Tag Archives: Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition

Fostering economic growth in Wichita

Kansas Policy Institute is hosting a conference titled “Fostering Economic Growth in Wichita.” This is the second in a series of events looking at issues surrounding the proposed sales tax in Wichita. Voters will see the sales tax question on the ballot in November.

Wichita job development sales tax Kansas Policy InstituteThis event focuses on the economic development, or jobs, portion of the sales tax. The other areas sales tax funds would be spent on are a new water supply, street maintenance and repair, and bus transit.

This is event on Friday September 19, from 7:30 am to noon, held in room 132 of the Wichita State University MetroPlex. the event is free, and you may register here.

Here is the lineup of speakers and topics:

  • Nuts and Bolts of the “Jobs Fund” Proposal: Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce with:
    • Paul Allen, Allen Gibbs & Houlik, Leadership Council Jobs Task Force
    • Jeff Finkle, President/CEO, International Economic Development Council
    • Dr. John Tomblin, Vice President for Research and Technology Transfer, Wichita State University
  • Examining Kansas’ Incentive History:
    • Nathan Jensen, Ph.D., Associate Professor at George Washington University
  • Trends of Wichita’s Economy:
    • Jeremy Hill, Director of Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research
  • Creating a Dynamic Local Economy:
    • Pamela Villarreal, Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis

This is the second in a series of KPI-sponsored forums covering the various aspects of the 1% sales tax proposal. A forum on the water proposal was held in July, and a forum on the street and transit portion will be held in the near future. Kansas Policy Institute is hosting these events to give citizens the opportunity to hear experts address all sides of the issues, and is not taking a position on the individual aspects of the 1% sales tax proposal.

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Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Arithmetic

A group promoting the proposed Wichita sales tax makes an arithmetic error, which gives us a chance to ask a question: Is this error an indication of Yes Wichita and the city’s attitude towards, and concern for, factual information?

VoteYesWichita website, September 6, 2014. Click for larger version.
VoteYesWichita website, September 6, 2014. Click for larger version.
“Yes Wichita” is a group that promotes a one cent per dollar sales tax that Wichita voters will see on the November ballot. Using a $10 purchase as an example, a page on the Yes Wichita website breaks down the tax among the four areas of spending sales tax revenue, informing voters that means 6.3 cents to water, 2 cents to jobs, 1 cent to transit, and .07 cent to streets.

These numbers, however, don’t add up. On a $10 purchase, the one percent sales tax generates ten cents of sales tax revenue. The numbers used in the Yes Wichita example sum to 9.37 cents. The correct number is 0.7 cent to streets, not 07.

Should we be concerned about errors like this? For what it’s worth, this error is repeated at least once more on the voteyeswichita.com site. This site has been online with these errors for at least two weeks. Haven’t any of the members of the Yes Wichita team noticed this error? Or have they noticed the error, but don’t think it’s worth a correction?

Most importantly for Wichita voters: Is this error an indication of Yes Wichita and the city’s attitude towards, and concern for, factual information?

This does give us a chance to look at the cost of the sales tax for various levels of taxable purchases. I’ve prepared a table. As you can see, once we make purchases that add up to large amounts, so too does the amount of the extra sales tax Wichita city hall recommends citizens pay. Click on it for a larger version.

Proposed Wichita Sales Tax Amounts 01

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s blatant waste, Transforming Wichita, and how you can help

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Let’s ask that Wichita trim its blatant waste of tax dollars before asking for more. We’ll look back at a program called Transforming Wichita. Then: We need to hold campaigns accountable. I’ll give you examples why, and tell how you can help. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 57, broadcast September 7, 2014.

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Fact-checking Yes Wichita: NetApp incentives

In making the case that economic development incentives are necessary and successful in creating jobs, a Wichita campaign overlooks the really big picture.

In November Wichita voters will decide whether to approve a sales tax of one cent per dollar. Part of the proceeds, about 20 percent, is dedicated to economic development, specifically the creation of jobs. On its website under the heading “Most of our growth comes from within,” the “Yes Wichita” campaign presents this argument in favor of sales tax revenue for economic development:

In the past, more than 90% of our existing economic development resources have been used to support expansion of local companies. NetApp is a great example because they had new work and needed to locate 400 new jobs in one of their existing facilities. They looked at multiple locations and it came down to expanding in an existing facility in the Research Triangle or an existing facility in Wichita. Those 400 jobs came to Wichita because of our great workforce and the partnership with WSU along with a small forgivable loan. With this new system, Wichita could have invested in training the 400 new hires at WSU.

VoteYesWichita website, September 4, 2014. Click for larger version.
VoteYesWichita website, September 4, 2014. Click for larger version.
Voters reading this might conclude that all that was needed to create 400 new jobs in Wichita was a “small forgivable loan,” along with things we already have (“great workforce and the partnership with WSU”). But voters might be interested in the entire picture of what NetApp received.

First, what the city and county offered to NetApp was not a forgivable loan. NetApp received, and will continue to receive, an annual grant as long as the company meets conditions. City documents explain: “Under the terms of the attached grant agreement, NetApp would be issued an annual grant payment of $312 per year during the 5-year term of the agreement for each employee in excess of 439 base employees, but in no event will the sum of all grant payments exceed $418,000.”

We won’t quibble over the difference between “grant” and “forgivable loan.” Instead, let’s take a look at the entire incentive package offered to NetApp.

Kansas Department of Commerce logoA letter to NetApp from the Kansas Department of Commerce laid out the potential benefits from the state. As detailed in the letter, the programs with potential dollar amounts are:

  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK), up to $7,705,535
  • Kansas Industrial Training with PEAK, up to $160,800
  • sales tax savings of $6,880,000
  • personal property tax exemption, $11,913,682
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP), $8,500,000

The total of these is $35,160,017. Some of these benefits are paid over a period of years. The PEAK benefits are payable over seven years, according to the letter, so that’s about $1.1 million per year. These are potential benefits; the company may not actually qualify for and receive this entire amount. But it’s what the state offered.

(We should qualify that the nearly $12 million in personal property tax exemption arises from a 2006 law whereby the state no longer taxes business equipment and machinery. This is not a targeted incentive for NetApp; it is something that benefits all companies in Kansas.)

It’s true that these programs are not cash incentives paid by the City of Wichita. But if a company is going to make purchases, and if the state says you can skip paying sales tax on the purchases — well, that’s as good as cash. $6,880,000 in the case of NetApp, according to the Kansas Department of Commerce. Unless the state reduces its spending by an equivalent amount, that’s missing revenue that other taxpayers have to make up, including Wichita taxpayers.

The City of Wichita is — or should be — generally aware of the entire incentive package offered to NetApp and other companies. In a presentation made to the Wichita City Council by Gary Schmitt, an executive at Intrust Bank and the Chair of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, NetApp was presented as an example of a successful economic development effort. On a chart in the presentation, figures indicate that NetApp received $2,000 per job from local incentives, and $84,115 per job from state incentives.

In another section of the presentation, this is noted: “The $4.5 million PEAK program incentive from the Kansas Department of Commerce was an important factor in keeping NetApp in Wichita.”

Wichita voters will have to decide whether the Yes Wichita campaign is being forthright when it claims that a “small forgivable loan” was all the cash incentive that was necessary to create NetApp jobs in Wichita. If voters choose to believe that the small forgivable loan was all the incentive needed to seal the NetApp deal, they should then wonder why the State of Kansas offered many millions of unnecessary incentives.

Wichita City Library, 1965

What incentives can Wichita offer?

Wichita government leaders complain that Wichita can’t compete in economic development with other cities and states because the budget for incentives is too small. But when making this argument, these officials don’t include all incentives that are available.

In making the case for an economic development fund paid for by a sales tax, the argument goes like this: “Wichita and Sedgwick County compete conservatively with incentives. The City of Wichita and Sedgwick County have a total of $1.65 million in new uncommitted funds for cash incentives this year with any unused money going back to the general fund.” (Will Wichita Accelerate Competition for Primary Jobs?, presentation made to Wichita city council.)

This statement is true only if we use a very narrow definition of the word “incentive.” By any reasonable definition, Wichita has many incentives worth much more than what is claimed by Wichita economic development officials and politicians.

In fact, the report cited above contains contradictory information about the amounts that are available for economic development incentives in Wichita. Here is an example: “The $4.5 million PEAK program incentive from the Kansas Department of Commerce was an important factor in keeping NetApp in Wichita. Locally we were able to provide $836,000 in incentives.”

So with an incentives budget of $1.65 million, a Wichita company received $5.3 million in incentives. Some of that, like the PEAK incentive, is paid over a period of years. But that amount doesn’t begin to describe the benefits NetApp received.

Available incentive programs

Kansas Department of Commerce logoA letter to NetApp from the Kansas Department of Commerce laid out the potential benefits from the state. As detailed in the letter, the programs with potential dollar amounts are:

  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK), up to $7,705,535
  • Kansas Industrial Training with PEAK, up to $160,800
  • sales tax savings of $6,880,000
  • personal property tax exemption, $11,913,682
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP), $8,500,000

The total of these is $35,160,017. Some of these benefits are paid over a period of years. The PEAK benefits are payable over seven years, according to the letter, so that’s about $1.1 million per year. These are potential benefits; the company may not actually qualify for and receive this entire amount. But it’s what the state offered.

It’s true that some of these programs are not cash incentives of the type Wichita complains of lacking. But if a company is going to make purchases, and the state says you can skip paying sales tax on the purchases — well, that’s as good as cash. $6,880,000 in the case of NetApp, according to the Kansas Department of Commerce.

Local tax exemptions

Besides sales tax exemptions, the city has other types of tax exemptions it regularly offers. These exemptions can have substantial value. In 2008 as Drury contemplated Broadview Hotel 2013-07-09 020purchasing the Broadview Hotel, the city allowed the hotel to escape paying much of the taxes that the rest of us have to pay. According to city information, Drury planned to spend $22,797,750 on the hotel. If we use this as the appraised value for the property when it is complete, the annual property taxes due for this property would be $22,797,750 times .25 times 126.323 divided by 1000, or $719,970. This calculation may be rough, but it gives us an approximation of the annual operating subsidy being given to this hotel for the next ten years.

It's important for citizens to know incentivesWhen Boeing announced in 2012 that it was closing its Wichita operations, city leaders complained that Boeing was leaving Wichita even though it had received many incentives. From 1979 to 2007, Boeing received tax abatements through the industrial revenue bond process worth $658 million, according to a compilation provided by the City of Wichita. (This is not money the city lent or gave to Boeing. IRBs provide a vehicle for granting tax abatements or exemptions.) At the time, city officials said the average amount of bonds was $120 million per year. With Wichita commercial property tax rates at 3.008 percent ($30.08 per $1,000 of appraised value), according to GWEDC, that’s a tax savings of around $3.6 million per year. To Boeing, that’s as good as receiving cash year after year.

Tax increment financing

In 2013 Wichita approved a package benefiting Exchange Place in downtown. Here’s what the city council agenda packet gives as the sources of financing for this project.

HUD Loan Amount         $29,087,700
Private Equity            5,652,254
Tax Credit Equity        19,370,395
TIF Proceeds             12,500,000
Total Sources of Funds  $66,610,349

TIF, or tax increment financing, diverts future increased tax revenues away from their normal uses and diverts them back to the project. In this case, the city will borrow $12,500,000 by selling bonds. It will give this money to the developer. Then, TIF proceeds will be used to repay these bonds.

Some will argue that TIF isn’t really an incentive. The owners of the property will have to pay their property taxes, just like any other property owner. But for this project, the property taxes are used for the project’s own benefit instead of funding the costs of city government. This project gets to spend $12.5 million of its property tax payments on itself, rather than funding the costs of Wichita city government.

Tax credits

Ambassador Hotel sign 2014-03-07Note that the sources of financing for the Exchange Place project includes “Tax Credit Equity.” Here’s an example of another downtown project, the Ambassador Hotel, and the incentive package the city prepared:

  • $3,325,000 in tax increment financing.
  • $4,245,000 in city funding under the capital improvement plan (CIP), to build parking for the hotel.
  • $3,800,000 in tax credits from the State of Kansas.
  • $3,500,000 in tax credits from the U.S. government.
  • $537,075 in sales tax exemptions on purchases during the construction and furnishing of the hotel.
  • $60,000 per year in community improvement district (CID) sales tax. The hotel charges an extra two cents per dollar sales tax, which the state returns to the hotel.
  • $127,499 per year (estimated) in rental revenue to the developers from a sweetheart lease deal.
  • Participation in Wichita’s facade improvement program, which provides special assessment financing that is repaid.

All told, this project was slated to receive $15,407,075 in taxpayer funds to get started, with additional funds provided annually.

