Tag Archives: Janet Miller

Wichita City Council Member Janet Miller

Wichita’s vampires and monsters

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita urges citizens to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation. Originally broadcast June 29, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

For more on this issue, see “Forget the vampires. Let’s tackle the real monsters.”

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Vampires on the prowl in Wichita and the city council’s treatment of citizens.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita urges citizens to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation. Then proceedings of a recent Wichita City Council meeting are instructive of the factors citizens should consider if they want to interact with the council and city government at a public hearing. Episode 49, broadcast June 29, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Two street lights in downtown Wichita, June 20, 2014.

Forget the vampires. Let’s tackle the real monsters.

Public service announcements on Facebook and Wichita City Channel 7 urge Wichitans to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation.

Public service announcement crawler on Wichita's cable channel network, June 17, 2014.
Public service announcement crawler on Wichita’s cable channel network, June 17, 2014.
People are probably vaguely aware that many modern electrical and electronic devices consume electricity even when switched off. One source estimates that a cell phone charger consumes 0.26 watts of electrical power even when a phone is not plugged in. While in sleep mode, a flat panel computer display consumes 1.39 watts. A clock radio uses 2.01 watts. A microwave oven while not in use and with its door closed uses 3.08 watts. (These are average values.) A large Samsung smart television on standby uses 0.3 watts.

While appearing to be wasteful, this “vampire” power consumption often has a benefit. If you unplug your clock radio when you leave for work in the morning, you save a few dozen watts of power. But, you have to reset the clock when you want to use it again. If I unplug my Samsung smart television, I’ll probably have to reprogram it to my preferences. If I want save the power my microwave oven wastes, I’ll have to wrench my back lifting it out of the way so I can reach the outlet it plugs in to. That action, naturally, unleashes a cloud of dust bunnies to dirty my counters and floor.

Wichita city government Facebook page public service advice regarding "vampire" power waste.
Wichita city government Facebook page public service advice regarding “vampire” power waste.
Nonetheless, the City of Wichita uses its Facebook page and cable television network to urge its citizens take steps like these in order to save small amounts of electricity.

How much electricity do you suppose a city street light consumes? It depends on the type of light, but common street lights use from 100 to 200 watts. During the hours when the sun does not shine, we’re generally willing to pay for that in order to obtain the benefits of lighted streets and sidewalks.

But when street lights are burning in the middle of a day, they provide absolutely no value. Street lights turned on during the day provide none of the convenience of “vampire” power usage, such as not needing to reset your clocks and move your microwave oven every day.

Bench lights and street lights in downtown Wichita switched on in the middle of the day.
Bench lights and street lights in downtown Wichita switched on in the middle of the day.
So while the City of Wichita uses its television channel to hector citizens into adding inconvenience to their lives in order to save vanishingly small amounts of electricity, the city apparently has no misgivings about using large amounts of electricity to needlessly illuminate the noonday sky, week after week.

As I’ve shown, the city often has street lights turned on at noon on days with no clouds in the sky. (See here for examples.) Yesterday dozens of city street lights were turned on at 2:30 in the afternoon on a sunny day for many blocks in downtown Wichita. This is not an isolated mistake. It is a pattern. (Even if it is cloudy and raining, the street lights add no discernible illumination during daylight.)

There’s something else. Each of us can choose the balance between “vampire” power waste and inconvenience based on our own values. If we choose to use “vampire” power in order to add convenience to our lives, we have to pay for it.

Two street lights in downtown Wichita, June 20, 2014.
Two street lights in downtown Wichita, June 20, 2014.
But the Wichita city hall bureaucrats who burn street lights in the noonday sun week after week are spending your money, not theirs.

(Yes, city hall bureaucrats pay taxes to the city just like you and I, so their tax money is also wasted. But because the cost of this waste is spread over the entire city, the motivation for any one person to take steps to eliminate the waste is small. Especially if, like a city hall bureaucrat would, you’d have to actually work in order to achieve savings. But these same bureaucrats and politicians urge you to work harder in your home in order to save small amounts of “vampire” electricity.)

The wasteful expenditures on street lights I’ve been illustrating for several weeks are located in districts of the city represented by Janet Miller and Lavonta Williams. Both express concern for the environment and criticize the purported harm man has caused the earth by emitting greenhouse gases. Here’s an opportunity for them to act on their beliefs.

Wichita City Council Chambers

Wichita city council schools citizens on civic involvement

Proceedings of a recent Wichita City Council meeting are instructive of the factors citizens should consider if they want to interact with the council and city government at a public hearing.

At the June 17, 2014 meeting of the Wichita City Council, one agenda item was a public hearing to consider adding a property to the city’s facade improvement program. Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity-Kansas appeared before the council during the hearing to express concern that a member of AFP (me) had made a request for information on the item, but had not received the information by the time of the public hearing. Background on my request and its importance to public policy can be found at In Wichita, a public hearing with missing information. Video of this meeting is below, or click here to view at YouTube.

From the bench, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said that this Pete Meitzer District 2 2012item had been “discussed in length last week,” referring to what would be the June 10, 2014 meeting. A reading of council agendas and minutes shows that it was actually at the June 3 meeting when the item was presented. Further, the June 3 matter was a different item. It’s a small detail, but the purpose of the June 3 item was to approve and accept the property owners petition and set the date for a public hearing. That public hearing was held on June 17.

At the June 3 meeting, contrary to Meitzner’s assertion, there was no substantive discussion on this item except for the presentation by city staff. There really was no need for discussion at that time, as the purpose of the agenda item was to accept the petition and set a date for a public hearing. If the petition is valid in its form, I don’t believe the council has any choice but to accept it and set a date for a public hearing. The purpose of the public hearing is to, naturally, hear from the public.

At the June 17 meeting during the public hearing, Meitzner questioned Estes and city staff. He asked if there was a “gap analysis” performed on all special assessments the city establishes. When told no, he asked Open Recordswhy is the gap analysis needed for this project and not for others. The assistant city manager explained that it is required for economic development projects like the one under consideration today, but not for others.

Questioning at the meeting also revealed that there are legal issues regarding whether the gap analysis can be disclosed to the public. The city has told me it will respond to my request for the document by June 20. The city is treating my friendly request for the document as a request made under the Kansas Open Records Act. That law is permeated with loopholes and exceptions that give government many pretexts to avoid disclosure of documents.

The meeting also featured an impassioned attack on Estes and her allies from a citizen speaker. The attack was based on incorrect information, as was explained to the citizen in the meeting.

What citizens can learn from this meeting

If you don’t ask for information on a schedule that pleases the city council, you may be criticized by multiple council members.

Council members may criticize you based on incorrect facts.

Council members may grill you based on their lack of knowledge of — or incorrect understanding of — city policy.

If you ask for information from the City of Wichita, but don’t also ask for the same from other jurisdictions, a city council member may seek to discredit you.

In Wichita, the attitude of some elected officials needs adjustment

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Attitudes of Wichita government leaders towards capitalism reveal a lack of understanding. Is only a government-owned hotel able to make capital improvements? Then, two examples of the disdain elected officials express towards their constituents who don’t agree with them. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Requesting an Uber driver.

Uber, not for Wichita

A novel transportation service worked well for me on a recent trip to Washington, but Wichita doesn’t seem ready to embrace such innovation.

Have you heard of Uber and similar services? Uber says it is “… evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our [smartphone] apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 70 cities today, Uber’s rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.”

Uber works like this: Riders use their smartphones and the Uber app to request a ride. Drivers — who have undergone an application process and background check — acknowledge the request and pick up the rider. When the dropoff is made, payment is handled through the Uber app.

Being driven by Uber on the Washington Beltway.
Being driven by Uber on the Washington Beltway.
My first trip using Uber was from Dulles International Airport to my hotel in downtown Washington, a pretty long trip at nearly 27 miles. My Uber fare was $59.50. While that is expensive, my hotel’s website listed cab fare as $60. A private sedan would be $90, with reservations required.

So it seems like Uber is priced about the same as a regular taxicab. But: There’s a big difference. The Uber fare is all-inclusive. The way I elected to pay with Uber — which I suspect is probably the easiest way — was to store my credit card with the Uber system. As we approached my destination, I asked my driver if I could add a tip through the Uber app. He said no, there’s no need to. As he transferred my luggage to the bellman, it seemed awkward to not offer a tip. But I confirmed with DC natives that’s the way it is with Uber: No tipping.

No tipping! That’s refreshing. I’m tired of cab drivers extorting tips. But you may be asking: What motivates Uber drivers to offer good service? One factor is that customers rate their drivers through the smartphone app. An intriguing factor is that Uber drivers rate their passengers. Also, a customer service representative followed up regarding my trip. Another thing: My drivers seemed to like their job. They took pride in their clean cars and amenities.

And what service it was. There are several levels of Uber service. I used UberX, which is the least expensive. Other Uber services available in some cities include luxury cars or SUVs. The three cars I rode in were a Toyota Prius, a Lexus, and a Volvo. All were impeccably clean — both the cars and the polite drivers. On all three rides I was offered a bottle of water. Two cars had magazines for me to read. One had a bowl of wrapped candy on the seat next to me. Drivers asked if I was comfortable with the setting of the air conditioning. They were not blasting their radios, as has been the case with some of my cab trips.

In short, the service was great. While the Uber fare was the same as what my hotel estimated for a taxi fare, there was an important difference — no tip to the Uber driver. No need for cash, no need for a taxi driver to fumble with an awkward method of accepting credit cards.

A receipt from a trip using Uber. Click for larger version.
A receipt from a trip using Uber. Click for larger version.
And … a neat receipt available on the Uber website or in my email. When I’ve asked a cab driver for a receipt, I’ve received a blank form.

And … I had an estimate of the fare before I requested a driver. In my case, the estimate was $60.00, with the actual fare at $59.50. Remember, no tipping.

Uber in Wichita?

Recently Uber and Lyft (a similar service) started operations in Kansas City, Missouri. Nearly immediately the city council passed additional regulations that make it tougher — or impossible — for these services to operate.

Requesting an Uber driver.
Requesting an Uber driver.
In Wichita, it’s certain that Uber would be in violation of city ordinances. In 2012 the city passed new taxi regulations which erect and enforce substantial barriers to entering the taxicab market. Some of the most restrictive include these: Drivers must work for a company that has a central office staffed at least 40 hours per week; a taxicab company must have a dispatch system operating 24 hours per day, seven days per week; it must have enough cabs to operate city-wide service, which the city has determined is ten cabs; and a supervisor must be on duty at all times cabs are operating.

A dispatch system. That’s 1950s technology. Uber and similar services use smartphones. No dispatcher needed. No central office required. When you request a ride with the Uber app, you see a screen showing the available drivers nearby, along with an estimate of when the driver will arrive. You can watch the driver’s progress towards your pickup location. Can you do that with Wichita’s cab companies with their supervisors and dispatch systems?

Requesting a driver in Wichita using Uber. It's not available.
Requesting a driver in Wichita using Uber. It’s not available.
Wichita has implemented regulations regarding the hygiene and local knowledge of taxi drivers, enforced by bureaucrats. How is Uber regulated? First, there are the customer ratings, a powerful force. Then, provided with Uber receipts is a map of the route the driver took to deliver riders to their destinations. If riders are concerned that drivers are padding fares by taking roundabout routes, that’s easy to see and resolve, and the Uber dashboard lets riders request a fare review. Can you imagine how difficult that would be in Wichita, to prove that your driver padded your fare or extorted a tip?

Regulation by bureaucrats, or regulation by customers. There’s a difference, and Wichita is served by the least effective, thanks to our city council.

To top it off, while Wichita has regulations regarding the personal hygiene of drivers and the cleanliness of their vehicles, the city fell short in protecting drives from something really important, like violent crime. After the city passed the new regulations, a passenger was raped by a driver. The Wichita Eagle reported “[the driver] shouldn’t have received a taxi license but did because the new change banning registered sex offenders wasn’t communicated to staff members doing background checks on taxi driver applicants, city officials told The Eagle on Friday. The city has fixed the problem that led to the oversight in Spohn’s case, they said.” (See Regulation failure leads to tragedy in Wichita.)

wichita-taxi regulationsThe regulations regarding customer service training were implemented. But the really important regulations? Lack of oversight, says the city. Which leads us to wonder: Who is regulating the regulators? If an Uber driver committed such a crime, the company would undoubtedly be held liable and experience a loss of reputation. But how do we hold city bureaucrats accountable for their regulatory failures?

Going forward

Will Wichita consider relaxing taxicab regulations so that Wichitans might be served by a superior service like Uber? Not likely, I would say. The city council is proud of the new and restrictive regulations. The city is served by three taxi companies, two having the same owner. These companies are likely to lobby aggressively against allowing Uber and similar services in Wichita, just as taxi companies have done in other cities.

Recent discussion about the future of transit in Wichita have not included services like Uber. At last week’s city council meeting Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) spoke about baby boomers who may soon be aging and either can’t drive, or don’t want to drive. Yet, she said, they have disposable income and want to spend it. These are ideal customers for Uber.

Uber and the like might not be a total replacement for traditional city bus transit. But it could help many people, and it could provided needed competition to the city’s taxicab fleet. But it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see Uber in Wichita soon, if at all.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Alternatives to raising taxes, how to become involved in politics, and bad behavior by elected officials

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita voters tell pollsters that they prefer alternatives to raising taxes. Then, how can you get involved in politics? A deadline is approaching soon. Finally, some examples of why we need to elect better people to office. Episode 44, broadcast May 25, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

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In Wichita, capitalism doesn’t work, until it works

Attitudes of Wichita government leaders towards capitalism reveal a lack of understanding. Is only a government-owned hotel able to make capital improvements?

Janet miller
Janet Miller
One of the problems Wichita faces as it decides the future level of government involvement in its economy is an anti-market and anti-capitalism bias of many council members. It’s also characteristic of city hall bureaucrats. The basic belief is that government is not hindered by the demands of businesses, such as profit. Therefore, it is able to do things that the private sector cannot, or will not, do. Wichita City Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) recently provided an example:

Council member Janet Miller called the Hyatt a special case and said she’s opposed to selling it.

“We have to maintain a high quality convention hotel,” she said. “The hotel makes a profit, but we reinvest the profits back into it. If we sell that property, a hotelier is unlikely to invest as much back into it as we do — debt service, stockholders, things like that. We don’t have that burden.” (Hyatt Regency Wichita focus of debate as council examines city-owned real estate, March 28, 2014 Wichita Eagle)

I don’t know if Miller reads the Wichita Eagle, but less than one month before, that newspaper reported this:

A $5 million renovation project at the Wichita Marriott hotel near east Kellogg and the Kansas Turnpike is complete.

The 10-month-long project encompassed nearly the entire ground floor of the 11-story, 294-room hotel at 9100 Corporate Hills Drive, said general manager Michelle Ruffin-Stein.

“We basically tore everything down and started from scratch,” said Ruffin-Stein, who added that the hotel remained in operation throughout the renovation.

She said it was the first extensive renovation of the hotel’s ground floor since the hotel opened in 1987. It follows a renovation of the hotel’s guest rooms about four years ago, she said. (Wichita Marriott hotel’s $5 million renovation complete, March 3, 2014 Wichita Eagle)

You draw your own conclusions. Here are a few that I’ve drawn.

If I owned or worked at the Wichita Marriott or other hotel in Wichita, I’d be offended with Miller’s implication that the Hyatt is Wichita’s only “high quality convention hotel.” Why did we pour millions in taxpayer subsidy into the Broadview and Ambassador hotels?

Even though it has the “burden” of being in the private sector, how was the Marriott able to invest millions in renovation?

How would you feel if you owned a high-quality convention hotel, like the Marriott, and the city operates a competitor that doesn’t have to worry about profits, debt service, and stockholders? Does that create an environment that encourages private investment? Perhaps this is why so many of the hotels that have opened recently in Wichita have sought and received millions in government subsidy.

The expressed attitude of Miller towards business and capitalism is common among government officials and bureaucrats. Yet, we are expected to trust people with these beliefs to lead our economic development efforts. It’s little wonder that the only solutions considered involve a greater role for government, including greater revenue for government.

Finally, I wonder if other hotels are more diligent than the Hyatt in keeping people from establishing meth labs in their rooms.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: For whose benefit are elections, school employment, wind power, unions, unemployment

Wichita City HallIn this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The controversy over the timing of city and school board elections provides an insight into government. Then: Can a candidate for governor’s claims about Kansas school employment be believed? Wind power is expensive electricity, very expensive. A Wichita auto dealer pushes back against union protests. Finally, what is the real rate of unemployment in America? Episode 36, broadcast March 23, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Starwood calls on Wichita

Office worker using telephone and computer

This Tuesday the Wichita City Council considers economic development incentives to Starwood Hotels & Resorts for a call center to open in Wichita.

Besides the usual problems with cronyism and corporate welfare (see Wichita-area economic development policy changes proposed for explanation of some problems), there are a few issues to consider regarding this item.

First, the site where the Starwood call center will be located is owned by Max Cole. He and his wife are significant campaign contributors to Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita). Under the concept of pay-to-play laws that Wichita needs, Clendenin should refrain from voting on this matter.

Second, a table of salaries supplied in the agenda packet makes an implied promise that probably won’t be kept. The table shows numbers of jobs (actually full-time equivalents), the hourly pay rate, and the annual wage. The annual wage, in all cases, is 2,080 times the hourly rate, meaning it is assumed that workers will work 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year.

Information from the Kansas Department of Commerce offers more detail. Initially, 495 full-time and 55 part-time jobs will be created. In year five, the total will be 860 full-time and 95 part-time total. There is also this notation: “The company will pay at least 50% of employee health insurance benefits.”

As you may be aware, one of the provisions of Obamacare is that if employees work over 30 hours per week, the employer must provide health insurance or be fined. As a result, many companies across the county are scaling back weekly work hours to less than 30.

