There are dueling claims and controversy over employment figures in Kansas and our state’s performance relative to others. I present the actual data in tables and interactive visualizations that you can use to make up your own mind.
(Let’s keep in mind that jobs are not necessarily the best measure of economic growth and prosperity. Russell Roberts relates an anecdote: “The story goes that Milton Friedman was once taken to see a massive government project somewhere in Asia. Thousands of workers using shovels were building a canal. Friedman was puzzled. Why weren’t there any excavators or any mechanized earth-moving equipment? A government official explained that using shovels created more jobs. Friedman’s response: ‘Then why not use spoons instead of shovels?’”)
It’s important to note there are two series of employment data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor. The two series don’t measure exactly the same thing. A document from BLS titled Employment from the BLS household and payroll surveys: summary of recent trends explains in brief: “The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has two monthly surveys that measure employment levels and trends: the Current Population Survey (CPS), also known as the household survey, and the Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey, also known as the payroll or establishment survey. … These estimates differ because the surveys have distinct definitions of employment and distinct survey and estimation methods.”
Importantly, since the CES gets its data from employers, it reports on jobs located in the state where the company is located, not where workers live. Similarly, the CPS reports data based on where people live, not where they work. For areas that straddle state lines — like the Kansas City Metropolitan Area — this is an important factor.
Another BLS document explains in detail the differences between the CPS and CES data. For example: CES: “Designed to measure employment, hours, and earnings with significant industrial and geographic detail” CPS: “Designed to measure employment and unemployment with significant demographic detail.”
I’ve gathered data from BLS and made it available in two interactive visualizations. One presents CPS data; the other holds CES data. You can compare states, select a range of dates, and choose seasonally-adjusted or not seasonally-adjusted data. I’ve create a set that allows you to easily choose Kansas and our nearby states, since that seems to be relevant to the current discussion. (I included Texas in this set, as we often compare ourselves to that state.) The visualizations show indexed data, meaning that we see the relative change in values from the first date shown. There is also year-over-year changes illustrated.
Monday’s decision by the Chamber of Commerce to support Wichita’s sales tax initiative was disappointing, though not a surprise. Even without a clear plan from City Hall, the Chamber has been vocally supportive of the referendum for months.
However, there is more than one business voice in Wichita. I believe the Chamber’s decision is unrepresentative of our city’s business community as a whole.
It was business leaders who first approached me with concerns regarding the potential tax hike when the Coalition for a Better Wichita began to take shape. Making it more expensive to be a business owner and consumer in Wichita simply seemed counterintuitive to us.
As a small business owner, I know it is not a simple task to be successful. There are dozens of complicated decisions that have to be made every day in order to realize a profit. There are rarely easy answers on the road to success. As a result, it is puzzling that the Wichita Chamber decided a so-called select committee can simply pick what companies, in a myriad of markets, deserve public money to be bestowed upon them. Highly-compensated mutual fund managers rarely beat the S&P averages. Why do we think this committee will do any better?
Rather than creating a level playing field for the businesses in our city that will allow all entrepreneurs to thrive on their own merits, this select committee will direct taxpayer funds to the chosen few. This government spending of additional tax dollars raises the cost of government for everyone — including the business startups struggling to succeed.
Whether we are talking about private dollars, or public money, $400 million is a lot of money. That $400 million could do so much more for our wonderful city than what has been proposed.
There truly is no need to rush such an important decision that will cost us all. Voters should reject this haphazard proposal. Let’s start over and make a real effort to engage our community’s citizens to find out what we all can do to make this great City even better. Let’s invest in ourselves, not some committee whose job is to give away our tax money.
Only 28% say the city has been spending efficiently.
Only 34% agree with the idea of local governments using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development.
When asked whether they would personally pay a higher sales tax to pay for certain things, there was majority support for securing a long term water source, maintaining existing infrastructure, and building new infrastructure, but one-third or less would pay a higher sales tax for business incentives, developing downtown Wichita, and expanding or renovating convention spaces.
78% said that to fund existing infrastructure, build new infrastructure, and secure a long-term water source Wichita should fund those items by adjusting spending and being more efficient rather than raising taxes.
More detail on these results follows.
Is city spending efficiently?
The first question the survey asked was “In the past few years, have Wichita city officials used taxpayer money efficiently? Or inefficiently?” Following are the results for everyone, and then divided by political party and political ideology.
Overall, 58 percent believe city spending was inefficient, compared to 28 percent believing spending was efficient.
The results are surprisingly consistent. An exception is that political independents strongly believed that city spending was inefficient. Those identifying as liberal were more likely to say that city spending was inefficient.
Taxes for subsidies for economic development
About one-third of voters polled support local governments using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development.
The second question the survey asked was “In general, do you agree? Or disagree? With the idea of local governments using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development?” Following are the results for everyone, and then divided by political party and political ideology.
Overall, 55 percent disagreed with using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development. 34 percent agreed.
The results are fairly consistent across political party and ideology, although Republicans are somewhat more likely to agree with using taxpayer funds for economic development incentives, as are those who self-identify as political moderates.
Voters willing to pay for fundamentals
Voters are willing to pay a higher sales tax for fundamentals like infrastructure and water supply, and less willing for business incentives, downtown development, and convention centers.
In a series of questions asking if Wichita voters would be willing to pay a higher sales tax to provide certain services, a pattern appeared: Voters are willing to pay for things that are fundamental in nature, and less willing to pay for others.
As can be seen in the nearby chart, voters are willing to pay for infrastructure, and more willing to pay for maintenance of existing infrastructure than for new infrastructure. Voters are most willing to pay for securing a long-term water source.
For business incentives, downtown development, and convention centers, Wichita voters express less willingness to pay higher sales tax to fund these items.
For the first three items, the average was 68 percent of voters willing to pay a higher sales tax. For the last three, the average is 30 percent.
Following is the complete text of the questions:
Would you personally be willing to pay a higher sales tax in the city of Wichita to fund incentives to businesses expanding in Wichita or moving here from other states?
Would you personally be willing to pay a higher sales tax in the city of Wichita to fund maintenance work on existing infrastructure, such as sewers and roads?
Would you personally be willing to pay a higher sales tax in the city of Wichita to fund new infrastructure, such as new highways and passenger rail connections?
Would you personally be willing to pay a higher sales tax in the city of Wichita to continue developing downtown Wichita with apartments, businesses, and entertainment destinations?
Would you personally be willing to pay a higher sales tax in the city of Wichita to expand or renovate convention spaces, such as the Hyatt Hotel and Century II?
Would you personally be willing to pay a higher sales tax in the city of Wichita to secure a long-term water source?
How to pay for infrastructure
Wichita voters prefer adjusting spending, becoming more efficient, using public-private partnerships, and privatization to raising taxes.
Question nine asked how Wichita voters preferred paying for new government spending: “To fund existing infrastructure, build new infrastructure, and secure a long-term water source should Wichita fund those items by adjusting spending and being more efficient rather than raising taxes?”
Overall, 78 percent of Wichita voters answered “Yes,” meaning they prefer that Wichita adjust spending and become more efficient. 12 percent answered “No,” meaning they were in favor of raising taxes instead.
A related question was “Should Wichita fund those items through public-private partnerships, or privatization, rather than raising taxes?”
Overall, 65 percent answered “Yes,” meaning they prefer public-private partnerships, or privatization. 25 percent answered “No,” indicating a preference for raising taxes.
Wichita government leaders complain that Wichita can’t compete in economic development with other cities and states because the budget for incentives is too small. But when making this argument, these officials don’t include all incentives that are available.
In making the case for an economic development fund paid for by a sales tax, the argument goes like this: “Wichita and Sedgwick County compete conservatively with incentives. The City of Wichita and Sedgwick County have a total of $1.65 million in new uncommitted funds for cash incentives this year with any unused money going back to the general fund.” (Will Wichita Accelerate Competition for Primary Jobs?, presentation made to Wichita city council.)
This statement is true only if we use a very narrow definition of the word “incentive.” By any reasonable definition, Wichita has many incentives worth much more than what is claimed by Wichita economic development officials and politicians.
In fact, the report cited above contains contradictory information about the amounts that are available for economic development incentives in Wichita. Here is an example: “The $4.5 million PEAK program incentive from the Kansas Department of Commerce was an important factor in keeping NetApp in Wichita. Locally we were able to provide $836,000 in incentives.”
So with an incentives budget of $1.65 million, a Wichita company received $5.3 million in incentives. Some of that, like the PEAK incentive, is paid over a period of years. But that amount doesn’t begin to describe the benefits NetApp received.
Available incentive programs
A letter to NetApp from the Kansas Department of Commerce laid out the potential benefits from the state. As detailed in the letter, the programs with potential dollar amounts are:
Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK), up to $7,705,535
Kansas Industrial Training with PEAK, up to $160,800
sales tax savings of $6,880,000
personal property tax exemption, $11,913,682
High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP), $8,500,000
The total of these is $35,160,017. Some of these benefits are paid over a period of years. The PEAK benefits are payable over seven years, according to the letter, so that’s about $1.1 million per year. These are potential benefits; the company may not actually qualify for and receive this entire amount. But it’s what the state offered.
It’s true that some of these programs are not cash incentives of the type Wichita complains of lacking. But if a company is going to make purchases, and the state says you can skip paying sales tax on the purchases — well, that’s as good as cash. $6,880,000 in the case of NetApp, according to the Kansas Department of Commerce.
Local tax exemptions
Besides sales tax exemptions, the city has other types of tax exemptions it regularly offers. These exemptions can have substantial value. In 2008 as Drury contemplated purchasing the Broadview Hotel, the city allowed the hotel to escape paying much of the taxes that the rest of us have to pay. According to city information, Drury planned to spend $22,797,750 on the hotel. If we use this as the appraised value for the property when it is complete, the annual property taxes due for this property would be $22,797,750 times .25 times 126.323 divided by 1000, or $719,970. This calculation may be rough, but it gives us an approximation of the annual operating subsidy being given to this hotel for the next ten years.
