Tag Archives: Government planning

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1962

Economic development incentives in Wichita: A few questions

Wichita justifies its use of targeted economic development incentives by citing benefit-cost ratios that are computed for the city, county, school district, and state. If the ratio exceeds a threshold, the project is deemed worthy of investment.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1962The process assumes that these benefit-cost ratios are valid. This is far from certain, as follows:

1. The benefits in the calculation are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of projected higher tax revenues collected by governments. This is very different from the profits that private sector companies earn from their customers in voluntary market transactions.

2. Even if government collects more tax by offering incentives, it should not be the goal of government to grow just for the sake of growing.

3. Government claims that in order to get these “benefits,” incentives are necessary. But often the new economic activity (relocation, expansion, etc.) would have happened without the incentives.

4. Why is it that most companies are able to grow without incentives, but only a few companies require incentives? What is special about these companies? Why do some companies receive incentives year after year?

5. If the relatively small investment the city makes in incentives is responsible for such wonderful outcomes in terms of jobs, why doesn’t the city do this more often? If the city has such power to create economic growth, why is anyone unemployed?

For Wichita, policies are made to be waived and ignored

The City of Wichita says it wants policies to be predictable and reliable, but finds it difficult to live up to that goal.

From 2009, an example of how the City of Wichita makes policy on the fly to suit the current situation. The policy change benefited a building developed by “The Minnesota Guys,” who, since the time of this article, fell into disfavor with pretty much everyone in Wichita, including the city council.

When the Lofts at St. Francis needed routine repairs, the city waived policies to use special assessment financing.
When the Lofts at St. Francis needed routine repairs, the city waived policies to use special assessment financing.
Regarding public policy, this episode illustrated the city broadening the application of special assessment financing. Traditionally special assessment financing has been limited to instances such as the city building streets and sewers in new areas of town, allowing commercial and residential property owners to repay the costs over 15 years. But the item approved by the council at this meeting was for repair of existing buildings, not construction of new infrastructure. Additionally, the work financed by the special assessment taxes will be owned by the private property owners. When the city uses special assessment financing to build streets and sewers in new neighborhoods the city owns this infrastructure, even though it is paid for by nearby property owners.

To approve this financing, the city had to bend or waive two policies. That’s problematic, as the city tells citizens it wants policies and council behavior to be consistent and predictable. Although this incident is from five years ago, not much has changed since then. See Wichita: No such document for an example from last year. Following is Wichita special assessments for repairs is bad policy. Other articles on this topic are In Wichita, waiving guidelines makes for bad policy and At Wichita city council, special pleading of selfish interests.

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At Tuesday’s meeting (August 18, 2009) of the Wichita City Council, a privately-owned condominium association is seeking special assessment financing to make repairs to its building. In order for the association to succeed in its request, the council will have to waive two guidelines of Wichita’s facade improvement program.

Special assessment financing means that the cost of the repairs, up to $112,620 in this case, will be added to the building’s property taxes. Actually, in this case, to each of the condominium owners’ taxes. They’ll pay it off over the course of 15 years. (A conversation with the president of the homeowners association brought out the possibility that the actual assessment may be in the neighborhood of $75,000.)

So the city is not giving this money to the building’s owners. They’ll have to pay it back. The city is, however, setting new precedent in this action.

Special assessment financing has traditionally been used to fund infrastructure such as streets and sewers, and new infrastructure at that. The city, under its facade improvement program, now allows this type of financing to be used to make repairs and renovations to existing buildings. That’s if the building is located in one of the politically-favored areas of town.

By using special assessment financing in this way, the city seeks to direct investment towards parts of town that it feels doesn’t have enough investment. This form of centralized government planning is bad public policy. The city should stop doing this, and let people freely choose where to invest.

Besides this, two guidelines in the city’s facade improvement program must be waived for this project to obtain special assessment financing.

The first is the private investment match. This is designed to ensure that the property owners have “skin in the game” and that the taxes will be paid back.

Here, the city is proposing that since the building’s owners have made a past investment in this property, there’s no need to require a concurrent investment. It hardly needs to be noted that anyone who has purchased property has made a past investment in that property.

Second, facade improvement projects are required to undergo a gap analysis to “prove” the need for public financing. According to the city’s report: “This project does not lend itself to this type of gap analysis; however, staff believes that conventional financing would be difficult to obtain for exterior repairs to a residential condominium property like this.”

So the city proposes to waive this requirement as well.

There seems to me to be a defect in the manner of ownership of this building. While the homeowners association and the condominium owners might not have anticipated that repairs would be needed so soon after the building’s opening, they must have contemplated that repairs and maintenance — to either exterior or interior common areas — would be needed at some time. How does the association plan to pay for these?

So what will happen if the city council doesn’t approve the special assessment financing? The agenda report states “Each individual condo owner would be required to fund a share of the cost.”

Isn’t that what private property owners do: fund the cost of repairs to their property?

According to the Sedgwick County Treasurer’s office, the appraised values of these condos range from $103,000 to $310,200, with an average value of $201,943. The maximum amount being added to each condo’s assessment is $4,022, although the actual amount may be closer to $3,000.

That’s along the lines of what it might cost to perform a few repairs and paint a house that’s worth what these condos are worth.

Let’s ask that these owners do just what thousands of homeowners in Wichita do every year: take responsibility for the maintenance of their own property without looking to city hall for help.

Lofts at St. Francis Agenda Report 2009-08-18 by Bob Weeks

Wichita Chamber of Commerce 2013-07-09 004

A lesson for Wichita in economic development

When a prominent Wichita business executive and civic leader asked for tax relief, his reasoning allows us to more fully understand the city’s economic development efforts and nature of the people city hall trusts to lead these endeavors.

In November 2013 the Wichita City Council granted an exemption from paying property and sales tax for High Touch Technologies, a company located in downtown Wichita. This application is of more than usual interest as the company’s CEO,

High Touch, Wichita, Kansas.
High Touch, Wichita, Kansas.
Wayne Chambers, is now chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber, along with its subsidiary Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, are the main agencies in charge of economic development for the Wichita area. Under Chambers’ leadership, these organizations are recommending that the city council authorize a vote on raising the Wichita sales tax for the purposes of economic development.

Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of this company’s application and the city’s agenda packet material (available here).

In its application letter, High Touch argues as follows (emphasis added):

To demonstrate our commitment to Wichita, as well as accommodate our expected growth plans, High Touch Technologies would like to purchase a 106,000 sq. ft. building in Downtown Wichita.

At this time, High Touch Technologies is requesting your support for the issuance of approximately $2,000,000 City of Wichita, Kansas, Taxable Industrial Revenue Bonds. High Touch greatly appreciates any support we can receive on the purchase of this office building through the City’s participation of Industrial Revenue Bonds and the property tax savings associated with this financing method. We intend to continue our growth and expansion over the next several years and these benefits would be helpful in offsetting the substantial capital requirements associated with this project.

High Touch Technologies believes in Wichita and support the community and its economy through corporate stewardship programs. We look forward to working with you and Members of the Council on this project and are always available to answer questions regarding this project or any of our business activities.

Later in the letter:

The applicant agrees to enter into an agreement for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) equal to the ad valorem property tax payment amount for the 2013 tax year. The applicant respectfully requests that the payments be capped at that rate for a period of ten (10) years. The tax abatement will permit the applicant to proceed with the anticipated project, allow for its anticipated growth, and result in the public benefits otherwise outlined herein.

The issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds will be used to lower the cost of office space in the acquired building. The lower costs will give High Touch, Inc. incentive to grow its presence in the corporate office in Wichita. New employees will be added to this Wichita office instead of other offices across the U.S. The savings in office space will allow High Touch, Inc. to use those savings for expansion.

Some remarks:

To demonstrate our commitment to Wichita: This is ironic because High Touch is asking to be excused from paying the same property taxes that most other people and business firms have to pay. Instead of commitment, this demonstrates hostility to the taxpayers of Wichita, who will have to pay more so that this company can pay less.

chutzpa definition 2But that irony is surpassed by the spectacle — chutzpa — of the incoming chair of a city’s chamber of commerce threatening to move his company out of the city unless the company receives incentives.

helpful in offsetting the substantial capital requirements: Well. Who wouldn’t appreciate help in offsetting the cost of anything? We should categorize this as unpersuasive.

corporate stewardship programs: Underlying this argument is that because High Touch makes charitable contributions, it should be excused from the same tax burden that most of us face. Here’s a better argument: Be a good corporate citizen by paying your fair share of taxes. Don’t ask for others to pay your share of taxes. That will let citizens make their own charitable contributions, instead of subsidizing what Wayne Chambers want to do.

Cronyism in Wichita - High Touchanswer questions regarding this project or any of our business activities: This refers to how the members of the city council will make a judgment that this business is worthy of subsidy, and that others are not. The notion that the City of Wichita can decide which companies are worthy of tax exemptions and investment is an illustration of what economist Frederich Hayek called a “conceit.” It’s so dangerous that his book on the topic is titled “The Fatal Conceit.” The failure of government planning throughout the world has demonstrated that it is through markets and their coordination of dispersed knowledge that we best learn where to direct capital investment. It is simply impossible for this city government to effectively decide in which companies Wichitans should invest their tax dollars. Nonetheless the city council made the decision, and it wants a larger role.

Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT): High Touch is not proposing to totally escape its tax burden. Only partially so, through the PILOT. But the proposed payment is quite generous to the company. A few quick (and probably imprecise) calculations shows how small the PILOT is compared to what taxes would be. City documents indicate the proceeds of the IRBs will be used to pay for $2,000,000 of improvements. This amount of commercial property times 25% assessment ratio times 120.602 mill levy rate equals $60,301 in taxes. High Touch, through the PILOT, is proposing to pay $33,250, just a little more than half of what the taxes might be.

But the true value of the taxes being avoided is probably much higher. As an example, nearby office space is listed for sale at $28 per square foot, and that’s a distress-level price. Applying that price to this building, its value would be almost $3 million. If we look at market capitalization rates, which are generally given as from nine to eleven percent for class A space, we arrive at a much higher value: If we say $10 per square foot rental rate times 106,000 square feet at nine percent cap rate, the value would be almost $12 million. Taxes on that would be about $300,000 per year.

Wichita Chamber of Commerce 2013-07-09 004These are back-of-the-envelope calculations using assumed values that may not be accurate, but this gives an idea of what’s actually happening in this transaction: High Touch is seeking to avoid paying a lot of taxes, year after year. But by offering to pay a small fraction as PILOT, the company appears magnanimous.

payments be capped at that rate for a period of ten (10) years: High Touch proposed that what it’s paying in lieu of taxes not be subject to increases. Everyone else’s property taxes, of course, are subject to increases due to either assessed value increases or mill rate increases, or both. High Touch requests an exemption from these forces that almost everyone else faces.

lower the cost of office space: Again, who wouldn’t enjoy lower business or personal expenses? The cost of this incentive spreads the cost of government across a smaller tax base than would otherwise be, raising the cost of government for almost everyone else.

added to this Wichita office instead of other offices across the U.S.: The threat of relocation or expansion elsewhere is routinely used to leverage benefits from frightened local governments. These threats can’t be taken at face value. There is no way to know their validity.

use those savings for expansion: Implicit in this argument is that Wichita taxes prevent companies from expanding. True or not, this is a problem: If taxes are too high, we’re missing out on economic growth. If taxes are not too high, but some companies seek exemption from paying them nonetheless, that’s a problem too.

A prosperous company, establishing the template for seeking business welfare

In a December 2011 interview with the Wichita Eagle, the High Touch CEO bragged of how well the company is doing. The newspaper reported “Ask Wayne Chambers how business is, and he’s going to tell you it’s good. Very good. … Chambers said this week that after two years of robust growth, he’s looking for another one in 2012. ‘We have every reason to believe we’ll continue that growth pattern,’ he said.”

In February 2013 the Wichita Business Journal reported “It should be a great year for High Touch Inc. That’s the initial prediction of CEO Wayne Chambers, who says actions the company took during and leading up to 2012 have positioned High Touch to become a true ‘IT solutions provider.’”

If we take Chambers at his word — that his company is successful — why does High Touch need this business welfare? Economic necessity is usually given as the justification of these incentives. Companies argue that the proposed investment is not feasible and uneconomic without taxpayer participation and subsidy. I don’t see this argument being advanced in this case.

Wichita and peer per capita income, Visioneering

Interestingly, at the time of this application Chambers was co-chair of Visioneering Wichita, which advocates for greater government involvement in just about everything, including the management of the local economy. One of the benchmarks of Visioneering is “Exceed the highest of the annual percentage job growth rate of the U.S., Omaha, Tulsa, Kansas City and Oklahoma City.” As shown in this article and this video, Wichita badly lags the nation and our Visioneering peer cities on this benchmark. Visioneering officials didn’t want to present these results to government officials this year, perhaps on the theory that it’s better to ignore problems that to confront them.

Now Wayne Chambers is the chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. Under his leadership, the Chamber of Commerce recommends that Wichitans pay higher sales tax to support the Chambers’ projects.

Will this blatant cronyism be the template for future management of economic development in Wichita? Let’s hope not, as the working people of Wichita can’t tolerate much more of our sub-par economic growth.

Wichita area future water supply cover

For Wichita, water supply decisions loom

Now that the Wichita City Council has all but recommended that voters raise taxes in order to spend $250 million for water supply enhancements, citizens need to consider recent history and how current decisions are made.

Through the Community Investments Plan process and by other means, citizens have told the City of Wichita they’re concerned about future water supply.