We ought to ask if Starwood intends to hire employees who will work 40 hours per week, if they want to. Will the liberals on the Wichita City Council — Mayor Carl Brewer, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), and Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) — ask that Starwood operate under the standards of Obamacare? The table presents data as “full-time equivalents,” which provides room for Starwood to go either way.

Starwood is asking for a forgivable loan of $200,000 from Wichita, and another of the same amount from Sedgwick County. I asked the Kansas Department of Commerce if it would reveal the programs and incentives that Starwood will receive from the State of Kansas. It would not supply that information at this time, but I obtained the information by another means. The state describes its offer to Starwood as worth “up to $1,583,272.” Of this, $750,000 would be in the form of direct cash grants.

Here is a link to the relevant pages from the Wichita city council agenda: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Economic Development Incentive Agreement with City of Wichita, Kansas. Also, from the Department of Commerce: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Economic Development Incentives offered by State of Kansas.

Janet Miller corrects misinformation

A Wichita City Council member sets out to correct misinformation, but instead makes a number of factual errors.

At last week’s Wichita City Council meeting, Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) took an opportunity to correct misinformation she says was presented. It wasn’t the first time she’s done that; see On Wichita’s Exchange Place TIF, Janet Miller speaks, City council members on downtown Wichita revitalization, Wichita Old Town TIF district illustrates cost and harm of subsidy, Wichita fluoridation debate reveals attitudes of government, and At Wichita City Council, facts are in dispute for other examples of Miller attempting to correct misinformation.

It should be noted that Miller and some other council members make these statements from their perch on the city council bench. There, their statements can’t be questioned or rebutted except by other council members. That happens only rarely. It’s left to others to do that job.

Here are some examples from the most recent meeting, with video following.

On the positive economic impact to the city of the project, Miller said “For every dollar that the city invests in any part of this project the return to the public good is two point six two.” But as I detail in In Wichita, economic development policies are questioned, this is not true for this project when the large cost to the city’s debt service fund is considered, as has been the city’s policy for economic development incentives. Except: Apparently new policy has been formulated to suit the special needs of this project.

Also, the hotel received tax credits that were a cost to the state and the nation, of which Wichita taxpayers are part. These costs were not included in the cost-benefit study that Miller cited.

In promoting the benefit of the hotel, Miller said that the city retains one hundred percent of the guest tax collected by the hotel. She didn’t tell the audience that this wasn’t her preference. Miller voted for an ordinance that would have re-routed 75 percent of that tax back to the hotel, to be used in any way its owners want. But Kansas law allowed citizens to challenge the special type of ordinance that was used to implement this law. By gathering signatures and winning an election, this guest tax redirection that Miller supported was defeated. Now, she says that having no such redirection is a positive factor.

Miller also mentioned the retail space lease in the parking garage, saying it’s “being leased to a third party professional management entity who has the expertise to recruit high quality tenants,.” She added that this will result in increased tax revenue to the city.

This is true, I suppose. But it doesn’t negate what Miller voted to do for one of her long-time campaign supporters. She vote to build, at taxpayer expense, about 8,500 square feet of retail space in the garage. Then she voted to lease it to her campaign contributors for $1 per year. This space can then be rented out for, at minimum, about $127,500 annually. We don’t really know what the public purpose for this is, or why this had to be done. Except for cronyism — we’re sure of that.

Miller also said that as a council member she earns a salary that is 30 percent of her previous salary. Council members have a salary of around $35,000, which implies that Miller previously earned around $116,000. Good for her to have earned that.

Miller also carped about the referendum election in February 2012, noting that the “city” could not raise money and campaign for the project. That’s not entirely true. We saw that in November 2004 and November 2008, government officials campaigned “off the books” for the temporary county sales tax and Wichita school bond. Council members could have spoken as private individuals in favor of their position, whatever it was.

As it turned out, the Ambassador Hotel group spent four times as much as the side that won. Lack of money to get out a message was not a problem.

As far as misinformation during the campaign, I would ask readers to review the Wichita Eagle’s fact-checking article, as well as my own article Fact checking the Wichita Ambassador Hotel campaign. Additionally, the campaign site I created at dtwichita.com is still available, as are the articles on wichitaliberty.org. If Miller or anyone else is able to find an error, I will post a correction.

Wichitans have choices; perhaps not information

The Wichita Eagle publishes a voter guide before each election. While this is a useful civic service, readers of the newspaper might wonder what is the point of allowing candidates to make statements and claims without being held accountable.

Here are two examples of candidates responding to the question “Assess the city’s success in downtown revitalization so far. How do you see that role evolving in the future?”

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) responded as follows:

The trend in downtown redevelopment is showing a definite payoff in private investment exceeding $250 million since 2009. People are moving downtown and more private developers are starting projects in the area all of the time. I think that the city will still need to play a role in assuring that infrastructure, especially public green spaces and strategically placed parking, is in place so that private development can be attracted.

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) answered this way:

Wichita adopted its Downtown Master Plan in 2010 following an 18-month process involving input from several thousand Wichitans. Since the plan’s adoption, there has been a growing confidence in downtown development, which has resulted in more than $150 million in private investment. The City’s role will be to continue to foster private investment supported by public infrastructure improvements where needed.

Both incumbent candidates claim a large investment in downtown Wichita. Although they didn’t make this claim in these answers, it’s usually claimed that the taxpayer investment in downtown pays off in the form of increased tax revenues. This is the cost-benefit analysis that the city relies on and uses to justify taxpayer investment in projects.

 Wichita Downtown Self-supporting Municipal Improvement District SSMID Assessed Valuation 2013-02 b

But evidence of a payoff for the taxpayer is hard to find. At the same time hundreds of millions in investment is claimed, the assessed value of property in downtown Wichita is declining.

We’re left to wonder whether readers of the Wichita Eagle are aware of the apparent contradiction between candidates’ claims and evidence from the real world.

On another issue, the influence of campaign contributions, readers of the Eagle will probably also be uninformed about candidates’ actions. In response to the question “How would you handle a vote on an issue involving a campaign contributor?” Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) supplied this answer:

No different than any other vote. I will vote for the best interest of the citizens Wichita and District III. I answer directly to the voters.

Williams answered the same question this way:

I would continue to handle it the way I always have. The city has good campaign finance laws that make sure no one individual or group can buy a council person’s vote. The law limits the contributions to a low enough amount that no one contribution can make or break a campaign. I treat each donation whether large or small the same and thank the community for their faith and support in what I do.

The candidates’ lofty claims of independence from campaign contributions are difficult to believe. There is simply too much money given, and the candidates’ actions are too suspect.

As an example, in 2012, these two candidates received campaign contributions from two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren. Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents.

Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin.

Those associated with Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

The problem is that both of these groups have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin.

Here’s one example, perhaps the worst. In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Both Williams and Clendenin voted for this no-bid contract that was contrary to the interests of taxpayers. They didn’t vote for this reluctantly. They embraced it.

Last summer Williams and Clendenin, along with the rest of the council, participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied.

Judges shouldn’t preside over decisions that hugely enrich their significant campaign contributors. No matter what the merits of the case, this is bad government.

Williams was also the beneficiary of campaign contributions immediately before a Methodist minister asked the city to approve over two million dollars in tax increment financing. In 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

By the way, this project, under Harding’s management, foundered until the city council offered a bailout. By then Harding had found new partners. No surprise these partners included Key Construction, Williams’ sole source of campaign funds in 2012.

Wichitans who rely on the Wichita Eagle for advice on voting won’t likely be aware of these facts regarding these candidates.

Wichita economic development and the election

Ballot boxAs Wichitans decide their preference for city council members, voters should take a look at the numbers and decide whether they’re satisfied with our city’s performance in economic development.

As shown in the article Wichita economic statistics, Wichita is not doing well in key economic statistics. Debt has risen rapidly in recent years. Growth of private sector jobs lags far behind the nation and the state of Kansas, and government jobs have grown faster than private sector jobs. While inflation-adjusted spending per person is holding relatively steady, the city is cutting services and generally sending a message of budgetary distress.

Perhaps most astonishing: With all the public money poured into downtown redevelopment, with all the claims of new projects being competed, and with all the talk of building up the tax base, assessed valuation in downtown Wichita is declining.

In his recent State of the City Address, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer called for increased effort and funding for economic development, specifically job creation. He, and most of Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leaders, believe that more targeted economic development incentives are needed to boost Wichita’s economy.

Whether these incentives are good economic development policy is open for debate. I don’t believe we need them. Kansas and Wichita should chart another course to increase economic freedom in Kansas. That, in turn, 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.

Even if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best, we have to conclude that our efforts aren’t working. In most years, the number of jobs that officials take credit for creating or saving is just a small part of the labor force, often less than one percent.

Rarely mentioned are the costs of creating these jobs. These costs have a negative economic impact on those who pay them. This means that economic activity and jobs are lost somewhere else in order to pay for the incentives.

Also, some of these jobs would have been created without the city’s efforts. All the city should take credit for is the marginal activity that it purportedly created. Government usually claims credit for everything, however.

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.

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

The incumbents running for reelection to city council have been in office varying lengths of time. All, however, subscribe to the interventionist model of economic development championed by the mayor. That’s the model that hasn’t been working for Wichita.

If voters in Wichita are truly concerned about economic development for everyone, next week’s election provides an opportunity to make a positive change by bring new voices to the city council.

Dump truck carrying coins

Is graft a problem in Wichita?

Dump truck carrying coins

In his paper History and Constitutionality of Pay-to-Play Campaign Finance Restrictions in America Greg Schmid explains the problems that result from the “soft corruption” that pay-to-play laws combat.

Is this a problem in Wichita? Is it possible that “Graft takes the collective wealth of working taxpayers and transfers that wealth to the benefit of corrupt government officials and their private sector accomplices” in Wichita?

Yes. Absolutely. As explained in In Wichita, a quest for campaign finance reform, we have a problem.

An example: In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. Both of these parties are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members.

What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

As elections approach, Wichita voters ought to remember that the three incumbents running for reelection all accepted campaign contributions from the parties that they voted to reward with an overpriced no-bid construction contract.

Following, Greg Schmid explains the problem in this excerpt from History and Constitutionality of Pay-to-Play Campaign Finance Restrictions in America:

The Problem
Graft is nothing new in the world, especially soft “white collar” corruption involved in the award of government contracts based on “special relationships” between public officials and government contractors. Particular acts of corruption are often hard to detect, one at a time, but the aggregate effects of “Pay to Play” are reflected by the heavy financial toll that corrupted actors within our government system take on the taxpayer. Graft takes the collective wealth of working taxpayers and transfers that wealth to the benefitof corrupt government officials and their private sector accomplices. Graft increases the cost of government by motivating officials “on the take” to mismanage government project spending. An inside deal, that is good for the corrupt official personally, usually leads to a bad economic decision for the public because the extra cost of corruption must be passed on to the taxpayer; a bought politician tends to make distorted choices. This “mismanagement effect” is costly to the public trust. One dollar of corruption is estimated to impose a burden of $1.67 on the taxpayers. …

Efforts to make government transactions transparent are met with disdain and with incredulous personalized claims that people who don’t trust their public officials are just paranoid, and should not be allowed to interrupt the people’s business by prying into the inner workings of government procurements. Fear of being targeted for ridicule or worse by society’s powerful elite makes it easy to look the other way, live in denial, or just accept government corruption as the way of the world. This is the most dangerous attitude of all; the perception that our government system is just unethical and corrupt and that there is nothing anyone can do about it. By this attitude, the perception of pervasive corruption at all levels of government, citizens lose hope and lose faith in their governing institutions. When this fundamental disconnect occurs people disengage from government, and self-governance is at risk.

In Wichita, a quest for campaign finance reform

Actions of the Wichita City Council have shown that campaign finance reform is needed. Citizen groups are investigating how to accomplish this needed reform, since the council has not shown interest in reforming itself.

Consider recent actions by the council and its members:

The common thread running through these incidents? Council members voting to enrich their campaign contributors. Each of these — and there are others — are examples of a “pay-to-play” environment created at Wichita City Hall. It’s harmful to our city in a number of ways.

First, overpriced no-bid contracts and other giveaways to campaign contributors isn’t economic development. It’s cronyism. It’s wasteful and abusive of taxpayers and erodes their trust in government.

Second: Citizens become cynical when they feel there is a group of insiders who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. At one time newspaper editorial pages crusaded against cronyism like this. But no longer in Wichita.

Additionally, when it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. A model law for Wichita is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

We’d also need to add — as does New Jersey law — provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. Additionally the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses, are considered to be from the business itself for purposes of the law. These provisions are important, as many city council members in Wichita receive campaign contributions from business owners’ family members and employees as a way to skirt our relatively small contribution limits.

Such campaign finance reform would not prohibit anyone from donating as much as they want (under the current restrictions) to any candidate. Nor would the law prevent candidates from accepting campaign contributions from anyone.

This reform, however, would remove the linkage between significant contributions and voting to give money to the contributor. This would be a big step forward for Wichita, its government, and its citizens.

Proponents see three paths towards campaign finance reform. One would be to press for a law in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. Such a law would be statewide in scope, and could apply to city councils, county commissions, school boards, and other elective bodies.

A second path would be to use the municipal initiative process, which was used by community water fluoridation advocates in Wichita this year. Under this process, a group writes a proposed ordinance. Then, it must collect about 6,200 valid signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is verified, the city council must either (a) pass the ordinance as written, or (b) set an election. For the fluoridation initiative the council voted to call an election, which was held as part of the November general election. (The initiative failed to obtain a majority of votes, so the proposed ordinance did not take effect.)

There is also a third path, which is for the Wichita City Council to recognize the desirability of campaign finance reform and pass such an ordinance on its own initiative.

If we take the affected parties at their word, this third path should face little resistance. That’s because politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t do it to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

Incidents

In 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

When questioned about election donations:

“I would never do anything because of a campaign contribution,” said [former council member Sharon] Fearey, who received $500 from David Burk and $500 from David Wells.

“I don’t think $500 buys a vote,” said [former council member Sue] Schlapp.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said.

Also in 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table complied from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member, led the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project: $6,000. When Longwell ran for Sedgwick County Commission this summer, these parties donated generously to that campaign, too.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Finally: This summer while Longwell was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission, campaign contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance reports. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new Wichita Airport terminal provide a clue?

These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.

On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner.

Then on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

Responses to records requests made by Kansas Policy Institute are bringing attention to shortcomings in the Kansas Open Records Act.

Those who have made records requests in Kansas are probably not surprised that KPI has had difficulty in having its records requests respected and filled. In 2007 Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas a letter grade of “F” for its open records law. Last year State Integrity Investigation looked at the states, and Kansas did not rank well there, either. See Kansas rates low in access to records.

This week KPI president Dave Trabert appeared before the Sedgwick County Commission to express his concerns regarding the failure of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to fulfill a records request made under the provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act. Video is at Open government in Sedgwick County Kansas.

While commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau spoke in favor of government transparency and compliance with records requests, not all their colleagues agreed.

Dave Unruh asked Trabert if GWEDC had responded to his records request. Trabert said yes, and the response from GWEDC is that the agency believes it has complied with the open records law. This, he explained, is a common response from agencies.

Commission Chair Tim Norton expressed concern that any non-profit the commission gives money to would have to hire legal help, which he termed an unintended consequence. He made a motion to receive and file Trabert’s remarks, which is routine. His motion also included taking this matter under advisement, which is what politicians do in order to bury something. Unruh seconded the motion.

Peterjohn made a substitute motion that a representative from GWEDC would appear before the commission and discuss the open records act. This motion passed four to one, with Unruh in the minority. Even though Norton voted in favor of Peterjohn’s motion, it’s evident that he isn’t in favor of more government transparency. Unruh’s vote against government transparency was explicit.

Wichita school district records request

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, also declined to fulfill a records request submitted by KPI. In a press release, KPI details the overly-legalistic interpretation of the KORA statute that the Wichita school district uses to claim that the records are exempt from disclosure.

In a news report on KSN Television, school board president Lynn Rogers explained the district’s reason for denying the records request: “But some school board members with USD 259 in Wichita say, the numbers brought up in court are preliminary numbers. That’s the reason they are not handing them over to KPI. ‘We have worked very hard over the years to be very forthright and we’ve tried to disclose the information when we have it,’ says Lynn Rogers.’”

This claim by Rogers — if sincere — is a break from the past. In 2008 Rogers told me that it is a burden when citizens make requests for records.

Until recently the Wichita school district had placed its monthly checkbook register on its website each month, and then removed it after a month had passed. Rogers explained that the district didn’t have space on its servers to hold these documents. That explanation is total nonsense, as the pdf check register documents are a very small fraction of the size of video files that the district hosted on its servers. Video files, by the way, not related to instruction, but holding coverage of groundbreaking ceremonies.

City of Wichita

KPI has made records requests to other local governmental agencies. Some have refused to comply on the basis that they are not public agencies as defined in Kansas statutes. This was the case when I made records requests to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In 2009 I addressed the Wichita City Council and asked that the city direct that WDDC follow the law and fulfill my records requests. (Video is at Video: City of Wichita and the Kansas Open Records Act.)

In my remarks, I told Mayor Carl Brewer and the council this:

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.”

But in my recent experience, our city’s legal staff has decided to act contrary to this policy. It’s not only the spirit of this law that the city is violating, but also the letter of the law as well.

Recently I requested some records from the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Although the WDDC cooperated and gave me the records I requested, the city denies that the WDDC is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

This is an important issue to resolve.

In the future, requests may be made for records for which the WDDC may not be willing to cooperate. In this case, citizens will have to rely on compliance with the law, not voluntary cooperation. Or, other people may make records requests and may not be as willing as I have been to pursue the matter. Additionally, citizens may want to attend WDDC’s meetings under the provisions of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Furthermore, there are other organizations similarly situated. These include the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. These organizations should properly be ruled public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act so that citizens and journalists may freely request their records and attend their meetings.

