In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: An episode this week at the Wichita city council meeting highlights the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita. We’ll examine a few incidents and see if there’s a way we can reform Wichita city government so that it is capitalism friendly instead of crony friendly. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 69, broadcast December 21, 2014.
Those seeking favors from Wichita City Hall use campaign contribution stacking to bypass contribution limits. This has paid off handsomely for them, and has harmed everyone else.
Not long ago a person who is politically active wrote a letter that was published in the Wichita Eagle. It criticized the role of campaign contributions in federal elections, noting “Corporations don’t spend money on politics because they are patriotic; rather, the companies expect a financial return.” Later the letter held this: “Locally, I understand that elections for the Wichita City Council underwent ideal, nonpartisan campaign-finance reform years ago, and that these limits are scrupulously practiced.”
The writer is correct, but only superficially. Our campaign contribution limits for city and school board offices are relatively small. What we find, however, is that the cronies, that is, the people who want stuff from city hall, stack contributions using family members and employees.
Here’s how a handful of cronies stack campaign contributions. In 2012 council members James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run again for their offices in spring 2013. Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, two groups of related parties accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents for an entire year. A group associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000 — $4,000 to Williams, and $3,000 to Clendenin. Another group of people associated with movie theater owner Bill Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.
The casual observer wouldn’t realize this stacking of campaign contributions by looking at campaign finance reports. That’s because for city offices, the name of the company a contributor works for isn’t required. Industry and occupation are required, but these aren’t of much help. Further, contribution reports are not filed electronically, so the information is not easy to analyze. Some reports are even submitted using handwriting, and barely legible handwriting at that.
So it’s not easy to analyze campaign contributions for Wichita city offices. It takes a bit of effort to unpack the stacking. You have to see a name and investigate who that person is. When you do that, you might find that a man from Valley Center who list his occupation and industry as Manager and Aviation Subcontractor is married to someone who lists her occupation and industry as Director of Marketing. Investigating her reveals that she is an executive of Key Construction.
That company, Key Construction, is a prominent company in Wichita. It is an example of a company that seeks to earn outsized profits through the political system rather than by meeting customer needs in the market. Profits through cronyism, that is. Here’s an example. In August 2011 the Wichita city council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.
Let me make sure you understand that. Mayor Carl Brewer, Lavonta Williams, and James Clendenin were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of your tax money to reward their benefactors through a no-bid contract. Since then reforms have been implemented to prevent this. Hopefully the reforms will work. I am skeptical.
In 2012 there was another incident involving Key Construction that show the need for campaign finance reform. Key and another construction company were engaged in a dispute as to who should build the new Wichita airport. The city council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner to decide the issue. Given all the campaign contributions Key was making at the time, and given the mayor’s well-known friendship with Dave Wells of Key Construction, can you guess who was awarded the contract? And can you guess whose contract was more expensive for taxpayers?
So back to the letter in the newspaper, which held: “Corporations don’t spend money on politics because they are patriotic; rather, the companies expect a financial return.” I’m not going to defend cronyism at the federal level. It exists and it is harmful. But I would like to let the writer of the letter know that cronyism also exists in Wichita city government. In fact, it may be worse in Wichita. At the federal level, Congress usually passes laws that benefit an entire industry — say the sugar industry or banks — to the detriment of consumers and taxpayers. (Sometimes the benefits are quite specific. American Enterprise Institute reports that the just-passed omnibus bill contains a section that provides protection from an Obamacare provision for exactly one entity: Blue Cross Blue Shield. Conservative writer Yuval Levin explained: “This section is, simply put, a special favor for Blue Cross/Blue Shield allowing them to count ‘quality improvement’ spending as part of the medical loss ratio calculation required of them under Obamacare. And it’s made retroactive for four years, saving them loads of money.”)
That’s bad enough. Here in Wichita, however, the cronyism is more concentrated and personal. The links between campaign contributions and handouts from city hall is much more direct. We should insist that the city council stop picking the pocket of your fellow man so it can give the proceeds to campaign contributors. Campaign finance reform can help.
Actions of the Wichita City Council have shown that campaign finance reform is needed. Citizen groups are investigating how to accomplish this needed reform, since the council has not shown interest in reforming itself.
Consider recent actions by the council and its members:
- The council voted to give a movie theater operator a no-interest and low-interest loan, after having already received the benefit of tax increment financing.
- A minister dabbling in real estate development made a large contribution to his council representative just before he asked the city council for tax increment financing.
- The council voted to give a construction company a no-bid contract for a parking garage. When later put out for competitive bid, the same company won the contract, but with a bid 21 percent less costly to taxpayers.
- Executives of a Michigan construction company made contributions to the campaign of a city council member just before and after the council voted to give the company and its local partner a huge construction contract.
- When a group of frequent campaign contributors wanted to win a contest for the right to build an apartment project, the city’s reference-checking process was a sham. City and other government officials were listed as references without their knowledge or consent, and none of the people listed as references were actually contacted.
- A frequent campaign contributor, according to the Wichita Eagle, “represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city ‘s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza.” City officials expressed varying degrees of displeasure. But it wasn’t long before David Burk was receiving taxpayer subsidy again from the city council.
- The council voted to grant $703,017 in sales tax forgiveness to frequent campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.
What is the common thread running through these incidents? Council members have voted to enrich their significant campaign contributors. Each of these are examples of a “pay-to-play” environment created at Wichita City Hall. It’s harmful to our city in a number of ways.
First, overpriced no-bid contracts and other giveaways to campaign contributors isn’t economic development. It’s cronyism. It’s wasteful.
Second: Citizens become cynical when they feel there is a group of insiders who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. At one time newspaper editorial pages crusaded against cronyism like this. But no longer in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle has reported on some of these issues — sometimes in depth, sometimes in passing, but some have escaped notice. The editorial page of the newspaper sometimes takes notice, but is rarely critical of the council or mayor.
Third, when it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?
Importantly: Will the Wichita city council prop up a competitor to my company with economic development incentives that place my company at severe disadvantage?
We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. A model law for Wichita is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”
We’d also need to add — as does New Jersey law — provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. This is because for Kansas municipal and school district elections, only personal contributions may be made. Additionally the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses and children, are considered to be from the business itself for purposes of the law. These provisions are important, as many city council members in Wichita receive campaign contributions from business owners’ family members and employees as a way to skirt our relatively small contribution limits. For two examples of how companies use family members, employees, and friends to stack up campaign contributions, see Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita.
Such campaign finance reform would not prohibit anyone from donating as much as they want (up to the current limits) to any candidate. Nor would the law prevent candidates from accepting campaign contributions from anyone.
This reform, however, would remove the linkage between significant contributions and voting to give money to the contributor. This would be a big step forward for Wichita, its government, and its citizens.
Proponents see three paths towards campaign finance reform. One would be to press for a law in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. Such a law would be statewide in scope, and could apply to city councils, county commissions, school boards, townships, and other elective bodies.
A second path would be to use the municipal initiative process. Under this process, a group writes a proposed ordinance. Then, it collects valid signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is verified, the city council must either (a) pass the ordinance as written, or (b) set an election to let the people vote whether the ordinance should become law.
There is also a third path, which is for the Wichita City Council to recognize the desirability of campaign finance reform and pass such an ordinance on its own initiative.
If we take the affected parties at their word, this third path should face little resistance. That’s because politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t do it to influence votes.
If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.
In 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”
When questioned about election donations:
“I would never do anything because of a campaign contribution,” said [former council member Sharon] Fearey, who received $500 from David Burk and $500 from David Wells.
“I don’t think $500 buys a vote,” said [former council member Sue] Schlapp.
“One has nothing to do with the other,” [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said.
Also in 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).
These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.
But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.
In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.
The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table compiled from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Ambassador Hotel project.
Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member, led the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project: $6,000. When Longwell ran for Sedgwick County Commission this summer, these parties donated generously to that campaign, too.
Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.
Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.
For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.
For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.
