
In district four, which covers north-central and northwest Wichita, Maize, Valley Center, and Park City, incumbent Richard Ranzau was challenged by Carolyn McGinn. She had held this position in the past, and then served in the Kansas Senate, an office she still holds. Ranzau is well known — notorious, we might say — for his tough line on spending taxpayer dollars. The McGinn campaign had about twice as much money to spend. A lot of that came from the people we know as Wichita’s crony capitalists, that is, people and companies who actively seek handouts from government. The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce endorsed McGinn. Now, you may think of your local chamber of commerce as pro-business. And, the chamber is pro-business, no doubt about it. But pro-business is not the same as pro-capitalism. Being pro-business is not the same as being in favor of economic freedom. Being pro-business is not the same as supporting a limited, constitutional, government that protects our freedoms and property rights.
I want to stress this point. Just this week Wichita’s own Charles Koch wrote an op-ed for USA Today. After expressing concern for the weak economy and its effect on workers, he offered a plan forward. He wrote “First, we need to encourage principled entrepreneurship. Companies should earn profits by creating value for customers and acting with integrity, the opposite of today’s rampant cronyism.”
Concluding his article, Koch wrote: “Our government’s decades-long, top-down approach to job creation has failed. Its policies have made our problems worse, leaving tens of millions chronically un- or underemployed, millions of whom have given up ever finding meaningful work. In doing so, our government has not only thwarted real job creation, it also has reduced the supply and quality of goods and services that make people’s lives better and undermined the culture required to sustain a free society. When it comes to creating opportunities for all, we can do much better. It’s time to let people seek opportunities that best suit their talents, for businesses to forsake cronyism, and for government to get out of the way.”
While Charles Koch was writing primarily about the United States government, the same principles apply to local government. And Wichita’s cronies — those who seek profits through politicians and bureaucrats rather than customers — they lined up behind Carolyn McGinn in a big way. By using their generous funding, she ran a negative campaign against Richard Ranzau. He forcefully and truthfully responded to her negative ads, and I’m pleased to say that I helped in that effort.
What was the result of the election? Ranzau won with 54 percent of the vote. He now moves on to face Democrat Melody McRae-Miller in the November general election. She held this county commission seat before McGinn, and she also served in the Kansas legislature, in the House of Representatives.
There was also a contest in district 5, which is Derby and parts of southeast Wichita. The one-term incumbent Jim Skelton declined to run for re-election. The two Republican candidates were Jim Howell and Dion Avello. Howell has represented parts of Derby in the Kansas House of Representatives for four years. Avello has been mayor of Derby for many years. The Wichita Chamber endorsed Howell in this race. Campaign funds were close in this race, with Howell having a small edge. The result of the election was Howell winning with 63 percent of the vote. He moves on to face the Democrat in the general election, former Rose Hill Mayor Richard Young.
What do the results of these elections mean? First, there may be a shift of power on the Sedgwick County commission. Currently, commissioners Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn are often in a minority of two against the other three commissioners. It’s thought that it Howell is elected, he would often join Ranzau and Peterjohn to form a working majority of three. That could cause a change in policy at the County commission, and that’s something that the Wichita chamber and Wichita’s cronies don’t want. It will be interesting to see who the chamber and the cronies support in the general election, Ranzau or the Democrat. In 2008, when Peterjohn ran for his first term, the Wichita chamber campaigned against him, making it their most important priority in that election.
For this shift to materialize, both Ranzau and Howell must win their November elections.
Ranzau’s victory is a defeat for the Wichita Chamber of Commerce. Besides endorsing McGinn, it made independent expenditures in her favor. This has broader implications than just one county commission district. This week the Wichita City Council voted in favor of placing a sales tax issue on the November ballot. The Wichita Chamber is strongly behind the sales tax in Wichita, and I would expect to see the chamber devote a lot of resources campaigning for its passage. Richard Ranzau is opposed to the sales tax increase. While his county commission district encompasses a lot of territory that is outside the City of Wichita, and it is only Wichita voters who will decide the sales tax issue, I think we can safely conclude that his victory paints a gloomy forecast for approval of a sales tax.
Looking even farther to the future. Ranzau’s county commission district overlaps part of Wichita city council district 5. That is currently represented by Jeff Longwell. He can’t run again because of term limits. Longwell is firmly in the grasp of Wichita’s cronies. Could Ranzau’s victory pave the way for a fiscally conservative city council candidate in district 5? That election will be next spring.
