An interactive visualization of Wichita-area employment and jobs by industry.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the United States Department of Labor, makes monthly employment statistics available. I’ve gathered them for the Wichita metropolitan area and present them in an interactive visualization.
This data comes from the Current Employment Statistics, which is a monthly survey of employers asking about jobs.1
The four tabs along the top of the visualization hold different views of the data; one table and three charts. Employment figures are in thousands. All series except one are not seasonally adjusted.
“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”
But the reality of obtaining information and records from the City of Wichita is far different from the claims of its leaders. Two years ago the city expanded its staff by hiring a Strategic Communications Director. When the city announced the new position, it said: “The Strategic Communications Director is the City’s top communications position, charged with developing, managing, and evaluating innovative, strategic and proactive public communications plans that support the City’s mission, vision and goals.”
But there has been little, perhaps no, improvement in the data and information made available to citizens.
The city’s attitude
Despite the proclamations of mayors and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. Here’s perhaps the most glaring example of how the city goes out of its way to conduct public business in secret.
Citizen watchdogs need access to records and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Visit Wichita (the former Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau), and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, now the Greater Wichita Partnership. Each of these agencies refuses to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas law that’s designed to provide citizen access to records.
The city backs this interpretation. When legislation was introduced to bring these agencies under the umbrella of the Kansas Open Records Act, cities — including Wichita — protested vigorously, and the legislation went nowhere.
Recently the City of Wichita added a new tax to hotel bills that may generate $3 million per year for the convention and visitors bureau to spend. Unless the city changes its attitude towards citizens’ right to know, this money will be spent in secret.
Another example of the City of Wichita’s attitude towards citizens and open government took place at a Kansas Legislature committee hearing. I had asked for email to or from a certain official for a certain period of time. The response from the city was that my request would encompass some 19,000 email messages, and the city denied the request as too burdensome. Fair enough.
But Dale Goter, the city’s lobbyist at the time, told legislators that my request for 19,000 emails was an example of abuse of the Kansas Open Records Act, citing it as evidence as to why reform was not needed. But I did not request 19,000 email messages. I made a request for messages meeting a certain criteria, and I had no way of knowing in advance how many email messages this would entail. The City of Wichita denied this request as burdensome, so there was either no cost or very little cost to the city. No harm, no foul.
Still the City of Wichita used this incident — and a similar incident involving the Kansas Policy Institute — as reasons that the Kansas Open Records Act needs no reform. This illustrates a problem with the attitude of Wichita city government towards citizens’ right to know.
This attitude may be noticed by the citizenry at large. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.
The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey.
An important way governments communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. With the launching of the new City of Wichita website, the city has actually taken a step backwards in providing information to citizens.
Something that had been very useful is missing and hasn’t been replaced: MyWichita.
As described here, MyWichita was a useful service. By using it, you could receive email notices of new press releases, city council agendas and minutes, district advisory board agenda and minutes, agendas and minutes of other boards, and other items. Using MyWichita was much easier than having to check multiple sections of the city’s website looking for newly-released agendas, minutes, etc.
This email reminder service was very valuable. It’s a basic customer service feature of many commercial and governmental websites. But MyWichita didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing that replaces its function. When I asked about this missing functionality, the city said it was working on a replacement that should be available in a month or two. It’s been several years since I asked.
Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, and also the Wichita school district. Not so the City of Wichita.
Until a few years ago, Wichita could supply data of only limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult and beyond the capability of most citizens to translate the data to a useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This was a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.
Now, if you ask the city for this data, you’ll receive data in an Excel spreadsheet. This is an improvement. But: You must pay for this data. The city says that someday it will make check register data available. See Wichita check register for the data and details on the request.
Kansas law requires that local government agencies publish legal notices for a variety of topics. Presently these are published in the Wichita Eagle at great cost to taxpayers. These notices could also be published on the city’s website, where they could be searched and archived. This would increase the usability of these documents at very little cost to the city. See Towards government transparency in Wichita: Legal notices.
Publish fulfilled requests
When governmental agencies like the City of Wichita fulfill records requests, they could also publish the records on their websites. Most of the time the records are supplied electronically, so this is an additional simple (and low cost) step that would leverage the value of the city’s effort.
Leveraging our lobbyists
What do lobbyists, including taxpayer-funded lobbyists, do in Topeka? One thing they do is testify before committees, in both verbal and written form. Another thing they do is to prepare reports for the clients, advising them on upcoming legislation, analyzing how it affects them, and what the prospects for the bill might be. They also meet with legislators and their clients, which are your elected officials.
Here’s a proposal that will help citizens make best use of their taxpayer-funded lobbyists:
I see nothing in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows local governmental units in Kansas to refuse to disclose these documents: testimony, reports by lobbyists to their government clients, and the lobbyists’ calendars (or billing records for contract lobbyists). Instead of making citizens ask for these records, possibly paying fees to obtain what they’re already paying for, why don’t local governments post these documents immediately on their websites?
Citizens could then benefit from the activities of the lobbyists they’re paying for. They could learn more about legislation as it works its way through the process. Citizens could judge whether the positions taken by the government lobbyists they’re paying for are aligned with their policy preferences.
If the actions taken by taxpayer-funded lobbyists are truly in the public interest, you’d think that cities, counties, and school boards would already be making this information easily available. In any case, there should be no resistance to starting this program.
Economic development transparency
For several years, the Kansas city of Lawrence has published an economic development report letting citizens know about the activities of the city in this area. The most recent edition may be viewed here.
The Lawrence report contains enough detail and length that an executive summary is provided. This is the type of information that cities should be providing, but the City of Wichita does not do this.
It’s not like the City of Wichita does not realize the desirability of providing citizens with information. In fact, Wichitans have been teased with the promise of more information in order to induce them to vote for higher taxes. During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax in 2014, a city document promised this information regarding economic development spending if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” (This is what Lawrence has been doing for several years.)
The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised, “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.” (But “Yes Wichita” was a campaign group and not an entity whose promises can be relied on, and can’t be held accountable for failure to perform.)
These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance, because the city (and other overlapping governmental jurisdictions) still spends a lot on economic development.
Where are our documents?
Government promotes and promises transparency, but finds it difficult to actually provide.
During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax in 2014, a city document promised this if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.”
Why is this information not available in any case? Is the city’s communications staff overwhelmed and have no time to provide this type of information? During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”
Since then the city has hired additional communications staff, adding a Strategic Communications Director. Now, while the city’s Facebook page has some useful information, there is also time to promote Barry the Bison playing golf.
Now Wichitans have to wonder: Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax? Or is it a governing principle of our city? I think I know the answer.
Here’s an example. A few years ago as Sedgwick County was preparing and debating its budget, I wanted to do some research on past budgets. But on the county’s website, the only budgets available were for this year and last year. There was nothing else.
So I asked for budgets and other financial documents. I received them on CD. Then I created a shared folder using Google Drive and uploaded the documents. Now, these documents are available to the world. They can be found using a Google search. Oh, and here’s something a little ironic. These old budgets had been on the Sedgwick County website at one time. Someone made the decision to remove them.
Creating this depository of budget documents cost nothing except a little bit of time. Well, if you have a lot of data to share, you might have to pay Google a little, like ten dollars per month for each agency or person. But it is so simple that there is no excuse for the failure of agencies like Wichita Transit to make documents like agendas and minutes available. You don’t need specialized personnel to do this work. All you need is the will and desire to make the documents available.