When Boeing announced in 2012 that it was closing its Wichita operations, city leaders complained that Boeing was leaving Wichita even though it had received many incentives. From 1979 to 2007, Boeing received tax abatements through the industrial revenue bond process worth $658 million, according to a compilation provided by the City of Wichita. (This is not money the city lent or gave to Boeing. IRBs provide a vehicle for granting tax abatements or exemptions.) At the time, city officials said the average amount of bonds was $120 million per year. With Wichita commercial property tax rates at 3.008 percent ($30.08 per $1,000 of appraised value), according to GWEDC, that’s a tax savings of around $3.6 million per year. To Boeing, that’s as good as receiving cash year after year.
Tax increment financing
In 2013 Wichita approved a package benefiting Exchange Place in downtown. Here’s what the city council agenda packet gives as the sources of financing for this project.
HUD Loan Amount $29,087,700
Private Equity 5,652,254
Tax Credit Equity 19,370,395
TIF Proceeds 12,500,000
Total Sources of Funds $66,610,349
TIF, or tax increment financing, diverts future increased tax revenues away from their normal uses and diverts them back to the project. In this case, the city will borrow $12,500,000 by selling bonds. It will give this money to the developer. Then, TIF proceeds will be used to repay these bonds.
Some will argue that TIF isn’t really an incentive. The owners of the property will have to pay their property taxes, just like any other property owner. But for this project, the property taxes are used for the project’s own benefit instead of funding the costs of city government. This project gets to spend $12.5 million of its property tax payments on itself, rather than funding the costs of Wichita city government.
Note that the sources of financing for the Exchange Place project includes “Tax Credit Equity.” Here’s an example of another downtown project, the Ambassador Hotel, and the incentive package the city prepared:
$3,325,000 in tax increment financing.
$4,245,000 in city funding under the capital improvement plan (CIP), to build parking for the hotel.
$3,800,000 in tax credits from the State of Kansas.
$3,500,000 in tax credits from the U.S. government.
$537,075 in sales tax exemptions on purchases during the construction and furnishing of the hotel.
$60,000 per year in community improvement district (CID) sales tax. The hotel charges an extra two cents per dollar sales tax, which the state returns to the hotel.
$127,499 per year (estimated) in rental revenue to the developers from a sweetheart lease deal.
Participation in Wichita’s facade improvement program, which provides special assessment financing that is repaid.
All told, this project was slated to receive $15,407,075 in taxpayer funds to get started, with additional funds provided annually.
The tax credits for this project are historic preservation tax credits. They have the same economic impact as a cash payment. The federal tax credits are available across the country, while the Kansas tax credits, of course, are a state program. In this case the hotel developers received an upfront payment of $3.8 million from the state in a form that’s as good as cash.
Last year a STAR bonds district in northeast Wichita was approved to receive $31,570,785 from these bonds. The STAR bonds are paid off with sales tax revenue that would otherwise go to the state and overlapping jurisdictions. This is sales tax collected from the business’s customers, and doesn’t cost the business anything.
Adding it up
This list is not complete. There are other programs and other beneficiaries of economic development subsidies. With this in mind, it is disingenuous for city and other officials to use the $1.65 million figure as though it was all Wichita had to offer. It’s important for citizens to know that contrary to the claims of officials, Wichita has many economic development incentive programs available, and some have substantial value to the recipients, with corresponding cost to the city and other jurisdictions.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Who would be most harmed by the proposed Wichita sales tax? Also: A look at updated airport statistics, and what the city could do if it wants to pass the sales tax. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 55, broadcast August 17, 2014.
In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at a recent episode of economic development in Wichita, and what can we learn from that. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast June 15, 2014.
An evaluation of the Kansas affordable airfares program. Prepared for the Kansas Department of Commerce by Arthur P. Hall, Ph.D., Executive Director Center for Applied Economics, School of Business, University of Kansas. February 2013. View below, or click here to open in a new window.
Direct transfers of taxpayer money sent to a specific business or industry is always a tough sell to politicians, let alone the voting public. But, that is why some corporations pay lots of money to lobbyists. If we can’t get a company more revenue (via a taxpayer-funded payment) why don’t we lower their expenses via a tax loophole that lowers how much they pay in taxes?
These sort of special interest tax breaks come in a variety of different forms but the net effect of each is the same — revenues are diverted from the appropriation process and instead sent to some “special” group. A shrewd lobbyist will often make sure the program is funded in a way that their client(s) will receive their funding even if the statute is changed in the future. However, that should not preclude bringing these special interest deals to an end. This is especially important given that the reduction in tax rates will increase the impact of these programs on the revenue stream even as the state continues along the path to eliminating the individual income tax.
These transfer schemes are funded in a number of different ways that obscure the transaction from both the public and the appropriation process. For example, there are a number of these special deals that are funded by payroll withholding taxes. The payroll withholding exemptions are programs where the state abates collection of state income tax withheld on employee’s wages. The state then provides either a program or directly funds some benefit for the employer. These programs come in many forms and often are nearly impossible to find within the very complex tax and revenue reporting statements. In general these programs require relatively long commitments by the state of taxpayer funds. The discontinuance of these type of programs will not generally eliminate the programs immediately but it will create savings going forward that could be substantial to the maintenance of a stable fiscal environment and a more transparent tax code. It would also be a breach of trust, on some level, to yank away a promise made by the state to an entity or individual. But, that doesn’t mean we have to let these program exist into perpetuity.
Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT)
IMPACT provides for major project investment to provide financial assistance to defray business costs. IMPACT uses withholding revenue for a direct funding source to pay for bonds issued by the state for projects. In fiscal year 2013 that percentage was 2% and the program expended $25,420,654 of funds that otherwise would have gone to the state coffers. The good news is that Kansas stopped issuing bonds in the IMPACT program effective Dec. 31, 2011. The bad news was it was replaced with other programs that are very similar. The IMPACT payments will extend on for a number of years in to the future because of the bond’s that funded those projects. This ability to bind future legislators and taxpayers to these sort of “deals” is, in and of itself, problematic but there is more damage done to the state of Kansas than just the direct cost of these bonds.
However, analysis of the IMPACT bond rating issues bring to light another important problem with these type of giveaways. Future legislators have their hands tied because their predecessors have committed future tax revenues in a manner that precludes the ability to bring an immediate cessation, or even partial reduction, in the special interest funding source without repercussions such as the recent bond rating issue.
The KBA’s short lifespan is a microcosm of what can go wrong with the concept of dedicated directed funding. The lack of transparency created by bypassing the scrutiny of the appropriation process often leads to expenditures that generate headlines but don’t create economic growth.
The legislation that created the KBA produced a number of programs and funding streams. It also set the total funding limit to the authority over 15 years at almost $582 million. The funding was to be for a period of 15 years from the effective date of the establishment of the KBA and required the State Treasurer to annually pay 95% of withholding above the certified base, as certified by the Secretary of Revenue, on Kansas wages paid by bioscience employees to the bioscience development (code categories from NAISC) and investment fund of the KBA.
The amount of funding transferred to the KBA grew from almost $20 million in 2006 to nearly $36 million by 2008 before the creation of the annual funding cap of $35 million in 2009. Issues with operations and management emerged in 2011 which led to a forensic audit by an outside CPA firm. The audit pointed to a number of issues that led subsequent legislatures to reduce the Authority’s funding to $11.3 million in 2012, $6.3 million in 2013, and $4.0 million in 2014 (KBA funding history here). It is doubtful that the current Administration or legislatures would increase funding above current levels but the $35 million is still the statutory cap leaving open that possibility.
There is a secondary issue with KBA’s statutory cap caused by the treatment of these type of dedicated directed funding in the budgeting process. These statutory caps for entities like KBA are considered to be at their cap amount when forecasting future budgets. The $35 million of KBA statutory cap, for example, creates an illusion in fiscal impact statements issued by the Kansas Legislative Research Department (KLRD) because those statements show the full statutory amount of $35 million being spent every year for the five years they project. Based on the current trend line of KBA funding this will not happen and, instead, creates a significant overstatement of expenditures and helps create fiscal deficits where none may exist. These projections are used by legislators and the media and should strive to present as accurate a picture as possible of current and possible future realities. A more proper and accurate display of these type of funded programs for five year projections like KLRD produces would consider whether spending could be altered or removed completely. This should be reflected in either the actual amount shown, if there was a history of partial funding, or, at the very least, in a separate line item with a notation that the sum could be arbitrarily reduced or eliminated.
Job Creation Fund
Another of those dedicated directed funds is the Job Creation Fund (JCF). The Job Creation Program Fund or the “deal closing” fund, its more press-friendly moniker, lets the state, led by the Office of the Governor, make investments and extend incentives aimed at attracting or retaining businesses within a range of statutory guidelines. The funding for the JCF was from the elimination of three other credits: Kansas Enterprise Zone, Job Expansion and Investment Credit Act and a refundable credit for property taxes paid on machinery and equipment. This sort of reallocation of funding sources carry the coveted title of “revenue neutral” and hence have no fiscal impact statement for legislators to worry about when the funding was created. This allowed elected officials to be able to say on one hand they eliminated special interest funding while creating another special interest fund out of the “elimination” of those entities. The annual cap on JCF funds is $10 million which is how much could be immediately saved by letting JCF join its now-defunct predecessors in state history.
Transfers Out of the State General Fund
There is another area where what would be State General Funds are diverted from the appropriation process. There are a number of transfers out of the State General Fund with the largest and most notorious being the $135 million School District Improvements Fund. Not only does this amount not get counted in the school formula, the recent Gannon ruling on school funding pointed directly to this fund as an example of inequity in funding. This “inducement” to issue bonds for new buildings was a bad idea both from a policy and process aspect. Policy-wise the Kansas Supreme Court’s Gannon ruling was correct in pointing out that only the growing school districts could use this fund with a few big school districts garnering most of the monies. Process-wise the choice to use a transfer as the funding mechanism not only bypassed the school finance formula but also ensured that these funds are not counted by the National Center for Education Statistics; NCES is the “go to” place for comparing education-related data from across the country and is run by the U.S. Dept. of Education.
There is also another series of transfers that have their own particular issues.The adjacent list shows the recipient and the amount for FY-2015 (available at link above).The picking of winners and losers by government is never a good idea and the direct transfer of taxpayer funding to companies is a suspect type of economic development.