The tax credits for this project are historic preservation tax credits. They have the same economic impact as a cash payment. The federal tax credits are available across the country, while the Kansas tax credits, of course, are a state program. In this case the hotel developers received an upfront payment of $3.8 million from the state in a form that’s as good as cash.

STAR bonds

Last year a STAR bonds district in northeast Wichita was approved to receive $31,570,785 from these bonds. The STAR bonds are paid off with sales tax revenue that would otherwise go to the state and overlapping jurisdictions. This is sales tax collected from the business’s customers, and doesn’t cost the business anything.

Adding it up

This list is not complete. There are other programs and other beneficiaries of economic development subsidies. With this in mind, it is disingenuous for city and other officials to use the $1.65 million figure as though it was all Wichita had to offer. It’s important for citizens to know that contrary to the claims of officials, Wichita has many economic development incentive programs available, and some have substantial value to the recipients, with corresponding cost to the city and other jurisdictions.

Wichita City Hall 2014-08-05 11

What the Wichita city council could do

While the proposed Wichita city sales tax is a bad idea, the city could do a few things that would not only improve its chance of passage, but also improve local government.

This week the Wichita City Council passed an ordinance that starts the process of placing a sales tax measure on the November ballot. The one cent per dollar tax will be used for several initiatives, including an economic development jobs fund.

The city will need to gain the trust of citizens if the measure is to have any chance of passage. While I am personally opposed to the sales tax for some very good reasons, I nonetheless offer this advice to the city on what it could do to help pass the sales tax.

Oversight commissions

Presentations made by city hall state that the city council will appoint a private-sector led jobs commission. It would examine potential projects and make recommendations to the council. There will also be a citizens oversight committee and a jobs commission audit committee.

Wichita Investing in Jobs, How it WorksThe problem is that committees like these are usually stacked with city hall insiders, with people who want to personally gain from cronyism, and with people the city believes will be quietly compliant with what the city wants to do.

As an example, consider my appointment to the Wichita Airport Advisory Board last year. I had to be confirmed by the city council. I’ve been critical of the subsidy paid to airlines at the Wichita airport. I’ve researched airfares, air traffic, and the like. I’ve presented findings to the city council that were contrary to the city’s official position and that discovered a possible negative effect of the subsidy effort. Because of that, the council would not confirm my appointment. The city was not willing to have even one person on the airport board who might say wait, let’s take a look at this in a different way, and would have facts to support an alternative.

At Tuesday’s meeting the council assured citizens that it would not be the same group of city hall insiders serving on these boards. According to meeting minutes, council member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) said “Over the next few months there is going to be a lot more detail given to the public so that they can make an informed decision at the time this comes up to a vote in November.”

If the council is serious about this it could take a simple step: Appoint the members of these boards well in advance of the November election. Also, define the structure of the boards, such as the number of members, how appointed, term of appointment, and other details.

Transparency

The city says that the operations of the committees and the jobs fund will be transparent. But the city’s record in transparency is poor. For many years the city’s quasi-independent agencies have refused to release spending records. Many, such as I, believe this is contrary to not only the spirit, but the actual language of the Kansas Open Records Act. There is nothing the city has said that would lead us to believe that the city plans to change its stance towards the citizens’ right to know.

If the city wants to convince citizens that it has changed its attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know how tax money is spent, it could positively respond to the records requests made by myself and Kansas Policy Institute.

The city is also likely to engage in an educational and informational campaign on its cable television channel. If it does, a welcome gesture would be to offer time on the channel for citizen groups to present their side of the issues. The city’s cable channel is supposed to be a public access channel, but as of now, citizens have no ability to produce content for that channel.

In presentations to the council, reports released by the Texas Enterprise Fund have been used as examples of what Wichita might do to inform citizens on the economic development activities funded by the sales tax. But many in Texas are critical of the information provided about the fund’s operation.

Even when information is provided, it is subject to different interpretations by self-interested parties. On the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, the Houston Chronicle recently reported “Whether or not the fund has lost taxpayer money depends on which accounting method is applied. The Associated Press says a method common to government entities placed the fund’s value at $175 million, with a loss of $30 million. The governor’s office uses a private accounting standard that places the fund’s value at $230 million, a $25 million profit.”

In 2011 the Wall Street Journal reported on how job creation numbers can be stretched far beyond any sense of reason:

In Texas, Mr. Perry in a 2011 report to the legislature credited the Texas A&M Institute for Genomic Medicine with already producing more than 12,000 additional jobs. That’s ahead of the 5,000 promised by 2015.

According to the institute’s director, however, 10 people currently work in its new building. A Houston-area biotech firm that agreed to produce about 1,600 of the project’s jobs has instead cut its Texas staff by almost 400 people, and currently employs 220 people in the state.

What accounts for the discrepancy? To reach their estimate of 12,000-plus jobs created by the project, officials included every position added in Texas since 2005 in fields related sometimes only tangentially to biotechnology, according to state officials and documents provided by Texas A&M. They include jobs in things ike dental equipment, fertilizer manufacturing and medical imaging.

William Hoyt, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky who studies state economic-incentive programs across the U.S., said similar efforts elsewhere have been dogged by controversy over how many jobs they actually created. Even so, Mr. Hoyt said he hasn’t come across a definition as broad as that employed by Texas. “It’s hard to see jobs in dental supplies in El Paso being related to a genome clinic in College Station,” where Texas A&M’s main campus is located, he said.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Perry’s office in Austin, Texas, said the job totals for the A&M project were provided by the grant recipients, using figures compiled by the Texas Workforce Commission, the state’s labor agency, and hadn’t yet been “verified.” (Behind Perry’s Jobs Success, Numbers Draw New Scrutiny, October 11, 2011)

Locally, Wichita has had difficulty making information available. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on the problems.

The Eagle asked the city last week for an accounting of the jobs created over the past decade by the tax abatements, a research project that urban development staffers have yet to complete.

“It will take us some time to pull together all the agenda reports on the five-year reviews going back to 2003. That same research will also reveal any abatements that were ‘retooled’ as a result of the five-year reviews,” city urban development director Allen Bell said. “I can tell you that none of the abatements were terminated.” (Wichita doubles property tax exemptions for businesses, October 20, 2013)

wichita-economic-developmentOne might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. But apparently that isn’t the case.

We need to recognize that because the city does not have at its immediate disposal the statistics about job creation, it is evident that the city is not managing this effort. Or, maybe it just doesn’t care. This is a management problem at the highest level.

gwedc-office-operations

In fact, the city and its economic development agencies don’t even keep promotional websites current. GWEDC — that’s the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition credited with recruiting a company named InfoNXX to Wichita — doesn’t update its website to reflect current conditions. InfoNXX closed its facility in Wichita in 2012. When I looked at GWEDC’s website in October 2013, I found this on a page titled Office Operations:

Wichita hosts over a dozen customer service and processing centers — including a USPS Remote Encoding Center (985 employees), InfoNXX (950), T-Mobile (900), Royal Caribbean (700), Convergys (600), Protection One (540), Bank of America (315) and Cox Communications (230.) (emphasis added)

Observe that the official Wichita-area economic development agency touted the existence of a company that no longer exists in Wichita, and claims a job count that the company never achieved. Also, at that time the USPS facility was in the process of closing and eliminating all Wichita jobs.

What is Wichita doing to convince citizens that it has moved beyond this level of negligence?

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1962

Economic development incentives in Wichita: A few questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growth in Local Government Jobs, Wichita and Visioneering Peers. Wichita is the dark line.

Wichita performs well in local government job creation

The Wichita metropolitan area compares well creating jobs in local government, but trails in private sector jobs.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics through 2013 allows us to compare the Wichita metropolitan area with the peers selected by Visioneering Wichita. I’ve gathered BLS data divided by industry sector.

Growth in Local Government Jobs, Wichita and Visioneering Peers. Wichita is the dark line.
Growth in Local Government Jobs, Wichita and Visioneering Peers. Wichita is the dark line.
When considering only government jobs, especially local government jobs, Wichita ranks high. When looking at private sector jobs, however, Wichita is in last place, and by a wide margin.

This is a problem. It is the private sector that generates the taxes that pay for government. When government grows faster than the private sector, economic activity is shifted away from productive activities to unproductive. The economist Dan Mitchell has proposed what he calls the “Golden Rule of Fiscal Policy,” which is: “The Private Sector should Grow Faster than Government.”

In Wichita, we see our local government proposing to grow itself even more by recommending that voters approve increased sales taxes to pay for more government programs. Officials tell us the increased spending is needed so that government can correct problems with Wichita’s economy, water supply, transit, and streets.

Growth in Private Sector Jobs, Wichita and Visioneering Peers. Wichita is the dark line.
Growth in Private Sector Jobs, Wichita and Visioneering Peers. Wichita is the dark line.
On these and other issues, the Wichita Eagle recently quoted Mayor Carl Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”

Wichita’s government has created problems, by the mayor’s admission. Now, Wichita politicians and bureaucrats ask that we rely on government to fix the problems.

The interactive visualization I’ve created from BLS data lets you compare Wichita’s job growth with our Visioneering peers. You can select various industry sectors for display.

Data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public. Click here to open the visualization in a new window.

In Wichita, no difference between business and government?

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Leaders in Wichita often liken government decision making to running a business, but there are important differences. That Wichita’s leaders in both government and business do not understand this is problematic. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. For more on this, see In Wichita, no differentiation between business and government.

Warren Theater sells Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer's BBQ sauce

Problems with the Wichita economy. Is it cronyism?

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita economy has not performed well. Could cronyism be a contributing factor? Mayor Carl Brewer says it’s time to put politics and special interests aside. Is our political leadership capable of doing this? View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

WichitaLiberty.TV set 2014-04-29 01 800

Wichita: We have incentives. Lots of incentives.

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita government leaders complain that Wichita can’t compete in economic development with other cities and states because the budget for incentives is too small. But when making this argument, these officials don’t include all incentives that are available. View below, or click here to view on YouTube. More information on this topic is at Contrary to officials, Wichita has many incentive programs.

Wichita Chamber of Commerce 2013-07-09 004

A lesson for Wichita in economic development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later in the letter:

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

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

Some remarks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prosperous company, establishing the template for seeking business welfare

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

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

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

Wichita and peer per capita income, Visioneering

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

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

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

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1975

In Wichita, ‘free markets’ cited in case for economic development incentives

A prominent Wichita business uses free markets to justify its request for economic development incentives. A gullible city council buys the argument.

At the December 10, 2013 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Bombardier LearJet received an economic development incentive that will let it avoid paying some property taxes on newly-purchased property. The amount involved in that particular incident is relatively small. According to city documents, “the value of the abated taxes on that investment could be as much as $1,980.”

Wichita Economic DevelopmentThis week Bombardier was before the council again asking for property tax abatements. City documents estimate the amount of tax to be forgiven as $1,098,294 annually, for up to ten years. The document prepared for council members did not address sales tax, but generally sales taxes are forgiven when using the program Bombardier qualified for.

The December 10 meeting was useful because a representative of Bombardier appeared before the council. His remarks help us understand how some prominent members of Wichita’s business community have distorted the principles of free markets and capitalism. As illustrated by the fawning of Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) and others, elected officials have long forsaken these principles.

Bombardier’s argument

Don Pufahl, who is Director of Finance at Bombardier Learjet, addressed the council regarding this matter. He started his remarks on a positive note, telling the council “There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.”

Economic development incentives reduce riskWe must be careful when using the term incentive. In a free-market economy or capitalism, incentive refers to the motivation of the possibility of earning profits. Another incentive — the other side of the same coin — is avoiding losses. That’s why capitalism is called a profit-and-loss system. The losses are just as important as profits, as losses are a signal that the economic activity is not valued, and the resources should be shifted to somewhere else where they are valued more highly.

But in the field of economic development as practiced by government, incentive means something given to or granted to a company. That’s what the representative from Bombardier meant by incentive. He explained: “One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.”

A few thoughts: First, Bombardier is not investing in the community. The company is investing in itself. I’m sure Bombardier’s shareholders hope that is true.

Second, the free market system that the speaker praised is a system based on voluntary exchange. That flows from property rights, which is the foundational idea that people own themselves and the product of their labor, and are free to exchange with others. But when government uses incentives, many people do not consent to the exchange. That’s not a free market system.

Milton Friedman: Capitalism and FreedomThird, an important part of a free market system is market competition. That is, business firms compete with others for customers. They also compete with other business firms for resources needed for production, such as capital. When government makes these decisions instead of markets, we don’t have a free market system. Instead, we have cronyism. Charles G. Koch has described the harm of cronyism, recently writing: “The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

In the same article Koch wrote: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.” (Charles G. Koch: Corporate cronyism harms America)

The representative from Bombardier also said that the city’s incentives would reduce Bombardier’s investment risk. There is little doubt this is true. When a company is given money with no strings attached except what the company already intends to do and wants to do, that reduced a company’s risk. What has happened, however, is that risk has not been eliminated or reduced. It has merely been shifted to the people of Wichita, Sedgwick County, the Wichita public school district, and the State of Kansas. When government does this on a piecemeal basis, this is called cronyism. When done universally, we call this socialism.

