Tag Archives: Downtown Wichita revitalization

Articles about the redevelopment of downtown Wichita and its impact on the economic freedom of Wichitans.

Wichita helps out the Ambassador Hotel campaign

A page on the City of Wichita’s official, taxpayer-funded website provides information on the February 28th special election regarding a guest tax rebate for the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Wichita. While the page provides useful information, it makes a claim that is not accurate, and one which may persuade Wichita voters to vote Yes.

Specifically, a page on the city’s website states: “Developers would be allowed to collect the rebate for 15 years for costs associated with redeveloping the hotel.”

An informational sheet also on the city’s website says much the same, claiming that the purpose of the guest tax rebate is to “reimburse them for costs associated with redeveloping the hotel.”

Many city programs, such as TIF and CID, have specified, allowable uses for the funds provided by these incentive programs. But this guest tax rebate program does not. When the city makes these claims regarding the use of the guest tax, it makes it sound almost benign. Voters might feel persuaded to vote in favor of the rebate program using a reason that doesn’t exist in fact or in contract.

The guest tax is mentioned on pages 22, 25, 27, 81, 82, 95, and 98 of the agenda packet for the September 13, 2001 city council meeting. The packet includes the actual agreement between the city and the Ambassador Hotel development team.

None of the references to the guest tax rebate say anything about how the money may be used.

I asked the city about this, as to whether the city was adding extra meaning to the guest tax rebate that was not specified in the contract between the city and the hotel developers.

A response from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf disagreed with my contention. Rebenstorf wrote “The explanation you question is a factual statement and accurately reflects the purpose of the rebated taxes to help with costs associated with redeveloping the hotel. The development agreement, which details the development project, provides for the incentive. The guest tax rebates will provide operating cost relief with added cash flow to increase the developer’s capacity to carry more private debt and/or equity and thus cover costs associated with redevelopment of the hotel.”

But you be the judge. Is the guest tax rebate necessary, and will it be used for the purposes mentioned in city attorney Rebenstorf’s statement?

There’s no contract that requires the hotel developers to do so.

Furthermore, the hotel developers have said the hotel will open even if the guest tax rebate measure does not pass in the February 28th election.

The guest tax measure is more properly viewed as a ninth potential layer of taxpayer-funded government subsidy provided for this hotel. Eight layers are already in place and will not be affected by the outcome of the election.

It is only the ninth layer that is in question — a ninth layer that is unnecessary, and that goes directly to the developer’s pockets, despite the claims of the city’s attorney.

I believe there’s a technical business and legal term for that: gravy.

Wichita Intrust Bank Arena profit, in perspective

Last week the Sedgwick County Commission heard a report from county managers regarding the financial performance of the Intrust Bank Arena. The arena, located in downtown Wichita, is owned by the county.

The main facts are that revenue and profits are down. A Wichita Eagle article holds more details about the numbers.

What citizens need to know is this: The honeymoon is over. The promised boost to downtown that arena backers promised has yet to materialize in any broad sense. When it does poke through — an example being the Ambassador Hotel — it requires many millions of taxpayer subsidy.

But perhaps most important is the realization that county leaders are not being honest with its citizens. The “profit” shown by the arena is not reckoned using anything like businesses use, or even most branches of government, for that matter. As explained in the following article from last August, Sedgwick County doesn’t recognize the large capital investment made by citizens to build the arena. Instead, it treats that sacrifice as having no relevance to the economics underlying the arena.

On top of that, the profit statement presented to commissioners is accompanied by this qualification, which the county does not explain to citizens: “[These statements are] not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense ignored

By Bob Weeks

Reports that income earned by the Intrust Bank Arena is down sharply has brought the arena’s finances back into the news. The arena, located in downtown Wichita and owned by Sedgwick County, is deemed to be a success by the county and arena boosters based on “profit” figures generated during its first year of operations. But these numbers are not an honest assessment of the arena’s financial performance.

When the numbers were presented to Sedgwick County commissioners this week, commission chair Dave Unruh said that he is “pleased that we we still are showing black ink.”

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

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

Since it is only one year old, presumably the arena could be sold for something near its building cost, less an allowance for wear and tear. If not, then the county has a lot of explaining to do as to why it built an asset that has no market value.

But even if the arena has no market value — and I suspect that in reality it has very little value — it still has an economic cost that must be recognized, that cost being the sales tax collected to pay for it. While arena boosters dismiss this as past history, the county recognizes this cost each year, and will continue to do so for many years.

The county, however, doesn’t go out of its way to present the complete and accurate accounting of the arena’s cost. Instead, the county and arena boosters trumpet the “profit” earned by the arena for the county according to an operating and management agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.

This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. Based on the terms of the agreement, Sedgwick County received payment of $1,116,442 for the 2010 year. While described as profit by many — and there was much crowing over the seemingly large amount — this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

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

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn has warned that these figures — and the monthly “profit” figures presented to commissioners — do not include depreciation expense. That expense is a method of recognizing and accounting for the large capital cost of the arena — the cost that arena boosters dismiss.

In April Sedgwick County released that depreciation number in its 2010 Comprehensive Annual Report. The number is pretty big: $4.4 million, some four times the purported “earnings” of the arena.

Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take this number into account. Unruh is correct in that this depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow. That cash was spent during the construction phase of the arena.

But depreciation expense provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets like buildings over their lifespan. It recognizes and respects the investment of those who paid the sales tax. When we follow standard practices like recognizing the cost of capital assets through depreciation expense, we’re forced to recognize that there’s a $4.4 million gorilla in the room that arena boosters don’t want to talk about.

Using information about arena operations contained in the operations report, we can construct what an actual income statement for the arena would look like, following generally accepted business principles. According to the statement, total operating income for 2010 was $7,005,224. Operating expenses were $4,994,488. Subtracting gives a figure of $2,010,736. This number, however, is not labeled a profit in the report. Instead, the report calls it “Increase in Net Assets Arising from Operating Activities Managed by SMG.”

An accounting of profit would have to subtract the $4.4 million in depreciation expense. Doing that results in a loss of $2,389,264. This — or something like it — is the number we should be discussing when assessing the financial performance of Intrust Bank Arena.

Fiscal conservatives — and sometimes even liberals — often speak of “running government like a business.” But here’s an example of conservative government leaders ignoring a basic business principle in order to paint a rosy picture of a government spending project.

Without honest discussion of numbers like these, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information. This is especially important as civic leaders agitate for another sales tax or other taxes to pay for more public investment. The sales pitch is that once the tax is collected and the assets paid for, we don’t need to consider the cost. They contend, as is the attitude of Unruh and arena boosters, that we can just sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. This is a false line of reasoning, and citizens ought not to be fooled.

Wichita convention business

One of the reasons Wichita city leaders say we need to provide subsidy to the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Wichita is that the hotel rooms are needed to support the city’s effort in pursuing convention business.

On its face, this pursuit of convention business seems like a noble effort by city leaders. Vast streams of economic development will follow if they are successful, they say. Providing subsidy to hotels in support of this effort, they conclude, should be a simple decision. Especially when supporters tell us that much of the subsidy to the hotel will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But this claim is true for only a narrow part of the Ambassador Hotel’s $15 million subsidy package. Most of the cost is paid for by taxpayers in Wichita, to a lesser extent in the entire state of Kansas, and to a smaller extent, the U.S. federal taxpayer.

But I’ve not seen discussion in Wichita on whether this pursuit of convention business is wise. Heywood T. Sanders, who is professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is a noted critic of public efforts to chase convention business for economic development. His report 2005 Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy was published by the left-leaning think tank The Brookings Institution. It provides a look at the realities of the convention trade.

Heywood writes that convention center business has been on the decline, and it started well before the terrorist attacks in 2001. In a section titled “Trends: Portrait of a Faltering Industry” we can read that attendance is down, exhibit space demand is down, and hotel room demand in cities has fallen too.

The author notes that the decline in convention business is a structural decline: “[Reasons for decline] are the product of industry consolidation, particularly in the hardware and home improvement industry, reductions in business travel in the face of increasing cost and difficulty, and alternative means of conveying and gathering information.” These are not cyclical trends that are likely to reverse in the future.

Despite shrinking demand, cities are building more convention space: “Despite diminishing demand, the last few years have seen a remarkable boom in the volume of exhibit space in U. S. convention centers.” The building of larger convention centers in many cities means that more cities are able to host the larger events, or, cities can now host several smaller events simultaneously. The result, says the author, is fierce competition for both large and small events.

Then, what about the costs? The author introduces a section on costs with: “The studies that justify both the new center space and the publicly-owned hotels paint a picture of tens of thousands of new out-of-town visitors and millions of dollars in economic impact. Despite that rhetoric, these projects carry real risks and larger potential costs, particularly in an uncertain and highly competitive environment.”

The convention center is just the start of costs: “A new [convention] center is thus often followed by a subsidized or fully publicly-owned hotel.” Wichita, of course, has a fully publicly-owned hotel, the large 303-room Hyatt. Now Wichita has been providing, and seeks to expand, subsidy programs to other downtown hotels. None of the hotels alone provide as many rooms as Wichita convention planners say the city needs, so we are likely to see proposals for a subsidies to hotels continue.

In fact, until Wichita has as many hotel rooms as our nation’s largest convention cities have, there is always a larger goal — a next step on the ladder. Can you imagine our city leaders ever proclaiming that we have enough hotel rooms in downtown Wichita?

Other things Heywood says that are likely to be proposed are a sports arena. Wichita, of course, just opened a taxpayer-financed and government-owned facility, the Intrust Bank Arena. After a brief honeymoon fling with good financial performance, the arena has settled down to a less-acceptable level of revenue production. Residents of Sedgwick County, which owns the arena, should be cautioned that the financial results hailed by the county don’t include depreciation costs, so the true financial picture is not anywhere near complete.

Entertainment, retail, and cultural attractions are often proposed, he writes, and Wichita downtown planners have indicated their desire for these. Downtown boosters are likely to propose a sales tax to support these efforts.

The conclusion to this paper describes Wichita’s current situation and foreshadows what is likely for the future of Wichita:

But if taxing, spending, and building have been successful, the performance and results of that investment have been decidedly less so. Existing convention centers have seen their business evaporate, while new centers and expansions are delivering remarkably little in terms of attendance and activity.

What is even more striking, in city after city, is that the new private investment and development that these centers were supposed to spur — and the associated thousands of new visitors — has simply not occurred. Rather, city and convention bureau officials now argue that cities need more space, and more convenience, to lure those promised conventions. And so underperforming convention centers now must be redeemed by public investment and ownership of big new hotels. When those hotels fail to deliver the promises, then the excuse is that more attractions, or more retail shops, or even more convention center space will be needed to achieve the goal of thousands of new visitors.

We already see some of this excuse-making taking place: Private investment in downtown Wichita has been weak, it is said, because there’s not yet a critical mass of development. It is promised by downtown boosters that given enough public money, critical mass will be achieved, and private investment will rush in. But since there is no definition of what constitutes critical mass, this excuse is always available to justify failure.

Listen to an interview with Sanders from 2009. A transcript of an interview with Sanders from 2004 is at “A Lot of Hooey”: Heywood Sanders on Convention Center Economics.

No-bid contracts a problem in Wichita

Wichita Eagle reporting by Bill Wilson uncovers a problem with no-bid contracts for construction projects in Wichita. Fortunately, the city manager recognizes the problem and will propose a partial solution.

Wilson reports on two past Key Construction garage projects that were completed with costs well over their budgets. Key Construction was scheduled to be the no-bid contractor on the upcoming Douglas Place garage, being built largely to provide parking to the Wichita Ambassador Hotel. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent passed by the Wichita City Council.

But when competitively bid, the cost will be almost $1.3 million less. This is a direct savings to taxpayers of the same amount. All members of the council except for Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voted for the no-bid contract to Key Construction, although Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer was absent. It is certain that he would have voted with the majority, however, as he voted in favor of the letter of intent.

Because of the perverse economic incentives of tax increment financing (TIF) — one of the two financing sources for the garage — it was actually to the benefit of hotel developers and Key Construction to spend as much as possible on the parking garage. See Wichita TIF: Taxpayer-funded benefits to political players for more on this topic.

By the way, Key Construction is part of the Ambassador Hotel development team. Further, the owners and principle executives of Key Construction are generous campaign financiers for both liberal and conservative members of the Wichita City Council. See Wichita City Council campaign contributions and Douglas Place for details on Key Construction political contributions.

This episode illustrates these things: a Wichita City Council almost totally captured by special interests and opportunists, crony capitalism on steroids, and another example of why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects

By Bill Wilson

The days of awarding construction projects without taking competitive bids might be numbered at City Hall if City Manager Robert Layton has his way, especially with public projects such as parking garages that are part of private commercial development.

Layton said last week that he intends to ask the City Council for a policy change against those no-bid contracts. The contracts became an issue after council members Michael O’Donnell and Pete Meitzner forced the city to take bids on the city-financed 300-stall parking garage adjacent to the privately financed Ambassador Hotel Wichita at Douglas and Broadway. Bids for the garage came in almost $1.3 million under some project estimates, the first publicly financed downtown parking garage in almost 20 years to come in under budget, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development.

Continue reading at The Wichita Eagle.

Wichita turns taxation over to private interests

In a free society with a limited government, taxation should be restricted to being a way for government to raise funds to pay for services that all people benefit from. But in the city of Wichita, taxation for private gain is overtaking our city.

The Ambassador Hotel, part of a project known as Douglas Place, makes use of several of these private tax policy strategies. By private tax policy, I mean that the proceeds of a tax are used for the exclusive benefit of one person (or business firm), instead of used for the benefit of all. In one example related to this hotel, the Wichita City Council is allowing private parties to determine the city’s tax policy at their discretion, not the city’s.

The tax in question is Wichita’s hotel guest tax. According to a description of the Tourism and Convention Fund in the city’s budget document, the goal of the guest tax is to “support tourism and convention, infrastructure, and promotion of the City.” Its priorities are to be “Fund priorities are: 1) debt service for tourism and convention facilities, 2) operational deficit subsidies and 3) care and maintenance of Century II.”

But in the case of the Ambassador Hotel project, the city passed a charter ordinance that would route 75 percent of this tax directly back to the hotel owners for their own use. That’s not the proclaimed purpose of the guest tax.

Instead, this is public taxation for private enrichment.

Those who benefit from things like this and tax increment financing (TIF) districts say they aren’t really benefiting, as they are, in fact, paying taxes.

But when taxes you must pay are routed back to you for your own exclusive use, what else can you call it except capture of a public function for your own personal use?

Failure of Wichita city leadership

If you need further evidence that Wichita is turning over taxation to private hands, consider this: The charter ordinance is subject to a protest petition. In the normal case, if sufficient signatures are gathered, the city council would have to either a) overturn the ordinance, or b) hold an election to let voters decide whether the ordinance takes effect. An effort that I have been involved with expects to turn in enough signatures this week to force this decision.

Now, if this tax policy regarding the Ambassador Hotel is truly in the public interest, we would expect that the city council would decide whether to hold such an election and bear its costs itself. But that’s not the case. In the agreement between the city and the Douglas Place developers, we see this: “If Developer requests a special election solely for the purpose of passing the charter ordinance in the event a sufficient protest petition is submitted, Developer shall reimburse the City for the actual out of pocket costs and expenses of conducting such election.”

In other words, the city is turning over to private interests the decision as to whether to have such an election, and also the responsibility for paying for it. This is a failure of Wichita city leadership to do the things that government, not private interests, should do.

Private taxation funds political entrepreneurship

In Wichita, especially in downtown, we see the rise of private tax policy, that is, the taxing power of government being used for private purposes. The above example is just one example. This private tax policy is pushed by Wichita’s political entrepreneurs. These are the people who would rather compete in the realm of politics rather than in the market.

Examples of Wichita’s political entrepreneurs include the developers the Ambassador Hotel: David Burk of Marketplace Properties, and the principals of Key Construction.

Competing in the political arena is easier than competing in the market. To win in the political arena, you only have to convince a majority of the legislative body that controls your situation. Once you’ve convinced them the power of government takes over, and the people at large are forced to transfer money to the political entrepreneurs. In other words, they must engage in transactions they would not elect to perform, if left to their own free will.

In the free marketplace, however, entrepreneurs have to compete by offering products or services that people are willing to buy, free of coercion. That’s hard to do. But it’s the only way to gauge whether people really want what the entrepreneurs are selling. It’s also the way that wealth and prosperity are created. Government spending on business does not have this effect.

One of the ways that political entrepreneurs compete is by making campaign contributions, and the developers of Douglas Place have mastered this technique. Key Construction principles contributed $13,500 to Mayor Carl Brewer and four city council members during their most recent campaigns. Council Member Jeff Longwell alone received $4,000 of that sum, and he also accepted another $2,000 from managing member David Burk and his wife.

All told, Burk and his wife contributed at least $7,500 to city council candidates who will be voting whether to give Burk money. Burk and others routinely make the maximum contribution to all — or nearly all — candidates, even those with widely varying political stances. How can someone explain Burk’s (and his wife’s) contributions to liberals like Miller and Williams, and also to conservatives like Longwell, Meitzner, and former council member Sue Schlapp?

The answer is: Burk will be asking these people for money.

Wichitans need to rise against these political entrepreneurs and their usurpation of a public function — taxation — for their own benefit. The politicians and bureaucrats who enable this should realize they should be serving the public interest, not the narrow and private enrichment of the few at the cost of many.