Here’s another example of how simple it can be to achieve transparency. These days live and archived video of governmental meetings is commonplace. Commonplace, that is, except for the Wichita public schools. If you want to see a meeting of the Wichita school board, you must either attend the meetings, or view delayed broadcasts on cable TV. There’s a simple and low-cost way to fix this. It’s called YouTube.
When the Sedgwick County Commission was faced with an aging web infrastructure for its archived broadcasts, it did the sensible thing. It created a YouTube channel and uploaded video of its meetings. Now citizens can view commission meetings at any time on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. This was an improvement over the old system, which was difficult to use and required special browser plug-ins. I could never get the video to play on my Iphone.
The Wichita school district could do the same. In fact, the district already has a YouTube channel. Yes, it takes a long time to upload two or three hours of video to YouTube, but once started the process runs in the background without intervention. No one has to sit and watch the process.
I’ve asked why the district does not make video of its meetings available archived online. The district responded that it “has a long-standing commitment to the USD 259 community of showing unabridged recordings of regular Board of Education meetings on Cox Cable Channel 20 and more recently AT&T U-verse Channel 99.” The meetings are broadcast seven times starting the day after each meeting. Two of the broadcasts start at 1:00 am.
Showing meetings delayed on cable TV is okay. It was innovative at one time. But why aren’t meetings shown live? What if you can’t watch the meeting before it disappears from the broadcast schedule after a week? What if you don’t want to pay cable television bills? What if you want to watch meetings on your computer, tablet, or smartphone? I don’t think the fact that meetings are on cable TV means they can’t also be on YouTube.
There are two elements of irony here, if that is the correct term. One is that earlier this year the Wichita school district considered hiring a marketing firm to “gauge its reputation and suggest new branding strategies.” Here’s an idea: Act as though you care about people being able to view the district’s board meetings.
Recently the Wichita school district raised property taxes. The mill levy will rise by 2.86, an increase of about five percent from its present level. The projected cost is an additional $33 per year for a home worth $100.000. That is quite a large increase. That’s bad. What’s also bad is the district’s lack of respect for taxpayers. As I’ve just told you, it’s difficult to view a meeting of the school board, which is a sign that the district prefers to operate in the shadows as much as possible. The board will raise your taxes, and at the same time keep it difficult for you to see them do it.
Just for the sake of completeness, let’s not let the state of Kansas off the hook. Currently, the proceedings of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are not available on video. The audio is broadcast on the internet, but it’s live only. No archiving. You must listen live, or figure out some way to record it on your own.
But for eight dollars per month the legislature could make its audio proceedings available to listen to at any time. For eight dollars per month at least one podcast hosting company offers an unlimited plan. Unlimited storage, and unlimited bandwidth. That is just what is needed. And since the audio of the proceedings of the House and Senate is broadcast on the internet, it must pass through a computer somewhere. That computer could also be recording the audio. Once recorded, the process of uploading the audio to the podcast host is a trivial procedure.
But neither Kansas legislative chamber records their proceedings, according to the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House. I asked. Recordings of sessions are not available because they are not made. It would be simple to record audio of the Kansas House and Senate and make it available for anyone to listen to at any time. It is almost without cost. It would have great benefit.
All these levels of government say they value open records and transparency. But let me ask you: Do you think they really mean it?
Greater Wichita Partnership features untruthful information on its website, which casts doubt on the reliability of the organization and the City of Wichita.
Greater Wichita Partnership uses the url of its predecessor, the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, or GWEDC. GWP is in charge of efforts to develop the economy in the greater Wichita area. It describes itself as “a driving force in building a remarkable city and region.”1
But there is a problem. Based on the information GWP makes available on the front page of its website, I don’t have much confidence in the organization’s efforts. And that’s too bad.
In the past I’ve observed how GWEDC — that’s the predecessor to GWP — was derelict in keeping its information current. In 2014, I noticed that GWEDC credited itself with recruiting a company named InfoNXX to Wichita.2 But GWEDC did not update its website to reflect current conditions. When I looked at GWEDC’s website in October 2013, I found this on a page titled Office Operations:
Wichita hosts over a dozen customer service and processing centers — including a USPS Remote Encoding Center (985 employees), InfoNXX (950), T-Mobile (900), Royal Caribbean (700), Convergys (600), Protection One (540), Bank of America (315) and Cox Communications (230.)
The problem was this: At the time I looked at the GWEDC website in October 2013, InfoNXX had closed its Wichita operations in 2012.3 Still, the official Wichita-area economic development agency touted the existence of a company that no longer existed in Wichita, and claimed a job count that the company never achieved. (Also, at that time the USPS facility was in the process of closing and eliminating all Wichita jobs.)
Now, the Greater Wichita Partnership website trumpets — on its front page — the expansion of a company that has actually contracted its operations in Wichita.
The company is NetApp, a maker of computer server storage systems. It’s the type of high tech company all cities are recruiting, and for which cities and states will open the economic development incentives pocketbook. Locally, Wichita and the State of Kansas announced expansion plans for NetApp operations in Wichita in 2012. But by the end of 2015, NetApp was not meeting its job goals in Wichita, according to information from Sedgwick County. Since then, NetApp announced two rounds of job cuts, with the cuts in Wichita unspecified.45
NetApp has not met the lofty expectations Wichita and Kansas officials promoted. That’s unfortunate, and perhaps the situation will improve and NetApp will grow.
Relevant to public policy is that NetApp was slated to receive a lot of incentives from many levels of government, up to $35 million.6 It is likely impossible to determine how much of these incentives were actually paid to NetApp. We do know that both the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County stopped paying incentives to NetApp, as these incentives were predicated on achieving certain levels of job counts, and NetApp has not met them.
But the lesson to learn today is that the Greater Wichita Partnership, the agency in charge of economic development in the area, still advertises NetApp as a success.
The problem is not only the blatant lie that GWP promotes prominently: “NetApp doubles its Wichita footprint.” It’s a serious problem that GWP has not updated its website to reflect reality. What if a company considering Wichita for expansion or location checks the NetApp story? How would such a company reconcile reality with what GWP promotes? What does this say about the reputation and reliability of GWP?
I don’t expect GWP to highlight its failures. But we ought to expect GWP to care enough about the truth to remove false information from such a prominent presentation.
In September 2015 James Chung delivered several lectures on the Wichita-area economy and its outlook.7 In the event I attended, Chung showed examples of web pages from the Des Moines and Omaha chambers, and contrasted them to a similar page from the Wichita chamber. Chung got it wrong, as the page he showed to illustrate the Wichita chamber was a print version of the page, which — intentionally — is a simplified version of the page designed for viewing in a web browser.8 The print version of the page, however, is what appears in Google, and most people will not investigate beyond that.
Still, the Wichita chamber page was stale compared to the others. And Chung’s point was, and is, relevant: First impressions matter.
The Wichita chamber’s site is better now. But someone at the Greater Wichita Partnership didn’t get the message. Content — reliable content — counts.
State and local leaders need to help meet Cargill’s needs2
The second headline was in response to the news story “Cargill plans to move its Wichita headquarters — but where?” 3 In this story, Carrie Rengers reports “Cargill is looking to move its Wichita headquarters, but whether that’s within downtown, where it already is, or outside of it or even outside of Kansas is unclear. … City and state officials are working in full gear to make sure Wichita — downtown specifically — is the option Cargill selects.”