What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.
Of interest to current mayoral politics: In 2012 while Jeff Longwell was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission, campaign contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance reports. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new Wichita Airport terminal provide a clue?
These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.
On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner.
Then on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members.
Does the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce support free markets, capitalism, and economic freedom, or something else?
Very often, local chambers of commerce support crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.
We saw this in Wichita this year, where the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce campaigned for a sales tax increase. The Chamber recommended that Wichitans vote in favor of a sales tax of one cent per dollar, with some of the proceeds to be dedicated for a jobs fund. (Other uses were to be for a new water supply, expanded bus transit, and accelerated neighborhood street repair.) Chamber leaders told the Wichita city council that if the jobs fund was not included in the package presented to voters, the Chamber would not support the sales tax.
Not long ago the Wichita Chamber was opposed to higher sales taxes. In March 2010, as chair of the Wichita Chamber, Sam Williams submitted a letter to the Wichita Eagle in which he wrote “Tax increases and government spending will not create employment or revive the state’s economic engine. Increasing the costs of goods and services will only lead to fewer purchases, more business closures, higher unemployment and less taxes being paid.”
In April of same year, he wrote again to the Eagle, advising Wichitans this: “Simply put, raising taxes hurts business, costs jobs and ultimately leads to fewer taxpayers and fewer taxes being paid to fund state and local government.”
Having espoused these anti-tax sentiments just four years ago, it’s curious that the Wichita Chamber would support and campaign for a sales tax for Wichita this year. This spills over to mayoral politics. As far as I saw, Sam Williams, — the Chamber’s chair in 2010 — did not take a public position on the sales tax this year. Except for this: Williams is chair of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and that organization endorsed the sales tax.
Regarding mayoral politics: Did you know that Sam Williams is running for mayor? And that it appears he has the support of the Wichita Chamber?
I have a request. If you see Sam Williams, would you ask him about his position on raising sales taxes?
Your chamber of commerce
Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce — since their membership is mostly business firms — support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s usually not the case. Here, in an excerpt from his article “Tax Chambers” economist Stephen Moore explains:
The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda — but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government.
In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes in his recent book, “Rip-Off,” “state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes.”
In the states, chambers have come to believe their primary function is to secure tax financing for sports stadiums, convention centers, high-tech research institutes and transit boondoggles. Some local chambers have reportedly asked local utilities, school administrators and even politicians to join; others have opened membership to arts councils, museums, civic associations and other “tax eater” entities.
“I used to think that public employee unions like the NEA were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions,” says Mr. Caldera of the Independence Institute. “I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself ‘the business community’ and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations.”
From Stephen Moore in the article “Tax Chambers” published in The Wall Street Journal February 10, 2007. The full article can be found here.
As Wichita enters campaign season for mayor and city council, will any candidates call for implementing a reform that we desperately need in Wichita? Following, from 2012, explains.
In the wake of scandals some states and cities have passed “pay-to-play” laws. These laws may prohibit political campaign contributions by those who seek government contracts, prohibit officeholders from voting on laws that will benefit their campaign donors, or the laws may impose special disclosure requirements.
Many people make campaign contributions to candidates whose ideals and goals they share. This is an important part of our political process. But when reading campaign finance reports for members of the Wichita City Council, one sees the same names appearing over and over, often making the maximum allowed contribution to candidates.
And when one looks at the candidates these people contribute to, you notice that often there’s no common thread linking the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some people contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. But then, when these people appear in the news after having received money from the Wichita City Council, it snaps into place: These campaign donors are not donating to those whose political ideals they agree with. Instead, they’re donating so they can line their own pockets. These donors are opportunists.
As another example, for the 2008 campaign for a bond issue for USD 259 (Wichita public school district), my analysis found that 72 percent of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms, and others who directly stand to benefit from school construction. Do these companies have an especially keen interest in the education of children? I don’t think so. They are interested in themselves.
Some states and cities have taken steps to reduce this harmful practice. New Jersey is notable for its Local Unit Pay-To-Play Law. The law affects many local units of government and the awarding of contracts having a value of over $17,500, requiring that these contracts be awarded by a “fair and open process,” which basically means a contract process open to bidding.
Cities, too, are passing pay-to-pay laws. Notably, a recently-passed law in Dallas was in response to special treatment for real estate developers — the very issue Wichita is facing now as it prepares to pour millions into the pockets of a small group of favored — and highly subsidized — downtown developers who are generous with campaign contributions to almost all council members. Not that this is new to Wichita, as the city has often done this in the past.
Smaller cities, too, have these laws. A charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”
But Kansas has no such law. Certainly Wichita does not, where pay-to-play is seen by many citizens as a way of life.
In Kansas, campaign finance reports are filed by candidates and available to citizens. But many politicians don’t want campaign contributions discussed, at least in public. Recently Wichita Council Member Michael O’Donnell expressed concern over the potential award of a $6 million construction contract without an open bidding process. The contractor the city wanted to give the contract to was Key Construction, a firm that actively makes political contributions to city council members, both conservative and liberal.
For expressing his concern, O’Donnell was roundly criticized by many council members, and especially by Mayor Carl Brewer.
Here’s what’s interesting: Brewer and city council members say the campaign contributions don’t affect their votes. Those who regularly make contributions say they don’t do it to influence the council. Therefore, it seems that there should be no opposition to a pay-to-play law in Wichita — or the entire state — like the one in Santa Ana.
But until we get such a law, I can understand how Wichita city council members don’t want to discuss their campaign contributions from those they’re about to vote to give money to. It’s not about supporting political ideologies — liberal, moderate, or conservative. It’s about opportunists seeking money from government.
The practice stinks. It causes citizens to be cynical of their government and withdraw from participation in civic affairs. It causes government to grow at the expense of taxpayers. Pay-to-play laws can help reverse these trends.
You may download a printable copy of this article at Kansas Needs Pay-to-Play Laws.
In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: In its coverage of the recent election, the Wichita Eagle has failed to inform its readers of city and state issues. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.
For more on this topic, see In election coverage, The Wichita Eagle has fallen short and For Wichita Eagle, no immediate Kansas budget solution.
In Sedgwick County, an unlikely hero emerges in the battle for capitalism over cronyism.
Now that the result of the 2014 general election is official, Richard Ranzau has notched four consecutive election victories over candidates endorsed by the Wichita Eagle and often by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. It’s interesting and useful to look back at what the Wichita Eagle wrote during each campaign as it endorsed Ranzau’s opponent.
In its endorsements for the 2010 Republican Party primary, the Eagle editorial board wrote:
In a district reaching from downtown Wichita north to include Maize, Valley Center and Park City, Republican voters would do well to replace retiring Commissioner Kelly Parks with the commissioner he unseated in 2006, Lucy Burtnett. Her business experience and vast community involvement, as well as her understanding of the issues and thoughtful voting record during her two years on the commission, make her the pick in this primary. She would like to see a new life for the Kansas Coliseum site, perhaps including a year-round RV park, and favors the county’s continued role in Fair Fares and the National Center for Aviation Training.
The other candidate is Richard Ranzau , a physician assistant retired from the Army Reserves who believes government is out of control, who would submit all tax increases to voters, and who opposes the county’s investments in air service and aviation training.
The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce political action committee contributed to Burtnett.
In this election, Ranzau received 55 percent of the vote.
Then for the general election in November 2010, the Eagle editorial board wrote this:
State Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, is by far the better choice in the race to replace Republican Kelly Parks, who is stepping down after one term representing the county’s north-central district. Her legislative experience, civic engagement and constituent service have prepared her for a seat on the county commission, where she wants to help attract businesses and jobs and would support efforts such as the new National Center for Aviation Training. “That’s a must,” she said. It’s a concern that Faust-Goudeau has been slow to address code violations at a house she owns, but the fact that neighbors have stepped up to help says a lot about her as a person and public servant. The first African-American woman elected to the Kansas Senate, Faust-Goudeau would make a hardworking and effective county commissioner.