Also next spring Wichita will elect a new mayor. There are many names mentioned as candidates, including Longwell. What do the victories of Ranzau and Howell mean? What impact will the sales tax campaign and election result have on the spring elections?
The Wichita Chamber and the Wichita cronies campaigned hard for Carolyn McGinn against Richard Ranzau. Well, I should clarify: They spent a lot of money on the campaign. Richard himself, his family, and his volunteers worked hard. The desire for economic freedom by Richard Ranzau and his volunteers was a more powerful force than the greed of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce, Key Construction, David Burk, and Bill Warren.
Keep this in mind. The Sedgwick County Commission has very little power to initiate the type of economic development incentives that the Wichita Chamber and the cronies want. That power rests almost totally at the Wichita City Council and the Kansas Department of Commerce. Also, the county commission has limited power to stop or object to incentives. Their main voice is the ability to cancel the formation of a tax increment financing district.
So if the Wichita Chamber and the cronies are willing to intervene to such extent in the campaign for county commissioner, think what they will be willing to do in city council or mayoral contests, if they see that their grip on the really big cookie jar might be in doubt. Since the departure of Michael O’Donnell for the Kansas Senate there has been no one on the Wichita city council who questions anything the Chamber and the cronies want. Not in any serious manner, that is. We see council members making false displays of pretense now and then, but that’s all they do.
The contest in the Kansas fourth district is a choice between principle and political expediency, and between economic freedom and cronyism.
While some news articles and political columns have described the contest for Republican Party nomination for United States House of Representatives between Todd Tiahrt and Mike Pompeo as a yawner, as between two candidates with few and only minor distinguishing positions — there are important differences. The press is starting to notice.
In the Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel made the case for this contest’s importance as a bellwether of Republican sentiment:
A big decision comes Tuesday in the Kansas GOP primary. The Sunflower State is in the throes of political upheaval, with most of the attention on the fortunes of Gov. Sam Brownback and Sen. Pat Roberts. But the race that may say far more about the direction of the GOP is taking place in Wichita, the state’s Fourth District, in the standoff between Rep. Mike Pompeo and challenger Todd Tiahrt.
The 50-year-old Mr. Pompeo — an Army veteran, Harvard Law grad and businessman — was elected in the 2010 tea party surge, with a particular focus on liberating private enterprise. He’s made a name for himself as a leader in the fight to end corporate welfare and pork, and to cut back on strangling regulations. (Potomac Watch: A Crony Capitalism Showdown, August 1, 2014)
(If the above link does not work for you because you don’t have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, click here.)
After detailing some legislative activity and accomplishment, Strassel notes the difficulty that fighters for economic freedom encounter: “Such principles are precisely what conservative voters claim to demand from their representatives. Yet the antisubsidy line has hardly been an easy one, even in conservative Kansas — which collects its share of federal largess. And Mr. Tiahrt knows it.”
Concluding her column, Strassel outlines the choice that so many writers have failed to realize:
The choice voters fundamentally face on Tuesday is whether they want a congressman who works to get government smaller for everyone and to end corporate welfare, or a congressman who grabs what he can of big government to funnel to his district, and embraces crony capitalism. The latter is a return to the unreformed GOP, a groove plenty of Republicans would happily slide back into — if only voters gave the nod. We’ll see if Kansas conservatives do.
Another example of the difference between the two candidates is the Export-Import Bank. Conservative groups are urging that Congress not reauthorize the bank, a vote that will happen soon. The most common argument is that it harms American jobs, and there are allegations of corruption in its operations.
While in Congress, Pompeo voted against the reauthorization of the bank. He has said he would vote against its reauthorization again unless there is significant reform. Tiahrt, on the other hand, voted in favor of the Export-Import Bank. It’s representative of the type of cronyism he has supported while in office, and would likely support again, especially as his positions tack to the political left.
Finally, Tiahrt has recently criticized Charles Koch and Americans for Prosperity, leading us to wonder if Tiahrt understands or embraces the principles of economic freedom and free markets.
Two years ago United States Senator Pat Roberts voted in committee with liberals like John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, and Debbie Stabenow to pass a bill loaded with wasteful corporate welfare.