Those who have been paying attention might be surprised that there is a water crisis. That’s because when Bob Knight was mayor, he was told that Wichita had sufficient water for the next 50 years. That was about eleven years ago.

Wichita area future water supply coverMore recently, the city prepared a document in March 2013 titled Wichita Area Future Water Supply: A Model Program for Other Municipalities. It touts an expensive investment that is part of a “plan to ensure that Wichita has the water it needs through the year 2050 and beyond.”

The project boasted of is the City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program or ASR. Its cost, so far for Phases I and II, is $247 million. According to the document, two more phases are contemplated.

City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program schematic diagram.
City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program schematic diagram.

Reading the document, published just last spring, one might be led to believe that everything is fine, water-wise: “In 1993 the Wichita City Council adopted an Integrated Local Water Supply Plan that identified cost effective water resources that would be adequate to meet Wichita’s water supply needs through the year 2050.”

But earlier this year the Wichita Eagle reported “Wichita’s $240 million aquifer storage and recovery program — promoted to taxpayers in the early 1990s as a way to supply the city with water for 50 years — could soon be relegated to serving as a bit player in the city’s long-term water future.”

Later in the same article, the newspaper reported “The ASR project has been plagued by problems, city officials said, including equipment failures and a significant drought that idled the project because of low water levels in the Little Arkansas River.”

Economic vs. political thinking

It appears the plan the city council favors is to expand the ASR project at a cost of $250 million, thereby doubling the amount spent on this project. Some council members have noted the low utilization of the ASR and see its expansion as a way to wring greater efficiency from the plant.

But this mode of thinking is not rational. What has been spent on the ASR is now properly classified as sunk costs. These are costs that have been spent and can’t be recovered. Sunk costs are not relevant to future decisions. Instead, the city needs to focus on the marginal improvements that can be made, and how to get the best value for these future costs.

That’s the economic way of making decisions. But, of course, decisions on Wichita’s future water supply are being made in the political sphere.

How did Wichita get in this position?

It’s vitally important that Wichita develop a plan for an abundant water supply. At the same time, we ought to be asking, as does Johnny Stevens, how this problem developed. The Wichita Business Journal reported this last summer:

Wichita officials — thanks to a couple of weeks of rain — said they were able this week to dodge possible water restrictions and punitive measures as a means of coping with the ongoing drought.

But Wichita developer Johnny Stevens voiced to me today something I have heard from others in the community recently.

“How did it even get to this point?” Stevens said. “It shouldn’t have gotten this far.”

Stevens thinks poor leadership is to blame and can’t understand how elected officials ever let the community seemingly come so close to the edge of such a critical issue.

He said long-term solutions are needed, but he also warns that they have to be made using solid data. Continue reading at Developer Johnny Stevens on water issue: How did it get to this?

Long-term thinking: This is not characteristic of political leaders, whose time horizon rarely extends beyond the next election season. Are there other ways to secure water for Wichita? Is Wichita considering private-sector solutions?

Wichita City Hall

Wichita develops plans to make up for past planning mistakes

On several issues, including street maintenance, water supply, and economic development, Wichita government and civic leaders have let our city fall behind. Now they ask for your support for future plans to correct these mistakes in past plans.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.
Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

In February the City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The amounts of money involved are large, and portions represent deferred maintenance. That is, the city has not been taking care of the assets that taxpayers have paid for. When Wichita city leaders ask for more taxes to pay for this lack of stewardship, citizens need to ask for better accountability than what they’ve received.

The time frame of this planning process is the period 2013 to 2035. Under the heading “Trends & Challenges” we find some troubling information. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer hinted at the problem last year in his State of the City Address when he said the city would need to spend $2.1 billion over 30 years on maintenance and replacement of water and sewer systems. The city’s performance measure report also told us that our pavement condition index has been deteriorating, and is projected to continue to decline.

So if we’ve been paying attention, it should not have been a surprise to read this in the presentation: “Decades of under-investment in infrastructure maintenance … 38% of Wichita’s infrastructure is in ‘deficient/fair’ condition.”

The cost to remedy this lack of maintenance is substantial. The document says that 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.

This is a lot of money. To place these numbers in context, here are some figures that help illustrate Wichita city finances:

Property tax collected in 2013: $105 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for fire department: $44 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for police department: $79 million

The amounts by which the city is deficient in maintaining its assets is staggering, compared to other expenses the city has. The size of the deficiency overwhelms possible sources of new revenue. A one cent per dollar increase in sales tax would not cover the deficiencies in maintaining our current assets. Then, remember the things Wichita wants to increase spending on — a new library, economic development, expanded public transit, new convention center, economic development, and perhaps other things.

The report lists three scenarios for future growth: Maintaining current trends, constrained suburban growth, and suburban and infill growth mix. Whenever we see words like “constrained” we need to be cautious. We need to be on guard. The Wichita Eagle reported this: “In the city’s recently completed series of 102 public meetings, citizens were clear, City Manager Robert Layton said: Redevelop the core. We’ve had enough suburban growth for awhile.”

It’s unclear how closely the findings from the public meetings reflects actual citizen preference. Cynics believe that these meetings are run in a way that produces a predetermined outcome aligned with what city officials want to hear. At any rate, when you ask people about their preferences, but there is no corresponding commitment to act on their proclaimed preferences, we have to wonder how genuine and reliable the results are.

There is a very reliable way to find out what people really want, however. Just let them do it. If people want to live downtown on in an inner city neighborhood, fine. If they want suburban-style living, that’s fine too. Well, it should be fine. But reading between the lines of city documents you get the impression that city planners don’t think people should live in suburban-style settings.

Community input

The survey that Wichita used has its own problems. Here’s an example of a question respondents were asked to agree or disagree with: “Local government, the school district, community organizations and the business community should work together to create an investment climate that is attractive to business.”

The meaning of an attractive investment climate means different things to different people. Some people want an investment climate where property rights are respected, where government refrains from meddling in the economy and transferring one person’s property to another. An environment free from cronyism, in other words. But the Wichita way is, unfortunately, cronyism, where government takes an active role in managing economic development. We in Wichita never know when our local government will take from us to give to politically-favored cronies, or when city hall will set up and subsidize a competitor to your business.

Wichita flights compared to the nation.
Wichita flights compared to the nation.

Sometimes the questions are misleading. A question relating to the subsidy program at the Wichita airport read “I’m willing to pay increased taxes or fees to support investment … that uses public dollars to reduce the cost and increase the number of commercial flights at Mid-Continent Airport.”

This is an example of a question which has a false premise. Since the subsidy programs have been in place, the number of flights from the Wichita airport has declined, not increased as the question would lead readers to believe. See Wichita flight options decrease, despite subsidies and Wichita airfare subsidy: The negative effects.

Leadership of city officials

On these and other issues, the Wichita Eagle quoted mayor Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”

It’s almost as if the mayor is speaking as a bystander. But he’s been mayor for nearly seven years, and was on the city council before that time. During that time, he and other city leaders have boasted of not increasing property taxes. While the property tax rate has been (fairly) stable, property tax revenue has increased due to development of new property and rising assessment values. Still, of this, the city has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. The way to interpret this is that the city has really been engaging in deficit spending under Brewer’s leadership. We didn’t spend what was needed to maintain our assets, and now the mayor tells us we need to increase spending to make up for this.

The economist Milton Friedman told us that it’s more important to look at government spending rather than the level of taxation. That’s because spending must eventually be paid for, either through current taxes or future taxation. The federal government generate deficits and can pay for spending through creating inflation. Fortunately, cities and states can’t do that.

But, as we’ve seen, cities like Wichita can incur costs without paying for them. This is a form of deficit spending. By deferring maintenance of our infrastructure, the city has pushed spending to future years. The report released in February gives an idea of the magnitude of this deferred spending: It’s huge.

This form of deficit spending is “off the books” and doesn’t appear in city financial statements. But it’s real, as the mayor now admits. The threat to our freedom to live where we want is real, too. We must be watchful and diligent.

WichitaLiberty.TV.24

WichitaLiberty.TV: Government planning, taxes, and carbon

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The document holds some facts that ought to make Wichitans think, and think hard. Then: What is the purpose of high tax rates on high income earners? Finally: Advances in producing oil and natural gas make for a more competitive and carbon-efficient economy. Episode 33, broadcast March 2, 2014. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Water faucet

Where’s Wichita’s water?

Water faucet

As part of the Community Investments Plan process, citizens have told the City of Wichita they’re concerned about future water supply.

Through both the mailed survey and direct feedback obtained in citizen forums, creating a reliable source of water was the top priority, according to city documents released this week.

Those who have been paying attention might be surprised that there is a water crisis, and that citizens are concerned. That’s because when Bob Knight was mayor, he was told that Wichita had sufficient water for the next 50 years. That was about ten years ago.

More recently, the city prepared a document last March titled Wichita Area Future Water Supply: A Model Program for Other Municipalities. It touts an expensive investment that is part of a “plan to ensure that Wichita has the water it needs through the year 2050 and beyond.”

The project boasted of is the City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program or ASR. Its cost, so far for Phases I and II, is $247 million. Two more phases are contemplated.

City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program schematic diagram.
City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program schematic diagram.

Reading the document, published just last spring, one might be led to believe that everything is fine, water-wise: “In 1993 the Wichita City Council adopted an Integrated Local Water Supply Plan that identified cost effective water resources that would be adequate to meet Wichita’s water supply needs through the year 2050.”

But this month the Wichita Eagle reported “Wichita’s $240 million aquifer storage and recovery program — promoted to taxpayers in the early 1990s as a way to supply the city with water for 50 years — could soon be relegated to serving as a bit player in the city’s long-term water future.”

Later in the same article, the newspaper reported “The ASR project has been plagued by problems, city officials said, including equipment failures and a significant drought that idled the project because of low water levels in the Little Arkansas River.”

Despite this investment on nearly one-quarter billion dollars, and despite the plan’s boasts, Wichitans have been threatened with huge fines for excessive water usage. The Wichita City Council forced citizens to spend up to $1 million so that other people may install low-water usage appliances, and city decorative fountains were dry for a time in an effort to save water. Fortunately, not all the potential rebates were claimed.

What went wrong? Where’s Wichita’s water?

Last summer there was severe drought for a time, and it was easy to attribute Wichita’s water problems to that lack of rain. But that’s not the message we’re getting now.

It appears that the plans the city made for a future water supply were not adequate, and the spending to implement the plan has been, largely, wasted.

In Wichita, citizens want more transparency in city government

Wichita city hallIn a videographed meeting that is part of a comprehensive planning process, Wichitans openly question the process, repeatedly asking for an end to cronyism and secrecy at city hall.

As part of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Comprehensive Plan, the City of Wichita held a number of focus groups meetings. Their purpose, according to city documents, was to provide “information on the components of the Plan and provide input on a draft survey.”

(Some indication of the reverence given to the plan to city planners may be inferred by the city’s use of capitalization when referring to it.)

The community meetings were structured in a way reminiscent of the Delphi method, described in Wikipedia as “a structured communication technique, originally developed as a systematic, interactive forecasting method which relies on a panel of experts.” Others have a more skeptical view, believing that the Delphi technique leads citizens to believe they have participated in community democratic decision-making when in reality, that is not the goal of the process.

In October Americans for Prosperity-Kansas invited the city to hold a focus group meeting. Video from the meeting is below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Dave Barber, who is Advanced Plans Manager at Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Department, facilitated the meeting. Susan Estes of AFP was the meeting organizer and host. Mike Shatz is the videographer. His description of the meeting is “The City of Wichita is holding a series of meetings to gain input from the public on future spending plans. The meetings are based off a survey the city conducted, which, by all accounts, was full of loaded questions geared towards promoting the programs that city officials want to see. In this meeting, one of the first in the series, citizens openly question the process and repeatedly ask for an end to cronyism and secrecy at city hall.”

In Wichita, the case for business welfare

Wichita City HallOn Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider granting an exemption from paying property and sales tax for High Touch Technologies, a company located in downtown Wichita. Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of this company’s application and the city’s agenda packet material (available here).

In its application letter, High Touch argues as follows (emphasis added):

To demonstrate our commitment to Wichita, as well as accommodate our expected growth plans, High Touch Technologies would like to purchase a 106,000 sq. ft. building in Downtown Wichita.

At this time, High Touch Technologies is requesting your support for the issuance of approximately $2,000,000 City of Wichita, Kansas, Taxable Industrial Revenue Bonds. High Touch greatly appreciates any support we can receive on the purchase of this office building through the City’s participation of Industrial Revenue Bonds and the property tax savings associated with this financing method. We intend to continue our growth and expansion over the next several years and these benefits would be helpful in offsetting the substantial capital requirements associated with this project.

High Touch Technologies believes in Wichita and support the community and its economy through corporate stewardship programs. We look forward to working with you and Members of the Council on this project and are always available to answer questions regarding this project or any of our business activities.

Later in the letter:

The applicant agrees to enter into an agreement for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) equal to the ad valorem property tax payment amount for the 2013 tax year. The applicant respectfully requests that the payments be capped at that rate for a period of ten (10) years. The tax abatement will permit the applicant to proceed with the anticipated project, allow for its anticipated growth, and result in the public benefits otherwise outlined herein.

The issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds will be used to lower the cost of office space in the acquired building. The lower costs will give High Touch, Inc. incentive to grow its presence in the corporate office in Wichita. New employees will be added to this Wichita office instead of other offices across the U.S. The savings in office space will allow High Touch, Inc. to use those savings for expansion.