Rengers reports that Wichita city officials say no specific incentives have been offered to Cargill, but “any incentives likely would involve infrastructure help, such as with parking, or assistance with easing the process for a new building, such as with permitting.” Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell says “cash incentive won’t be an option,” according to Rengers.
A Cargill official says that the company needs to attract millennials and younger people, who are not attracted to “traditional office space and office-type buildings.”
Now, consider the first opinion headline: “Investment in downtown Wichita is impressive.” In this op-ed, Phillip Brownlee writes “It’s encouraging that investment in downtown Wichita is continuing — and that it is mostly privately funded. A vibrant downtown is important to the city’s image and to attracting and retaining young adults. More than $1 billion in private and public investment has occurred downtown in the past decade. About $675 million of that investment has been privately funded, and $411 million has been public projects, according to Wichita Downtown Development Corp.”
Brownlee goes on to note other investments, such as 800 new apartment units “in the works.”
On the importance of downtown, Brownlee writes “City leaders have long recognized the value of a healthy downtown. Besides the symbolic importance of not having a lot of empty buildings, many young adults prefer an urban environment. That makes downtown important even for businesses not located there, because it can help or hurt their ability to recruit and retain young professionals.”
I see a discontinuity. Our city’s leaders — opinion, elected, and bureaucratic — brag about all the investment in downtown Wichita, public and private, yet it doesn’t seem to be enough to retain a major Wichita employer in downtown.
At least editorialist Rhonda Holman recognizes the problem in her column: “It’s concerning that Cargill’s stated intentions to relocate and consolidate have not included a commitment to remain downtown or even in Wichita or Kansas.” What is her solution? “Elected and business leaders need to be creative and assertive in helping Cargill meet its needs.”
I share Holman’s concern. It’s very troubling that with $411 million in private investment over the past decade, downtown Wichita still isn’t attractive enough to retain Cargill, if the company’s intent to move is real and genuine. And advising the same group of people who have been in power during the decline of the Wichita economy to be “creative and assertive” is a solution?
One of the things that may be offered to Cargill, according to Rengers, is “assistance with easing the process for a new building, such as with permitting.” This is a big red flag on a very tall flagpole. If the city has regulations so onerous that they are a consideration as to whether to locate in Wichita, this is something that must be fixed immediately. But the instinct of the Wichita City Council and city bureaucrats is to create more regulations covering everything from the striping of parking lots to the personal hygiene of taxi drivers.
Mayor Longwell says there will be no cash incentives offered to Cargill. Instead, something like help with parking may be offered. This might take the form of building a parking garage for Cargill. We should ask: What is the difference between giving cash to Cargill and building a parking garage for Cargill’s use? There really isn’t a meaningful difference, except for Cargill. That’s because cash incentives are taxable income. Free use of a parking garage isn’t taxable. 45
Further, Cargill may qualify for PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas.6 This program allows companies to retain 95 percent of the payroll withholding tax of employees. The original intent of this program was to lure companies to locate in Kansas, but in recent years the program has been expanded to include incentivizing companies to remain in Kansas. While this is a state program and not a city program under the mayor’s control, PEAK benefits are more valuable than cash.
On the map of metropolitan areas, blue means faster growth, and orange means slowest. You can see that Wichita has the economic growth of a typical rust belt city. (Click charts for larger versions.)
The table showing changes in indicators over the past decade shows Wichita almost always below the middle.
The charts of trends over time shows Wichita falling behind the nation, then catching up in 2007 and 2008, but falling behind since then. As time goes on, the gap between the nation and Wichita widens, not narrows.
The response of Wichita political, bureaucratic, and civic leaders is, by any measure, new paint on an old barn, or just keeping pace with other cities. The Greater Wichita Partnership is just a new name for the same old collection of institutions and people who have been responsible for the dismal performance shown in Brooking’s Metro Monitor. In fact, if you visit greaterwichitapartnership.org and click on “Economic Development” you’re taken to the same old page for Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, although with a new logo. Same old barn; new paint.
While we have to hope that the Wichita State University Innovation Campus works as advertised, we also must realize that dozens and dozens of major and minor universities across the country already have similar initiatives up and running.
A new law in Kansas may provide opportunities for better enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act.
This year the Kansas Legislature passed HB 2256, captioned as “An act concerning public bodies or agencies; relating to the state of Kansas and local units of government; providing certain powers to the attorney general for investigation of violations of the open records act and the open meetings act; attorney general’s open government fund …”
The good part of this law is that it provides additional enforcement options when citizens feel that government agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Law. Before this law, citizens and news organizations had — effectively — two paths for seeking enforcement of KORA. One is private legal action at their own expense. The other is asking the local district attorney for an opinion.
Now the Kansas Attorney General may intervene, as noted in the summary of the new law: “The bill allows the Attorney General to determine, by a preponderance of the evidence after investigation, that a public agency has violated KORA or KOMA, and allows the Attorney General to enter into a consent order with the public agency or issue a finding of violation to the public agency prior to filing an action in district court.”
Not all aspects of this bill are positive, as it also confirms many exceptions to the records act and adds to them. It also adds to the authority of the Attorney General, as have other bills this year.
The City of Wichita has been obstinate in its insistence that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require it to fulfill certain requests for records of spending by its subordinate tax-funded agencies. The city believes that certain exceptions apply and allow the city to keep secret records of the spending of tax funds. The city may be correct in its interpretation of this law.
But the law — even if the city’s interpretation is correct — does not prohibit the city from releasing the records. The city could release the records, if it wanted to.
Fulfilling the legitimate records requests made by myself and others would go a long way towards keeping promises the city and its officials make, even recent promises.
The city’s official page for the mayor holds this: “Mayor Longwell has championed many issues related to improving the community including government accountability, accessibility and transparency …”
During the recent mayoral campaign, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle that he wants taxpayers to know where their money goes: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”
In a column in the Wichita Business Journal, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell wrote: “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.”
Following, from 2012, discussion of problems with the City of Wichita and open government.
Wichita, again, fails at open government
The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.
In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.
So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.
Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:
Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?
Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?
For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?
It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.
Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.
But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.
He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”
Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”
We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”
But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.
It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.
In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?
What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.
I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)
I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.
The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.
Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.
Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.
If we in Kansas and Wichita wonder why our economic growth is slow and our economic development programs don’t seem to be producing results, there is data to tell us why: Our tax rates are too high.
In 2012 the Tax Foundation released a report that examines the tax costs on business in the states and in selected cities in each state. The news for Kansas is worse than merely bad, as our state couldn’t have performed much worse: Kansas ranks 47th among the states for tax costs for mature business firms, and 48th for new firms. (Starting in 2013, Kansas income tax rates are lower, and we would expect that Kansas would rank somewhat better if the study was updated.)
The study is unusual in that it looks at the impact of state tax burden on mature and new firms. This, according to report authors, “allows us to understand the effects of state tax incentives compared to a state’s core tax system.” In further explanation, the authors write: “The second measure is for the tax burden faced by newly established operations, those that have been in operation less than three years. This represents a state’s competitiveness after we have taken into account the various tax incentive programs it makes available to new investments.”
The report also looks at the tax costs for specific types of business firms. For Kansas, some individual results are better than overall, but still not good. For a mature corporate headquarters, Kansas ranks 30th. For locating a new corporate headquarters — one that would benefit from tax incentive programs — Kansas ranked 42nd. For a mature research and development facility, 46th; while new is ranked 49th. For a mature retail store the rank is 38th, while new is ranked 45th.