Wichita petition drive nears end

It’s been a lot of work. Wichita city leaders ought to take notice that citizens are so opposed to their actions that they will venture out in winter to gather signatures in opposition.

The issue is the Ambassador Hotel, part of the Douglas Place project, in downtown Wichita. This project received a multi-layer cake of subsidies from the City of Wichita, State of Kansas, and even the U.S. federal government. One of these layers is subject to a protest petition that will force an election so that citizens may decide the matter. That’s what is coming to an end.

Petition organizers and volunteers have collected many signatures, but more are needed. This weekend is the final push, as signatures are due Tuesday December 6th. Following is an invitation to a party this Sunday where circulators can turn in signatures they have gathered, and where citizens may sign.

Petition Party Invitation

Thank you for adding your name and support to the hotel guest tax petition! Thanks to your efforts, it is likely Wichita voters will get to decide if one hotel should get a better tax break than the rest.

We’d like to show our appreciation by making our last petition collection effort a thank you party.

PLEASE JOIN US

Sunday, December 4, 2011
12:30 pm to 2:30 pm
at the Corporate Hills Marriott
9100 Corporate Hills Drive
(West of Webb Road just north of Kellogg. Click here for a map.)

Cake, coffee, and punch will be served. Free notaries will be on hand to receive your final petitions.

Bring friends and family who want to sign.

If you can’t attend but have a petition you would like a free notary to pick up, call John Todd at 316-312-7335.

PLEASE RSVP
infoks@afphq.org or 316-681-4415

QUESTIONS
Call Susan 316-681-4415

Wichita economic development: And then what will happen?

Critics of the economic development policies in use by the City of Wichita are often portrayed as not being able to see and appreciate the good things these policies are producing, even though they are unfolding right before our very eyes. The difference is that some look beyond the immediate — what is seen — and ask “And then what will happen?” — looking for the unseen.

Thomas Sowell explains the problem in a passage from the first chapter of Applied economics: thinking beyond stage one:

When we are talking about applied economic policies, we are no longer talking about pure economic principles, but about the interactions of politics and economics. The principles of economics remain the same, but the likelihood of those principles being applied unchanged is considerably reduced, because politics has its own principles and imperatives. It is not just that politicians’ top priority is getting elected and re-elected, or that their time horizon seldom extends beyond the next election. The general public as well behaves differently when making political decisions rather than economic decisions. Virtually no one puts as much time and close attention into deciding whether to vote for one candidate rather than another as is usually put into deciding whether to buy one house rather than another — or perhaps even one car rather than another.

The voter’s political decisions involve having a minute influence on policies which affect many other people, while economic decision-making is about having a major effect on one’s own personal well-being. It should not be surprising that the quantity and quality of thinking going into these very different kinds of decisions differ correspondingly. One of the ways in which these decisions differ is in not thinking through political decisions beyond the immediate consequences. When most voters do not think beyond stage one, many elected officials have no incentive to weigh what the consequences will be in later stages — and considerable incentives to avoid getting beyond what their constituents think and understand, for fear that rival politicians can drive a wedge between them and their constituents by catering to public misconceptions.

The economic decisions made by governing bodies like the Wichita City Council have a large impact on the lives of Wichitans. But as Sowell explains, these decisions are made by politicians for political reasons.

Sowell goes on to explain the danger of stopping the thinking process at stage one:

When I was an undergraduate studying economics under Professor Arthur Smithies of Harvard, he asked me in class one day what policy I favored on a particular issue of the times. Since I had strong feelings on that issue, I proceeded to answer him with enthusiasm, explaining what beneficial consequences I expected from the policy I advocated.

“And then what will happen?” he asked.

The question caught me off guard. However, as I thought about it, it became clear that the situation I described would lead to other economic consequences, which I then began to consider and to spell out.

“And what will happen after that?” Professor Smithies asked.

As I analyzed how the further economic reactions to the policy would unfold, I began to realize that these reactions would lead to consequences much less desirable than those at the first stage, and I began to waver somewhat.

“And then what will happen?” Smithies persisted.

By now I was beginning to see that the economic reverberations of the policy I advocated were likely to be pretty disastrous — and, in fact, much worse than the initial situation that it was designed to improve.

Simple as this little exercise may sound, it goes further than most economic discussions about policies on a wide range of issues. Most thinking stops at stage one.

We see stage one thinking all the time when looking at government. In Wichita, for example, a favorite question of city council members seeking to justify their support for government intervention such as a tax increment financing (TIF) district or some other form of subsidy is “How much more tax does the building pay now?” Or perhaps “How many jobs will (or did) the project create?”

These questions, and the answers to them, are examples of stage one thinking. The answers are easily obtained and cited as evidence of the success of the government program.

But driving by a store or hotel in a TIF district and noticing a building or people working at jobs does not tell the entire story. Using the existence of a building, or the payment of taxes, or jobs created, is stage one thinking, and no more than that.

Fortunately, there are people who have thought beyond stage one, and some concerning local economic development and TIF districts. And what they’ve found should spur politicians and bureaucrats to find ways to move beyond stage one in their thinking.

An example are economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman, who have studied tax increment financing extensively. Their article Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development states in its conclusion:

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

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

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

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

In a different paper (The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development), the same economists wrote “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not. … These findings suggest that TIF trades off higher growth in the TIF district for lower growth elsewhere. This hypothesis is bolstered by other empirical findings.”

Here we have an example of thinking beyond stage one. The results are opposite of what one-stage thinking produces.

Some city council members are concerned about creating jobs, and are swayed by the promises of developers that their establishments will employ a certain number of workers. Again, this thinking stops at stage one. But others have looked farther, as has Paul F. Byrne of Washburn University. The title of his recent report is Does Tax Increment Financing Deliver on Its Promise of Jobs? The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Municipal Employment Growth, and in its abstract we find this conclusion regarding the impact of TIF on jobs:

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

While this research might be used to support a TIF district for industrial development, TIF in Wichita is primarily used for retail development. And, when thinking beyond stage one, the effect on employment — considering the entire city — is negative.

It’s hard to think beyond stage one. It requires considering not only the seen, but also the unseen, as Frederic Bastiat taught us in his famous parable of the broken window. But over and over we see how politicians at all levels of government stop thinking at stage one. This is one of the many reasons why we need to return as much decision-making as possible to the private sector, and drastically limit the powers of politicians and governments.

The Wichita Eagle on naysayers: a disservice to Wichita

Yesterday’s op-ed by Rhonda Holman in The Wichita Eagle reveals a crucial need for a newspaper with at least one conservative voice on its editorial board (Say ‘no’ to naysayers, October 9, 2011). Here are a few ways in which Holman and her newspaper’s editorial section are wrong about downtown Wichita development and a few other issues, and how the op-ed is a disservice to the people of Wichita:

The real world, according to Holman

While Holman cites the “real world” as the need to pour massive subsidy into downtown Wichita, I might ask this question: Why is downtown Wichita such an unattractive investment that lavish subsidy must be heaped upon those who invest there?

Actually, the broader question needs to be asked, as the city often subsidizes development all over town. An example is the new Cabela’s store, an example of “greenfield” development that supposedly sucks away all the money from downtown, and which the elitists despise. In that case the city lent its taxing authority to Cabela’s to be used for its own purposes. A more direct example was when the city granted, through a forgivable loan, $48,000 to The Golf Warehouse, located in a suburban office park.

So what is it about Wichita? Won’t anyone invest in Wichita without subsidy?

It turns out, fortunately, that many do.

In the “real world,” there’s a lot of development going on. It just isn’t always taking place where Holman and other elites think it should be taking place.

Interestingly, when the elites advocate for public funding of their goals, their own actions often belie their true preferences. For example, a lot of development in Wichita is taking place near Holman’s suburban home. Many other supporters of subsidized downtown development don’t live anywhere near downtown — or even in Wichita, in at least two examples.

Why this building?

There’s much more in Holman’s article that deserves discussion. For example, Holman writes: “The Union National Bank building is a prime example: If it could be developed without the use of public tools, it wouldn’t still be empty after 12 years.” Underlying this statement is the assumption that this property should be developed. I don’t know where she and the supporters of subsidized downtown development get these ideas. What is it about this property that gives it priority over other properties in the city or downtown?

If Holman makes the case that this small piece of land deserves massive public spending to support its development, can’t the same argument be made for every other vacant building or empty plot of land in downtown Wichita? We can anticipate that it will be.

Scrutiny, by cheerleaders only

Holman praises the scrutiny that the project has undergone, writing that the project has been “vetted by a public-private evaluation team.” By my reckoning, the committee that performs this function doesn’t have a single member who is skeptical of subsidies for downtown development. Can’t these people tolerate even one person who might voice dissent?

Further, that committee decided to approve the project despite the involvement of David Burk of Marketplace Properties. Holman’s own newspaper reported this last year: “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. … Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

The development agreement for the current project contains restrictions on the type of behavior that Burk has exhibited in the past. Call it the “Burk clause.”

Election as referendum?

Holman claims that the recent spring city elections were a referendum on downtown, and that subsidized downtown development won. (Here again Holman doesn’t make a distinction between “development” and “subsidized development.”)

But elections are a decidedly poor way to make these decisions. For one thing, policy regarding subsidized downtown development is just one issue that candidates ran on. Voters have to vote for the entire package. They can’t pick and choose among issues, and it’s a reason why we need to leave more economic activity in the realm of markets — where people can pick and choose what they want — rather than turning it over to politics.

Then, there’s the low turnout for these elections. In the past, Holman described the turnout for the spring primary as “depressingly low.” But now — since the results largely fit her ideology — she describes the election is a “referendum.”

Then, there’s this: A recent Rasmussen poll carried the headline: “Just 6% Think Most Politicians Keep Their Campaign Promises.” Elaborating, the pollster explained: “Voters remain overwhelmingly convinced that most politicians won’t keep their campaign promises, but they’re a little less convinced that their elected officials deliberately lie.”

As shown in my reporting of one of the first times two new city council members faced a test, they didn’t fare well at all (Wichita forgivable loan action raises and illustrates issues):

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

Particularly interesting is the inability of politicians to admit they were wrong, or that they made a mistake, or that they were simply uninformed or misinformed when they made a campaign promise or statement. … City council members Clendenin and Meitzner could not bring themselves to admit that their votes today were at odds with their statements made while campaigning. This lack of honesty is one of the reasons that citizens tune out politics, why they have such a cynical attitude towards politicians, and perhaps why voter turnout in city elections is so low.

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

Finally, there are the out-sized campaign contributions made by those who ask the city council for money. See Wichita City Council campaign contributions and Douglas Place for details on the campaign contributions made by these developers.

One more thing: If Holman is advocating using the results of elections as a measure of city sentiment, why oppose this election, where the ballot question addresses one issue, and there can be no confusion as to what the voters mean?

The naysayers

Holman, as do many downtown supporters, falsely frames the issue. She writes: “To oppose the Ambassador project is, in effect, to oppose downtown redevelopment.” She uses, as does Mayor Carl Brewer, the term “naysayer.” They don’t mean it as a compliment.

What I — and the people I ally myself with — oppose is subsidized development. We oppose this whether it is downtown, suburban, or elsewhere. As it turns out, we can’t even have an honest assessment of the level of public involvement in the current project under consideration. While the City of Wichita employs a very narrow definition of public involvement, a more realistic look shows that the hotel benefits from $15,470,000 in public money to get started, and then $321,499 per year for the first five years, with smaller amounts for 22 years.

Saying no to government intervention doesn’t mean saying no to progress. It does mean saying “no” to the self-serving plans of politicians and bureaucrats and the crony capitalists who seek to profit from political entrepreneurship.

It means saying “no” to Wichita’s political entrepreneurs, who seek to earn profits through government coercion rather than meeting the needs of customers in the marketplace. It means saying “no” to the public-private partnership, where all too often it is the risk that is public and the profit that is private.

So yes, I guess I and Wichita’s other naysayers are saying “no” to a lot of things.

But what we’re saying “yes” to is liberty and freedom. We’re saying “yes” to a civil society that respects the rich diversity of human individuality instead of government planning and bureaucracy. We’re saying “yes” to free people cooperating voluntarily through free markets rather than forced government transfers from taxpayers to politically-favored individuals and programs.

We’re saying “yes” to consumers choosing which businesses in Wichita thrive, rather than politicians on the city council — and their elitist sycophants — choosing. We’re saying “yes” to people making their own choices, rather than government “incentivizing” the behavior it desires through TIF districts and tax abatements, those incentives being paid for by taxpayers.

Courtyard Hotel up again for tax breaks

This week the Wichita City Council will consider extending property tax breaks for the Courtyard Wichita at Old Town Hotel at 820 E 2nd Street.

Five years ago when the city granted the property tax breaks, the hotel wasn’t eligible for tax increment financing. That’s because the TIF district the hotel is located in, the Old Town Cinema Redevelopment District, was running a shortfall at the time (it still is, as of December 31, 2010). Therefore, the city proposed that the hotel agree to a Payment In Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, of $45,000 per year. That agreement has been in place for five years.

This week the city is proposing that the agreement be extended for five years. But there’s a hitch. The TIF district is not eligible to received PILOT payments under Kansas law, according to city documents. So the city proposes to charge the hotel a “bond origination fee” of $225,000, to be paid in five installments of $45,000.

To the casual observer, $45,000 seems like a lot to pay. City documents from 2006 describe it as a “substantial contribution,” and that characterization is repeated this week. But it is a small fraction of what a similar hotel would pay, if it wasn’t located in a tax-advantaged part of Wichita.

The hotel property, according to records in the Sedgwick County Treasurers Office, has an appraised value of $8,306,230 for tax year 2010. The assessed value is not given by the treasurer, as the property is tax exempt. But we can perform the calculation ourselves. Since business property is assessed for tax purposes at 25 percent of appraised value, the assessed value is $2,076,557.

If we apply the mill levy of 126.0176 (126.0176 / 1000 x $2,076,557), that means the annual property tax would be $255,453 on this property, if it weren’t tax exempt.

So the hotel, while paying $45,000 each year, is paying only 17.6 percent of what other business property with similar value is paying. As the word “substantial” has no precise meaning, each person will have to decide for themselves whether the hotel’s payments meet that definition. But when this hotel pays just $1 for every $6 that other business property pays in taxes, I think we can say the hotel made quite a deal for itself.

There is some question as to the hotel’s value, too. The recent history of this property’s appraised value, according to the Sedgwick County Treasurer’s office, is this:

Year   Land    Improvements       Total      Change
2007  $336,000   $9,634,430    $9,970,430
2008  $336,000   $9,629,420    $9,965,420     0%
2009  $336,000  $11,794,690   $12,130,690    22% increase
2010  $336,000   $7,970,230    $8,306,230    32% decrease

The valuation doesn’t affect the hotel’s tax payments for the next five years, if the city approves extending the current tax exemption. But if the city doesn’t approve the extension, the valuation matters. And in five years when the hotel is no longer eligible for tax exemptions, it will certainly matter then.

Further, there is the curious change in the valuation of the improvements to the property. From 2008 to 2009, the valuation of the improvements increased by 22 percent. Then, the next year the value dropped by 32 percent. The Sedgwick County Appraiser was not able to provide an explanation for these changes.

A question that citizens might be interested in is how in 2006 the hotel received industrial revenue bond financing in the amount of $14,135,000 — presumably all spent on the hotel — but now has an appraised value of only $8,306,230.

Further questions lie in this passage from the city’s agenda report, where it is explained that the proposed deal will “extend the maturity date and add an additional $1,750,000 of debt to Old Town Lodging for a total loan of $15,000,000 to satisfy all outstanding debt with Nationwide.”

Here the hotel proposes to take on debt of $15,000,000 when the property is appraised for just $8,306,230. And, the amount of debt the hotel is carrying is increasing. Sources in the commercial real estate industry tell me this isn’t a good sign.

Pay-to-play laws needed

Recent campaign contributions made by Jim Korroch and related parties.

This episode is another exhibit in the case for pay-to-play laws in Wichita and Kansas. The owner of the hotel, Jim Korroch, has made campaign contributions to at least three members of the current city council. Tomorrow he will ask the city council to extend the favor of allowing him to escape paying $210,453 per year in the taxes that the city demands other businesses pay. That’s a benefit of $1,052,265 over the next five years, and that’s in addition to the benefits already received.

Citizens may also remember that last year Korroch received many millions in subsidy for another downtown hotel he built.

Pay-to-play laws would prevent council members who have accepted campaign contributions from voting to enrich those who gave them. An example 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.”

Some council members have said that those who advocate for these laws and ask council members to refrain from voting to enrich their campaign contributors are accusing council members of accepting illegal contributions. That’s not the case. We object to what’s happening in plain sight.

At Wichita City Council, facts are in dispute

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

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

James Clendenin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Meitzner

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

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

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

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

Jeff Longwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janet Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Wichita, how tax increment financing can channel tax money

The flow of tax dollars Wichita city leaders have planned for Douglas Place, a proposed hotel in Wichita, creates a mechanism where taxpayer funds are routed to a politically-connected construction firm. And unlike the real world, where developers have an incentive to build economically, the city has created incentives for Douglas Place developers to spend lavishly in a parking garage, at no cost to themselves.