Transfers out of the State General Fund
Spirit Aerosystems Incentive
Eaton MDH Spec. Qual. Indus. Mfg. Fund
Siemens Manufacturing Incentive
TIF Replacement Fund
Learning Quest Match
It is also troubling when local communities enter into Tax Increment Finance (TIF) arrangements, not to mention other subsidy giveaways, which are basically an agreement between a company or individual and the city to suspend property tax payments for that company or individual. State taxpayers as a whole have to make up for lost revenues to the governing body of each such city from the TIF arrangement. This means that a TIF issued in Johnson County is, at least in part, paid for by residents of Bourbon County and Elkhart. This distribution of funds from taxpayers across the state to individual “redevelopment areas” that were created by local governments in a manner that is basically hidden from the citizens is another great example of why these “off the tops” are bad policy. Requiring these TIF subsidies to be debated in the light of the full appropriation process would no doubt lead to questions by legislators whose districts did not include cities who receive this subsidy.
A general thought for legislators, citizens and industry on these economic subsidies. The reduction in income tax rates by the state on withholding rates has already provided a huge incentive for these companies in addition to the direct largess they receive from these dedicated funds. The rate cut on withholding taxes increased the take home pay of their employees without those companies having to give a pay raise to their employees out of company funds. Note that the “incentive” of lower withholding taxes is applied to EVERY wage earner in the state and does not go about picking favored businesses, industries, or individuals. This type of transparent, rules-based, and equally-applied policy is the correct way to encourage economic growth and allow the free market to dictate outcomes not politicians or bureaucrats.
Every program that spends the funds of the taxpayer should be examined regularly and the nature of these “off the tops” suggests that is not happening. The need for transparency and accountability is especially true of programs that benefit any specific individual, company or sector of the economy at the expense of another. Because of the contractual type of arrangement some of these represent we do not advocate for the state breaking existing contracts in regards to incentives. But, the creation of new or expansion of existing economic development handouts that are direct redistributions from taxpayers to other sectors of the economy needs to be halted and those still in existence need to be reviewed.
A complete review of every agreement entered into by the state to ascertain if that agreement is contractual in nature or are not legally binding going forward should proceed this next legislative session. The state should review those that are not legally binding and current renewals that can be foregone and put this “off the top” funding back in the appropriation process going forward. How much could the state expect to realize would be determined by that review. Even a preliminary, informed estimate would be in the neighborhood of $50 million annually without breaking any contractual arrangements. The following chart gives an estimate of just three programs with statutory flexibility.
Total Dollars Returned to the State Coffers
$s in Millions
Freeze PEAK at Current Levels
Kansas Bioscience Authority
Cease Job Creation Fund
The issue of transparency is front and center in all of these programs and it would be appropriate for every “off the top” to be displayed on both Consensus Revenue Estimates and Appropriation profiles so that legislators and citizens can see that a significant amount of funds have already been appropriated by these arrangements.
While the proposed Wichita city sales tax is a bad idea, the city could do a few things that would not only improve its chance of passage, but also improve local government.
This week the Wichita City Council passed an ordinance that starts the process of placing a sales tax measure on the November ballot. The one cent per dollar tax will be used for several initiatives, including an economic development jobs fund.
The city will need to gain the trust of citizens if the measure is to have any chance of passage. While I am personally opposed to the sales tax for some very good reasons, I nonetheless offer this advice to the city on what it could do to help pass the sales tax.
Presentations made by city hall state that the city council will appoint a private-sector led jobs commission. It would examine potential projects and make recommendations to the council. There will also be a citizens oversight committee and a jobs commission audit committee.
The problem is that committees like these are usually stacked with city hall insiders, with people who want to personally gain from cronyism, and with people the city believes will be quietly compliant with what the city wants to do.
As an example, consider my appointment to the Wichita Airport Advisory Board last year. I had to be confirmed by the city council. I’ve been critical of the subsidy paid to airlines at the Wichita airport. I’ve researched airfares, air traffic, and the like. I’ve presented findings to the city council that were contrary to the city’s official position and that discovered a possible negative effect of the subsidy effort. Because of that, the council would not confirm my appointment. The city was not willing to have even one person on the airport board who might say wait, let’s take a look at this in a different way, and would have facts to support an alternative.
At Tuesday’s meeting the council assured citizens that it would not be the same group of city hall insiders serving on these boards. According to meeting minutes, council member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) said “Over the next few months there is going to be a lot more detail given to the public so that they can make an informed decision at the time this comes up to a vote in November.”
If the council is serious about this it could take a simple step: Appoint the members of these boards well in advance of the November election. Also, define the structure of the boards, such as the number of members, how appointed, term of appointment, and other details.
The city says that the operations of the committees and the jobs fund will be transparent. But the city’s record in transparency is poor. For many years the city’s quasi-independent agencies have refused to release spending records. Many, such as I, believe this is contrary to not only the spirit, but the actual language of the Kansas Open Records Act. There is nothing the city has said that would lead us to believe that the city plans to change its stance towards the citizens’ right to know.
If the city wants to convince citizens that it has changed its attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know how tax money is spent, it could positively respond to the records requests made by myself and Kansas Policy Institute.
The city is also likely to engage in an educational and informational campaign on its cable television channel. If it does, a welcome gesture would be to offer time on the channel for citizen groups to present their side of the issues. The city’s cable channel is supposed to be a public access channel, but as of now, citizens have no ability to produce content for that channel.
In presentations to the council, reports released by the Texas Enterprise Fund have been used as examples of what Wichita might do to inform citizens on the economic development activities funded by the sales tax. But many in Texas are critical of the information provided about the fund’s operation.
Even when information is provided, it is subject to different interpretations by self-interested parties. On the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, the Houston Chronicle recently reported “Whether or not the fund has lost taxpayer money depends on which accounting method is applied. The Associated Press says a method common to government entities placed the fund’s value at $175 million, with a loss of $30 million. The governor’s office uses a private accounting standard that places the fund’s value at $230 million, a $25 million profit.”
In 2011 the Wall Street Journal reported on how job creation numbers can be stretched far beyond any sense of reason:
In Texas, Mr. Perry in a 2011 report to the legislature credited the Texas A&M Institute for Genomic Medicine with already producing more than 12,000 additional jobs. That’s ahead of the 5,000 promised by 2015.
According to the institute’s director, however, 10 people currently work in its new building. A Houston-area biotech firm that agreed to produce about 1,600 of the project’s jobs has instead cut its Texas staff by almost 400 people, and currently employs 220 people in the state.
What accounts for the discrepancy? To reach their estimate of 12,000-plus jobs created by the project, officials included every position added in Texas since 2005 in fields related sometimes only tangentially to biotechnology, according to state officials and documents provided by Texas A&M. They include jobs in things ike dental equipment, fertilizer manufacturing and medical imaging.
William Hoyt, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky who studies state economic-incentive programs across the U.S., said similar efforts elsewhere have been dogged by controversy over how many jobs they actually created. Even so, Mr. Hoyt said he hasn’t come across a definition as broad as that employed by Texas. “It’s hard to see jobs in dental supplies in El Paso being related to a genome clinic in College Station,” where Texas A&M’s main campus is located, he said.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Perry’s office in Austin, Texas, said the job totals for the A&M project were provided by the grant recipients, using figures compiled by the Texas Workforce Commission, the state’s labor agency, and hadn’t yet been “verified.” (Behind Perry’s Jobs Success, Numbers Draw New Scrutiny, October 11, 2011)
Locally, Wichita has had difficulty making information available. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on the problems.
The Eagle asked the city last week for an accounting of the jobs created over the past decade by the tax abatements, a research project that urban development staffers have yet to complete.
“It will take us some time to pull together all the agenda reports on the five-year reviews going back to 2003. That same research will also reveal any abatements that were ‘retooled’ as a result of the five-year reviews,” city urban development director Allen Bell said. “I can tell you that none of the abatements were terminated.” (Wichita doubles property tax exemptions for businesses, October 20, 2013)
One might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. But apparently that isn’t the case.
We need to recognize that because the city does not have at its immediate disposal the statistics about job creation, it is evident that the city is not managing this effort. Or, maybe it just doesn’t care. This is a management problem at the highest level.
In fact, the city and its economic development agencies don’t even keep promotional websites current. GWEDC — that’s the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition credited with recruiting a company named InfoNXX to Wichita — doesn’t update its website to reflect current conditions. InfoNXX closed its facility in Wichita in 2012. When I looked at GWEDC’s website in October 2013, I found this on a page titled Office Operations:
Wichita hosts over a dozen customer service and processing centers — including a USPS Remote Encoding Center (985 employees), InfoNXX (950), T-Mobile (900), Royal Caribbean (700), Convergys (600), Protection One (540), Bank of America (315) and Cox Communications (230.) (emphasis added)
Observe that the official Wichita-area economic development agency touted the existence of a company that no longer exists in Wichita, and claims a job count that the company never achieved. Also, at that time the USPS facility was in the process of closing and eliminating all Wichita jobs.
What is Wichita doing to convince citizens that it has moved beyond this level of negligence?
In Sedgwick County, two fiscally conservative commission candidates prevailed.
This year three of the five positions on the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners are up for election. Unlike the Wichita city Council, Sedgwick County commissioners run as members of a party, and compete in both primary and general elections. There can be independent and third-party candidates too. This year for one of the Sedgwick County commission districts the incumbent Republican ran unopposed. But in two other districts, there were spirited contests.
In district four, which covers north-central and northwest Wichita, Maize, Valley Center, and Park City, incumbent Richard Ranzau was challenged by Carolyn McGinn. She had held this position in the past, and then served in the Kansas Senate, an office she still holds. Ranzau is well known — notorious, we might say — for his tough line on spending taxpayer dollars. The McGinn campaign had about twice as much money to spend. A lot of that came from the people we know as Wichita’s crony capitalists, that is, people and companies who actively seek handouts from government. The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce endorsed McGinn. Now, you may think of your local chamber of commerce as pro-business. And, the chamber is pro-business, no doubt about it. But pro-business is not the same as pro-capitalism. Being pro-business is not the same as being in favor of economic freedom. Being pro-business is not the same as supporting a limited, constitutional, government that protects our freedoms and property rights.