Here’s why the WDDC is a public agency subject to the Open Records Act. KSA 45-217 (f)(1) states: “‘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 Kansas Attorney General’s office offers additional guidance: “A public agency is the state or any political or taxing subdivision, or any office, officer, or agency thereof, or any other entity, receiving or expending and supported in whole or part by public funds. It is some office or agency that is connected with state or local government.

The WDDC is wholly supported by a special property tax district. Plain and simple. That is the entire source of their funding, except for some private fundraising done this year.

The city cites an exception under which organizations are not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.”

The purpose of this exception is so that every vendor that sells goods and services to government agencies is not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act. For example, if a city buys an automobile, the dealer is not subject simply because it sold a car to the city.

But this statute contains an important qualifier: the word “solely.” In this case, the relationship between the City of Wichita and the WDDC is not that of solely customer and vendor. Instead, the city created a special tax district that is the source of substantially all WDDC’s revenue, and the existence of the district must be renewed by the city soon. The WDDC performs a governmental function that some cities decide to keep in-house. The WDDC has only one “customer,” to my knowledge, that being the City of Wichita.

Furthermore, the revenue that the WDDC receives each year is dependent on the property tax collected in the special taxing district.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that in terms of both funding and function, the WDDC is effectively a branch of Wichita city government.

The refusal of the city’s legal department to acknowledge these facts and concede that the WDDC is a public agency stands reason on its head. It’s also contrary to the expressly stated public policy of the state of Kansas. It’s an intolerable situation that cannot be allowed to exist.

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, it doesn’t take a liberal application of the Kansas Open Records Act to correct this situation. All that is required is to read the law and follow it. That’s what I’m asking this body to do: ask the city legal department to comply with the clear language and intent of the Kansas Open Records Act.

The following year when WDDC’s contract was before the council for renewal, I asked that the city, as part of the contract, agree that WDDC is a public agency as defined in Kansas law. (Video is at Kansas Open Records Act at Wichita City Council.) Then-council member Paul Gray, after noting that he had heard all council members speak in favor of government transparency, said that even if WDDC is not a public agency under the law, why can’t it still proceed and fulfill records requests? This is an important point. The Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions that agencies use to avoid releasing records. But agencies may release the records if they want.

Any council member could have made the motion that I asked for. But no one, including Gray, former council member Sue Schlapp, former member Jim Skelton (now on the Sedgwick County Commission), Mayor Carl Brewer, and council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) would make a motion to increase government transparency and citizens’ right to know. Wichita city manager Robert Layton offered no recommendation to the council.

Last year I appeared again before the council to ask that Go Wichita agree that it is a public agency as defined in the open records act. 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.

Discussion on this matter revealed a serious lack of knowledge by some council members regarding the Kansas Open Records Act. In remarks from the bench 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.

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].” Such a workshop would probably be presented by Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf. His attitude towards the open records law is that of hostility, and is not on the side of citizens.

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 made no requests that year to the city citing the open records act. 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 Meitzner’s 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 troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Brown and I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas to discuss this matter. Video is at In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency.

Enforcement of Kansas Open Records Act

In Kansas, when citizens believe that agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Act, they have three options. One is to ask the Kansas Attorney General for help. But the policy of the Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local District Attorney, which is what I did. The other way to proceed is for a citizen to pursue legal action at their own expense.

After 14 months, Sedgwick County DA Nola Foulston’s office decided in favor of the governmental agencies. See Sedgwick County DA Response to KORA Request to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

When newspapers have their records requests refused, they usually give publicity to this. The Wichita Eagle is aware of my difficulties with records requests in Wichita, as their reporters have attended a number of meetings where my records requests were discussed, sometimes at length. But so far no coverage of an issue that, were the newspaper in my shoes, would undoubtedly covered on the front page. Something tells me that KPI won’t get any coverage, either.

Additional information on this topic is at:

Wichita fluoridation debate reveals attitudes of government

Is community water fluoridation like iodized salt? According to Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), we didn’t vote on whether to put iodine in table salt, so Wichitans don’t need to vote on whether to add fluoride to drinking water.

There’s a distinguishing factor, however, that somehow Miller didn’t realize: Consumption of iodized salt is a voluntary act. Not so with fluoridated water.

At the August 21, 2012 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Miller went on to name other substances added to our food supply that she said are beneficial to health. We didn’t vote on these either, but again, consumption of these foods and the added substances is voluntary.

In her discussion, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) said “Did you like the art that went down to WaterWalk? Maybe you didn’t. But you don’t have to go there.”

She also said we don’t have to go to the apartments that were built at WaterWalk, and we don’t have to stay at the Ambassador Hotel.

True, we can avoid these government-sponsored and subsidized places if we want to. But what Williams may have forgotten is that we can’t avoid being forced to pay for them.

Besides that, what does it say about a government where if we disagree with its actions, we’re told “you don’t have to go there”?

This confusion of government and voluntary action is troubling for the future of Wichita, and more broadly, our country.

Wichita voters reject cronyism — again

Tuesday’s primary election in Kansas was notable for the large number of victories by conservative challengers over Republican senate incumbents. Also important is that voters in Wichita and the surrounding area rejected, for the second time this year, the culture of political cronyism that passes for economic development in Wichita.

On Tuesday incumbent Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn defeated a challenge by Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell. The contrast was clear: Peterjohn with his long-time, outspoken advocacy for limited government and free market principles, although perhaps tempered a bit based on some votes he’s made. Longwell, however, advocates for “more tools in the toolbox.” In other words, a larger role for government in economic development and centralized planning.

The result: Peterjohn won, 57 percent to 43 percent.

Longwell had the endorsements of many Wichita-area politicians, including Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and all other Wichita City Council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita): Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) and council members Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita).

Sedgwick County Commission members Tim Norton, Jim Skelton, and Dave Unruh also endorsed Longwell.

In addition to these endorsements, Longwell had a large money advantage over Peterjohn. According to campaign finance reports filed July 30, Longwell had raised nearly $62,000.

Peterjohn’s July 30 report showed about $20,000 raised, so as of that date Longwell had over three times as much campaign money at his disposal than Peterjohn.

The money advantage and the endorsements are linked. On Longwell’s July 30 campaign finance report we learned that executives of a Michigan construction company made campaign contributions immediately before and after Longwell participated in a city council voted that benefited them. Key Construction, a heavy contributor to Longwell’s campaign, also benefited from Longwell’s vote that day. This was just another episode in Longwell’s history of voting for overpriced no-bid contracts and no-interest city loans for his large campaign contributors.

The day after Peterjohn held a news conference questioning Longwell’s Michigan contributions, Longwell held the news conference that announced the above-mentioned endorsements. Many of those endorsers also receive campaign money from those they award with no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded largesse.

Despite the advantage in campaign funds and the endorsements, voters in west Wichita and west Sedgwick County rejected the political cronyism that is Jeff Longwell’s legacy in government service.

It’s the second time this year voters have rejected cronyism. In February Wichita voters voted down a tax giveaway to the Ambassador Hotel by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

Longwell played a role in that election, too. When citizens exercised their constitutional right to challenge the taxpayer-funded giveaway to the hotel, Jeff Longwell said it was “disappointing,” and a “stunt.” He said that using this fundamental aspect of democracy causes citizens to “lose credibility.”

When it came time for the council to set the date for the special election on the hotel tax, Longwell attempted to have the election commissioner set the date as early as possible, obviously thinking that a short campaign would benefit the hotel developers.

Those hotel developers, by the way, included many of Longwell’s long-time campaign contributors.

After Wichita voters rejected this special tax deal, the Wall Street Journal in a column titled “A Wichita Shocker: You can beat city hall” wrote: “Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.”

It’s no wonder Longwell was disappointed when citizens petitioned their government. Voters soundly rejected the political cronyism and sweetheart deals that are Longwell’s legacy.

In Wichita, a problem with government ethics

Wichita and Kansas lag behind states like Illinois and New Jersey in laws regarding ethical behavior by elected officials. Last week Wichita saw a lesson in how Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and a majority of the Wichita City Council failed a test in government ethics. Besides Brewer, long-serving council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), as well as Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) have also displayed a callous disregard for ethical behavior by government officials.

Today I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas and explained the recent incidents that ought to cause Wichitans and Kansans to insist on reform regarding government ethics. Pay-to-play laws would be a good start. See Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

For earlier reporting on this matter, see Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract, For Wichita government, an ethics tipping point, and Wichita fails ethics test.

Wichita fails ethics test

Yesterday Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and a majority of the Wichita City Council failed a test, showing that Wichita elected officials, except for one, aren’t interested in ethical behavior.

The problem is worse than portrayed in a Wichita Eagle editorial, which commented on the appearance of the mayor’s and council’s action. In Wichita, we don’t have the mere appearance of a problem, we have an actual and real problem.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that the mayor and all members of the city council except for Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) don’t see that’s a problem for them to award no-bid contracts to campaign contributors. They also don’t see that it’s wrong to preside over a hearing in a quasi-judicial manner and award contracts to a campaign contributor. See For Wichita government, an ethics tipping point and Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract.

In some states and cities, the routine action of the mayor and council members would be illegal. It ought to be illegal in Kansas. There was no discussion from the council bench about this, and none in the executive session council members took.

Coincidentally, a group spoke during the public agenda portion of Tuesday’s council meeting about their concern for what they say is the corrupting influence of campaign money in politics.

None of the group stayed to observe the city council provide a lesson in how most of Wichita’s elected officials willfully ignore the issues the group is concerned with. From the bench Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) spoke approvingly of the group’s cause. But last year Miller voted for a no-bid contract to be awarded to her campaign contributors, and she voted in Tuesday’s airport contract hearing.

The behavior of Mayor Brewer and most members of the council gives new urgency for the Kansas Legislature to pass pay-to-play laws, which generally prohibit officeholders from voting on matters that financially benefit their campaign contributors. We can call it “Carl’s Law.” See Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

An example of a pay-to-play law is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

Kansas has no such law. Certainly Wichita does not, where pay-to-play is seen by many citizens as a way of life — the Wichita way.

For Wichita government, an ethics tipping point

Tomorrow Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and the Wichita City Council will make a decision that will let the city learn the ethics and character of its elected officials.

The issue is whether the mayor and five of six council members will decide to preside in a quasi-judicial matter over a case involving a major campaign contributor and personal friend. Now we know that the mayor has also intervened on behalf of Key Construction, recommending exclusively that the firm be hired for a construction project.

My reporting in Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract details the campaign contributions made by executives of Key Construction and their spouses.

On Sunday Bill Wilson of the Wichita Eagle reported on the letter Brewer sent to a retail store planning to build in Wichita. Key was the only construction company the mayor recommended. (Letter from mayor at center of construction bid controversy.)

Wichita has shown it is willing to disregard the taxpayer in order to award out-sized profits to Key Construction. The most recent scheme — which didn’t pan out for Key — had the council willing to overspend by $1.3 million through a no-bid contract planned for Key. Only the action of council members Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) and Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) prevented the award of the no-bid contract and saved Wichita taxpayers $1.3 million.

Despite this, Mayor Brewer wrote in his Key Construction recommendation letter: “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.”

But in February, Wilson of the Eagle reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget.” Continuing, Wilson wrote: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.” (Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects.)

With a record like this, we have to wonder why Mayor Brewer would recommend Key Construction. Besides the campaign contributions and fishing trips, that is.

The Wichita mayor’s behavior gives new urgency for the Kansas Legislature to pass pay-to-play laws, which generally prohibit officeholders from voting on matters that financially benefit their campaign contributors. We can call it “Carl’s Law.” See Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

Until such laws are in place, it is up to the personal judgment and character of the mayor and each city council member who has accepted campaign funds from Key Construction to decide whether they should act as judge in a case where Key is a party and stands to benefit financially. The decisions they make will let us know the future course for government ethics in Wichita. They either take a stand for good government, or fall farther into the morass of political cronyism.

Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract

On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will conduct a hearing for review of the award of a contract for the construction of the new Wichita Airport terminal. But because of relationships between nearly all council members — especially Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer — and one of the parties to the dispute, the city council should not participate in this decision.

The contract, worth about $100 million, was awarded to Dondlinger and Sons and its partner. Dondlinger has built many large projects, including INTRUST Bank Arena. But the city then ruled that Dondliger’s bid is “unresponsive.” The reason is that Dondlinger may not have met bid requirements regarding disadvantaged and minority business enterprises.

The firm next in line to receive the contract is Key Construction of Wichita. If the city council finds against Dondllinger, Key gets the contract, presumably. That’s the source of the problem the city council faces, as Key is heavily involved in politics, with its executives and their spouses often making the maximum allowed campaign contributions to nearly all members of the council. Personal relationships may play a role, too.

For the mayor and current council members, here is my tabulation of how much Key-associated persons made to each member’s most recent campaign:

Carl Brewer: $4,500
Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita): $4,000
Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita): $3,000
Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita): $2,500
Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita): $1,500
James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita): $1,000
Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita): $0

Is there a pattern to these contributions? That is, does Key make contributions to candidates with a specific political philosophy, such as conservatism or liberalism? Of the top three contributors, two have distinctly liberal ideas about taxation and spending, while the other is touting conservative credentials as he campaigns for another office. Patterns like this suggest that the contributions are made to gain access to officeholders, or for favorable consideration when the donor asks the council to vote to give it money or contracts. Key Construction does that a lot.

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

The political influence of Key Construction extends beyond campaign contributions, too. Mayor Brewer’s personal Facebook profile has a photo album holding pictures of him on a fishing trip with Dave Wells of Key Construction.

These political investments have paid off for Key Construction, as it has received a number of no-bid contracts over the years. Last August the council decided to award Key a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. All council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voted for the no-bid contract to Key Construction, although Mayor Carl Brewer was absent. It is likely that he would have voted with the majority, however.

Later the city decided to place the contract for bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price some $1.3 million less.

What citizens need to know is that the city council, except O’Donnell, was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million on a project awarded to a politically-connected construction firm.

So should the Wichita City Council make the decision on the airport contract? City documents don’t indicate whether Tuesday’s hearing is of a quasi-judicial nature, as it is sometimes when the council rules on certain matters involving appeal of decisions made by city authorities. But the council is being asked to make decisions involving whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied.

That sounds a lot like the role of judges. In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in the words of legal watchdog group Judicial Watch, “… significant campaign contributions or other electoral assistance pose a risk of actual bias. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said: ‘Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause so too can fears of bias arise when a man chooses the judge in his own cause.’”

Judicial Watch also noted “The ruling will likely affect judges in 39 states that elect them — including Washington, Texas and California — from presiding over cases in which their campaign contributions could create a conflict of interest. The nation’s judicial code has long said that judges should disqualify themselves from proceedings in which impartiality might reasonably be questioned, but the Supreme Court ruling is the first to address hefty election spending.”

The mayor and council members are not judges. But they’re being asked to make a judge-like decision. If held to the same standards as the U.S. Supreme Court says judges must follow, Mayor Brewer and the five council members who accepted campaign contributions from Key Construction need to recuse themselves from Tuesday’s decision on the Wichita Airport construction contract. A similar argument can be made for city manager Robert Layton and all city employees. Directly or indirectly they serve at the pleasure of the council.

Finally, this episode is another example of why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

Wichita City Council sets hotel tax election date

In response to a successful petition effort aimed at overturning a Wichita charter ordinance, the Wichita City Council last week considered an agenda item that gave the council two choices: Rescind the ordinance, or set a date for an election. The charter ordinance concerns rebating a portion of the Ambassador Hotel’s guest tax collections back to the hotel for its own use.

The most important issue to the council seemed to be holding the election on a date convenient to the hotel developers. The recommendation from Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman was that the election, if the council decides to hold it, should be on February 28, 2012.

During discussion, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) wanted to move the election to an earlier date so as to “avoid community discourse and debate.”

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) asked a series of questions designed to produced a response that if the election were held earlier, and if that would make it more expensive, would the developer have to pay these extra costs? (The agreement with the city states hotel developers are responsible for the cost of the election, which has been estimated at $50,000.)

She also expressed concern over “dragging this out,” and said she wants to “get it over with as soon as we can so that we can move on.” She assumed that the developer would like to have the issue resolved as soon as possible.

Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) asked the hotel developers if they would agree to pay extra to hold the election sooner. David Burk appeared on behalf of the hotel development team, and said he would like to see the election held as soon as possible, and would pay additional for that. He said it is “hard on our community,” and that “each day that goes by we’re casting a bad sign on future development in downtown, and in Wichita in general.”

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) framed the issue as the election commissioner needing more time “beyond what is required by law.” He suggested that the item be delayed until later in the meeting and that the election commissioner be summoned to appear before the council. A motion was made to that effect, and it passed.

When the election item was continued later in the meeting, Longwell engaged Commissioner Lehman in a series of questions attempting to manage the election calender for her. Lehman explained the various reasons as to why February 28 is a reasonable date for the election. The Kansas Secretary of State’s office has agreed with this assessment, she added.

In his remarks, Mayor Carl Brewer said: “This is an issue that really — there’s a lot of things that are going on in the dynamics of this entire thing. And when we have a special election, I believe that this council and the community deserve the right to be able to have it — have an election as quickly as possible. By doing that, it eliminates a lot of turmoil inside the community, unrest. But trying to be fair and giving individuals a fair — coming and going — with a fair process, so that every citizen can be heard. And so the sooner you can actually do it, the better off that we are.”

The mayor made a motion to set the election date as February 28, and it passed with all members except Williams voting in favor.

Discussion

This episode provided another example reinforcing the realization that Wichita has a city council — with the exception of one member, Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) — that is entirely captured by special interests. In this case the special interests are a hotel development team consisting of partners who have made significant campaign contributions to many members of the Wichita city council.

An example: While city attorney Gary Rebenstorf explained to the council that one option was to rescind the ordinance, there was no discussion of that among council members.

Another example was the measures the council went through to try and get an early election date, something that many observers feel favors the hotel developers. In particular, it was disconcerting to see Longwell attempt to micromanage the Sedgwick County Election Commissioner. He has no business doing that, especially when his motive is so transparent.

And why would the council be so eager to please the hotel developers and their desired election date? Don’t the desires and concerns of the other side have any relevance? To this council, the answer is no.