Some remarks:

To demonstrate our commitment to Wichita: This is ironic because High Touch is asking to be excused from paying the same property taxes that most other people and business firms have to pay. Instead of commitment, this demonstrates hostility to the taxpayers of Wichita, who will have to pay more so that this company can pay less.

helpful in offsetting the substantial capital requirements: Well. Who wouldn’t appreciate help in offsetting the cost of anything? I think we can categorize this as unpersuasive.

corporate stewardship programs: Underlying this argument is that because High Touch makes charitable contributions, it should be excused from the same tax burden that most of us face. Here’s a better argument: Be a good corporate citizen by paying your fair share of taxes, don’t ask the city government to force be to subsidize your business, and let me make my own charitable contributions.

answer questions regarding this project or any of our business activities: This refers to how the members of the city council will make a judgment that this business is worthy of subsidy, and that others may not be. The notion that the City of Wichita can decide which companies are worthy of tax exemptions and investment is an illustration of what economist Frederich Hayek called a “conceit.” It’s so dangerous that his book on the topic is titled “The Fatal Conceit.” The failure of government planning throughout the world has taught that it is through markets and their coordination of dispersed knowledge that we learn where to direct capital investment. It is simply impossible for this city government to effectively decide which companies Wichitans should invest their tax dollars in. It will still make that decision, however.

Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT): High Touch is not proposing to totally escape its tax burden. Only partially so, through the PILOT. But the proposed payment is quite generous to the company. A few quick (and probably incorrect) calculations shows how small the PILOT is compared to what taxes would be. City documents indicate the proceeds of the IRBs will be used to pay for $2,000,000 of improvements. This amount of commercial property times 25% assessment ratio times 120.602 mill levy rate equals $60,301 in taxes. High Touch, through the PILOT, is proposing to pay $33,250, just a little more than half of what the taxes might be.

But the true value of the taxes being avoided is probably much higher. As an example, nearby office space is listed for sale at $28 per square foot, and that’s a distress-level price. Applying that price to this building, its value would be almost $3 million. If we look at market capitalization rates, which are generally given as from nine to eleven percent for class A space, we arrive at a much higher value: If we say $10 per square foot rental rate times 106,000 square feet at nine percent cap rate, the value would be almost $12 million. Taxes on that would be about $300,000 per year.

These are back-of-the-envelope calculations using assumed values that may not be accurate, but this gives an idea of what’s actually happening in this transaction: High Touch is seeking to avoid paying a lot of taxes, year after year.

payments be capped at that rate for a period of ten (10) years: High Touch proposed that what it’s paying in lieu of taxes not be subject to increases. Everyone else’s property taxes, of course, are subject to increases due to either assessed value increases or mill rate increases, or both. High Touch requests an exemption from these forces that almost everyone else faces.

lower the cost of office space: Again, who wouldn’t enjoy lower business or personal expenses? The cost of this incentive spreads the cost of government across a smaller tax base than would otherwise be, raising the cost of government for almost everyone else.

added to this Wichita office instead of other offices across the U.S.: The threat of relocation or expansion elsewhere is routinely used to leverage benefits from frightened local governments. These threats can’t be taken at face value. There is no way to know their validity.

use those savings for expansion: Implicit in this argument is that Wichita taxes prevent companies from expanding. True or not, this is a problem: If taxes are too high, we’re missing out on economic growth. If taxes are not too high, but some companies seek exemption from paying them nonetheless, that’s a problem too.

A prosperous company, establishing the template for seeking business welfare

In a December 2011 interview with the Wichita Eagle, the High Touch CEO bragged of how well the company is doing. The newspaper reported “Ask Wayne Chambers how business is, and he’s going to tell you it’s good. Very good. … Chambers said this week that after two years of robust growth, he’s looking for another one in 2012. ‘We have every reason to believe we’ll continue that growth pattern,’ he said.”

In February 2013 the Wichita Business Journal reported “It should be a great year for High Touch Inc. That’s the initial prediction of CEO Wayne Chambers, who says actions the company took during and leading up to 2012 have positioned High Touch to become a true ‘IT solutions provider.’”

If we take Chambers at his word, why does High Touch need this business welfare? Economic necessity is usually given as the justification of these incentives. Companies argue that there is no way the proposed investment is economic without taxpayer participation and subsidy. I don’t see this argument being advanced in this case.

Wichita and peer per capita income, Visioneering

Interestingly, Chambers is currently co-chair of Visioneering Wichita, which advocates for greater government involvement in just about everything, including the management of the local economy. One of the benchmarks of Visioneering is “Exceed the highest of the annual percentage job growth rate of the U.S., Omaha, Tulsa, Kansas City and Oklahoma City.” As shown in this article and this video, Wichita badly lags the nation and our Visioneering peer cities on this benchmark. Visioneering officials didn’t want to present these results to government officials this year, perhaps on the theory that it’s better to ignore problems that to confront them.

Now Chambers is slated to be the next chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. It’s quite likely that the Chamber, under his leadership, will soon recommend that Wichitans pay higher sales and/or property taxes to support the Chamber’s goals.

These are the same taxes that Chambers’ company is asking to be excused from paying. Will this blatant cronyism be the template for next year’s management of economic development in Wichita? Let’s hope not, as the working people of Wichita can’t tolerate much more of our sub-par economic growth.

Wichita and Visioneering peers job growth

Bar char statisticsVisioneering Wichita and other planning agencies take responsibility for growing the Wichita-area economy. What is the record so far?

In the following video, the record of job growth for Wichita, the nation, and our Visioneering peers (Kansas City, Omaha, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa) is presented. Data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. Visualization created using Tableau Public. Click here to use the visualization yourself, or watch the video below. (Click here to watch the video on YouTube, which may work best.)

Like it or not, we’re coming to plan for you

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
– H.L. Mencken

thinktomorrowtoday-website-2013-09-16

We’ve learned that the government planners will plan for you, whether or not you want it. Despite having voted against participation, two Kansas counties are still listed as members of a regional planning consortium. Further, a month after the Butler County Commission sent a letter asking that references to its participation be removed, its name still appears.

The new website thinktomorrowtoday.org promotes and supports the sustainable communities government planning process in South-Central Kansas. The planning effort has been rebranded as “South Central Kansas Prosperity.”

reap-website-partners-2013-09-16

In the logo, on a map, and in narrative, Butler and Sumner counties are listed as participants. But these newspaper headlines say something else about what the elected officials in these counties thought about joining the plan:

Sumner County isn’t on board with fed’s sustainable communities planning grant

Sumner County isn’t on board with fed’s sustainable communities planning grant (Wichita Eagle, July 30, 2012): “One of the counties served by a sustainable communities planning grant recently declined to be a partner in the effort, expressing concerns about federal intrusion in local government.”

Butler County decides not to support REAP planning grant

Butler County decides not to support REAP planning grant (El Dorado Times, August 23, 2012): “The issue at the center of the Butler County Commission’s discussion about a sustainable communities planning grant was local control.”

I can understand why these counties decided to opt out of the planning process and why two Sedgwick County Commissioners voted against participation.

Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole, in his book The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, explains the danger and harm of government plans. I remember two passages in particular:

Somewhere in the United States today, government officials are writing a plan that will profoundly affect other people’s lives, incomes, and property. Though it may be written with the best intentions, the plan will go horribly wrong. The costs will be far higher than anticipated, the benefits will prove far smaller, and various unintended consequences will turn out to be worse than even the plan’s critics predicted.

And this:

The worst thing about having a vision is that it confers upon the visionary a moral absolutism: only highly prescriptive regulation can ensure that the vision overcomes an uncaring populace responding to a free market that planners do not really trust. But the more prescriptive the plan, the more likely it is that the plan will be wrong, and such errors will prove extremely costly for the city or region that tries to implement the plan.

We see the vision of moral absolutism on display: Despite two counties voting against participation, their overseers will, nonetheless, create a plan for them.

It’s for their own good, after all.

Be wary of expanding Wichita transit spending

bus-moving-quickly-bus-22114_1280

Today’s Wichita Eagle carries an op-ed designed to gather support for funding an expanded Wichita regional transit system. The article is Chase M. Billingham: State should support transit. Before deciding to expand Wichita’s transit system, and especially before deciding on a new taxing scheme to fund it, we need to make sure we understand more about transit.

Here’s a claim from the op-ed that is incorrect: “Already, local revenue sources and fares account for about half of Wichita Transit’s operating budget.” That doesn’t align with figures I’ve found. In July I reported on the transit system’s finances, and found that of $13,914,580 in annual operating expenses, $5,953,042 was categorized as from fares and local source. That’s 43 percent, not really close to half. Considering fares and local support as a fraction of total spending including capital, it’s 38 percent. This data is from the National Transit Database for 2011, and is summarized in a chart at the end of this article. The Wichita city budget documents tell largely the same story.

By the way, many people would be surprised to learn of the fraction of expenses paid for through fares. Considering operating expenses only, the number is 13.5 percent. Considering operating and capital costs, just 12.1 percent comes from fare revenue. The remainder is provided by taxpayers. So when a bus rider puts a dollar in the farebox, taxpayers contribute an additional six dollars to fund the system.

Speaking of taxpayers, Billingham writes: “In recent years, generous federal funding has made up much of the rest of the budget …” It ought to be a crime to use the word generous to describe federal spending and taxation. “Generous” has to do with giving. That’s a voluntary act. The federal government has nothing to give except what it takes from others, and that is not generosity.

Why should we spend on an expanded transit system in Wichita and the region? Billingham writes: “Research has shown that robust public transit service can spur economic growth and downtown redevelopment, reduce traffic congestion, and expand residents’ access to jobs and resources.” Well, what research? There is no citation. Now, I know that newspapers don’t like to include footnotes or citations in articles. That’s too bad, as we’re left to guess from where the author drew his facts and conclusions.

Transit is an expensive way to move people. Riders spend a lot of time waiting for buses. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for economic growth. Considering downtown development: If it’s true that transit increases downtown development, that’s bad for taxpayers, as very little is done downtown without some type of taxpayer handout. People spending their own money, not someone else’s, usually choose somewhere other than downtown.

Randal O'Toole: The Best-Laid Plans

As far as expanding access to jobs: I’ve done some research. Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole, author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, writes the following regarding the tremendous boost the personal automobile has given Americans: “Since the dawn of the Republic, no invention has enhanced the quality of life of the average American as much as the mass-produced automobile. Americans today are far more mobile, they earn much higher incomes, and they have access to far more consumer goods than a hundred years ago. It is no exaggeration to attribute most of these improvements to the wide availability of automobiles.”

Owning an automobile gives people the mobility that is impossible to provide through transit, and that is very important for workers. Some examples:

“Studies show that car ownership is a significant factor in improving the employment status of welfare recipients.” (Job Access, Commute, and Travel Burden Among Welfare Recipients)

“Raphael and Rice (2002) found in their study that car ownership has a strong effect on the probability of an individual being employed as well as on the number of hours they work per week. Generally, car ownership better enables job seekers to look for jobs. They can consider work outside of regular transit service hours, and they can travel faster, more safely, and more flexibly than with public transportation.” (Transportation & Work: Exploring Car Usage and Employment Outcomes in the LSAL Data)

Also from this study: “Overall, car ownership does appear to have an important relationship to employment status, wages, and weeks worked.” And “Having a car as a primary mode of transportation makes a respondent four times as likely to be employed. Car ownership also improves earnings by several hundred dollars and increases weeks worked by up to eleven weeks.”

In the rankings of factors that are important to obtaining employment, a car was more useful than a high-school-equivalent diploma. We should be working to increase automobile ownership, especially among lower-income people. The more we tax people to provide transit, the more difficult it is for them to buy and maintain private cars.

Finally, consider this from O’Toole on the disjointed logic of transit boosters: “Transit advocates will point out that the autos driving on congested urban highways often have only one occupant. But that is exactly the point: If modern life is so decentralized that carpooling makes no sense for most commuters, how are giant buses and high-capacity trains going to work?”

The goal of the planners, of course, is for people to conform to their designs, not their own. Transit is one of the ways that planners create their dream world for us to live in. The sustainable communities planning process we’re undertaking has, as a goal, reducing the amount we drive. REAP, one of our several planning agencies, has much information about the process on its website devoted to the process, located at Sustainable Communities Grant 2011. I would especially encourage reading the document “Sustainable Communities Work Plan DRAFT.” In there you can learn of the plans to “decrease per capita Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).” This plan, if it succeeds, will harm citizens’ mobility and economic opportunities, especially for the people who need jobs most.

The sustainable communities planning process is definitely anti-automobile. One of the goals for the plan is: “Regional Transportation Plan: Develop multi-modal transportation options/programs for the region and connects housing options to emerging employment clusters.” This sounds like a good and noble idea. But in practice, government transit systems fail to produce what riders truly want and need, and are very expensive.

Wichita Transit Finances, 2011

A vision for Wichita

Wichita city hall logo

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

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

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

O’Toole visited Wichita in 2010 and presented a fascinating lecture.

The Vision of the Urbanites

By Randal O’Toole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will be a busy Tuesday in Wichita

City of Wichita logoTuesday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council is likely to take more than a few moments, as the agenda is loaded with items. The agenda packet may be viewed at this page in general, or this link specifically for the August sixth meeting.

First, there are four speakers on the public agenda, which is where citizens may sign up in advance to speak on any topic. (When speaking on specific agenda items, speakers do not need to sign up in advance, but need to stay on topic.)

Then, the city will consider a forgivable loan to Triumph Aerospace Systems, Inc., as the Sedgwick County Commission also did. Information on that item is at Why is business welfare necessary in Wichita? and Sedgwick County votes for harmful intervention.

Then, the public hearing for the formation of a new Community Improvement District (CID).