The Wall Street Journal noticed a vote made by Senator Roberts in committee that lead to the fiscal cliff bill . The newspaper explained the harm of this bill in its editorial:
The great joke here is that Washington pretends to want to pass “comprehensive tax reform,” even as each year it adds more tax giveaways that distort the tax code and keep tax rates higher than they have to be. Even as he praised the bill full of this stuff, Mr. Obama called Tuesday night for “further reforms to our tax code so that the wealthiest corporations and individuals can’t take advantage of loopholes and deductions that aren’t available to most Americans.”
One of Mr. Obama’s political gifts is that he can sound so plausible describing the opposite of his real intentions.
The costs of all this are far greater than the estimates conjured by the Joint Tax Committee. They include slower economic growth from misallocated capital, lower revenues for the Treasury and thus more pressure to raise rates on everyone, and greater public cynicism that government mainly serves the powerful.
Republicans who are looking for a new populist message have one waiting here, and they could start by repudiating the corporate welfare in this New Year disgrace. (Crony Capitalist Blowout: A tax increase for everyone but the favored wealthy few. January 4, 2013)
The Journal took the rare measure of calling out the senators who voted for this bill in committee, as shown in its nearby graphic. There it is: Pat Roberts voting in concert with the likes of John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, and Debbie Stabenow.
If Tom Coburn of Oklahoma could vote against this bill in committee, then so could have Pat Roberts. But he didn’t.
Kansas congressional candidate Todd Tiahrt has criticized Charles Koch and Americans for Prosperity, leading us to wonder if Tiahrt understands or embraces the principles of economic freedom and free markets.
In a recent speech, candidate for United States House of Representatives Todd Tiahrt criticized Americans for Prosperity and Charles Koch, telling an audience “in general, they try to fight programs that they think are not good for Koch Industries.”
He also said that for Mike Pompeo, Tiahrt’s election opponent who is supported by Americans for Prosperity, they “think it’s all about the money.”
These allegations are contrary to positions and actions that Charles and David Koch have taken throughout their lives. As an example, in April of this year Charles Koch penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. In the article, Koch explains his involvement in public affairs:
Far from trying to rig the system, I have spent decades opposing cronyism and all political favors, including mandates, subsidies and protective tariffs — even when we benefit from them. I believe that cronyism is nothing more than welfare for the rich and powerful, and should be abolished.
Koch Industries was the only major producer in the ethanol industry to argue for the demise of the ethanol tax credit in 2011. That government handout (which cost taxpayers billions) needlessly drove up food and fuel prices as well as other costs for consumers — many of whom were poor or otherwise disadvantaged. Now the mandate needs to go, so that consumers and the marketplace are the ones who decide the future of ethanol. (Charles Koch: I’m Fighting to Restore a Free Society)
In an earlier Journal op-ed Koch wrote “Crony capitalism is much easier than competing in an open market. But it erodes our overall standard of living and stifles entrepreneurs by rewarding the politically favored rather than those who provide what consumers want.”
If it was “all about the money” as Tiahrt contends, Koch Industries would join the majority of American business firms that seek to rig the system in their favor. But Charles and David Koch, along with Americans for Prosperity, do not do that. Instead, they advocate for reform.
It’s not a recent conversion, either. Charles and David Koch have promoted free markets and economic freedom for many decades. Charles Koch and others founded what became the Cato Institute in 1977, almost four decades ago. Cato has been consistent in its advocacy of economic freedom.
Even earlier that that: An issue of Koch Industries Discovery newsletter contains a story titled “Don’t subsidize me.” Here’s an excerpt describing an event that must have taken place about 50 years ago:
When Charles Koch was in his 20s, he attended a business function hosted by his father. At that event, Fred Koch introduced Charles to a local oilman. When the independent oilman politely asked about the young man’s interests, Charles began talking about all he was doing to promote economic freedom. “Wow!” said the oilman, who was so impressed he wanted to introduce the young bachelor to his eligible daughter. But when Charles mentioned he was in favor of eliminating the government’s oil import quota, which subsidized domestic producers, the oilman exploded in rage. “Your father ought to lock you in a cell!” he yelled, jabbing his finger into Charles’ chest. “You’re worse than a Communist!”
It seems the oilman was all for the concept of free markets — unless it meant he had to compete on equal terms.
For more than 50 years, Charles Koch has consistently promoted economic freedom, even when it was not in the company’s immediate financial interest. In the 1960s, Koch was willing to testify before a powerful Congressional committee that he was against the oil import quota — a very popular political measure at the time. “I think it’s fair to say my audience was less than receptive,” recalls Koch.