Perhaps the worst impression to come out of this meeting is that many Wichita city council members simply don’t care much for what citizens think. It’s hard to pick the most telling example, but Meitzner’s concern that we need to “avoid community discourse and debate” ranks right at the top. To Meitzner, it seems that things like discussing and debating issues are harmful, if they would get in the way of satisfying his campaign contributors, or his vision for molding the future of Wichita from the top down.

The rest of the council members, with the exception of O’Donnell, deserve scorn as well.

Then there are the mayor’s remarks. He spoke of giving individuals a “fair process” so that they may be heard, but also that the election needs to be held quickly. These two goals contradict each other.

Mayor Brewer also repeated his practice of making vague criticisms of his opponents without being specific, this time referring to “lot of things that are going on in the dynamics of this entire thing.” Brewer — perhaps in an effort to maintain a sense of decorum or apparent integrity — usually does not mention the names of those he criticizes or specifics of the issues involved. This allows him to appear noble, but without being accountable to actual people — and on the specifics of actual issues — for the things he says.

Wichita’s political class

From June.

The discussion at yesterday’s Wichita City Council meeting provided an opportunity for citizens to discover the difference in the thinking of the political class and those who value limited government and capitalism.

At issue was Mid-Continent Instruments, Inc., which asked the city for a forgivable loan of $10,000. It received the same last week from Sedgwick County. According to city documents, the State of Kansas through its Department of Commerce is also contributing $503,055 in forgivable loans, sales tax exemptions, training grants, and tax credits.

At the city council meeting Clinton Coen, a young man who ran for city council earlier this year, spoke against this measure, which he called corporate welfare.

In response to Coen, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita) asked if we should ignore companies that want to do business here, or should we allow them to leave? Implicit in the question is that the threat dangled by Mid-Continent is real: that unless the city gives them $10,000, they will expand somewhere else. How citizens and council members feel about this issue largely depends on their perceived genuineness of this threat.

When Coen recommended that the city cut spending, Clendenin said “I can guarantee you, from what I have seen, this city government has cut a tremendous amount of spending.” When pressed by Coen for examples of cuts, he demurred. Clendenin also said that the $10,000 is needed to show the city’s commitment to the company.

Perhaps coming to the rescue of her younger and less experienced colleague, Council Member Janet Miller asked City Manager Bob Layton how much has been cut from the budget, and he replied “we’ve cut over $20 million in the general fund over three years.”

In saying that, Layton is using the language and mind-set of bureaucrats and politicians. In this world, it’s a cut if spending does not rise as fast as planned or hoped for. As you can see from the accompanying chart, Wichita general fund spending has not been cut in recent years. It has risen in each of the last three years, and plans are for it to keep rising.

Wichita general fund spending

This illustrates a divide between the thinking of the political class and regular people. Blurring the distinction between plans and reality lets politicians and bureaucrats present a fiscally responsible image — they cut the budget, after all — and increase spending at the same time. It’s a message that misinforms citizens about the important facts.

Miller also praised the return on investment the city receives for its spending on economic development, citing Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research and the cost-benefit calculations it performs. These calculations take the cost of providing the incentives and compare it to the returns the city and other governmental entities receive.

What is rarely mentioned, and what I think most people would be surprised to learn, is that the “returns” used in these calculations is manifested in the form of increased tax revenue. It’s not like in the private sector, where business firms attempt to increase their sales and profits by providing a product or service that people willingly buy. No, the city increases its revenue (we can’t call it profit) by collecting more taxes.

It’s another difference between the political class and everyone else: The political class craves tax revenue.

Aside from this, the cost-benefit calculations for the city don’t include the entire cost. The cost doesn’t include the county’s contribution, the majority of which comes from residents of its largest city, which is Wichita. Then, there’s the half-million in subsidy from the state, with a large portion of that paid for by the people of Wichita.

But even if you believe these calculations, there’s the problem of right-sizing the investment. If an investment of $10,000 has such glowing returns — last week Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton called the decision a “no-brainer” — why can’t we invest more? If we really believe this investment is good, we should wonder why the city council and county commission are so timid.

Since the applicant company is located in his district, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), praised the company and the state’s incentives, and made a motion to approve the forgivable loan. All council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voted yes.

Going forward

While the political class praises these subsidies and the companies that apply for them, not many are willing to confront the reality of the system we’re creating. Some, like O’Donnell and Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau, have recognized that when government is seen as eager to grant these subsidies, it prompts other companies to apply. The lure of a subsidy may cause them to arrange their business affairs so as to conform — or appear to conform — to the guidelines government has for its various subsidy programs. Companies may do this without regard to underlying economic wisdom.

We also need to recognize that besides simple greed for public money, businesses have another reason to apply for these subsidies: If a publicly-traded company doesn’t seek them, its shareholders would wonder why the company didn’t exercise its fiduciary duty to do so. But this just perpetuates the system, and so increasing amounts of economic development fall under the direction of government programs.

While most people see this rise in corporate welfare as harmful — I call it a moral hazard — the political class is pleased with this arrangement. As Meitzner said in making his motion, he was proud that Wichita “won out” over the other city Mid-Continent Instruments considered moving to.

Another harmful effect of these actions is to create a reputation for having an uncompetitive business environment. Not only must businesses of all types pay for the cost of these subsidies, some face direct competition by a government-subsidized competitor. This is the situation Wichita-area hotels face as a result of the city granting millions in subsidy to a hotel developer to build a Fairfield Inn downtown.

Even those not in direct competition face increased costs as they attempt to hire labor, buy supplies, and seek access to capital in competition with government-subsidized firms. Could this uneven competitive landscape be a factor that business firms consider in deciding where to locate and invest?

We can expect to see more government intervention in economic development and more corporate welfare. Former council member Sue Schlapp in April took a job with the Kansas Department of Commerce. Her job title is “senior constituent liaison,” which I think can be better described as “customer service agent for the corporate welfare state.” Her office is in Wichita city hall.

Increasingly we see politicians and bureaucrats making decisions based on incorrect and misleading information, such as claiming that the city’s general fund budget has been cut when spending has increased. Sometimes they are fed incorrect information, as in the case of a presentation at Sedgwick County Commission that bordered on fraudulent.

Sometimes, I think, officeholders just don’t care. It’s easiest to go along with the flow and not raise ripples. They participate in groundbreakings and get their photograph in the newspaper and on television that way. Which brings up an important question: why do none of our city’s mainstream media outlets report on these matters?

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday October 10, 2011

AFP meeting features former Congressman Tiahrt. Tonight’s (October 10th) meeting of Americans for Prosperity, Kansas features former United States Representative Todd Tiahrt speaking on “How regulations affect our economy.” There will be a presentation followed by a group discussion. Tiahrt represented the fourth district of Kansas from 1995 to 2011. He is presently our states Republican National Committeeman. … This free meeting is from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm at the Lionel D. Alford Library located at 3447 S. Meridian in Wichita. The library is just north of the I-235 exit on Meridian. The event’s sponsor is Americans for Prosperity, Kansas. For more information on this event contact John Todd at john@johntodd.net or 316-312-7335, or Susan Estes, AFP Field Director at sestes@afphq.org or 316-681-4415.

Government planning. In an address from 1995, Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr. spoke on Friedrich Hayek and his ideas on government interventionism. His conclusion should be a caution to those — such as Wichita City Council members and city hall bureaucrats — who believe they can guide the economic future of Wichita through interventions such as TIF districts, grants, forgivable loans, tax credits, tax abatements, sweetheart lease deals, eminent domain, zoning, and other measures: “In all his work, Hayek focused on the self-ordering forces in society. Hayek’s fellow Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow has suggested that ‘the notion that through the workings of an entire system effects may be very different from, and even opposed to, intentions is surely the most important intellectual contribution that economic thought has made to the general understanding of social processes.’ The Arrovian formulation echoes Adam Smith’s observation that, as a consequence of the interaction of conflicting interests, man is ‘led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.’ The classic Hayekian statement visualizes economics as analyzing ‘the results of human action but not of human design.’ The economic conception of society is an affront to the conceit of those who would impose order from above. Economic forces defy the will of authoritarians seeking to mold social outcomes. Human beings respond to each government intervention by rearranging their lives so as to minimize its disruptive effects. The resulting outcome may thus be different from and even opposed to the intention of the intervention.” The full lecture is at The Meaning of Hayek.

Longwell joins Democrats to defeat Republicans. While Wichita city council members are officially non-partisan — meaning they don’t run for election as members of political parties — most members are closely identified with a party. Some, like Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), see themselves as leaders in their parties, the Republican Party in this case. Last week, however, Longwell joined with the three Democrats on the Wichita City Council to oppose the votes of three Republicans. (There was a nuance to that vote, but nonetheless Longwell voted with the Democrats.) On Sunday he teamed with left-wing Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) to write an op-ed that appeared in The Wichita Eagle (Grant helps region). The piece approved increased federal government spending, increased federal government control, and increased centralized planning.

Optimal size of government. Is government too large? Yes, and trying to determine an optimum size for government is impossible. So says a new policy briefing paper from the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, a project of the Cato Institute.

Can We Determine the Optimal Size of Government? by James A. Kahn. In the executive summary, we can read this: “The massive spending programs and new regulations adopted by many countries around the world in response to the economic crisis of 2008 have drawn renewed attention to the role of government in the economy. Studies of the relationship between government size and economic growth have come up with a wide range of estimates of the ‘optimal’ or growth-maximizing size of government, ranging anywhere between 15 and 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

This paper argues that such an exercise is ill conceived. Modern growth economics suggests, first, that government policies leave their long-term impact primarily on the level of economic activity, not the growth rate; and, second, that the sources of this impact are multi-dimensional and not necessarily well measured by conventional measures of ‘size,’ such as the share of government spending in GDP.

In fact, measures of economic freedom more closely relate to per capita GDP than do simple measures of government spending. The evidence shows that governments are generally larger than optimal, but because the available data include primarily countries whose governments are too large, it cannot plausibly say what the ideal size of government is. The data can realistically only say that smaller governments are better, and suggest that the optimal size of government is smaller than what we observe today.”

Steve Jobs. What is his legacy? From Richard A. Viguerie: “Steve Jobs, Apple Computer’s late founder and CEO, gave the vast majority of his hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions to liberal Democrats, such as Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy and California Governor Jerry Brown. Yet it is hard to think of a 21st Century entrepreneur who has done more to empower individuals and free them from the demands of the liberal collective than Steve Jobs did through the invention of the iPod, and iPad and the popularization of personal computing. Through the innovative products Apple brought to market, Jobs proved the collectivist premise of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society to be both absolutely true and utterly wrong.” … More at Steve Jobs’ Conservative Legacy.

Lieutenant Governor in Wichita. This week’s meeting (October 14th) of the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Lieutenant Governor Jeff Colyer, M.D. speaking on “An update on the Brownback Administration’s ‘Roadmap for Kansas’ — Medicaid Reform” … Upcoming speakers: On October 21st: N. Trip Shawver, Attorney/Mediator, on “The magic of mediation, its uses and benefits.” … On October 28th: U.S. Representative Tim Huelskamp, who is in his first term representing the Kansas first district, speaking on “Spending battles in Washington, D.C.” … On November 4th: Chris Spencer, Vice President, Regional Sales Manager Oppenheimer Funds, speaking on “Goliath vs Goliath — The global battle of economic superpowers.” … On November 11th: Sedgwick County Commission Members Richard Ranzau and James Skelton, speaking on “What its like to be a new member of the Sedgwick County Board of County commissioners?” … On November 18th: Delores Craig-Moreland, Ph.D., Wichita State University, speaking on “Systemic reasons why our country has one of the highest jail and prison incarceration rates in the world? Are all criminals created equal?”

When governments cut spending. Advocates of government spending argue that if it is cut, the economy will suffer. Is this true? Is government spending necessary to keep the economy functioning? “There is no historical credence to this very popular idea that cutting spending now will actually slow down the economy and actually lead to a double dip recession or an increase in economic stagnation.” This is the conclusion of Dr. Stephen Davies in a short video. As one example — he cites others — Davies explains that there was fear in the United States that the end to massive government spending during World War II would lead to a return of the Great Depression. “In fact, as we know, exactly the opposite happened. As the defense spending of the war years was wound down, and as government was pulled back in other ways as well under the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, the result was an enormous period of sustained growth in the United States and other countries that went through a similar process.” Davies says that economic growth accelerates when government reduces its spending. Reasons include the greater productivity of private sector spending as compared to government spending, and increased confidence of private sector investors. … The video is from LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies.

Wichita City Council campaign contributions and Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel

Many people make campaign contributions to candidates whose ideals and goals they share. This is an important part of our political process. But when reading campaign finance reports for members of the Wichita City Council, one sees the same names appearing over and over, often making the maximum allowed contribution to candidates. Their spouses also contribute.

Looking at the candidates these people contribute to, we find that often there’s no commonality to the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. At first glance, it’s puzzling.

But then, when these people appear in the news after having received money from the Wichita City Council, it snaps into place: These campaign donors are not donating to those whose ideals they agree with. They’re donating so they can line their own pockets.

All told, parties associated with the proposed Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel project contributed at least $24,500 to current city council members during their most recent campaigns. This is split between two groups of people: executives associated with Key Construction and their spouses, and David Burk and his wife.

Those associated with Key Construction contributed $16,500, and the Burks contributed $8,000.

At a recent city council meeting, Mayor Brewer, along with council members Janet Miller and Lavonta Williams expressed varying degrees of outrage that people would link their acceptance of campaign contributions with their votes and conduct as officeholders.

But Burk and some others often make the maximum contribution to all — or nearly all — candidates, even those with widely varying political stances. How else can we explain Burk’s (and his wife’s) contributions to big-government liberals like Miller and Williams, and also to conservatives like Jeff Longwell, Pete Meitzner, and former council member Sue Schlapp?

Burk and the others must be expecting something from these campaign contributions. There’s no other reasonable explanation. Candidates and officeholders who accept these contributions know that Burk and his business partners are likely to appear before the council asking for money. If they find this distasteful or repugnant, they could simply refuse to accept Burk’s contributions, as well as those from people associated with Key Construction. But they don’t.

This is what writers like Randal O’Toole mean when he wrote “TIF puts city officials on the verge of corruption, favoring some developers and property owners over others.”

Some states and cities have “pay-to-play” laws which govern conduct of officeholders who have accepted campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts. An example is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

If Wichita had such a law, the city council couldn’t muster a quorum of its members to vote on the Douglas Place project, so pervasive are the campaign contributions.

Contributions by Douglas Place participants

In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table complied from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member and with his heart set on becoming the next mayor, leads the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Douglas Place project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Douglas Place project: $6,000.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), who is also vice mayor, received $5,000 from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, newly-elected Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, newly-elected Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

This article has been updated to include information from campaign finance reports filed in January 2012.

At Wichita City Council, facts are in dispute

Some Wichita City Council members, including Mayor Carl Brewer criticize people who speak at council meetings for using inaccurate information. Although most citizens who speak are willing to take questions at the time they present their testimony, most council members will not engage in dialog with them, instead choosing to level their criticism at a time when the speakers are not able to defend themselves.

So let’s take a look at some of the statements made by city council members at the September 13th meeting, where the council approved by a six to one vote a package of incentives for the Douglas Place project, a downtown hotel.

James Clendenin

At the September 13th meeting, James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita) said “I heard a lot of misinformation, and I heard a lot of good information.” He seemed to be most interested in the jobs that the hotel will create. Referring to the contention that the hotel will create 100 jobs, he said: “That’s all people ask me about — how many jobs. Just tell me jobs. I want to know jobs — jobs, jobs, jobs — people want to know jobs. I know that when Old Town was started 20 years ago, no jobs where in that part of the city. 20 years later we have jobs. … But I see people employed 20 years later that would never would have been employed unless a developer stepped up.”

I can understand the concern for jobs and how council members want to be seen doing things that they believe will create jobs. But it’s difficult to see how this hotel will create new jobs, except perhaps on the several times each year that the hotel might be used to support the larger conventions the city hopes to draw.

Instead, it’s much more likely that the hotel will simply draw most of its customers from the pool of people already planning to come to Wichita. And this hotel will have a big advantage in competing for these existing customers, especially those looking for a high-end hotel. As reported in the Wichita Eagle, the hotel developers said that without the city subsidy, the rooms would cost $250 per night. Their plans, however, are to offer the rooms for $150.

So with the help of taxpayers, the developers get to offer a $250 product for $150. That’s quite a competitive boost. My research shows that currently there are four downtown Wichita hotels offering rooms at that rate or higher. I wonder how they will feel when undercut by a taxpayer-subsidized competitor? (First, the owners of these hotels will have to realize that they, too, have received substantial subsidy.)

As to the impact of subsidies like Tax increment financing, or TIF: The important paper Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development by Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman comes to these conclusions:

If the use of tax increment financing stimulates economic development, there should be a positive relationship between TIF adoption and overall growth in municipalities. This did not occur. If, on the other hand, TIF merely moves capital around within a municipality, there should be no relationship between TIF adoption and growth. What we find, however, is a negative relationship. Municipalities that use TIF do worse.

We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF. (emphasis added)

Later, the paper concluded: “TIF subsidies might be helping growth within the TIF district, but they are hurting growth outside the district by a larger amount.”

This paper addresses economic growth, which is not, strictly speaking, equivalent to jobs, although the two are closely related. A paper that does address the impact of TIF on jobs is from Paul F. Byrne of Washburn University. The title of the report is Does Tax Increment Financing Deliver on Its Promise of Jobs? The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Municipal Employment Growth, and in the abstract we find this conclusion regarding the impact of TIF on jobs:

Increasingly, municipal leaders justify their use of tax increment financing (TIF) by touting its role in improving municipal employment. However, empirical studies on TIF have primarily examined TIF’s impact on property values, ignoring the claim that serves as the primary justification for its use. This article addresses the claim by examining the impact of TIF adoption on municipal employment growth in Illinois, looking for both general impact and impact specific to the type of development supported. Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment. These results are consistent with industrial TIF districts capturing employment that would have otherwise occurred outside of the adopting municipality and retail TIF districts shifting employment within the municipality to more labor-efficient retailers within the TIF district. (emphasis added)

I would ask that council member Clendenin and the others read research like this before they come to their conclusions.