There are more categories. Kansas ranks well in none.
The report also looked at two cities in each state, a major city and a mid-size city. For Kansas, the two cities are Wichita and Topeka.
Among the 50 cities chosen, Wichita ranks 30th for a mature corporate headquarters, but 42nd for a new corporate headquarters.
For a mature research and development facility, Wichita ranks 46th, and 49th for a new facility.
For a mature and new retail store, Wichita ranks 38th and 45th, respectively.
For a mature and new call center, Wichita ranks 43rd and 47th, respectively.
In its summary for Kansas, the authors note the fecklessness of Kansas economic development incentives: “Kansas offers among the most generous property tax abatements and investment tax credits across most firm types, yet these incentives seem to have little impact on the state’s rankings for new operations.”
It’s also useful to compare Kansas to our neighbors. The comparison is not favorable for Kansas.
This report shows us that power of government to influence economic development is weak. GWEDC’s information said these jobs were for the geographical area of Sedgwick County. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force in Sedgwick County in 2014 was 247,614 persons. So the jobs created by GWEDC’s actions amounted to 0.14 percent of the labor force. This is a vanishingly small fraction. It is statistical noise. Other economic events overwhelm these efforts.
GWEDC complains of not being able to compete because Wichita has few incentives. This is not true, as Wichita has many incentives to offer. Nonetheless, GWEDC says it could have created or retained another 3,010 jobs if adequate incentives had been available. Adding those jobs to the jobs it claims credit for amounts to 1.39 percent of the labor force, which is still a small number that is overwhelmed by other events.
Our tax costs are high
The report by the Tax Foundation helps us understand one reason why the economic development efforts of GWEDC, Sedgwick County, and Wichita are not working well: Our tax costs are too high.
While economic development incentives can help reduce the cost of taxes for selected firms, incentives don’t help the many firms that don’t receive them. In fact, the cost of these incentives is harmful to other firms. The Tax Foundation report points to this harm: “While many state officials view tax incentives as a necessary tool in their state’s ability to be competitive, others are beginning to question the cost-benefit of incentives and whether they are fair to mature firms that are paying full freight. Indeed, there is growing animosity among many business owners and executives to the generous tax incentives enjoyed by some of their direct competitors.”
It seems in Wichita that the thinking of our leaders has not reached the level of maturity required to understand that targeted incentives have great cost and damage the business climate. Instead of creating an environment in which all firms have a chance to thrive, government believes it can identify firms that are subsidy-worthy — at the exclusion of others.
But there is one incentive that can be offered to all firms: Reduce tax costs for everyone. The policy of reducing tax costs or granting incentives to the selected few is not working. This “active investor” approach to economic development is what has led companies in Wichita and Kansas to escape hundreds of millions in taxes — taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form.
Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business is critical of this approach to economic development. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and 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 expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”
In the same paper, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers that Wichita and Kansas has been pursuing and Wichita’s leaders want to ramp up: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”
In making his argument, Hall cites research on the futility of chasing large employers as an economic development strategy: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. To quote from the most comprehensive study: ‘The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.'”
There is also substantial research that is it young firms — distinguished from small business in general — that are the engine of economic growth for the future. We can’t detect which of the young firms will blossom into major success — or even small-scale successes. The only way to nurture them is through economic policies that all companies can benefit from. Reducing tax rates is an example of such a policy. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like IRBs is an example of precisely the wrong policy.
We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach. We need to advocate for policies — at Wichita City Hall, at the Sedgwick County Commission, and at the Kansas Statehouse — that lead to sustainable economic development. We need political leaders who have the wisdom to realize this, and the courage to act appropriately. Which is to say, to not act in most circumstances, except to reduce the cost of government for everyone.
Private sector job growth in the Wichita area is improving, but lags behind local government employment growth.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics through 2014 allows us to compare trends of employment in the Wichita metropolitan area. Over the past few years we see private sector employment rising. At the same time government employment, particularly state and local government employment, has declined or leveled.
Over the 24 years covered by the chart, private sector employment grew by 16 percent. Local government employment grew by 41 percent.
This long-term trend is a problem. It is the private sector that generates the taxes that pay for government. When government grows faster than the private sector, economic activity is shifted away from productive activities to unproductive. The economist Dan Mitchell has proposed what he calls the “Golden Rule of Fiscal Policy,” which is: “The Private Sector should Grow Faster than Government.” This is not happening in the Wichita metropolitan area.
As part of a plan for spending a dedicated tax revenue stream, the Wichita city council should include disclosure of spending. It would fulfill a campaign promise.
When the City of Wichita collects money through taxation, citizens have the right to know how it is spent. For the city, it is possible to view every check that is written, although the city is not able to supply this information in machine-readable form. But it is available.
But when the city establishes non-profit corporations that are funded totally, or nearly totally, with taxes, different rules apply, says the city: Spending does not have to be disclosed.
This is contrary to the spirit of the Kansas Open Records Act, which opens with the preamble “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”
This week the city council will consider a scope of services and budget agreement with its convention and visitors bureau. This year that agency is receiving the proceeds of a new 2.75 percent tax on hotel bills. City documents indicate this tax is expected to raise $2.7 million annually. When added to other tax funds the convention and visitors bureau receives, its budget is some $5 million per year.
But none of this money is subject to the same disclosure as regular city spending.
During the recent mayoral campaign, candidate Jeff Longwell wrote this in response to a question for the Wichita Eagle voter guide: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”
Now Wichita mayor, Longwell has an opportunity to implement a campaign promise. It would be simple to do. All the council needs to do is insist that the convention and visitors bureau agree that it is what the law says it is: An agency funded nearly totally by taxes, which means it is a public agency that falls under the scope of the Kansas Open Records Act.
Based on events in Wichita, the Wall Street Journal wrote “What Americans seem to want most from government these days is equal treatment. They increasingly realize that powerful government nearly always helps the powerful …” But Wichita’s elites don’t seem to understand this.
Three years ago from today the Wall Street Journal noted something it thought remarkable: a “voter revolt” in Wichita. Citizens overturned a decision by the Wichita City Council regarding an economic development incentive awarded to a downtown hotel. It was the ninth layer of subsidy for the hotel, and because of our laws, it was the only subsidy that citizens could contest through a referendum process.
In its op-ed, the Journal wrote:
The elites are stunned, but they shouldn’t be. The core issue is fairness — and not of the soak-the-rich kind that President Obama practices. One of the leaders of the opposition, Derrick Sontag, director of Americans for Prosperity in Kansas, says that what infuriated voters was the veneer of “political cronyism.”
What Americans seem to want most from government these days is equal treatment. They increasingly realize that powerful government nearly always helps the powerful, whether the beneficiaries are a union that can carve a sweet deal as part of an auto bailout or corporations that can hire lobbyists to write a tax loophole.
The “elites” referred to include the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, the political class, and the city newspaper. Since then, the influence of these elites has declined. Last year all three campaigned for a sales tax increase in Wichita, but voters rejected it by a large margin. It seems that voters are increasingly aware of the cronyism of the elites and the harm it causes the Wichita-area economy.
Last year as part of the campaign for the higher sales tax the Wichita Chamber admitted that Wichita lags in job creation. The other elites agreed. But none took responsibility for having managed the Wichita economy into the dumpster. Even today the local economic development agency — which is a subsidiary of the Wichita Chamber — seeks to shift blame instead of realizing the need for reform. The city council still layers on the levels of subsidy for its cronies.