Years later, Koch warned an independent energy association about the dangers of subsidies and mandates. “We avoid the short-run temptation to impose regulatory burdens on competitors. We don’t lobby for subsidies that penalize taxpayers for our benefit. “This is our philosophy because we believe this will produce the most favorable conditions in the long run,” Koch said.
It seems that candidate Tiahrt doesn’t share these principles.
Following is a transcript provided to me of remarks by Todd Tiahrt on July 25, 2014.
The Americans for Prosperity is an organization that is primarily funded by Koch Industries and, in general, they try to fight programs that they think are not good for Koch Industries. And now they’re trying to support President, excuse me, they’re trying to support Mr. Pompeo. So, I guess because Mr. Pompeo is a Harvard lawyer and President Obama is a Harvard lawyer, sometimes I accidentally slip when I say “President Obama” when I really meant to say “Mr. Pompeo,” because they’re both Harvard lawyers.
Americans for Prosperity have done some good things in the past, but today they’re on the wrong side of the truth. … Mr. Pompeo and Koch Industries think it’s all about the money. You can out-vote Charles Koch if you get one other person to vote with you. Right here we have enough people to out-vote all of the billionaires in Kansas. Right here we have enough people to out-vote most of the millionaires, but they think that they can sway the outcome of this election by just putting more and more money into it. And forget about you! … They, in Washington, are all about the money, and it’s playing out right here in the Fourth District of Kansas.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at a variety of topics, including an upcoming educational event concerning water in Wichita, more wasteful spending by the city, yard signs during election season, problems with economic development and cronyism in Wichita, and water again. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 50, broadcast July 6, 2014.
Following is testimony provided to the Wichita City Council on July 1, 2014. Background on this issue may be found at In Wichita, a public hearing with missing information and Wichita city council schools citizens on civic involvement.
Thank you for providing the gap analysis that I requested.
If the gap analysis is credible, if it really is true that projects like this are not financially feasible without taxpayer assistance, what does that tell us about Wichita? Shouldn’t we work on fixing these problems for everyone, rather than parceling out business welfare on a piecemeal basis?
The agenda packet material for this item says there is a need for incentives “based on the current market.” But not long ago this council was told that downtown Wichita is booming. So why won’t the market support a project like this without a handout from city taxpayers? And if downtown is truly booming but we’re still giving out incentives, will we ever be able to wean ourselves off?
Based on my reading of the gap analysis document, I see another problem with the facade improvement program. It shifts costs from landlords to commercial tenants. Instead of paying for the facade improvement costs as part of a mortgage or other financing, these costs become additional property taxes that commercial tenants pay in addition to rent.
This is really a problem, as Kansas and Wichita commercial property taxes are high. Each year The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence survey property taxes. Considering the largest city in each of the states, Wichita property taxes are ninth highest in the nation for commercial property.
Wichita taxes are not just a little higher, but a lot higher. For example, for a commercial property valued at $100,000, Wichita property taxes are 38.5 percent higher than the national average.
Some of the reason why commercial property taxes are so high is due to the difference in assessment rates for various property classes. That’s not set by the City of Wichita. But the overall level of spending, and therefore the level of taxation, is set by this council. Further, the cost of incentives like this raise the cost of government for everyone else. One thing the city could do is to reduce spending somewhere else to offset the cost of this incentive. This would mean that other taxpayers do not have to bear the cost of this incentive.
If we wonder why the Wichita economy is not growing, commercial property tax rates and this council’s policy of targeted reductions are a large part of the problem.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Does Wichita have a problem with cronyism? The mayor, city council, and bureaucrats say no, but you can decide for yourself. Then, from LearnLiberty.org, the harm of cronyism at the national level. Episode 48, broadcast June 22, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.
Does Wichita have a problem with cronyism? The mayor, city council, and bureaucrats say no, but you can decide for yourself. View below, or click here to view in high definition at YouTube.
In February 2012 the City of Wichita held an election, but you wouldn’t have learned of the results if your only news source was the city’s website or television station. In the following article from March 2012, I wonder why news of the election results was overlooked by the city.