Republican Richard Ranzau, a physician assistant retired from the Army Reserves, holds inflexible anti-tax, free-market views that would be disastrous for the county’s crucial efforts to support economic development and invest in affordable air service and aviation training.
In this election, Ranzau again earned 55 percent of the vote.
In the August 2014 Republican Party primary, the Eagle editorial board wrote:
Carolyn McGinn is the clear choice to represent this district that includes part of north Wichita as well as Maize, Park City and Valley Center. McGinn served on the commission from 1998 through 2004. Since then, she has served in the Kansas Senate, including as past chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. As a result, McGinn knows state and local issues well and understands how they intersect. She is concerned about the region’s stagnant economic growth. In order to get businesses to come and grow here, the county needs a stable government structure that provides essential services, she argues. McGinn is a productive problem solver who could have an immediate positive impact on the commission.
Her opponent is incumbent Richard Ranzau, who is completing his first term. He has been a fierce advocate for the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch and for fiscal responsibility. But he also frequently badgers county staff and delivers monologues about federal government problems. He argued that a planning grant was an attempt by President Obama “to circumvent the will of Congress, the states and the people.”
The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce also endorsed McGinn.
In this election, Ranzau received 54 percent of the vote.
For the 2014 general election, here’s what the Eagle editorial board had to say:
Democrat Melody McCray-Miller is the clear choice to represent District 4, which includes north Wichita, Maize, Park City and Valley Center. A former county commissioner and four-term state representative and a business owner, McCray-Miller understands government at both the state and local levels and how it affects communities, families and businesses. Her priorities include economic development and community livability and engagement. “I would like to put the public back in public policy,” she said, accusing her opponent of representing his ideological views and not the full district. McCray-Miller believes in a balanced, collaborative approach to dealing with issues and people, focusing on “what’s best for the county.” She also would not turn down federal funds, as her opponent has voted to do, and supports using economic incentives to attract and retain businesses.
Republican incumbent Richard Ranzau is completing his first term, which has not been productive. Though he has done some good work watchdogging county spending, Ranzau frequently badgers county staff and other presenters at commission meetings. He also has used his position as an ideological platform to rant about the federal government, including by claiming that a federal planning grant was an attempt by President Obama “to circumvent the will of Congress, the states and the people.” McCray-Miller would be a better, more-constructive commissioner.
The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce also endorsed McCray-Miller.
This election was closer, with Ranzau gathering 51 percent of the vote to McCray-Miller’s 49 percent.
As a private entity, the Wichita Eagle is free to print whatever it wants. So too is the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce free to contribute to and endorse anyone.
But these two institutions appear to be out of touch with voters.
Do you sense a pattern? Ranzau’s opponents are thoughtful, would make hardworking and effective county commissioners, are productive problem solvers, understand government at both the state and local levels, and have a balanced, collaborative approach to dealing with issues and people.
Ranzau, according to the Eagle, believes government is out of control and holds inflexible anti-tax, free-market views. He frequently badgers county staff. (Believe me, they deserve scrutiny, which the Eagle calls “badgering.”) Oh, and he’s ideological, too. That simply means he has “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.” As long as those ideals are oriented in favor of capitalism, economic freedom, and personal liberty, this is good. And that’s the way it is with Richard Ranzau. Would that the Wichita Eagle shared the same ideology.
I know what it is like to be on the losing side of issues year after year. Advocating for free markets and capitalism against the likes of the Wichita Eagle, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, most members of the Sedgwick County Commission, and all current members of the Wichita city council is a lonely job.
This makes it all the more remarkable that Richard Ranzau has won four consecutive elections running against not only his opponent, but also against the city’s entrenched establishment. Running against the crony establishment, that is, the establishment that campaigns against capitalism in favor of a “business-friendly” environment. The establishment that has presided over decades of sub-standard economic performance. The establishment that insisted on a sales tax that it hoped would gloss over the miserable results produced over the last two decades.
Thank goodness that defenders of capitalism are able to win an election now and then — or four in a row.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll look at the results of the Wichita sales tax election and what might happen next. Then, we’ll evaluate the Wichita Eagle’s coverage during the campaign. Also, this election raised issues of the privacy of voter data. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 65, broadcast November 16, 2014.
Here’s a map I created of the “No” vote percentage by council district for the November 4, 2014 Wichita sales tax issue. To use an interactive version of this map, click here. On the interactive map you may scroll and zoom, and you may click on a district for more information.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and the city council are proud of their citizen engagement efforts. Should they be proud?
The day after the November 2014 election in which Wichita voters rejected a proposed city sales tax, Mayor Carl Brewer and most members of the Wichita City Council held a press conference to discuss the election. A theme of the mayor is that the city reached out to citizens, gathered feedback, and responded. Here are a few of his remarks:
As elected officials, it’s our duty and responsibility to listen to citizens each and every day. And certainly any and every thing that they have to say, whether we agree or disagree, is important to each and every one of us. Anytime they are able to provide us that, we should continue to try to reach out and try to find ways to be able to talk to them. …
We appreciate the engagement process of talking to citizens, finding out what’s important to them. Last night was part of that process. …
We will certainly be engaging them, the individuals in opposition. As you heard me say, the city of Wichita — the city council members — we represent everyone in the entire city. From that standpoint, everyone’s opinion is important to us. As you heard me say earlier, whether we agree or disagree, or just have a neutral position on whatever issue that may be, it is important to us, and we’re certainly willing to listen, and we certainly want their input.
So just how does Wichita city government rate in citizen involvement and engagement? As it turns out, there is a survey on this topic. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.
The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey. It also tells us that the city expects to re-survey citizens in 2014. For that year, the city has given itself the lofty target of 40 percent of citizens rating the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement as excellent or good.
In the press conference Mayor Brewer also said “We did the Facebook and we did the Twitter.” Except, the city ignored many questions about the sales tax that were posted on its Facebook wall.
Here’s another example of how the mayor and council welcome citizen involvement. Wichita participates in a program designed to produce lower air fares at the Wichita airport. It probably works. But I’ve done research, and there is another effect. As can be seen in the nearby chart, the number of flights and the number of available seats is declining in Wichita. These measures are also declining on a national level, but they are declining faster in Wichita than for the nation. See also Wichita airport statistics: the visualization and Kansas Affordable Airfares program: Benefits and consequences.
About this time Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn had appointed me to serve on the Wichita Airport Advisory Board. That required city council approval. Only one council member vote to approve my appointment. In its reporting, the Wichita Eagle said: “Mayor Carl Brewer was clear after the meeting: The city wants a positive voice on the airport advisory board, which provides advice to the council on airport-related issues. ‘We want someone who will participate, someone who will contribute,’ Brewer said. ‘We want someone who will make Affordable Airfares better, who will make the airport better. You’ve seen what he does here,’ Brewer went on, referencing Weeks’ frequent appearances before the council to question its ethics and spending habits. ‘So the question becomes, ‘Why?'”
As far as I know, I am the only person who has done this research on the rapidly declining availability of flights and seats available in Wichita. You might think the city would be interested in information like this, and would welcome someone with the ability to produce such research on a citizen board. But that doesn’t matter. From this incident, we learn that the city does not welcome those who bring inconvenient facts to the table.
Then there’s this, as Carrie Rengers reported in the Wichita Eagle in October 2013:
“I don’t normally spend this much time having a conversation with you because I know it doesn’t do any good.”
— Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to conservative blogger Bob Weeks as the two argued over cronyism during Tuesday’s City Council meeting
“I really wasn’t offended today … because the mayor’s been ruder to better people than me.”
— Weeks’ response when asked about the exchange after the meeting
At least Mayor Brewer didn’t threaten to sue me. As we’ve seen, if you ask the mayor to to live up to the policies he himself promotes, he may launch a rant that ends with you being threatened with a lawsuit.
So much for welcoming citizen engagement.
By Mike Shatz.