We can easily argue that actions like this — and especially the large subsidies granted to Bombardier by the state — increase the risk of these investments. Since the subsidies reduce the cost of its investment, Bombardier may be motivated to make risky investments that it might otherwise not make, were it investing its own funds (and that of its shareholders).

Entrepreneurship, EntrepreneurThe cost of Bombardier’s investments, and the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. But we can’t identify these. We don’t know who they are. But we need an economic development strategy that creates an environment where these young entrepreneurial firms have the greatest chance to survive. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

Now the city and Bombardier will say that these investments have a payoff for the taxpayer. That is, if Bombardier grows, it will pay more in taxes, and that constitutes “profit” for taxpayers. Even if we accept that premise — that the city “profits” from collecting taxes — why do we need to invest in Bombardier in order to harvest its “profits” when there are so many companies that pay taxes without requiring subsidy?

Finally, the representative from Bombardier said that these incentives are not a handout. I don’t see how anyone can say that and maintain a straight face.

wichita-chamber-job-growth-2013-12
It would be one thing if the Wichita area was thriving economically. But it isn’t. We’re in last place among our self-identified peers, as illustrated in Wichita and Visioneering peers job growth. Minutes from a recent meeting of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development, holds this paragraph: “As shown in the Chart below Wichita economy suffered the largest loss of employment among peer cities and has not seen any signs of rebounding as the other communities have. Wichita lost 31,000 jobs during the recession principally due to the down turn in general aviation.”

Following is a fuller representation of the Bombardier representative’s remarks to the council.

There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.

One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.

As the company moves forward to invest in the community, those investments are not without risk. … Your incentives allow us to offset some of that risk so that we can move forward with those investments, which hopefully create new jobs and also then also improves the quality of life in our community. … These incentives are not a handout. They are a way that the local government uses such things to offset some of the risk that is involved in local companies as they invest in the community, bring jobs to the community, and improve the community overall.

WichitaLiberty.TV set 2014-04-29 01 800

WichitaLiberty.TV: Uber not for Wichita, Wichita fails at transparency, and Wichita jobs

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Uber is an innovative transportation service, but is probably illegal in Wichita. Then, the City of Wichita fails again at basic government transparency. Finally, a look at job growth in Wichita compared to other cities. Episode 45, broadcast June 1, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1979

In Kansas and Wichita, there’s a reason for slow growth

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. Location Matters Tax Foundation coverThe 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.

The report is Location Matters: A Comparative Analysis of State Tax Costs on Business.

The study is unusual in that it looks at the impact of states’ 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, 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.

Kansas tax cost compared to neighbors
Kansas tax cost compared to neighbors
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.

The record in Wichita

Earlier this year Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition issued its annual report on its economic development activities for 2013. Its efforts, in its own words, “represent a projected 1,117 new jobs.”

gwedc-office-operationsThis 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 2013 was 242,744 persons. So the jobs created by GWEDC’s actions amounted to 0.46 percent of the labor force. This is a vanishingly small fraction. It is statistical noise. Other economic events overwhelm these efforts.

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 Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policycritical 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.

Wichita Old Town Square

Wichita local government jobs grow, but slower growth seen in private sector jobs

Compared to peer cities, Wichita performs well in growth of local government jobs, but poorly in creating private sector jobs.

I’ve prepared statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor for Wichita and two groups of peer cities. One group is our Visioneering peer cities. A second group includes those cities plus cities that Visioneers traveled to on official visits, plus a few others. The results are shown nearby. (Click on charts for larger versions, or click here to use the interactive visualization.) This data is annual data through the complete year 2013. The presentation of the data is indexed, so that each area starts at the same relative level and we can compare the relative growth over a period of years.

Local government job growth in Wichita compared to peer areas.
Local government job growth in Wichita compared to peer areas.
When we look at the growth of local government jobs, we see that Wichita does relatively well, usually in the top half of job growth compared to these peer areas.

Private sector job growth in Wichita compared to peer areas.
Private sector job growth in Wichita compared to peer areas.
Looking at private sector job growth, Wichita appears near the bottom. The private sector is growing very slowly in Wichita, compared to our peers. We must remember that it is the private sector that pays for government jobs and the other costs of government. When we couple slow growth of the private sector in Wichita with faster growth of local government jobs, we’re setting the stage for even slower growth of the type of jobs that produce prosperity.

Interestingly, Wichita performs better in private sector job growth than Springfield, Illinois. I chose to include that as a peer metropolitan area because that’s the immediate past city in which Gary Plummer worked. He was president of that city’s Chamber of Commerce, and is now president of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Wichita also does better than Wichita Falls, Texas. That city is the immediate past home of Tim Chase. He was the head of Wichita Falls Economic Development Corporation, and he’s now president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, a subsidiary of the Wichita Metro Chamber and the primary organization in charge of economic development for the Wichita area.

As Wichita prepares to make decisions regarding economic development — including a possible sales tax to fund economic development — we need to be aware of our recent history. Wichita leaders contend that Wichita can’t compete in economic development with other cities because the budget for incentives is too small. But when making this argument, these leaders don’t include all incentives that are available and used. As shown in the analysis Contrary to officials, Wichita has many incentive programs, the excuse that Wichita does not have incentives is not valid.

You may use the visualization yourself and draw your own conclusions. Click here to open it in a new window.

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 2

Wichita’s city attorney is retiring, and the city will select a replacement. There are a few questions that we ought to ask of candidates. Will the next city attorney continue to obstruct government transparency or be an advocate for citizens’ right to know?

Hockaday sign explanationSince 2009 I have advocated for greater transparency regarding spending data for three quasi-governmental agencies. Others have since joined the quest. The agencies are Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. (See Open Government in Kansas for more information.)

Each agency contends it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and all council members except former Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and legislative attempts have been taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. I call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

In some council meetings, Rebenstorf has cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

Will the next city attorneyThe legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. It’s contrary to both the letter and spirit of the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), which opens with: “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.

But the attitude of Rebenstorf and the city council towards open records and government transparency, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the unmistakably clear meaning and intent of the law.

Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example. In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking these agencies to act as though they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking these agencies from acting as though they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law. Will the next Wichita city attorney agree with the closed stance of the current regime, or be an advocate for greater government transparency?

Sedgwick County Kansas seal

In Wichita, no differentiation between business and government

Leaders in Wichita often liken government decision making to running a business, but there are important differences.

Sedgwick County Working for YouAs Wichita considers the future of its economy, a larger role for government is contemplated. The views of the people leading the effort to expand government management of the local economy are important to explore. Consider Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition Chairman Gary Schmitt, who is also an executive at Intrust Bank. Following is an excerpt from the minutes of the May 22, 2013 meeting of the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. The topic was a forgivable loan to Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. These loans are equivalent to a cash grant, as long as conditions are met. At the time of this meeting Schmitt was vice chair of GWEDC.

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.”

Wichita leaders need to understand businessThe 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.”

Wichita city hall

Contrary to officials, Wichita has many incentive programs

Wichita government leaders complain that Wichita can’t compete in economic development with other cities and states because the budget for incentives is too small. But when making this argument, these officials don’t include all incentives that are available.

The document Will Wichita Accelerate Competition for Primary Jobs? contains contradictory information about money available for economic development incentives in Wichita. The usual argument that officials make is represented by this quotation from the report: “Wichita and Sedgwick County compete conservatively with incentives. The City of Wichita and Sedgwick County have a total of $1.65 million in new uncommitted funds for cash incentives this year with any unused money going back to the general fund.”

But the same report contains this: “The $4.5 million PEAK program incentive from the Kansas Department of Commerce was an important factor in keeping NetApp in Wichita. Locally we were able to provide $836,000 in incentives.”

So with an incentives budget of $1.65 million, a Wichita company received $5.3 million in incentives. Some of that, like the PEAK incentive, is paid over a period of years. But that amount doesn’t begin to describe the benefits NetApp received.

A sample of available incentive programs

Kansas Department of Commerce logoA letter to NetApp from the Kansas Department of Commerce laid out the potential benefits from the state. As detailed in the letter, the programs with potential dollar amounts are: Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK), up to $7,705,535; Kansas Industrial Training with PEAK, up to $160,800; sales tax savings of $6,880,000; personal property tax exemption, $11,913,682; and High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP), $8,500,000. The total of these is $35,160,017. Some of these benefits are paid over a period of years. The PEAK benefits are payable over seven years, according to the letter, so that’s about $1.1 million per year. These are potential benefits; the company may not actually qualify for and receive this entire amount. But it’s what the state offered.

It’s true that some of these programs, strictly speaking, are not “cash incentives” of the type Wichita complains of lacking. But if a company is going to make purchases, and the state says you can skip paying sales tax on the purchases — well, that’s about as good as cash. $6,880,000 in the case of NetApp, according to the Kansas Department of Commerce.

Local tax exemptions

Besides sales tax exemptions, the city has other types of tax exemptions it regularly offers. These exemptions can have substantial value. In 2008 as Drury contemplated Broadview Hotel 2013-07-09 020purchasing the Broadview Hotel, the city allowed the hotel to escape paying much of the taxes that the rest of us have to pay. According to city information, Drury planned to spend $22,797,750 on the hotel. If we use this as the appraised value for the property when it is complete, the annual property taxes due for this property would be $22,797,750 times .25 times 126.323 divided by 1000, or $719,970. This calculation may be rough, but it gives us an idea of the annual operating subsidy being given to this hotel for the next ten years. Remember, city officials complain of an incentives budget of only $1.65 million per year.

It's important for citizens to know incentivesWhen Boeing announced in 2012 that it was closing its Wichita operations, city leaders complained that Boeing was leaving Wichita even though it had received many incentives. From 1979 to 2007, Boeing received tax abatements through the industrial revenue bond process worth $658 million, according to a compilation provided by the City of Wichita. At the time, city officials said the average amount of bonds was $120 million per year. With Wichita commercial property tax rates at 3.008 percent ($30.08 per $1,000 of appraised value), according to GWEDC, that’s a tax savings of around $3.6 million per year. To Boeing, that’s as good as receiving cash year after year. Remember, city officials say the incentives budget is $1.65 million per year.

Tax increment financing

In 2013 Wichita approved a package benefiting Exchange Place in downtown. Here’s what the city council agenda packet gives as the sources of financing for this project.

HUD Loan Amount         $29,087,700
Private Equity            5,652,254
Tax Credit Equity        19,370,395
TIF Proceeds             12,500,000
Total Sources of Funds  $66,610,349

TIF, or tax increment financing, diverts future increased tax revenues away from their normal uses and diverts them back to the project. In this case, the city will borrow $12,500,000 by selling bonds. It will give this money to the developer. Then, TIF proceeds will be used to repay these bonds.

Some will argue that TIF isn’t really an incentive. The owners of the property will have to pay their property taxes, just like any other property owner. But for this project, the property taxes are used for the project’s own benefit instead of paying for city government. This project gets to spend $12.5 million of its property tax payments on itself, rather than funding the costs of Wichita city government.

Tax credits

Ambassador Hotel sign 2014-03-07Note that the sources of financing for the Exchange Place project includes “Tax Credit Equity.” Here’s an example of another downtown project, the Ambassador Hotel, and the incentive package the city prepared:

  • $3,325,000 in tax increment financing.
  • $4,245,000 in city funding under the capital improvement plan (CIP), to build parking for the hotel.
  • $3,800,000 in tax credits from the State of Kansas.
  • $3,500,000 in tax credits from the U.S. government.
  • $537,075 in sales tax exemptions on purchases during the construction and furnishing of the hotel.
  • $60,000 per year in community improvement district (CID) sales tax. The hotel charges an extra two cents per dollar sales tax, which the state returns to the hotel.
  • $127,499 per year (estimated) in rental revenue to the developers from a sweetheart lease deal.
  • Participation in Wichita’s facade improvement program, which provides special assessment financing that is repaid.

All told, this project was slated to receive $15,407,075 in taxpayer funds to get started, with additional funds provided annually.

The tax credits for this project are historic preservation tax credits. They have the same economic impact as a cash payment. The federal tax credits are available across the country, while the Kansas tax credits, of course, are a state program. In this case the hotel developers received an upfront payment of $3.8 million from the state in a form that’s as good as cash. Remember, city officials say the incentives budget is $1.65 million per year.