I want to stress this point. Just this week Wichita’s own Charles Koch wrote an op-ed for USA Today. After expressing concern for the weak economy and its effect on workers, he offered a plan forward. He wrote “First, we need to encourage principled entrepreneurship. Companies should earn profits by creating value for customers and acting with integrity, the opposite of today’s rampant cronyism.”
Concluding his article, Koch wrote: “Our government’s decades-long, top-down approach to job creation has failed. Its policies have made our problems worse, leaving tens of millions chronically un- or underemployed, millions of whom have given up ever finding meaningful work. In doing so, our government has not only thwarted real job creation, it also has reduced the supply and quality of goods and services that make people’s lives better and undermined the culture required to sustain a free society. When it comes to creating opportunities for all, we can do much better. It’s time to let people seek opportunities that best suit their talents, for businesses to forsake cronyism, and for government to get out of the way.”
While Charles Koch was writing primarily about the United States government, the same principles apply to local government. And Wichita’s cronies — those who seek profits through politicians and bureaucrats rather than customers — they lined up behind Carolyn McGinn in a big way. By using their generous funding, she ran a negative campaign against Richard Ranzau. He forcefully and truthfully responded to her negative ads, and I’m pleased to say that I helped in that effort.
What was the result of the election? Ranzau won with 54 percent of the vote. He now moves on to face Democrat Melody McRae-Miller in the November general election. She held this county commission seat before McGinn, and she also served in the Kansas legislature, in the House of Representatives.
There was also a contest in district 5, which is Derby and parts of southeast Wichita. The one-term incumbent Jim Skelton declined to run for re-election. The two Republican candidates were Jim Howell and Dion Avello. Howell has represented parts of Derby in the Kansas House of Representatives for four years. Avello has been mayor of Derby for many years. The Wichita Chamber endorsed Howell in this race. Campaign funds were close in this race, with Howell having a small edge. The result of the election was Howell winning with 63 percent of the vote. He moves on to face the Democrat in the general election, former Rose Hill Mayor Richard Young.
What do the results of these elections mean? First, there may be a shift of power on the Sedgwick County commission. Currently, commissioners Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn are often in a minority of two against the other three commissioners. It’s thought that it Howell is elected, he would often join Ranzau and Peterjohn to form a working majority of three. That could cause a change in policy at the County commission, and that’s something that the Wichita chamber and Wichita’s cronies don’t want. It will be interesting to see who the chamber and the cronies support in the general election, Ranzau or the Democrat. In 2008, when Peterjohn ran for his first term, the Wichita chamber campaigned against him, making it their most important priority in that election.
For this shift to materialize, both Ranzau and Howell must win their November elections.
Ranzau’s victory is a defeat for the Wichita Chamber of Commerce. Besides endorsing McGinn, it made independent expenditures in her favor. This has broader implications than just one county commission district. This week the Wichita City Council voted in favor of placing a sales tax issue on the November ballot. The Wichita Chamber is strongly behind the sales tax in Wichita, and I would expect to see the chamber devote a lot of resources campaigning for its passage. Richard Ranzau is opposed to the sales tax increase. While his county commission district encompasses a lot of territory that is outside the City of Wichita, and it is only Wichita voters who will decide the sales tax issue, I think we can safely conclude that his victory paints a gloomy forecast for approval of a sales tax.
Looking even farther to the future. Ranzau’s county commission district overlaps part of Wichita city council district 5. That is currently represented by Jeff Longwell. He can’t run again because of term limits. Longwell is firmly in the grasp of Wichita’s cronies. Could Ranzau’s victory pave the way for a fiscally conservative city council candidate in district 5? That election will be next spring.
Also next spring Wichita will elect a new mayor. There are many names mentioned as candidates, including Longwell. What do the victories of Ranzau and Howell mean? What impact will the sales tax campaign and election result have on the spring elections?
The Wichita Chamber and the Wichita cronies campaigned hard for Carolyn McGinn against Richard Ranzau. Well, I should clarify: They spent a lot of money on the campaign. Richard himself, his family, and his volunteers worked hard. The desire for economic freedom by Richard Ranzau and his volunteers was a more powerful force than the greed of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce, Key Construction, David Burk, and Bill Warren.
Keep this in mind. The Sedgwick County Commission has very little power to initiate the type of economic development incentives that the Wichita Chamber and the cronies want. That power rests almost totally at the Wichita City Council and the Kansas Department of Commerce. Also, the county commission has limited power to stop or object to incentives. Their main voice is the ability to cancel the formation of a tax increment financing district.
So if the Wichita Chamber and the cronies are willing to intervene to such extent in the campaign for county commissioner, think what they will be willing to do in city council or mayoral contests, if they see that their grip on the really big cookie jar might be in doubt. Since the departure of Michael O’Donnell for the Kansas Senate there has been no one on the Wichita city council who questions anything the Chamber and the cronies want. Not in any serious manner, that is. We see council members making false displays of pretense now and then, but that’s all they do.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichitans ought to ask city hall to stop blatant waste before it asks for more taxes. Then, a few questions about economic development incentives. Finally, how should we pay for a new water source, and is city hall open to outside ideas? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 53, broadcast July 27, 2014.
Wichita justifies its use of targeted economic development incentives by citing benefit-cost ratios that are computed for the city, county, school district, and state. If the ratio exceeds a threshold, the project is deemed worthy of investment.
The process assumes that these benefit-cost ratios are valid. This is far from certain, as follows:
1. The benefits in the calculation are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of projected higher tax revenues collected by governments. This is very different from the profits that private sector companies earn from their customers in voluntary market transactions.
2. Even if government collects more tax by offering incentives, it should not be the goal of government to grow just for the sake of growing.
3. Government claims that in order to get these “benefits,” incentives are necessary. But often the new economic activity (relocation, expansion, etc.) would have happened without the incentives.
4. Why is it that most companies are able to grow without incentives, but only a few companies require incentives? What is special about these companies? Why do some companies receive incentives year after year?
5. If the relatively small investment the city makes in incentives is responsible for such wonderful outcomes in terms of jobs, why doesn’t the city do this more often? If the city has such power to create economic growth, why is anyone unemployed?
Before wishing for a return to the “good old days,” let’s make sure we understand the record of the Kansas economy.
Some in Kansas are calling for a return to the “moderate” and “reasonable” policies of past leadership, with a particular nostalgia for the tenures of governors Bill Graves and Kathleen Sebelius. But before getting what we wish for, let’s make sure we understand the history of the Kansas economy.
In September 2005 the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University published a report titled “Measuring Economic Performance for the 50 States and the District of Columbia.” The data covers the ten years between 1994 and 2003. For context, Bill Graves became governor of Kansas in 1995 and served for eight years. Following is a sample from that document. It reads:
It is clear that the Kansas economy has not performed well over the past 10 years. With the exception of job creation (middle third), Kansas has ranked among the bottom third of states across economic performance measures. Kansas has performed below the average for the Plains States Region in 5 out of the 6 measures examined as well. (Job growth in Kansas equaled the regional average at 1.4 percent annually.)
An explanation of how cost benefit ratios are calculated for economic development incentives. From Center for Economic Development and Business Research, Wichita State University. 2011. View below, or click here to open in new window.
A forum on water issues featured a presentation by Wichita city officials and was attended by other city officials, but the city missed a learning opportunity.
This week Kansas Policy Institute held an educational form on the issues of water in the Wichita area. The event featured four presentations with questions and answers, with most being about one hour in length.
This was a welcome and important event, as the city is proposing to spend several hundred million dollars on an increased water supply. It is likely that citizens will be asked to approve a sales tax to pay this cost. It’s important that we get this right, and citizen skepticism is justified. The city has recently spent $247 million on a water project that hasn’t yet proved its value over a reasonably long trial. A former mayor has told audiences that he was assured Wichita had adequate water for the next 50 years. It was eleven years ago he was told that. Wichita’s current mayor has admitted that the city has not spent what was needed to maintain our current infrastructure, instead pushing those costs to the future.
Most of the information that Wichitans have access to is provided by city government. So when an independent group produces an educational event on an important topic, citizens might hope that Wichita city officials take part.
And, Wichita city officials did take part. The second of the four presentations was delivered by Wichita public works director Alan King and council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita). City governmental affairs director Dale Goter and council member Lavonta Williams were in the audience.
But after this presentation ended, the four city officials left.
What did they miss? They missed two additional presentations, or half the program. The city officials did not hear a presentation by Dr. Art Hall of Kansas University which presented novel ideas of using markets for water resources. Particularly, how Wichita could secure increased water supply by purchasing water rights and using the infrastructure it already has in place.
In the final presentation, the audience asked questions that the presenter was not able to answer. City officials like public works director King would have been able to provide the answers.
I understand that city council members are part-time employees paid a part-time salary. Some have outside jobs or businesses to run. But that’s not the case with the city’s public works director or its governmental affairs director.
Come to think of it, where was the city manager? Assistant city manager? Other council members? The city’s economic development staff?
If you’ve attended a city council meeting, you may have to sit through up to an hour of the mayor issuing proclamations and service awards before actual business starts. Fleets of city bureaucrats are in the audience during this time.
But none of these would spend just one hour listening to a presentation by a university professor that might hold a solution to our water supply issue.
I understand that city officials might not be the biggest fans of Kansas Policy Institute. It supports free markets and limited government.
But city officials tell us that they want to hear from citizens. The city has gone to great lengths to collect input from citizens, implementing a website and holding numerous meetings.
About 70 people attended the KPI forum. Citizens were interested in what the speakers had to say. They sat politely through the presentation by the two city officials, even though I’m sure many in the audience were already familiar with the recycled slides they’d seen before.
But it appears that Wichita city officials were not interested in alternatives that weren’t developed by city hall. They can’t even pretend to be interested.
The evaluation of economic development incentives requires thinking at the margin, not the entirety.
When considering the effect of economic development incentives, cities like Wichita use a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the incentive is in the best interests of the city. The analysis usually also considers the county, state, and school districts, although these jurisdictions have no say over whether the incentive is granted, with a few exceptions. The basic idea is that by paying money now or forgiving future taxes, the city gains even more in increased tax collections. This is then pitched as a good deal for taxpayers: The city gets more jobs (usually) and a profit, too.