The original plan for Douglas Place as specified in a letter of intent that the city council voted to support, calls for a parking garage (and urban park) to cost $6,800,000. Details provided at the August 9th meeting of the city council gave the cost for the garage alone as $6,000,000. The garage would be paid for by capital improvement program (CIP) funds and tax increment financing (TIF). The CIP is Wichita’s long-term plan for building public infrastructure. TIF is different, as we’ll see in a moment.

During the meeting, it was also revealed that plans specified that Key Construction of Wichita would be the contractor for the garage. Key would not have to bid for the contract, even though the garage is being paid for with taxpayer funds.

At the meeting, Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) expressed concern about the no-bid contract. As a result, it is likely that the contract will be put out for competitive bid. Sources say it’s possible that the garage could be built for as much as $2,000,000 less than the original plan.

However much is saved, it’s money that otherwise would have gone into the pockets of Key Construction. Because of the way the garage is being paid for, that money would not have been a cost to Douglas Place’s developers. Instead, it would have been a giant ripoff of Wichita taxpayers.

Even worse, the Douglas Place developers have no incentive to economize on the cost of the garage. In fact, they have incentives to make it cost even more.

Recall that the garage is being paid for through two means. One is CIP, which is a cost to Wichita taxpayers. It doesn’t cost the Douglas Place developers anything except for their small quotal share of Wichita’s overall tax burden. In exchange for that, they get part of a parking garage paid for.

But the tax increment financing, or TIF, is different. Under TIF, the increased property taxes that Douglas Place will pay as the project is completed won’t go to fund the general operations of government. Instead, these taxes will go to pay back bonds that the city will issue to pay for part of the garage — a garage that benefits Douglas Place, and one that would not be built but for the Douglas Place plans.

That’s a pretty neat deal for the Douglas Place developers. Under such a scheme, the more the parking garage costs, more Douglas Place property taxes are funneled back to it — taxes, remember, it has to pay anyway. (Since Douglas Place won’t own the garage, it doesn’t have to pay taxes on the value of the garage, so it’s not concerned about the taxable value of the garage increasing its tax bill.)

Why would Douglas Place be interested in an expensive parking garage? Here are two reasons:

First, the more the garage costs to build, the more the hotel benefits from a fancier and nicer garage for its guests to park in. Remember, since the garage is paid for by property taxes on the hotel — taxes Douglas Place must pay in any case — there’s an incentive for the hotel to see these taxes used for its own benefit rather than used to pay for firemen, police officers, and schools.

Second, consider Key Construction, the planned builder of the garage under a no-bid contract. The more expensive the garage, the higher the profit for Key.

Now add in the fact that one of the partners in the Douglas Place project is a business entity known as Summit Holdings LLC, which is composed of David Wells, Kenneth Wells, Richard McCafferty, John Walker Jr., and Larry Gourley. All of these people are either owners of Key Construction or its executives. The more the garage costs, the higher the profit for these people. Remember, they’re not paying for the garage. City taxpayers are.

The sum of all this is a mechanism to funnel taxpayer funds, via tax increment financing, to Key Construction. The more the garage costs, the better for Douglas Place and Key Construction — and the worse for Wichita taxpayers.

It’s no wonder Key Construction principals contributed $13,500 to Mayor Carl Brewer and four city council members during their most recent campaigns. Council Member Jeff Longwell alone received $4,000 of that sum, and he also accepted another $2,000 from managing member David Burk and his wife.

This scheme, of which few people must be aware, as it has not been reported anywhere but here, is a reason why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws. These laws impose restrictions on the activities of elected officials and the awarding of contracts.

An example 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.”

This project also shows why complicated financing schemes like tax increment financing need to be eliminated. Government intervention schemes like this turn the usual economic incentives upside down, and at taxpayer expense.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday September 6, 2011

Live music example of overcriminilization, regulation in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle reports on examples of problems establishments have faced for not complying with Wichita’s requirement for a live music license, which costs $400 per year. In the story No entertainment license in Wichita? Live music is illegal, it is reported that city officials are working with art gallery and coffeehouse owners to revise the ordinance. I agree with Adam Hartke, who wonders why there should be any fees. Like the recently passed regulations on haunted houses, these regulations appear to be regulating something that’s not a problem.

Tax reform in Kansas. In a nine-minute podcast from the Tax Foundation, Kansas Policy Institute president Dave Trabert discusses the prospects for substantive tax reform in the Sunflower State, including the possibility of both phasing out the individual income tax and cutting (or even abolishing) the corporate income tax. Trabert says: “We probably do right now have the 15th highest state and local tax burden in the country. … That is a serious problem, because we understand how the tax burden affects job creation.” In a recent editorial, Trabert noted lack of job growth in Kansas: “Kansas is the only state whose average annual private-sector employment is below its 2010 average. Part of the reason is that, unlike most states, Kansas chose to continue raising taxes last year. … We must reduce our tax burden to create jobs and economic growth. Gradually eliminating the state income tax will have the greatest impact.” … Click on Dave Trabert on the Fight for Tax Reform in Kansas.

Downtown Wichita site launched. As part of an effort to provide information about the Douglas Place project, a proposed renovation of a downtown Wichita office building into a hotel, Americans for Prosperity, Kansas has created a website. The site is named Our Downtown Wichita, and it’s located at dtwichita.com.

Juvenile justice system to be topic. This week’s meeting (September 9th) of the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Mark Masterson, Director, Sedgwick County Department of Corrections, on the topic “Juvenile Justice System in Sedgwick County.” Following, from 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm, Pachyderm Club members and guests are invited to tour the Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Center located at 700 South Hydraulic, Wichita, Kansas. … Upcoming speakers: On September 16, Merrill Eisenhower Atwater, great grandson of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, will present a program with the topic to be determined. … On September 23, Dave Trabert, President of Kansas Policy Institute, speaking on the topic “Why Not Kansas: Getting every student an effective education.” … On September 30, U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo of Wichita on “An update from Washington.” … On October 7, John Locke — reincarnated through the miracle of modern technology — speaking on “Life, Liberty, and Property.” … On October 14, Sedgwick County Commission Members Richard Ranzau and James Skelton, speaking on “What its like to be a new member of the Sedgwick County Board of County commissioners?” … On October 21, N. Trip Shawver, Attorney/Mediator, on “The magic of mediation, its uses and benefits.”

Campaign contributions flow to Wichita’s subsidy supporters. The Our Downtown Wichita website holds an article that details the campaign contributions made to Wichita’s mayor and several city council members by those who will be asking the city for money next week. The contributions by David Burk and Key Construction owners and affiliates are detailed in Wichita City Council campaign contributions and Douglas Place. … When the issue of campaign contributions was raised at a recent council meeting, several members became testy. Evidently, these contributions are not meant to be discussed in public.

Organ events. This Wednesday (September 7th) sees the first organ recital by Wichita State University’s Lynne Davis as part of the “Wednesdays in Wiedemann” series. These recitals, which have no admission charge, start at 5:30 pm and last about 30 minutes. … The location is Wiedemann Recital Hall (map) on the campus of Wichita State University. For more about Davis and WSU’s Great Marcussen Organ, see my story from last year. … Later this month Davis hosts Jehan Alain, 1911-1940 — The American Festival, a three-day event celebrating the music of the French organist and composer, who died at the age of 29 fighting for his country against Germany in World War II. There will be several recitals that the public may attend.

Urban planning in Wichita: an outside perspective. Randal O’Toole is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future. He visited Wichita last year and toured some of Wichita’s landmarks of government planning and taxpayer subsidy.

O’Toole also appeared on the KPTS public affairs television program Kansas Week.

Our Downtown Wichita launched

As part of an effort to provide information about the Douglas Place project, a proposed renovation of a downtown Wichita office building into a hotel, Americans for Prosperity, Kansas has created a website.

The site is named Our Downtown Wichita, and it’s located at dtwichita.com.

Many people, myself included, feel that this project — with its multiple layers of taxpayer subsidy — represents crony capitalism at its pinnacle. It’s also the first project to come through Wichita’s Project Downtown evaluation process, which represents new advances in centralized government planning in Wichita.

As the site’s motto says: “Limited government and free markets in Downtown Wichita benefit everyone. Centralized planning and crony capitalism benefit only a few.”

The Our Downtown Wichita site contains information about the many forms of public subsidy that are proposed for the project. You’ll learn that public involvement is much more than what the City of Wichita claims in its presentations.

You’ll also learn about the people involved in Douglas Place, including David Burk of Marketplace Properties and his misrepresentation of himself as an agent of the City of Wichita in order to cut his taxes.

The site also contains a compilation of campaign contributions made to Mayor Carl Brewer and current city council members from people who will financially benefit from the Douglas Place project.

Then, there’s suggestions as to how citizens can get involved if they are concerned about this project.

The site also contains two videos by urban planning expert Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole made during his visit to Wichita last year.

For Wichita’s Project Downtown, goal keeps slipping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense ignored

Reports that income earned by the Intrust Bank Arena is down sharply has brought the arena’s finances back into the news. The arena, located in downtown Wichita and owned by Sedgwick County, is deemed to be a success by the county and arena boosters based on “profit” figures generated during its first year of operations. But these numbers are not an honest assessment of the arena’s financial performance.

When the numbers were presented to Sedgwick County commissioners this week, commission chair Dave Unruh said that he is “pleased that we we still are showing black ink.”

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

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

Since it is only one year old, presumably the arena could be sold for something near its building cost, less an allowance for wear and tear. If not, then the county has a lot of explaining to do as to why it built an asset that has no market value.

But even if the arena has no market value — and I suspect that in reality it has very little value — it still has an economic cost that must be recognized, that cost being the sales tax collected to pay for it. While arena boosters dismiss this as past history, the county recognizes this cost each year, and will continue to do so for many years.

The county, however, doesn’t go out of its way to present the complete and accurate accounting of the arena’s cost. Instead, the county and arena boosters trumpet the “profit” earned by the arena for the county according to an operating and management agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.

This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. Based on the terms of the agreement, Sedgwick County received payment of $1,116,442 for the 2010 year. While described as profit by many — and there was much crowing over the seemingly large amount — this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

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

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn has warned that these figures — and the monthly “profit” figures presented to commissioners — do not include depreciation expense. That expense is a method of recognizing and accounting for the large capital cost of the arena — the cost that arena boosters dismiss.

In April Sedgwick County released that depreciation number in its 2010 Comprehensive Annual Report. The number is pretty big: $4.4 million, some four times the purported “earnings” of the arena.

Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take this number into account. Unruh is correct in that this depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow. That cash was spent during the construction phase of the arena.

But depreciation expense provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets like buildings over their lifespan. It recognizes and respects the investment of those who paid the sales tax. When we follow standard practices like recognizing the cost of capital assets through depreciation expense, we’re forced to recognize that there’s a $4.4 million gorilla in the room that arena boosters don’t want to talk about.

Using information about arena operations contained in the operations report, we can construct what an actual income statement for the arena would look like, following generally accepted business principles. According to the statement, total operating income for 2010 was $7,005,224. Operating expenses were $4,994,488. Subtracting gives a figure of $2,010,736. This number, however, is not labeled a profit in the report. Instead, the report calls it “Increase in Net Assets Arising from Operating Activities Managed by SMG.”

An accounting of profit would have to subtract the $4.4 million in depreciation expense. Doing that results in a loss of $2,389,264. This — or something like it — is the number we should be discussing when assessing the financial performance of Intrust Bank Arena.

Fiscal conservatives — and sometimes even liberals — often speak of “running government like a business.” As an example, Unruh’s campaign website from last year states “… as a business owner he works hard to apply good business principles to County government …”

But here’s an example of conservative government leaders ignoring a basic business principle in order to paint a rosy picture of a government spending project. Unruh is not alone in doing this.

Without honest discussion of numbers like these, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information. This is especially important as civic leaders agitate for another sales tax or other taxes to pay for more public investment. The sales pitch is that once the tax is collected and the assets paid for, we don’t need to consider the cost. They contend, as is the attitude of Unruh and arena boosters, that we can just sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. This is a false line of reasoning, and citizens ought not to be fooled.

Pay-to-play laws are needed in Wichita and Kansas

In the wake of scandals, some states and cities have passed “pay-to-play” laws. These laws often prohibit political campaign contributions by those who seek government contracts, 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. Their spouses also contribute.

And when one looks at the candidates these people contribute to, you notice that often there’s no commonality to the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some people contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. Then, when these people appear in the news after having received money from the Wichita City Council, it snaps into place: These campaign donors are not donating to those whose ideals they agree with. They’re donating so they can line their own pockets.

Some states and cities have taken steps to reduce this harmful practice. New Jersey is notable for its New Jersey Local Unit Pay-To-Play Law. In a nutshell, the law affects many local units of government and the awarding of contracts having a value of over $17,500. The law affects contracts awarded by other than a “fair and open process,” which basically means a contract process open to bidding. For other contracts, here is the summary of the law:

A municipal or county government agency cannot award a contract without using a fair and open process if the contractor …

  • is a contributor to a candidate committee or a political party committee where a member of the party is serving in an elective public office of that municipality or county, and, either …
  • made “reportable” contributions (those in excess of $300) during the year prior to the award, and/or …
  • makes contributions during the life of the contract.

The New Jersey law requires that businesses seeking government contracts certify they have not made contributions that would bar them from eligibility. It also contains provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. For corporations, the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses, are considered to be from the corporation itself for purposes of the law.

Alabama, Connecticut, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Ohio, and South Dakota are other states with some form of pay-to-play laws. Some of these are being challenged in the courts.

It’s not only states that have such laws. Cities, too, are passing them.

In 2009 Dallas passed a law, as described in a post on the Pay to Play Law Blog: “The ethics package contains numerous changes to existing lobbyist registration and disclosure requirements, City Council zoning powers and the disclosure of gifts to Council members. Most relevant to the pay-to-play space is that anyone bidding on a city contract is now prohibited from making donations during the bid period. Additionally, ‘major’ zoning applicants can no longer make contributions to Council members during the window which begins on the date of public notice of the zoning case, and which ends 60 days after the zoning case is resolved. Such changes are not too surprising in this instance, given that the scandal involving Hill revolved around favorable treatment for developers.”

Notably, the Dallas law 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.

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.” The population of Santa Ana is 324,528, which is just a little smaller than Wichita.

But Kansas has no such law. Certainly Wichita does not, where pay-to-play is seen by many citizens as a way of life. Those who want money from the council see it that way.

And citizens may remember the 2008 campaign for a bond issue for USD 259, the Wichita public school district. In my reporting of the campaign contributions made in support of the bond spending, I wrote: “One analysis finds that 72% of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from the new construction.”

The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture was a standout contributor to the bond effort, both in terms of cash contributions and in-kind contributions. Not surprisingly, that firm was awarded a contract for plan management services for the bond issue. The value of this contract is one percent of the value of the bond issue, or $3.7 million, and the firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.

In Kansas, campaign finance reports are filed by candidates and available to citizens, although some have problems with the timing of the filings. But many politicians don’t want these contributions discussed, at least in public. Recently Wichita Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) expressed concern over the potential award of a $6 million construction contract, paid for with city funds, without an open bidding process. The contract is likely to go to Key Construction, a firm whose principals — and spouses — regularly appear on campaign finance reports, making the maximum allowed contribution to a wide variety of candidates.

For expressing his concern, O’Donnell was roundly criticized by many other council members, and especially by Mayor Carl Brewer. Video of the mayor’s remarks may be viewed at Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer addresses critics.

I can understand how council members don’t want to discuss their campaign contributions from those they’re about to give money to. It stinks. It causes citizens to be cynical of their government and withdraw from participation in civic affairs. It causes government to grow. It leads to more government planning of our lives, as is happening in Wichita. Pay-to-play laws can help.

For Wichita’s David Burk, subsidy machine is working again

For Wichita real estate developer David Burk of Marketplace Properties, being on the receiving end of sweetheart lease deals with the City of Wichita is becoming a habit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

As part of the Douglas Place Project, Burk and his partners will collect millions in the form of tax increment financing, forgiveness of property and sales taxes, capture of their hotel guest tax, community improvement district sales taxes, and historic preservation tax credits. This sweetheart lease is another layer in the cake — a very tall, many-layered cake of subsidies the city is baking for Burk.

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

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

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

Today this retail space probably rents for $15 to $18 per square foot, according to sources in the real estate industry. This means that Burk collected perhaps from $262,500 to $315,000 per year in rent. We don’t know the actual number, but it was likely in this ballpark. He had expenses, but not the main expense that most landlords face: the cost of the capital they have invested in their property. Burk had none of that expense, except for $1.00 per year.

Like the proposed deal, the rent Burk pays for the Old Town space increased over time. For the second five years the agreement calls for Burk to pay $5.00 per square foot to the city. For the third five years, the rate rises to $7.50.

Despite this sweetheart deal, Burk decided his property taxes were too high, and he appealed those taxes in a way the Wichita Eagle described as deceptive.

It’s no wonder Burk and his wife regularly make generous campaign contributions to almost all city council members, regardless of their political stances. He’s developed an efficient machine, and its machinery expose all the problems with crony capitalism and the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs as revealed by public choice economics.

But I don’t think these problems bother the mayor, city council members (except for Michael O’Donnell), or city hall bureaucrats. For them — and most of all for Burk — it’s a process that worked once, and appears to be on the road to working again.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to critics: stop grandstanding

Last week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council provided a window into the attitude of Wichita elected officials, particularly Mayor Carl Brewer. Through their actions, and by their words, we see a government that cares little for the rule of law and good government, and one that is disrespectful to citizens who call attention to this.