STAR bonds

There are more programs the city and state use to provide incentives. Last year, according to city documents, a STAR bonds district in northeast Wichita was approved to receive $31,570,785 from these bonds. The STAR bonds are paid off with sales tax revenue that would otherwise go to the state and overlapping jurisdictions. This is sales tax collected from the business’s customers, and doesn’t cost the business anything. Remember, city officials say the incentives budget is $1.65 million per year.

This list is not complete. There are other programs and other beneficiaries of economic development subsidies. It’s important for citizens to know that contrary to the claims of officials, Wichita has many economic development incentive programs available, and some have substantial value to the recipients, with corresponding cost to the city and other jurisdictions.

Wichita not good for small business

The Wichita Business Journal reports today:

When it comes to having good conditions to support small businesses, well, Wichita isn’t exactly at the top of the list, according to a new ranking from The Business Journals.

In fact, the Wichita metro area’s small-business vitality score is nearly at the bottom — 99th out of the 101 U.S. metro areas included in the study. (Wichita near bottom for small-business vitality score, April 2, 2014)

Many in Wichita don’t want to recognize and confront the bad news about the performance of the Wichita-area economy. Last year, when presenting its annual report to local governmental bodies, the leaders of Visioneering Wichita would not present benchmark data to elected officials.

wichita-peer-job-growth-1990-2014-01

So what is the record of the Wichita metropolitan area regarding job creation, that seeming to be the most popular statistic our leaders cite and promote? I’ve prepared statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor for Wichita and a broad group of peer cities. I included our Visioneering peer cities, cities that Visioneers traveled to on official visits, and a few others. The result, shown nearby, is not pretty. (Click on charts for larger versions, or click here to use the interactive visualization)

wichita-peer-job-growth-2007-2014-01

If we look at job creation starting in 1990, Wichita lags behind our Visioneering peers, but not behind all the peer cities that I selected. Wichita does better than Springfield, Illinois, for example. I chose to include that as a peer metropolitan area because that’s the immediate past city that Gary Plummer worked in. He was president of that city’s Chamber of Commerce, and is now president of the Wichita Chamber. Note the position of Springfield: Last place.

In next-to-last place we see Wichita Falls, Texas. I chose to include it because it is the immediate past home of Tim Chase. He was the head of Wichita Falls Economic Development Corporation. He’s now president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development for the Wichita area.

In second-to-last place we see Pittsburgh, which I added because Visioneering leaders recently made a visit there.

Then, we come to Wichita.

If we look at job creation since 2007 we find Wichita in a common position: Last place in job creation, and by a wide margin except for two cities. One is Wichita Falls, where our present GWEDC president recently worked. The other city that barely out-performs Wichita is Chattanooga, which I included because Visioneering civic leaders recently traveled there to learn from that city.

Over the decades in which Wichita has performed poorly, there have been a few common threads. Carl Brewer has been council member or mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for decades. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for more than two decades. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. It is these officials who have presided over the dismal record of Wichita.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But he’s becoming part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

toolbox-29058_640

These leaders often complain that Wichita does not have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete with other cities in economic development. Wichita does, however, have and use incentives. The State of Kansas regularly offers incentives so generous that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Incentives: We have them. They haven’t worked for us.

It is nearly certain that this year Wichitans will be asked to approve a higher sales tax in order to pay for many things, including the more aggressive approach to job creation that Brewer mentioned. Based on the track record of our elected officials and bureaucrats, we need to do this: Before approving the tax and expenditures, Wichitans need to take a long look at the people who have been in charge, and ask what will be different going forward.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1960

During Sunshine Week, here are a few things Wichita could do

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1960The City of Wichita says it values open and transparent government, but the city could improve several areas of providing information and records to citizens.

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“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.”

Attitude

Despite the proclamations of the mayor 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, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. 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. Now, just this week 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 last year. 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 the city’s lobbyist told legislators that my request for 19,000 emails was an example of abuse of the Kansas Open Records Act, and cited 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 for the city. No harm, no foul.

But 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.

Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement."
Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.”

The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey.

Website

An important way governments can 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.

From the former version of the City of Wichita website, showing budgets available for many years.
From the former version of the City of Wichita website, showing budgets available for many years.

Here’s an example. The old city website had budgets going back a long way, back to the budget for 1960 — 1961. The oldest budget I can find on the present website is for 2006.

Looking for minutes of important boards such as the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, we find similar results. On the old website, minutes of MAPC were available back to 1999. The new version of the website seems to have minutes back to only 2012.

Also, something that had been very useful is missing, and hasn’t been replaced: MyWichita.

mywichita_logo

As described here, MyWichita was a useful service. By using it, you could receive by 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 almost a year since I asked.

Spending data

Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, and also the Wichita school district. Not so the City of Wichita.

Wichita spending data.
Wichita spending data.

Even after asking for checkbook spending data, Wichita can 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 useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Legal notices

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.

Publish 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.

File folder and documents

Kansas Open Records Act and the ‘public agency’ definition

Update: The bill has been referred to another committee, and the February 19 hearing is canceled.

File folder and documents

Despite the City of Wichita’s support for government transparency, citizens have to ask the legislature to add new law forcing the city and its agencies to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act.

Open records laws allow citizens to ask government agencies for records. While these laws are valuable, we find that in practice governmental agencies find many ways to avoid filling records requests. Because the City of Wichita does not live up to the standards of open government — even through it proclaims its support for government transparency — citizens are working to have the law changed.

Locally, the City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“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.”

Contrary to what the mayor and manager say, when we look at some specific areas of government transparency, we find that the city’s efforts are deficient. That’s a problem, because citizen watchdogs and journalists need access to records and data.

The City of Wichita 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 Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

I have asked each organization for checkbook-level spending data. Each has refused to comply, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But consider the WDDC: At the time I made my records request, its percent of revenue derived from taxes was well over 90 percent in every year but one. In many years the only income WDDC received was from taxes and a small amount of interest earned.

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter at my request, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position.

So what is the next step? The Kansas Attorney General is of no help in this matter. His office refers all cases to the local District Attorney. That’s a problem right there, and there is some talk that the AG may open a small bureau to work with records requests problems.

One course of action open to me as a citizen watchdog is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit. The irony of this is that citizens will find their own tax dollars being used against them as the city and other agencies defend secrecy.

Another course of action is persuading the city and these agencies to release the records. While these agencies believe the law doesn’t require them to release the records, the law does not prohibit or restrict releasing the records. They could fulfill requests if they wanted to. That would be in line with what the mayor and city manager say they want for Wichita. I and others have tried that.

But that didn’t work. The true attitude of the city was expressed eloquently by Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner last month in a television news story about the inability of citizens to see how their money is being spent by these organizations. Meitzner said “The public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.”

The vice mayor also told the reporter that these organization have review boards. Therefore, citizen oversight is not necessary. These boards, however, are usually filled with insiders whose interests may not be aligned with the interests of citizens and promoting good government.

Another course of action is to change the law, and that’s what I and others are trying to do. This week a committee of the Kansas House of Representatives will hear testimony on HB 2567, which will expand the definition of public agency.

The current law says this in defining what agencies are subject to the open records law: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The proposed law contains this additional definition: “Further, on and after July 1, 2014, ‘public agency’ shall include any nonprofit organization supported in whole or in part by public funds, which organizations are engaged in economic development, tourism or general marketing activities for the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof.”

This language, if passed into law, would appear to bring the three problematic agencies under the Kansas Open Records Act. That doesn’t mean that they’ll have to turn over all and any records that are asked for, as the Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions. But we should be able to get spending data and other records that will help citizens oversee the operation of their government and the spending of tax dollars.

It’s a little distressing that citizens have to pass new legislation in order to get government to behave well. Citizens have to resort to these measures even though city leaders say they value open and transparent government.

Following is the testimony I will deliver this week.

Testimony to house of Representatives Committee on Judiciary as proponent of HB 2567, concerning public records.
Bob Weeks, February 19, 2014

Chairman Kinzer and members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present testimony in support of HB 2567, regarding the Kansas Open Records Act.

Cities and other local governmental bodies have set up non-profit organizations to conduct business such as economic development. These agencies, as in the case of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, may in some years receive as much as 98 percent of their revenue from taxation. They often have only one client, that being the governmental agency that provides their tax revenue. They perform functions that are governmental in nature. Yet the Sedgwick County District Attorney says they are not public agencies for purposes of the Kansas Open Records Act. Based on that, these agencies, particularly the WDDC, have refused to fulfill my records requests. This flies in the face of the Legislature’s declared intent in the preamble of the Act: “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.”

There can be large amounts of money involved. The City of Wichita may soon add a 2.75 percent tax to hotel bills as a “City Tourism Fee.” These new taxpayer-provided funds, estimated at $2.5 million per year, would be spent by Go Wichita Convention and Tourism Bureau. This agency, despite receiving nearly all its revenue from taxation, maintains that it is not a public agency as defined by the Kansas Open Records Act. It refused to fulfill my records request.

Citizen watchdogs and journalists need the ability to examine the spending of tax money. When government creates quasi-governmental bodies that are almost totally funded through taxes and then refuses to disclose how that money is spent, we have to wonder why the city doesn’t want citizens to know how this money is spent.

Recently the vice mayor of Wichita told a television news reporter that these organization have review boards. Therefore, citizen oversight is not necessary. These boards, however, are usually filled with insiders whose interests may not be aligned with the interests of citizens and promoting good government.

There is much that Kansas can, and should do, to strengthen its Open Records Law to give citizen watchdogs and journalists better access to records and documents. Restricting the ability of local governments to erect a protective wall under the guise of non-profit corporations that are almost totally funded by taxation is an important step.

I have additional information about the Kansas Open Records Act and its problems at wichitaliberty.org/open-records.

Respectfully submitted,
Bob Weeks

WichitaLiberty.TV February 2, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A Kansas college professor claims that college costs are rising only a tad faster than inflation. We’ll take a look at the actual numbers. Then, this week Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered the annual State of the City address. A few things deserve comment. Episode 30, broadcast February 2, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

The state of Wichita, 2014

Wichita city hall

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered the annual State of the City address. He said a few things that deserve discussion.

This week Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered his annual State of the City address. We expect a certain amount of bragging and over-the-top community pride, things like “Wichita is the BEST place to work and raise a family!” That’s good, to a point. Because if we take these boasts seriously, and if they are not based on factual information, then we have a problem. We may believe that everything is fine in Wichita. But if the actual state of the city is otherwise, we may take unwise action that ultimately is harmful.

(While the city took prominent measures to promote the mayor’s speech, so far the text has not been made available on the city’s website. But you may click here to read it.)

Here’s an example, and perhaps the most important. The mayor said “Our community partnerships have helped us overcome the challenges of the great recession — which brought layoffs to many sectors of our economy.” But the problem is that we haven’t overcome the recession.

wichita-peer-job-growth-1990-2014-01

If we take a look at job growth in Wichita over the last two decades, we see Wichita performing very poorly. That’s not only on an absolute basis, but relative to our self-chosen peer cities. The relative part is important, because the recession was nation-wide. All cities suffered. Note that there are a few cities over which Wichita ranked higher: Springfield, Illinois, and Wichita Falls, Texas. These cities are relevant because we recently hired people from these cities to lead our economic development efforts.

wichita-chamber-job-growth-2013-12

I’ve shown data like this to the city council. I don’t think they believed me. I can understand their reluctance, as it’s not easy to admit things like this. Few like to admit failure. But that doesn’t excuse a reluctance to face facts. I also believe that some council members think that city hall critics take joy in presenting these figures. At least for me, that’s not true. I realize that these statistics tell a story of human hardship. So for those who don’t believe or trust my research, here’s a chart prepared by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce for a presentation to its leadership committee. It uses a different time frame and a slightly different set of peers for comparison, but the results are the same: Wichita lags behind in terms of job growth.

Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition

Despite this evidence, the mayor thinks we’re doing well, and he is proud of our economic development efforts. In his address, he told the audience this: “For the past five years — the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition has helped generate nearly 10,000 jobs and more than 400 million in capital investment.”

That sounds like a lot of jobs. But we have to temper that number. We know that we don’t update our job statistics to reflect jobs that didn’t last for very long. We also must realize that some of these jobs would have been created without the involvement of our economic development agencies. We also must realize that these economic development efforts have a cost, and that cost is harmful to our economy and job creation.

But even if we give our economic development agencies sole credit for these 10,000 jobs, let’s apply a little arithmetic to provide some context. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that the labor force in the Wichita Metropolitan area is about 302,000 people. that number, by the way, has been declining since 2009. If we take the 10,000 jobs — recognizing that was for five years — that averages to 2,000 jobs per year. That’s in the neighborhood of six percent of the labor force.

Does that represent a significant factor in the Wichita area economy? Remember, that calculation gives government more credit that it deserves. When we combine this with Wichita’s lackluster performance in creating jobs compared to our peers, I really don’t think we should be proud of our government’s economic development efforts.