Then, selection of the developer for the west bank apartments site. This is contentious; see this reporting: Clark group says city of Wichita acted in bad faith on west-bank plans, Wichita city manager’s letter offered support for Clark plan; mayor expresses concern, Developer of Arkansas River apartment project criticizes city’s handling of proposals, and Wichita council expected to choose developer Tuesday for Arkansas River’s west bank.

Then, approval of the subsidy for discount carriers at the Wichita airport. The goal of this program, the Affordable Airfares program, is usually stated as “to provide more air flight options, more competition for air travel, and affordable airfares for Kansas.” Fares are probably lower — there’s no way to tell what they would be without this program — but this is certain: The number of available flights and seats available to Wichita flyers is declining, and at a rate faster than that of the nation. See here for an interactive visualization and discussion.

Then, a public hearing on the Request for Resolution of Support for Application for Housing Tax Credits; Market and Main Apartments.

Then, a proposal to grant a cash subsidy to United States Bowling Congress, Inc. so that Wichita can host the 2019 Tournament. City documents state “For cities to be competitive they must not only sell USBC on the merits of the community but be willing to offer financial support.” The amount contemplated is $650,000.

Then, a public hearing on the 2013 budget.

The council will receive the annual report on the city’s retirement plans. This has been placed on the consent agenda, meaning there will be no discussion unless a council member requests.

There’s more, but these are the major items affecting the economy, jobs, prosperity, and economic freedom. And to top it off, at the start of the meeting the mayor will proclaim this as National Clown Week. Really.

Southeast High School decision a test of beliefs

One aspect of the decision whether Wichita High School Southeast should be moved or renovated in place is this: What about the environment?

We haven’t heard much about this, however. But there are many in Wichita that advocate against urban sprawl. The proposal to move Southeast High from its present location to a proposed site on the fringes of Wichita: This defines urban sprawl.

There are also many in Wichita who support the sustainable communities initiative. A core tenet is that we’re spending too much on carbon-spewing transportation. The language is couched as “energy use and climate change,” but the clear meaning is that we’re burning too much gasoline and diesel fuel.

Which is, of course, what powers school buses and cars. It’s undeniable that moving Southeast High Schools will result in increased transportation by auto and bus, and fewer students commuting to school by foot.

moving-southeast-high-school

Moving a school from a high-density urban location to a low-density suburban area: Isn’t this contrary to good urban planning? At least good urban planning as defined by the anti-sprawl, pro-sustainable communities crowd?

To be sure, the Southeast decision is up to the board members of USD 259, the Wichita public school district. Many of them subscribe to the “green” agenda.

Then, where are the members of the Wichita City Council and Sedgwick County Commission who voted for the sustainable communities initiative? The bureaucrats from the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs at Wichita State University who are managing the process?

If these people really believe in their anti-sprawl, anti-fossil fuel, pro-sustainable communities agenda, they need to make themselves heard on this issue.

Wichita needs more, and willing, taxpayers

What is the goal of Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investments Plan?

And what of its companion websites for the South Central Kansas Prosperity Plan: Think Tomorrow Today and Let’s Talk Prosperity?

Here’s an excerpt from “Citizen Attachment: Building Sustainable Communities,” which appeared in Government Finance Review. Authors are Mark A. Glaser, Misty R. Bruckner, and Corinne Bannon, all associated with the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs at Wichita State University. HWS is facilitating the planning process for the city and county.

citizen-attachment-cover

(Nearby is the illustration used for the cover of this paper (click on it for a larger version). Does anyone else think this looks like citizens rallying to send money to the shining government headquarters high on the hill?)

Increasingly, citizens are retreating from their responsibilities to community and demanding more from government than they are willing to pay for. But changes in local government behavior can be instrumental in reversing this trend, by strengthening citizens’ commitment to the well-being of their communities. Citizens who are committed to community are more willing to accept responsibility for the well-being of their fellow citizens and are also more likely to join with government and other parties to improve their communities. Citizens who are committed to community are also more willing taxpayers — that is, when government demonstrates that it can be trusted to invest public resources in ways that strengthen the community. The central thrust of this model is getting citizens and governments to work together, but realistically, many communities will require new revenue — including additional tax dollars — if they are to assemble the critical mass of resources necessary for meaningful change. Accordingly, citizens who are willing to pay increased taxes are an important component of building sustainable communities.

More willing taxpayers.

Citizens who are willing to pay increased taxes.

I recommend you read this paper. Click on Citizen Attachment: Building Sustainable Communities.

REAP: We’ll plan for you, like it or not

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
– H.L. Mencken

We’ve learned that the government planners will plan for you, whether or not you want it. Despite having voted against participation, two Kansas counties are still included in a regional planning consortium.

South Central Kansas Prosperity

The new website thinktomorrowtoday.org promotes and supports the sustainable communities government planning process in South-Central Kansas. The planning effort has been rebranded as “South Central Kansas Prosperity.”

In the logo, on a map, and in narrative, Butler and Sumner counties are listed as participants. But these newspaper headlines say something else about what the elected officials in these counties thought about joining the plan:

Sumner County isn’t on board with fed’s sustainable communities planning grant

Sumner County isn’t on board with fed’s sustainable communities planning grant (Wichita Eagle, July 30, 2012): “One of the counties served by a sustainable communities planning grant recently declined to be a partner in the effort, expressing concerns about federal intrusion in local government.”

Butler County decides not to support REAP planning grant

Butler County decides not to support REAP planning grant (El Dorado Times, August 23, 2012): “The issue at the center of the Butler County Commission’s discussion about a sustainable communities planning grant was local control.”

I can understand why these counties decided to opt out of the planning process and why two Sedgwick County Commissioners voted against participation.

Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole, in his book The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, explains the danger and harm of government plans. I remember two passages in particular:

Somewhere in the United States today, government officials are writing a plan that will profoundly affect other people’s lives, incomes, and property. Though it may be written with the best intentions, the plan will go horribly wrong. The costs will be far higher than anticipated, the benefits will prove far smaller, and various unintended consequences will turn out to be worse than even the plan’s critics predicted.

And this:

The worst thing about having a vision is that it confers upon the visionary a moral absolutism: only highly prescriptive regulation can ensure that the vision overcomes an uncaring populace responding to a free market that planners do not really trust. But the more prescriptive the plan, the more likely it is that the plan will be wrong, and such errors will prove extremely costly for the city or region that tries to implement the plan.

We see the vision of moral absolutism on display: Despite two counties voting against participation, their overseers will, nonetheless, create a plan for them.

It’s for their own good, after all.

Without government, there would be no change: Wichita Mayor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, August 12, 2008:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language makes a difference

No longer is it “Sustainable Communities.” Now it’s “South Central Kansas Prosperity Plan.” Either way, the program is still centralized government planning, with great potential to harm our economy and liberties.

South Central Kansas Prosperity Plan

The newly-renamed planning initiative has a new website set to launch in a few days — Let’s Talk Prosperity.

But no matter how politicians and bureaucrats dress it up, we need to remember the roots of this program. It took from 1987 to 2012, but Sedgwick County actually adopted the language of the United Nations regarding sustainability.

Those critical of sustainability planning are concerned that engaging in the practice has the potential to import harmful policies and practices originating from the United Nations. Critics of these critics say this is nonsense and overreacting. Tin-foil hat stuff, they say. Examples as reported in the Wichita Eagle come from Commissioner Dave Unruh and Commission Chair Tim Norton:

Unruh said he sees the grant simply as an “effort to make decisions about our future for us and our future generations that will save money, conserve resources and be the best solutions for all the folks in our region.” …

Norton said he sees the grant as a way to “look to the future, try to figure out best possible outcomes and make decisions today that will be good for tomorrow.”

“We’re all in this together. You may not like the federal government. You may not like the state government. You may not even like the local government. But I like being at the table and being involved in the future.”

He dismisses any connection to Agenda 21.

“It was a non-binding agreement passed during the first Bush era,” he said of former president George H.W. Bush. “I don’t rail on President Bush because it happened on his watch. I’m not twitchy about it. I’m not worried about it.”

It’s instructive to notice, however, that the language Sedgwick County uses when considering sustainability comes directly from the United Nations. General Assembly Resolution 42/187: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development holds this language: “Believing that sustainable development, which implies meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, should become a central guiding principle of the United Nations, Governments and private institutions, organizations and enterprises.” (emphasis added)

Sedgwick County’s Sustainability Page holds this: Definition of Sustainability for Sedgwick County … Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs … (emphasis added)

Sedgwick County left out the word “own,” but otherwise the language is identical. This definition was repeated on the county’s 2012 Employee Sustainability Survey.

The Sedgwick County page — and other county documents — mention economic development, environmental protection, institutional and financial viability, and social equity as “the four core factors that Sedgwick County considers when making community policy and program management decisions.” These goals are often mentioned in Agenda 21 documents, especially social equity.

Wichita sees results of new economic development policy

The first action under a new Wichita economic development policy doesn’t produce economic growth, and in fact, harms the Wichita economy.

Government takes and gives

A feature of Wichita’s recently-revised economic development policy grants property tax and sales tax forgiveness for speculative industrial buildings. These are buildings built without having a tenant in place. The proposed plan had a formula that grants a higher percentage of tax forgiveness as building size increases, but the council eliminated that and voted a 100 percent tax abatement for all buildings larger than 50,000 square feet.

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

The city hopes that these incentivized buildings will generate new jobs in Wichita. But there appears to be nothing in the policy that prevents existing Wichita companies from moving to these buildings. If this happens, it doesn’t create any new jobs. The company that moves will save a lot in property taxes. Some other landlord in Wichita will have empty space, not through his own fault, but because of Wichita city policy.

This is what has happened. The first tenant for the first building built under this incentive policy is a company already in Wichita. It’s simply moving its existing operations within the city. The Wichita Business Journal reports that an existing Wichita company will vacate its current space to move in to the new building. It will use about one-third of the available space. (Big industrial spec building signs first tenant)

(Paying less in property taxes is good, as money remains in the private sector instead of being transferred to government. But city hall doesn’t believe this. Politicians and bureaucrats want to increase the tax base, but here is an example of giving it away.)

Will the owners of speculative buildings rent only to companies newly moving to Wichita, or will they rent to whoever is willing to pay? Will Wichita companies want to move to a new building with cheaper rent? We now have answers to these questions. So far, the city’s new policy has simply moved jobs from one location to another, creating no new jobs. It has harmed landlords with existing buildings.

Existing industrial landlords in Wichita — especially those with available space to rent — must be wondering why they attempt to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage.

Citizens must wonder about equality. A principle of taxation is that everyone pays equally, and that policy should be applied uniformly. But this program creates a special class of landlords and tenants who do not have to bear their full share of the cost of city, county, school district, and state government.

Do incentives work?

We must ask ourselves what do we really get for the cost of incentives. Alan Peters and Peter Fisher wrote an academic paper titled The Failures of Economic Development Incentives, published in Journal of the American Planning Association. A few quotes from the study, with emphasis added:

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

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

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

In 2008 Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit investigated spending on economic development. It found about the same as did Peters and Fisher.

There is one incentive that can be offered to all firms: Reduce tax costs for all. The Tax Foundation report from last year should be a shrill wake up call to the city and state that we must change our ways.

There is a lesson to be learned: Economic development incentives have a cost. Other businesses (and people) have to pay these costs. That only increases the motivation to seek incentives from the city and state. In fact, it may make it necessary to receive subsidies in order to be competitive with those companies who have incentives.

All this raises the cost of government. It’s a spiral that leads to ever-increasing control of economic activity by city hall. If all this produced results, that would be one thing. But Wichita has been lagging in economic growth for many years. The results of the first project undertaken under a new Wichita economic development policy holds clues as to why Wichita lags behind.

Wichita needs to build a dynamic economy that is based on free enterprise and entrepreneurship rather than government planning and handouts. This is the way we can have organic and sustainable economic development that will increase jobs and prosperity for everyone.

Government planning, itself, is dangerous

The very existence of a government plan is dangerous, as its construction creates powerful constituencies that have shaped it to fit their needs and are highly motivated to see it implemented.

Planning

In Sunday’s Wichita Eagle, Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton defended the regional community planning initiative underway in south-central Kansas. (Tim Norton: Planning effort helps shape region’s future)

Much of the Commissioner’s article simply described the program and the need for it in vague generalities that are neither correct or incorrect, and which do little to advance understanding of what is really likely to happen.

But Norton did write something useful when he attempted to deflect the fact that this is a government plan, backed by the ability of government to compel compliance (or make it very expensive to avoid). He wrote: “This is not about any one governing body or level of government imposing or mandating what we should do. It is about what we decide collectively is best for our region and then choosing to make it happen.”

When the Sedgwick County Commission voted to participate in this HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant, some commissioners justified their votes in favor of the plan because “it’s only a plan.” If we develop a plan, and then we find we don’t like it, we can shelve it. Problem solved.

This meme of “it’s only a plan” that can be shelved is likely to be repeated. Watch for it.

Except: By shelving time, millions will have been invested in the plan. Reputations like Norton’s will depend on adopting the plan. Bureaucratic jobs will be at stake (See Sedgwick County considers a planning grant for an explanation of how planning help make work for bureaucrats and academics.)

Besides boosting the interests of politicians and bureaucrats, the government planning process started in south-central Kansas will likely be captured by special interest groups that see ways to benefit from the plan. The public choice school of economics and political science has taught us how special interest groups seek favors from government at enormous costs to society, and we will see this at play again over the next years.

Once the planning process begins, special interests plot to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. We saw this at work in the first project to emerge after the Wichita downtown planning process (Project Downtown), where public policy was shaped on the fly to meet the needs of politically-connected special interests, at detriment to the public.