Despite the stunning defeat of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer’s proposed sales tax increase, and the fact that in April, Brewer’s term limit will expire, he and the City Council are determined to take action in financing the projects that the Wichita voters just shot down.
The sales tax increase was defeated by an overwhelming 62-38 percentage margin, signifying very low support for the Mayor’s plan, largely due to a severe lack of transparency in regards to economic development, and the fact that the four proposed projects (water, transit, street maintenance, and job incentives) were bundled together, forcing voters to either approve or deny the entire package.
Continue reading at Kansas Exposed.
Here’s a map I created of the vote percentage received by Republican candidates by precinct in the two Sedgwick County Commission districts that were contested. In district 4 (the northern district) the Republican Candidate was Richard Ranzau, with Melody McRae-Miller the Democratic Candidate. In district 5 (the southern district) the Republican and Democrat were Jim Howell and Richard Young, respectively.
To use an interactive version of this map, click here. On the interactive map you may zoom and scroll, and you may click on a precinct for more information about the votes for that precinct.
Campaign methods used in the recent election may spark debate on the information government makes available about voters and their voting behavior.
This election day, after voting, someone posted on their Facebook page: “I’m not comfortable with the GOP observer writing down the names of those who appear to vote.”
Elsewhere on Facebook and other online sites stories like this were common: “I received a palm card that had names and addresses of my neighbors, and whether they voted in the last four elections. This was supposed to motivate me, a woman voter, to vote. It actually freaked me out that someone is distributing that information without my consent.”
The practice referred to in the first comment — poll watching — is common and has been used for decades. The practice objected to by the second writer is new. By sending mail or email informing people of the voting practices of their neighbors, campaigns attempt to shame people into voting. Research suggests shaming is effective in motivating people to vote.
Both major parties and independent groups from all sides of the political spectrum used this technique this year.
From social media and news stories, it seems that people are surprised to learn that their voter information is a public record. It’s important to know that the contents of your ballot — that is, which candidates you voted for — is secret. Here’s what anyone can acquire in Kansas about voters (other states may be different, but I think most are similar):
Voter registration ID number, name, address, mailing address, gender, date of registration, date of birth, telephone number (if the voter supplies it; it is not required) whether the voter is on the permanent advance list, party registration, precinct number, and all the different jurisdictions the voter lives in such as city council district, county commission district, school district, Kansas House and Senate districts, and others.
Then, for each election you can learn whether the voter voted, and by which method (mail, advance in person, polling place). For primary elections, you can learn whether the voter selected a Republican or Democratic ballot.
(I should mention that in Kansas this information is supplied in a clumsy format that is difficult to use. I’ve developed procedures whereby I restructure this data to a relational data model that allows for proper analysis.)
Other organizations may enhance these records with data of their own. For example, in the government-supplied voter file, many telephone numbers are missing. Others are out-of-date, especially as households abandon traditional telephone service for cell phones. So candidates may use services that provide telephone numbers given names and addresses. Or, organizations may add other data purchased from marketing research services, such as magazines subscribed to, etc.
It would be useful to have a debate over whether the fact of being a registered voter and the act of voting should be a public record. This is the first election where people have become widely aware of the nature of the voting information that is available, and how campaigns and advocacy groups use it. I wonder if the new awareness of the availability of this information will deter people from registering and voting?
As far as government transparency and open records is concerned, we can distinguish voting data from other government data. When we ask for records of spending, contracts, correspondence, and the like, we asking for information about government and the actions government has taken.
But voter data is information about action taken by people, not by government. There’s a difference.
Here’s a map I created of the vote percentage Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach received by precinct. To use an interactive version of this map, click here. On the interactive map you may zoom and scroll, and you may click on a precinct for more information about the votes for that precinct.
Here’s a map I created of the vote percentage Governor Sam Brownback received by precinct. To use an interactive version of this map, click here. On the interactive map you may zoom and scroll, and you may click on a precinct for more information about the votes for that precinct.
Here’s a map I created of the “No” vote percentage by precinct. To use an interactive version of this map, click here. On the interactive map you may scroll and zoom, and you may click on a precinct for more information.
Citizens want to trust their hometown newspaper as a reliable source of information. The Wichita Eagle has not only fallen short of this goal, it seems to have abandoned it.
The Wichita Eagle last week published a fact-check article titled “Fact check: ‘No’ campaign ad on sales tax misleading.” As of today, the day before the election, I’ve not seen any similar article examining ads from the “Yes Wichita” group that campaigns for the sales tax. Also, there has been little or no material that examined the city’s claims and informational material in a critical manner.
Someone told me that I should be disappointed that such articles have not appeared. I suppose I am, a little. But that is balanced by the increasing awareness of Wichitans that the Wichita Eagle is simply not doing its job.
It’s one thing for the opinion page to be stocked solely with liberal columnists and cartoonists, considering the content that is locally produced. But newspapers like the Eagle tell us that the newsroom is separate from the opinion page. The opinion page has endorsed passage of the sales tax. As far as the newsroom goes, by printing an article fact-checking one side of an issue and failing to produce similar pieces for the other side — well, readers are free to draw their own conclusions about the reliability of the Wichita Eagle newsroom.
As a privately-owned publication, the Wichita Eagle is free to do whatever it wants. But when readers see obvious neglect of a newspaper’s duty to inform readers, readers are correct to be concerned about the credibility of our state’s largest newspaper.
Citizens want to trust their hometown newspaper as a reliable source of information. The Wichita Eagle has not only fallen short of this goal, it seems to have abandoned it.
Here are some topics and questions the Eagle could have examined in fact-checking articles on the “Yes Wichita” campaign and the City of Wichita’s informational and educational campaign.
The Wichita Eagle could start with itself and explain why it chose a photograph of an arterial street to illustrate a story on a sales tax that is dedicated solely for neighborhood streets. The caption under the photo read “Road construction, such as on East 13th Street between Oliver and I-135, would be part of the projects paid for by a city sales tax.”
Issues regarding “Yes Wichita”
The “Yes Wichita” campaign uses an image of bursting wooden water pipes to persuade voters. Does Wichita have any wooden water pipes? And isn’t the purpose of the sales tax to build one parallel pipeline, not replace old water pipes? See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Water pipe(s).
The “Yes Wichita” campaign group claims that the sales tax will replace old rusty pipes that are dangerous. Is that true?
The City and “Yes Wichita” give voters two choices regarding a future water supply: Either vote for the sales tax, or the city will use debt to pay for ASR expansion and it will cost an additional $221 million. But the decision to use debt has not been made, has it? Wouldn’t the city council have to vote to issue those bonds? Is there any guarantee that the council will do that?
The “Yes Wichita” group says that one-third of the sales tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But the city’s documents cite the Kansas Department of Revenue which gives the number as 13.5 percent. Which is correct? This is a difference of 2.5 times in the estimate of Wichita sales tax paid by visitors. This is a material difference in something used to persuade voters.
The city’s informational material states “The City has not increased the mill levy rate for 21 years.” In 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen. See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Tax rates.
“Yes Wichita” says there is a plan for the economic development portion of the sales tax. If the plan for economic development is definite, why did the city decide to participate in the development of another economic development plan just last month? What if that plan recommends something different than what the city has been telling voters? And if the plan is unlikely to recommend anything different, why do we need it?
Citizens have asked to know more about the types of spending records the city will provide. Will the city commit to providing checkbook register-level spending data? Or will the city set up separate agencies to hide the spending of taxpayer funds like it has with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Corporation?
Issues regarding the City of Wichita
Mayor Carl Brewer said the city spent $47,000 of taxpayer funds to send a letter and brochure to voters because he was concerned about misinformation. In light of some of the claims made by the “Yes Wichita” group, does the city have plans to inform voters of that misinformation?
Hasn’t the city really been campaigning in favor of the sales tax? Has the city manager been speaking to groups to give them reasons to vote against the tax? Does the city’s website provide any information that would give voters any reason to consider voting other than yes?