In his State of the City Address, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer also said we need to “continue to diversify our economy.” But we’re not doing that. Our economic development programs heavily favor the aviation industry, which makes it more difficult for aspiring companies in other diverse industries to start and thrive.

wichita-airport-dashboard-2013-07-29

The mayor told the audience that “We will also continue to support our successful affordable airfares program.” This is the program whereby Wichita and the state of Kansas pay a discount airline to provide service in Wichita. It was AirTran, but is now Southwest. It is thought that if one airline has low fares, others will reduce their fares to match. That’s probably the case. But I’ve done the research, and there is another effect. As can be seen in the nearby chart, the number of flights and the number of available seats is declining in Wichita. These measures are also declining on a national level, but they are declining faster in Wichita than for the nation.

The mayor also asked for cooperation in using Southwest Airlines, advising the audience: “So when you make your corporate travel plans, please remember our community’s commitment to supporting low-cost carriers.” Well. How would you feel if you worked for one of our air carriers that don’t receive a subsidy, such as American, United, and Delta? How would you feel if you owned stock in one of these airlines, as does nearly everyone who holds broad-based index funds in their retirement or investment accounts?

In the past, the subsidized discount carrier has carried around ten percent of Wichita’s passengers. So we are vitally dependent on the legacy, or major, airlines, and we don’t need to insult them, as I believe the mayor did.

(To help you explore Wichita airport data, I’ve created an interactive visualization. Click here to open the visualization in a new window. You may add or remove any number of airports. Or, if you’d like to watch a video, click on Wichita Airport statistics: The video.)

Water was another topic that the mayor touched on. He told the audience: “The city has also invested in the second phase of the aquifer storage and recovery project known as ASR. New construction was completed in time to help with the drought. More than 100 million gallons were diverted from the little Arkansas River directly to customers.” 100 million gallons sounds like a lot of water. But what is the context? Well, 100 million gallons is about how much water we use on a single hot summer day.

And what about the ASR, or aquifer storage and recovery program? Its cost, so far for Phases I and II, is $247 million. Two more phases are contemplated. Despite this investment, and despite the plan’s boasts, Wichitans were threatened with huge fines for excessive water usage. The Wichita City Council also started a rebate program so that citizens were forced to pay for other people to buy low-water usage appliances. Expensive city decorative fountains were dry for a time.

Why were these measures necessary? A document created in March 2013 — that’s just as Wichita realized the city was running out of water — is titled “Wichita Area Future Water Supply: A Model Program for Other Municipalities.” It states: “In 1993 the Wichita City Council adopted an Integrated Local Water Supply Plan that identified cost effective water resources that would be adequate to meet Wichita’s water supply needs through the year 2050.” This squares with what former mayor Bob Knight recently told the Wichita Pachyderm Club, that when he was in office, Wichita had sufficient water for the next 50 years. He was told that about 10 years ago.

Just to give you an idea of how seriously we should take the claims made in speeches like this, here’s what the mayor told us in his 2009 State of the City Address: “We will continue work on the state-of-the art water supply system, known as the ASR project. It will provide the Wichita area with sufficient water for the next 50 years. Economic Development is not possible without an adequate water supply.” The mayor’s right. We need an adequate water supply. But it appears that despite huge expense and the boasts of city officials — including the mayor — we don’t have a secure water supply.

The mayor also addressed transit. He asked the community to answer a few questions, such as:

Should we have more stops to drop off and pick up riders?
Should we run later hours during the week and on the weekends?
Should we find new partners to extend our service area and help with costs?

The problem with questions like these are that citizens don’t have all the information needed to make an informed answer. Would we like to have more bus service? Who could answer no to such a question?

But if the mayor had told us that the cost per passenger mile for Wichita transit buses is 95 cents, or that only 30 percent of the operating costs are paid by fares, people might answer these questions differently. (That 30 percent would be lower if we included the cost of capital, that is, the cost of the buses.) And when the mayor asked citizens to weigh in at the Activate Wichita website: I looked, and there’s no topic for transit.

But even if citizens were informed of these costs, their answers are still not fully reliable. That’s because of the disconnect between the payment for the service and the actual bus service. Because so much of the cost of providing bus service is paid for someone else, we don’t really see the total cost of a bus trip. That’s often a problem with services provided by the government. Since someone else is paying, there’s not the same concern for receiving value as there is when people spend their own money.

activate-wichita-rate-this-idea

The Activate Wichita website, by the way. When citizens are asked to rate ideas, to express their approval or — well, that’s the problem. Your choices for voting on an idea are: “I Love It!” … “I Like It!” … “It’s OK.” … “Neutral.” That’s it. There’s no voting option for expressing disagreement or disapproval with an idea. “Neutral” is as much dissent as Wichitans are allowed to express in this system. On this system that city leaders say they rely on for gathering citizen input, there needs to be a voting selection that expresses disagreement or disapproval with an idea. Otherwise when votes are tallied, the worst that any idea can be is “neutral.” City planners may get a false impression that all these ideas a fine and dandy.

wichita-citizen-involvement-2012

On the topic of citizen involvement: The mayor also told us this: “A few weeks ago – the city launched the Office of Community Engagement.” That’s something that the city needs, based on data the city has gathered. The Wichita Performance Measures Report holds some data from a survey called the National Research Center National Citizen Survey. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart I 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 values for the last three administrations of the survey are between 35 percent and 39 percent. The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center. The report tells us that the city expects to re-survey citizens in 2014. For that year, the city has given itself the lofty target of 40 percent of citizens rating the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement as excellent or good. Maybe an Office of Community Engagement will help.

Last year the city conducted an extensive survey of residents. Of this survey, the mayor said: “We learned that more than 70% of our residents are willing to rise above their personal interests to do what’s best for the community.”

The problem with this is that it relies on the false concept of a conflict between personal interests and what is good for the community. In the marketplace, which is the opposite of government, people advance their self-interest in one legitimate way: By finding out the goods and services that others want, and then providing them. If you can do this well and efficiently, you can earn profits. It’s the quest for profits — that’s self interest — that drives people to figure out what others want, and then to work hard to provide that. Everyone benefits.

This quest for profits could, and should, apply to areas that are under the control of government. But people are so afraid that someone will earn a profit by serving their fellow man. Recently John Stossel spotlighted a park in New York City that is run by a private corporation with the aim of earning a profit. People are happy with the new park. They feel safe, even though the park doesn’t discriminate and still lets homeless people stay there. There’s commerce going on, selling food, for example. People like that, and evidence of that is the profit being earned. But Stossel’s guest was critical and unhappy because someone was earning a profit, even though park patrons were happy with the park and most were unaware of its private sector operation.

So when the park was operated by the city — for the common good, that is — not many people used it. It was dirty and trashy, and people didn’t feel safe. Under the profit motive, people like the park and they use it. So where is the conflict between personal interest and what is good for the community?

Now, not everything government does is bad. But when government dabbles in areas that the private sector can do very well, we see problems. As an example, the city wants to help real estate developers, but the city handled a recent situation so badly that the mayor apologized in his address, saying “We are also taking steps to ensure we have integrity and openness when we solicit proposals for development in the core area.”

Citizens that pay attention at city hall also note there are several small groups that contribute heavily to campaigns. Then the mayor and council members vote to give financial benefits to these people. These are not isolated incidents. This behavior is repeated over and over. Some cities have laws against this type of behavior. But in Wichita, while we’re being encouraged to put “what is good for the community” above our personal self-interest, we see city hall run over by cronyism. That is, by people using city government for their own interests. In the name of the “common good,” of course.

At the end of his speech, the mayor asked citizens to “get into the game,” saying: “We need you to be a player — not a spectator — to win a better and brighter tomorrow.”

But we’ve seen what happens when people want to be involved, but not in the way the mayor and council want. Do you remember the chart of airport data? Last year I presented that information to the city council. It so happened that Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn had appointed me to the Airport Advisory Board, and later in that same meeting the city council voted on my appointment. I was rejected. Only one council member voted in my favor. The Wichita Eagle reported: “Mayor Carl Brewer was clear after the meeting: The city wants a positive voice on the airport advisory board, which provides advice to the council on airport-related issues.” A positive voice is more valued than a critical voice, it seems.

Council members shall refrain 01

You may also remember how Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity testified at a meeting of the Wichita City Council. She cited a section of the Wichita City Code that says council members shall refrain from making decisions involving, among other things, friends and business associates. She asked the mayor to observe that part of the city code. But the mayor lashed out at Estes and others and threatened a lawsuit.

At least this year the mayor didn’t mention the importance of open and transparent government, as he usually does. Because based on Activate Wichita — where there is no disagreement allowed, to rejecting board appointments simply because someone might be critical of the city’s programs, to threatening those who ask the mayor and council members to follow the laws that they passed, to the city’s hostile attitude towards the citizen’s right to know: The message we get is this: The city welcomes your involvement, but only up to a point. Question the authority, and you’re not welcome.

That’s the state of Wichita government, that government to be distinguished from the many wonderful people who live here. We can be thankful for the difference.

Transparency groups want to know where Wichita tax money is going to promote Wichita

By Craig Andres, KSN News. View video below, or click here. For more on this issue, see Open government in Kansas.

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.”

WichitaLiberty.TV January 19, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: How much would you pay to visit the Wichita Art Museum? You might be surprised to learn how much each visit really costs. Then: A transparency agenda for Wichita city government and the Kansas Legislature. Finally, a look at public schools wasting money. Episode 28, broadcast January 19, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita’s growth in gross domestic product

Wichita City HallCompared to peer areas, Wichita’s record of growth in gross domestic product is similar to that of job creation: Wichita performs poorly.

Looking at growth in GDP, Wichita lags behind the metropolitan statistical areas that we consider our peers (according to Visioneering Wichita), but not behind all the peer cities that I selected. Wichita does better than Springfield, Illinois, for example. I chose to include that as a peer metropolitan area because that’s the immediate past city that Gary Plummer worked in. He was president of that city’s Chamber of Commerce, and is now president of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Wichita also does better than Wichita Falls, Texas. That city is the immediate past home of Tim Chase. He was the head of Wichita Falls Economic Development Corporation. He’s now president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development for the Wichita area.

What Wichita is missing

If the Wichita-area GDP grew faster, Wichita could generate many more jobs.

growth-gdp-metropolitan-area-wichita-2012-01From 2001 to 2012, Wichita GDP grew at a rate of 0.734 percent per year, compounded annually. U.S. Metropolitan areas, as a whole, managed 1.571 percent growth over the same period. That seems like a small difference, just 0.837 percentage points. But over time, compounding adds up, so to speak. Here’s what it could amount to.

GDP in the Wichita MSA in 2012 was $29,644 million (current dollars). For that year the number of people working averaged 285,600, so each job contributed, on average, $103,796 to GDP.

A metropolitan area the size of Wichita that grew at the historic growth rate of all U.S. Metropolitan areas would be producing an additional $2,751 million in GDP in ten years, compared to a metropolitan area growing at Wichita’s historical rate. That could mean an additional 26,000 jobs.

Using the visualization.
Using the visualization.
If you’d like to use the interactive visualization of metropolitan GDP data, you may click here to open it in a new window. Data is from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis along with author’s own calculations. Visualization created using Tableau Public.

A transparency agenda for Wichita

Wichita City Hall

Kansas has a weak open records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. But with a simple change of attitude towards open government and citizens’ right to know, Wichita could live up to the goals its leaders have set.

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“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.”

Wichita logic open records
But when we look at some specific areas of government transparency, we find that the city’s efforts are deficient. Below are a few areas in which the city could improve. Much more is available here: Open government in Kansas

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “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.

In reality, Kansas has a weak open records law. Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. But with a simple change of attitude towards open government and citizens’ right to know, Wichita could live up to the goals its leaders have set.

Attitude

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, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

I have asked each organization for checkbook-level spending data. Each has refused to comply, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But consider the WDDC: In every year but one, its percent of revenue derived from taxes is well over 90 percent. In many years the only income WDDC received was from taxes and a small amount of interest earned. Click here to see how much of WDDC’s revenue comes from taxes.

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position. (Click here to read the determination.) The only course of action open to me as a citizen watchdog is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit.

There is one other course of action, however. That is, these agencies and the city could fulfill the records requests that I have made. These agencies believe the law doesn’t require them to release the records, but the law does not prohibit or restrict releasing the records. They could fulfill requests if they wanted to, which goes back to the attitude of the city. For more, see Wichita, again, fails at open government.

Citizen watchdogs and others need the ability to examine the spending of tax money. When government creates quasi-governmental bodies that are almost totally funded through taxes and then refuses to disclose how that money is spent, we have to wonder why the city doesn’t want citizens to know how this money is spent.