Following, from March 2012:
A Wichita shocker
“Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.” So starts today’s Wall Street Journal Review & Outlook editorial (subscription required), taking notice of the special election last week in Wichita.
The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is one of the most prominent voices for free markets and limited government in America. Over and over Journal editors expose crony capitalism and corporate welfare schemes, and they waste few words in condemning these harmful practices.
The three Republican members of the Wichita City Council who consider themselves fiscal conservatives but nonetheless voted for the corporate welfare that voters rejected — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) — need to consider this a wake up call. These members, it should be noted, routinely vote in concert with the Democrats and liberals on the council.
For good measure, we should note that Sedgwick County Commission Republicans Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton routinely — but not always — vote for these crony capitalist measures.
But recent history shows that when cash is needed, local governments have responded positively.
When Hawker Beechcraft threatened to leave Wichita for Baton Rouge, Wichita and Sedgwick County contributed $2.5 million each for an incentive. (Never mind that the threat to move was not real.)
Not long after that, the city and county contributed $1 million each for an incentive for Bombardier Learjet.
So there is recent history that shows when officials feel that spending on cash incentives is necessary, the city and county find the money. It’s difficult to imagine that if GWEDC officials had come to the city or county with a need for cash — especially if a deal was truly hinging on a cash contribution — that the council and commission would not find the money somewhere.
Job creation in context
For 2014, GWEDC claims credit for creating or retaining 424 jobs.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that for 2014, the labor force for local geographies was:
Sedgwick County: 242,460
Metro Wichita: 300,911
For each area, 424 jobs amounts to this percent of the labor force:
While economic development officials complain of lacking a deal closing fund, during last year’s sales tax campaign we were told that Wichita would not be competing by giving out cash. Material on the “Yes Wichita” campaign website, under the heading “Why is this plan different?” reads “It’s not about cash for jobs — it’s about investing in ourselves.”
Later on the same page: “We’ll let other cities compete with cash and instead we’ll invest in our people and infrastructure.”
The issue of awarding an economic development incentive reveals much as to why the Wichita-area economy has not grown.
At the December 17, 2014 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission an economic development incentive was considered. The proceedings are of interest as a window into how economic development works.
The proposal was that Sedgwick County will make a loan to Figeac Aero in the amount of $250,000 as an economic development incentive in conjunction with its acquisition of a local company and a contemplated expansion. It’s likely the county will also participate in forgiving property taxes, although that decision will be made by the City of Wichita on the county’s behalf.
Sedgwick County Chief Financial Officer Chris Chronis presented the item to the commissioners, telling them “the company has been very successful in Europe.”
Chronis also presented the benefit-cost analysis from calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. He said the proposed county property tax abatement has a value of just over $473,000, although the award of the exemption is controlled by the city. The present value of county’s cost over ten years, considering both the property tax abatement and the $250,000 loan, is $687,793. The present value of the benefit is just over $1,000,000, so the county’s net benefit is $317,834. Therefore, the net public financial benefit ratio to the county of 1.46 to one.
The final review of the contract is still to be performed. Chronis asked the commission for authorizing him to execute an agreement “in substantially the same form as the one we have given you, subject to final review by the county counselor.”
Commissioner Richard Ranzau asked if the commission had in its possession the final form of the document. The answer was no. Chronis said that the document is substantially in final form, subject to some tweaking. Later questioning by Ranzau revealed that there are many parts of the contract that are not present. The agreement the commissioners had referenced the missing parts, such as a security agreement.
Ranzau also brought up the fact that the commission had changed its policy so that forgivable loans are no longer used. Chronis said this is not a forgivable loan. Ranzau asked “what is it?” Chronis replied it is a loan. Ranzau asked if the company had to repay the loan. Chronis said if they don’t fulfill their end of the agreement, then yes, they will have to pay it back. If the company does not repay the loan, this is because the company has met the employment targets, and the county gets its repayment in the form of economic benefit to the community and to Sedgwick County government, he added.
In the end, Chronis admitted that this agreement has the same elements of past forgivable loans, but is different because now there is better protection in case the company does not satisfy commitments.
In support of the incentive, Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce president Gary Plummer said he is here in a “positive environment.” He told the commissioners that staff worked very hard. He mentioned how much tax the company has paid to Sedgwick County. He said this is a great moment in Sedgwick County economic development history.
Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition president Tim Chase promoted the security that the county is receiving in case the loan needs to be repaid. There is a lien on tangible assets, for example. But the company still must agree to specific provisions for the security of the loan. Chase said this is “not, in any way, shape, or form a done deal.”
Commissioner Karl Peterjohn mentioned a newspaper article from May that quoted Figeac Aero’s vice president of business development as saying “the heart of Figeac North America will be Wichita.” Chase explained there had been personnel changes since then. Also, Chase said that Figeac hired a consultant that advised the company to inquire about “standard” incentives. When GWEDC did not supply an answer the company considered satisfactory, Chase said he was told “that starts the clock over. We’re going to begin looking at other locations.” The article Peterjohn referred to is French air parts maker Figeac has plans to grow in Wichita May 9, 2014 Wichita Eagle.
There was a question about state participation in incentives. Chronis did not know what, if anything, the state would be offering.
In further discussion, Ranzau said that Figeac has already bought a company here and is hiring. They have plans to be here, he said, meaning that the “but for” argument does not apply. By his calculation, if the average salary was reduced by 12 cents per hour, that would amount to the value of the incentive Sedgwick County is offering, $250,000 over five years. He expressed his concern that the contract the commission is being asked to approve is incomplete, and that the City of Wichita has yet to vote on it. Ranzau made a motion that the item be tabled until the agreement is complete. That motion failed, with only Peterjohn voting in support.
In other discussion, Ranzau repeated his concern over approving an incomplete document, telling commissioners that this would not be done in the private sector, adding that this is what it means that you can’t “run government like a business.”
In his remarks, Peterjohn quoted a government official famously who said “you have to pass the document to find out what’s in it.” Peterjohn expressed concern that the analysis provided by CEDBR is based on numbers provided by the company. This qualification is standard, he said, and always a concern.
The measure passed by a vote of three to two, with Peterjohn and Ranzau opposed.
Excerpt from the meeting
The labor force in the Wichita metropolitan area is about 298,000 people. The 50 jobs to be created in the first year by Figeac represents 0.017 percent of the labor force, or one job for every 5,960 people in the labor force.
Another way to place the 50 Figeac jobs in context is to look at them in comparison to jobs created, not the labor force. In Kansas in recent years, job gains in the private sector are about six percent of employment. (Figures are not available for Wichita alone.) Employment in the Wichita metropolitan area is about 284,000. Six percent of that is 17,040. So the 50 Figeac jobs are now 0.29 percent of all jobs created in a year, or one out of 341 jobs.
It’s good that 50 people will have jobs. Recall, however, that the president of the chamber of commerce told commissioners that staff worked very hard to acquire these jobs. He called this “a great moment.”
This illustrates a problem with targeted economic development incentives. Making deals takes a lot of time and effort. Three top officials attended the commission meeting, and they will likely attend the Wichita city council meeting where the incentive is presented. Much time of county staff was required.