At issue was the circumvention of a statutorily required public hearing. In order to grant subsidies to a development team lead by David Burk of Marketplace Properties, the city is required to hold a public hearing, which it scheduled for September 13th. That schedule wasn’t fast enough for Burk, so at its August 9th meeting the council approved a letter of intent which formalizes the city’s desire to do the things that were to be the subject of the public hearing.

I, along with others, contend that this action — issuing the letter of intent — reduces the September 13th public hearing to a meaningless exercise. It’s true that several times city bureaucrats and elected officials assured citizens that the letter is non-binding and doesn’t mean the city will go through with the desires expressed in the letter. But I don’t think they believe that themselves, and the language of City Manager Bob Layton reveals so. In the end, the public hearing is reduced to — as the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman aptly noted — “a pointless afterthought.” See Wichita City Council bows to special interests.

This action is not good government, and it’s not open and transparent government, despite the claims of Mayor Brewer. It goes against our country’s principle of the rule of law, which holds that our laws and orderly procedures are more important than any single person.

Almost as troubling is the attitude of Mayor Brewer and others in city hall towards citizens who oppose their plans. Brewer — perhaps in an effort to maintain a sense of decorum or apparent integrity — does not mention the names of those he criticizes. This allows him to appear noble, but without being accountable to actual people, and the public, for the things he says.

John Todd, an activist and ally of mine who speaks at council meetings frequently — which means, in his case, about once or maybe twice a month — told me of his concerns: “It appears disingenuous to me for the mayor to unilaterally dress down citizens who address the council, with no opportunity for citizen rebuttal. The veiled message that comes through this process is this: ‘If you don’t agree with the mayor and council’s position on any issue, please shut up.'”

Todd is referring to the common practice of the mayor and some council members, notably Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), to criticize opponents after they’ve completed their testimony and returned to the audience, when there is no opportunity for citizens to respond.

At the August 9th meeting, the mayor criticized his political opponents for making use of the opportunity to address the council, and by extension, the people who may be watching on television or the internet: “I hope that today, all of this grandstanding that I saw coming from some of the public and I saw from some of the council members, and questioning council members, elected officials’ integrity — unless you have proof, just because you have a camera here, that there is something you shouldn’t be doing. … This whole thing that I saw going on here today remind me so much of a previous administration where individuals were standing up and thank God we have the cameras here. The media’s here every single meeting.”

What’s particularly deplorable about the mayor’s remarks is that he’s criticizing people for speaking at a public hearing. Yes, city officials say the agenda item was only to consider a letter of intent that does not bind the city council. But that legalistic interpretation ignores the practical political reality that this meeting was, de facto, the public hearing for this project.

This is not the first time the mayor has complained about his critics. In the past, the mayor has said: “We need every person’s ideas, recommendations, and their opinion. … Being quiet and then complaining about it later isn’t going to be good for you or the community.”

But when citizens take the mayor’s advice — showing initiative, not being quiet, and stating opinions beforehand — now the mayor calls that grandstanding.

The mayor has also called his critics “naysayers” and complained that they have received too much media attention.

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

In his remarks to me, John Todd wrote: “Diversity of opinion and the open discussion of divergent opinions are important parts of good government.” But citizens who observe the actions of the Wichita City Council — the issuance of this letter of intent being only the most recent example — and who sense the attitude of the mayor and some council members towards those who express opinions outside the orthodoxy — are likely to conclude, as many do, that it’s just not worth the effort to get involved.

Wichita City Council bows to special interests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few observations from the meeting follow.

Public investment

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

Order of events and media coverage

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

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

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

Questions not answered

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campaign contributions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mayor’s criticisms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita should reject the fads Portland has followed

By Randal O’Toole. From February, 2010.

Randal O'Toole speaking in WichitaRandal O’Toole in Wichita.

Urban planners say they can make our cities more livable, our downtowns more vibrant, and our traffic calmer. The problem is that urban planners do not understand how cities work, so all of their plans often turn out disastrously wrong.

Many urban planners are quite capable of planning a sewer line, a road, a bus route, or a school. But it is huge leap from “I can locate a water main” to “I should have the power to decide how every piece of land in your urban area should be used.”

That is the power urban planners want. But cities are too complicated for anyone to plan, so giving anyone this power is asking for trouble.

Take my former hometown of Portland, Oregon, whose planners say they are making streets “vibrant” and the city “livable” by encouraging walking and transit ridership and discouraging driving.

To stop “sprawl,” planners told rural landowners around Portland that they cannot build a house on their own land unless they own at least 80 acres and earn $80,000 a year farming it. To promote “compact development,” planners rezoned many neighborhoods of single-family homes for multi-family housing with zoning so strict that, if someone’s house burns down, they can only replace it with an apartment.

Planners believe your only property rights are the rights planning commissions decide to give you — subject to change any time.

Portland has spent well over $2 billion building light-rail and streetcar lines. To encourage transit ridership, planners allowed rush-hour congestion on all major freeways and streets to increase to stop-and-go levels. Doing anything to relieve congestion, planners feared, “would eliminate transit ridership.”

To further encourage transit and walking, planners zoned all the land near light-rail stations for high-density, mixed-use development, so people could walk from their apartment buildings to a cafe or grocery store. When nothing got built — developers said Portland already had a surplus of multi-family housing — the city started subsidizing it, and has so far given around $2 billion in public funds to developers.

The results are attractive if you like the idea of dodging trolleys as you wander through canyons of four- and five-story apartment buildings. But the practical effects on Portland residents are mostly negative.

Planners successfully increased congestion by more than six times since 1982, about the time most of these plans began. But that hasn’t gotten people out of their cars: the share of commuters taking transit to work declined from 9.8 percent in 1980 to 6.5 percent in 2007.

Planners more than doubled housing prices, so a $150,000 home in Wichita would cost well over $300,000 in Portland. But that hasn’t made high-density housing particularly successful: many of these developments have high vacancy rates and several have gone bankrupt.

High housing prices forced many families with children to move to distant suburbs, and the remaining childless households eat out a lot, so Portland has lots of restaurants. But it also has high taxes and urban services have deteriorated as funds once dedicated to fire, police, public health, and other programs have been diverted to subsidies to developers.

Terrible traffic, unaffordable housing, high taxes, and reduced property rights: those are the legacies of Portland planning. That’s the future planners want to bring to Wichita. I recommend you just say no.

Randal O’Toole (rot@cato.org) is senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future. He recently visited Wichita for a series of speaking engagements and meetings.

Wichita city council to decide between rule of law, or rule by situation

Tuesday’s Wichita City Council meeting will provide an opportunity for the mayor, council members, and city hall staff to let Wichitans know if our city is governed by the rule of law and proper respect for it, or if these values will be discarded for the convenience of one person and his business partners.

Here’s the situation: a person wants to gain approval of a tax increment financing (TIF) district project plan. This requires a public hearing, which the city has scheduled for September 13th.

But this schedule doesn’t suit the applicant. He has a personal business need — an expiring purchase option — and wants the city to issue a letter of intent stating that the city intends to do all the things that are the subject of the September public hearing.

The letter of intent is not binding, city officials tell us. The council will still have to hold the September public hearing and vote on the incentives the developer wants. And the list of incentives is large, amounting to many millions of dollars. Whether to issue these incentives deserves discussion and a public hearing.

But the letter of intent, in effect, circumvents the public hearing. It reduces the hearing to a meaningless exercise. No matter what information is presented at the September public hearing, no matter how strong public opinion might be against this project, is there any real likelihood that the council would not proceed with this plan and its incentives, having already passed a letter of intent to do so? I imagine that persuasive arguments will be made that since the city issued a letter of intent, and since the developers may have already taken action based on that letter, it follows that the city is obligated to pass the plan. Otherwise, who would ever vest any meaning in a future letter of intent from this city?

And the developers are planning to take action based on this letter of intent. To them, the letter does have meaning. If it had no meaning, why would they ask for it?

That bears repeating: If the letter of intent is non-binding, why issue it at all?

The last time someone felt the city reneged on a letter of intent, it resulted in a court case that went all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court. I imagine the city is not anxious to repeat that experience.

Part of the purpose of public hearings and their advance notice, usually 30 days or so, is to give interested parties time to prepare for the hearing. But citizens are given just a few days notice of the proposed letter of intent. The parties who will receive the subsidies, of course, have known about this for some time. Their bureaucratic and political enablers have, too.

The issuance of the letter of intent on Tuesday, if the city council decides to do so, is an affront to the rule of law. It would be a powerful statement by the council that it intends to go ahead with the project and its subsides, public hearing — and citizens — be damned. It is a striking show of arrogance by the city and its political leadership, which is to say Mayor Carl Brewer.

After Tuesday’s meeting we will know one thing. We will know if the Wichita City Council and city staff value the rule of law more than the needs of one small group of people. We won’t really know about individual city staff, but the council members and mayor will have to vote on this item. We’ll know exactly where each of them stands. Expect waffling.

Tuesday provides citizens a chance to learn exactly how the mayor and each council members value the rule of law as compared to the needs of one person and his business partners. It is as simple as that.

The project

The project is the development of a new hotel in an existing building downtown. It sounds like a neat project and would be a great addition to Wichita. But — this project is a product of central government planning backed by massive government intervention in the form of millions of dollars of subsidy. Pretty much all the tools have been tapped in the proposed corporate welfare, even one form that will require the city to pass a special charter ordinance.

The lead developer, David Burk, is well known in Wichita and has produced a number of successful projects. (We must qualify this as “seemingly successful,” as it seems as all of Burk’s projects require some sort of taxpayer involvement and subsidy. So we don’t really know if these projects would be successful if they had to stand on their own.)

I’ve written extensively on the problems with government-directed planning and taxpayer-funded investment in downtown Wichita. See Downtown Wichita regulations on subsidy to be considered or Downtown Wichita revitalization for examples. This project suffers from all these problems.

Furthermore, we see the problems of the public choice theory of politics at play here. Perhaps most prominent is the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. In this case Burk and his partners stand to garner tremendous benefit, while everyone else pays. This is why Burk and his wife are generous campaign donors to both conservative and liberal city politicians.

Burk and past allegations

The involvement of Burk in the project, along with the city’s response, is problematic. City documents indicate that the city has investigated the backgrounds of the applicants for this project. The result is “no significant findings to report.” Evidently the city didn’t look very hard. In February 2010 the Wichita Eagle reported on the activities of David Burk with regard to property he owns in Old Town. Citizens reading these articles might have been alarmed at the actions of Burk. Certainly some city hall politicians and bureaucrats were.

The opening sentence of the Wichita Eagle article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property) raises the main allegation against Burk: “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.”

A number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s act.

According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.'”

Council member Lavonta Williams, now serving as vice mayor, was not pleased, either, according to her quotations: “‘Right now, it doesn’t look good,’ she said. ‘Are we happy about it? Absolutely not.'”

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, we can learn of the reaction by two other city hall officials: “Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said that having city development partners who benefit from tax increment financing appeal for lower property taxes ‘seems like an oxymoron.’ City Manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.'”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high.

Some of Burk’s partners have a history of dealing with the city that is illustrative of their attitudes. In 2008 the Old Town Warren Theater was failing and its owners threatened to close it and leave the city with a huge loss on a TIF district formed for the theater’s benefit. Faced with this threat, the city made a no-interest and low-interest loan to the theater. The theater’s owners included David Wells, who is one of Burk’s partners in the project being considered by the council for the letter of intent.

Entrepreneurs are not always successful. Business failure, if handled honestly and honorably, is not shameful.

But when a business is already receiving taxpayer subsidy, and the response to failure is to demand even more from the taxpayer — that is shameful.

Burk and Wells, by the way, played a role in the WaterWalk project, which has a well-deserved reputation as a failed development. In 2011 the city’s budget includes a loss of slightly over one million dollars for the TIF district that has benefited its owners to the tune of over $41 million.

Burk has been personally enriched by city hall action before. An example from the same article: “A 2003 lease agreement gave Burk use of the retail strip at the front of the parking garage for $1 a year for the first five years.” Nearly-free property that you can then lease at market rates is a sweet deal.

These gentlemen have had their bite at the taxpayer-funded apple. Now they want another bite, on their own schedule, without regard to rule of law and the public.

Despite allegations, Wichita’s Dave Burk remains favored

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

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

The opening sentence of the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property) tells us most of what we need to know: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downtown Wichita regulations on subsidy to be considered

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider policies relating to the award of subsidies for development in downtown Wichita. While the policies have the sheen of government authority, that the policies are government policies means that downtown development is certain to miss out on the benefits of free markets, capitalism, and the dispersed knowledge that only markets can generate and channel. In its place we’re left with a form of social engineering that seeks to remake Wichita in the vision of planners and their supporters.

Perhaps the most absurd idea surrounding the revitalization of downtown Wichita is that planning and subsidy is required. The idea that government officials know what the people of Wichita would really like and can then deliver that is nonsense. Yes, there have been many meetings with downtown planners. We paid $500,000 to a firm to plan for us, and based on recent news of additional consultants being hired, that wasn’t enough. The planners dutifully solicited the opinions of citizens, which is almost always that people want more of everything. That’s natural. But citizens sitting in focus groups are not markets. They make decisions in the abstract, without the constraints of the actual world.

One of the most absurd concepts of the plan is that the city is limited to investing only in money-losing projects. As a “minimum threshold criteria” for a project to receive city assistance, the document requires: “Economic analysis confirms that the project is infeasible ‘but for’ public investment.”

Is investing in otherwise money-losing projects a wise course for government to follow? The fact that something is economically infeasible tells us something: people don’t want it as much as they want something else. But, thanks to our city’s politicians and bureaucrats, Wichitans will be forced to pay for it anyway. It is thought by some that there is “market failure” here, that Wichitans aren’t smart enough to know what they really want or should want. But just because people make decisions that downtown visionaries don’t approve of, that’s not market failure.

The distinction that public dollars will go only towards things that have a “public purpose” — parking is most frequently mentioned — is really a distinction without a difference. An example might be a multi-story parking facility located between a residential building and an office building. The theory is that residents use the garage mostly at night and the office workers use it mostly during the day, so the two uses complement each other. But — aren’t we supposed to have a downtown where people live near where they work, and the whole place is walkable and transit-oriented?

Constructing parking spaces on a surface parking lot outside of downtown is expensive, too, although not as much as in multi-story parking garages. And we’re still left with the fact that downtown developers get their parking for free is an example of the entire city subsidizing something that benefits relatively few.

The proposed policy has a matrix that will be used to evaluate a project. Based on how well projects meet criteria, points will be awarded. A certain minimum number of points must be achieved for a project to be considered for public subsidy, and then the terms of such subsidy.

We can sort of understand the motivations of government officials when creating policies like this. They want to let citizens know that they are dishing out subsidy in a responsible manner. They want to avoid the appearance of giveaways to the politically-favored at the expense of everyone else. Now, it looks like we’re implementing policies to route taxpayer giveaways to the bureaucratically-favored. I’m not sure if one is better than the other.

The fact is that planning even a relatively small area such as downtown Wichita is an incredibly complex tax that is beyond the capability of government. Except — government will still try. And its regulations — that’s what this downtown plan is — will lead to something less than what downtown could be if government stepped aside. Israel Kirzner explains:

The perils associated with government regulation of the economy addressed here arise out of the impact that regulation can be expected to have on the discovery process, which the unregulated market tends to generate. Even if current market outcomes in some sense are judged unsatisfactory, intervention, and even intervention that can successfully achieve its immediate objectives, cannot be considered the obviously correct solution. After all, the very problems apparent in the market might generate processes of discovery and correction superior to those undertaken deliberately by government regulation. Deliberate intervention by the state not only might serve as an imperfect substitute for the spontaneous market process of discovery; but also might impede desirable processes of discovery the need for which has not been perceived by the government. Again, government regulation itself may generate new (unintended and undesired) processes of market adjustments that produce a final outcome even less preferred than what might have emerged in a free market.

Firms will still be free to develop in downtown Wichita if they forgo the subsidies that are available by conforming to the plan. I wouldn’t expect many to do so, however.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday May 16, 2011

Wichita City Council this week. This week the Wichita City Council handles several important issues. One is approval of the policies regarding incentives for downtown development. Then, the council will consider approval of the city’s portion of the Hawker Beechcraft deal. In order to persuade Hawker to stay in Kansas rather than move to Louisiana, the State of Kansas offered $40,000 in various form of incentive and subsidy, and it was proposed at the time that the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County each add $2.5 million. Of note is the fact that Hawker’s campus in east Wichita … oops, wait a moment — their campus is not within the boundaries of the city. Like Eastborough, Hawker is surrounded on all four sides by Wichita, but is not part of the city itself. I don’t know if this should have any consideration as to whether the city should give Hawker this grant. … Then, there’s approval of the Industrial Revenue Bonds for the Fairfield Inn in downtown at WaterWalk. The agenda material says that the hotel is now complete, so the construction loan is being refinanced with the IRBs, “which will be initially purchased by the construction loan lender and then later redeemed with the proceeds of a permanent commercial loan insured by the Small Business Administration.” The benefit of the bonds is that the hotel escapes paying $328,945 in sales tax on its furnishings, etc. The city has already issued a letter of intent to do this, so it’s likely this item will pass and someone else will have to pay the sales tax this hotel is escaping. … The complete agenda packet is at Wichita City Council May 17, 2011.