Most importantly: The very existence of a government plan is dangerous, as the plan itself becomes a reason to proceed, contrary to reason and harm to liberty and economic freedom.

An example of how much reverence is given to government plans comes right from the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Kelo v. New London, in which the Court decided that government could use the power of eminent domain to take one person’s property and transfer it to someone else for the purposes of economic development. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Stevens cited the plan: “The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community.” Here we see the importance of the plan and due reverence given to it.

Stevens followed up, giving even more weight to the plan: “To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.”

To Stevens, the fact that the plan was comprehensive was a factor in favor of its upholding. The sustainable communities plan, likewise, is nothing but comprehensive, as described by county manager Bill Buchanan in a letter to commissioners: “[the plan will] consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

That pretty much covers it all. When you’re charged with promoting economic prosperity, defending earth against climate change, and promoting public health, there is no limit to the types of laws you might consider. This likely to be the argument to follow whatever emerges from Commissioner Norton’s planning process.

In Wichita, community needn’t be government

Wichita, Kansas logo

Kansas Policy Institute offers commentary on the Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan.

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Differ on Politics and Religion, renowned psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes how the human mind is dual in nature: “We live most of our lives in the ordinary world, but we achieve our greatest joys in those brief moments of transit to the sacred world, in which we become ‘simply a part of a whole.’”

A recent survey by the City of Wichita capitalized on this innate human tendency by equating community with government. Our natural desire to become “simply a part of a whole” manifests itself in our jobs, churches, softball leagues, clubs, dinner parties and recently pride in WSU’s success in the NCAA tournament. Our citizenship in Wichita is one of many communities that define us as individuals, one of many communities we make sacrifices for, one of many communities we call upon to solve problems.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan

The survey respondents provide a list of wishes, all with the goal of improving our lives, many of which can and should be provided by city and county governments. Allowing businesses to openly compete to build water and street infrastructure, with competitive bidding for contracts, would strengthen the community by precluding any unfairness that weakens trust in the city.

Survey respondents showed a plea for business formation and young talent. The city could promote a sense of community by creating a welcoming culture for all businesses, one that does not pick favorites. 71.8 percent of respondents do not have faith that most people are willing to put community interests above personal interest — perhaps because so often city hall is called upon to hand out special tax treatment.

The survey also tries to identify challenges to the community; respondents were asked one question about Boeing and two questions about political divisions. Overwhelmingly respondents believe political divisions are negatively impacting our community’s ability to respond to global challenges.

We live in the biggest city in the state which brings with it many challenges; solutions to those challenges come in many forms, giving rise to the vast diversity of opinion borne out in the survey. That diversity may be trying but we should not allow the aspiration for political unity to squelch debate. Ultimately it is our ability to engage and debate these issues that unites us as a community.

Kansans’ views on role of government

Kansas Policy Institute

Kansas Policy Institute has released the results of a public opinion poll asking Kansans for their views on some issues that are currently in the news. Following is KPI’s press release:

Kansans’ Views on the Role of Government
K-12 funding should be based on efficient use of taxpayer funds; narrow opposition to judicial reform; overwhelming support for “paycheck protection”

Wichita — A new statewide public opinion survey shows strong support for having K-12 funding decisions based on efficient and effective use of taxpayer funds. This is especially noteworthy in light of the fact that no study has ever been conducted in Kansas to determine what it costs to achieve required student outcomes and have schools organized and operating in a cost-effective manner. The survey was conducted by SurveyUSA on behalf Kansas Policy Institute between January 24 and January 27; 500 adults were surveyed with a ±4.5% margin of error. The complete survey and interactive crosstabulations are available here.

Asked whether cost-effectiveness should be the basis for school funding decisions, 74% agreed and only 23% disagreed. Responses were very consistent across political and ideological lines.

Participants were also asked “If the Kansas Legislature is not basing school funding decisions on what it costs to hit required achievement levels and also have schools operating in a cost-effective manner, should the Legislature conduct such a study and fund schools accordingly?” A strong majority, 59% said “yes” while only 19% said “no.” Again, responses were very consistent across political and ideological lines.

The Shawnee County District Court based its recent school finance ruling on the 2005 Montoy decision, in which the State Supreme Court relied on a flawed 2001 Augenblick & Myers cost study. A&M admitted they deviated from their standard methodology and threw efficient use of taxpayer money out the window. A follow-up study by Legislative Post Audit very specifically said that they “… weren’t directed to, nor did we try to, examine the most cost-effective way for Kansas school districts to be organized and operated.”

KPI president Dave Trabert said, “In addition to funding schools, legislators also have a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer money is used efficiently. Lawsuits and hundreds of millions more in taxpayer funding have … and will continue to have .. little impact on student achievement. The only way to determine whether schools are effectively and efficiently funded is to conduct a thorough student-focused review of the current system examining all of the inputs (not just money), make any necessary adjustments and cost it out.”

Key findings on Judicial and Court Questions
A series of questions relating to the courts produced much more divided opinions. Kansans believe that courts should not have final say on how much money is spent on public education (54% vs. 44%) and courts should not have final say on the specific way that money is spent on education (56% vs. 40%). Interesting though, 54% of Kansans believe it is “… in citizens’ best interests to have judges recommended for appointment to the Kansas Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals by a majority-attorney panel” while 39% disagree.

Even self-identified conservatives narrowly said the current system of appointing judges is in citizens’ best interest (46% vs. 45%) while self-identified moderates and liberals expressing stronger support (53% vs. 41% and 69% vs. 23%, respectively).

Key findings on Paycheck Protection proposals
Proposed legislation that would prohibit government from collecting and remitting voluntary union dues intended to be used for political purposes is an extremely controversial topic this year — but apparently, only in the state capitol. Kansans of all political and ideological persuasion overwhelming support some form of change in the current practice.

Asked whether governments should continue the current practice of withholding union dues, including the portion that is used for political purposes … or withhold regular membership dues only, so that employees wishing to contribute money for political purposes would write their own personal checks … or withhold no union dues, even self-identified government employees and union members say current practice should change.

In Sedgwick County, misplaced concern for an industry

Wheat harvestExpressing concern about a large industry that he said is important to Sedgwick County and Kansas, Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton spoke in favor of the need for comprehensive government planning. He cited the commonly-held belief that humans, with their desire for large suburban home lots, are depleting the stock of available farmland.

Specifically, Norton said “Agribusiness is the third largest economic driver in our community, in our region.”

But is this true? Using 2010 figures from the Kansas Statistical Abstract, these are the largest industries in Kansas in terms of gross domestic product:

Industry GDP (millions)
State and local government $13,047
Real estate and rental and leasing $11,794
Health care and social assistance $9,898
Durable goods manufacturing $9,620
Finance and insurance $8,426
Retail trade $8,324
Wholesale trade $7,910
Non-durable goods manufacturing $7,750
Professional and technical services $6,652
Information $5,806
Agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting $4,612
Transportation and warehousing $4,418
Construction $4,062
Federal military $3,816
Administrative and waste services $3,769
Other services, except government $3,250
Accommodation and food services $3,157
Utilities $2,639
Federal civilian $2,608
Management of companies and enterprises $1,769
Mining $1,472
Educational services $770
Arts, entertainment, and recreation $506

 

Agriculture ranks below many other industries. In most years agriculture would rank even lower, but because of high farm prices in recent years, it ranks higher than it has.

Norton also expressed concern that humans with large home lots would deplete the land available for agriculture. But he need not worry, as I show in Saving farms from people.

Saving farms from people

Wheat combine on farm

Last week at a meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, Commissioner Tim Norton spoke in favor of the need for comprehensive government planning. In support, he cited the commonly-held belief that humans — especially with their desire for large suburban home lots — are depleting the stock of farmland to the point of being detrimental to agribusiness.

Here’s part of what Norton said (video below):

Now I know people don’t like the idea of sprawl and growth rings and all that, but the truth is there is a balance between where people live and preserving our good agricultural lands and how do you make that work. And that’s being able to sustain part of our economy. Agribusiness is the third largest economic driver in our community, in our region, and to say that we’re okay with every five acre tract being taken up by somebody’s rural residence sounds really good if you’re talking only property rights. But if you’re talking about preserving and sustaining agribusiness you gotta have the land and it’s got to be set aside for that enterprise.

Farms and ranches being driven out of existence by homeowners — that sounds like a problem that might threaten our food supply. But what are the facts?

First, there is an overabundance of farmland in America. There is so much farmland that we pay farmers billions each year to refrain from planting crops. We pay corn farmers billions in subsidies each year and then use their crops for motor fuel, instead of for making fine Kentucky bourbon and taco shells, as God intended.

Considering Sedgwick County, as that is what Norton represents: Despite being the second-most populous county in Kansas and home to its largest city and surrounding suburban communities, Sedgwick County ranks fourth among Kansas counties in the number of farms, thirty-fourth in farmland acres, seventh in total harvested cropland acres, thirty-third in market value of harvested crops, sixty-sixth in market value of livestock, and eighty-seventh in pasture acres. (Data from Kansas Farm Facts 2011, reporting on 2007 farm statistics.)

There’s something else that might ease Commissioner Norton’s concern, if he would only believe in the power of markets over government: That is the price system. If we were truly running short of farmland, crop prices would rise and farmland would become more valuable. Fewer people would be willing to pay the price necessary to have a five-acre home lot.

In fact, if crop prices were high enough, farmers would be buying back the five-acre lots, or perhaps paying homeowners to rent their yards for planting crops or grazing livestock.

In either case, markets — through the price system — provide a solution that doesn’t require politicians and bureaucrats. There are many other areas in which this is true, but government nonetheless insists on regulation and control.

The power of prices, as told by Thomas Sowell: “The last premiere of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, is said to have asked British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: How do you see to it that people get food? The answer was that she didn’t. Prices did that. And the British people were better fed than those in the Soviet Union, even though the British have never grown enough food to feed themselves in more than a century. Prices bring them food from other countries.”

Crown Heights residents not happy with city’s process

A proposed sports bar in an established Wichita neighborhood has some residents concerned, not only with the bar and its parking lot, but with procedures and transparency at Wichita City Hall.

Whether you agree with the development or not, the story as told in the Crown Heights newsletter raises concerns with the process. Specifically:

“The notification was for ancillary parking, not a zone change. It led residents to assume it was just for some additional parking.”

“The City wrote and approved a staff report approving this case on the day of or even before the Barrier’s property sale had been closed on. Why is this case being pushed through so quickly? (Have you ever known any type of bureaucracy to approve an item with such lightning speed?)”

“At the MAPC meeting — Mr. Morrie Sheets (member of the MAPC) said that the property owner at 121 North Glendale was excited about tearing down that building (115 North Glendale) because it has been a problem with crack heads and drugs.” The owner of the property at 121 North Glendale never made that statement to Mr. Sheets (and has signed a document to that effect). Mr. Sheets has recanted saying that he ever made that statement. However, in the city’s recording of the meeting that statement is on record.

“At the MAPC meeting it was amended that the bar could occupy no more than 4399 square feet. However in the Planning department letter of November 19th (five days later), they state the sports bar was approved in the meeting to occupy 5092 square feet (Who authorized that change?) The bar is slated to have an occupancy of 156 patrons at the 4399 sq. ft. The increase of up to 5092 sq. feet would increase the number of occupants exponentially.”

In conclusion, the newsletter says: “The whole project has been cloaked in deception, lightning speed approval and has not been made transparent to the public. This raises some suspicion that the developers did not think the residents would be happy with this type of business being placed in our neighborhood.”

This matter will be heard at the District Advisory Board meeting on December 3.

Coverage from the Wichita Eagle is here.

Wichita neighborhood association not happy with city's process

In Wichita, creating more willing taxpayers

What is the goal of Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investments Plan? Here’s an excerpt from “Citizen Attachment: Building Sustainable Communities,” which appeared in Government Finance Review. Authors are Mark A. Glaser, Misty R. Bruckner, and Corinne Bannon, all associated with the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs at Wichita State University. HWS is facilitating the planning process for the city and county.

Increasingly, citizens are retreating from their responsibilities to community and demanding more from government than they are willing to pay for. But changes in local government behavior can be instrumental in reversing this trend, by strengthening citizens’ commitment to the well-being of their communities. Citizens who are committed to community are more willing to accept responsibility for the well-being of their fellow citizens and are also more likely to join with government and other parties to improve their communities. Citizens who are committed to community are also more willing taxpayers — that is, when government demonstrates that it can be trusted to invest public resources in ways that strengthen the community. The central thrust of this model is getting citizens and governments to work together, but realistically, many communities will require new revenue — including additional tax dollars — if they are to assemble the critical mass of resources necessary for meaningful change. Accordingly, citizens who are willing to pay increased taxes are an important component of building sustainable communities.

More willing taxpayers.

Citizens who are willing to pay increased taxes.

I recommend you read this paper. Click on Citizen Attachment: Building Sustainable Communities.

From the United Nations to Sedgwick County

It took from 1987 to 2012, but Sedgwick County has adopted the language of the United Nations regarding sustainability.

Those critical of sustainability planning are concerned that engaging in sustainable communities planning has the potential to import harmful policies and practices originating from the United Nations. Critics of these critics say this is nonsense and overreacting. Examples as reported in the Wichita Eagle come from Commissioner Dave Unruh and Commission Chair Tim Norton:

Unruh said he sees the grant simply as an “effort to make decisions about our future for us and our future generations that will save money, conserve resources and be the best solutions for all the folks in our region.” …

Norton said he sees the grant as a way to “look to the future, try to figure out best possible outcomes and make decisions today that will be good for tomorrow.”