The “Yes Wichita” group refers voters to the city’s website and information to learn about the sales tax issue. Since the “Yes Wichita” group campaigns for the sales tax, it doesn’t seem likely it would refer voters to information that would be negative, or even neutral, towards the tax. Is this evidence that the city is, in fact, campaigning for the sales tax?
The “Yes Wichita” group says that one-third of the sales tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But the city’s documents cite the Kansas Department of Revenue which gives the number as 13.5%. Which is correct? This is a difference of 2.5 times in the estimate of Wichita sales tax paid by visitors. This is a material difference in something used to persuade voters. If “Yes Wichita” is wrong, will the city send a mailer to correct the misinformation?
The city’s informational material states “The City has not increased the mill levy rate for 21 years.” But the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports show that in 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen. Is this misinformation that needs to be corrected?
The city says that the ASR project is a proven solution that will provide for Wichita’s water needs for a long time. Has the city told voters that the present ASR system had its expected production rate cut in half? Has the city presented to voters that the present ASR system is still in its commissioning phase, and that new things are still being learned about how the system operates?
The City and “Yes Wichita” give voters two choices regarding a future water supply: Either vote for the sales tax, or the city will use debt to pay for ASR expansion and it will cost an additional $221 million. But the decision to use debt has not been made, has it? Wouldn’t the city council have to vote to issue those bonds? Is the any guarantee that the council will do that?
If the plan for economic development is definite, why did the city decide to participate in the development of another economic development plan just last month? What if that plan recommends something different than what the city has been telling voters? And if the plan is unlikely to recommend anything different, why do we need it?
Citizens have asked to know more about the types of spending records the city will provide. Will the city commit to providing checkbook register-level spending data? Or will the city set up separate agencies to hide the spending of taxpayer funds like it has with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Corporation?
The “Yes Wichita” campaign uses an image of bursting wooden water pipes to persuade voters. Does Wichita have any wooden water pipes? And isn’t the purpose of the sales tax to build one parallel pipeline, not replace old water pipes? If this advertisement by “Yes Wichita” is misleading, will the city send an educational mailing to correct this?
The Yes Wichita campaign group claims that the sales tax will replace old rusty pipes that are dangerous. Is that true? If not, will the city do anything to correct this misinformation?
Campaign activity by the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation appears to be contrary to several opinions issued by Kansas Attorneys General regarding the use of public funds in elections.
While the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation presents itself as a non-profit organization that is independent of the City of Wichita, it receives 95 percent of its revenue from taxes, according to its most recent IRS Form 990. While Kansas has no statutes or court cases prohibiting the use of public funds for electioneering, there are at least two Kansas Attorney General opinions on this topic.
One, opinion 93-125, states in its synopsis: “The public purpose doctrine does not encompass the use of public funds to promote or advocate a governing body’s position on a matter which is before the electorate. However, public funds may be expended to educate and inform regarding issues to be voted upon by the electorate.”
The “governing body” in this instance is the Wichita City Council.
While some governing bodies spend taxpayer funds to present information about ballot measures, this is not the case with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. It explicitly campaigns in favor of the issue. It displays pro-sales tax campaign signs at its office. It publicly endorsed passage of the sales tax.
A more recent Kansas Attorney General opinion, 2001-13, holds this language: “While the Kansas appellate courts have not directly addressed the issue of whether public funds can be used to promote a position during an election, there are a number of cases from other jurisdictions that conclude that a public entity cannot do so.”
The opinion cites a court case: “Underlying this uniform judicial reluctance to sanction the use of public funds for election campaigns rests an implicit recognition that such expenditures raise potentially serious constitutional questions. A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several competing factions.”
The opinion reaffirms 93-125, stating: “In Attorney General Opinion No. 93-125, Attorney General Robert T. Stephan concluded that public funds may not be used to promote or advocate a city governing body’s position on a matter that is before the electorate.”
Given these Kansas Attorney General opinions, and considering good public policy, Wichita voters need to ask: Should an organization that is funded 95 percent by taxes be campaigning for a ballot issue?
By Eileen Umbehr, wife of Libertarian Candidate for Kansas Governor Keen Umbehr
November 1, 2014
As this campaign draws to a close, my heart is heavy. Not so much because Keen was treated as a second-class candidate who didn’t deserve a seat at the table with his Democrat and Republican opponents, but because of the way I’ve seen God used as a selling point in politics.
For example, Keen is solidly pro-life. He believes in freedom as long as you do not cause harm to another human being, and a baby is a human being. But because he also acknowledges the reality that unless and until Roe v. Wade is overturned women maintain their right to choose, he is not considered pro-life enough.
The issue of same-sex marriage has also been deeply divisive and been used to garner votes. How a candidate may feel about two members of the same sex uniting in marriage is separate from his or her duty as a government official to ensure that all laws apply equally to all citizens. Could the government decide not to issue gay people a license to teach, cut hair, practice law, or engage in business?
What each of us believe and the tenets we choose to follow in our private lives is a personal matter. While Keen and I are both Christians who try to live according to the principles set forth in the Bible, where we differ from many of our fellow Christians is that we don’t believe it is our right — or the government’s right — to impose any particular religious belief on anyone. Even God doesn’t do that. If He did, wouldn’t He simply force everyone to believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins so they would all go to Heaven?
Keen is a strict constitutionalist. He believes in the First Amendment right of free speech even when it means that the Phelps’ family can spew messages of hate, causing immeasurable harm to families burying their loved ones. And he believes in the Sixth Amendment right to counsel even when the accused may be guilty of a heinous crime.
When it comes to the Fourteenth Amendment, there are many who feel it should not apply to gays wanting to marry because homosexuality is classified as a sin in the Bible. But isn’t fornication and sex before marriage also classified as a sin in the Bible? And yet no one is suggesting that folks who have engaged in these acts should be denied a marriage license.
Someone posted the following statement about Keen on a liberty-based Facebook page: “Don’t be deceived, this guy is pumping for same sex marriage.” Keen posted the following reply: “I am not ‘pumping’ for same sex marriage, I am ‘pumping’ for adhering to the Constitution which requires equal protection under the law. As long as the State of Kansas is in the business of issuing licenses — whether they be drivers’ licenses, marriage licenses or business licenses — they cannot discriminate against individuals on the basis of religion, gender, or race. How each individual chooses to live their lives is their business, not the government’s.”
In conclusion, if we really want to protect religious freedom in our country, then we should elect candidates who will defend the rights of all citizens to practice whichever religion they choose. That is true religious liberty.
But then, a candidate like that wouldn’t be considered Christian enough.
The “Yes Wichita” campaign group makes a Facebook post with false information to Wichita voters. Will Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer send a mailer to Wichitans warning them of this misleading information?
Here’s a post from the “Yes Wichita” Facebook page. This group campaigns in favor of the one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax that is on the November ballot.
The claim made in this post is incorrect and misleading.
The sales tax plan regarding water calls for the augmentation of one pipe, as shown in this table from the city’s plan. The plan does not say, or imply, replacing pipes, as this advertisement indicates.
The plan also says that sales tax revenue “Builds an additional pipeline.” Not “Replace 60 year old water pipes” as promoted to voters by “Yes Wichita.” The plan builds an additional parallel pipeline.
Plus, the pipe that is the subject of the city’s water plan is 60 years old, but there is no indication that it needs replacement.
This isn’t the first time “Yes Wichita” has tried to mislead Wichita voters on the replacement of water pipes. See Misleading Wichita voters on water pipes.
At a forum on October 28, “Yes Wichita” co-chair Moji Fanimokun told the audience that “Property taxes haven’t been raised in over 21 years in Wichita.”
This claim — that the mill levy has not been raised for a long time — is commonly made by the city and “Yes Wichita” supporters. It’s useful to take a look at actual numbers to see what has happened.
In 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen, contrary to the claims of “Yes Wichita.”