Furthermore, we might ask the hotel developers if they are going to run their hotel as a jobs program, or are they going to seek to minimize the use of labor, employing only as much as is required to run the hotel the way they want? In a competitive marketplace, this is what businesses are forced to do, if they want to stay in business.

Finally, the contention of Clendenin that there are people who are employed only because of Old Town is laughable.

Pete Meitzner

Newly-elected council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) seemed impressed and secure in that the hotel developers have agreed to personally guarantee any shortfall in property tax revenue below what is necessary to cover the payments on the bonds the city is issuing under tax increment financing.

This guarantee is quite unlikely to ever be tapped, and is an example of offering something at little risk and no cost to the developers. Then, gullible city council members lap it up.

Here’s how the arithmetic works: According to city documents, the projected debt service required to pay the TIF bonds in 2016 is $340,000. For the same year, the projected revenue from the hotel’s property tax that is applicable to the TIF bond repayments is $262,000. (Remember these property taxes are taxes the hotel must pay, no matter what they’re used for.)

For the hotel owners to become in a position where they would have to pay to cover a shortfall, the value of the hotel would have to drop by 23 percent. That’s not likely to happen, and if something like that did, it would be a signal of severe problems across the entire city, or country, for that matter.

Jeff Longwell

Speaking from the bench when he could not be rebutted by citizens, Council Member Jeff Longwell criticized citizens who testified, saying they are using “wrong numbers.” Longwell’s criticisms deserve scrutiny.

During the council meeting, there were several ratios presented as a way to evaluate the hotel, and Longwell confused them. He said: “You can argue if it’s 6 to 1, or 5 to 1, but I’ll tell you, even if it’s as low as 2.6 to 1 return, folks, that’s a great investment.”

The 6 to 1 ratio is the ratio of private investment to public investment, as calculated by the city.

The 2.6 to 1 return is a payback to the city, based on expected increased tax revenues compared to the city’s cost. This is calculated by the Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research.

The 6 to 1 ratio is based on balance sheet concepts. It refers to assets.

The 2.6 to 1 ratio is a calculation from an income statement. It refers to income relative to expenses.

The only conclusion to draw is that Longwell is sorely confused. Perhaps worse, Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development had just explained these numbers in response to a question by Meitzner. But Bell didn’t correct Longwell. Neither did the city manager, who undoubtedly knows the difference between the two sets of numbers.

Besides this, the 6 to 1 ratio is calculated using an extremely narrow view of the city’s investment in the project, and an overly expansive assessment of the developer’s investment. It ignores many subsidies being provided to the developers, some at city expense, and also at the expense of state and federal taxpayers.

Further, for that ratio to make any sense, you have to assume city ownership of the hotel. “We” — meaning the city of Wichita — don’t own the “6″ part of the ratio. The hotel developers do. It’s not a public asset.

Janet Miller

Like Clendenin and Longwell, Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) criticized the inaccurate information presented by citizens: “A lot of the information that was shared this morning was not accurate. … I’m not going to be able to address everything.”

Here’s an example of the reasoning of Miller. Referring to the issue of tax money being diverted to the Douglas Place project, she said: “Other taxes, such as the historic and federal tax credits are not property taxes, they’re not sales taxes, those are credits toward income taxes. So unless you’re paying the income taxes those are not your taxes.”

Here Miller is ignoring the effect of tax credits on the budgets of states and the federal government. Tax credits reduce the revenue of the issuing body by the amount of the credit. So when the state of Kansas issues $3,800,000 in tax credits to the Douglas Place project, it reduces revenue to the state by that same amount.

Now if the state were to reduce its spending by that same amount, specifically based on the issuance of this tax credit, we’d be left with no impact on the state’s budget.

But the state isn’t going to to that — it never has. So taxpayers across the state must make up the difference — directly contradicting Miller’s contention that “those are not your taxes.”

The same reasoning applies to the federal tax credits of $3,500,000 that this project is seeking.

Miller also contended that the guest taxes paid by this hotel are “not your taxes.” According to the city’s budget, the purpose of the Tourism and Convention Fund, which is funded by the guest tax, is to “support tourism and convention, infrastructure, and promotion of the City.” Its outlined priorities are to be “debt service for tourism and convention facilities, operational deficit subsidies, and care and maintenance of Century II.”

So, yes, I would say that the guest tax is “our” tax. There are those who are asking for millions to renovate Century II. Since this hotel’s guest tax — most of it — will not be going to that goal, someone else has to pay.

Further, to the extent that the new hotel draws guests from other hotels, that guest tax is being diverted away from the Tourism and Convention Fund. (Of course, we have to remember that many other hotels have a similar deal to benefit from their guest taxes. Last year the city gifted the Fairfield Inn & Suites Wichita Downtown, part of the heavily subsidized WaterWalk project, $2,500,000, to be paid back by the hotel’s guest tax receipts.)

Miller also took issue with those who contend that the original plan called for Key Construction to build the parking garage: “While there was a general contractor, and that part of the project would not have been bid out, the rest of it would have been bid thorough the city’s process. So the vast majority, except for about 6 percent of the project, would have been bid out through the city’s bid project.”

Miller is specifically contradicted by the letter of intent that she voted for at the August 9th meeting of the council. The letter states: “Douglas Place LLC, will acquire and rehabilitate the Douglas Building and will construct the parking garage and urban park.”

Does she think that the principals of Key Construction — who are part of the development team of the Douglas Place project, and who have made heavy campaign contributions to Miller and others — would let someone else build the garage?

Furthermore, at the same meeting City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf said it was the developer’s preference that the garage be built without competitive bidding — again contradicting Miller’s contention that the garage would be bid on.

And if we take Miller’s statement at face value — “the vast majority, except for about 6 percent of the project, would have been bid out” — does this imply that 94 percent of the project will be bid out? This would imply that the hotel itself would be placed for public bid, and I don’t think there’s been any consideration of that.

Miller also addressed the issue of special assessment financing. That is part of the Douglas Place project, with $1,500,000 to be used for facade improvement and lead paint and asbestos removal. Miller said: “Just as a reminder: The facade improvement and asbestos removal expenses, all of that — those dollars are being repaid through special assessments. For those of you who are critical of special assessment financing, I would encourage you to look at your annual tax bill and see if it says special assessment on there. If it does, we have loaned your developer money to put in public improvements around your property. There’s a very large share of Wichita’s outstanding debt that is developers’ specials. So if we want to be critical of developers specials, that’s gonna be a really big conversation that will include all the housing developers in this city and how those dollars are lent and repaid over years.”

There’s a big distinction between the way special assessment financing is used for new development as compared to this project. On new developments, special assessment financing is used to pay for public improvements like streets, sewers, water mains, and storm water drainage. After they are built, these assets are then owned by the city. They become city assets, but were paid for by the developer.

That’s not going to happen with this hotel. Its owners will not deed over the building’s facade to the city. It will remain a private asset.

Furthermore, in new development, the assets that special assessment financing is used to pay for support development that generally ends up on the tax roles, providing the tax revenue stream that city council members promote as good. But not so with this hotel. Being in a TIF district, its property taxes — except for 30 percent — do not benefit the city, as they are used to benefit the developers.

In Wichita, private tax policy on the rise

In a free society with a limited government, taxation should be restricted to being a way for government to raise funds to pay for services that all people benefit from. An example is police and fire protection. Even people who are opposed to taxation rationalize paying taxes that way. But in the city of Wichita, private tax policy is overtaking our city.

The Douglas Place project, a downtown hotel to be considered tomorrow by the Wichita City Council, makes use of several of these private tax policy strategies.

By private tax policy, I mean that the proceeds of a tax are used for the exclusive benefit of one person (or business firm), instead of used for the benefit of all. And in at least one case, private parties are being allowed to determine the city’s tax policy at their discretion.

The taxes collected by this private tax policy is still collected under the pretense of government authority. But instead of going to pay for government — things like police, fire, and schools — the tax is collected for the exclusive benefit of one party, not the public.

In Wichita and across Kansas, one example of taxation being used for the benefit of one person or business is the Community Improvement District (CID). Under this program, the business collects an extra tax that looks just like sales tax. Except — the proceeds of the extra CID tax are funneled back for the exclusive benefit of the people who own property in the district. The Douglas Place project is asking to collect an extra tax of two cents per dollar for its own benefit.

CIDs are a threat to unsuspecting customers who likely won’t be aware of the extra tax they’ll be paying until after they complete their purchases, if at all. Wichita decided against disclosing to citizens the amount of tax they’ll be paying with signage on stores. Instead, the city settled for a sign that says nothing except to check a city website for information about CIDs.

CIDs also present the City of Wichita as a high-tax place to live and do business. It’s a risk to our city’s reputation. Especially when you consider the Jeff Longwell strategy, which is that since these taxes are often used by hotels and other businesses that cater to visitors, Wichitans don’t pay them as much as do visitors.

Another example of private tax policy is when a tax such as Wichita’s hotel guest tax is redirected from its original goal. According to a description of the Tourism and Convention Fund in the city’s budget, the goal of the guest tax is to “support tourism and convention, infrastructure, and promotion of the City.” Its priorities are to be “Fund priorities are: 1) debt service for tourism and convention facilities, 2) operational deficit subsidies and 3) care and maintenance of Century II.”

But in the case of the Douglas Place project, the city is asking for a charter ordinance to be passed that would route 75 percent of this tax directly back to the Douglas Place owners. That’s not the proclaimed purpose of the guest tax, unless we consider private hotels to be part of the city’s tourism infrastructure. (I think some people think that way.)

At least in the case of Douglas Place the city is being more upfront with its citizens. The charter ordinance requires a two-thirds vote of the city council for passage, a higher bar than in the past. And, the city isn’t borrowing money to give to the hotel. That’s what the city has done in the past, as in the case of the Fairfield Inn & Suites Wichita Downtown that is part of the WaterWalk project. One of the many layers of subsidy going in to that hotel was that the city simply gifted the hotel $2,500,000, to be paid back by the hotel’s guest tax receipts.

Some will say that’s not really a gift, as the hotel will pay back the loan. But the loan is being repaid with taxes the hotel — more properly, its guests — must pay anyway. This is public taxation for private enrichment.

If you need further evidence that the city is turning over taxation to private hands, consider this: The charter ordinance is subject to a protest petition, and if sufficient signatures are gathered, the city council would have to either overturn the ordinance or hold an election to let the people decide.

Now, if such a tax is truly in the public interest, the city would hold such an election and bear its costs itself. But that’s not the case. In the agreement between the city and the Douglas Place developers, we see this: “If Developer requests a special election solely for the purpose of passing the charter ordinance in the event a sufficient protest petition is submitted, Developer shall reimburse the City for the actual out of pocket costs and expenses of conducting such election.”

In other words, the city is turning over to private interests the decision as to whether to have such an election. At least the citizens of Wichita won’t have to pay for it, if such an election happens.

Another example of private tax policy that the Douglas Place project is using is Tax increment financing, or a TIF district. This mechanism routes property taxes back to the development. In the case of Douglas Place, $3,325,000 of its own property taxes are being used to pay for its parking garage. That’s a deal most citizens can’t get.

Normally property taxes are used for the general operation of government. Not so in TIF districts, another example of public taxation for private enrichment. Again, these are taxes that the property must pay anyway.

Private taxation funds political entrepreneurship

In Wichita, especially in downtown, we see the rise of private tax policy, that is, the taxation power of government being used for private purposes. This private tax policy is pushed by Wichita’s political entrepreneurs. These are the people who would rather compete in the realm of politics rather than in the market.

Examples of Wichita’s political entrepreneurs include the developers of Douglas Place: David Burk of Marketplace Properties, and the principals of Key Construction.

Competing in the political arena is easier than competing in the market. To win in the political arena, you only have to convince a majority of the legislative body that controls your situation. Once you’ve convinced them the power of government takes over, and the people at large are forced to transfer money to the political entrepreneurs. In other words, they must engage in transactions they would not elect to perform, if left to their own free will.

In the free marketplace, however, entrepreneurs have to compete by offering products or services that people are willing to buy, free of coercion. That’s hard to do. But it’s the only way to gauge whether people really want what the entrepreneurs are selling.

One of the ways that political entrepreneurs compete is by making campaign contributions, and the developers of Douglas Place have mastered this technique. Key Construction principles contributed $13,500 to Mayor Carl Brewer and four city council members during their most recent campaigns. Council Member Jeff Longwell alone received $4,000 of that sum, and he also accepted another $2,000 from managing member David Burk and his wife.

All told, Burk and his wife contributed at least $7,500 to city council candidates who will be voting whether to give Burk money. Burk and others routinely make the maximum contribution to all — or nearly all — candidates, even those with widely varying political stances. How can someone explain Burk’s (and his wife’s) contributions to liberals like Miller and Williams, and also to conservatives like Longwell, Meitzner, and former council member Sue Schlapp?

The answer is: Burk will be asking these people for money.

Wichitans need to rise against these political entrepreneurs and their usurpation of a public function — taxation — for their own benefit. The politicians and bureaucrats who enable this should realize they should be serving the public interest, not the narrow and private enrichment of the few at the cost of many.

For Wichita’s Project Downtown, goal keeps slipping

In selling a plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita, promoters started with a promise of much private investment for just a little public investment. But as the plan proceeded, the goal kept slipping, and the first project to be approved under the final plan will probably not come close to meeting even the modest goals set by the Wichita City Council.

At the time agitation for a downtown plan started in 2008, research indicated that the ratio of private to public investment in downtown was approximately one to one. A March 2009 document hinted that we could do better, noting “Cities with successful downtown turnarounds have shown that for every $1 of public investment there will be $10 to $15 of private money invested.”

Soon after that Mayor Carl Brewer and others started promoting a 15 to one ratio of private to public investment. At a city council meeting in October 2009, Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) said “I’ve heard the city manager talk about moving us toward a return more in the neighborhood of 15 to one, private contribution to public.” She described this as an “important benchmark.”

Before long, some may have realized that a 15 to one ratio was unrealistic. In the briefing city officials gave the city council in December 2010 when it approved the Project Downtown plan, the information presented to the council called for “$500 million in private-sector capital investment over the next 15-20 years.” The plan also called for “An estimated $100 million in parking, streets, and parks/open space improvements,” establishing a five-to-one ratio of private investment to public investment. The document also gave officials a lot of wiggle room, as the $500 million of private investment is qualified: “As much as $500 million.”

It seems that some didn’t get the message and still pitched the original promise. In his January 2011 State of the City Address, Mayor Brewer said “In efforts to keep people working, the completion of the community-driven Downtown Master Plan will lead us to a point where ultimately the private investment exceeds public investment by a 15 to 1 ratio.”

Then in May 2011 the council approved a document titled “City of Wichita Downtown Development Incentives Policy.” This policy calls for “Minimum private to public capital investment ratio of 2 to 1.”

So we’ve gone from 15, to five, to two.

Now, for the first project to be considered under the new plans and polices: Douglas Place, a downtown Wichita hotel being proposed by a development team led by Wichitan David Burk.

According to minutes of the August 9 meeting of the Wichita city council, Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development, said that the ratio of private to public investment for this project, as calculated by his office, was 2.2 to one.

I’m not quite sure how they arrived at that value, as at the same council meeting Bell presented information that the total developer costs were $21,640,000, and the city investment would be $7,710,000. That’s a ratio of 2.8 to one.

This calculation, however, does not come close to capturing the total public investment in this project. For example, it leaves out the $7,300,000 in tax credits the developers will receive. It doesn’t include the benefit of allowing the hotel to keep 75 percent of the guest tax it generates, or the two percent extra sales tax the city will let it charge and keep. It doesn’t include the revenue the developers will get from renting out retail space the city provides to them at a cost of $1.00 per year. It doesn’t include $600,000 in sales tax exemptions the city will grant the hotel. It doesn’t include the value of 125 parking spaces reserved for the hotel’s exclusive use at below market rent.

(I’m sure we’ll hear explanations that the tax credits aren’t paid for by Wichita taxpayers. They’re paid for by state and federal taxpayers. This is the type of reasoning we’re accustomed to from the mayor and city council.)

So in just two years the plans for downtown Wichita have gone from a lofty promise of $15 dollars in private investment for each $1 of public investment, down to $5, then down to $2. And an honest evaluation of the first project under the plan would find that it, almost certainly, doesn’t meet the $2 threshold.

At Wichita city council, another junket authorized

Last week the Wichita City Council approved travel expenses for Mayor Carl Brewer to attend a Wichita Sister Cities meeting in Cancun and Tlalnepantla, Mexico in September. The council approved the expenses without discussing how much would be spent, and who it would be spent on.

Now we know. The total budget for this trip is $5,862. The people making the trip on Wichita’s behalf besides the mayor are Kevin Vaughn, a City of Wichita police lieutenant whose role is described as security; Jerry Smartt, who is Wichita Area Sister Cities (WASC) President; Ramon Machan, another Wichita police office and WASC Mexico Committee Chair with a possible additional role of security; and Patricia and Ed Koehler, Owner of JR Custom Metals and spouse, in their role as business representatives.

The expenses for Vaughn, Smartt, and Machan are given as $1,166 each. The expenses for the mayor are listed at $365, smaller than the others as the mayor is paying for his own airfare. The Koehlers are paying their own expenses, and there is no cost to the city for their travel according to the travel budget document.

Another item in the budget is $2,000 for gifts, described as “silver/gold/bronze coins.”

Some will undoubtedly consider the wisdom of spending these funds on a trip — a junket — of dubious value, especially the spending on gifts.

Equally troubling is the council’s vote on this item without knowing the budget for the trip. This didn’t bother Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), who argued that the city should also pay the mayor’s airfare.