“We’re all in this together. You may not like the federal government. You may not like the state government. You may not even like the local government. But I like being at the table and being involved in the future.”

He dismisses any connection to Agenda 21.

“It was a non-binding agreement passed during the first Bush era,” he said of former president George H.W. Bush. “I don’t rail on President Bush because it happened on his watch. I’m not twitchy about it. I’m not worried about it.”

The language Sedgwick County uses when considering sustainability comes directly from the United Nations. General Assembly Resolution 42/187: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development holds this language: “Believing that sustainable development, which implies meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, should become a central guiding principle of the United Nations, Governments and private institutions, organizations and enterprises.” (emphasis added)

Sedgwick County’s Sustainability Page holds this: Definition of Sustainability for Sedgwick County … Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs … (emphasis added)

Sedgwick County left out the word “own,” but otherwise the language is identical. This definition was repeated on the county’s 2012 Employee Sustainability Survey.

The Sedgwick County page — and other county documents — mention economic development, environmental protection, institutional and financial viability, and social equity as “the four core factors that Sedgwick County considers when making community policy and program management decisions.” These goals are often mentioned in Agenda 21 documents, especially social equity.

Wichita waltzing waters dedication a chance to reflect

This week there will be two dedication ceremonies for the “Waltzing Waters” display at Wichita’s WaterWalk. One is an invitation-only affair for VIPs, while the other is open to the public. While these events are promoted as celebrations, we might use this opportunity to review the history and impact of this project that has absorbed many millions of taxpayer subsidy with few results.

In 2009 a Wichita Eagle editorial started with this: “Seven years into a project that was supposed to give Wichita a grand gathering place full of shops, restaurants and night spots as well as offices and condos, some City Council members and citizens remain skeptical at best about WaterWalk’s ability to deliver on its big promises. … True, the skepticism to date is richly deserved.”

The editorial went on to report that public investment in this project has risen to $41 million.

In any case, there’s little to show for this investment. Even the proposal for the redevelopment of downtown Wichita from the planning firm Goody Clancy realizes that WaterWalk is a failure:

Indeed, Water Walk might be struggling to fill its space because it has, simply put, hit a ceiling: it is focusing on food and fun, and perhaps there is room for only one such district (Old Town) in Downtown Wichita. The Arena could help in this regard, but until the publicly subsidized Water Walk is a rousing success, it might not make sense to split the pie still further.

After all the public money put into WaterWalk, in order to get anything else, we’ll probably have to give even more. In 2010, in order to build a Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites Hotel at WaterWalk, several subsidies were used, including a $2.5 million cash contribution from the City of Wichita. See Waterwalk hotel deal breaks new ground for Wichita subsidies. Will anything else be built at WaterWalk without similar consideration?

So taxpayers deserve a break and a celebration. Finally, the fountains, purchased in 2008 for $1.6 million, will be working. The entire fountains project cost $3.5 million, says a Wichita city document.

Waltzing Waters VIP invitation. Click here for a larger version.

But do VIPs deserve a special celebration? With drinks and hors d’oeuvres, with a desert bar after? Many of these VIPs will be the elected officials and bureaucrats responsible for WaterWalk, a project emblematic of the failure of government planning. Others will be the beneficiaries of Wichita taxpayer subsidies. They should be apologetic, not celebratory. Hopefully the expenses of this event will be borne privately, and not by taxpayers. But that brings up another issue: the pay-to-play environment that exists in Wichita.

With this glaring example of failure of a public-private partnership staring right at us in downtown Wichita, why do we want to plan for more of this? Shouldn’t we at least wait until WaterWalk is finished (if that ever happens) before we go down the path of throwing more public investment into the hands of subsidy-seeking developers?

At minimum, we ought to insist that the developers of the WaterWalk project be excluded from any consideration for further taxpayer subsidy. The WaterWalk development team: Dave Burk, Marketplace Properties, LLC; Jack P. DeBoer, Consolidated Holdings, Inc.; Gregory H. Kossover, Consolidated Holdings, Inc.; David E. Wells, Key Construction, Inc.; and Tom Johnson, CRE, WaterWalk LLC need to recognize their failure and the tremendous amount they have cost the Wichita taxpayer. Some of these parties are no longer involved in WaterWalk, but they harm they caused lingers. Some of these parties have received millions in subsidies from the city since then, including a no-bid construction contract awarded to Key Construction. When that contract was put out to public bid, city taxpayers saved $1.3 million on a $6 million project. See No-bid contracts a problem in Wichita.

Some received a no-interest and low-interest loan from the city to prop up a failing TIF district, and Burk appealed property valuations in a way that caused a tax increment financing district to fall behind.

The Wichita Eagle reported: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney. … Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

In a later story the Eagle reported “A special tax district formed by Wichita to assist in the development of the Old Town cinema project can’t cover its debt payments because the developers — including the city itself — petitioned a state court and got their property taxes reduced, records show. Now, taxpayers could be on the hook for $190,000 that had been projected to have come from within the cinema district.”

Wichita taxpayers should be relieved that at least they’re finally getting something for their investment. Let’s use this time, however, to learn the lessons of WaterWalk and centralized government planning.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan survey

A survey created for the Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan has numerous problems and seems designed to satisfy the goals of government officials and planners instead of citizens.

The process, titled “Community Investments Plan … a Framework for the Future” is the result of an initiative of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer made during his “State of the City” address in January. 500 randomly selected people in Sedgwick County have been invited to attend, at least to start, a series of four meetings held evenings. The first meeting was last night. Twelve of the invited participants attended.

As part of the process, participants will help develop a survey that will be administered to 25,000 residents in January. A draft of the survey may be viewed at Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan Survey.

There are a number of problems with the survey. For many of the questions, the only possible responses are “Strongly Disagree,” “Disagree,” “Agree,” and “Strongly Agree.” There is no possibility for answering “Don’t know,” “Need more information,” or something like that.

The introduction to the section of questions titled “Global Economy and the Strength of Community” reads “We must make some difficult choices about how best to invest limited resources to strengthen the local economy and to improve quality of life today and for future generations. The outlook for the future depends in part on the willingness of the community to pull together and respond to global challenges.”

Who does the opening “We” refer to? Individuals, corporations, small business firms, churches, or government? Each operates from a different investment perspective, I think we can agree.

Then, there’s the statement that the “community” must “pull together.” Again, the term “community” is so vague as to be nearly meaningless. And “pull together”: Does that mean people voluntarily forming business firms, charities, or mutual aid societies? Or does it mean government?

Another question: “Local government, the school district, community organizations and the business community should work together to create an investment climate that is attractive to business.”

The meaning of an attractive investment climate means different things to different people. Some people want an investment climate where property rights are respected, where government refrains from meddling in the economy and transferring one person’s property to another. An environment free from cronyism, in other words. But the Wichita way is, unfortunately, cronyism, where government takes an active role in managing economic development. We in Wichita never know when our local government will take from us to give to politically-favored cronies, or when city hall will set up and subsidize a competitor.

Another statement that survey respondents are asked to agree or disagree with: “The growing divide between citizens is one of the most important threats to the well-being of our community and nation.”

Is there, in fact, a “growing divide?” And if there is, what is the cause? The growth of government leads directly to the destruction of civil society, that being where people cooperate voluntarily to solve problems and create beneficial institutions. Civil society is being replaced with the political society, where someone else makes decisions for you, notwithstanding efforts like this survey.

When we see the city council awarding no-bid contracts to their campaign contributors — contracts that, when put to competitive bid, come in at lower cost: This is what creates a divide in our community.

When we see a council member receive thousands in campaign contributions from an out-of-state company right as he is about to make a controversial vote that means millions to that company: This destroys civil society and creates divides.

There is an entire section of statements that start with “Local government should use public resources …” Instead of the euphemism “public resources,” why not call it what it is: Taxpayer money. Your money.

There are three questions relating to the subsidy program at the Wichita airport. An example is “I’m willing to pay increased taxes or fees to support investment … that uses public dollars to reduce the cost and increase the number of commercial flights at Mid-Continent Airport.”

This is an example of a question where the premise is false. Since the subsidy programs have been in place, the number of flights from the Wichita airport has declined, not increased. See Wichita flight options decrease, despite subsidies and Wichita airfare subsidy: The negative effects.

Monthly departures from WichitaMonthly departures from the Wichita airport

At least the final section of questions is prefaced with whether people are willing to pay more taxes or fees in order to support spending. But for most of the survey, situations are presented without regard for cost. An example is “The community should improve public transportation by making bus travel faster and more convenient including evening and weekend service.” How could anyone be against that, especially when senior citizens are mentioned, as in one question?

But if survey respondents were told that most bus systems, including Wichita’s, receive only about 20 percent of their revenue through the farebox, and that taxpayers pay the rest, how might they respond then? And how many people are aware of the massive taxpayer subsidies — excuse me, “public resources” — that are required?

Overall, the survey appears to be designed to bring people to conclusions the survey sponsors want, or provide answers that can be interpreted in they way they want. Not defining terms like “community” and an “investment climate that is attractive to business” allow the survey sponsor to create their own interpretation of the results.

And who is the survey sponsor? A collaboration between local government and the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs at Wichita State University. This academic unit exists to produce future generations of government planners, and they’ll all want jobs. City hall and the county building are full of politicians and bureaucrats that, with few exceptions, seek to expand their influence, budgets, and power.

When we put professional planners and bureaucrats in charge of a survey designed to gauge attitudes towards the desirability of planning — is the answer not predetermined? It’s not that the planners are dishonest people. But they have a vested economic and professional interest in seeing that we have more government planning, not less.

Perhaps a program like this would better be administered by a market research firm, whose goal and interest would be to find the truth, regardless of the wishes of the client.

But really, there is a very simple way for government to get the answers it is seeking. Joseph Ashby said it well on his radio program: If government wants to know how people want their money spent, it should let them spend their own money.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan Survey

Special interests will capture south-central Kansas planning

Special interest groups are likely to co-opt the government planning process started in south-central Kansas as these groups see ways to benefit from the plan. The public choice school of economics and political science has taught us how special interest groups seek favors from government at enormous costs to society, and we will see this at play over the next few years.

Sedgwick County has voted to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. While some justified their votes in favor of the plan because “it’s only a plan,” once the planning process begins, special interests plot to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. Once the plan is formed, it’s nearly impossible to revise it, no matter how evident the need.

An example of how much reverence is given to government plans comes right from the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Kelo v. New London, in which the Court decided that government could use the power of eminent domain to take one person’s property and transfer it to someone else for the purposes of economic development. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Stevens cited the plan: “The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community.” Here we see the importance of the plan and due reverence given to it.

Stevens followed up, giving even more weight to the plan: “To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.”

To Stevens, the fact that the plan was comprehensive was a factor in favor of its upholding. The sustainable communities plan, likewise, is nothing but comprehensive, as described by county manager Bill Buchanan in a letter to commissioners: “[the plan will] consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

That pretty much covers it all. When you’re charged with promoting economic prosperity, defending earth against climate change, and promoting public health, there is no limit to the types of laws you might consider.

Who will plan?

The American Planning Association praised the Court’s notice of the importance of a plan, writing “This decision underscores the importance for a community to have a comprehensive development plan formulated through a democratic planning process with meaningful public participation by everyone.”

But these plans are rarely by and for the public. Almost always the government planning process is taken over and captured by special interests. We see this in public schools, where the planning and campaigning for new facilities is taken over by architectural and construction firms that see school building as a way to profit. It does not matter to them whether the schools are needed.

Our highway planning is hijacked by construction firms that stand to benefit, whether or not new roads are actually needed.

Our planning process for downtown Wichita is run by special interest groups that believe that downtown has a special moral imperative, and another group that sees downtown as just another way to profit at taxpayer expense. Both believe that taxpayers across Wichita, Kansas, and even the entire country must pay to implement their vision. As shown in Kansas and Wichita need pay-to-play laws the special interests that benefit from public spending on downtown make heavy political campaign contributions to nearly all members of the Wichita City Council. They don’t have a political ideology. They contribute only because they know council members will be voting to give them money.

In Wichita’s last school bond election, 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 new school construction, no matter whether schools are actually needed. The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture led the way in making these contributions. It’s not surprising that this firm was awarded a no-bid contract for plan management services for the bond issue valued at $3.7 million. This firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.

The special interest groups that benefit from highway construction: They formed a group called Economic Lifelines. It says it was formed to “provide the grassroots support for Comprehensive Transportation Programs in Kansas.” Its motto is “Stimulating economic vitality through leadership in infrastructure development.”

A look at the membership role, however, lets us know whose economic roots are being stimulated. Membership is stocked with names like AFL-CIO, Foley Equipment Company, Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, Kansas Aggregate & Concrete Associations, Kansas Asphalt Pavement Association, Kansas Contractors Association, Kansas Society of Professional Engineers, and PCA South Central Cement Promotion Association. Groups and companies like these have an economic interest in building more roads and highways, whether or not the state actually needs them.

The planners themselves are a special interest group, too. They need jobs. Like most government bureaucrats, they “profit” from increasing their power and sphere of influence, and by expansion of their budgets and staffs. So when Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton asks a professional planner questions about the desirability of planning, what answer does he think he will get? It’s not that the planners are not honest people. But they have a vested economic and professional interest in seeing that we have more government planning, not less.

And we have evidence that planners watch out for themselves. It is not disputed that this planning grant benefits Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP). Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau says that John Schlegel, Wichita’s Director of Planning, told him that “acceptance of this grant will take REAP to another level, because right now they are struggling, and this will help plot the course for REAP.” He said that REAP, which is housed at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, needs to expand its role and authority in order to give it “something to do.”