Economic activity generates tax revenue flowing to governmental agencies. When people work, they pay income taxes. When they buy stuff, they pay sales taxes. When they create new property or upgrade existing property, it is taxed.
In the calculation of cost-benefit ratios, when a company receives economic development incentives, government takes credit for the increase in tax revenue. Government often says that without the incentive, the company would not have located in Wichita. Or, it might not have expanded in Wichita. Or these days, it is claimed that incentives are necessary to persuade companies to consider remaining in Wichita rather than moving somewhere else.
But there are a few problems with the arguments that cities and their economic development agencies promote. One is that the increase in tax revenue happens regardless of whether the company has received incentives. What about all the companies that locate to or expand in Wichita without receiving incentives?
Related is that jurisdictions may grant relatively small incentives and then take credit for the entire deal. I’ve been told that when economic development agencies learn of a company moving to an area or expanding, they swoop in with small incentives and take credit for the entire deal. The agency is then able to point to a small incentive that enabled a huge deal. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to get the involved parties to speak on the record about this.
The importance of marginal thinking
Here’s an example of the importance of looking at marginal gains rather than the whole enchilada. In 2012, the City of Wichita developed a program called New HOME (New Home Ownership Made Easy). The crux of the program is to rebate Wichita city property taxes for five years to those who buy newly-built homes in certain neighborhoods under certain conditions.
The important question is how much new activity this program will induce. Often government takes credit for all economic activity that takes place. This ignores the economic activity that was going to take place naturally — in this case, new homes that are going to be built even without this subsidy program. According to data compiled by Wichita Area Builders Association and the WSU Center for Economic Development and Business Research — this is the data that was current at the time the Wichita city council made its decision to authorize the program — in 2011 462 new homes were started in the City of Wichita. The HOME program contemplated subsidizing 1,000 homes in a period of 22 months. That’s a rate of 545 homes per year — not much more than the present rate of 462 per year. But, the city has to give up collecting property tax on all these homes — even the ones that would be built anyway.
What we’re talking about is possibly inducing a small amount of additional activity over what would happen naturally and organically. But we have to subsidize a very large number of houses in order to achieve that. The lesson is that we need to evaluate the costs of this program based on the marginal activity it may induce, not all activity. For more, see Wichita new home tax rebate program: The analysis.
Wichita could innovate and gain attention by opting out of the harmful practice described in the following article.
How an oft-used economic development tactic may actually be hurting the economy
By J.D. Harrison, Washington Post
If you can’t build your own, steal someone else’s.
That, one economist notes, has become the default strategy for state and city governments in their pursuit of rapidly growing businesses, with many offering increasingly lucrative incentive packages to encourage employers to move to and create jobs in their districts.
However, that’s hardly the most sustainable method to promote the country’s economic growth — and there’s new evidence that it’s not particularly effective at a local level, either.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at a variety of topics, including an upcoming educational event concerning water in Wichita, more wasteful spending by the city, yard signs during election season, problems with economic development and cronyism in Wichita, and water again. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 50, broadcast July 6, 2014.
A proposal before the Wichita City Council would raise the sales tax in the city by 1% to fund several projects. The biggest piece of the proposal would be to fund additional water capacity for users of the city water system.
On Thursday 17 July, come hear from the City of Wichita and others on the scope of the problems, possible solutions, and the perspectives of several experts in the debate.
Date: Thursday 17 July
When: 7:30 a.m. registration and 8:00 a.m. start to presentations
Where: Wichita State University MetroPlex Room 132 ( 29th and Oliver)
Cost: Free with Advance Registration
A light breakfast will be served. The session will conclude by 12:15 p.m.
Speaker Line-up and Agenda:
7:30 a.m. — Registration and Breakfast
8:00 a.m. — Kansas Water Office on scope of water usage/needs in SCKS
9:00 a.m. — City of Wichita Proposal: Alan King, Dir. of Public Works, accompanied by Councilman Pete Meitzner
10:00 a.m. — Are Water Markets Applicable in Kansas?: Dr. Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics at the University of Kansas
11:00 a.m. — Wichita Chamber of Commerce Water Task Force Findings: Karma Mason, president of iSi Environmental
KPI is not taking a position of the water proposal before the City Council. This event is to provide a forum for relevant parties to present their perspective on the issue with the public. Each presenter will have 30 minutes for a presentation followed by an Q&A.
This is the first in a series of KPI-sponsored forums of this nature on the different aspects of the sales tax proposal. Future forums will be held on the economic development and street and transit proposals.
For more information about this event contact Kansas Policy Institute at 316.634.0218. To register, click here.
Thank you for providing the gap analysis that I requested.
If the gap analysis is credible, if it really is true that projects like this are not financially feasible without taxpayer assistance, what does that tell us about Wichita? Shouldn’t we work on fixing these problems for everyone, rather than parceling out business welfare on a piecemeal basis?
The agenda packet material for this item says there is a need for incentives “based on the current market.” But not long ago this council was told that downtown Wichita is booming. So why won’t the market support a project like this without a handout from city taxpayers? And if downtown is truly booming but we’re still giving out incentives, will we ever be able to wean ourselves off?
Based on my reading of the gap analysis document, I see another problem with the facade improvement program. It shifts costs from landlords to commercial tenants. Instead of paying for the facade improvement costs as part of a mortgage or other financing, these costs become additional property taxes that commercial tenants pay in addition to rent.
Wichita taxes are not just a little higher, but a lot higher. For example, for a commercial property valued at $100,000, Wichita property taxes are 38.5 percent higher than the national average.
Some of the reason why commercial property taxes are so high is due to the difference in assessment rates for various property classes. That’s not set by the City of Wichita. But the overall level of spending, and therefore the level of taxation, is set by this council. Further, the cost of incentives like this raise the cost of government for everyone else. One thing the city could do is to reduce spending somewhere else to offset the cost of this incentive. This would mean that other taxpayers do not have to bear the cost of this incentive.
If we wonder why the Wichita economy is not growing, commercial property tax rates and this council’s policy of targeted reductions are a large part of the problem.
The Wichita metropolitan area compares well creating jobs in local government, but trails in private sector jobs.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics through 2013 allows us to compare the Wichita metropolitan area with the peers selected by Visioneering Wichita. I’ve gathered BLS data divided by industry sector.
When considering only government jobs, especially local government jobs, Wichita ranks high. When looking at private sector jobs, however, Wichita is in last place, and by a wide margin.
This is a problem. It is the private sector that generates the taxes that pay for government. When government grows faster than the private sector, economic activity is shifted away from productive activities to unproductive. The economist Dan Mitchell has proposed what he calls the “Golden Rule of Fiscal Policy,” which is: “The Private Sector should Grow Faster than Government.”
In Wichita, we see our local government proposing to grow itself even more by recommending that voters approve increased sales taxes to pay for more government programs. Officials tell us the increased spending is needed so that government can correct problems with Wichita’s economy, water supply, transit, and streets.
On these and other issues, the Wichita Eagle recently quoted Mayor Carl Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”
Wichita’s government has created problems, by the mayor’s admission. Now, Wichita politicians and bureaucrats ask that we rely on government to fix the problems.
The interactive visualization I’ve created from BLS data lets you compare Wichita’s job growth with our Visioneering peers. You can select various industry sectors for display.
In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Leaders in Wichita often liken government decision making to running a business, but there are important differences. That Wichita’s leaders in both government and business do not understand this is problematic. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. For more on this, see In Wichita, no differentiation between business and government.
Proceedings of a recent Wichita City Council meeting are instructive of the factors citizens should consider if they want to interact with the council and city government at a public hearing.
At the June 17, 2014 meeting of the Wichita City Council, one agenda item was a public hearing to consider adding a property to the city’s facade improvement program. Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity-Kansas appeared before the council during the hearing to express concern that a member of AFP (me) had made a request for information on the item, but had not received the information by the time of the public hearing. Background on my request and its importance to public policy can be found at In Wichita, a public hearing with missing information. Video of this meeting is below, or click here to view at YouTube.
From the bench, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said that this item had been “discussed in length last week,” referring to what would be the June 10, 2014 meeting. A reading of council agendas and minutes shows that it was actually at the June 3 meeting when the item was presented. Further, the June 3 matter was a different item. It’s a small detail, but the purpose of the June 3 item was to approve and accept the property owners petition and set the date for a public hearing. That public hearing was held on June 17.
At the June 3 meeting, contrary to Meitzner’s assertion, there was no substantive discussion on this item except for the presentation by city staff. There really was no need for discussion at that time, as the purpose of the agenda item was to accept the petition and set a date for a public hearing. If the petition is valid in its form, I don’t believe the council has any choice but to accept it and set a date for a public hearing. The purpose of the public hearing is to, naturally, hear from the public.
At the June 17 meeting during the public hearing, Meitzner questioned Estes and city staff. He asked if there was a “gap analysis” performed on all special assessments the city establishes. When told no, he asked why is the gap analysis needed for this project and not for others. The assistant city manager explained that it is required for economic development projects like the one under consideration today, but not for others.
Questioning at the meeting also revealed that there are legal issues regarding whether the gap analysis can be disclosed to the public. The city has told me it will respond to my request for the document by June 20. The city is treating my friendly request for the document as a request made under the Kansas Open Records Act. That law is permeated with loopholes and exceptions that give government many pretexts to avoid disclosure of documents.
The meeting also featured an impassioned attack on Estes and her allies from a citizen speaker. The attack was based on incorrect information, as was explained to the citizen in the meeting.
What citizens can learn from this meeting
If you don’t ask for information on a schedule that pleases the city council, you may be criticized by multiple council members.
Council members may criticize you based on incorrect facts.
Council members may grill you based on their lack of knowledge of — or incorrect understanding of — city policy.
If you ask for information from the City of Wichita, but don’t also ask for the same from other jurisdictions, a city council member may seek to discredit you.
The Wichita City Council is holding a public hearing, but citizens don’t have information that would be useful if they’re interested in conducting oversight.