This episode is reminiscent of Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) and her junket to France two years ago. In Wichita Eagle reporting of my questioning of the trip and its city-paid expenses, we learned: “Mayor Carl Brewer aggressively defended City Council member Janet Miller ‘s planned trip to Paris against criticism Tuesday, saying such trips can draw business to the city and generate new ideas.”

The mayor’s defense included a confusing analogy to marriage, as reported in the same article: “Brewer said the situation is similar to a married couple going through tough times. He said you shouldn’t get a divorce just to save money — just like the city shouldn’t decline an invitation to the conference just because of a tight budget.”

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to critics: stop grandstanding

Last week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council provided a window into the attitude of Wichita elected officials, particularly Mayor Carl Brewer. Through their actions, and by their words, we see a government that cares little for the rule of law and good government, and one that is disrespectful to citizens who call attention to this.

At issue was the circumvention of a statutorily required public hearing. In order to grant subsidies to a development team lead by David Burk of Marketplace Properties, the city is required to hold a public hearing, which it scheduled for September 13th. That schedule wasn’t fast enough for Burk, so at its August 9th meeting the council approved a letter of intent which formalizes the city’s desire to do the things that were to be the subject of the public hearing.

I, along with others, contend that this action — issuing the letter of intent — reduces the September 13th public hearing to a meaningless exercise. It’s true that several times city bureaucrats and elected officials assured citizens that the letter is non-binding and doesn’t mean the city will go through with the desires expressed in the letter. But I don’t think they believe that themselves, and the language of City Manager Bob Layton reveals so. In the end, the public hearing is reduced to — as the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman aptly noted — “a pointless afterthought.” See Wichita City Council bows to special interests.

This action is not good government, and it’s not open and transparent government, despite the claims of Mayor Brewer. It goes against our country’s principle of the rule of law, which holds that our laws and orderly procedures are more important than any single person.

Almost as troubling is the attitude of Mayor Brewer and others in city hall towards citizens who oppose their plans. Brewer — perhaps in an effort to maintain a sense of decorum or apparent integrity — does not mention the names of those he criticizes. This allows him to appear noble, but without being accountable to actual people, and the public, for the things he says.

John Todd, an activist and ally of mine who speaks at council meetings frequently — which means, in his case, about once or maybe twice a month — told me of his concerns: “It appears disingenuous to me for the mayor to unilaterally dress down citizens who address the council, with no opportunity for citizen rebuttal. The veiled message that comes through this process is this: ‘If you don’t agree with the mayor and council’s position on any issue, please shut up.’”

Todd is referring to the common practice of the mayor and some council members, notably Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), to criticize opponents after they’ve completed their testimony and returned to the audience, when there is no opportunity for citizens to respond.

At the August 9th meeting, the mayor criticized his political opponents for making use of the opportunity to address the council, and by extension, the people who may be watching on television or the internet: “I hope that today, all of this grandstanding that I saw coming from some of the public and I saw from some of the council members, and questioning council members, elected officials’ integrity — unless you have proof, just because you have a camera here, that there is something you shouldn’t be doing. … This whole thing that I saw going on here today remind me so much of a previous administration where individuals were standing up and thank God we have the cameras here. The media’s here every single meeting.”

What’s particularly deplorable about the mayor’s remarks is that he’s criticizing people for speaking at a public hearing. Yes, city officials say the agenda item was only to consider a letter of intent that does not bind the city council. But that legalistic interpretation ignores the practical political reality that this meeting was, de facto, the public hearing for this project.

This is not the first time the mayor has complained about his critics. In the past, the mayor has said: “We need every person’s ideas, recommendations, and their opinion. … Being quiet and then complaining about it later isn’t going to be good for you or the community.”

But when citizens take the mayor’s advice — showing initiative, not being quiet, and stating opinions beforehand — now the mayor calls that grandstanding.

The mayor has also called his critics “naysayers” and complained that they have received too much media attention.

The mayor should take notice, however, that most people who care about public affairs and policy are severely disappointed with news media coverage of city hall events. The resources of news gathering agencies, especially newspapers, are severely depleted as compared to the past. In my coverage of a talk given by former Wichita Eagle editor Davis Merritt, I wrote this: “A question that I asked is whether the declining resources of the Wichita Eagle might create the danger that local government officials feel they can act under less scrutiny, or is this already happening? Merritt replied that this has been going on for some time. ‘The watchdog job of journalism is incredibly important and is terribly threatened.’ When all resources go to cover what must be covered — police, accidents, etc. — there isn’t anything left over to cover what should be covered. There are many important stories that aren’t being covered because the ‘boots aren’t on the street anymore,’ he said.” See Former Wichita Eagle editor addresses journalism, democracy, May 11, 2009.

In his remarks to me, John Todd wrote: “Diversity of opinion and the open discussion of divergent opinions are important parts of good government.” But citizens who observe the actions of the Wichita City Council — the issuance of this letter of intent being only the most recent example — and who sense the attitude of the mayor and some council members towards those who express opinions outside the orthodoxy — are likely to conclude, as many do, that it’s just not worth the effort to get involved.

Wichita City Council bows to special interests

Yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council revealed a council — except for one member — totally captured by special interests, to the point where the council, aided by city staff, used a narrow legal interpretation in order to circumvent a statutorily required public hearing process.

The issue was a downtown hotel to be developed by a team lead by David Burk of Marketplace Properties. The subsidies Burk wants, specifically tax increment financing (TIF), require a public hearing to be held. The city scheduled the hearing for September 13th.

That schedule, however, didn’t suit Burk. In order to provide him a certain comfort level, the council agreed to issue a letter of intent stating that the council intends to do the things that the public hearing is supposed to provide an opportunity for deliberation.

I, along with others, contend that this action reduces the September 13th public hearing to a meaningless exercise. This action is not good government, and it’s not open and transparent government, despite the claims of Mayor Carl Brewer. It goes against our country’s principle of the rule of law, part of which holds that our laws are more important than any single person.

Several times council members — and once city attorney Gary Rebenstorf — explained that the letter of intent is non-binding on either party. But: No matter what information is presented at the September public hearing, no matter how strong public opinion might be against the incentives involved, is there any real likelihood that the council would not proceed with this plan and its incentives, having already passed a letter of intent to do so? I think there is very little possibility of that.

Persuasive arguments will be made that since the city issued a letter of intent, and since the developers may have already taken action based on that letter, it follows that the city is obligated to pass the plan. Otherwise, who would ever vest any meaning in a future letter of intent from this city?

During the discussion, no one was able to explain adequately why a letter of intent — if it is non-binding and therefore does not commit the city — was asked for by the developers. Despite the lawyerly explanation of Rebenstorf and council members — including the mayor — the letter does have meaning. Practically, it has such a powerful meaning that it makes the holding of the public hearing on September 13th a mere charade, a meaningless exercise in futility.

It’s not just me and a handful of others who contend this. The Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman, who is usually in favor of all forms of public spending on downtown, wrote: “Even though the letter of intent will be nonbinding, it risks making the Sept. 13 public hearing on tax-increment financing seem like a pointless afterthought.”

In his remarks, City Manager Bob Layton explained that the meeting was the first time for council members to “formally vet this project and all of the incentives.”

He added: “If the council were to say, for instance, there were two or three pieces of that that you had discomfort with, that would then put everyone on notice that the deal may not go forward.” He said this is the purpose of today’s action, and he added that the action is non-binding.

I would suggest that since the council, with the exception of Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita), found no problems with issuing the letter of intent, it has no problems with the deal, and this is what makes the September public hearing, as Holman said, a “pointless afterthought.”

Astonishingly, the manger said while this is “not intended to be the normal process,” he said that he “kind of like it” as it gave an initial opportunity to gauge the sentiment of council members.

I’m glad the manager didn’t mention the sentiment of the public, as with little notice as to the content of the deal and its incentives, citizens had no meaningful opportunity to prepare.

An example of the contorted logic council members use to justify their action: Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) explained that issuing letters of intent is a common practice in real estate deals. He confused, however, agreements made between private parties and those where government is a party. Private parties can voluntarily enter into whatever agreements they want. But agreements with government are governed by laws. Yesterday, the city council announced its intent to do something for which it is required to hold a public hearing. That didn’t violate the letter of the law, but it certainly goes against its spirit and meaning. Longwell said he has no problem with that.

Their bureaucratic enablers helped out, too. Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President Jeff Fluhr, in his testimony, said we are working towards becoming a “city of distinction.” That we are, indeed — a city distinguished by lack of respect for the rule of law and its disregard for citizens in favor of special interests.

A few observations from the meeting follow.

Public investment

In response to a question from the mayor, Allen Bell, Wichita’s Director of Urban Development, said that the ratio of private dollars to public dollars for this project is about 2.2 to 1. Whether these numbers are correct is doubtful. It will take an analysis of the deal to determine the true numbers, and the details have been available for only a short time. But if correct, this ratio falls well short of the stated goals. Two years ago, when agitation for a new round of downtown planing started, boosters spoke of a ratio of 15 to 1. Eventually planners promised a ratio of 5 to 1 private to public investment for downtown. This project, while of course is just a single project and not the entirety of downtown development, doesn’t reach half that goal.

Order of events and media coverage

During the meeting, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) conceded that “the order of events is confusing.”

Before that, Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) claimed that there had been much media coverage of the proposed hotel, and that the public was actually getting two opportunities to talk about this project. She said that the media had published information about today’s meeting and the public hearing on September 13th.

Miller is gravely mistaken. Until a Wichita Eagle article on Saturday, I saw no mention of the letter of intent, and no detail of the form of subsidies to be considered for this project. The city’s list of legal notices contains no mention of the action that was taken at this meeting.

Questions not answered

During my remarks to the council, I related how last year the Wichita Eagle alleged that David Burk, the managing member of this project — and I quote here: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

This Eagle article and a companion article went on to quote these people as having trouble with and being concerned, to varying degrees, with Burk’s acts: City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf; City Council member Jeff Longwell; City Council Member Lavonta Williams, now serving as vice mayor; then-Vice Mayor Jim Skelton, now on the Sedgwick County Commission; and City Manager Robert Layton.

In particular, the manager said, according to the Eagle, that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.’”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. Despite the fact that nearly all the property taxes Burk pays directly enriches himself and only him, he still doesn’t want to pay them. And according to the Wichita Eagle — not me — he engaged in deception in order to reduce them.

None of the four people in the council chambers — Rebenstorf, Longwell, Williams, and Layton — explained their apparent change of mind with regard to Burk’s acts.

Burk, who addressed the council immediately after I asked if he cared to explain his actions, decided to avoid the issue. In his shoes, I probably would have done the same, as there is no justification for the acts the Eagle accused him of doing. He, and his political and bureaucratic enablers in Wichita city hall, have to hope this issue fades.

Campaign contributions

Council member O’Donnell asked about a parking garage to be built at a cost of $6 million to the city: Will the city be putting this project out to competitive bid? Bell replied no, that is the developer’s request. City attorney Rebenstorf added that there is a charter ordinance that exempts these types of projects from bidding requirements.

O’Donnell said that awarding the construction contract to a company that has made campaign contributions to all council members (except him) “seems a little questionable.”

The company in question is Key Construction. Its principals regularly appear on campaign finance reports, making the maximum allowed contribution to a wide variety of candidates. Similarly, Burke and his wife also frequently make the maximum contribution to city hall candidates.

O’Donnell is correct to publicize these contributions. They emit a foul odor. In our political system, many people make contributions to candidates whose ideology they agree with, be it conservative, liberal, or something else.

But Burk and others routinely make the maximum contribution to all — or nearly all — candidates, even those with widely varying political stances. How can someone explain Burk’s (and his wife’s) contributions to liberals like Miller and Williams, and also to conservatives like Longwell, Meitzner, and former council member Sue Schlapp?

The answer is that Schlapp and Longwell, despite their proclamations of fiscal conservatism, have shown themselves to be willing to vote for any form of developer welfare Burk and others have asked for. They create tangled webs of tortured logic to explain their votes. Meitzner, along with his fellow new council member James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita), seems to be following the same path.

Several council members and the mayor took exception to O’Donnell’s raising of this matter. Clendenin, for his part, objected and said that the public has had over 30 days to consider and take exception with this project. This contention, like Miller’s, isn’t supported by any facts that I am aware of. It appears that the first mention of any of the details of the plan and the subsidies is contained in a MAPC agenda that appears to have been created on July 29. Besides not being 30 days in advance, the MAPC agenda is an obscure place to release what Clendenin believes is adequate public notice.

Regarding the issue of campaign contributions, the mayor — without mentioning his name — strongly criticized O’Donnell for bringing up this matter. Many people watching this meeting felt that the extreme reaction of Brewer and others to O’Donnell’s observation reveals a certain uneasiness regarding these contributions. I don’t believe the mayor and council members are taking illegal bribes, although when any city is enriching people with millions of dollars of developer welfare there is always that threat, and in some cities and states such practices are commonplace.

The fact remains, however, that there is a small group of campaign contributors who — over and over — ask for and receive largess from city hall.

The mayor’s criticisms

In his comments, Mayor Brewer accused opponents of providing only partial facts about matters, because the full facts did not support their case. He was referring to my remarks that a lawsuit brought against the city by a party who felt the city had reneged on a letter of intent was litigated all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court. In my remarks I didn’t mention who won that case — the city did — and the mayor believes this is an example of slanting the facts.

The mayor went on to make accusations of “grandstanding” from some of the public and “some council members” because there are cameras in the council chambers. He mentioned that news media are present at every meeting and that council meetings are broadcast on television.

The mayor should take notice, however, that most people who care about public affairs and policy are severely disappointed with news media coverage of city hall events. The resources of news gathering agencies, especially newspapers, are severely depleted as compared to the past. In my coverage of a talk given by former Wichita Eagle editor Davis Merritt, I wrote this: “A question that I asked is whether the declining resources of the Wichita Eagle might create the danger that local government officials feel they can act under less scrutiny, or is this already happening? Merritt replied that this has been going on for some time. ‘The watchdog job of journalism is incredibly important and is terribly threatened.’ When all resources go to cover what must be covered — police, accidents, etc. — there isn’t anything left over to cover what should be covered. There are many important stories that aren’t being covered because the ‘boots aren’t on the street anymore,’ he said.” See Former Wichita Eagle editor addresses journalism, democracy, May 11, 2009.

In addition, Bill Wilson, the reporter the Wichita Eagle sent to cover the meeting, has a documented bias against the concept of free markets, and against those who believe in them.

The mayor, when delivering his criticism, does not use the names of those he criticizes. It would be useful if he did, but it would mean he has to take greater accountability for his remarks.

Following are links to excerpts of testimony from the meeting — perhaps examples of the “grandstanding” the mayor complained about: John Todd, Shirley Koehn, and Bob Weeks.

Despite allegations, Wichita’s Dave Burk remains favored

As Wichita proceeds with the redevelopment of its downtown, one developer seems to be on the cutting edge of harvesting corporate welfare — despite his past behavior. Last year this person, Dave Burk of Marketplace Properties, acted in a way the Wichita Eagle described as deceptive in order to reduce his property taxes. Yet, Burk remains a favored developer at city hall, and he’s soon going to ask taxpayers to pay higher taxes for his benefit. These are the same taxes he himself doesn’t like to pay. The following article from February 2010 explains.

Today’s Wichita Eagle contains a story about a well-known Wichita real estate developer that, while shocking, shouldn’t really be all that unexpected.

The opening sentence of the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property) tells us most of what we need to know: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

Some might say it’s not surprising that Burk represented himself in the way the Eagle article reports. When a person’s been on the receiving end of so much city hall largess, it’s an occupational hazard.

And when you’ve been the beneficiary of so much Wichita taxpayer money, you might even begin to think that you shouldn’t have to pay so much tax anymore.

At the state level, you might seek over a million dollars of taxpayer money to help you renovate an apartment building.

Burk has certainly laid the groundwork, at least locally. A registered Republican voter, Burk regularly stocks the campaign coffers of Wichita city council members with contributions. These contributions — at least for city council candidates — are apparently made without regard to the political leanings of the candidates. How else can we explain recent contributions made to two city council members who are decidedly left of center: Lavonta Williams and Janet Miller? Burk and his wife made contributions to their campaigns in the maximum amount allowed by law.

This is especially puzzling in light of Burk’s contributions to campaigns at the federal level. There, a search at the Federal Election Commission shows a single contribution of $250 to Todd Tiahrt in 2005.

It’s quite incongruous that someone would contribute to Tiahrt, Williams, and Miller. Except Williams and Miller can — and have — cast votes that directly enrich Burk. Politicians at the federal level don’t have the same ability to do that as do Wichita city council members. Well, at least not considering Wichita city business.

So which is it: is Burk a believer in Republican principles, a believer in good government, or someone who knows where his next taxpayer handout will come from?

Burk’s enablers — these include Wichita’s lobbyist Dale Goter, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation president Jeff Fluhr and chairman Larry Weber, Wichita City Manager Robert Layton, Wichita economic development chief Allen Bell, and most importantly Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and various city council members — now have to decide if they want to continue in their efforts to enrich Burk. Continuing to do so will harm their reputations. The elected officials, should they run for office again, will have to explain their actions to voters.

At the state level, the bill that will enrich Burk will likely be voted on in the Kansas Senate this week. Then, similar action may take place in the Kansas House of Representatives. Let’s hope they read the Wichita Eagle in Topeka.

Wichita and its political class

The discussion at yesterday’s Wichita City Council meeting provided an opportunity for citizens to discover the difference in the thinking of the political class and those who value limited government and capitalism.

At issue was Mid-Continent Instruments, Inc., which asked the city for a forgivable loan of $10,000. It received the same last week from Sedgwick County. According to city documents, the State of Kansas through its Department of Commerce is also contributing $503,055 in forgivable loans, sales tax exemptions, training grants, and tax credits.

At the city council meeting Clinton Coen, a young man who ran for city council earlier this year, spoke against this measure, which he called corporate welfare.