Our economic development agencies and local governments do not have the capacity to strike enough deals to account for significant job growth. A better strategy is to create an environment where business firms can form and expand organically, without requiring or depending on government assistance.
Is the incentive necessary?
The quotation from a newspaper article seven months old that described Figeac’s commitment to grow in Wichita raises suspicions of what is commonly alleged: That companies make location and expansion plans for business reasons. Then, some may seek incentives, even though the decision has already been made. Local economic development officials are eager to accommodate the request for incentives, as they need to justify their existence and notch a few sure wins. Most politicians, of course, are more than willing to take credit for creating jobs.
Are there other incentives?
The Sedgwick County commissioners had to make a judgment on the wisdom of incentives without knowledge of all the incentives the company may receive. The City of Wichita had not acted on a similar loan request and property tax abatements. The State of Kansas would not disclose what incentives it had offered to Figeac.
We don’t know, but a program that Figeac may qualify for is PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas. This program allows companies to retain 95 percent of the payroll withholding tax of employees. This can be a substantial sum. Tables available at the Kansas Department of Revenue indicate that for a single person with no exemptions earning $40,000 annually, the withholding would be $27 per week, or $1,404 annually. For a married person with two children, withholding would be $676 annually. Under PEAK, the company retains 95 percent of these values.
(Since unmarried workers have higher withholding rates than married workers, and those with fewer exemptions have more withheld than those with many, does this provide incentives for companies in the PEAK program to adjust their hiring preferences?)
As is common, incentives are justified by a benefit-cost analysis that purports to show that more comes in to government coffers than goes out due to the incentive. But the “benefits” that go into this calculation are quite different from the profits that business firms attempt to earn.
Here’s a question: In his presentation, the county’s chief financial officer said the benefit to the county over ten years is $317,834. What will the county do with that money? Will it reduce taxes by that amount? That is what would benefit the taxpayers that paid to provide the incentive. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, the benefit is spent.
The entire process assumes that these benefit-cost ratios are valid. This is far from certain, as follows:
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.
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.
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.
Why is it that many 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?
We’ve been told for many years that Wichita needs to diversify its economy. The Wichita economy is highly dependent on one industry — aircraft manufacturing — and Figeac is in the aircraft industry. When citizens have told the Wichita City Council that offering incentives to aircraft companies serves to make it more difficult to diversify, the president and chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce complained in an op-ed: “Would the anti-business voices’ diversification strategy be to send aviation jobs to other cities and states, thereby crippling our economy? Where’s the logic in that?” This says a great deal about the problems with economic development in Wichita, namely that our leaders see no difference between business and capitalism, and that the need for diversification is merely a slogan that is not followed to in any meaningful way.
The nature of the game
The explanation by Chase spotlights some of the difficulties in economic development. The negotiations are not complete, but government approval is needed. More broadly, economic development officials are not negotiating the use of their own capital or capital that has been entrusted to them. They’re spending someone else’s money, for which there is little incentive to bargain wisely.
Commissioners were told that Figeac is a successful company. Why, then, does it need incentives?
This discourse shows the value of elected officials like Karl Peterjohn, and also Richard Ranzau, as he too contributed to the understanding of this matter. When Michael O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council, he also contributed in this way.
Here’s what Schmitt told the commissioners, based on the meeting minutes: “I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future.”
Shortly after that he said “Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing.”
The problem is that when the bank Schmitt works for makes a loan, there are several forces in play that are not present in government. Perhaps the most obvious is that a bank loans money and expects to be repaid. In the case of the forgivable loan the commission was considering, the goal is that the loan is not repaid. These loans, remember, are a grant of cash, subject to a few conditions. If the recipient company is required to repay the loan, it is because it did not meet conditions such as job count or capital investment. In these circumstances, the company is probably not performing well economically, and therefore may not be able to repay the loan.
Another example of how a bank is different from government is that at a bank, both parties enter the loan transaction voluntarily. The bank’s shareholders and depositors are voluntary participants. Perhaps not explicitly for each loan, but if I do not like the policies or loans my bank has made, I can easily move my shares and deposits to another bank. But for these government loans, I personally have appeared several times before governmental bodies asking that the loan not be made. I did not consent. And changing government is much more difficult than changing banks.
Another difference between Schmitt’s bank and government is that bank’s goal is to earn a profit. Government doesn’t calculate profit. It is not able to, and when it tries, it efforts fall short. For one thing, government conscripts its capital. It faces no market test as to whether it is making good investments. It doesn’t have to compete with other institutions for capital, as a private bank does. Ludwig von Mises taught us that government can’t calculate profit and loss, the essential measure that lets us know if a business is making efficient use of resources. Thomas DiLorenzo elaborated, writing: “There is no such thing as real accounting in government, of course, since there are no profit-and-loss statements, only budgets. Consequently, there is no way of ever knowing, in an accounting sense, whether government is adding value or destroying it.”
An example of this lack of accounting for capital comes from the same governmental body making this forgivable loan. In Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense is important, even today, I explain that proper attention given to the depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita would recognize and account for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. But the county doesn’t do that, at least not in its most visible annual reporting of the arena’s financial results.
Governments locally do have a measure of what they consider to be “profit.” It’s the benefit-cost ratio calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. This is the source of the “$1 invested and get a return of over $2.40” that Schmitt referenced. But the “benefits” that go into this calculation are quite different from the profits that business firms attempt to earn. Most importantly, the benefits that government claims are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of additional tax revenue paid to government. This is very different from the profits companies earn in voluntary market transactions.
Government usually claims that in order to get these “benefits,” the incentives must be paid. But often the new economic activity (expansion, etc.) would have happened anyway without the incentives. There is much evidence that economic development incentives rank low on the list of factors businesses consider when making investments. A related observation is that if the relatively small investment government makes in incentives is solely or even partially responsible for such wonderful outcomes in terms of jobs, why doesn’t government do this more often? If the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners has such power to create economic growth, why is anyone unemployed?
Those, like Gary Schmitt, who are preparing to lead Wichita’s efforts in stimulating its economy believe that government should take on a larger role. We need to make sure that these leaders understand the fundamental differences between government and business, and how government can — and can’t — help business grow.
Following is an excerpt from the meeting minutes:
Chairman Skelton said, “Okay, thank you. Anybody else who wishes to speak today? Please state your name and address for the record.”
Mr. Gary Schmitt, (address redacted to respect privacy) greeted the Commissioners and said, “I work at Intrust Bank and I am the Vice-Chair of GWEDC. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I want to thank all of you also for just saving the county $700,000 by refinancing the bond issue. I think that was a great move. I think that’s exactly what we need to do to help support our county.
Mr. Schmitt said, “Also want to say I think Starwood coming to Wichita with 900 jobs in the very near future is a big win for Wichita, for Sedgwick County and our community. And I just want to encourage you to support the $200,000 investment. I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future. And I think having 900 people employed in basically starter jobs, or jobs to fill the gap in their financial needs for their families is very important also. So thank you very much for the opportunity to speak. I encourage you to support positive vote on this.”
Chairman Skelton said, “Commissioner Peterjohn.”
Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Mr. Schmidt, I thank you for coming down and speaking today and your efforts on behalf of GWEDC. One of the things I struggle with these issues when they come before the Commission is what is the, how do we come up with an optimum number? I mean, why is $200,000 the right figure for the county’s contribution. And also, I mean, other than the fact that the city approved a similar amount yesterday, and when this comes to us and the calculations are coming from a, I think, a basic input and output model that fluctuates, depending on what assumptions you feed into it, I struggle with, you know, how do we determine, when you get a proposal at the bank, somebody comes in and says, hey, I would like to borrow x number of dollars for this project, we expect a net present value or rate of return of so much, and based on a loan cost of a certain interest rate, we get those very specific calculations. Can you provide any insight, in terms of why $200,000 is the optimal number for this forgivable loan over 5 years, and help me out on that point?”
Mr. Schmitt said, “I’ll try. GWEDC basically is a cooperation between businesses, business community leaders and also the city and the county government. We sort of have all the players at the table. And it’s very similar to what we do at the bank, when somebody comes in and asks for a proposal, we have to understand what our capacity is, what our expectations are, and we analyze all that. By using WSU calculate return on investment, that’s similar to what we do at the bank to calculate our return on investment. Now, I’m sure Starwood would be very excited if we said we will give you $2 million instead of $200,000, but we negotiated a number that we thought was acceptable to Starwood and also us.
“Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing. So, Mr. Peterjohn, I think we’ve tried to do everything we can to bring the best deal to the community we possibly can.”
Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Well then help me out, in terms of the point that was raised over, we’ve got a forgivable loan for five years, but the calculation, in terms of return and so on are over 10 years. So basically our clawback provisions don’t exist from year 6 through 10.”
Mr. Schmitt said, “Well…”
Commissioner Peterjohn said, “And then you’ve got that disparity.”
Mr. Schmitt said, “You know, the other interesting thing is they have a 15 year lease out there on the building. So our expectation is they will be a minimum of 15 years. So do we do it on 5, 10, or 15 years. So, I understand your question. I don’t know the answer to that.”
Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Okay. Thank you for coming down and providing…” Mr. Schmitt said, “You are welcome. Thank you.”
These agencies spend considerable sums of tax money. This week the city will consider funding Go Wichita with a budget of $2,356,851 for 2015. That is not all the taxpayer money this agency will spend, as earlier this year the council voted to increase the city’s hotel tax by 2.75 cents per dollar, with the proceeds going to Go Wichita. City documents indicate that tax is estimated to generate $2.3 million per year.
That is a lot of tax money, and also a high proportion of the agency’s total funding. According to the 2012 IRS form 990 for Go Wichita, the organization had total revenue of $2,609,545. Of that, $2,270,288 was tax money from the city. That’s 87 percent taxpayer-funded. When the surge of higher hotel tax money starts flowing in, that percent will undoubtedly rise, perhaps to 93 percent or more.
Despite being nearly totally funded by taxes, Go Wichita refuses to supply spending records. Many believe that the Kansas Open Records Act requires that it comply with such requests. If the same money was being spent directly by the city, the records undoubtedly would be supplied.
The lack of transparency at Go Wichita is more problematic than this. Earlier this year Go Wichita refused to provide to me its contract with a California firm retained to help with the re-branding of Wichita. When the Wichita Eagle later asked for the contract, it too was refused. If the city had entered into such a contract, it would be a public record. Contracts like this are published each week in the agenda packet for city council meetings. But Go Wichita feels it does not have to comply with simple transparency principles.
The City of Wichita could easily place conditions on the money it gives to these groups, requiring them to show taxpayers how their tax dollars are being spent. But the City does not do this. This is not transparency.
In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s interpretation of the law.
So let’s talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even it is the case that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit or prevent them from fulfilling requests for the types of records I’ve asked for. Even if the Sedgwick County District Attorney says that Go Wichita is not required to release documents, the law does not prevent the release of these records.
Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:
Why does Go Wichita want to keep secret how it spends taxpayer money, as much as $4.6 million next year?
Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent? Many council members have spoken of how transparency is important. One said: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” That was Mayor Brewer speaking in his 2011 State of the City address.
It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more. It costs the city and its agencies nothing, because the open records law lets government charge for filling records requests. I would ask, however, that in the spirit of open transparent government, in respect for citizens’ right to know how tax funds are spent, and as a way to atone for past misdeeds, that Go Wichita fulfill records requests at no charge.
The City of Wichita wishes to preserve the many economic development incentives it has at its disposal.
The proposed legislative agenda for the City of Wichita holds this regarding economic development incentives:
ISSUE: The State of Kansas provides economic development incentives through a variety of programs.
RECOMMEND: The Wichita City Council supports the continuation of state economic incentive programs that assist local governments in their efforts to improve their local economies.
That’s all the agenda holds. In the presentation for the previous year, the request was more complete, naming specific programs. It’s useful to revisit that list, as Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development.
In a way, I don’t blame the city for omitting the list this year. Part of the campaign for the proposed sales tax was that Wichita doesn’t have enough incentives to compete for jobs. In making that argument, city leaders use a narrow definition of incentive that doesn’t count the programs listed below. Given the poor results of the city’s economic development machinery, you can see why city leaders minimize the number of incentive programs and the amounts of money that are available.
As candidates spring up for Wichita mayor and city council, voters need to know that many, such as current district 2 council member Pete Meitzner and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell, have been openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer money is spent. Following is a news story by Craig Andres of KSN News. View video below, or click here. For more on this issue, see Open government in Kansas.
Transparency groups want to know where Wichita tax money is going to promote Wichita
WICHITA, Kansas — Public or private? GoWichita, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition get more than three million dollars a year. Some of that is taxpayer money.
“Why are their records not public?” asks Randy Brown with the Sunshine Coalition. “It’s ridiculous because we ought to know. These are largely tax supported entities. It’s our money that’s being used. There’s no reason in the world these things shouldn’t be open.”
The Sunshine Coalition is not alone. Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty is asking the same questions.
“I have asked several times for complete open records on these three entities,” says Weeks.” But the mayor and city council have not been interested.”
Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner talked with KSN. We asked if the ledgers not being 100% public could be a problem.
“Okay, it could smell like that. But it’s not because we get boards. They have review boards,” says Meitzner. “They have review boards that are members of this community that would not allow it.”
Meitzner says the public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.
“The people that would be looking at that on a daily basis would be our peer city competitors,” explains Meitzner. “Oklahoma, Tulsa, Kansas City and Omaha, they would want to know everything that we are doing to get people downtown.”
Still, watchdog groups say they want to know more.
“The Mayor and the City Manager say all the time that we must be transparent, that we value giving records and information to the citizen,” says Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty. “But when it comes down to it they really don’t act in the same way that they say.”
Citizens want to trust their hometown newspaper as a reliable source of information. The Wichita Eagle has not only fallen short of this goal, it seems to have abandoned it.
The Wichita Eagle last week published a fact-check article titled “Fact check: ‘No’ campaign ad on sales tax misleading.” As of today, the day before the election, I’ve not seen any similar article examining ads from the “Yes Wichita” group that campaigns for the sales tax. Also, there has been little or no material that examined the city’s claims and informational material in a critical manner.
Someone told me that I should be disappointed that such articles have not appeared. I suppose I am, a little. But that is balanced by the increasing awareness of Wichitans that the Wichita Eagle is simply not doing its job.
It’s one thing for the opinion page to be stocked solely with liberal columnists and cartoonists, considering the content that is locally produced. But newspapers like the Eagle tell us that the newsroom is separate from the opinion page. The opinion page has endorsed passage of the sales tax. As far as the newsroom goes, by printing an article fact-checking one side of an issue and failing to produce similar pieces for the other side — well, readers are free to draw their own conclusions about the reliability of the Wichita Eagle newsroom.