Apart from the focus on the mill levy, voters may want to know that the dollars of property tax the city collects has risen. This growth comes from new property being created (although old property disappears, too), and from increases in assessed value of existing property. From 1994 to 2011 property tax revenue increased from $58.672 to $119.745 million, or 104 percent. We didn’t experience anything near that rate of growth in the combination of population or inflation. It’s true that these values have slowed in growth or even declined in recent years. But that’s a symptom of the problem: When tax revenue increases, so to does spending, and we become accustomed to a certain level. When revenue increases don’t keep pace with history, government finds it difficult to make the necessary cuts.
This is awkward.
The material below is from the agenda for the October 28, 2014 Wichita City Council meeting. It appeared on the consent agenda, which means it was handled in bulk with other items. The meeting minutes don’t show that there was any discussion on this item.
Without some background information, it may be difficult to interpret this material, so I’ll do it for you.
There is a company in Wichita named High Touch Technologies. Last year it asked the city council for relief from paying property taxes and sales taxes to help pay for the renovation of its headquarters building. Now it has asked for an extension of this tax relief period.
Shortly after receiving the tax exemptions the company CEO — a man named Wayne Chambers — became chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.
This year the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce is campaigning for a higher sales tax in Wichita.
Did you know that Kansas is one of only 14 states that apply sales tax to groceries? And that only Mississippi has a higher statewide sales tax rate on groceries than does Kansas?
I told you this is awkward.
Here’s an excerpt from the relevant city document.
On November 19, 2013 the City Council approved a one-year Letter of Intent for the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds (“IRBs”) in an amount not to exceed $2,000,000 for the purpose of financing the cost of acquiring and remodeling a 106,000 square foot office building located at 110 S. Main in downtown Wichita, for use as a corporate headquarters for High Touch. One Twenty South Main, LLC is the real estate holding entity that acquired the building and will sublease space to High Touch. One Twenty South Main, LLC originally intended to finance the acquisition and renovation with one bond issue. It is now planning on two bonds issues, one in late 2014 and one in late 2015. The first bond issue will finance the acquisition of the building and repairs to the elevators. The second will finance the cost of tenant improvements to occur in 2015. No additional bonding capacity is being requested. The current Letter of Intent and sales tax exemption expire November 19, 2014. One Twenty South Main, LLC is requesting an extension of the Letter of Intent and the sales tax exemption through December 31, 2015 to accommodate all work contemplated as part of this project.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is concerned about misinformation being spread regarding the proposed Wichita sales tax.
In November Wichita voters will decide whether to create a sales tax of one cent per dollar. The largest intended purpose of the funds is to create a new water supply. Set aside for a moment the question whether Wichita needs a new water source. Set aside the question of whether ASR is the best way to provide a new water source. What’s left is how to pay for it.
In its informational material, the city presents two choices for paying for a new water supply: Either (a) raise funds through the sales tax, or (b) borrow funds that Wichitans will pay back on their water bills, along with a pile of interest.
As you can see in the nearby material prepared by the city, the costs are either $250 million (sales tax) or $471 million (borrow and pay interest). The preference of the city is evident: Sales tax. The “Yes Wichita ” group agrees.
Are there other alternatives to these two choices? Could we raise the funds through water bills over the same five-year period as the proposed sales tax? Would this let commercial and industrial water users participate in the costs of a new water supply?
Last week I posed this question at a Wichita water town hall meeting. Wichita Director of Public Works Alan King responded yes, this is possible, adding “I think you’re right. I think that there’s more than one alternative to funding.” A video excerpt of this meeting is available here.
The response of the city’s public works director contradicts the possibilities the city presents to voters. Is this an example of the type of misinformation the mayor wants to clear up?
Last week Mayor Carl Brewer told the Wichita Eagle “We decided to do a mailer because there was a lot of misinformation that was going out where people didn’t quite understand what was going on. By doing the mailer, we’re able to educate everyone.”
The city spent $47,000 sending the mailer. But as we see, it has only contributed to the misinformation.
The city’s threat to voters
Here’s what is happening. City hall gives us two choices. It’s either (a) do what we want (sales tax), or (b) we’ll do something that’s really bad (borrow and pay interest). Wichita voters shouldn’t settle for this array of choices.
Let me emphasize that. The city’s informational material says if voters don’t pass the sales tax, the city will do something unwise. But the city did that very same bad thing to pay for the current ASR project, that is, borrow money and pay interest. But now the city says pass the sales tax or we will do something bad to you. Pass the sales tax or the city will issue long-term debt and you will pay a lot of interest.
Pass the sales tax, or we will do again what we did to pay for the current ASR project. And that would be bad for you and the city.
Are there other alternatives for raising $250 million for a new water source (assuming it is actually needed)? Of course there are. The best way would be to raise water bills by $250 million over five years. In this way, water users pay for the new water supply, and we avoid the long-term debt that city council members and “Yes Wichita” seem determined to avoid.
Water bills would have to rise by quite a bit in order to raise $250 million over five years. The city could decide to raise rates by different amounts for different classes of water users. The city could adjust its tiered residential rate structure to be more in line with the average of other large cities. (See Wichita water rates seen as not encouraging conservation.) But the total cost of the higher water bills would be exactly the same as the cost of the sales tax: $250 million.
It’s important to have water users pay for a new water supply. The benefit is that water users will become acutely aware of the costs of a new water supply. That awareness is difficult to achieve. Many citizens are surprised to learn that the city has spent $247 million over the past decade on a water project, the ASR program. Almost all of that was paid for with long-term debt, the same debt that the city now says is bad.
Paying for a new water supply through water bills would let commercial and industrial users participate in paying the cost of the project. These water users usually don’t pay a lot of sales tax. A restaurant, for example, does not pay sales tax on the food ingredients it purchases. An aircraft manufacturer does not pay sales tax on the raw materials and component parts it buys. But these companies do have a water bill. Yet, the city recommends that low income households pay more sales tax on their groceries. The city says this is the best way to pay for a new water supply to protect our lawns and golf courses during a drought.
At two forums on the proposed Wichita sales tax, leaders of the “Yes Wichita” group provided contradicting visions for plans for economic development spending, and for its oversight.
On Tuesday the League of Women Voters — Wichita Metro sponsored a forum on the proposed one cent per dollar sales tax that appears on the November ballot. I appeared on behalf of the Coalition for a Better Wichita, a group that opposed the proposed sales tax. At the forum, a member of the audience wondered about whether proceeds of the sales tax would be given to Wichita State University. Speaking on behalf of “Yes Wichita,” one of its co-chairs Harvey Sorensen replied “there’s been no ask from Wichita State, there’s been no commitment to Wichita State.” When the questioner pushed back, Sorensen named several infrastructure needs of the WSU innovation campus that might be funded by sales tax revenue. Later, he said “there really have been no commitments” and challenged the questioner to “read me the data.” (For audio of this forum, click here.)
The next day television station KCTU sponsored a debate in which I also participated. Michael Monteferrante represented “Yes Wichita.” He is a co-chair of that campaign. In response to a question, he said of the $80 million of sales tax dollars earmarked for economic development and jobs, “32 million dollars of it will be going to Wichita State University to work on fantastic training for our workforce. Another 32 million will go to just training some of the workforce in terms of our elimination of aerospace jobs. And just 16 million of the 80 million dollars will be going to retention and jobs and areas that will require the oversight that Mr. Weeks is talking about.” (For audio of this event, click here.)
These two co-chairs of the “Yes Wichita” campaign offered contradictory answer to questions about the plans for the economic development aspect of the proposed sales tax. Coupled with Wichita’s hiring two weeks ago of a firm to form an economic development plan for Wichita, citizens are rightly concerned to doubt that the city has a plan for the sales tax.
As far as the promised oversight, citizens might also be alarmed to learn of Monteferrante’s statement that only $16 million of the spending requires oversight.
On Wednesday October 29 KCTU Television held a televised debate on the issue of the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax. Michael Monteferrante represented “Yes Wichita.” He is a co-chair of that campaign. I represented Coalition for a Better Wichita, substituting for Jennifer Baysinger, who was not able to attend. R.J. Dickens was the moderator.