After last week’s election results in Wichita in which voters canceled an ordinance passed by the city council, I noticed there was no mention of the election results on the city’s website. So I dashed off a note to several responsible authorities, writing this:
“I notice that the city’s website carries no news on the results of the February 28th election. Is this oversight unintentional? Or does the city intend to continue spending its taxpayer-funded news producing efforts on stories with headlines like ‘Valentine’s at Mid-Continent Airport,’ ‘Rain Garden Workshops in February,’ and ‘Firefighter Receives Puppy Rescued at Fire Scene’?”
It’s not as though city staff doesn’t have time to produce a story on the election. The city’s public affairs department employs 15 people with an annual budget of some $1.3 million. While some of these employees are neighborhood assistants, there are still plenty of people who could spend an hour or two writing a story announcing the results of the February 28th election.
Except: That doesn’t fit in with the city’s political strategy. That strategy appears to be to ignore the results of the election, or to characterize the election as a narrowly-focused referendum on one obscure economic development tool.
At one time, however, the attitude of city hall was that the election was over the entire future of downtown Wichita. Mayor Carl Brewer said the election would cause “turmoil inside the community, unrest.” Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said we needed to have an early election date so “avoid community discourse and debate.” He later backpedaled from these remarks.
But now that city hall and its allies lost the election, the issue is now cast as having been very narrow, after all. Citizens aren’t against economic development incentives, they say. They’re just against hotel guest tax rebates.
This narrow interpretation illustrates — again — that we have a city council, city hall bureaucracy, and allied economic development machinery that is totally captured by special interests. Furthermore, the revealed purpose of the city’s public affairs department, including its television channel, is now seen as the promotion of Wichita city government, not Wichita and its citizens. These are two very different things.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A few tips on using your computer and the internet. Then, how to be informed. Finally, a look at a recent episode of economic development in Wichita, and what we can we learn from that. Episode 47, broadcast June 15, 2014. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.
Before Wichita city hall asks its subjects for more tax revenue, it needs to regain the trust of Wichitans. Following, from February, an illustration of the problems city hall has created for itself. And, how it would be helpful if the editorial board of the state’s largest newspaper acted as though it cared about ethics, cronyism, government transparency, and corruption.
When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.
— P.J. O’Rourke
Your principle has placed these words above the entrance of the legislative chamber: “whosoever acquires any influence here can obtain his share of legal plunder.” And what has been the result? All classes have flung themselves upon the doors of the chamber crying:
“A share of the plunder for me, for me!”
— Frederic Bastiat
Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers a policy designed to squelch the council’s ability to issue no-bid contracts for city projects. This policy is necessary to counter the past bad behavior of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and several council members, as well as their inability to police themselves regarding matters of ethical behavior by government officials.
The proposed policy is problematic. For some projects the developer will have to pay for “a third party expert to verify construction estimates and contracts with respect to reasonable market costs and appropriate allocation of costs between public and private funding.”
Why are measures like this necessary? The impetus for this policy is the no-bid contract awarded to Key Construction for the construction of the garage near the Ambassador Hotel, originally called Douglas Place, now known as Block One.
A letter of intent passed by the council on August 9, 2011 gives the cost of the garage: “Douglas Place LLC will administer the construction of the garage and urban park on behalf of the City and the City will pay the cost of designing and constructing the same at a cost not-to-exceed $6,800,000.” Of that, $770,000 was for the urban park, leaving about $6 million cost for the garage. The motion to approve the letter of intent passed with all council members except Michael O’Donnell voting in favor.
By the time the item appeared for consideration at the September 13, 2011 city council meeting, city documents gave the cost of the constructing the garage structure at an even $6 million. The motion to spend that amount on the garage passed with all members except O’Donnell voting in favor, except Brewer was absent and did not vote.
Then the city manager decided that the project should be put to competitive bid. Key Construction won that competition with a bid of about $4.7 million. Same garage, same company, but $1.3 million saved.
The Wichita Eagle tells the story like this: “The Ambassador garage at Douglas Place, awarded at $4.73 million to Key Construction — a partner in the hotel project and the project’s contractor — came in about 20 percent under estimates provided the City Council, on the heels of some city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled over budget.” (“Wichita City Council to consider bidding policy extension”, Wichita Eagle, Sunday, February 2, 2014)
Reading the Eagle story, citizens might conclude that due to excellent management by Key Construction, the garage was built at a 20 percent savings under “estimates.”
But that’s not at all what happened. It’s not even close to what really happened.