An example of why this is important is the case of Mike Howerter, a trustee of Labette Community College in Parsons. He noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Upon his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a political campaign contribution. While the college president committed no violation by making this political contribution using college funds, this is an example of the type of information that citizens may want regarding the way public funds are spent.

Website

The most important way governments can communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. While the former website had its share of problems — such as a search feature that didn’t work very well — the new website has been a step backwards.

For example, it appears that for citizen review boards like the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and Historic Preservation Board, agendas and minutes prior to 2012 did not survive the conversion to the new website. Other documents that were previously available but appear to be missing after the conversion include the daily arrest reports. It appears that only a few years of past budgets are available, but the comprehensive annual financial reports are available for about ten years back. (If I missed any documents that are actually available, I apologize. But the fact that I couldn’t find them is its own problem.)

The prior website had a service called “MyWichita.” This was a very useful service. After registration, citizens could see a list of documents and check the types of documents for which they’d like to receive notification when newly available, such as meeting agenda and minutes. This email reminder service was very valuable. It didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing new to replace its function.

The search feature on the new website is better than on the old. But there is a curious twist to the new search: It gives different results depending on the starting page. This could be a potentially useful feature if users were made aware of it. For example, if the user is currently viewing the Finance Department web page and starts a search, the system could give the user a choice of search just the Finance Department, or all of the website. Presently, it appears that the search would be confined to just the Finance Department, and users could easily conclude that documents they searched for don’t exist, when in fact they do.

Most new websites in recent years will adapt so they are usable from mobile devices like smartphones. Not so with the new Wichita website.

Spending data

Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, and also the Wichita school district. Not so the City of Wichita.

wichita-checkbook-register-example
Even after asking for checkbook spending data, Wichita can 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 useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Legal notices

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.

Publish 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.

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

city-council-chambers-sign-smallThis week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda. I’ve excerpted the document here, and following are some of the most problematic items.

Agenda: Existing economic development tools are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our community.

First. The premise of this item is incorrect. We don’t have growth and prosperity in Wichita. Compared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. See For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure for details.

Second: In general, these incentives don’t work to increase prosperity. Click here for a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.

Third: Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development. The city’s document lists the tools the city wants the legislature to protect:

  • GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions
  • Industrial Revenue Bond tax abatements (IRBX)
  • Economic Development Exemptions (EDX)
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
  • Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds
  • Community Improvement Districts (CID)
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) tax rebates
  • Special Assessment financing for neighborhood infrastructure projects, facade improvements and abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
  • State Historic Preservation Tax Credits (HPTC)
  • State administration of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP) tax credits
  • Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT) grants
  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program
  • Economic Revitalization and Reinvestment Act bonding for major aviation and wind energy projects
  • Kansas Industrial Training (KIT) and Kansas Industrial Retraining (KIR) grants
  • Network Kansas tax credit funding
  • State support for Innovation Commercialization Centers in Commerce Department budget

That’s quite a list of incentive programs. Some of these are so valuable that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Agenda: GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions

This may refer to the city wanting to prevent these agencies from having to fulfill records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act. (If so, I wonder why the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation was left off.) City leaders say Wichita has an open and transparent government. But Kansas has a weak records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. This is an insult to citizens who are not able to access how their taxes are spent. For more on this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any legislative attempts to restrict the taxing and spending authority of local governments.

As Wichita city leaders prepare to ask for a higher sales tax rate in Wichita, we can hope that the legislature will save us from ourselves. At best, we can hope that the legislature requires that all tax rate increases be put to popular vote.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any restrictions on the use of state and/or local public monies to provide information to our citizens and to advocate on their behalf.

This is the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. As you can see in this document, many of the things that Wichita city leaders believe people want, or believe that will be good for their constituents, are actually harmful. Additionally, many of the methods the city uses to engage citizens to determine their needs are faulty. See In Wichita, there’s no option for dissent for an example. Also, see Wichita survey questions based on false premises.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the current framework for local elections, continuing the current February/April schedule of local primary and general elections, as well as the local option allowing non-partisan elections.

The present system of non-partisan elections held in the spring results in low voter turnout that lets special interest groups exercise greater influence than would be likely in fall elections. See my legislative testimony in Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the development of appropriate state and local incentives to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.

Translation: The city knows better than you how to provide for your entertainment and cultural edification, and will continue to tax you for your own benefit.

Agenda: Public support and awareness of the possibility of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton has grown over the past two years.

I’m not sure where the claim of public support and awareness growing comes from, but people are definitely not informed about the economics of passenger rail. In 2010, when the state rolled out several plans for this passenger rail service link, I reported as follows:

Expansion of rail service in Kansas is controversial, at least to some people, in that any form of rail service requires taxpayer involvement to pay for the service. First, taxpayer funding is required to pay for the start-up costs for the service. There are four alternatives being presented for rail service expansion in Kansas, and the start-up costs range from $156 million up to $479 million.

After this, taxpayer subsidies will be required every year to pay for the ongoing operational costs of providing passenger rail service. The four alternatives would require an annual operating subsidy ranging from $2.1 million up to $6.1 million. Taking the operating subsidy and dividing by the estimated number of passengers for each alternative, the per-passenger subsidy ranges from $35 up to $97 for every passenger who uses the service.

It would be one thing if tickets sales and other revenue sources such as sale of food and beverage paid for most of the cost of providing passenger rail service, and taxpayers were being asked to provide a little boost to get the service started and keep it running until it can sustain itself. But that’s not the case. Taxpayers are being asked to fully fund the start-up costs. Then, they’re expected to pay the majority of ongoing expenses, apparently forever.

Also, in Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas I reported on the Heartland Flyer route specifically. This is from 2010, but I doubt much has changed since then.

For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Asking the taxpayers of Wichita to pay subsidies each time someone boards an Amtrak train: This doesn’t sound like economic development, much less a program that people living in a free society should be forced to fund.

For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure

Delano Clock Tower, WichitaCompared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. As Wichita embarks upon a new era of economic development, we need to ask who to trust with this important task.

The good news: In a recent op-ed, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer wrote that the city needs to make a decision regarding “A more aggressive approach to job creation.” (Carl Brewer: Wichita can have a great next year, December 22, 2013 Wichita Eagle)

The bad news: Wichita has performed very poorly in job creation in recent decades, and even if we decide on a more aggressive approach, pretty much the same crew is in charge.

Many in Wichita don’t want to recognize and confront the bad news about the performance of the Wichita-area economy. Last year, when presenting its annual report to local governmental bodies, the leaders of Visioneering Wichita would not present benchmark data to elected officials.

Some, however, have recognized the severity of the problem. In 2008 Harvey Sorensen, who has been chair of Visioneering Wichita, chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, and has held other civic leadership positions, wrote in the pages of the Wichita Eagle: “We are losing ground competitively with our peer communities.” (Community Needs a Common Vision, August 24, 2008 Wichita Eagle)

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So what is the record of the Wichita metropolitan area regarding job creation, that seeming to be the most popular statistic our leaders cite and promote? I’ve prepared statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor for Wichita and a broad group of peer cities. I included our Visioneering peer cities, cities that Visioneers traveled to on official visits, and a few others. The result, shown nearby, is not pretty. (Click on charts for larger versions, or click here to use the interactive visualization)

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If we look at job creation starting in 1990, Wichita lags behind our Visioneering peers, but not behind all the peer cities that I selected. Wichita does better than Springfield, Illinois, for example. I chose to include that as a peer metropolitan area because that’s the immediate past city that Gary Plummer worked in. He was president of that city’s Chamber of Commerce, and is now president of the Wichita Chamber. Note the position of Springfield: Last place.

In next-to-last place we see Wichita Falls, Texas. I chose to include it because it is the immediate past home of Tim Chase. He was the head of Wichita Falls Economic Development Corporation. He’s now president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development for the Wichita area.

In second-to-last place we see Pittsburgh, which I added because Visioneering leaders recently made a visit there.

Then, we come to Wichita.

If we look at job creation since 2007, the year before Sorensen wrote his op-ed, we find Wichita in a common position: Last place in job creation, and by a wide margin except for two cities. One is Wichita Falls, where our present GWEDC president recently worked. The other city that barely out-performs Wichita is Chattanooga, which I included because Visioneering civic leaders recently traveled there to learn from that city.

Over the decades in which Wichita has performed poorly, there have been a few common threads. Brewer has been council member or mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for decades. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for more than two decades. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. It is these officials who have presided over the dismal record of Wichita.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But he’s becoming part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

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These leaders often complain that Wichita does not have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete with other cities in economic development. Wichita does, however, have and use incentives. The State of Kansas regularly offers incentives so generous that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Incentives: We have them. They haven’t worked for us.

It is nearly certain that this year Wichitans will be asked to approve a higher sales tax in order to pay for many things, including the more aggressive approach to job creation that Brewer mentioned. Based on the track record of our elected officials and bureaucrats, we need to do this: Before approving the tax and expenditures, Wichitans need to take a long look at the people who have been in charge, and ask what will be different going forward.

In Wichita, ‘free markets’ used to justify business welfare

Wichita City HallIncredibly, a prominent Wichita business uses the free market to justify its request for economic development incentives. A gullible city council buys the argument.

At the December 10, 2013 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Bombardier LearJet received an economic development incentive that will let it avoid paying some property taxes on newly-purchased property. The amount involved in this particular incident is relatively small. According to city documents, “the value of the abated taxes on that investment could be as much as $1,980.”

(Bombardier receives millions each year in other government subsidies; see Kansas PEAK program: corporate welfare wrapped in obfuscation and Bombardier Learjet should pay just a little for examples.)

While the amount of the incentive granted in the December 10 action is small, the meeting was useful in letting us understand how some prominent members of Wichita’s business community have distorted the principles of free markets and capitalism. As illustrated by the fawning of Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) and others, elected officials have long forsaken these ideas.

Bombardier’s argument

Don Pufahl, who is Director of Finance at Bombardier Learjet, addressed the council regarding this matter. He started his remarks on a positive note, telling the council “There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.”

We must be careful when using the term incentive. In a free-market economy or capitalism, incentive refers to the motivation of the possibility of earning profits. Another incentive — the flip side of the same coin — is avoiding losses. That’s why capitalism is called a profit-and-loss system. The losses are just as important as profits, as losses are a signal that the economic activity is not valued, and the resources should be shifted to somewhere else where they are valued more highly.

But in the field of economic development as practiced by government, incentive means something given to or granted to a company. That’s what the representative from Bombardier meant by incentive. He explained: “One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.”

A few thoughts: First, Bombardier is not investing in the community. The company is investing in itself.

Second, the free market system that the speaker seemed to praise is a system based on voluntary exchange. That flows from property rights, which is the fundamental idea that people own themselves and the product of their labor, and are free to exchange with others, or to not exchange. But when government uses incentives, many people do not consent to the exchange. That’s not a free market system.

Third, an important part of a free market system is market competition. That is, business firms compete with others for customers. They also compete with other business firms for resources needed for production, such as capital. When government makes these decisions instead of markets, we don’t have a free market system. Instead, we have cronyism. Charles G. Koch has described the harm of cronyism, recently writing: “The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

In the same article Koch wrote: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.” (Charles G. Koch: Corporate cronyism harms America)

The representative from Bombardier also said that the city’s incentives would reduce Bombardier’s investment risk. There is little doubt this is true. What has happened, however, is that the risk has not been eliminated or reduced. It has merely been shifted to the people of Wichita, Sedgwick County, the Wichita public school district, and the State of Kansas. When government does this on a piecemeal basis, this is called cronyism. When done universally, we call this socialism.

We can easily argue that actions like this — and especially the large subsidies granted to Bombardier the by state — increase the risk of these investments. Since the subsidies reduce the cost of its investment, Bombardier may be motivated to make risky investments that it might otherwise not make, were it investing its own funds (and that of its shareholders).

The cost of Bombardier’s investments, and the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. But we can’t identify these. We don’t know who they are. But we need an economic development strategy that creates an environment where these young entrepreneurial firms have the greatest chance to survive. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

Now the city and Bombardier will say that these investments have a payoff for the taxpayer. That is, if Bombardier grows, it will pay more in taxes, and that constitutes “profit” for taxpayers. Even if we accept that premise — that the city “profits” from collecting taxes — why do we need to invest in Bombardier in order to harvest its “profits” when there are so many companies that pay taxes without requiring subsidy?

Finally, the representative from Bombardier said that these incentives are not a handout. I don’t see how anyone can say that and maintain a straight face.

wichita-chamber-job-growth-2013-12
It would be one thing if the Wichita area was thriving economically. But it isn’t. We’re in last place among our self-identified peers, as illustrated in Wichita and Visioneering peers job growth. Minutes from a recent meeting of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development, holds this paragraph: “As shown in the Chart below Wichita economy suffered the largest loss of employment among peer cities and has not seen any signs of rebounding as the other communities have. Wichita lost 31,000 jobs during the recession principally due to the down turn in general aviation.”