Wichita as art curator. The controversy over spending $350,000 on a large sculpture at WaterWalk promoted one reader to write and remind me of the city’s past experience as custodian of fine art. In 2004, the city mistakenly sold a sculpture by James Rosati as scrap metal. Realizing its mistake, the city refused to complete the transaction. The buyer sued, the city lost and appealed, losing again. Estimates of the sculpture’s worth ranged up to $30,000. Editorialized Randy Scholfield at the time in The Wichita Eagle: “That the sculpture ended up in an auction of surplus junk in the first place says something about how much the city valued it or exercised proper stewardship.”

Legislature fails to confront KPERS. This year the Kansas Legislature failed to confront the looming problem of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, or KPERS. A small revision was made to the program, and a study commission was created. Neither action comes anywhere near to solving this very serious problem, as described in Economist: KPERS must undergo serious reform.

Over 30 major news organizations linked to George Soros. Business and Media Institute: “When liberal investor George Soros gave $1.8 million to National Public Radio, it became part of the firestorm of controversy that jeopardized NPR’s federal funding. But that gift only hints at the widespread influence the controversial billionaire has on the mainstream media. Soros, who spent $27 million trying to defeat President Bush in 2004, has ties to more than 30 mainstream news outlets — including The New York Times, Washington Post, the Associated Press, NBC and ABC.” … This is from the first of a four part series.

Romney seen as candidate of business, not capitalism. Timothy P. Carney in To Mitt Romney, big government is good for business: “Mitt Romney has the strongest business backing of any Republican presidential hopeful, and he carries himself as a technocratic problem solver. … Examine Romney’s dalliances with big government that have caused him such grief, and you’ll see a trend: They all are described as ‘pro-business,’ they all amount to corporate welfare, and they all reflect the technocratic mind-set you’d expect of a business consultant. Romney’s record and rhetoric show how managerialism veers away from the free market and into corporatism.” … Carney discusses Romney’s disastrous health care program in Massachusetts — which is seen as a prototype for Obamacare, his efforts to lure business to the state with subsidies, his support of ethanol subsidies, a national catastrophic insurance fund, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Programs for elderly must be cut. Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post: “When House Speaker John Boehner calls for trillions of dollars of spending cuts, the message is clear. Any deal to raise the federal debt ceiling must include significant savings in Social Security and Medicare benefits. Subsidizing the elderly is the biggest piece of federal spending (more than two-fifths of the total), but trimming benefits for well-off seniors isn’t just budget arithmetic. It’s also the right thing to do. I have been urging higher eligibility ages and more means-testing for Social Security and Medicare for so long that I forget that many Americans still accept the outdated and propagandistic notion that old age automatically impoverishes people.” … Samuelson goes on to show that many are doing quite well in old age and gets to the heart of the problem: “The blanket defense of existing Social Security and Medicare isn’t ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive.’ It’s simply a political expedient with ruinous consequences. It enlarges budget deficits and forces an unfair share of adjustment — higher taxes, lower spending — on workers and other government programs. This is the morality of the ballot box.” In other words, the elderly, which are a powerful voting bloc, have found they can vote themselves money. Concluding, he writes “Social Security was intended to prevent poverty, not finance recipients’ extra cable channels.”

Social Security seen as unwise, financially. A video from LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies, explains that apart from the political issues, Social Security is a bad system from a purely financial view. Explained in the video is that 22 year-olds can expect to earn a 1.6 percent rate of return on their “investment” in Social Security contributions. Further, the “investment” is subject to a “100 percent estate tax.”

Market development in Wichita. From Wichita downtown planning, not trash, is real threat: “While the downtown Wichita planners promote their plan as market-based development, the fact is that we already have market-based development happening all over Wichita. But because this development may not be taking place where some people want it to — downtown is where the visionaries say development should be — they declare a ‘market failure.’ But just because people make decisions that visionaries don’t approve of, that’s not market failure. And this is one of the most important reasons why Wichitans should oppose the downtown plan. It proposes to direct public investment away from where free people trading in free markets want public investment to be. The public investment component of the downtown plan says that people who decided not to live or work downtown are wrong, and they must now pay for others to be downtown. … We have market-based development in Wichita. We don’t need a government plan to have market-based development.”

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Friday May 6, 2011

Wichita downtown sites draw little interest. Wichita Business Journal: “Interest from developers in eight city-owned “catalyst” sites in downtown Wichita was minimal — unexpectedly so. ‘I was a little bit surprised how light the response was,’ says Scott Knebel, downtown revitalization manager for the city of Wichita.” With the city soliciting informal proposals for eight sites, only two proposals were received.

KPERS. It appears that the Kansas Legislature will pass a pension “reform” bill that does not include a shift to a defined-contribution plan for new employees. Instead, the tough decisions that need to be made about the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System have been placed in the hands of a study committee. More information about the seriousness of the KPERS problem is at Economist: KPERS must undergo serious reform and KPERS problems must be confronted. Video is here, with two parts following.

More flexibility for school funds. Kansas Watchdog reports that Kansas schools will now have more flexibility to spend funds that are presently stashed away in various funds. Of interest in the article is a chart showing the growth in these fund balances. School spending advocates protest that these funds are needed to because revenue doesn’t arrvie at the same time bills do, which is true. But these fund balances have been growing, because schools have not been spending all the money they’ve been given. While this bill is a good idea, schools have always been able to tap into these funds by simply contributing less to them, thereby spending down the balances. But schools have not wanted to to do this.

Growth in Kansas spendingGrowth in Kansas spending. Click for a larger view.

Despite “cuts,” spending grows. For all the talk in Kansas of budget cuts, state spending still manages to grow year after year. Kansas Watchdog is again on top of this topic, noting “Each year various adjustments push state spending above the approved budget, but in 2010 that extra spending took a big jump that will require even more spending in the future.” Of particular interest is the chart showing spending rising every year.

Sandy Springs a model. Common Sense with Paul Jacob: “Local governments suffer from a big problem: bigness. Too often they expand their scope of services, and, in so doing, progressively fail to cover even the old, core set of services. You know, like fire and police and roads and such. The solution is obvious. Mimic Sandy Springs. This suburban community north of Atlanta, Georgia, had been ill-served by Fulton County. So a few years ago the area incorporated. And, to fend off all the problems associated with the ‘do-it-all-ourselves’ mentality, the city didn’t hire on a huge staff of civil servants. Instead, it contracted out the bulk of those services in chunks. Now, the roads get paved and the streets are cleaned and the waste is removed better as well as cheaper than ever. Reason Foundation, a think tank known for its privatization emphasis, has been on the story from the beginning. A 2005 appraisal predicted that the town would become a ‘model city.’ That prophecy seems to have been on the money, and a Reason TV video emphasizes this with the shocking fact that the town ‘has no long-term liabilities.’ As the rest of the nation’s cities, counties and states lurch into insolvency, Sandy Springs shows a way out.” … The City of Wichita has had success in outsourcing the mowing of parks. Currently, the city has several dozen pieces of commercial mowing equipment at auction.

States’ war for jobs. Bloomberg Businesweek: “State and local governments eager to recover some of the more than 8 million jobs lost during the recession are giving away $70 billion in annual subsidies to companies, according to calculations by Kenneth Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. States have long relied on fiscal incentives to lure businesses, or keep existing employers from decamping to other locales. Such largesse is coming under renewed scrutiny during this time of strapped budgets. State deficits could reach a combined $112 billion in the fiscal year starting July 1. ‘The tragic irony of it is that in order to pay for these things, they’re cutting other areas that really are the building blocks of jobs and economic growth,’ says Jon Shure, director of state fiscal strategies for the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. … With the national unemployment rate at 8.8 percent, the threat of a company pulling up stakes is enough to open states’ wallets. ‘States and communities are afraid to play chicken,’ says Jeff Finkle, who heads the International Economic Development Council. … Kansas has offered movie theater chain AMC Entertainment a generous incentives package to move away from Kansas City, Mo., The New York Times reported in April. Officials in Missouri are considering making a counteroffer. Neither the company nor state officials would comment. The bidding war helped prompt an Apr. 5 letter signed by 17 corporate executives asking the governors of the two states to quit offering inducements to lure businesses across state lines. ‘At a time of severe fiscal constraint the effect to the states is that one state loses tax revenue, while the other forgives it,’ the letter said. ‘The only real winner is the business who is ‘incentive shopping’ to reduce costs.'” … Governor Brownback’s economic development plan speaks of “A more uniform business tax policy that treats all businesses equally rather than the current set of rules and laws that give great benefit to a few (through heavily bureaucratic programs) and zero benefit to many.” It will be a while before we know if the state is able to stick to this plan.

Shale gas to be topic in Wichita. This Friday (may 6) the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Malcolm C. Harris, Sr., Ph.D., Professor of Finance, Division of Business and Information Technology, Friends University, speaking on the topic: “Shale gas: Our energy future?” Harris also blogs at Mammon Among Friends. … “Shale gas” refers to a relatively new method of extracting natural gas, as reported in the Wall Street Journal: “We’ve always known the potential of shale; we just didn’t have the technology to get to it at a low enough cost. Now new techniques have driven down the price tag — and set the stage for shale gas to become what will be the game-changing resource of the decade. I have been studying the energy markets for 30 years, and I am convinced that shale gas will revolutionize the industry — and change the world — in the coming decades. It will prevent the rise of any new cartels. It will alter geopolitics. And it will slow the transition to renewable energy.” … Critics like the Center for American Progress warn of the dangers: “The process, which involves injecting huge volumes of water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground to fracture rock formations and release trapped gas, is becoming increasingly controversial, with concerns about possible contamination of underground drinking water supplies alongside revelations of surface water contamination by the wastewater that is a byproduct of drilling.”

Economics in one lesson this Monday. On Monday (May 9), four videos based on Henry Hazlitt’s classic work Economics in One Lesson will be shown in Wichita. The four topics included in Monday’s presentation will be The Curse of Machinery, Disbanding Troops & Bureaucrats, Who’s “Protected” by Tariffs?, and “Parity” Prices. The event is Monday (May 9) at 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm at the Lionel D. Alford Library located at 3447 S. Meridian in Wichita. The library is just north of the I-235 exit on Meridian. The event’s sponsor is Americans for Prosperity, Kansas. For more information on this event contact John Todd at john@johntodd.net or 316-312-7335, or Susan Estes, AFP Field Director at sestes@afphq.org or 316-681-4415.

Voters favor cuts, not tax increases to balance budget. “A survey of Kansas voters conducted on behalf of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce found widespread support for cutting spending rather than raising taxes as the way to balance the Kansas budget. Support was also found for cutting state worker salaries, or reducing the number of state employees.” More at Kansas Chamber finds voters favor cuts, not tax increases to balance budget.

Here’s the Kansas data. “KansasOpenGov.org provides a repository of data about Kansas state and local governments, giving citizens the data they need to hold officials accountable.” More at Kansas OpenGov: Here’s the Kansas data.

Government can’t be like business

As Wichita begins its implementation of the plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita, stakeholders like to delude themselves that the plan is “market-driven,” that the city will make prudent use of public “investment,” and that the plan’s supporters really do believe in free markets after all. It’s a business-like approach, they say.

But government is not business. The two institutions are entirely different. Government cannot act as a business does — the incentives and motivations are wrong. Furthermore, as Ludwig von Mises taught us, government can’t calculate profit and loss, the essential measure that lets us know if a business is making efficient use of resources.

But some refuse to accept the distinction between the two, insisting that just because an organization — say the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation — is entirely supported (except for a little private fundraising one year) by taxpayer funds, it’s not the same as a government institution.

The City of Wichita suffers from all the problems cited in this excerpt from Central Planning Comes to Main Street by Steven Greenhut, which appeared in the August 2006 issue of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty. As our city moves away from development based on markets to development based on government planning, and away from a dynamic free market approach to economic development towards political and bureaucratic management of our destiny, we can expect these problems to become more ingrained.

Problems with Incentives

By Steven Greenhut

Most city managers and economic-development officials that I’ve talked to fancy themselves as CEOs of companies, and they argue that what they are doing is no different from what private companies do: maximizing revenues. “Why wouldn’t a libertarian support what we’re doing given that you value private business and understand the importance of profit?” I’ve often been asked.

The answer is simple. Cities are not businesses. They take the tax dollars of residents and make decisions about land use that are backed by police powers. They do not operate in a market; they do not have voluntary stockholders. Despite the delusions of city managers, the city staff usually is not as sophisticated or as skilled as corporate staff, which means cities often get a poor deal when negotiating with rent-seeking corporations.

When cities insert themselves into the economic development game, either with carrots or sticks, they:

  • Shift decision-making from individuals to governments;

  • Take money from taxpayers and redistribute it to individuals and companies;
  • Undermine property rights and other freedoms;
  • Encourage a class of rent-seekers, who learn to lobby city officials for favors and special financial benefits;
  • Put unfavored businesses at a competitive disadvantage with those who are favored; and
  • Stifle political dissent, as companies that are dependent on the city for lucrative work become reluctant to speak their minds about any number of city issues.

Despite what city managers will tell you, the choice is not between economic development and letting a city rot. The choice is between central planning, empowering officials to decide which businesses are worthy of their help, and the good old free market, which lets free people decide which business should succeed or fail.

City officials like to be “proactive,” as they say, and help with economic development. There is something they can do. They can get out of the way, by lowering tax rates, deregulating, ending zoning restrictions, and eliminating exclusive contracts with utilities and developers. It’s not out of the question. The city of Anaheim is doing just that, with remarkable results.

Mackinac’s LaFaive puts it well in a 2003 article: “The best business climate is one in which government ‘sticks to its knitting’ and does its particular assignments well, at the lowest possible cost while creating a ‘fair field with no favors’ environment for private enterprise.”

Not a bad template. Sure beats a world of central planning, where city officials can choose who gets handouts and even who gets driven out of town.

TIF, a Wichita ‘tool,’ might be on the way out in California

In the Wall Street Journal, Steven Greenhut writes about California’s redevelopment agencies, which are very similar to tax increment financing districts (TIF) in Kansas. California governor Jerry Brown has proposed ending these agencies. Local government officials, who are beneficiaries of the agencies, are pushing back. A controller’s report in California finds that the agencies are a “source of waste and governmental abuse — not a generator of jobs and economic growth.” This is consistent with other economic research on TIF districts.

Greenhut correctly diagnosis the problem with these agencies or districts: “Redevelopment has attracted the Brown administration’s attention for an obvious reason: The more aggressive cities have become in using this ‘tool,’ the more they divert tax dollars from traditional public services like schools, fire-fighting and police services.” The use of the term “tool” evokes the rhetoric of Wichita city council members, who are wishing for more “tools in the toolbox.”

As part of its approval of the Goody Clancy plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita, Susan Estes asked the city council to formally disavow the use of eminent domain for the purposes of transferring property from one person to another. While the city says it does not intend to use the power of eminent domain for this purpose, the reluctance of the council to add this provision to the plan means that it is held in reserve. Mayor Carl Brewer believes it is “one of the tools that is available to the city.” And when perceived to be needed, the power of eminent domain is usually too powerful to resist.

TIF district money is expected to be a key component of the public financing contribution to downtown Wichita redevelopment.

Greenhut concludes: “While economic development and local control are crucial issues, it’s hard to understand why any Republican would believe that a regime of government planning and subsidy is the best way to achieve those goals. They should be standing up against the abuses of property rights and the fiscal irresponsibility inherent in the redevelopment process and championing market-based alternatives to urban improvement — even if it means defending a proposal from a Democratic governor they often disagree with.” Or here in Wichita, a liberal Democratic mayor who champions the centralized government planning of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

Greenhut’s most recent book is Plunder: How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.

Jerry Brown’s Good Deed Gets Punished

California’s governor wants to close his state’s redevelopment agencies, which abuse property rights and breed dependency among city governments.

By Steven Greenhut

Forced to choose between funding public schools and subsidizing ritzy golf courses, many California officials prefer the latter. That’s become painfully clear in the past few weeks as Golden State politicians have fiercely opposed Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to shave $1.7 billion from the state’s budget deficit by shuttering California’s 400 redevelopment agencies.

The roots of this story go back to 1945, when the California legislature allowed cities and counties to form these redevelopment agencies. Their purpose, at least in theory, was to fight urban blight. Once public officials deem an area blighted, redevelopment agencies can use eminent domain to clear old properties and sell bonds to pay for improvements.

To pay off the bonds, the agencies gobble up any subsequent increase in tax revenue — what the state calls the “tax increment.” In addition, a portion of the sales taxes generated by the new retail and commercial centers go into city, not state, coffers. That’s the main reason redevelopment agencies are popular among local politicians, Republican and Democratic alike. (Plus, they allow pols to reward favored corporations and developers.)

Continue reading at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) or Pacific Research Institute (no subscription required).

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Wednesday March 2, 2011

Duplication in federal programs found. Washington Examiner Editorial: “Nobody with even minimal knowledge of how public bureaucracies work should be surprised by the Government Accountability Office’s conclusion that there is a ‘staggering level of duplication’ in the federal government. Duplication is inevitable when professional politicians in both major parties go for decades using tax dollars to buy votes among favored constituencies, and reward friends, former staffers, family members and campaign contributors with heaping helpings from the pork barrel. With the inevitable program duplication also comes an endless supply of official duplicity as presidents, senators and representatives rationalize spending billions of tax dollars on programs they know either don’t work as promised, or that perform the same or similar functions as existing efforts and are therefore redundant.” … And they say it’s tough to cut spending.