Without the intervention of O’Donnell, the city manager, and — according to press reports — city council member Pete Meitzner, the garage would have been built for $6 million. That was the intent of a majority of the council. The $6 million price tag for the no-bid contract was in the ordinance that passed, and in the letter of intent that passed a month before. There were no “estimates” as the Eagle reported. There was only the expressed desire of the council to spend $6 million.
So there were no “estimates” that Key Construction bested. But there was an objectionable no-bid contract that the council agreed to. Fortunately for Wichita, a few people objected and overrode the council’s bad decision.
We’re left to wonder why the Eagle retold the story with Key Construction in the role of hero. That’s about 180 degrees away from the role this company plays.
Key Construction is intimately involved in city politics. Its principals and executives contribute heavily to mayoral and city council election campaigns. Company president David Wells is a personal friend of the mayor.
Did Key’s political involvement and campaign contributions play a role in the council awarding the company a no-bid garage contract? Key Construction executives and their spouses are among a small group who routinely make maximum campaign contributions to candidates. These candidates are both liberal and conservative, which rebuts the presumption that these contributions are made for ideological reasons, that is, agreeing with the political positions of candidates. Instead, Key Construction and a few companies are political entrepreneurs. They seek to please politicians and bureaucrats, and by doing so, receive no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded benefits. This form of cronyism is harmful to Wichita taxpayers, as shown by the Ambassador Hotel garage.
The harm of pay-to-play
When it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?
Wait a minute: Doesn’t Wichita have a newspaper that keeps a watchful eye on cronyism and corruption? With an editorial board that crusades against these ills?
The answer is no. No such newspaper exists in Wichita.
We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. The Ambassador Hotel garage contract is just one example. Citizens are working on this initiative on several fronts. Some find the actions of these candidates so distasteful and offensive that they are willing to take to the streets to gather thousands of signatures to force the Wichita City Council to act in a proper manner.
That huge effort shouldn’t be necessary. Why? The politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t give to influence votes.
If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a “pay-to-play” law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.
There is a law, sort of
Citizens who believe that city council members ought not to vote on matters involving their friends and business associates, we already have such a law. Sort of. Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008 (full section below):
“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”
Mayor Carl Brewer voted for this law, by the way. When asked about a specific application of this city law, the Wichita city attorney supplied this interpretation:
Related to the Mayor’s participation in the item, yes, City Code advises Council members to “refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors. … ” but the Code does not provide definitions or limits to these broad categories of constituents. Further, the City Code clearly requires Council members to “vote on all matters coming before the City Council except in those particular cases of conflict of interest. …” The city Code does not define what constitutes a conflict but the Council has historically applied the State law for that definition.
Applying that State law specific to local municipalities, the Mayor does not have any substantial interest in Douglas Place LLC, and therefore no conflict. Under the State ethics law, there was no requirement that the Mayor recuse himself from voting on the Ambassador Project.
So we have statutory language that reads “shall refrain,” but the city attorney interprets that to mean “advises.”
We also have statutory language that reads “business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” But the city attorney feels that these terms are not defined, and therefore the mayor and city council members need not be concerned about compliance with this law. We’re left to wonder whether this law has any meaning at all.
Be advised: If you ask the mayor to adhere to this law, he may threaten to sue you.
If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.
Giving that impression, through, would be false — and unethical.
Here’s the Wichita city code:
Sec. 2.04.050. — Code of ethics for council members.
Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of such elected officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of such transactions. In addition to the matters of pecuniary interest, council members shall refrain from making use of special knowledge or information before it is made available to the general public; shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors; shall refrain from repeated and continued violation of city council rules; shall refrain from appointing immediate family members, business associates, clients or employees to municipal boards and commissions; shall refrain from influencing the employment of municipal employees; shall refrain from requesting the fixing of traffic tickets and all other municipal code citations; shall refrain from seeking the employment of immediate family members in any municipal operation; shall refrain from using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates; and shall comply with all lawful actions, directives and orders of duly constituted municipal officials as such may be issued in the normal and lawful discharge of the duties of these municipal officials.
Council members shall conduct themselves so as to bring credit upon the city as a whole and so as to set an example of good ethical conduct for all citizens of the community. Council members shall bear in mind at all times their responsibility to the entire electorate, and shall refrain from actions benefiting special groups at the expense of the city as a whole and shall do everything in their power to ensure equal and impartial law enforcement throughout the city at large without respect to race, creed, color or the economic or the social position of individual citizens.