This is the audio portion of the broadcast. It is about one hour in length. It represents the complete program.
On Tuesday October 28 the League of Women Voters — Wichita Metro held a lunchtime forum on the issue of the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax. Harvey Sorensen and Moji Fanimokun represented “Yes Wichita.” Both are co-chairs of that campaign. I represented Coalition for a Better Wichita, substituting for Jennifer Baysinger, who was not able to attend. Paul Babich was the moderator.
The audio presentation is about 53 minutes long. It represents the complete forum.
Following, from Kansas Senator Michael O’Donnell, a discussion of issues surrounding the proposed Wichita one cent per dollar sales tax. O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council for nearly two years before resigning to serve in the senate.
We are less than one week from an incredibly important election cycle where those of us in Wichita will vote for our future in a 4, 5 or 6 year timeframe; Governor for 4, Sales tax for 5 and Senator for 6. Before we go to the polls, the Wichita City Council needs to level with the public and answer critical questions, if not, they continue the “politics-as-usual” game that has been exhaustingly prevalent during the all-too-disappointing Brewer administration. Is City Hall hoping to “run out the clock,” praying the public will become so disengaged with the election that somehow Wichitans will think the city has been straight-forward? Maybe I am being too critical, but it’s hard not to be critical when I experienced the “you can’t fight City Hall” realities directly. I saw first-hand how City Hall can be a barrier to quality of life instead of helping to enable it. Here are a list of 5 questions — one for each year of the tax — we need to have answered (and should have had answered long ago):
As the City of Wichita recommends voters spend $250 million on the expansion of a water project, the project’s accompanying website was abandoned, and has now disappeared.
The Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) project is a Wichita water utility system. So far its cost has been $247 million. As part of the proposed Wichita one cent per dollar sales tax, another $250 million is earmarked to be spent on its expansion.
To help Wichitans learn about the ASR system, the city built a website at wichitawaterproject.org. Nearby is how the front page of that website appeared in January 2012. As you can see, it’s an attractive design. It holds much information about how ASR works and why the city says we need it.
Here’s how the same website looks today. Around the middle of October the website went “dark.” Prior to this shutdown, it appears that the last time the website was significantly updated was December 2011.
What has happened since January 2012 and now? First, a major city investment was completed. That’s Phase II of the ASR project. The ASR website says Phase II is expected to cost $220 million. But the ASR website was not updated to track the progress of Phase II during its completion and commissioning stages.
The second thing that’s happened since the ASR website was abandoned is that the city has decided that expansion of the ASR system is the best way to provide for future Wichita water supply. In November voters will decide whether a one cent per dollar sales tax will be implemented, with 63 percent of the funds used to pay for ASR expansion.
So the ASR system is important. If the city proceeds with its plan, about one-half billion dollars will have been spent on the project, plus an unknown amount of financing charges from the city’s decision to pay for the current system with long-term debt. ($500 million is about $1,300 for each Wichita resident.)
Here’s an indication of the city’s priorities. The city’s communication staff has time to produce videos about something called “Ghoulish Gala.” (It’s a fundraising event for Botanica.) The city has the time and capability to produce and post news releases on items like a Beatles tribute concert coming to Century II.
But what about something really important, like the spending of half a billion dollars on a water project? That website has been abandoned.
City Government Relations Director Dale Goter explained to me that a staff person had been updating the ASR website, but that person is no longer available.
The handling of the ASR website represents a management failure. The ASR website was attractive. It had a lot of functionality. Sites like that are somewhat complex and may require people with experience and training for their creation and updating.
But citizens need basic information about their government. Websites that are simple and functional are easy to build, maintain, and update. There are systems like wordpress.com where websites can be hosted at no charge. It takes about five minutes to take a press release or budget document and post it on a WordPress site.
But that’s not what the city decided to do. It went with a fancy design instead of a simple and functional design that could be maintained and updated by city communications or public works staff. Now, that website has disappeared, right at the time the ASR system is in the center of the news.
I wonder: Was the ASR website really needed, if the city did not care that it was abandoned?
The proposed Wichita sales tax does little to address the city’s delinquent infrastructure maintenance gap. Despite this, there are rumors of another sales tax next year for quality of life items.
Earlier this year the steering committee for the Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investments Plan delivered a report to the Wichita City Council. The report contains facts that are relevant to the proposed Wichita one cent per dollar sales tax. Voters will decide on this in November.
The most important thing Wichita voters need to know that the city is delinquent in maintaining the assets that taxpayers have purchased. The cost to remedy this lack of maintenance is substantial. On an annual basis, Wichita needs to spend $180 million on infrastructure depreciation/replacement costs. Currently the city spends $78 million on this, the presentation indicates.
The “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is given as an additional $45 to $55 million per year.
How does this relate to the proposed sales tax? Of the funds the sales tax is projected to raise over five years, $27.8 million is allocated for street maintenance and repairs. That’s $5.6 million per year.
Subtract that from what the Community Investments Plan says we need to spend on deficient infrastructure, and we’re left with (roughly) $40 to $50 million per year in additional spending on deficient infrastructure. Remember, that’s on top of ongoing infrastructure depreciation/replacement costs.
Does the proposed sales tax do anything to address those needs? Possibly. Part of the sales tax would be used to augment the large water pipeline from the Equus Beds. That pipeline is 60 years old, but there is no indication that it needs replacement. But other than that, the proposed sales tax does not address deficient maintenance.
What will the city do about this deficiency? Is it likely that Wichitans will be asked to provide additional tax revenue to address the city’s deficient infrastructure? So far, city hall hasn’t asked for that, except for recommending that Wichita voters approve $5.6 million per year for streets from a sales tax.
But if we believe the numbers in the Community Investments Plan, we should be prepared for city hall to ask for much more tax revenue. That is, if the city is to adequately maintain the things that taxpayers have paid to provide.
Besides this maintenance backlog, there are other calls for new city spending.
Earlier this year the city council considered various proposals for spending a new source of tax money. Four survived the discussion and will be the recipient of sales tax funds, if Wichita voters approve. Those needs are a new water supply, jobs and economic development, transit, and street maintenance and repair.
There were proposals that did not make the, generally in the category of “quality of life” facilities. These include a new convention center, new performing arts center, new central library, newly renovated Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, renovation of the Dunbar Theater, renovation of O.J. Watson Park, and help for the homeless.
Evidently there are many who are not happy that these proposals will not receive sales tax money. Rumors afloat that groups — including city officials — are plotting for another sales tax increase to fund these items.
People are rightly concerned that even though the proposed Wichita sales tax ordinance specifies an end to the tax in five years, these taxes have a way of continuing. The State of Kansas recently had a temporary sales tax. It went away, but only partly. The Kansas state sales tax rate we pay today is higher than it was before the start of the “temporary” sales tax.
But the people who want to spend your tax dollars on these “quality of life” items aren’t content to wait five years for the proposed sales tax to end before asking for their share of sales tax revenue. They are plotting to have it start perhaps one year from now.
These are things that Wichita voters need to consider: There is a backlog of maintenance, and there is appetite for more tax revenue so there may be more government spending. Even if the sales tax passes, these remain unfulfilled.
To pay for a new Wichita water supply, the city gives voters two choices. Either (a) vote for a sales tax, or (b) the city will issue long-term debt and the city will have to pay an additional $221 million in interest expense.
Are there alternatives, such as raising the funds through water bills over the same five-year period as the proposed sales tax? Would this let commercial and industrial water users participate in the costs of a new water supply?
In this excerpt from a water town hall meeting, Wichita Director of Public Works Alan King responds. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.
What is Wichita gaining with a new water supply? Is a new supply needed for basic uses such as household, commercial, and industrial? At a town hall meeting on water issues, Wichita Director of Public Works Alan King explains.
The expansion of the Aquifer Storage and Recovery project, or ASR, is the largest planned use of the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax.