Public school town hall meetings. Walt Chappell, Kansas State Board of Education member, is holding two public meetings in Wichita this week. Chappell writes: “You are cordially invited to share your top 4 priorities for what Kansas K-12 students should learn at a Town Hall meeting this week. Your Kansas State Board of Education is deciding how to improve our schools at a Board retreat on March 7th. As your elected representative on the KSBOE, I look forward to hearing your suggestions before we vote.” The first meeting is Thursday March 3rd from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm at Lionel D. Alford Library located at 3447 S. Meridian (just north of I-235). A second meeting will be on Saturday March 5th from 2:30 pm to 4:30 pm at Westlink Public Library, 8515 W. Bekemeyer, just North of Central and Tyler.

Wichita school board candidates. This Friday (March 4th) the Wichita Pachyderm Club features candidates for the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district. For the at-large seat, the candidates are Sheril Logan, Carly Miller, and Phil Neff. For district 4, the candidates are Michael Ackerman, Jr., Jeff Davis, and Clayton Houston. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Bureaucrats can’t change the way we drive … but they keep trying. More from the Washington Examiner, this time by Fred Barnes. “For most Americans — make that most of mankind — the car is an instrument of mobility, flexibility and speed. Yet officials in Washington, transportation experts, state and local functionaries, planners and transit officials are puzzled why their efforts to lure people from their cars continue to fail.” While Barnes writes mostly about automobiles vs. transit from a nationwide perspective, the issue is important here in Wichita. The revitalization of downtown Wichita contains a large dose of public transit as a way for people to get around downtown. It’s also likely that various streets will be restructured to make them less friendly to automobiles. .. More broadly, a major reason for some to support public funding of downtown is their hatred of “sprawl” and its reliance on the automobile, despite that being the lifestyle that large numbers of Wichitans prefer. They see this as something that government needs to correct.

Wednesdays in Wiedemann tonight. Today (March 2) Wichita State University’s Lynne Davis presents an organ recital as part of the “Wednesdays in Wiedemann” series. These recitals, which have no admission charge, start at 5:30 pm and last about 30 minutes. … Today is an all-Bach program, and Davis writes: “This is music for the soul, music for when the weather isn’t quite what it needs to be, music to heal our coughs and colds, music to meditate by — however this grand yet simple composer speaks to you.” … The location is Wiedemann Recital Hall (map) on the campus of Wichita State University. For more about Davis and WSU’s Great Marcussen Organ, see my story from earlier this year.

Americans for Prosperity website attacked. The website of Americans for Prosperity has been attacked by a group that disagrees with AFP’s position on issues. AFP President Tim Phillips issued a statement: “Americans for Prosperity has established itself as a leading voice in one of the great political debates underway in this country over government spending and how best to restore the fiscal solvency of governments at both the state and federal level. Yesterday, a group claimed credit for an attempt to silence our voice and to stifle that debate through an illegal attack on our website. While the political debate over government spending can be heated, we hope that even our opponents will join us in condemning this illegal attack on our free speech rights as unacceptable and irredeemable. Our country cannot meet the great challenges before us if we cannot have a free and open discussion about the threats that we face. Americans for Prosperity will not be intimidated and will not be deterred from our effort to support responsible economic policies, including the efforts of Governor Walker and other democratically elected leaders in that state to balance the budget through common-sense reforms.” … While I agree with Phillips that free and open discussion is necessary to resolve the issues we face, the disruption of AFP’s website is really more a property rights issue than a speech issue.

Kansas presidential primary pitched as economic development. Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty: “Why the dash by states to be early on the [presidential primary] calendar? The first is political power and ego. Early primary and caucus states merit attention from the presidential candidates to party big-wigs and power brokers within these early states. But a second reason has rapidly risen in prominence: The economic impact that candidate visits and media coverage of same brings a state. One economist has argued that the economic impact of the Iowa caucuses on the Iowa economy in 2004 was in the neighborhood of $50-$60 million. Other states want a piece of that action.” The complete editorial is Insight Kansas Editorial: Creative Thinking About 2012 GOP Presidential Caucus Can Benefit State.

Huelskamp joins Tea Party Caucus. Tim Huelskamp, a new member of the United States Congress from the Kansas first district, has joined the Congressional Tea Party Caucus headed by Michele Bachmann. The two other new members of the House of Representatives from Kansas have not joined.

How government works. The myth of George W. Bush as a small-government conservative, hiding information from the press and public, and the revolving door between government and lobbying. From Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. “Of the $96.5 trillion in unfunded Medicare liabilities, $19.4 trillion was added by the ‘small government’ George W. Bush administration’s prescription drug benefit, known as Medicare Part D. The story of that bill’s passage is the story of America in the twenty-first century. The White House did not want to risk the bill’s passage by letting accurate estimates of its cost leak out. Richard Foster, Medicare’s chief actuary, reported that its administrator, Bush appointee Thomas Scully, threatened him with his job if he revealed cost estimates to Congress — a claim that email correspondence from a Scully subordinate appeared to corroborate. The pharmaceutical industry was thrilled with the bill, which would yield perhaps an additional $100 billion in industry profits over the next eight years. Ten days after the bill’s passage, Scully left to join a lobbying firm and represented several large pharmaceutical companies. The bill’s principal author, Billy Tauzin, went on to head the drug companies’ main lobbying organization, a position that paid $2.5 million per year.”

Wichita downtown plan to be considered by county commission

Next week the Sedgwick County Commission will consider its approval of the Goody Clancy plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita. In December, the plan was passed enthusiastically by the Wichita City Council. There, not even self-styled conservative members like Sue Schlapp, Paul Gray, Jeff Longwell, and Jim Skelton could muster even one tiny bit of doubt as to the wisdom of this plan, with its centralized planning and calls for massive spending of public money.

At the county commission, things may be different. Here are a few articles commissioners may want to consider as they prepare to endorse — or not — this plan.

Wichita should reject Goody Clancy plan for downtown. Mr. Mayor, members of this council, there are many reasons why we should reject Project Downtown: The Master Plan for Wichita. I’d like to present just a few. … First, consider the attitudes of Goody Clancy, the Boston planning firm the city hired to lead us through the process. At a presentation in January, some speakers from Goody Clancy revealed condescending attitudes towards those who hold values different from this group of planners. One presenter said “Outside of Manhattan and Chicago, the traditional family household generally looks for a single family detached house with yard, where they think their kids might play, and they never do.” … David Dixon, who leads Goody Clancy’s Planning and Urban Design division and was the principal for this project, revealed his elitist world view when he told how that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is only found at the core. This idea that only downtown people are socially and culturally rich is an elitist attitude that we ought to reject. Click here to read the article.

In Wichita, who is to plan? In presenting the plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita, Wichita’s planners routinely make no distinction between government planning and private planning. In their presentations, they will draw analogies between the wisdom of individuals or businesses creating and following a plan and government doing the same. … An example is Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President Jeff Fluhr, who told the Wichita Pachyderm Club that the development of downtown is like the planning of an automobile trip, so that we don’t make major investments that we later regret. … But government and the private sector are very different, facing greatly different constraints, motivations, and access to information. As a result, the two planning processes are entirely different and not compatible. Click here to read the article.

Tax increment financing: TIF has a cost. Tax increment financing, or TIF districts, is slated to be used as one of the primary means to raise money for the “public investment” portion of the costs of the revitalization of downtown Wichita. Touted by its supporters as being without cost, or good for the entire city, or the only way to get a project started, these arguments make sense only to those who see only the immediate effects of something and are unwilling — or unable — to see the secondary effects of this harmful form of government intervention. Click here to read the article.

Wichita’s vision, by the urbanist elites. Why are some in Wichita so insistent on pushing their vision of what our city should look like, and why are they willing and eager to use the coercive force of government to achieve their vision? In the article below, Randal O’Toole, using a work by Thomas Sowell, provides much insight into understanding why. Click here to read the article.

Wichita downtown planning, not trash, is real threat. A recent plan for the City of Wichita to take over the management of residential trash pickup has many citizens advocating for the present free market system. While I agree that a free market in trash pickup is superior to government management of a cooperative, it is, after all, only trash. There are far greater threats to the economic freedom of Wichitans, in particular the planning for the future of downtown Wichita. … While the downtown Wichita planners promote their plan as market-based development, the fact is that we already have market-based development happening all over Wichita. But because this development may not be taking place where some people want it to — downtown is where the visionaries say development should be — they declare a “market failure.” Click here to read the article.

Government is not business, and can’t be. As Wichita begins its implementation of the plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita, stakeholders like to delude themselves that the plan is “market-driven,” that the city will make prudent use of public “investment,” and that the plan’s supporters really do believe in free markets after all. It’s a business-like approach, they say. But government is not business. The two institutions are entirely different. Click here to read the article.

Eminent domain reserved for use in Wichita. As part of the plan for the future of downtown Wichita, the city council was asked to formally disavow the use of eminent domain to take private property for the purpose of economic development. The council would not agree to this restriction. Click here to read the article.

At Wichita planning commission, downtown plan approved. At last week’s meeting of the Wichita Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, members were asked to approve the Goody Clancy plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita. I appeared to make sure that commissioners were aware of some of the highly dubious data on which the plan is based. In particular, I presented to the commission the Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, and how Goody Clancy relied on this obviously meaningless data in developing plans for downtown Wichita. Click here to read the article.

Wichita downtown plan focused on elite values, incorrect assumptions. One of the themes of those planning the future of downtown Wichita is that the suburban areas of Wichita are bad. The people living there are not cultured and sophisticated, the planners say. Suburbanites live wasteful lifestyles. Planners say they use too much energy, emit too much carbon, and gobble up too much land, all for things they’ve been duped into believing they want. It’s an elitist diagnosis, and Wichita’s buying it. Well, we’ve already paid for it, but we can stop the harmful planning process before it’s too late. Click here to read the article.

Some Goody Clancy Wichita findings not credible. Last week Boston planning firm Goody Clancy presented its master plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita. As this plan is now part of the political landscape in Wichita, we ought to take a critical look at some of its components. Click here to read the article.

Good intentions, and planners, can sap a city’s soul. The following article by Kansas City writer Jack Cashill, courtesy of Ingram’s Magazine, explains some of the problems with city planning of the type Wichita is undertaking at this time. Click here to read the article.

Tax increment financing: TIF has a cost

Tax increment financing, or TIF districts, is slated to be used as one of the primary means to raise money for the “public investment” portion of the costs of the revitalization of downtown Wichita. Touted by its supporters as being without cost, or good for the entire city, or the only way to get a project started, these arguments make sense only to those who see only the immediate effects of something and are unwilling — or unable — to see the secondary effects of this harmful form of government intervention.

Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole has written extensively on the subject of urban planning, development, and tax increment financing (TIF) districts. The following article contains many points that the Wichita City Council may wish to consider as it decides whether to rely on this form of financing for downtown projects, or for projects anywhere in the city.

O’Toole was in Wichita last year. Coverage of a lecture he delivered at that time is Randal O’Toole discusses urban planning in Wichita. The author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, O’Toole’s latest book is Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.

TIF is Not “Free Money”

By Randal O’Toole

Originally created with good intentions, tax-increment financing (TIF) has become a way for city officials to enhance their power by taking money from schools and other essential urban services and giving it to politically connected developers. It is also often used to promote the social engineering goals of urban planners.

TIF is based on the idea that public improvements to a neighborhood or district will lead developers to invest in that district. To finance such public improvements, cities are allowed to keep the “increment” or increased property taxes collected from the area. Typically, planners estimate in advance how much new property tax the city can collect and then sell bonds that will be repaid out of those taxes. The revenues from the bonds are used to pay for the improvements.

TIF was invented in California in 1952 in response to a problem found in many cities after World War II. At the beginning of and during the war, most urban residents lived in apartments. After the war, huge numbers of people moved to single-family homes in the suburbs. This left inner-city neighborhoods with high vacancy rates. Since few wanted to rent the cramped housing in such neighborhoods, the landowners did not keep the housing in good condition, and the neighborhoods became “blighted.”

So the California legislature allowed cities to create “redevelopment districts.” Typically, the cities evicted the residents of the districts and tore down the housing, thus leaving bare land that developers could use to build whatever met market demand. It sometimes worked, but often did not, and to this day some neighborhoods of New York City, New Jersey, and other urban areas remain little more than gravel pits.

Eventually, every state but Arizona legalized TIFs — North Dakota doing so in 1973. (Arizona and some other states use a similar scheme involving sales taxes.) Thousands of cities have established TIF districts. But experience has proven that they don’t work as well as hoped.

TIF is not “free money.” Studies have found that, at best, TIF is a zero-sum game, meaning for every winner in the TIF game others lose an equal amount. In other words, TIF does not increase the total amount of development that takes place in a city or region; it merely transfers development from one part of the region to another.

The new developments in the TIF districts consume fire, police, and other services, but since they don’t pay for those services, people in the rest of the city either have to pay higher taxes or accept a lower level of services. This means people outside the district lose twice: first when developments that might have enhanced their property values are enticed into the TIF district and second when they pay more taxes or receive less services because of the TIF district.

Not only does TIF not stimulate urban growth, it may even slow it down. One study found that TIF is actually a negative-sum game because businesses that might have located or expanded in the cities decide to move to another place that has lower taxes or higher levels of urban services.

TIF puts city officials on the verge of corruption, favoring some developers and property owners over others. TIF creates what economists call a moral hazard for developers. If you are a developer and your competitors are getting subsidies, you may simply fold your hands and wait until someone offers you a subsidy before you make any investments in new development. In many cities, TIF is a major source of government corruption, as city leaders hand tax dollars over to developers who then make campaign contributions to re-elect those leaders.

TIF isn’t even necessary to promote redevelopment of declining neighborhoods. Eventually, property values fall low enough that people start to buy and restore or replace buildings in those districts. Rather than use TIF and eminent domain to redevelop a warehouse district, Anaheim recently decided to merely get out of the way of developers of what became known as the Platinum Triangle. Since then, developers have invested billions of dollars in the district.

TIF is no longer about blight. Today, the inner-city slums that TIF was created to replace are long gone, yet TIF continues to grow. Bismarck wants to create a quiet rail zone. Fargo wants to revitalize its downtown. Whenever any kind of development “need” arises, city officials are happy to steal money from fire, police, schools and other services that rely on property taxes and use it to fund that need.

Some states require cities to find that a neighborhood is blighted before they can use TIF. San Jose planners once found that a third of their city was blighted, including one posh neighborhood that was supposedly a slum because the residents had failed to rake the leaves from the private tennis courts in their backyards. Some cities go so far as to declare prime farmland to be “blighted” so they can maximize their share of the revenues when that land is developed.

TIF today is often part of a social engineering agenda that Americans should reject. With no more slums to clear, urban planners see themselves as having a new mission: not to restore blighted neighborhoods but to re-engineer society to fit their fantasies of how people should live. Automobiles are evil, the planners think, and getting people to live in high-density housing will lead them to drive less because they won’t have as far to go to get anywhere. So cities like Denver, Minneapolis, and Portland are using TIF to subsidize high-density developments.

Ironically, we seem to have come full circle. Once used to subsidize the removal of high-density developments that few wanted to live in, TIF is now used to subsidize the construction of high-density developments that few want to live in. After all, if there was truly a demand for such high-density housing, no subsidies would be needed.

While we like to think that government officials have our best interests at heart, TIF is just too much of a temptation for many cities to resist. Two Democratic legislators in Colorado want to reform TIF in that state so that cities can’t declare farms to be blighted. A bill doing just that was proposed in, but not passed by, North Dakota’s 2003 legislature.

But that doesn’t go far enough. Legislators should recognize that TIF no longer has a reason to exist, and it didn’t even work when it did. They should repeal the laws allowing cities to use TIF and encourage cities to instead rely on developers who build things that people want, not things that planners think they should have.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday January 31, 2011

Some downtown Wichita properties plummet in value. A strategy of Real Development — the “Minnesota Guys” — in Wichita has been to develop and sell floors of downtown office buildings as condominiums. Some of these floors have been foreclosed upon and have come back on the market. Some once carried mortgages of $400,000 or more, meaning that at one point a bank thought they were worth at least that much. But now four floors in the Broadway Plaza Building, three floors of the Petroleum Building, two floors of Sutton Place, and one floor of the Orpheum Office Center are available for sale at prices not much over $100,000, ranging from $14 to $25 per square foot. Other downtown office buildings — very plain properties — are listed at much higher prices. For example, one downtown property is listed at $82 per square foot. … Some of these floors have had declining appraisals. According to the Sedgwick County Treasurer, the fifth floor of Sutton Place, which is listed for sale at $135,000, was appraised in 2008 for $530,900. In 2009 the appraised value dropped to $215,000.

Kansas Days. The primary news made at this year’s Kansas Days gathering was the election of Todd Tiahrt to replace Mike Pompeo as national committeeman. Otherwise, there was a large turnout in Topeka with many receptions and meals that provided opportunities to meet officeholders and new friends, and to reacquaint with old friends from across the state. Plus, I got to sample the “Brownback” beer. It’s pretty good.

Williams named to national economic development committee. From Wichita Business Journal: “Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams has been named to a National League of Cities steering committee on Community and Economic Development Policy and Advocacy.” Undoubtedly for her unfailing support of any form of corporate welfare that comes before the Wichita City Council.