Wichita’s facade improvement program provides for the financing of the exterior faces of buildings in certain areas of the city. The money that is advanced to the developers, along with interest charges, are added to the property tax bills for the property, spread over 15 years. In this respect the program is similar to when the city builds streets and sewers in new areas of town and allows homeowners to pay these costs over 15 years. Except, the facade improvement program is for repair of existing buildings, not construction of new infrastructure. Additionally, the work financed by the facade improvement program is owned by the private property owner. When the city constructs streets and sewers in new neighborhoods, the city owns them.
There’s another difference. In the item to be considered today, there is a grant of $20,000. This is a gift of cash with few strings attached, except that it be spent on something the owner must spend anyway.
City documents indicate this is a project with a cost of $2,500.000.
Here’s the public policy angle. City documents state, regarding this item:
In 2009, the Facade Improvement Program was revised to require that private funding for overall project costs be at least equal to public funding and that applicants show a financial need for public assistance in order to complete the project, based on the owner’s ability to finance the project and assuming a market-based return on investment.
Later on, the same document states
The Office of Urban Development has reviewed the economic (“gap”) analysis of the project and determined a financial need for incentives based on the current market.
In other words, without the benefit of the facade improvement loan and grant, the project would not be economically feasible. Which, to me, seems curious. A $20,000 grant for a $2,500,000 project is 0.8 percent of the project. The lower interest rate for the $156,034 being financed under the program provides some small additional benefit. These values are small compared to the scope of the project. It is not possible to forecast future revenues and expenses with the precision necessary to conclude that the facade improvement program boosts this project over the bar of economic feasibility, whatever that is.
We’ll probably not know what that bar is. I asked for the “gap” analysis. It doesn’t appear that it will be available before today’s meeting. I asked for it Thursday evening, and the city’s public information officer has followed up with me to see if I received the document, but I do not have it. The public doesn’t have it. I doubt if city council members have it.
The item today is a public hearing. The law requires it to be held so that the council can receive input from the public. Whether the public is informed — that’s a different matter.
Who reads the agenda
The agenda packet for the previous week contained a mistake. It was a mistake that is easy to make and not of any serious consequence. The wrong pages appeared for an item, and the correct pages were not in the packet. When I inquired about this late Monday afternoon — not long before the Tuesday meeting — the city’s public information office thanked me for bringing this to the city’s attention. A correction was promptly published.
Which leads me to wonder: Had anyone else read the agenda with sufficient attention to notice that mistake?
In February 2012 the City of Wichita held an election, but you wouldn’t have learned of the results if your only news source was the city’s website or television station. In the following article from March 2012, I wonder why news of the election results was overlooked by the city.
“I notice that the city’s website carries no news on the results of the February 28th election. Is this oversight unintentional? Or does the city intend to continue spending its taxpayer-funded news producing efforts on stories with headlines like ‘Valentine’s at Mid-Continent Airport,’ ‘Rain Garden Workshops in February,’ and ‘Firefighter Receives Puppy Rescued at Fire Scene’?”
It’s not as though city staff doesn’t have time to produce a story on the election. The city’s public affairs department employs 15 people with an annual budget of some $1.3 million. While some of these employees are neighborhood assistants, there are still plenty of people who could spend an hour or two writing a story announcing the results of the February 28th election.
Except: That doesn’t fit in with the city’s political strategy. That strategy appears to be to ignore the results of the election, or to characterize the election as a narrowly-focused referendum on one obscure economic development tool.
At one time, however, the attitude of city hall was that the election was over the entire future of downtown Wichita. Mayor Carl Brewer said the election would cause “turmoil inside the community, unrest.” Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said we needed to have an early election date so “avoid community discourse and debate.” He later backpedaled from these remarks.
But now that city hall and its allies lost the election, the issue is now cast as having been very narrow, after all. Citizens aren’t against economic development incentives, they say. They’re just against hotel guest tax rebates.
This narrow interpretation illustrates — again — that we have a city council, city hall bureaucracy, and allied economic development machinery that is totally captured by special interests. Furthermore, the revealed purpose of the city’s public affairs department, including its television channel, is now seen as the promotion of Wichita city government, not Wichita and its citizens. These are two very different things.
Commercial retail space owned by the City of Wichita in a desirable downtown location was built to be rented. But most is vacant, and maintenance issues go unresolved.
At one time it was thought that the Wichita city-owned parking structure in the 400 block of East William Street would house retail shops along the street. But the present state of the property should cause us to be wary of government economic development efforts.
As reported by the Wichita Eagle twenty years ago on Wednesday, October 20, 1993:
The council also approved a plan to spend about $76 a square foot to construct roughly 6,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor of the parking garage. The space would lease for an estimated $8.70 a square foot.
Council member Sheldon Kamen questioned that part of the plan. ”I just can’t visualize spending $76 a square foot,” he said. “If I was a developer I wouldn’t spend $76 a square foot for retail space on William street.”
Council member Joan Cole disagreed with Kamen, calling $8.70 a “very good price” that would attract tenants. ”It is my feeling there are small operations that would find this kind of small space very attractive,” she said.
(Adjusted for inflation, these prices would be $122 and $14 today)
What has been the results of the city’s venture into commercial real estate? As can be seen in this video from September, a Wichita city government office occupied some of the space, but the office had moved to another location. Now, Wichita Festivals occupies some of the space, but much is still empty.
Inspecting the building last September, I found that this city-owned property had maintenance issues that might, in some circumstances, be considered as contributing to blight. Based on a recent walk-by, maintenance hasn’t improved in the ten months since then. Maybe that’s why there’s apparently little demand to rent this space.
It’s not as though the building has many of advantages that city planners tell us are needed for a vital downtown Wichita. It’s adjacent to the block with the Eaton Hotel and the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, the agency charged with promoting downtown. This retail space is right across the street from the city’s bus transit center. It’s also one block away from the Intrust Bank Arena, which was promoted as a driver of commerce and activity for the surrounding area. Its Walk Score — a measure promoted by city planners — is 71, which is deemed “Very Walkable. Most errands can be accomplished on foot.”
Considering all the advantages this government-owned property has, it’s failing. It’s becoming blighted. The best thing the city could do is sell this property so that the benefits of markets and the profit-and-loss system can replace management by Wichita city hall bureaucrats.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A few tips on using your computer and the internet. Then, how to be informed. Finally, a look at a recent episode of economic development in Wichita, and what we can we learn from that. Episode 47, broadcast June 15, 2014. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.
In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita economy has not performed well. Could cronyism be a contributing factor? Mayor Carl Brewer says it’s time to put politics and special interests aside. Is our political leadership capable of doing this? View below, or click here to view at YouTube.
In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita voters give their opinions on city spending, subsidies for economic development, and their willingness to pay higher taxes for certain services. Since this episode was recorded, the Wichita City Council has given tentative approval for a one cent sales tax to be used for water supply, street maintenance, economic development, and transit. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.
As the City of Wichita prepares to grant special tax status to another new industrial building, existing landlords must be wondering why they struggle to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage.
Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers whether to grant property and sales tax exemptions to a proposed speculative industrial building in north central Wichita. If approved, this will be the second project undertaken under new economic development policies that allow for this type of tax exemption.
City documents estimate that the property tax savings for the first year will be $312,055. This exemption will be granted for five years, with a second five year period possible if performance goals are met.
The city documents also state that the project will also apply for a sales tax exemption, but no estimate of these tax savings are given. It’s common for a project of this type to have about half its cost in purchases subject to sales tax. With “site work and building” at $10,350,000, sales tax in Wichita on half that amount is $370,012. Undoubtedly a rough estimate, it nonetheless gives an idea of how much sales tax the developers will avoid paying.
(If city hall has its way, the sales tax in Wichita will soon increase by one cent per dollar, meaning the developers of this project would save $421,762 in sales tax. While others will hurry to make purchases before the higher sales tax rate takes effect — if it does — these developers will be in no hurry. Their sales tax is locked in at zero percent. In fact, once having a sales tax or property tax exemption, these developers are now in a position to root for higher sales and property tax rates, as that increases costs for their competitors, thereby giving these tax-exempt developers a competitive advantage.)
City documents give the benefit-cost ratios for the city and overlapping jurisdictions:
City of Wichita General Fund 1.30 to one
Sedgwick County 1.18 to one
USD 259 1.00 to one
State of Kansas 12.11 to one
It’s not known whether these ratios include the sales tax forgiveness.
While the City of Wichita insists that projects show a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or better (although there are many exceptions), it doesn’t apply that standard for overlapping jurisdictions. Here, Sedgwick County experiences a benefit-cost ratio of 1.18 to one, and the Wichita school district (USD 259) 1.00 to one. These two governmental bodies have no input on the decision the city is making on their behalf. The school district’s share of the forgiven taxes is 47.4 percent.
When the city granted a similar tax exemption to a speculative warehouse in southwest Wichita, my estimates were that its landlord has a cost advantage of about 20 percent over other property owners. Existing industrial landlords in Wichita — especially those with available space to rent and those who may lose tenants to this new building — must be wondering why they struggle to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage.
Wichita property taxes
Property taxes in Wichita are high for industrial buildings, and even higher for commercial buildings. See Wichita property taxes compared. So it’s difficult to blame developers for seeking relief. But instead of offering tax relief to those who ask and to those city hall approves of, it would be better to have lower taxes for everyone.
Targeted economic development incentives
The targeted economic development efforts of governments like Wichita fail for several reasons. First is the knowledge problem, in that government simply does not know which companies are worthy of public investment. In the case of the Wichita, do we really know which industries should be targeted? Is 1.3 to one really the benchmark we should seek, or would we be better off by insisting on 1.4 to one? Or should we relax the requirement to 1.2 to one so that more projects might qualify?
This assumes that these benefit-costs ratios have validity. This is far from certain, as follows:
1. The benefits that government claims are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of higher tax revenue. This is very different from the profits companies earn in voluntary market transactions.
2. Government claims that in order to get these “benefits,” the incentives must be paid. But often the new economic activity (expansion, etc.) would have happened anyway without the incentives.
3. Why is it that most companies are able to grow without incentives, but only a few companies require incentives? What is special about these companies?