As a privately-owned publication, the Wichita Eagle is free to do whatever it wants. But when readers see obvious neglect of a newspaper’s duty to inform readers, readers are correct to be concerned about the credibility of our state’s largest newspaper.
Citizens want to trust their hometown newspaper as a reliable source of information. The Wichita Eagle has not only fallen short of this goal, it seems to have abandoned it.
Here are some topics and questions the Eagle could have examined in fact-checking articles on the “Yes Wichita” campaign and the City of Wichita’s informational and educational campaign.
The Wichita Eagle could start with itself and explain why it chose a photograph of an arterial street to illustrate a story on a sales tax that is dedicated solely for neighborhood streets. The caption under the photo read “Road construction, such as on East 13th Street between Oliver and I-135, would be part of the projects paid for by a city sales tax.”
Issues regarding “Yes Wichita”
The “Yes Wichita” campaign uses an image of bursting wooden water pipes to persuade voters. Does Wichita have any wooden water pipes? And isn’t the purpose of the sales tax to build one parallel pipeline, not replace old water pipes? See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Water pipe(s).
The “Yes Wichita” campaign group claims that the sales tax will replace old rusty pipes that are dangerous. Is that true?
The City and “Yes Wichita” give voters two choices regarding a future water supply: Either vote for the sales tax, or the city will use debt to pay for ASR expansion and it will cost an additional $221 million. But the decision to use debt has not been made, has it? Wouldn’t the city council have to vote to issue those bonds? Is there any guarantee that the council will do that?
The “Yes Wichita” group says that one-third of the sales tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But the city’s documents cite the Kansas Department of Revenue which gives the number as 13.5 percent. Which is correct? This is a difference of 2.5 times in the estimate of Wichita sales tax paid by visitors. This is a material difference in something used to persuade voters.
The city’s informational material states “The City has not increased the mill levy rate for 21 years.” In 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen. See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Tax rates.
“Yes Wichita” says there is a plan for the economic development portion of the sales tax. If the plan for economic development is definite, why did the city decide to participate in the development of another economic development plan just last month? What if that plan recommends something different than what the city has been telling voters? And if the plan is unlikely to recommend anything different, why do we need it?
Citizens have asked to know more about the types of spending records the city will provide. Will the city commit to providing checkbook register-level spending data? Or will the city set up separate agencies to hide the spending of taxpayer funds like it has with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Corporation?
Issues regarding the City of Wichita
Mayor Carl Brewer said the city spent $47,000 of taxpayer funds to send a letter and brochure to voters because he was concerned about misinformation. In light of some of the claims made by the “Yes Wichita” group, does the city have plans to inform voters of that misinformation?
Hasn’t the city really been campaigning in favor of the sales tax? Has the city manager been speaking to groups to give them reasons to vote against the tax? Does the city’s website provide any information that would give voters any reason to consider voting other than yes?
The “Yes Wichita” group refers voters to the city’s website and information to learn about the sales tax issue. Since the “Yes Wichita” group campaigns for the sales tax, it doesn’t seem likely it would refer voters to information that would be negative, or even neutral, towards the tax. Is this evidence that the city is, in fact, campaigning for the sales tax?
The “Yes Wichita” group says that one-third of the sales tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But the city’s documents cite the Kansas Department of Revenue which gives the number as 13.5%. Which is correct? This is a difference of 2.5 times in the estimate of Wichita sales tax paid by visitors. This is a material difference in something used to persuade voters. If “Yes Wichita” is wrong, will the city send a mailer to correct the misinformation?
The city’s informational material states “The City has not increased the mill levy rate for 21 years.” But the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports show that in 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen. Is this misinformation that needs to be corrected?
The city says that the ASR project is a proven solution that will provide for Wichita’s water needs for a long time. Has the city told voters that the present ASR system had its expected production rate cut in half? Has the city presented to voters that the present ASR system is still in its commissioning phase, and that new things are still being learned about how the system operates?
The City and “Yes Wichita” give voters two choices regarding a future water supply: Either vote for the sales tax, or the city will use debt to pay for ASR expansion and it will cost an additional $221 million. But the decision to use debt has not been made, has it? Wouldn’t the city council have to vote to issue those bonds? Is the any guarantee that the council will do that?
If the plan for economic development is definite, why did the city decide to participate in the development of another economic development plan just last month? What if that plan recommends something different than what the city has been telling voters? And if the plan is unlikely to recommend anything different, why do we need it?
Citizens have asked to know more about the types of spending records the city will provide. Will the city commit to providing checkbook register-level spending data? Or will the city set up separate agencies to hide the spending of taxpayer funds like it has with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Corporation?
The “Yes Wichita” campaign uses an image of bursting wooden water pipes to persuade voters. Does Wichita have any wooden water pipes? And isn’t the purpose of the sales tax to build one parallel pipeline, not replace old water pipes? If this advertisement by “Yes Wichita” is misleading, will the city send an educational mailing to correct this?
The Yes Wichita campaign group claims that the sales tax will replace old rusty pipes that are dangerous. Is that true? If not, will the city do anything to correct this misinformation?
As Wichita voters consider promises of transparency and reporting regarding job creation, the city fails to make even the most basic information available.
In November, Wichita voters will consider whether to authorize a sales tax of one cent per dollar. Part of that would be used for economic development with the aid of creating jobs. The city promises a transparency in decision making and reporting of results regarding this jobs fund.
Material produced by the city on July 22 contains: “Decisions about who receives funding, the number of jobs, and the impact on community would be made in public meetings and tracked through a website. Reports would be made on a regular basis to elected officials.”
On its website, the “Yes Wichita” group promises that “Results will be measured and reported publicly.” Also, “Decisions and results are made in public meetings and transparent with website tracking results, investments and return on investment to community.”
In other words, sales tax boosters are promoting transparency and presentation of results.
The thing is, the city and its affiliated groups could be doing this right now if they wanted to. They could have been doing it for many years, if they had wanted to.
A specific example
Premier Processing is a company located in Wichita that received forgivable loans from both Wichita and Sedgwick County five years ago. The loans included clawback provisions calling for repayment of the loans if jobs targets were not met.
Unfortunately, the job targets were not met. Premier has repaid the loans to both governments. (I’ve requested further details from the city, such as whether the company paid the interest that the contract specified in case of default.)
Are you aware of this news? It’s not likely that you are aware, as neither Sedgwick County or the city made this information public. But this is the type of information the city and “Yes Wichita” promise will be available in the future.
It’s true that the city doesn’t have a fancy website on which to report these results. But that isn’t needed right now. If the city is truly interested in reporting results to citizens, it could have written a simple press release. Two or three sentences is all that’s needed. The city could have dictated these sentences to a newspaper or television reporter. This is not difficult. It would cost next to nothing.
But the city didn’t do that. Instead, someone tipped me, and I asked. If not for that, we would not know. This is the culture at Wichita city hall.
The second question the survey asked was “In general, do you agree? Or disagree? With the idea of local governments using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development?” Following are the results for everyone, and then divided by political party and political ideology.
Overall, 55 percent disagreed with using taxpayer money to provide subsidies to certain businesses for economic development. 34 percent agreed.
The results are fairly consistent across political party and ideology, although Republicans are somewhat more likely to agree with using taxpayer funds for economic development incentives, as are those who self-identify as political moderates.