Mises University this summer. If you’re a college student and would like to receive instruction in Austrian Economics — “a rigorous and logical approach to economics that gives free markets their due and takes full account of the reality of human choice” — I suggest applying to the Ludwig von Mises Institute to attend Mises University this summer. I attended as a member observer in 2007, and it was a wonderful and very intense week. For more information, click on Mises University 2011. Scholarships are available.

A Rosa Parks moment for education. Kevin Huffman in the Washington Post: “Last week, 40-year-old Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar was released after serving nine days in jail on a felony conviction for tampering with records. Williams-Bolar’s offense? Lying about her address so her two daughters, zoned to the lousy Akron city schools, could attend better schools in the neighboring Copley-Fairlawn district. … In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school. But if you are poor, you’re out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy.” Kansas has no school choice programs to speak of, and so far Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has not expressed advocacy for school choice.

The state against blacks. The Wall Street Journal’s Jason L. Riley interviews economist Walter E. Williams on the occasion of the publication of his most recent book Up from the Projects: An Autobiography. The reason for the article’s title: “‘The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do, what Jim Crow couldn’t do, what the harshest racism couldn’t do,’ Mr. Williams says. ‘And that is to destroy the black family.'” … On economics and why it is important, Riley writes: “Over the decades, Mr. Williams’s writings have sought to highlight ‘the moral superiority of individual liberty and free markets,’ as he puts it. ‘I try to write so that economics is understandable to the ordinary person without an economics background.’ His motivation? ‘I think it’s important for people to understand the ideas of scarcity and decision-making in everyday life so that they won’t be ripped off by politicians,’ he says. ‘Politicians exploit economic illiteracy.'” … On the current state of politics: “Mr. Williams says he hopes that the tea party has staying power, but ‘liberty and limited government is the unusual state of human affairs. The normal state throughout mankind’s history is for him to be subject to arbitrary abuse and control by government..”

Professor Cornpone. From The Wall Street Journal Review & Outlook: “The last time these columns were lambasted by a presidential candidate in Iowa, he was Democrat Richard Gephardt and the year was 1988. The Missouri populist won the state caucuses in part on the rallying cry that ‘we’ve got to stop listening to the editorial writers and the establishment,’ especially about ethanol and trade. Imagine our amusement to find Republican Newt Gingrich joining such company. The former Speaker blew through Des Moines last Tuesday for the Renewable Fuels Association summit, and his keynote speech to the ethanol lobby was as pious a tribute to the fuel made from corn and tax dollars as we’ve ever heard. Mr. Gingrich explained that ‘the big-city attacks’ on ethanol subsidies are really attempts to deny prosperity to rural America … Yet today this now-mature industry enjoys far more than cash handouts, including tariffs on foreign competitors and a mandate to buy its product. Supporters are always inventing new reasons for these dispensations, like carbon benefits (nonexistent, according to the greens and most scientific evidence) and replacing foreign oil (imports are up). … Given that Mr. Gingrich aspires to be President, his ethanol lobbying raises larger questions about his convictions and judgment.” Another advocate for the ethanol boondoggle, and perhaps again a presidential candidate, is Kansas Governor Sam Brownback.

Politics and city managers to be topic. This Friday (February 4) the Wichita Pachyderm Club features as its speaker H. Edward Flentje, Professor at the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs, Wichita State University. His topic will be “The Political Roots of City Managers in Kansas.” The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Wednesdays in Wiedemann this week. Wednesday (February 2) Wichita State University’s Lynne Davis presents an organ recital as part of the “Wednesdays in Wiedemann” series. These recitals, which have no admission charge, start at 5:30 pm and last about 30 minutes. The location is Wiedemann Recital Hall (map) on the campus of Wichita State University. For more about Davis and WSU’s Great Marcussen Organ, see my story from earlier this year.

Government bird chirping. American Majority’s Beka Romm wonders about the wisdom of a mayor’s plan to broadcast bird songs on the city’s streets, and how we can decide whether government should be doing things like this.

Wichita city manager Robert Layton on the air

Yesterday Wichita city manager Robert Layton appeared as a guest on the Gene Countryman Show on KNSS Radio in Wichita and spoke on a number of topics brought up by the host and callers.

Several times host Gene Countryman referred to Wichita theater owner Bill Warren and his assessment of Layton as “best city manager the city’s ever had,” calling Warren’s assessment “high praise.” Warren has good reason to heap praise on Layton. He and his partners have benefited handsomely from actions the Wichita City Council has taken at Layton’s recommendation. Most recently Warren escaped paying property taxes on a new movie theater, and negotiated a deal in where the property tax on an existing property will increase at an agreed-upon rate that is likely lower than what would happen otherwise. Before Layton’s arrival in Wichita, the council heaped subsidy on Warren too, once bailing out the failing Warren Old Town Theater with an interest-free loan.

Layton also said criticism causes him to “bristle a little bit,” but dismissed his critics as a small minority, although he said he doesn’t discount it.

On the possible arrival of Southwest Airlines to Wichita, Layton said he feels “pretty good” about Wichita’s chances in receiving service from the popular discount airline. He said that we need to keep the Affordable Airfares Program to keep Southwest interested in Wichita. But later he said “The Southwest business model doesn’t require subsidies over a long period of time.”

But as I wrote in 2006, we’ve been told before that the airfare subsidies were meant to be temporary: “From the beginning, we in the Wichita area have been told each year that the AirTran subsidy was intended as a temporary measure, that soon AirTran would be able to stand on its own, and there will be no need to continue the subsidy.” History has shown, however, that the subsidy has grown to the point where the entire state funds the subsidy for Wichita. It appears to be a permanent part of the state’s economic program, with Governor Brownback expressing support for continued funding for the program.

On downtown, Layton said that the city doesn’t want to place businesses in downtown who will be on tax breaks or tax exempt for ten years. If the city is to achieve this goal, it will take a 180 degree change in the mindset in city hall where the mayor and vice-mayor Jeff Longwell complain that we don’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to incentive businesses. In his State of the City address last week, one of the achievements Mayor Carl Brewer was proud of was the decision by Cargill to locate a facility in downtown Wichita. According to city documents, “The City has also offered a 100% five-plus-five year tax abatement on the new facility.” This is precisely the type of tax break Layton spoke against. Cargill, by the way, received many other forms of subsidy — let’s be clear — corporate welfare — for its decision.

On the plan for how to handle Wichita’s trash, Layton said his intent was to start a community dialog on the subject, and that has happened. Layton praised Iowa’s bottle bill, which adds five cents to the price of items sold in bottles. He said it makes it easier for people to recycle.

In Wichita, who is to plan?

In presenting the plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita, Wichita’s planners routinely make no distinction between government planning and private planning. In their presentations, they will draw analogies between the wisdom of individuals or businesses creating and following a plan and government doing the same.

An example is Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President Jeff Fluhr, who told the Wichita Pachyderm Club that the development of downtown is like the planning of an automobile trip, so that we don’t make major investments that we later regret.

But government and the private sector are very different, facing greatly different constraints, motivations, and access to information. As a result, the two planning processes are entirely different and not compatible.

In the following excerpt from Planning for Freedom: Let the Market System Work. A Collection of Essays and Addresses, Ludwig von Mises addresses this issue. As Mises writes, the choice is not between planning or no planning. The choice is who is to plan.

“Conscious Planning” versus “Automatic Forces”

As the self-styled “progressives” see things, the alternative is: “automatic forces” or “conscious planning.” It is obvious, they go on saying, that to rely upon automatic processes is sheer stupidity. No reasonable man can seriously recommend doing nothing and letting things go without any interference through purposive action. A plan, by the very fact that it is a display of conscious action, is incomparably superior to the absence of any planning. Laissez faire means: let evils last and do not try to improve the lot of mankind by reasonable action.

This is utterly fallacious and deceptive talk. The argument advanced for planning is derived entirely from an inadmissable interpretation of a metaphor. It has no foundation other than the connotations implied in the term “automatic,” which is customarily applied in a metaphorical sense to describe the market process. Automatic, says the Concise Oxford Dictionary, means “unconscious, unintelligent, merely mechanical.” Automatic, says Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, means “not subject to the control of the will . . . performed without active thought and without conscious intention or direction.” What a triumph for the champion of planning to play this trump-card!

The truth is that the choice is not between a dead mechanism and a rigid automatism on the one hand and conscious planning on the other hand. The alternative is not plan or no plan. The question is: whose planning? Should each member of society plan for himself or should the paternal government alone plan for all? The issue is not automatism versus conscious action; it is spontaneous action of each individual versus the exclusive action of the government. It is freedom versus government omnipotence.

Laissez faire does not mean: let soulless mechanical forces operate. It means: let individuals choose how they want to cooperate in the social division of labor and let them determine what the entrepreneurs should produce. Planning means: let the government alone choose and enforce its rulings by the apparatus of coercion and compulsion.

Under laissez faire, says the planner, the goods produced are not those which people “really” need, but those goods from the sale of which the highest returns are expected. It is the objective of planning to direct production toward the satisfaction of “true” needs. But who should decide what “true” needs are?

The various planners agree only with regard to their rejection of laissez faire, i.e., the individual’s discretion to choose and to act. They disagree entirely on the choice of the unique plan to be adopted. To every exposure of the manifest and incontestable defects of interventionist policies the champions of interventionism always react in the same way. These faults, they say, were the sins of spurious interventionism; what we are advocating is good interventionism. And, of course, good interventionism is the professor’s own brand only.

Wichita’s vision, by the urbanist elites

Why are some in Wichita so insistent on pushing their vision of what our city should look like, and why are they willing and eager to use the coercive force of government to achieve their vision? In the article below, Randal O’Toole, using a work by Thomas Sowell, provides much insight into understanding why.

Reading this post, I couldn’t help think of Wichita: the “manufactured crisis” of too much driving and too little walking; the desire by many, including several Wichita City Council members — even self-styled conservative members — to expand the power and reach of government; and the denial of responsibility for obvious failures like Waterwalk.

We should remember that the plan for downtown Wichita developed by Boston planning firm Goody Clancy is a plan developed by and for self-styled elites. We only need to remember when David Dixon, Goody Clancy’s principal, told Wichitans that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is only found at the core. That’s an insult to the vast majority of Wichitans, but the elites in Wichita evidently believe it, or are willing to tolerate this insult in order to achieve their vision.

O’Toole visited Wichita last year and presented a fascinating lecture.

The Vision of the Urbanites

By Randal O’Toole

As the Antiplanner has traveled and visited people all over the country, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. Though I’ve met thousands of suburban and rural residents who are very happy with their homes and lifestyles, I’ve never met one who thinks the power of government should be used to force others to live in the same lifestyle. Yet I’ve met lots of urban residents who openly admit that they believe their lifestyle is so perfect that government should force more if not most people to live in dense, “walkable” cities.

Do cities turn people into liberal fascists? Or do liberal fascists naturally congregate into cities, and if so, why?

A general description of the phenomenon I’ve observed can be found in Thomas Sowell’s 1995 book, The Vision of the Anointed. Sowell says that America’s liberal elites view themselves as smarter or more insightful than everyone else, and thus qualified to impose their ideas on everyone else. The process of doing so, says Sowell, follows four steps (p. 8):

First, the anointed identify or, more usually, manufacture a crisis. Sowell’s book reviews three such crises: poverty, crime, and teen pregnancy, all of which were declining in the 1960s when the liberals turned them into crises. The crises relevant to this blog include such things as urban sprawl (totally manufactured as in fact it is not a problem at all) and auto driving (while some of the effects of driving are negative, these are easily corrected while the overall benefits of driving are positive).

Second, the anointed propose a solution that inevitably involves government action. Sowell makes it clear that the the leadership of the elites go out of their way to define or manufacture the crises in ways that make it appear the government action are the only solutions. In other words, their real goal is to make government bigger, not to solve problems. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it doesn’t really matter; what matters is they propose the wrong solutions to problems that often don’t really exist.

Third, once the solution is implemented, the results turn out to be very different, and often far worse, than predicted by the anointed. Crime, poverty, and teen pregnancy went up, not down, when government stepped in to “fix” these problems in the 1960s. In the case of urban planning, anti-sprawl policies made housing unaffordable and led to the recent mortgage crisis. Anti-automobile policies make congestion worse and therefore waste even more energy and produce more pollution.

The final stage is one of denial, in which the elites claim that their policies had nothing to do with the worsening results. Other factors were at work, they claim; in fact, the results might have been even worse if their enlightened policies had not been put into effect.

Sowell notes that the anointed use several tactics to promote their ideas. For example, “empirical evidence itself may be viewed as suspect, insofar as it is inconsistent with that vision” (p. 2). Whenever the Antiplanner uses data to show that there is no urban sprawl crisis or rail transit doesn’t work in a debate with an urban anointed, the inevitable response is some version of “figures don’t lie but liars figure.” “Statistics can be used to show anything you want,” is another version. These comforting words leave the anointed free to dismiss any data and all that conflict with their vision.

A second fundamental tactic is to presume that they have the moral high ground. “Those who accept this vision are deemed to be not merely factually correct but morally on a higher plane,” says Sowell. “Put differently, those who disagree with the prevailing vision are seen as being not merely in error, but in sin” (pp. 2-3). The term “smart growth” is a classic example of this tactic, used solely to bludgeon any dissenters with the claim that they must favor “dumb growth.”

Relying on tactics like these, the anointed avoid confronting the fraudulent nature of their crises and the failures of their solutions. “What is remarkable is how few arguments are really engaged in, and how many substitutes for arguments there are,” says Sowell (p. 6).

While The Vision of the Anointed describes the situation, it doesn’t answer the fundamental question of why people think that way. A partial answer is provided by Sowell’s 1987 book, A Conflict of Visions, in which Sowell traces two different world views back to the late eighteenth century. One view, expressed by Adam Smith, is that humans are imperfect and so we should design institutions that work even if the face of these imperfections. The other view, proposed by William Godwin, is that humans are perfectable, which suggests that the benign hand of government authority should be used to guide people to that perfection.

Today, the Tea Party represents the descendants of Adam Smith, while urban planners are descendants of Godwin. As University of California planners Mel Webber and Fred Collignon wrote more than a decade ago, urban planners were “heir to the postulates of the Enlightenment with its faith in perfectibility.”

The question still remains: why are urbanites more susceptible to the vision of the anointed? Perhaps part of the answer is that the constant friction between strangers that cities impose on their residents leads to a desire for government authority to protect people from those frictions. But a larger part of the answer may be that the role of government is far more visible in cities than elsewhere, and far larger in cities today than in the past, so residents of those cities cannot imagine living without it — and those who want more government are attracted to those cities. In any case, everyone in general and urbanites in particular should be wary of any ideas that make government bigger, as they are probably just part of some elitist scheme to coercively impose their vision on everyone else.

The link to this article at O’Toole’s site is The Vision of the Urbanites.

Government is not business, and can’t be

As Wichita begins its implementation of the plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita, stakeholders like to delude themselves that the plan is “market-driven,” that the city will make prudent use of public “investment,” and that the plan’s supporters really do believe in free markets after all. It’s a business-like approach, they say.

But government is not business. The two institutions are entirely different. Government cannot act as a business does — the incentives and motivations are wrong. But some refuse to accept the distinction between the two, insisting that just because an organization — say the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation — is entirely supported (except for a little private fundraising one year) by taxpayer funds, it’s not the same as a government institution.

The City of Wichita suffers from all the problems cited in this excerpt from Central Planning Comes to Main Street by Steven Greenhut, which appeared in the August 2006 issue of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty. As our city moves away from development based on markets to development based on government planning, and away from a dynamic free market approach to economic development towards political and bureaucratic management of our destiny, we can expect these problems to become more ingrained.

Problems with Incentives

By Steven Greenhut

Most city managers and economic-development officials that I’ve talked to fancy themselves as CEOs of companies, and they argue that what they are doing is no different from what private companies do: maximizing revenues. “Why wouldn’t a libertarian support what we’re doing given that you value private business and understand the importance of profit?” I’ve often been asked.

The answer is simple. Cities are not businesses. They take the tax dollars of residents and make decisions about land use that are backed by police powers. They do not operate in a market; they do not have voluntary stockholders. Despite the delusions of city managers, the city staff usually is not as sophisticated or as skilled as corporate staff, which means cities often get a poor deal when negotiating with rent-seeking corporations.

When cities insert themselves into the economic development game, either with carrots or sticks, they:

  • Shift decision-making from individuals to governments;

  • Take money from taxpayers and redistribute it to individuals and companies;
  • Undermine property rights and other freedoms;
  • Encourage a class of rent-seekers, who learn to lobby city officials for favors and special financial benefits;
  • Put unfavored businesses at a competitive disadvantage with those who are favored; and
  • Stifle political dissent, as companies that are dependent on the city for lucrative work become reluctant to speak their minds about any number of city issues.

Despite what city managers will tell you, the choice is not between economic development and letting a city rot. The choice is between central planning, empowering officials to decide which businesses are worthy of their help, and the good old free market, which lets free people decide which business should succeed or fail.

City officials like to be “proactive,” as they say, and help with economic development. There is something they can do. They can get out of the way, by lowering tax rates, deregulating, ending zoning restrictions, and eliminating exclusive contracts with utilities and developers. It’s not out of the question. The city of Anaheim is doing just that, with remarkable results.