4. If the relatively small investment the city makes in incentives is solely responsible for such wonderful outcomes in terms of jobs, why doesn’t the city do this more often? If the city has such power to create economic growth, why is anyone unemployed?
Do incentives work?
The uncontroverted peer-reviewed research tells us that targeted economic development incentives don’t work, if we consider the entire economy. See: Research on economic development incentives. Some of the conclusions of the studies listed there include:
“No evidence of incentive impact on manufacturing value-added or unemployment”
“Small reduction in employment by businesses which received Ohio’s tax incentives”
“No evidence of large firm impacts on local economy”
“No permanent employment increase across a quasi-experimental panel of all Cabela’s stores”
“Employment impact of large firms is less than gross job creation (by about 70%)”
These research programs illustrate the fallacy of the seen and the unseen. It is easy to see the jobs being created by economic development incentives. It’s undeniable that jobs are created at firms that receive incentives, at least most of the time. But these jobs are easy to see. It’s easy for news reporters to find the newly-hired and grateful workers, or to show video footage of a new manufacturing plant.
But it’s very difficult to find specific instances of the harm that government intervention produces. It is, generally, dispersed. People who lose their jobs usually don’t know the root cause of why they are now unemployed. Businesses whose sales decline often can’t figure out why.
But evidence tells us this is true: These incentives, along with other forms of government interventionism, do more harm than good.
In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita government leaders complain that Wichita can’t compete in economic development with other cities and states because the budget for incentives is too small. But when making this argument, these officials don’t include all incentives that are available. View below, or click here to view on YouTube. More information on this topic is at Contrary to officials, Wichita has many incentive programs.
Following, Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn explains something that the county could do to boost economic growth that doesn’t require government intervention, doesn’t need fleets of bureaucrats, reduces cronyism and corruption, increases economic freedom, respects property rights, reduces the power of government to control its subjects, and doesn’t give politicians opportunities to inflate their egos and boost their electoral prospects by being photographed at ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies taking credit for spending your money on something you don’t want and which does not work to create jobs and prosperity. For these reasons — especially the latter — this won’t be popular with the political class.
I’ve gathered data from the property tax study that Peterjohn mentions and presented data specific to Wichita at Wichita property taxes compared. A version of this commentary appeared in the Wichtia Eagle.
Let’s create something special and unique
By Karl Peterjohn
This community as well as our country is still in an economic crisis. Our community needs a boost, or a comparative growth advantage. Creating a one (1) cent city sales tax in Wichita won’t create economic growth.
In fact, raising taxes would put our community on the same path trail blazed by many other communities across our country. That is the path to fiscal perdition: Detroit.
This community can create a special and unique comparative advantage by eliminating one of the major disadvantages that this state in general, and Wichita and Sedgwick County face: high property taxes. The high property tax problem for Wichita was once again identified in a national study by the Lincoln Institute on Land Policy and the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence’s, “50 State Property Tax Comparison Study,” issued in March. In this study it identified the fact that Wichita’s property tax on commercial property was 38% above the national average.
High taxes mean less economic growth. This is particularly true for property taxes.
The unique and special approach this community needs is instead of raising the sales tax to expand city spending, the focus should be on eliminating the county’s property tax. Currently the county imposes a 29.3 mill property tax county wide. This mill levy could be eliminated with about a 1.5 cent increase in the sales tax on a revenue neutral basis.
This type of property tax competitiveness would be beneficial on several levels. First, it would provide a unique selling proposition to help attract business to this county and Wichita.
Eliminating the county property tax would provide benefits to all property taxpayers and not just a select few getting special subsidies contained within the city’s sales tax hike plan. Eliminating the county’s property taxes would reduce most county taxpayers’ property tax bills by roughly 25 percent.
Let’s move away from the subsidy model whose odious examples include the failed Solyndra national subsidy boondoggle.
Instead of dangling subsides, which everyone else in the eco-devo game is doing, let’s try a unique incentive: Sedgwick County just eliminated its property tax! We should try this because it can work.
In 1995 Kansas eliminated its state unemployment tax because the fund had developed a large cash balance. This five year tax moratorium created a unique economic advantage for Kansas business. Within a couple of years, the Kansas economy enjoyed a substantial surge in economic growth. Kansas became a leader enjoying some of the fastest economic growth between 1997 to 1999. Eventually, the unemployment fund’s cash balance shrank. By 1999 the unemployment tax was restored. This unique tax advantage was eliminated.
As a county commissioner I am focused on creating a special advantage for everyone in Sedgwick County. Eliminating the county’s property tax is an idea whose time has come.
When a prominent Wichita business executive and civic leader asked for tax relief, his reasoning allows us to more fully understand the city’s economic development efforts and nature of the people city hall trusts to lead these endeavors.
In November 2013 the Wichita City Council granted an exemption from paying property and sales tax for High Touch Technologies, a company located in downtown Wichita. This application is of more than usual interest as the company’s CEO, Wayne Chambers, is now chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber, along with its subsidiary Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, are the main agencies in charge of economic development for the Wichita area. Under Chambers’ leadership, these organizations are recommending that the city council authorize a vote on raising the Wichita sales tax for the purposes of economic development.
Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of this company’s application and the city’s agenda packet material (available here).
In its application letter, High Touch argues as follows (emphasis added):
To demonstrate our commitment to Wichita, as well as accommodate our expected growth plans, High Touch Technologies would like to purchase a 106,000 sq. ft. building in Downtown Wichita.
At this time, High Touch Technologies is requesting your support for the issuance of approximately $2,000,000 City of Wichita, Kansas, Taxable Industrial Revenue Bonds. High Touch greatly appreciates any support we can receive on the purchase of this office building through the City’s participation of Industrial Revenue Bonds and the property tax savings associated with this financing method. We intend to continue our growth and expansion over the next several years and these benefits would be helpful in offsetting the substantial capital requirements associated with this project.
High Touch Technologies believes in Wichita and support the community and its economy through corporate stewardship programs. We look forward to working with you and Members of the Council on this project and are always available to answer questions regarding this project or any of our business activities.
Later in the letter:
The applicant agrees to enter into an agreement for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) equal to the ad valorem property tax payment amount for the 2013 tax year. The applicant respectfully requests that the payments be capped at that rate for a period of ten (10) years. The tax abatement will permit the applicant to proceed with the anticipated project, allow for its anticipated growth, and result in the public benefits otherwise outlined herein.
The issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds will be used to lower the cost of office space in the acquired building. The lower costs will give High Touch, Inc. incentive to grow its presence in the corporate office in Wichita. New employees will be added to this Wichita office instead of other offices across the U.S. The savings in office space will allow High Touch, Inc. to use those savings for expansion.
To demonstrate our commitment to Wichita: This is ironic because High Touch is asking to be excused from paying the same property taxes that most other people and business firms have to pay. Instead of commitment, this demonstrates hostility to the taxpayers of Wichita, who will have to pay more so that this company can pay less.
But that irony is surpassed by the spectacle — chutzpa — of the incoming chair of a city’s chamber of commerce threatening to move his company out of the city unless the company receives incentives.
helpful in offsetting the substantial capital requirements: Well. Who wouldn’t appreciate help in offsetting the cost of anything? We should categorize this as unpersuasive.
corporate stewardship programs: Underlying this argument is that because High Touch makes charitable contributions, it should be excused from the same tax burden that most of us face. Here’s a better argument: Be a good corporate citizen by paying your fair share of taxes. Don’t ask for others to pay your share of taxes. That will let citizens make their own charitable contributions, instead of subsidizing what Wayne Chambers want to do.
answer questions regarding this project or any of our business activities: This refers to how the members of the city council will make a judgment that this business is worthy of subsidy, and that others are not. The notion that the City of Wichita can decide which companies are worthy of tax exemptions and investment is an illustration of what economist Frederich Hayek called a “conceit.” It’s so dangerous that his book on the topic is titled “The Fatal Conceit.” The failure of government planning throughout the world has demonstrated that it is through markets and their coordination of dispersed knowledge that we best learn where to direct capital investment. It is simply impossible for this city government to effectively decide in which companies Wichitans should invest their tax dollars. Nonetheless the city council made the decision, and it wants a larger role.
Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT): High Touch is not proposing to totally escape its tax burden. Only partially so, through the PILOT. But the proposed payment is quite generous to the company. A few quick (and probably imprecise) calculations shows how small the PILOT is compared to what taxes would be. City documents indicate the proceeds of the IRBs will be used to pay for $2,000,000 of improvements. This amount of commercial property times 25% assessment ratio times 120.602 mill levy rate equals $60,301 in taxes. High Touch, through the PILOT, is proposing to pay $33,250, just a little more than half of what the taxes might be.
But the true value of the taxes being avoided is probably much higher. As an example, nearby office space is listed for sale at $28 per square foot, and that’s a distress-level price. Applying that price to this building, its value would be almost $3 million. If we look at market capitalization rates, which are generally given as from nine to eleven percent for class A space, we arrive at a much higher value: If we say $10 per square foot rental rate times 106,000 square feet at nine percent cap rate, the value would be almost $12 million. Taxes on that would be about $300,000 per year.
These are back-of-the-envelope calculations using assumed values that may not be accurate, but this gives an idea of what’s actually happening in this transaction: High Touch is seeking to avoid paying a lot of taxes, year after year. But by offering to pay a small fraction as PILOT, the company appears magnanimous.
payments be capped at that rate for a period of ten (10) years: High Touch proposed that what it’s paying in lieu of taxes not be subject to increases. Everyone else’s property taxes, of course, are subject to increases due to either assessed value increases or mill rate increases, or both. High Touch requests an exemption from these forces that almost everyone else faces.
lower the cost of office space: Again, who wouldn’t enjoy lower business or personal expenses? The cost of this incentive spreads the cost of government across a smaller tax base than would otherwise be, raising the cost of government for almost everyone else.
added to this Wichita office instead of other offices across the U.S.: The threat of relocation or expansion elsewhere is routinely used to leverage benefits from frightened local governments. These threats can’t be taken at face value. There is no way to know their validity.
use those savings for expansion: Implicit in this argument is that Wichita taxes prevent companies from expanding. True or not, this is a problem: If taxes are too high, we’re missing out on economic growth. If taxes are not too high, but some companies seek exemption from paying them nonetheless, that’s a problem too.