In response to Coen, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, south and southeast Wichita) asked if we should ignore companies that want to do business here, or should we allow them to leave? Implicit in the question is that the threat dangled by Mid-Continent is real: that unless the city gives them $10,000, they will expand somewhere else. How citizens and council members feel about this issue largely depends on their perceived genuineness of this threat.

When Coen recommended that the city cut spending, Clendenin said “I can guarantee you, from what I have seen, this city government has cut a tremendous amount of spending.” When pressed by Coen for examples of cuts, he demurred. Clendenin also said that the $10,000 is needed to show the city’s commitment to the company.

Perhaps coming to the rescue of her younger and less experienced colleague, Council Member Janet Miller asked City Manager Bob Layton how much has been cut from the budget, and he replied “we’ve cut over $20 million in the general fund over three years.”

In saying that, Layton is using the language and mind-set of bureaucrats and politicians. In this world, it’s a cut if spending does not rise as fast as planned or hoped for. As you can see from the accompanying chart, Wichita general fund spending has not been cut in recent years. It has risen in each of the last three years, and plans are for it to keep rising.

Wichita general fund spending

This illustrates a divide between the thinking of the political class and regular people. Blurring the distinction between plans and reality lets politicians and bureaucrats present a fiscally responsible image — they cut the budget, after all — and increase spending at the same time. It’s a message that misinforms citizens about the important facts.

Miller also praised the return on investment the city receives for its spending on economic development, citing Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research and the cost-benefit calculations it performs. These calculations take the cost of providing the incentives and compare it to the returns the city and other governmental entities receive.

What is rarely mentioned, and what I think most people would be surprised to learn, is that the “returns” used in these calculations is manifested in the form of increased tax revenue. It’s not like in the private sector, where business firms attempt to increase their sales and profits by providing a product or service that people willingly buy. No, the city increases its revenue (we can’t call it profit) by collecting more taxes.

It’s another difference between the political class and everyone else: The political class craves tax revenue.

Aside from this, the cost-benefit calculations for the city don’t include the entire cost. The cost doesn’t include the county’s contribution, the majority of which comes from residents of its largest city, which is Wichita. Then, there’s the half-million in subsidy from the state, with a large portion of that paid for by the people of Wichita.

But even if you believe these calculations, there’s the problem of right-sizing the investment. If an investment of $10,000 has such glowing returns — last week Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton called the decision a “no-brainer” — why can’t we invest more? If we really believe this investment is good, we should wonder why the city council and county commission are so timid.

Since the applicant company is located in his district, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), praised the company and the state’s incentives, and made a motion to approve the forgivable loan. All council members except Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) voted yes.

Going forward

While the political class praises these subsidies and the companies that apply for them, not many are willing to confront the reality of the system we’re creating. Some, like O’Donnell and Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau, have recognized that when government is seen as eager to grant these subsidies, it prompts other companies to apply. The lure of a subsidy may cause them to arrange their business affairs so as to conform — or appear to conform — to the guidelines government has for its various subsidy programs. Companies may do this without regard to underlying economic wisdom.

We also need to recognize that besides simple greed for public money, businesses have another reason to apply for these subsidies: If a publicly-traded company doesn’t seek them, its shareholders would wonder why the company didn’t exercise its fiduciary duty to do so. But this just perpetuates the system, and so increasing amounts of economic development fall under the direction of government programs.

While most people see this rise in corporate welfare as harmful — I call it a moral hazard — the political class is pleased with this arrangement. As Meitzner said in making his motion, he was proud that Wichita “won out” over the other city Mid-Continent Instruments considered moving to.

Another harmful effect of these actions is to create a reputation for having an uncompetitive business environment. Not only must businesses of all types pay for the cost of these subsidies, some face direct competition by a government-subsidized competitor. This is the situation Wichita-area hotels face as a result of the city granting millions in subsidy to a hotel developer to build a Fairfield Inn downtown.

Even those not in direct competition face increased costs as they attempt to hire labor, buy supplies, and seek access to capital in competition with government-subsidized firms. Could this uneven competitive landscape be a factor that business firms consider in deciding where to locate and invest?

We can expect to see more government intervention in economic development and more corporate welfare. Former council member Sue Schlapp in April took a job with the Kansas Department of Commerce. Her job title is “senior constituent liaison,” which I think can be better described as “customer service agent for the corporate welfare state.” Her office is in Wichita city hall.

Increasingly we see politicians and bureaucrats making decisions based on incorrect and misleading information, such as claiming that the city’s general fund budget has been cut when spending has increased. Sometimes they are fed incorrect information, as in the case of a presentation at Sedgwick County Commission that bordered on fraudulent.

Sometimes, I think, officeholders just don’t care. It’s easiest to go along with the flow and not raise ripples. They participate in groundbreakings and get their photograph in the newspaper and on television that way. Which brings up an important question: why do none of our city’s mainstream media outlets report on these matters?

Kansas governor releases economic development plan

Yesterday Kansas Governor Sam Brownback released his plan for economic growth and development in Kansas. Drawing on free market principles and relying less on government intervention, the plan calls for a departure from present practices, especially the heavy-handed methods cities like Wichita use.

Brownback’s plan would transform Kansas’ approach to economic development. Currently the approach of the state and most of its cities and counties is to go after the “big deal.” This typically lures a large employer to Kansas through the use of various incentives. Or, as we have seen recently with the Hawker Beechcraft deal, incentives may be used to keep a company from leaving Kansas, even if that company is downsizing.

This last deal is especially troubling for the state’s future. Wichita State University professor H. Edward Flentje recently sounded a note of caution on deals like Hawker Beechcraft: “The result diverts millions in limited taxpayer funds, primarily state income-tax revenues, from state coffers to a company’s benefit, simply to have an existing business stay put.” Flentje wrote that there are more than 500 Kansas businesses now eligible for state assistance just like Hawker.

It is breaking this cycle of dependency on the “deal” that the governor’s plan calls for. Instead of the state targeting industries or specific companies, Kansas should seek to establish a strategy that is simple, fair, and of high capacity. I believe that for this strategy to work, Kansas cities and counties will need to follow the plan, too.

Productivity and growth, not just jobs

Right away the governor’s plan calls for prosperity through productivity: “A sound economic development process enhances prosperity through enhanced business-sector productivity.” This is in contrast to the economic development efforts of most governments, including that of the City of Wichita. There, the focus is on jobs, with capital investment a lesser factor.

The plan identifies two fundamental roles for government to play. First, the state should create an environment that “motivates as much risk-taking and competition as possible in the context of a ‘level playing field.’” Second, it must do this effectively and efficiently, leaving as many resources in the private sector as possible.

Key concepts in the plan are risk taking, economic competition, business experimentation, and trial and error. These activities are important, the plan says, because they will lead to increased economic productivity, which is what produces prosperity for Kansans. This is what the economic development policies of Kansas need to promote, says the plan: “The more that Kansas’ economic development environment motivates each entrepreneur and business to engage in the trial and error process, the more the Kansas economy will generate economic opportunity for Kansas families.”

But the state’s policies don’t promote this environment: “Yet Kansas economic development policy tends to work as if only a small sub-set of entrepreneurs or businesses matter.” Current policies attempt to find the right technologies and companies for the state to invest economic development resources in. The criteria for determining winners are often job count and wage levels. Winners are rewarded at the expense of non-winners.

Instead of this approach — which is common in most states and cities — the plan recommends a different policy: “Dedicate human and financial resources to promoting maximum experimentation through volume and diversity.” Also: “Establish stable policies that treat all investments and businesses equally, thereby liberating resources from the costly and economically dubious task of targeting.”

The plan is critical of selective efforts and in favor of broad-based strategy, especially in taxation: “A more uniform business tax policy that treats all businesses equally rather than the current set of rules and laws that give great benefit to a few (through heavily bureaucratic programs) and zero benefit to many.”

The plan emphasizes promoting as much diversity as possible. The current strategy of attracting large employers is not wise: “In fact, research indicates that economic development strategies based on the recruitment of large employers tends to have negative effects over the long run. One of the best predictors of future economic growth for metropolitan areas is the average employment size of business establishments: larger average sizes are typically associated with slower future growth.”

Measures of success of economic development efforts include jobs, although the plan cautions that “job creation is a result that derives from profitable business births and expansions.” Other factors are income growth, population density and migration, productivity growth, capital investment, and gross business starts and expansions.

The plan creates a council of economic advisers and coordinate the actions of seven different agencies that work in the field of economic development. It also calls for funding of certain university research programs.

The plan is not totally free-market in its approach. It retains PEAK, which lets companies that meet criteria retain their employees’ withholding taxes. But are we certain we can identify which companies are worthy of this subsidy? There will also be a fund that can be used to “close a deal on a prime economic growth opportunity.” Brownback’s “rural opportunity zones” are also included, which offer income tax breaks and student loan paydowns for people moving into counties that have experienced large population decline.

Cities like Wichita will need to change, adapt

The governor’s plan calls for economic development strategies very different from what most cities and counties pursue. As an example, at the most recent meeting of the Wichita City Council, the council approved forgivable loan agreements for two companies that are adding jobs. These loans amount to grants of money, providing that the companies meet specified employment goals. The loans were not the only form of subsidy. One company is slated to receive forgiveness from paying property tax for up to ten years, and both received grants and tax credits from the state under existing economic development programs.

At the meeting, Mayor Carl Brewer offered a defense of the city’s economic development policy (click here for video), saying that if Wichita doesn’t offer targeted incentives, other cities will. “If we don’t stay in the game and do whatever is necessary to be able to protect our jobs, protect our citizens, then we’re going to lose out on this entire thing. Times are changing. 20 years ago individuals weren’t even thinking about providing incentives to various different corporations. And now it appears that every place that we go, we seeing that everyone’s doing it. … That’s a reality of things. The dynamics and the field that we all have to play on is continuing to change.” He urged his critics to look at the larger picture, rather than just the action the council is taking today.

Council member Janet Miller also defended the city’s policy, saying that companies either qualify for incentives or they don’t, based on established criteria. She cited Wichita State University figures that support the incentives as providing an economic return to the city.

If cities continue to offer targeted incentives that are at odds with the governor’s plan, what will be the outcome? It doesn’t seem as though the two approaches are compatible. Many of the programs that cities use to offer targeted incentives — industrial revenue bonds (IRB), tax increment financing (TIF), community improvement districts (CID), and others — are creations of the legislature. It and the governor have the power to control their use — if there is political will to do so.

North Dakota TIF video reminiscent of Wichita

The North Dakota Policy Council has a video on YouTube that explains the mechanics of tax increment financing (TIF) districts and the public policy problems associated with TIF.

The video is presented in three sections. The material in the first section is different from the way TIF districts work in Kansas, but the other two sections are very similar to the way the law works in Kansas.

At the start of part 3 (“Problems with TIFs”) the narrator states the problem succinctly: “Tax increment financing negatively affects everybody’s property tax bill by taking the tax revenue from increased taxable valuations on the properties in the TIF areas and putting that into TIF accounts.”

She then presents an illustration showing how the property taxes for non-TIF properties have to rise to make up for the fact that taxes from TIF properties do not go towards paying for city, county, or school district services. While Wichita doesn’t use the term “TIF accounts” as used in this video, the economic effect is the same.

The video also mentions politically-favored developers being the beneficiaries of TIF districts, specifically mentioning “a friend of the city who might own property that is struggling.” I wonder: is the North Dakota Policy Council aware of the situation in Wichita, where many feel that the city has bailed out Real Development (also known as the “Minnesota Guys”) by not only granting TIF financing to them, but increasing the amount of TIF financing against the recommendation of its independent consultant?

Compounding the problem is the obvious lack of understanding of the economic effects of TIF districts by members of the Wichita City Council, and possibly by city hall bureaucrats, too. Wichita vice mayor Jeff Longwell has complained to the Wichita Eagle that the public doesn’t understand tax increment financing. We should be questioning Longwell’s own understanding, and that of council member Janet Miller, too.

Longwell and Miller — the rest of the council too, for that matter — are aided by newspaper reporters like the Wichita Eagle’s Bill Wilson, who is dismissive and hostile towards free markets and those who advocate for them, calling reliance on markets “intellectually shallow” and a “thin ideological argument.”

Wichita Old Town TIF district illustrates cost and harm of subsidy

At this week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council there was an item of good news: the closing of the Old Town tax increment financing, or TIF, district. But the expressed attitude of city council members towards TIF districts indicates that citizens must be concerned that the council will attempt to use this harmful form of developer and corporate welfare in the future.

Citizens need to be made aware of the uninformed and misinformed views of council members, particularly Janet Miller, who was the primary speaker on this item Tuesday. Most of the other city council members, however, also share these views, even those who consider themselves conservative and opposed to intervention in the economy.

While Miller expressed a correct view of the mechanics of TIF districts, she — and the other council members too — always miss the economic meaning of these districts.

In her remarks, Miller disagreed with a citizen who said that the TIF district “helped out” the property owners in the district. Miller said: “In tax increment financing districts, it is the property owners’ taxes that they pay, that pay the cost of the public improvements in that area. … The taxes that they paid in on their increased valuations in property have paid for the improvements.”

She also said that with careful planning the community benefits from TIF districts, and that we should look forward to “future great things that are going to come from this kind of initiative and creativity.”

It’s quite easy to see the mistakes and fallacies in Miller’s remarks. Do TIF districts help out the favored developers? Of course they do. Why else would the city create them?

A typical scenario is that a developer has an idea to build something, but claims a “gap” between the financial resources at their disposal and what the project costs. City staff checks the developer’s arithmetic and agrees. So the city creates a TIF district, and the project is able to proceed.

So the TIF financing filled the gap. How can this be interpreted as doing anything but helping the developer?

The city and council members like Jeff Longwell regularly claim that TIF districts don’t cost the city anything. We can easily see the errors in this thinking. Over the past 17 years, did Old Town require any attention from the police department? Of course it did. Old Town consumes vast police resources. In 2008 Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams was quoted in the pages of the Wichita Eagle: “Williams said that as Old Town changed from a warehouse district to an entertainment district, it has presented a ‘tremendous challenge’ to public safety.”

As was brought forth in Tuesday’s city council meeting, Old Town does pay some property taxes that go into the city’s general fund and can be used to pay for the police protection that Old Town requires. The valuation before the TIF district was formed was said to be $1 million dollars. Now it’s $9 million. So the city’s general fund has received taxes on $1 million in property valuation to pay for all the services Old Town requires. The property taxes paid on the other $8 million in valuation are directed back to the district for the benefit of the property owners.

So yes, TIF districts like Old Town do cost the city. Someone has to pay for the cost of police protection and other government services in Old Town. Its property taxes don’t even come close.

That’s what the city council doesn’t understand (or maybe it does, see below): The entire purpose of TIF districts is to benefit the property in the district.

How TIF districts benefit recipients

Here’s how it works. When using tax increment financing, a geographic district is formed. The property taxes being paid by a property in the district at the time of formation is noted and called the base. Usually this property is not very valuable, so this base is a low value. In the case of Old Town, it was $1 million.

Then a development plan is created. Based on that plan and the property taxes that the completed project will likely pay, the city will borrow money and give it to the developers. While cities like to say that TIF funds can be used only for things with a public purpose like infrastructure, this doesn’t make any difference. (If the expenditures had a truly public purpose, why wouldn’t the city pay for them without a TIF district?)

After the project is completed, the tax appraiser notices that there’s something new and valuable where there wasn’t before, and he levies a higher tax bill on the property. The difference between the original taxes — the base — and the new taxes is called the increment.

Under normal conditions when new property comes on the tax rolls, the tax revenue is used to provide public services such as police and fire protection. The school district is usually a recipient of a large portion of the new tax revenue, which might be used to pay for the schooling of residents of the new housing in the district, for example.

But in a TIF district, what happens to this new tax revenue — the increment?

Recall that the city borrowed money and gave it to the developers. The new property taxes — the increment — is used to pay off these bonds.

So council member Miller is correct, in a way. Old Town property owners paid increased property taxes.

But when these increased taxes are used to pay off bonds that exclusively benefit Old Town, how is this any different from not paying?

Consider development not in a TIF district. Developers may borrow money to build something. Then they have to make loan payments and higher tax payments.

But TIF developers pay only higher taxes. There are no loan payments, as their increased property tax payments are used to pay off the loan.

Public choice in action

I wrote earlier that the city council doesn’t understand this. It may be possible that council member Miller, the mayor, and others do understand this, but they decide to go ahead and create TIF districts and other forms of developer subsidy and welfare nonetheless.

That’s entirely possible, as TIF districts and other corporate welfare illustrate the worst aspects of public choice theory in action. In this case, we have a situation where a small group of people — the subsidized developers — have a huge and powerful motive to obtain TIF financing and other forms of subsidy. Politicians and bureaucrats want to see these things happen too, as they feel a need to justify themselves and increase their spheres of influence and power.

Average citizens may realize that these things cost them, but it’s a relatively small amount of money — certainly in contrast to the millions that subsidized developers received — so their motive to oppose them is small. This is a reason why many people don’t bother to vote.

Don’t forget that politicians want to receive campaign contributions, too. Developers who seek subsidy from city hall generally contribute to all city council members. It’s difficult to see how someone who has a political ideology — say fiscal conservatism — could contribute to all city council members. But they do.

Miller has received large amounts of campaign contributions from those who have benefited from TIF financing and other corporate welfare in the past, and who plan to benefit again in the future. She’s not alone in this regard.

Eminent domain reserved for use in Wichita

As part of the plan for the future of downtown Wichita, the city council was asked to formally disavow the use of eminent domain to take private property for the purpose of economic development. The council would not agree to this restriction.

Susan Estes noted that the legislative agenda that the city council passed earlier in the meeting supported “home rule and local control as the most valid solution for recurring legislative issues.” High on the list of these issues is eminent domain.

Estes asked that the city adopt a statement that the city will not use eminent domain to take property for someone else’s use.

Answering her, Mayor Carl Brewer said it is the council’s record not to use eminent domain. “But,” he said, the city needs that opportunity and flexibility. He said that the city has been asked by developers to use eminent domain, but they’ve resisted. Nonetheless, he described it as one of the tools that is available to the city.