Following is a fuller representation of the Bombardier representative’s remarks to the council.

There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.

One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.

As the company moves forward to invest in the community, those investments are not without risk. … Your incentives allow us to offset some of that risk so that we can move forward with those investments, which hopefully create new jobs and also then also improves the quality of life in our community. … These incentives are not a handout. They are a way that the local government uses such things to offset some of the risk that is involved in local companies as they invest in the community, bring jobs to the community, and improve the community overall.


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Employment visualization updated; Wichita still in last place

city-council-chambers-sign-smallWichita continues to lag behind its peer cities in job growth, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The interactive visualization referenced below lets you select any number of metropolitan areas (or states) and track progress in job growth.

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The nearby chart shows Wichita and its Visioneering peer cities (click on charts for larger versions). For about the last ten years Wichita has been in last place in job growth, and by no small margin. It wasn’t always that way. Results like this should cause us to question our economic development strategies and the people and organizations we have charged with managing this effort.

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This poor performance of Wichita compared to peers has not gone unnoticed. Minutes from a recent meeting of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development, holds this paragraph: “As shown in the Chart below Wichita economy suffered the largest loss of employment among peer cities and has not seen any signs of rebounding as the other communities have. Wichita lost 31,000 jobs during the recession principally due to the down turn in general aviation. To improve our local economy we have to add new economic engines to the aviation sector thereby insulating the regional economy from future massive fluctuations.”

Data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public. Click here to open the visualization in a new window.

kansas-employment-sample-2013-12

Wichita can advocate for government transparency, or not

Wichita City Hall

Government should be responsive to citizens when they make legitimate requests for records. Wichita should not hide behind non-profit entities and tortured interpretations of the law in order to keep records secret.

When the Wichita City Council considers renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, the council has another opportunity to decide whether it is truly in favor of open government and citizen access to records.

Go Wichita, along with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, contends that it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and most council members are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and action may be taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. We can call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

The legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking Go Wichita to act as though it was a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

It’s easy to bluster about open government. In one of his “State of the City” addresses, Mayor Brewer promoted the city’s efforts in accountability and transparency, telling the audience: “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.” Many other city documents mention transparency as a goal for the city.

Earlier this year, the city won an award for government transparency regarding the city’s website. In a statement, the city manager said the city “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.”

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law.

Why open records are important

labette-community-college-donationHere’s an example as to why this issue is important: In 2009 Mike Howerter, a trustee for Labette Community College, noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Based on his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a political contribution. While it was determined that the college president committed no crime by making this political contribution using college funds, this is an example of the type of information that citizens may want regarding the way public funds are spent.

This is the type of information that I have requested. It is what is needed to perform effective oversight. It is what the City of Wichita has decided to avoid.

This item in the past

Two years ago I asked that the city council approve the contract with Go Wichita only after adding a provision that Go Wichita consider itself a public agency under the Kansas Open Records Act. Following are a few notes from the meeting (video may be viewed here or at the end of this article):

Discussion of this matter at the meeting reveals that city staff believes that the annual reports filed by Go Wichita along with periodic checks by city staff are sufficient oversight.

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “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.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Misunderstanding the scope of KORA

In remarks from the bench Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Is the city overwhelmed with records requests?

Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].”

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I have made one request this year to the city citing the open records act. It was denied. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to his concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is typical of elected officials — disdain for providing records to citizens. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent. The city should not hide behind non-profit entities and torture the law in order to keep records secret.

Wichita’s attitude towards citizens

Randy Brown’s remarks are an excellent summation of the morality and politics of the city’s action and attitude regarding this matter.

The council ought to be wary of taking legal advice from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf. He has been wrong several times before when issuing guidance to this council regarding the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which is similar to the Open Records Act. He’s taken the blame and apologized for these violations. He was quoted in the Wichita Eagle as saying “I will make every effort to further a culture of openness and ensure that like mistakes are avoided in the future.”

But Rebenstorf’s attitude, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the clear meaning and intent of the law.

Why city council members would be opposed to what I have asked is unknown. Perhaps they know that among the public, issues relating to open records generally aren’t that important. Citizens ought to note the actions of Mayor Brewer. The mayor could easily put this matter to an end. He speaks of wanting to have open and transparent government, but when it comes time to make a tough call, his leadership is missing.

It’s becoming evident that Kansans need a better way to enforce compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act. It seems quite strange that local district attorneys are placed in a quasi-judicial role of deciding whether citizen complains are justified. If citizens disagree — and nearly everyone I’ve talked to thinks that the opinion issued by the Sedgwick County District Attorney is this matter is nonsensical and contrary to the letter and spirit of the law — they find themselves in the position of suing their government. That is costly, and citizens soon realize their own taxpayer dollars are used against them.

Wichita logic open records

Wichita economic development not being managed

The Wichita Eagle has reported that Wichita has increased its granting of property tax exemptions in recent years. (Wichita doubles property tax exemptions for businesses, October 20, 2013) Buried in the story is the really important aspect of public policy. In his reporting, Bill Wilson wrote:

The Eagle asked the city last week for an accounting of the jobs created over the past decade by the tax abatements, a research project that urban development staffers have yet to complete.

“It will take us some time to pull together all the agenda reports on the five-year reviews going back to 2003. That same research will also reveal any abatements that were ‘retooled’ as a result of the five-year reviews,” city urban development director Allen Bell said. “I can tell you that none of the abatements were terminated.”

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One might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. But apparently that isn’t the case.

We need to recognize that because the city does not have at its immediate disposal the statistics about job creation, it is evident that the city is not managing this effort. Or, maybe it just doesn’t care.

This is a management problem at the highest level. In January when the city council awarded city manager Robert Layton a large raise, the praise from council members was effusive. This means one of several things: (a) that the mayor and city council have not asked for these job creation numbers, or (b) city council members don’t care about the numbers, or (c) they’re not interested in knowing the numbers. There could be other explanations, but all point to a lack of bureaucratic management and political oversight.

I wonder why the city officials didn’t explain that according to their analysis and way of thinking, these tax abatements don’t have a cost. When presented to the council, each abatement opportunity is generally accompanied by a benefit-cost analysis that purports to show that the city, county, school district, and state gain more in tax revenue than they forego from the abatement. Does this extra government revenue create jobs?

In any case, the number of jobs stemming from our economic development efforts is small. In his State of the City Address for 2012, Mayor Carl Brewer said that the city’s efforts in economic development had created “almost 1000 jobs.” While that sounds like a lot of jobs, that number deserves context. According to estimates from the Kansas Department of Labor, the civilian labor force in the City of Wichita for December 2011 was 192,876, with 178,156 people at work. This means that the 1,000 jobs created accounted for from 0.52 percent to 0.56 percent of our city’s workforce, depending on the denominator used. This minuscule number is dwarfed by the normal ebb and flow of other economic activity. (The mayor didn’t mention job creation figures in his 2013 address.)

The case of InfoNXX

Here’s an example of property tax abatements granted for which the city received little in return. In 2005, with great fanfare, the city announced that its economic development recruitment efforts had landed InfoNXX, an operator of call centers. The council agenda report of November 15, 2005 recommended that the council approve a letter of intent for tax abatements. The report stated this:

The Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition has worked with a national site consultant to recruit a new company to Wichita. InfoNXX, Inc., major provider of telephone directory assistance and enhanced information services to leading communications companies, businesses and consumers located principally in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Italy. As a result of the recruitment effort, InfoNXX will locate a large customer service center in the former MCI Building, near Rock Road and K-96 in northeast Wichita, and hire over 900 customer care representatives. As an economic development incentive, the City offered InfoNXX Industrial Revenue Bonds (IRBs) and property tax abatement on equipment and furnishings, subject to City Council approval.

RECOMMENDED ACTION: Approve a Letter of Intent to InfoNXX Inc. for Industrial Revenue Bonds in an amount not-to-exceed $6 million, subject to the Letter of Intent conditions, for a term of six-months, approve a 100% tax abatement on all bond-financed property for an initial five-year period plus an additional five years following City Council review, and authorize the application for a sales tax exemption on bond-financed property.

On December 13, 2005 the council approved the ordinance granting the tax abatements.

Fast forward to the February 15, 2011 council agenda packet. The five year initial property tax abatement granted in 2005 was over, and the council could extend it for another five years if the committed goals had been met. The agenda report gave this summary for capital investment: “Purchase furniture, fixtures and equipment for a capital investment of $6 million.” Results, according to city documents, were “Invested $7,331,379 million [sic] in FF&E.”

For job creation, the 2005 commitment was “Create 944 new jobs in five years.” Results, according to city documents, were “Created 870 new jobs; current job level is 185.”

InfoNXX was short of its job creation commitments, but the city used a loophole to grant a one-year extension of the tax abatement. That one-year extension was never the subject of further consideration, as InfoNXX changed its name, and in January 2012 closed the Wichita facility that was the subject of these incentives.

It’s unfortunate for Wichita and the InfoNXX employees that the facility closed. The important public policy consideration is that we learn from this. So, when Wichita counts the number of jobs created, does it adjust for short-lived jobs like these?

The answer, I believe, is no. We don’t adjust our job creation statistics, and we don’t learn.

gwedc-office-operations

In fact, we don’t even keep current. GWEDC — that’s the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition credited with recruiting InfoNXX to Wichita — doesn’t update its website to reflect current conditions. InfoNXX closed its facility in Wichita in 2012, and as we saw above, city documents said that at its peak the company employed 870 in Wichita. As of today, here’s what GWEDC says on a page titled Office Operations:

Wichita hosts over a dozen customer service and processing centers – including a USPS Remote Encoding Center (985 employees), InfoNXX (950), T-Mobile (900), Royal Caribbean (700), Convergys (600), Protection One (540), Bank of America (315) and Cox Communications (230.) (emphasis added)

So the official Wichita-area economic development agency proclaims the existence of a company that no longer exists in Wichita, and claims a job count that the company never achieved. This is beyond careless negligence. This is malpractice.

The USPS Remote Encoding Center mentioned? It’s being closed this year.

Going forward

In his State of the City address for 2013 the Wichita mayor lamented the fact that Wichita has no dedicated funding source for economic development. It’s likely that Wichitans will be asked to approve increased taxes for economic development, as well as for many other things we want like a new central library, new water and sewer pipes, improved public transit, and downtown development.

But before Wichita officials ask for more taxes so there can be more spending, they need to convince us that they care about measuring and managing results. They haven’t shown this so far.

Wichita job growth under the Visioneering/Brewer regime

Wichita has set ambitious goals in job growth, but it doesn’t seem that the Visioneering program has produced results. But apparently Wichita government officials are satisfied.

One of the benchmarks of Visioneering is “Exceed the highest of the annual percentage job growth rate of the U.S., Omaha, Tulsa, Kansas City and Oklahoma City.”

In May, Suzie Ahlstrand of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce presented Wichita City Council members with the benchmark documents, but didn’t elaborate on these in her presentation.

I can understand her reluctance to focus on these numbers. They’re not good. Tremendous opportunities have been lost and wasted, and people have suffered. Yet, city leaders seem satisfied. Thrilled, even.

An interactive visualization holding job numbers for Wichita and our Visioneering peers is available at Wichita job growth and Visioneering peers. Or, watch the video below (or click here to watch at YouTube, which may work better for some people).

Sedgwick County votes for harmful intervention

man-digging-coinsIt’s harmful when citizens are not armed with information and research. But when government officials and bureaucrats with the power to tax and plan our economies are uninformed, people suffer as our economy becomes less prosperous than it could be.

Today, in the name of creating jobs, the Sedgwick County Commission voted in favor of granting an economic development incentive to an expanding Wichita manufacturing firm. Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau voted against the award.

The action taken today is in addition to an award by the State of Kansas, and another likely to be awarded by the Wichita City Council. See Why is business welfare necessary in Wichita? for more background.

Intervention in the economy such as this does more harm than good, as we’ll see in a moment. It’s important that we learn the facts about incentives like these, as the Wichita area has the potential to become even more dependent on incentives and subsidies as a way of economic development.

For example, the president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition recently broadcast an email with the subject heading “Investor Alert: WBJ outlines Mars Deal Development Incentives as one example of Aggressive Competition.” The email read as follows:

Dear Investors,

You are well aware of the Mars deal in Topeka and you are likely aware that no city outside the greater Kansas City Metro Area was given the opportunity to bid this project.

In my mind the take away from this Wichita Business Journal article is that our competition — local, state and international — have enormous tools to ensure economic development success.

The Mars project has the potential to receive $9.1 million in local incentives over the next five years not including the property tax abatement estimated at $10.0M.