We see that REAP is another special interest group seeking to benefit itself. In this case, our best hope is that REAP engages in merely make-work, that the plan it produces is put on a shelf and ignored, and that the only harm to us is the $1.5 million cost of the plan.

By the way, did you know that Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh, who voted in favor of the plan that benefits REAP, is now chairman of REAP? Special interest groups know how to play the political game.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer on role of government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas counties decline sustainable communities planning

Two of the five Kansas counties that were asked to participate in a sustainable communities planning grant have decided not to join the effort. Of the five counties (Sedgwick, Butler, Reno, Harvey and Sumner), Butler and Sumner county commissioners voted against participation.

The REAP sustainable communities planning process is designed to, in the words of REAP, “create a long-term regional plan for ensuring the health and productivity of our local economy. The grant will support community engagement to identify common values and goals, followed by local and regional efforts to enhance economic development, connect people with jobs, reduce housing and transportation costs, ensure public safety, and use of limited public funds efficiently in the years ahead.”

Critics of government planing processes such as this are concerned that the planning process would subject us to additional control by the federal government. These are the so-called strings that are thought to accompany federal grants.

(For those who are interested in what strings look like, here’s an example of one that is relatively innocuous. A HUD document titled Program Policy Guidance OSHC-2012-01 explains “Applicants that reach a certain qualifying score under the Regional Planning Grant Program or the Community Challenge Grant Program will receive PSS designation. PSS designation provides your entity access to bonus points for selected other HUD grant programs, technical assistance, and other capacity building opportunities that will strengthen future efforts to apply to the program.” REAP has been awarded this status, as it complied with this “string.”)

When the Wichita City Council deliberated its endorsement of and participation in this program, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), asked a series of questions of Joe Yager, chief executive officer of REAP, as to whether these concerns were true. Yager said no, there are no strings accompanying the grant. But what about after the planning process is over in three years? Will the plan be forced upon us, Clendenin asked?

Yager answered no, that local governing bodies would have to vote to implement any of the ideas or programs that resulted from the plan. Nothing will be forced upon us, nothing is mandated, he said. We wold simply have a “toolkit” of things to use.

This view or attitude — that local elected officials will protect us from the harmful elements that will emerge from the plan — is dangerously naive. First, in his short time in office, Clendenin has regularly voted for expansions of government planning, power, and spending. He doesn’t stand out from most other council members, not even the Republican members (except for one), as they also regularly vote for these things.

Second, we know that after the plan is complete there will be the argument that since we have the plan, that since we spent three years and $2.2 million on the process, we might as well go ahead and implement it.

Then, there will be the future grants and undoubtedly increased local spending required to implement the plan. There is now research that looks at the effect of federal grants on future local spending. In their research paper titled Do Intergovernmental Grants Create Ratchets in State and Local Taxes? Testing the Friedman-Sanford Hypothesis economists Russell S. Sobel and George R. Crowley concluded this: “Federal grants often result in states creating new programs and hiring new employees, and when the federal funding for that specific purpose is discontinued, these new state programs must either be discontinued or financed through increases in state own source taxes.”

The authors cautioned: “Far from always being an unintended consequence, some federal grants are made with the intention that states will pick up funding the program in the future.” See Federal grants increase future local spending.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau has researched the sustainable development movement, and has written a paper explaining what he found.

Randal O’Toole, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, has written extensively on government planning, especially regarding land use and transportation. His op-ed on this topic follows:

The vast majority of Americans, surveys say, aspire to live in a single-family home with a yard. The vast majority of American travel — around 85 percent — is by automobile. Yet the Obama administration thinks more Americans should live in apartments and travel on foot, bicycle, or mass transit.

To promote this idea, the administration wants to give the south central Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP) the opportunity to apply for a $1.5 million grant to participate in “sustainable communities.” Also sometimes called “smart growth,” the ideas promoted by these programs are anything but sustainable or smart. (As members of REAP, the governing bodies for both Wichita and Sedgwick County endorsed this grant.)

The urban plans that come out of these kinds of programs typically call for:

  • Redesigning streets to increase traffic congestion in order to discourage people from driving;
  • Increasing subsidies to transit, bike paths, and other “alternative” forms of travel even though these alternatives are used by few people;
  • Denying owners of land on the urban fringes the right to develop their property in order to make single-family housing more expensive;
  • Subsidizing high-density, developments that combine housing with retail shops in the hope that people will walk to shopping rather than drive;
  • Rezoning neighborhoods of single-family homes for apartments with zoning so strict that, if someone’s house burns down, they will have to replace it with an apartment.

My former hometown of Portland, Oregon has followed these policies for two decades, and the results have been a disaster. In their zeal to subsidize transit and high-density developments, the region’s officials have taken money from schools, libraries, fire, and police, leaving those programs starved and in disarray.

Since 1980, Portland has spent more than $3 billion building light-rail lines. Far from improving transit, the share of commuters taking transit to work has fallen from 9.8 percent in 1980 to 7.5 percent today, mainly because the region cut bus service to pay for the trains. Traffic congestion quadrupled between 1984 and 2004, which planners say was necessary to get people to ride transit.

The region’s housing policies made single-family homes so expensive that most families with children moved to distant suburbs where they can afford a house with a yard. Residents of subsidized high-density housing projects drive just about as much as anyone else in the Portland area, and developers have learned to their sorrow that if they follow planners’ guidelines in providing less parking for these projects, they will end up with high vacancy rates.

Despite these problems, Portland has received lots of positive publicity. The reason for this is simple: by forcing out families with children, inner Portland is left mainly with young singles and childless couples who eat out a lot, making Portland a Mecca for tourists who like exciting new restaurants. This makes Portland a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there unless you like noisy, congested streets.

The idea of “sustainable communities” is that planners can socially engineer people into changing their travel behavior by redesigning cities to favor pedestrians and transit over automobiles. Beyond the fact that this is an outrageous intrusion of government into people’s lives, it simply doesn’t work. Such experts as University of California economist David Brownstone and University of Southern California planning professor Genevieve Giuliano have shown that the link between urban design and driving is too weak to make a difference.

To protect livability and avoid unsustainable subsidies to transit and high-density development, Wichita, Sedgwick County, and other REAP members of south central Kansas should reject the $1.5 million grant offered by the federal government.

Wichita speculative industrial buildings

A new feature of Wichita’s economic development policy grants property tax and sales tax forgiveness for speculative industrial buildings. These are buildings built without having a tenant in place. The proposed plan had a formula that grants a higher percentage of tax forgiveness as building size increases, but the council eliminated that and voted a 100 percent tax abatement for all buildings larger than 50,000 square feet.

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

The city hopes that these incentivized buildings will generate new jobs in Wichita. But there appears to be nothing in the policy that prevents existing companies in Wichita from moving to these buildings.

Will the owners of speculative buildings rent only to companies newly moving to Wichita, or will they rent to whoever is willing to pay? And will Wichita companies want to move to a new building with cheaper rent? This policy has the risk of simply moving jobs from one location to another, creating no new jobs. All it does is harm landlords with existing buildings.

While the policy was designed to encourage large buildings instead of small, there appears to be no limitation on the size of space landlords can rent. A building 50,000 square feet and larger gets 100 percent tax abatement. But the space could be rented out in smaller parcels to multiple tenants, making it easy to steal local tenants from another landlord.

Existing industrial landlords in Wichita — especially those with available space to rent — must be wondering why they attempt to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage. This is what is meant by unintended consequences.

Citizens must wonder about equality. A principle of taxation is that everyone pays equally. Tax policy should be applied uniformly to all citizens. But this program creates a special class of landlords and tenants who do not have to bear their full share of the cost of city, county, school district, and state government.

Then, we must ask ourselves what do we really get for the cost of these incentives. Alan Peters and Peter Fisher wrote an academic paper titled The Failures of Economic Development Incentives, published in Journal of the American Planning Association. A few quotes from the study, with emphasis added:

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

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

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

In 2008 Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit investigated spending on economic development. It found about the same as did Peters and Fisher.

There is one incentive that can be offered to all firms: Reduce tax costs for all. The Tax Foundation report from earlier this year should be a shrill wake up call to the city and state that we must change our ways.

But the action the council is considering today moves us in the opposite direction. These incentives have a cost. Other businesses have to pay. That only increases the motivation and necessity to seek incentives from the city and state, which in turn raises the cost of government and taxes. It’s a spiral that leads to ever-increasing control of economic activity by city hall.

We in Wichita need to build a dynamic economy in Wichita that is based on free enterprise and entrepreneurship rather than government planning and handouts. This is the way we can have organic and sustainable economic development. We can start on this path today by saying no to this incentive package.

Central planning: Are we humans or pawns?

From LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies, a video titled Adam Smith and the Follies of Central Planning.

“How do you like being told what to do? If someone tells you to do something you find enjoyable or fulfilling, you may not mind. What if you are told to do something contrary to what you would choose for yourself? What if the government was the one telling you to do it? Adam Smith, the philosopher and father of economics, talks about a “man of system,” a central planner who believes he can orchestrate the lives of others, like chess pieces that can be moved at will. As Professor James R. Otteson illustrates, society suffers when the man of system attempts to force his desires on the lives of individuals in ways that contradict their own desires. According to Smith, people are not chess pieces to be moved on a board; they are living and thinking and have their own wills. Individuals pursuing their own desires will constantly be in conflict with the desires of any central planner.”

In Kansas, we see the rise of central planning in several ways. Officials believe they can plan and guide our economic development efforts, and the results have not been successful.

Wichita believes it can plan its downtown development and direct taxpayer subsidy to politically-favored developers and campaign contributors, but voters, when given a chance, reject this.

Then we have the rise of sustainable communities planning, shepherded by the professional planners working at Regional Area Economic Partnership.

All these are examples of the problem explained in the video.

Intentions and results

From a video produced by LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies: “Prof. Don Boudreaux explains what economists mean when they talk about unintended consequences. Essentially, unintended consequences are the large outcomes that emerge from the actions made by many individuals. These outcomes can be good or bad. Therefore, when analyzing various polices, we must be extremely careful to distinguish between intentions and results.”

Boudreaux concludes the video with this: “We live in this incredibly complex world. When we take any action, we know that the consequences of those actions are going to extend out very far. We can see those consequences only a little bit in front of us. We can’t trace them out fully. And it applies whether or not you believe in big government, tiny government, and medium-sized government. Yes, it’s difficult in many cases to trace out how the incentives will have real-world effects. But that difficulty does not excuse us from the task of pursuing it. We can’t just simply say, oh the intentions of the policymakers are good, therefore we can be assured that the results will be good. That’s cheating. We just can’t do that. That’s very bad public policy.”

Understanding this is especially important as we in Wichita and the surrounding area prepare to undertake a comprehensive government plan for sustainable communities.

The video’s page is Unintended Consequences, or click below to view at YouTube.

Wichita decides to join sustainable communities planning

At yesterday’s Wichita City Council meeting, the council took up the issue as to whether the city would participate in the REAP sustainable communities planning process. All council members except Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voted in favor of participation.

Critics of government planing processes such as this are worried that the planning process would subject us to additional control by the federal government. These are the so-called strings that are thought to accompany federal grants.

(For those who are interested in what strings look like, here’s an example of one that is relatively innocuous. A HUD document titled Program Policy Guidance OSHC-2012-01 explains “Applicants that reach a certain qualifying score under the Regional Planning Grant Program or the Community Challenge Grant Program will receive PSS designation. PSS designation provides your entity access to bonus points for selected other HUD grant programs, technical assistance, and other capacity building opportunities that will strengthen future efforts to apply to the program.” REAP has been awarded this status, as it complied with this “string.”)

James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), asked a series of questions of Joe Yager, chief executive officer of REAP, as to whether these concerns were true. Yager said no, there are no strings accompanying the grant. But what about after the planning process is over in three years? Will the plan be forced upon us, Clendenin asked?

Yager answered no, that local governing bodies would have to vote to implement any of the ideas or programs that resulted from the plan. Nothing will be forced upon us, nothing is mandated, he said. We wold simply have a “toolkit” of things to use.

This view or attitude — that local elected officials will protect us from the harmful elements that will emerge from the plan — is dangerously naive. First, in his short time in office, Clendenin has regularly voted for expansions of government planning, power, and spending. He doesn’t stand out from most other council members, not even the Republican members (except for one), as they also regularly vote for these things.

Second, we know that after the plan is complete there will be the argument that since we have the plan, that since we spent three years and $2.2 million on the process, we might as well go ahead and implement it.

Then, there will be the future grants and undoubtedly increased local spending required to implement the plan.

It’s also naive of Clendenin to ask a professional planner like Yager questions about the desirability of planning. What answer does he think he will get? It’s not that the planners are not honest people. But they have a vested economic and professional interest in seeing that we have more government planning, not less.

One of the things Wichita has agreed to do is to provide in-kind services to the planning consortium in the form of staff time. Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) asked a series of questions determining whether some work might go unperformed as staff members devote time to the planning process.

John Schlegel, Wichita director of planning, assured him no, that no work would go undone as a result of staff members taking on new responsibilities as part of the city’s in-kind contribution.

Two years ago a similar issue arose in Sedgwick County, where staff time was devoted to the oversight of the Intrust Bank Arena. At the time I reported this: “Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh told the Wichita Eagle that the county did not hire any new staff to perform work that has an estimated value of $2.6 million. My question is this: Is this evidence that there was $2.6 million of slack time in county employee’s schedules? How were they able to get this vast amount of work accomplished? Perhaps after the arena work that has occupied $2.6 million of staff time is complete, we could hire out this staff to earn revenue for the county, as it seems they will have time on their hands.”