Mackinac’s LaFaive puts it well in a 2003 article: “The best business climate is one in which government ‘sticks to its knitting’ and does its particular assignments well, at the lowest possible cost while creating a ‘fair field with no favors’ environment for private enterprise.”

Not a bad template. Sure beats a world of central planning, where city officials can choose who gets handouts and even who gets driven out of town.

Economic freedom at decline, across the U.S. and in Wichita

Earlier this year Robert Lawson appeared in Wichita to speak about economic freedom throughout the world. While the United States presently ranks well, that is changing. Writing this month in The Freeman, Lawson and his colleagues warn of dangerous trends — particularly the Obama Administration’s response to the recession — that pose a threat to the economic freedom that powers growth and prosperity.

While the article is focused primarily at the national economy, there are lessons to be learned locally, too. In particular, increasing intervention into the state and local economy leads to compounding the loss of economic freedom.

As an example, the Wichita City Council has just approved a plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita that calls for public investment to be made downtown. While the plan is promoted as a market-based plan, it is, instead, a government plan to redirect investment from where people have decided it should be to where politicians, bureaucrats, and their patrons think it should be. These patrons are sometimes called “crony capitalists,” as explained in this passage from the article (James D. Gwartney, Joshua C. Hall and Robert A. Lawson:
The Decline in Economic Freedom
):

It is important to distinguish between market entrepreneurs and crony capitalists. Market entrepreneurs succeed by providing customers with better products, more reliable service, and lower prices than are available elsewhere. They succeed by creating wealth — by producing goods and services that are worth more than the value of the resources required for their production. Crony capitalists are different: They get ahead through subsidies, special tax breaks, regulatory favors, and other forms of political favoritism. Rather than providing consumers with better products at attractive prices, crony capitalists form an alliance with politicians. The crony capitalists provide the politicians with contributions, other political resources, and, in some cases, bribes in exchange for subsidies and regulations that give them an advantage relative to other firms. Rather than create wealth, crony capitalists form a coalition with political officials to plunder wealth from taxpayers and other citizens.

We are now in the midst of a great debate between the proponents of limited government and open markets on the one hand and those favoring more collectivism and political direction of the economy on the other. The outcome of this debate will determine the future of both economic freedom and the prosperity of Americans and others throughout the world.

In Wichita, “those favoring more collectivism and political direction of the economy” are winning. Not only are they winning the actual political votes, they are also winning the battles within their own minds. Astonishingly, many of the crony capitalists in Wichita have deluded themselves into believing that they are supporters of free markets and capitalism. But taxpayer-supported institutions like Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Visioneering Wichita exist for the very purpose of directing taxpayer funds toward the crony capitalists. Even the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce plays a role in the plunder of the taxpayer, with its president nodding in approval as nominally conservative members of the Wichita City Council expressed their support for the collectivist, anti-market vision for downtown Wichita.

The heads of each of these organizations, along with city council members Sue Schlapp, Paul Gray, Jim Skelton, and Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell consider themselves to be conservatives. Many of these have personally assured me they are in favor of free markets.

The actions of the council members, not only their enthusiastic embrace of the downtown plan, but their interventions — at nearly every meeting, week after week — that interfere with the market economy and destroy economic freedom, show that none have even a basic understanding of the difference between the economic means and the political means. Writing in his recent book The Science of Success, Koch Industries Chairman and CEO Charles Koch explains the difference:

The economic means of profiting involves voluntarily exchanging your goods or services for the goods or services of others. Parties will not voluntarily enter into an exchange unless they both believe they will be better off. Therefore, you can only profit over time in a system of voluntary exchange (a market) by making others better off.

The political means of profiting transfers goods or services from one party to another by force or fraud. A coerced or fraudulent exchange leaves at least one of the parties worse off. Examples are stealing, committing fraud, polluting, using unsafe practices, filing baseless lawsuits, lobbying government to hamper competitors or obtain subsidies and promoting self-serving redistribution programs.

The economic means creates wealth by making each participant, and, therefore, society as a whole, better off. The political means, at best, merely distributes wealth. As a general system, it causes the overcoming majority of people to be worse off. (emphasis added)

Eminent domain reserved for use in Wichita

As part of the plan for the future of downtown Wichita, the city council was asked to formally disavow the use of eminent domain to take private property for the purpose of economic development. The council would not agree to this restriction.

Susan Estes noted that the legislative agenda that the city council passed earlier in the meeting supported “home rule and local control as the most valid solution for recurring legislative issues.” High on the list of these issues is eminent domain.

Estes asked that the city adopt a statement that the city will not use eminent domain to take property for someone else’s use.

Answering her, Mayor Carl Brewer said it is the council’s record not to use eminent domain. “But,” he said, the city needs that opportunity and flexibility. He said that the city has been asked by developers to use eminent domain, but they’ve resisted. Nonetheless, he described it as one of the tools that is available to the city.

Council member Janet Miller said that the Kansas legislature has placed restrictions on eminent domain, which she characterized as a prohibition.

While Miller is correct — the Kansas legislature would have to pass a statute authorizing specific use of eminent domain, and the law is now more in favor of property owners than in the past — that protection, in my opinion, is weak.

We can easily imagine a scenario where a developer — promising a grand development — wants a large tract of land, perhaps a city block or more. The mayor and others will travel to Topeka and testify that the city desperately needs the jobs and tax revenue the development will create. (Forgetting the fact that the development will probably be in a tax increment financing district and therefore not contributing increased tax revenue to the city’s general government.) The city’s lobbyist will work the halls, a case of a taxpayer-paid lobbyist working against the interest of taxpayers. The case will be made to other lawmakers that if they ever want to use eminent domain in their home towns, they’d better vote for Wichita’s request. Other forms of legislative logrolling will be in full behind-the-scenes use.

So now property owners, instead of having to contest the city’s lawyers before a judge, have to lobby the entire legislature. The case — instead of being heard in a forum where the rule of law is respected — will be contested in a political body which in many cases has shown us that it cares little for private property rights.

This was a moment in time where the city council could have taken leadership in protecting property owners from eminent domain abuse. The city — particularly Mayor Brewer and Council Member Miller — failed to grasp the importance of protecting this form of liberty and economic freedom.

Wichita should reject Goody Clancy plan for downtown

Remarks to the Wichita City Council regarding the adoption of a plan for the future of downtown Wichita.

Mr. Mayor, members of this council, there are many reasons why we should reject Project Downtown: The Master Plan for Wichita. I’d like to present just a few.

First, consider the attitudes of Goody Clancy, the Boston planning firm the city hired to lead us through the process. At a presentation in January, some speakers from Goody Clancy revealed condescending attitudes towards those who hold values different from this group of planners. One presenter said “Outside of Manhattan and Chicago, the traditional family household generally looks for a single family detached house with yard, where they think their kids might play, and they never do.”

David Dixon, who leads Goody Clancy’s Planning and Urban Design division and was the principal for this project, revealed his elitist world view when he told how that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is only found at the core.

This idea that only downtown people are socially and culturally rich is an elitist attitude that we ought to reject.

By the way, as I look at the members of this council and the city bureaucratic staff behind me, I see many people who do not live in the core area.

In fact, looking at the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, its president, chair, and past chair live in the type of fringe, suburban developments that Dixon claims are not socially and culturally rich. Do all of you accept Dixon’s criticism?

These attitudes reflect those of most of the planning profession — that people can’t be relied on to choose what’s best for them. Instead they believe that only they — like the planners at Goody Clancy — are equipped to make choices for people. It’s an elitism that Wichita ought to reject.

The irony is that when we start to look at what exactly Goody Clancy is selling us, we find that we ought to reject it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s correct. Walk Score has been updated. Now for the same location the walk score is 85%, which is considered “very walkable.” The “grocery store” is no longer the Pepsi Bottling Group. It’s now “Market Place,” whose address is given as 155 N. Market St # 220.

If someone would ever happen to stroll by that location, he’d find that address, 155 N. Market number 220, is the management office for an office building whose name is Market Place.

Still no grocery store. Not even close.

Again, David Dixon and Goody Clancy did not create the Walk Score data. But they presented it to Wichitans as an example of the data-driven, market-oriented approach to planning that they use. Dixon cited Walk Score data as the basis for higher real estate values based on the walkability of the area and its surrounding amenities.

But anyone who relies on the evidence Dixon and Goody Clancy presented would surely get burnt unless they investigated the area on their own.

And since this January reliance on Walk Score was made after Goody Clancy had spent considerable time in Wichita, the fact that someone there could not immediately recognize how utterly bogus the data is — that should give us cause for concern that the entire planning process is based on similar shoddy data and analysis.

I also question whether we have the bureaucratic and political will to actually do what this plan says. For example, the public financing portion is to be limited to things that have a genuine public purpose, such as parking. Financing, if I understand correctly, will be limited largely to tax increment financing districts and historic preservation tax credits.

But look at what this city has done.

In January, Goody Clancy, in its market findings report, told us there is a thriving market for downtown hotel rooms. But right after that the city awarded several millions in subsidy to the Fairfield Inn Hotel, in addition to the benefit it already received from being in a TIF district.

Goody Clancy’s report also states: “Strong occupancy and revenue rates at hotels and a relative undersupply of rooms compared to office space suggest a market opportunity for more hotel rooms.”

But just recently, this city awarded yet another form of subsidy to the many millions already awarded to the Broadview Hotel.

So I wonder if we have the bureaucratic and political will to limit ourselves to the types of public subsidy that the plan calls for.

Finally, Mayor and members of the council, we already have market-driven development in Wichita. Just because some people don’t agree with the results the markets have produced, that does not constitute a market failure that requires government correction.

We already have community engagement in Wichita by people who are actually accountable for the decisions they make and the actions they take.

Now we are considering replacing the dynamic and truly market-driven approach to building our city with what is — despite the claims of its backers — a political and bureaucratic system.

This is a mistake we should not make.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Sunday December 12, 2010

This week at Wichita City Council. This Tuesday, six speakers have signed up to appear on the public agenda. This is a portion of the meeting where citizens may speak on nearly any topic. Five are speaking on the city’s proposed trash plan, while one is speaking on a city-wide recycling project. … Approval of the city’s legislative agenda will be considered. Probably the greatest threat to economic freedom is this plank: “City of Wichita supports continued use of effective private-public partnerships and the appropriate intervention of state and local governments to spur economic development.” Also the city expresses support for highly subsidized, expensive, and little-used passenger rail service. … Also the council will consider amending the Wichita-Sedgwick County Comprehensive Plan to include Project Downtown: The Master Plan for Wichita. This is the plan that consulting firm Goody Clancy developed for the revitalization of downtown Wichita. The complete agenda report is at Wichita City Council, December 14, 2010.

Sedgwick County Commission this week. On Wednesday the Sedgwick County Commission will vote on its legislative agenda. The agenda, or platform, is not law, but expresses the sentiment or desire of the commission. Last year Commissioner Karl Peterjohn shepherded through the requirement that voters approve all tax rate increases. This year the same language is proposed, but it may not pass. (The proposed language is this: “All local sales tax increases must be approved by voters under Kansas law. All property tax increases that raise the mill levy should also be required to receive voter approval.”) Some commissioners believe that voters elect them to use their judgment to make decisions on taxes, while other commissioners believe voters should have the final say on something as important as this. The agenda and backup material for Wednesday’s meeting is at Sedgwick County Commission, December 15, 2010.

Wichita Eagle: Adopt downtown plan. Today’s Wichita Eagle editorial calls for passage of the downtown master plan recently developed by planning firm Goody Clancy. Rhonda Holman argues that a “busier, richer core” will benefit the town economically, adding that “downtown matters too much to be left to chance.” The idea that the core is essential to progress is taken as a given, but when downtown supporters are questioned, no evidence to support this nostrum is given. Also, this concept of “chance” that Holman doesn’t trust could also be described as a dynamic marketplace of ideas and capital, with many diverse players with dispersed knowledge acting to advance their own self-interest by creating things people will freely buy, all coordinated through the magic of the price system. What Wichita — with Holman’s support — plans to do is to replace this with the bureaucratic and political system.

City planning by “Those Who Know Best.” “While the fixations of trendy planners might not register on the list of things that average Americans think about, these new utopian land-use ideals are filtering down into government agencies and city councils, and might eventually impact the way we all live.” Writing in the Orange County Register, Steven Greenhut quotes the definition of New Urbanism: “New Urbanism is the most important planning movement this century, and is about creating a better future for us all. It is an international movement to reform the design of the built environment, and is about raising our quality of life and standard of living by creating better places to live. New Urbanism is the revival of our lost art of place-making, and is essentially a reordering of the built environment into the form of complete cities, towns, villages and neighborhoods …” He warns: “Whenever some ideologue claims to offer the most important thing since sliced bread and then promises to reorder my life around it, we should all get nervous.” (The downtown Wichita planners do not use the term “New Urbanism,” but they share the same characteristics and goals.) And even more strongly: “The New Urbanists claim to want to give our lives meaning by creating superior urban forms of living, yet they miss the most meaningful things in life because they emphasize architecture over people. Like all totalitarians, they assume that what they prefer is so good and noble that they have the moral right to impose it on everybody else. The rest of us need to take notice now, so there is still time to oppose it.”

Anderson appointment criticized. KU political science professor Burdett Loomis criticizes the appointment of Steven J. Anderson to be the new Kansas budget director, branding him an “ideologue” that has made “broadside attacks on public education.” Anderson believes in limited government, and his “attacks” on public — let’s be clear here — government schools are advocating school choice through vouchers. In states where vouchers are used, evidence is that public schools improve in response to the competition from private schools that parents can now actually afford. Plus, the state saves money, too. Loomis also criticizes Anderson for uncovering the large unspent fund balances in many Kansas agencies, balances that Loomis seems to doubt exist. Overall, Loomis presents an argument for the status quo in Kansas government, and the potential for change in the direction of restraining its growth has Loomis — in his own words — “concerned — worried, even.”

Wichita downtown planning, not trash, is real threat

A recent plan for the City of Wichita to take over the management of residential trash pickup has many citizens advocating for the present free market system. Some go as far as calling city-managed trash pickup “socialism.”

While I appreciate the sentiment, and I agree that a free market in trash pickup is superior to government management of a cooperative, it is, after all, only trash. There are far greater threats to the economic freedom of Wichitans, in particular the planning for the future of downtown Wichita.

While the downtown Wichita planners promote their plan as market-based development, the fact is that we already have market-based development happening all over Wichita. But because this development may not be taking place where some people want it to — downtown is where the visionaries say development should be — they declare a “market failure.”

But just because people make decisions that visionaries don’t approve of, that’s not market failure. And this is one of the most important reasons why Wichitans should oppose the downtown plan. It proposes to direct public investment away from where free people trading in free markets want public investment to be. The public investment component of the downtown plan says that people who decided not to live or work downtown are wrong, and they must now pay for others to be downtown.

The public investment in suburban development, by the way, is not as large as critics of “sprawl” claim. Here is an example of the public infrastructure that a suburban development paid. It’s a big number, and pays for many of the things that people assume the city pays for. Downtown developers, however, aren’t asked to pay for infrastructure in the same way. Or, they may receive preferential treatment like tax increment financing (TIF) that allows their property taxes to be redirected back to them for their own exclusive benefit.

We have market-based development in Wichita. We don’t need a government plan to have market-based development.

The downtown planning visionaries are also proud of their community engagement. This consists largely of asking people what they’d like to see downtown. The problem with this community engagement is that there’s no accountability. Anyone can say they’d like to see almost anything downtown, and it goes into the plan. But without accountability, this is meaningless. After all, who doesn’t want more of everything?

The fact is that just like we already have market-based development in Wichita, we already have community engagement in Wichita. It’s done by people who are held accountable by markets in the most severe way. These people are the private-sector developers who risk their own capital in order to build what their research or tenants tell them they want. It is through this process that we build what people really want when they spend their own money. Those planning how to spend other people’s money — these are the downtown planners and visionaries — do not have this accountability.

It is the conceding to a centralized government of the power to plan that is a great threat to economic freedom in Wichita. To top it off, it just isn’t going to work. Here is a passage from the opening chapter of The Voluntary City: Choice, Community and Civil Society that explains the problems with the type of planning Wichita is considering to adopt:

The use of land is not a “special case” exempt from the power of markets to fashion orderly and efficient outcomes. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Just as Nobel prize-winner Friedrich Hayek (1988) and fellow Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises demonstrated the folly of top-down economic planning, Jane Jacobs (1963) exposed the problems of top-down city planning. Top-down planners of all stripes are fatally hobbled by their inability to tap local knowledge, the sheer magnitude of which would in any event overwhelm them. In a competitive market, local knowledge reappears, lessening the dependence on politics and increasing flexibility; “public” goods (and spaces) in CIDs and in shopping centers are provided more optimally; the capitalization of benefits in land rents more efficiently finances public goods provision; and market-tested rules of governance are developed. Private developers now routinely supply what had been thought to be “public” goods — without the widely presumed market failure. Just as many people presume the inevitability of top-down planning because of external effects and information problems, events show the opposite: the inevitability of bottom-up approaches to these problems exactly as the Hayekian critique makes clear. It takes decentralized markets to generate the required information through trial-and-error learning. In the process, market participants are far more productive than central planners can ever be.

In Wichita, we are considering replacing the dynamic and truly market-driven approach to development with the political and bureaucratic system. This loss of economic freedom is far more important than having a city manager who doesn’t think Wichitans can handle arranging for their own trash service.