Council member Janet Miller said that the Kansas legislature has placed restrictions on eminent domain, which she characterized as a prohibition.

While Miller is correct — the Kansas legislature would have to pass a statute authorizing specific use of eminent domain, and the law is now more in favor of property owners than in the past — that protection, in my opinion, is weak.

We can easily imagine a scenario where a developer — promising a grand development — wants a large tract of land, perhaps a city block or more. The mayor and others will travel to Topeka and testify that the city desperately needs the jobs and tax revenue the development will create. (Forgetting the fact that the development will probably be in a tax increment financing district and therefore not contributing increased tax revenue to the city’s general government.) The city’s lobbyist will work the halls, a case of a taxpayer-paid lobbyist working against the interest of taxpayers. The case will be made to other lawmakers that if they ever want to use eminent domain in their home towns, they’d better vote for Wichita’s request. Other forms of legislative logrolling will be in full behind-the-scenes use.

So now property owners, instead of having to contest the city’s lawyers before a judge, have to lobby the entire legislature. The case — instead of being heard in a forum where the rule of law is respected — will be contested in a political body which in many cases has shown us that it cares little for private property rights.

This was a moment in time where the city council could have taken leadership in protecting property owners from eminent domain abuse. The city — particularly Mayor Brewer and Council Member Miller — failed to grasp the importance of protecting this form of liberty and economic freedom.

Wichita trash cooperative: gateway to mandatory recycling?

Opposition to a proposed trash pickup cooperative in Wichita focuses mostly on two issues: the free market, and specific problems with the program.

Conservative city council members — Paul Gray and Sue Schlapp in this case — advocate for a free market in trash collection. I appreciate that. But it is confusing to hear them advocate for a free market in trash collection when at the same time they vote for big-spending economic development programs that don’t work.

Brent Wistrom’s Wichita Eagle article Questions pile up as Wichita eyes trash plan does a fine job of laying out the unanswered questions and issues left to be resolved — if they can be solved.

These issues are important. But here’s the biggest reason to oppose this plan: it’s a gateway to mandatory recycling in Wichita.

Recycling, while held up by its supporters as a moral imperative if we care anything about the planet, is a gigantic waste of resources. There are only a few settings in which recycling makes any sense at all. Automobiles and commercial cardboard are two such situations.

In almost any other area, recycling uses more resources than it saves, despite the claims of its proponents.

We need to look no farther than economics to learn the true value of an activity or a resource. In the case of recycling — except for the narrow examples mentioned above — most people have to pay to have their recycled goods hauled away. Or, they must incur costs themselves in hauling them somewhere that will accept them.

Yes, Waste Connections in Wichita has a recycling program that pays people to recycle. Or does it? The program works this way: First, people pay $3.75 per month for recycling bins and their pickup twice monthly. By filling the recycling bin people can earn points which they may redeem for rewards.

The roundabout approach to paying people to recycle only highlights the unfavorable economics of recycling. Why doesn’t Waste Management simply pay people for their recycled goods? Or why don’t they pick them up for free?

The fact that Waste Management won’t engage in a straightforward transaction with its recycling customers allows the company to appear to be politically correct towards recycling, while at the same time escaping the fact that household recycling simply does not pay. Here’s Daniel K. Benjamin explaining the economics of curbside recycling in Eight Great Myths of Recycling:

The numbers I have presented here avoid these problems and make clear that, far from saving resources, curbside recycling typically wastes resources — resources that could be used productively elsewhere in society.

Indeed, a moment’s reflection will suggest why this finding must be true. In the ordinary course of everyday living, we reuse (and sometimes recycle) almost everything that plays a role in our daily consumption activities. The only things that intentionally end up in municipal solid waste — the trash — are both low in value and costly to reuse or recycle. Yet these are the items that municipal recycling programs are targeting, the very things that people have already decided are too worthless or too costly to deal with further. This simple fact that means that the vast bulk of all curbside recycling programs must waste resources: All of the profitable, socially productive, wealth-enhancing opportunities for recycling were long ago co-opted by the private sector.

Commercial and industrial recycling is a vibrant, profitable market that turns discards and scraps into marketable products. But collecting from consumers is far more costly, and it results in the collection of items that are far less valuable. Only disguised subsidies and accounting tricks can prevent the municipal systems from looking as bad as they are.

That’s right: The sober assessment of the price system is that in the context of households, recycling is a waste of resources. Although if people want to pursue it as a pastime or hobby, I have no objection.

Nonetheless, supporters of recycling such as Wichita City Council member Janet Miller still believe in the false moral imperative of recycling. At last week’s workshop on Wichita trash, she said “There is only a finite amount of space on earth to bury stuff. At some point there’s not going to be any more room to bury stuff.”

The fact is that landfills occupy a minuscule fraction of available space. We have plenty of space for trash.

But the misinformed or uninformed attitude of Miller and a few others on the council — and maybe some bureaucrats too — is that recycling activity by Wichitans must increase, no matter how much of a waste of time it is.

Answer this question: once Wichita has a mandatory, city-controlled and city-regulated trash pickup process in place, what’s to stop city hall from mandating that we recycle?

Nothing, as far as I can tell.

That’s the best reason for opposing takeover of our trash system by the city.

For downtown Wichita, Mayor Brewer has a vision

In Sunday’s Wichita Eagle, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer penned a piece that states his belief in the importance of downtown and prepares the people of Wichita for the start of a prescriptive planning process, with accompanying subsidy to politically-favored developers willing to fulfill the plan.

The mayor used the word “vibrant” twice. Asking citizens a question like “Would you like to have a vibrant downtown?” is meaningless. Who doesn’t? It’s only when the question is accompanied by context that citizens can start to understand how they should answer.

For example, in the mayor’s article, he mentions the use of special assessment financing that funded suburban infrastructure, and that this is not sufficient for downtown needs. This statement reveals a misunderstanding by the mayor about the various forms of financing that might be used to help development.

Special assessment financing means that the city spends money to build something, like the new street to serve a site where someone wants to build a house or a shopping center. The cost of this street, plus interest, is added to the property’s tax bill over a period of years. The property owner doesn’t get anything for free.

But in the forms of financing that the mayor and city hall planners favor for downtown, developers do get something for free. Under tax increment financing (TIF), developers get to use their property taxes to pay for the same infrastructure that everyone else has to pay for. That’s because in TIF, the increment in property taxes are used to pay off bonds that were issued for the exclusive benefit of a development. Or, as in the case with a new form of TIF called pay-as-you-go, the increment in property taxes are simply given back to the developer. (Which leads to the question: why even pay at all?)

Some deny that TIF directly enriches the developer. They’ll make arguments such as “it’s only used for infrastructure and eligible expenses” or “it’s not lending, it’s bonding” or “it wouldn’t happen but for TIF” or the biggest lie: TIF doesn’t have any cost. But despite these claims, TIF has a cost, and it does directly enrich the developer. That’s its entire purpose; its reason for being. If TIF didn’t enrich the developer, how does it change something that is claimed to be not economically feasible into something that is?

While city leaders say that public participation in the revitalization of downtown is to be limited, we should be cautious and skeptical. Goody Clancy planners have said that public participation will be limited to TIF. This is bad in its own right and should be opposed on its merits.

We need to be skeptical of the mayor and downtown planners because there isn’t enough TIF money available to do what they want to do. I fully expect a citywide sales tax, probably in the amount of one cent per dollar, to be proposed for the benefit of downtown subsidized developers. City leaders speak fondly of such a tax that Oklahoma City has used for many years.

City leaders have already shown themselves to be not averse to imposing additional sales taxes in Wichitans and our visitors, having granted several Community Improvement Districts the ability to charge up to an additional two cents per dollar sales tax. This means that when visitors check out of the Fairfield Inn in downtown Wichita, they’ll be faced with a sales tax rate of 9.3 percent. That’s in addition to the six percent guest tax, which in the case of this hotel is collected for the exclusive benefit of itself, rather than funding general government and tourism activities.

More community improvement districts are in the works. Wichita may soon be peppered with them.

No faith in free markets means no faith in people

The unwillingness of Wichita city leaders to let Wichitans freely decide where they live, and Wichita businesses freely decide where to locate, is a sign of lack of confidence in free markets and the people of Wichita. Because Wichitans do not choose to live and locate their business firms where politicians like Carl Brewer and Janet Miller — to name just two — and city hall bureaucrats like Wichita city manager Bob Layton and Wichita economic development director Allen Bell want them to, they deliver a slap in the face. It appears in the form of a vision backed up by planning, regulation, and the power to dish out favorable tax treatment, as outlined above.

Once formed, a vision is a powerful force. Randal O’Toole, author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future has written about visionaries and government planning:

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

An example of planning that many see as having gone wrong is the government planning that led to growth on the city’s fringes. An example that helped make this possible is the government’s decision to build the northeast expressway also known as K-96. Acts of government like this are claimed to have caused the demise of downtown, the very situation that planners now want to correct.

With government making “mistakes” (their claim, not mine) like this on a grand scale, why are we willing to trust that politicians and bureaucrats are making correct decisions now? Especially when you look at the campaign finance reports of most city council members and see the same names giving repeatedly to all council members, with these same names appearing repeatedly before the council asking for their subsidy. This is not a decision making process that gives citizens confidence.

It bears repeating: the existence of the downtown planning process tells Wichitans they’ve made a mistake in where they chose to buy a home or build a business. Not only will Wichitans have to pay for what they freely chose, they’re going to be asked to pay again so that those with purportedly superior vision can have their way.

Wichita Bowllagio hearing produces only delay

Yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council featured a lengthy public hearing for a proposed west-side entertainment development known as Bowllagio. Bowllagio is planned to have a bowling and entertainment center, a boutique hotel, and a restaurant owned by a celebrity television chef.

The developers of this project propose to make use of $13 million in STAR bond financing. STAR bonds are issued for the immediate benefit of the developers, with the sales tax collected in the district used to pay off the bonds. The project also proposes to be a Community Improvement District, which allows an additional two cents per dollar to be collected in sales tax, again for the benefit of the district.

The Kansas STAR bond process calls for several steps: First, a local governing body, like the City of Wichita, must approve the concept and set boundaries for the project. This is what yesterday’s agenda item called for. If approved by the council, the Kansas Secretary of Commerce would examine the project to see if it meets statutory criteria. If the Secretary approves the project, the city is then required to prepare a project plan and hold another public hearing concerning whether to adopt the project plan. The project plan must be passed by a two-thirds supermajority of the council.

One of the elements of the project plan, according to the 2010 Kansas Legislator Briefing Book, is a “marketing study conducted to examine the impact of the special bond project on similar businesses in the projected market area.” The effect of Bowllagio on existing Wichita-area businesses was a major source of concern for both council members and citizens speaking at the public hearing.

Speaking during the public hearing, Ray Baty, who is manager of a Wichita bowling center, said Bowllagio is not a new concept, but rather one that would compete with existing programs already in Wichita. The C.A.T.S. system, a training system promoted by Bowllagio developers, is actually a portable system, Baty said.

He contended that introduction of Bowllagio to the market will not grow the market for bowling, but will further divide the existing market, resulting in a loss of revenue and profit for existing bowling centers. He said that bowling centers lose six percent of their customers each year, a trend that he said is national.

Frank DeSocio, owner of several bowling centers in Wichita, told the council that the bowling training promoted by Bowllagio developers already happens in Wichita at the present. He mentioned five full-time bowling teachers and coaches already working in Wichita bowling centers.

He added that Wichita does very well in obtaining and hosting tournaments, mentioning 17 PBA live televised tournaments that took place in Wichita, 10 regional events, a BPA womens’ open, six intercollegiate championships that were televised live, and numerous Kansas state high school championships.

“Everything the Maxwell Group [developer of Bowllagio] claims they want to do is already being done in Wichita by the current bowling centers,” qualifying that he’s speaking only of the bowling side of the Bowllagio proposal, not the restaurants.

In my remarks to the council, I mentioned that Wichita has had examples of restaurants or other establishments being announced — sometimes by the mayor in his annual state of the city address — but then the development failed to materialize. I expressed concern that we might commit to a large amount of STAR bond financing based on big plans that never advance beyond some small initial stage.

Susan Estes told the council that “this is an extremely profound day” for the City of Wichita. She asked will the city help one business owner over another business owner in the same industry? She said that Bowllagio has some unique aspects, but it is a bowling alley. Its other entertainment features are also available in Wichita. We are using tax money to compete against existing businesses, she said.

In response to a question by a homeowner in the project area, the mayor, indicating he believed he speaks for the council, said the council would not support using eminent domain to remove the homeowner from his home.

During discussion by council members, a subject of controversy was whether approving project boundaries and forwarding the application to the Secretary of Commerce constitutes an endorsement of the project by the City of Wichita. Some council members wanted to pass an ordinance that would establish the boundaries of the district, and then have the Secretary decide whether the project meets the statutory requirements for a STAR bond project. Wichita economic development director Allen Bell mentioned that the council’s endorsement of the project might be a factor the Secretary would consider in determining whether to approve the project.

A question from Council Member Lavonta Williams elicited Bell’s further opinion that the Secretary is “looking for a signal from the council” regarding its support for the project. Lack of local support, he added, would be taken in a “negative way.” Council Member Paul Gray agreed with this assessment.

Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell disagreed, saying that all the Secretary needs is a geographic boundary for the proposed project. He contended that the process starts with setting the boundaries, and that other questions are difficult or impossible to answer without doing this. There are too many unknowns, he added, to give this project a formal endorsement at this time.

Longwell also mentioned a report that showed that the south-central region of Kansas, which includes Wichita, receives fewer state economic development funds, relative to population, than the northeast Kansas region. He said we needed to “equal the playing field.”

Longwell said he didn’t want to put together a package that would harm existing businesses, saying he wouldn’t vote for the project if an independent study showed that result would happen.

Council Member Jim Skelton asked about the property taxes the development would pay. Bell replied that the property taxes should increase by a large amount, as the land is vacant now and is planned to receive $95 million of development. He said that while STAR bonds and Community Improvement District financing is proposed for this development, the plan does not include property tax abatements, industrial revenue bonds, tax increment financing, or any other diversion of property taxes.

Council Member Janet Miller asked if the Kansas STAR bond statutes prohibited adding these other types of incentives to the project. The answer, according to Bell, is that these programs could be added on to this development, as has been done in some Kansas STAR bond districts.

Later Miller referred to the “lack of information to make an education decision about the project.” She wondered why the developers would not spend “one-tenth of one percent of their $50 million dollar investment” ($50,000) to produce the studies that would give the council the information it needs to decide whether to send the project to the Secretary of Commerce with its support.

When City Manager Bob Layton suggested a delay to gather more information from the developers, council members readily agreed. Layton said that city staff will visit with the developers, looking for an approach that will make council members comfortable with proceeding, addressing some of the information needs expressed today.

Due to scheduling, Layton said that this matter would need to appear on next week’s agenda, or there would be a one month delay before it could be considered at a council meeting.

The council voted unanimously to defer the item for one week, and to keep open the public hearing.

Analysis

An important issue to many council members is the potential harmful affect of Bowllagio on existing businesses, particularly bowling centers. Miller’s suggestion that the developers spend the money to have an independent assessment of this performed is entirely sensible.

But I don’t think a study of that scope can be performed in one week. As it is now, the city will probably rely on information provided by the developers. It must be recognized that they have a $13 million incentive to produce information favorable to their cause. In his remarks, Gray recognized that proof that Bowllagio will not harm existing businesses will not come from “somebody advocating for the project.” It would require a third-party, independent analysis, he said.

As of now, it is difficult to see how information that will satisfy council members can be produced by next week’s meeting.

In my opinion, the local bowling center operators are justifiably concerned that a subsidized competitor will harm their business. They were able to show that many of the purportedly unique aspects of the Bowllagio concept are already available in Wichita, and have been for some time.

Further, it’s not only direct competitors such as bowling centers that we need to be concerned for. Since the development is proposed to include a Mexican restaurant, what will its impact be on existing Mexican restaurants? And not only restaurants offering that cuisine, but all other restaurants?

In a broader sense, a subsidized business competes with all other businesses in the market for employees and other goods and services that all business firms purchase.

Longwell’s contention that we can still “kill” the project at a later date if reports come back showing negative impact on local businesses is, in my opinion, an empty promise. If the Kansas Secretary of Commerce approves this project, it would be very difficult for the council to vote against Wichita receiving $13 million in state tax dollars, especially in light of Longwell’s argument that the Wichita area doesn’t receive nearly enough of this economic development money.

While council members such as Schlapp say they’re in favor of free markets, she and the other council members nearly always vote in favor of intervention in markets. The fact that the city council members have so many questions about the proposal tells us that this plan is, in fact, a form of centralized planning by government.

As I remarked to the council, developments such as this are portrayed as a success story, in that someone has confidence in Wichita because they’re investing here. But I wonder why these people won’t invest in Wichita unless they receive millions in payments or tax forgiveness from the city, county, school board, and/or state.

Aren’t the real heroes in Wichita the people — many of them small business owners — who invest in Wichita without the benefit of TIF districts, tax abatements, STAR bonds, or other forms of subsidy or incentive?

These people, besides facing subsidized competition, additionally have to pay the taxes that make the subsidies to others possible.

Regarding the mayor’s statement that eminent domain will not be supported for this project: Kansas law does not prohibit the use of eminent domain to acquire property in a STAR bond district (K.S.A. 12-17,172).

If the city wants to assure property owners that their property will not be subject to seizure by eminent domain, the city can add language to that effect in the ordinance. With four city council positions — including the mayorship — up for election next spring, it’s possible that a future city council might not be opposed to the use of eminent domain. This change could take place during the time Bowllagio developers are acquiring property. An ordinance would help prevent this from happening.

Similarly, if it is not the intent of the developers to seek additional forms of subsidy such as tax increment financing or property tax abatements, appropriate language could be added to the authorizing ordinance.