Of note, the proposed water supply provides protection for what is called a one percent drought. There is debate as to whether the city should prepare for a two percent drought instead.
View a video excerpt of the meeting below, or click here to view at YouTube.
Last week the City of Wichita held a town hall meeting on water issues. The issue is ripe because the city has placed a one cent per dollar sales tax on the November ballot. The largest share of the revenue, 63 percent, is earmarked for expansion of the Aquifer Storage and Recovery project, or ASR.
I appeared at the meeting and expressed my concerns regarding things I had recently learned, which is that we’ve cut expectations for ASR production in half. Also, ASR is still in commissioning stage.
Alan King, Director of Public Works for the City of Wichita, said the individual components of the ASR systems have been tested, and that the tests have been successful. He confirmed that the original estimates of production were too high.
We also learned that there have been days where there was sufficient water in the Little Arkansas River to draw from it, but that sometimes the levels of bromide or atrazine have been too high, and the water could not be used.
View a video excerpt of the meeting below, or click here to view at YouTube.
In an advertisement in the Wichita Eagle and in a mailer sent to Wichita voters, the “Yes Wichita” group makes a series of statements regarding plans for a new water supply. It’s important that Wichita voters be aware of the complete facts and context of these claims so that they make an informed decision on how to vote.
The city has proposed a one cent per dollar sales tax. The largest portion — 63 percent or $250 million — is earmarked for a new water supply. Voters will see this question on the ballots for the November 4, 2014 election.
Here’s what the “Yes Wichita” group has stated under the heading “The Plan For Affordable Long-term Water Supply” along with what voters also need to know.
Save taxpayers $221 million over 20 years in costs. This statement is true only if the Wichita city council decides to pay for ASR expansion by using long-term debt. That decision has not been made. Besides that, there are other ways to raise this money. And if using debt for water projects is bad, why did the city borrow over $200 million for the current ASR project, and hundreds of millions for other water projects? See By threatening an unwise alternative, Wichita campaigns for the sales tax.
Replace 60 year old aging pipelines so water is transported safely. The sales tax plan for water calls for the augmentation of one pipe, as shown in the city’s plan. Not replacing pipes plural, as this advertisement indicates. Plus, the pipe that is the subject of the city’s water plan is 60 years old, but there is no indication that it needs replacement.
Tourists, visitors and renters help pay for our water. This is true. It is also true that if funds were raised through higher water bills, these people would also pay. Also, city documents regarding the sales tax state: “The State of Kansas estimates that 13% of sales taxes paid in the Wichita area are paid by non-residents based on a report at www.ksrevenue.org/pullfactor.html.” But at the “Yes Wichita” website, there is a different claim: “If we fund a new water source through a sales tax instead of water bills or property taxes, visitors and tourists will pay the sales tax, reducing the burden of this cost to Wichitans by about one-third.” Which is it? 13 percent, or 33 percent? Will “Yes Wichita” show us their figures or provide a reference for the basis of this claim?
Prevent future high water rate increases. This is true. If we experience a prolonged drought, water rates would have to rise to cover the fixed costs of the water utility. That is, if we have such a drought. That may not happen, or it may not happen for many years.
Fund ASR improvements which would provide new wells and a water storage site. This is true. What’s left is to decide whether making these additional investments in the ASR project is wise. We’ve learned that the expectations of ASR have been cut in half. We’ve learned that the ASR project is still in its commissioning phase, and it has not been turned loose for actual production for any significant period. I do not believe we have enough knowledge and experience to judge the success or failure of ASR. See Should Wichita expand a water system that is still in commissioning stage?
This is the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. It routinely advocates for special deals whereby downtown developers don’t have to pay property taxes or sales taxes. Or if they do pay property taxes, they might be routed back to them for their exclusive benefit. But as you can see, WDDC campaigns for low-income households to pay more sales tax on groceries.
Say, did you know that WDDC is funded almost entirely with tax money? And that it wants to spend that money in secret?
This is the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. It routinely advocates for special deals whereby businesses don’t have to pay taxes. Sometimes it arranges cash grants and tax credits for companies. But as you can see by the Yes Wichita sign in the window, the Wichita Chamber campaigns for low-income households to pay more sales tax on groceries.
Here’s a still image from a “Yes Wichita” television advertisement. This group campaigns in favor of the one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax that is on the November ballot.
This image misleads voters in two ways, one which is significant.
First, Wichita doesn’t have wooden water pipes, as shown in this advertisement.
Second, the sales tax plan calls for the augmentation of one pipe, as shown in the city’s plan. Not replacing pipes plural, as this advertisement indicates.
Plus, the pipe that is the subject of the city’s water plan is 60 years old, but there is no indication that it needs replacement.
Here’s a snippet from a recent “Yes Wichita” advertisement and mailer. This group campaigns in favor of the one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax that is on the November ballot.
Following is the entire quote from the Wichita Eagle story. I’ve used bold type for the parts that the advertisement used. Everything else was discarded. Do you think it is misleading to leave out the part about how a significant portion of the rate increase will happen regardless of the sales tax vote?
“Without the sales tax, water rates would have to increase 32 percent over the next four years to pay for expansion at the city’s Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) facility northwest of Wichita. That would set the rates high enough so the city could start making bond payments in 2018, Public Works and Utilities Director Alan King said.
That increase would be on top of projected water rate increases totaling nearly 20 percent over the next four years to meet regular maintenance needs of the existing infrastructure.
So the total rate increase for the water base charge would be nearly 52 percent by 2018.”
Why is the City of Wichita spending taxpayer money mailing to voters who don’t live in the city and can’t vote on the issue?
A resident of Bel Aire thought it was curious that she received an informational mailing regarding an issue she can’t vote on. The issue is the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax that is on the November ballot.
What is curious about her receiving this mail about the Wichita sales tax? She can’t vote on this issue because she lives in Bel Aire, not in Wichita. Only those voters who live in Wichita will have the question on their ballots. Bel Aire is a nice town, but it is not Wichita.
So why did the City of Wichita spend tax dollars informing residents of Bel Aire about an issue on which they may not vote?
Many Wichitans question whether the city should have spent tax dollars on this mailer. Especially when it’s pretty clear that the material is designed to encourage citizens to vote in favor of the tax.
(If you doubt whether the city’s educational material is advocating for passage of the sales tax, consider this: The “Yes Wichita” group campaigns for passage of the tax. This group refers voters to the city’s website to learn about the issue. “Yes Wichita” would not do that if the city’s material contained anything that might discourage a “Yes” vote.)
I’ve been involved in political campaigns. I’ve always been quite careful to send mail only to those voters who live in the relevant jurisdiction. That is, I don’t waste donors’ money mailing to people who are not able to vote for my candidate.
The return address on this envelope indicates the mail came from the Office of the Mayor. So may I ask, Mayor Carl Brewer, why are you wasting taxpayer money sending mail to people who can’t vote on this issue?
Here’s a large sign that urges Wichita voters to approve a higher sales tax. This sign is located on the property of a restaurant that’s part of a chain. Its president actively campaigns for the higher sales tax. Say, did you know that restaurants do not pay sales tax on the food they purchase? But low-income Wichitans pay sales tax on their groceries, and at a rate that is nearly the highest in the nation. (Only 14 states have sales tax for groceries, and Kansas has the second-highest rate.)
Does this seem fair and just, that the president of a restaurant chain would campaign for higher sales tax on groceries? On top of this, almost two-thirds of the sales tax revenue would fund a project that protects wealthy neighborhoods from lawn irrigation restrictions during an extended drought. For this, low-income households are asked to pay higher sales taxes on their food.
This is Union Station in downtown Wichita. Its owner has secured a deal whereby future property taxes will be diverted to him rather than funding the costs of government like fixing streets, running the buses, and paying schoolteachers. This project may also receive a sales tax exemption. But as you can see, the owner wants low-income households in Wichita to pay more sales tax on their groceries.