Special interest groups capture government

As Wichita and the surrounding region start to develop a government plan to manage our future, we have to be vigilant to ensure that the process is not co-opted or appropriated by special interest groups that see the planning process as a way to profit at the expense of everyone else. Unfortunately, the average person has very little motive to stay informed. The costs are dispersed and small on an individual basis, but the benefits are concentrated and large to special interest groups that organize themselves to benefit from government spending. This creates a dynamic where the special interest groups almost win at the expense of everyone else. The following excerpts from chapter 3 of Government failure: a primer in public choice by Gordon Tullock, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady help explain.

Organized Lobbying

Public choice is more difficult because of the existence of organized lobbying and pressure groups. This practice is more visible in the United States than in the United Kingdom. … In discussing the organization of political pressure groups, the primary point is that, on the whole, investing a considerable amount of time or money pursuing activities that will have little effect on me personally is unwise. At the University of Arizona, many of my colleagues talk about political issues. Yet the issues that lead them to organize in order to bring pressure on the state government of Arizona or the federal government in Washington have direct effects on the university or on their working conditions.

This problem was formally analyzed by Mancur Olson, who pointed out that, on the one hand, when a relatively small number of people are heavily affected by a collective activity, organizing is in their interest. This rule applies for several reasons. First, individuals in the group will either benefit a good deal if the political action is in their favor or be injured a good deal if it is against them. Second, because there are only a few of them, organizing is relatively easy (low transactions costs) for them.

On the other hand, if the collective decision affects a large number of people but represents only a small amount to each of the group, the converse applies. Each member of this large group would find only minor effects (either costs or benefits) from whatever is done. A large number of people experiencing a small loss are difficult to organize because each could reasonably think that his or her contribution to the joint lobby would make little difference in the likely success of the action. Hence, in such circumstances the individual avoids making a contribution.

Consider the following example. Suppose the proceeds of a tax of five pence levied on every citizen of Britain are to be given to the authors who have recently written learned pamphlets for the Institute of Economic Affairs. One would expect the authors would be very interested in this proposal, which, after all, for each author would be a lot of money. Hence, they would seek to bring pressure on the House of Commons to pass it.

Because the cost to the individual citizen is only five pence, the citizen would be foolish to allocate personal resources to prevent passage. Simply complaining to his or her member of Parliament might entail a greater burden than the loss of the five pence. In practice, of course, this tax to benefit Institute of Economic Affairs authors, although easy to understand, is not likely to be successful. Although it is a simple transfer from a large number of voters to a few authors, the newspapers would, no doubt, create a public outcry that would prevent its adoption.

Laws or regulations that have this characteristic of diffuse costs and concentrated beneficiaries do sometimes become law, perhaps because the effect is disguised by superficially plausible propaganda or rationalizations developed by the pressure group. Consider the following example. At one time the United States had a tariff to protect the manufacturers of the chin rests for violins. Only one company employing four or five people made the chin rests. For violin purchasers who had to pay two or three cents more for the violin because of this tariff, the cost was much too small to lobby. Nevertheless, the investment was worthwhile for the manufacturer of the small violin part to testify before the U.S. Senate; no one testified on the side of the violin purchasers against the tariff.

The argument in defense of the tariff was the potential unemployment of the four or five engaged in manufacturing the chin rest. A tax, even a small tax, on violins to provide a pension for the employees of the company would have failed because, although economically more efficient, it would have been entirely too obvious. …

If you talk with ordinary citizens who benefit from one of the special-interest lobbies (such as the American Association of Retired People, environmental advocates, sugar producers, or welfare recipients), they present a series of public-interest arguments with every appearance (which I am sure is genuine) of belief. Nevertheless, the private-interest argument leads to the organization of these groups, to the transfer of funds, to the protection of jobs, and to special privileges for special-interest groups. The public-interest arguments normally require that the project itself be designed in such a way that the direct transfer is hidden from the public eye.

Wichita may choose more centralized planning

This Tuesday (April 17th) the Wichita City Council will consider its participation in the REAP sustainable communities planning process. Wichita ought to reject this expansion of centralized planning, as the outcome will likely serve special interests at the expense of economic growth and jobs for everyone else.

The relevant pages from the agenda packet are available at REAP Consortium Agreement for South-Central Kansas Sustainable Communities.

Who makes the plan? And for whom?

Yes, planning is important. It’s likely that several Wichita city council members will use this as a factor in deciding to vote for the sustainable communities planning process. But these members will fail to distinguish between government plans and all others.

They will fail to distinguish that when individuals and businesses plan, they are planning for themselves and no one else. They are engaging in a voluntary act. But when government plans, the plans are drawn for others — whether they want to be in a plan or not, whether they agree with the principles and goals or not.

Furthermore, these members will fail to recognize that when governments plan, special interest groups soon appropriate the plans to benefit themselves. An example is the state’s highway plan, with the campaign for increased highway spending funded by the construction industries. They would lobby to build highways to nowhere, as long as they receive contracts for their construction.

The planners themselves are a special interest group, too. They need jobs. Like most government bureaucrats, they “profit” from increasing their power and influence, and by expansion of their budgets and staffs. So when Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton asks a professional planner questions about the desirability of planning, what answer does he think he will get? It’s not that the planners are not honest people. But they have a vested economic and professional interest in seeing that we have more government planning, not less.

And we have evidence that planners watch out for themselves. It is not disputed that this planning grant benefits Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP). Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau says that John Schlegel, Wichita’s Director of Planning, told him that “acceptance of this grant will take REAP to another level, because right now they are struggling, and this will help plot the course for REAP.” He said that REAP, which is housed at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, needs to expand its role and authority in order to give it “something to do.”

So we see that REAP is another special interest group seeking to benefit itself. In this case, our best hope is that REAP engages in merely make-work, that the plan it produces is put on a shelf and ignored, and that the only harm to us is the $1.5 million cost of the plan.

The knowledge problem

There’s also the problem of the knowledge needed to plan. This is enough of a problem when individuals and businesses plan for themselves. It’s a tremendous — and unsolvable — problem when trying to plan for an entire region, even one as small as downtown Wichita. Arnold King has written about the ability of government experts to decide what investments should be made with public funds. There’s a problem with knowledge and power:

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

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

Another favorite thought from Friedrich Hayek is in his book The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” But they will try.

REAP has much information about the process on its website devoted to the grant, located at Sustainable Communities Grant 2011. I would especially encourage reading the document “Sustainable Communities Work Plan DRAFT.” In there you can learn of the plans to “decrease per capita Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).” This plan, if it succeeds, will harm citizens’ mobility and economic opportunities, especially for the people who need jobs most.

Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole, author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, writes the following regarding the tremendous boost the personal automobile has given Americans: “Since the dawn of the Republic, no invention has enhanced the quality of life of the average American as much as the mass-produced automobile. Americans today are far more mobile, they earn much higher incomes, and they have access to far more consumer goods than a hundred years ago. It is no exaggeration to attribute most of these improvements to the wide availability of automobiles.”

Remember, the sustainable communities planning process is definitely anti-automobile. One of the goals for the plan is: “Regional Transportation Plan: Develop multi-modal transportation options/programs for the region and connects housing options to emerging employment clusters.” This sounds like a good and noble idea. But in practice, government transit systems fail to produce what riders truly need, and are very expensive. The last time I checked, only 22.5 percent of the costs of running the Wichita transit system is paid for by riders through the fare box. Taxpayers — most of whom don’t ride the buses — pay the rest.

But owning an automobile gives people mobility, and that is very important for workers. Some examples:

“Studies show that car ownership is a significant factor in improving the employment status of welfare recipients.” (Job Access, Commute, and Travel Burden Among Welfare Recipients)

“Raphael and Rice (2002) found in their study that car ownership has a strong effect on the probability of an individual being employed as well as on the number of hours they work per week. Generally, car ownership better enables job seekers to look for jobs. They can consider work outside of regular transit service hours, and they can travel faster, more safely, and more flexibly than with public transportation.” (Transportation & Work: Exploring Car Usage and Employment Outcomes in the LSAL Data)

Also from this study: “Overall, car ownership does appear to have an important relationship to employment status, wages, and weeks worked.” And “Having a car as a primary mode of transportation makes a respondent four times as likely to be employed. Car ownership also improves earnings by several hundred dollars and increases weeks worked by up to eleven weeks.”

In the rankings of factors that are important to obtaining employment, a car was more useful than a high-school-equivalent diploma. We should be working to increase automobile ownership, especially among lower-income people. The planning process Wichita is considering adopting, with its emphasis on government transit rather than private automobiles, will decrease mobility and economic opportunity for everyone.

Finally, consider this from O’Toole on how the planning process ignores reality: “Transit advocates will point out that the autos driving on congested urban highways often have only one occupant. But that is exactly the point: If modern life is so decentralized that carpooling makes no sense for most commuters, how are giant buses and high-capacity trains going to work?” Fortunately, I don’t think high-capacity trains are seriously considered for the Wichita area. But the planners want more government transit and less private automobiles, despite our dectralized lifestyle.

Last week Wendell Cox appeared on an episode of the Jason Lewis radio program and talked about sustainable communities, etc. Sedgwick County and Wichita were mentioned. His recent piece is the Wall Street Journal is California Declares War on Suburbia: Planners want to herd millions into densely packed urban corridors. It won’t save the planet but will make traffic even worse.

In Kansas, planning will be captured by special interests

The government planning process started in south-central Kansas will likely be captured by special interest groups that see ways to benefit from the plan. The public choice school of economics and political science has taught us how special interest groups seek favors from government at enormous costs to society, and we will see this at play again over the next few years.

This week the Sedgwick County Commission voted to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. While some justified their votes in favor of the plan because “it’s only a plan,” once the planning process begins, special interests plot how to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. Then once the plan is formed, it’s nearly impossible to revise it, no matter how evident the need.

An example of how much reverence is given to government plans comes right from the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Kelo v. New London, in which the Court decided that government could use the power of eminent domain to take one person’s property and transfer it to someone else for the purposes of economic development. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Stevens cited the plan: “The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community.” Here we see the importance of the plan and due reverence given to it.

Stevens followed up, giving even more weight to the plan: “To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.”

To Stevens, the fact that the plan was comprehensive was a factor in favor of its upholding. The sustainable communities plan, likewise, is nothing but comprehensive, as described by county manager Bill Buchanan in a letter to commissioners: “[the plan will] consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

That pretty much covers it all. When you’re charged with promoting economic prosperity, defending earth against climate change, and promoting public health, there is no limit to the types of laws you might consider.

Who will plan?

The American Planning Association praised the Court’s notice of the importance of a plan, writing “This decision underscores the importance for a community to have a comprehensive development plan formulated through a democratic planning process with meaningful public participation by everyone.”

But these plans are rarely by and for the public. Almost always the government planning process is taken over and captured by special interests. We see this in public schools, where the planning and campaigning for new facilities is taken over by architectural and construction firms that see school building as a way to profit. It does not matter to them whether the schools are needed.

Our highway planning is hijacked by construction firms that stand to benefit, whether or not new roads are actually needed.

Our planning process for downtown Wichita is run by special interest groups that believe that downtown has a special moral imperative, and another group that sees downtown as just another way to profit at taxpayer expense. Both believe that taxpayers across Wichita, Kansas, and even the entire country must pay to implement their vision. As shown in Kansas and Wichita need pay-to-play laws the special interests that benefit from public spending on downtown make heavy political campaign contributions to nearly all members of the Wichita City Council. They don’t have a political ideology. They contribute only because they know council members will be voting to give them money.

In Wichita’s last school bond election, 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 new school construction, no matter whether schools are actually needed. The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture led the way in making these contributions. It’s not surprising that this firm was awarded a no-bid contract for plan management services for the bond issue valued at $3.7 million. This firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.

The special interest groups that benefit from highway construction: They formed a group called Economic Lifelines. It says it was formed to “provide the grassroots support for Comprehensive Transportation Programs in Kansas.” Its motto is “Stimulating economic vitality through leadership in infrastructure development.”

A look at the membership role, however, lets us know whose economic roots are being stimulated. Membership is stocked with names like AFL-CIO, Foley Equipment Company, Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, Kansas Aggregate & Concrete Associations, Kansas Asphalt Pavement Association, Kansas Contractors Association, Kansas Society of Professional Engineers, and PCA South Central Cement Promotion Association. Groups and companies like these have an economic interest in building more roads and highways, whether or not the state actually needs them.

The planners themselves are a special interest group, too. They need jobs. Like most government bureaucrats, they “profit” from increasing their power and influence, and by expansion of their budgets and staffs. So when Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton asks a professional planner questions about the desirability of planning, what answer does he think he will get? It’s not that the planners are not honest people. But they have a vested economic and professional interest in seeing that we have more government planning, not less.

And we have evidence that planners watch out for themselves. It is not disputed that this planning grant benefits Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP). Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau says that John Schlegel, Wichita’s Director of Planning, told him that “acceptance of this grant will take REAP to another level, because right now they are struggling, and this will help plot the course for REAP.” He said that REAP, which is housed at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, needs to expand its role and authority in order to give it “something to do.”

We see that REAP is another special interest group seeking to benefit itself. In this case, our best hope is that REAP engages in merely make-work, that the plan it produces is put on a shelf and ignored, and that the only harm to us is the $1.5 million cost of the plan.

By the way, did you know that Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh, who voted in favor of the plan that benefits REAP, is a board member of REAP, and may become the next chairman? Special interest groups know how to play the political game, that’s for sure.