A prosperous company, establishing the template for seeking business welfare
In a December 2011 interview with the Wichita Eagle, the High Touch CEO bragged of how well the company is doing. The newspaper reported “Ask Wayne Chambers how business is, and he’s going to tell you it’s good. Very good. … Chambers said this week that after two years of robust growth, he’s looking for another one in 2012. ‘We have every reason to believe we’ll continue that growth pattern,’ he said.”
In February 2013 the Wichita Business Journal reported “It should be a great year for High Touch Inc. That’s the initial prediction of CEO Wayne Chambers, who says actions the company took during and leading up to 2012 have positioned High Touch to become a true ‘IT solutions provider.’”
If we take Chambers at his word — that his company is successful — why does High Touch need this business welfare? Economic necessity is usually given as the justification of these incentives. Companies argue that the proposed investment is not feasible and uneconomic without taxpayer participation and subsidy. I don’t see this argument being advanced in this case.
Interestingly, at the time of this application Chambers was co-chair of Visioneering Wichita, which advocates for greater government involvement in just about everything, including the management of the local economy. One of the benchmarks of Visioneering is “Exceed the highest of the annual percentage job growth rate of the U.S., Omaha, Tulsa, Kansas City and Oklahoma City.” As shown in this article and this video, Wichita badly lags the nation and our Visioneering peer cities on this benchmark. Visioneering officials didn’t want to present these results to government officials this year, perhaps on the theory that it’s better to ignore problems that to confront them.
Now Wayne Chambers is the chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. Under his leadership, the Chamber of Commerce recommends that Wichitans pay higher sales tax to support the Chambers’ projects.
Will this blatant cronyism be the template for future management of economic development in Wichita? Let’s hope not, as the working people of Wichita can’t tolerate much more of our sub-par economic growth.
A prominent Wichita business uses free markets to justify its request for economic development incentives. A gullible city council buys the argument.
At the December 10, 2013 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Bombardier LearJet received an economic development incentive that will let it avoid paying some property taxes on newly-purchased property. The amount involved in that particular incident is relatively small. According to city documents, “the value of the abated taxes on that investment could be as much as $1,980.”
This week Bombardier was before the council again asking for property tax abatements. City documents estimate the amount of tax to be forgiven as $1,098,294 annually, for up to ten years. The document prepared for council members did not address sales tax, but generally sales taxes are forgiven when using the program Bombardier qualified for.
The December 10 meeting was useful because a representative of Bombardier appeared before the council. His remarks help us understand how some prominent members of Wichita’s business community have distorted the principles of free markets and capitalism. As illustrated by the fawning of Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) and others, elected officials have long forsaken these principles.
Don Pufahl, who is Director of Finance at Bombardier Learjet, addressed the council regarding this matter. He started his remarks on a positive note, telling the council “There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.”
We must be careful when using the term incentive. In a free-market economy or capitalism, incentive refers to the motivation of the possibility of earning profits. Another incentive — the other side of the same coin — is avoiding losses. That’s why capitalism is called a profit-and-loss system. The losses are just as important as profits, as losses are a signal that the economic activity is not valued, and the resources should be shifted to somewhere else where they are valued more highly.
But in the field of economic development as practiced by government, incentive means something given to or granted to a company. That’s what the representative from Bombardier meant by incentive. He explained: “One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.”
A few thoughts: First, Bombardier is not investing in the community. The company is investing in itself. I’m sure Bombardier’s shareholders hope that is true.
Second, the free market system that the speaker praised is a system based on voluntary exchange. That flows from property rights, which is the foundational idea that people own themselves and the product of their labor, and are free to exchange with others. But when government uses incentives, many people do not consent to the exchange. That’s not a free market system.
Third, an important part of a free market system is market competition. That is, business firms compete with others for customers. They also compete with other business firms for resources needed for production, such as capital. When government makes these decisions instead of markets, we don’t have a free market system. Instead, we have cronyism. Charles G. Koch has described the harm of cronyism, recently writing: “The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”
In the same article Koch wrote: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.” (Charles G. Koch: Corporate cronyism harms America)
The representative from Bombardier also said that the city’s incentives would reduce Bombardier’s investment risk. There is little doubt this is true. When a company is given money with no strings attached except what the company already intends to do and wants to do, that reduced a company’s risk. What has happened, however, is that risk has not been eliminated or reduced. It has merely been shifted to the people of Wichita, Sedgwick County, the Wichita public school district, and the State of Kansas. When government does this on a piecemeal basis, this is called cronyism. When done universally, we call this socialism.
We can easily argue that actions like this — and especially the large subsidies granted to Bombardier by the state — increase the risk of these investments. Since the subsidies reduce the cost of its investment, Bombardier may be motivated to make risky investments that it might otherwise not make, were it investing its own funds (and that of its shareholders).
The cost of Bombardier’s investments, and the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. But we can’t identify these. We don’t know who they are. But we need an economic development strategy that creates an environment where these young entrepreneurial firms have the greatest chance to survive. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)
Now the city and Bombardier will say that these investments have a payoff for the taxpayer. That is, if Bombardier grows, it will pay more in taxes, and that constitutes “profit” for taxpayers. Even if we accept that premise — that the city “profits” from collecting taxes — why do we need to invest in Bombardier in order to harvest its “profits” when there are so many companies that pay taxes without requiring subsidy?
Finally, the representative from Bombardier said that these incentives are not a handout. I don’t see how anyone can say that and maintain a straight face.
It would be one thing if the Wichita area was thriving economically. But it isn’t. We’re in last place among our self-identified peers, as illustrated in Wichita and Visioneering peers job growth. Minutes from a recent meeting of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development, holds this paragraph: “As shown in the Chart below Wichita economy suffered the largest loss of employment among peer cities and has not seen any signs of rebounding as the other communities have. Wichita lost 31,000 jobs during the recession principally due to the down turn in general aviation.”
Following is a fuller representation of the Bombardier representative’s remarks to the council.
There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.
One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.
As the company moves forward to invest in the community, those investments are not without risk. … Your incentives allow us to offset some of that risk so that we can move forward with those investments, which hopefully create new jobs and also then also improves the quality of life in our community. … These incentives are not a handout. They are a way that the local government uses such things to offset some of the risk that is involved in local companies as they invest in the community, bring jobs to the community, and improve the community overall.
An ongoing study reveals that generally, property taxes on commercial and industrial property in Wichita are high. In particular, taxes on commercial property in Wichita are among the highest in the nation.
The study is produced by Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence. It’s titled “50 State Property Tax Comparison Study, March 2014″ and may be read here. It uses a variety of residential, apartment, commercial, and industrial property scenarios to analyze the nature of property taxation across the country. I’ve gathered data from selected tables for Wichita. A pdf version of the table is available here.
In Kansas, residential property is assessed at 11.5 percent of its appraised value. (Appraised value is the market value as determined by the assessor. Assessed value is multiplied by the mill levy rates of taxing jurisdictions in order to compute tax.) Commercial property is assessed at 25 percent of appraised value, and public utility property at 33 percent.
This means that commercial property pays 25 / 11.5 or 2.18 times the property tax rate as residential property. (The study reports a value of 2.263 for Wichita. The difference is likely due to the inclusion on utility property in their calculation.) The U.S. average is 1.716.
Whether higher assessment ratios on commercial property as compared to residential property is good public policy is a subject for debate. But because Wichita’s ratio is high, it leads to high property taxes on commercial property.
For residential property taxes, Wichita ranks below the national average. For a property valued at $150,000, the effective property tax rate in Wichita is 1.324 percent, while the national average is 1.508 percent. The results for a $300,000 property were similar.
Looking at commercial property, the study uses several scenarios with different total values and different values for fixtures. For example, for a $100,000 valued property with $20,000 fixtures (table 25), the study found that the national average for property tax is $2,591 or 2.159 percent of the property value. For Wichita the corresponding values are $3,588 or 2.990 percent, ranking ninth from the top. Wichita property taxes for this scenario are 38.5 percent higher than the national average.
In other scenarios, as the proportion of property value that is machinery and equipment increases, Wichita taxes are lower, compared to other states and cities. This is because Kansas no longer taxes this type of property.
On the three major questions — Do economic development incentives create new jobs? Are those jobs taken by targeted populations in targeted places? Are incentives, at worst, only moderately revenue negative? — traditional economic development incentives do not fare well.
Judging the effectiveness of economic development incentives requires looking for the unseen effects as well as what is easily seen. It’s easy to see the groundbreaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies that commemorate government intervention — politicians and bureaucrats are drawn to them, and will spend taxpayer funds to make sure you’re aware. It’s more difficult to see that the harm that government intervention causes.
That’s assuming that the incentives even work as advertised in the first place. Alan Peters and Peter Fisher, in their paper titled The Failures of Economic Development Incentives published in Journal of the American Planning Association, wrote on the effects of incentives. A few quotes from the study, with emphasis added:
Given the weak effects of incentives on the location choices of businesses at the interstate level, state governments and their local governments in the aggregate probably lose far more revenue, by cutting taxes to firms that would have located in that state anyway than they gain from the few firms induced to change location.
On the three major questions — Do economic development incentives create new jobs? Are those jobs taken by targeted populations in targeted places? Are incentives, at worst, only moderately revenue negative? — traditional economic development incentives do not fare well. It is possible that incentives do induce significant new growth, that the beneficiaries of that growth are mainly those who have greatest difficulty in the labor market, and that both states and local governments benefit fiscally from that growth. But after decades of policy experimentation and literally hundreds of scholarly studies, none of these claims is clearly substantiated. Indeed, as we have argued in this article, there is a good chance that all of these claims are false.
The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state or local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering their expectations about their ability to micromanage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing the foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Uber is an innovative transportation service, but is probably illegal in Wichita. Then, the City of Wichita fails again at basic government transparency. Finally, a look at job growth in Wichita compared to other cities. Episode 45, broadcast June 1, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.
Individual liberty, limited government, economic freedom, and free markets in Wichita and Kansas