Tim Chase

Messages like this — that we don’t have enough tools to compete — are common in Wichita. Politicians like Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer call for devoted revenue streams to fund economic development incentives.

What, though, is the track record of incentives? Those who, like myself, call for an end to their use: Don’t we want people to have jobs?

We need to decide what to believe. Should we believe our own eyes — that is, what we can easily see or are being told by our leaders — or something else?

Here’s a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.

Ambrosius (1989). National study of development incentives, 1969 — 1985.
Finding: No evidence of incentive impact on manufacturing value-added or unemployment, thus suggesting that tax incentives were ineffective.

Trogan (1999). National study of state economic growth and development programs, 1979 — 1995.
Finding: General fiscal policy found to be mildly effective, while targeted incentives reduced economic performance (as measured by per capita income).

Gabe and Kraybill (2002). 366 Ohio firms, 1993 — 1995.
Finding: Small reduction in employment by businesses which received Ohio’s tax incentives.

Fox and Murray (2004). Panel study of impacts of entry by 109 large firms in the 1980s.
Finding: No evidence of large firm impacts on local economy.

Edmiston (2004). Panel study of large firm entrance in Georgia, 1984 — 1998
Finding: Employment impact of large firms is less than gross job creation (by about 70%), and thus tax incentives are unlikely to be efficacious.

Hicks (2004). Panel study of gaming casinos in 15 counties (matched to 15 non-gambling counties).
Finding: No employment or income impacts associated with the opening of a large gambling facility. There is significant employment adjustment across industries.

LaFaive and Hicks (2005). Panel study of Michigan’s MEGA tax incentives, 1995 — 2004.
Finding: Tax incentives had no impact on targeted industries (wholesale and manufacturing), but did lead to a transient increase in construction employment at the cost of roughly $125,000 per job.

Hicks (2007a). Panel study of California’s EDA grants to Wal-Mart in the 1990s.
Finding: The receipt of a grant did increase the likelihood that Wal-Mart would locate within a county (about $1.2 million generated a 1% increase in the probability a county would receive a new Wal-Mart), but this had no effect on retail employment overall.

Hicks (2007b). Panel study of entry by large retailer (Cabela’s).
Finding: No permanent employment increase across a quasi-experimental panel of all Cabela’s stores from 1998 to 2003.

(Based on Figure 8.1: Empirical Studies of Large Firm Impacts and Tax Incentive Efficacy, in Unleashing Capitalism: Why Prosperity Stops at the West Virginia Border and How to Fix It, Russell S. Sobel, editor. Available here.)

In discussing this research, the authors of Unleashing Capitalism explained:

Two important empirical questions are at the heart of the debate over targeted tax incentives. The first is whether or not tax incentives actually influence firms’ location choices. The second, and perhaps more important question, is whether, in combination with firms’ location decisions, tax incentives actually lead to improved local economic performance.

We begin by noting that businesses do, in fact, seem to be responsive to state and local economic development incentives. … All of the aforementioned studies, which find business location decisions to be favorably influenced by targeted tax incentives, also conclude that the benefits to the communities that offered them were less than their costs.

So yes, business firms are influenced by incentives. But the cost of the incentives is greater than the benefit. This research shows, over and over, that the cost-benefit ratio analysis that decision makers use is not meaningful or reliable.

So why do we use incentives? Why do so few in government or the public understand? Continuing from Unleashing Capitalism:

Given serious doubts about the efficacy of tax incentives, why are they so popular? The answer is that businesses looking to expand their plants or to move to new locations have strong incentives to lobby for tax breaks and other subsidies that add to owners’ profits and, moreover, encouraging a bidding war between two or more state or local governments promises to increase the value of the incentives they can extract from any one of them. Politicians interested in re-election, in turn, have strong incentives to respond to private firms’ self-serving subsidy demands in order to take credit for enticing a high-profile company to town or to avoid blame for the jobs that would be lost if an existing employer moved to another location. The politicians will be supported on the tax-incentive issue by other groups having immediate financial stakes in the process, including local real estate developers, investment bankers (who float public bond issues and arrange financing for the incoming firm), and economic development officials whose livelihoods depend on success in chasing after ornaments to add to the local or state economy.

The special interests of subsidy-seeking private firms dominate the political process because voter-taxpayers are only weakly motivated to become informed about the costs of tax incentive programs and to organize in opposition to them. They see the jobs “created” at a new plant; they do not see the jobs that are lost elsewhere in the economy as a result of the higher tax burden imposed on other businesses and as a result of the economic resources reallocated from productive activities toward lobbying government to obtain these favors. Nor can they readily see the higher future tax bill they themselves will be required to pay in order to amortize and service the public debt issued to finance the subsidies diverted into the pockets of the owners of politically influential private companies.

“Politicians interested in re-election.” This describes almost all elected officials.

“Economic development officials whose livelihoods depend on success in chasing after ornaments.” This is Tim Chase and the other members of the economic development regime in Wichita.

Today, in explaining his vote in favor of granting a target economic development incentive, Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh recognized a “certain pragmatism that is required here.” He said we’re really concerned about jobs, and that jobs is the number one priority. Sometimes creating jobs requires us, he said, to compete in the practical world. It would be better if there were no incentives, he said. “But the truth of the matter is that we have to sometimes provide incentives, subsidies, abatements, whatever category it falls in, in order to compete and secure the jobs and company that we’re trying to win.”

This is the standard argument, even of politically liberal members of commissions and councils. Jobs, jobs, jobs. We don’t like to use incentives — they all say this, especially conservatives — but we learned that we must use incentives if we want jobs. This embrace of pragmatism is called “maturing in office.”

But I would ask these officials like Unruh this question: What about all the research that says incentives do more harm to jobs than good?

What do Commissioners Unruh, Skelton, and Norton believe phrases like these mean?

No evidence of incentive impact on manufacturing value-added or unemployment”

Small reduction in employment by businesses which received Ohio’s tax incentives”

No evidence of large firm impacts on local economy”

No permanent employment increase across a quasi-experimental panel of all Cabela’s stores”

“Employment impact of large firms is less than gross job creation (by about 70%)”

These research programs illustrate the fallacy of the seen and the unseen. It is easy to see the jobs being created by economic development incentives. I do not deny that jobs are created at firms that receive incentives, at least most of the time. But these jobs are easy to see, and government makes sure we see them. We’re going to endure the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. It’s easy for news reporters to find the newly-hired and grateful workers, or to show video footage of a new manufacturing plant.

But it’s very difficult to find specific instances of the harm that government intervention produces. It is, generally, dispersed. People who lose their jobs usually don’t know the root cause of why they are now unemployed. Businesses whose sales decline often can’t figure out why.

But uncontroverted evidences tells us this is true: These incentives, along with other forms of government interventionism, do more harm than good.

We can understand the average citizen being susceptible to arguments make by the likes of GWEDC’s Chase and the three Sedgwick county commissioners that voted for this incentive. Citizens generally don’t have the education, the time, and the initiative to evaluate these matters.

But for economic development professionals and elected officials with the power to tax and spend? Not knowing this research is inexcusable, and ignoring it is deplorable.

Why is business welfare necessary in Wichita?

A company in Wichita requires business welfare in order to capture a new business opportunity. What’s wrong with this picture?

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Our local and state economic development regime wanted Sedgwick county commissioners to approve a grant to a company without the commissioners knowing the entire spectrum of benefits the company will receive. Wichita city council members likely would have found themselves in the same position.

But we now know the details of economic development incentives approved and proposed for Triumph Aerospace Systems in Wichita. Press releases from Kansas Department of Commerce and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition didn’t give specifics. But based on the agreement between the Department of Commerce and Triumph, the state will give Triumph $100,000 immediately, and then $25,000 at the end of each of the next two years if job creation targets are met.

This $150,000 is in addition to two forgivable loans of $78,000 each expected to be granted by Sedgwick County and the City of Wichita. (Forgivable loans are like conditional grants. The loan is not repaid as long as targets are met.) That’s a total of $306,000.

This type of economic development action is routine in Wichita and Kansas. But, as measured in a variety of ways, Wichita economic growth and job creation is slow. So we ought to ask a few questions before proceeding.

First, what is wrong with Wichita’s business environment that in order for a company to expand, it must receive business welfare? I realize that “business welfare” is a harsh term. But how else do we describe these grants paid for through taxation?

Second: If there is no problem with Wichita’s business environment, and if these incentives are not necessary for the company to expand, why are we granting them?

Third, how were these amounts determined? Why $306,000? Why not $206,000 or $406,000? If we gave the company a bigger grant, could it hire more people?

Fourth: An analysis performed for Sedgwick County indicates a benefit-cost ratio of 1.31, meaning that for every $1.00 the county invests in this forgivable loan, it expects to receive $1.31. This inspires a question: If we really believe in this benefit to the county (and similar benefits to the city and state), why is the county investing only $78,000? And why doesn’t the county make more investments like this? Surely there are other worthy companies that need capital for expansion. If it really is so easy to induce economic growth and job creation, we should be doing things like this at every county commission meeting. Several times each meeting, I would say.

Fifth: Not all companies that expand receive incentives. How are other companies in Wichita able to expand or start without the aid of incentives?

Finally: A continuing goal in Wichita is to diversify our economy, to reduce the proportion of jobs and income earned in aviation and aerospace. Triumph, the company expanding, is in that industry. It’s not bad that the company is expanding. But the costs of these incentives are a burden to other companies that are starting and trying to establish themselves. Instead of diversifying our economy, this action further concentrates our economic base in a way that is deemed undesirable. Was this considered when evaluating this incentive opportunity versus others?

I’m just asking.

What to do, and not to do

Politicians and bureaucrats promote programs like these grants as targeted investment in our economic future. They believe that they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. It’s a form of centralized planning by the state that shapes the future direction of the Wichita and Kansas economy.

These targeted economic development efforts fail for several reasons. First is the knowledge problem, in that government simply does not know which companies are worthy of public investment. This lack of knowledge, however, does not stop governments from creating policies for the awarding of incentives. This “active investor” approach to economic development is what has led to companies receiving grants or escaping 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.

Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy

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: “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.

Without government, there would be no change: Wichita Mayor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, August 12, 2008:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita economic development solution, postponed

Recent reporting in the Wichita Business Journal on Wichita’s economic development efforts has many officials saying Wichita doesn’t have enough incentives to compete with other cities. That is, we are not spending enough on incentives.

Whether these incentives are good economic development policy is open for debate. I don’t believe we need them, and that we in Kansas and Wichita can chart another course to increase economic freedom in Kansas. That will make our area appealing to companies. But our local bureaucrats, most business leaders, and nearly all elected officials believe that targeted incentives are the way to attract and retain business.

(Charts at the end of this article illustrate the record in Wichita on jobs.)

Our leaders have identified what they believe is a solution to a problem, but have not implemented that solution effectively, in their own words.

I should say have not implemented the solution on a widespread basis, because Wichita has devoted more tax money to economic development. According to the 2010 City Manager’s Policy Message, page CM-2, “One mill of property tax revenue will be shifted from the Debt Service Fund to the General Fund. In 2011 and 2012, one mill of property tax will be shifted to the General Fund to provide supplemental financing. The shift will last two years, and in 2013, one mill will be shifted back to the Debt Service Fund. The additional millage will provide a combined $5 million for economic development opportunities.”

So the city has decided to spend more tax dollars on economic development, but this allocation is being phased out — at the same time nearly everyone is calling for more to be spent in this area.

Isn’t this a failure of political and bureaucratic leadership? We have a long-standing problem, officials have identified what they believe is a solution, but it is not being implemented. These leaders have the ability to spend more on economic development, as illustrated by Wichita’s shifting of tax revenue.

Even if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best (and I don’t believe that), we have to conclude that our efforts aren’t working. Several long-serving politicians and bureaucrats that have presided over this failure: Mayor Carl Brewer has been on the city council or served as mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for many years. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for 21 years. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. Unruh has said he wants to be Wichita’s next mayor.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But as he approaches his fourth anniversary in Wichita, he starts to become part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

Wichita’s job creation record

Two charts illustrate the record of job growth in Wichita. The first shows Wichita job growth compared to Kansas and the nation. Data is from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, and indexed with values for 2001 set to 1.00.

As you can see, job growth in Wichita trails both Kansas and the nation.

The next chart shows Wichita job growth by sector.

Private sector job growth is prominently lower than government. This is a problem, because more economic activity is directed away from the productive private sector to inefficient government.

In Wichita, failure to value open records and open government

On the KAKE Television public affairs program “This Week in Kansas” the failure of the Wichita City Council, especially council member Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), to recognize the value of open records and open government is discussed.

For more background, see Wichita, again, fails at 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.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

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?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

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.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

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.