This week the Sedgwick County Commission considered whether to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant.
A letter from Sedgwick County Manager Bill Buchanan to commissioners said that the grant will “consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”
The budget of the grant is $2,141,177 to fund the three-year plan development process, with $1,370,000 from federal funds and $771,177 of “leveraged resources” as a local match. These leveraged resources are in the form of in-kind contributions of staff time, plus $60,000 in cash.
While Sedgwick County will be the grant’s “fiscal agent,” the work will be done by Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP), an umbrella organization with the mission of, according to its website: “Guide state and national actions that affect economic development in the region and adopt joint actions among member governments that enhance the regional economy.”
REAP’s members include city and county governments in a nine-county area in south-central Kansas. One of its duties is to administer the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program, the program that pays subsidies to airlines to provide service to the Wichita airport. In 2011, Sedgwick County paid $15,272 in “assessments” for its membership in REAP, while the City of Wichita paid $27,192. Governments pay smaller amounts as part of REAP’s water resources program.
The counties that are considering participating in this planning grant are Reno, Harvey, Sedgwick, Sumner, and Butler.
County documents specify the county’s in-kind contribution as $120,707. That consists of portions of the salary and benefits for four existing employees, plus $85,800 in “indirect administration costs.” There is no cash match at this time.
John Schlegel, Director of Planning for the Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Department, told commissioners that the end product of this grant would be the development of a regional plan for sustainable development. He said that we don’t know what the plan would contain, but that the purpose of the grant program is to get regions to work together on sustainability issues. The target area of the grant is a five-county area around Sedgwick County.
He said that examples of issues would be economic development, workforce development, fiscal sustainability such as balanced budgets and spending priorities, and working together to create efficiencies in the region like joint purchasing and cost sharing.
Commissioner Richard Ranzau asked to see a copy of the completed application, but the application is not complete.
In his remarks, Ranzau described the application process, reading from the application document: “The applicant must show a clear connection between the need that they have identified within the region, the proposed approach to address those conditions, and the outcomes they anticipate the plan will produce.” He said that it appears that REAP will do these within the application, but the commission is being asked to approve and commit to these items without having seen them, which he described as irresponsible. He made a motion that action on the grant be delayed until these things are known.
Joe Yager, chief executive officer of REAP, said that last year’s grant application is available on the REAP website, and that is the closest thing to a draft application that is available today. This year’s application is a second year of the program. Last year the commission voted not to participate in the grant by a 3 to 2 vote.
Commissioner Karl Peterjohn wondered if the new planning consortium is a duplication of existing regional authorities. He listed seven different groups, besides REAP, that are involved in planning for the region.
In further remarks, Peterjohn was concerned that smaller counties will have the same voting representation as Sedgwick County, which is many times larger than the small counties.
In response to a question from Peterjohn, Yager said that the current application is for category 1 funds only, which are for planning purposes. If REAP is successful in the application, it could apply for category 2 funds, which are for implementation of a plan.
Answering another question, Yager said that “livability principles,” which applicants must be committed to advance, are providing more transportation choices, promoting equitable and affordable housing, enhancing economic competitiveness, supporting existing communities, coordinating policies and leveraging investments, and valuing communities and neighborhoods. Peterjohn said these principles were not supplied in the information made available to commissioners.
Peterjohn said these principles sound innocuous on their face, but when details are examined, he said he could not support a “Washington-driven agenda” that could not pass the present Congress. He described this effort as part of an “administrative end-around,” baiting us with a federal grant, that will allow Washington, HUD, and EPA to “drive what we do in our community.”
The motion on deferring the item failed on a 2 to 3 vote, with Peterjohn and Ranzau voting for it.
The commission heard from three citizens. In his remarks, John Todd referenced a slide titled “Common Concerns” from a presentation given by REAP. Todd listed these concerns, which include: “A method of Social Engineering to restrict residence in the suburbs and rural areas and force Americans into city centers; a blueprint for the transformation of our society into total Federal control; will enforce Federal Sustainable Development zoning and control of local communities; will create a massive new ‘development’ bureaucracy; will drive up the cost of energy to heat and cool your home; will drive up the cost of gasoline as a way to get you out of your car; and will force you to spend thousands of dollars on your home in order to comply.”
Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity challenged the attitude of some commissioners, particularly Jim Skelton, which is that approving the planning grant does not commit us to implementing the plan. She told the commissioners “If you know you don’t like the federal government coming in and planning for you, say so now. Let’s get it over with and be upfront and honest to those involved,” referring to the other cities and counties that may participate in the grant and planning process.
She characterized the language that appears in the grant materials as meaning “more control and less liberty.”
In his remarks, Ranzau asked Schlegel what problem we will solve by participating in the grant. Schlegel answered that the purpose of the grant is to “build the greater regional capacity for regions to better compete in what is really becoming a global marketplace.” This is the end product, he said.
Ranzau said that we don’t need more planning, that we have more than enough planning at the present time. This grant, he said, would create another consortium that is unaccountable to the people, as no one is elected to them. The organizations receive tax dollars, and while some elected officials serve on these bodies, it is not the same as being directly accountable to the people. The fact that the grant requires a new consortium to be formed is evidence that the agenda is to circumvent the will of the people, he said.
Ranzau also said that Schlegel told him that “acceptance of this grant will take REAP to another level, because right now they are struggling, and this will help plot the course for REAP.” He said that REAP, which is housed at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, needs to expand its role and authority in order to give it “something to do.” He said the grant will promote the “progressive agenda” of the Obama administration in this way.
Later Commission Chair Dave Unruh disputed the contention regarding the workload of REAP.
Ranzau also questioned whether we want the federal government to be a “source of solutions” for our local communities. He also questioned one of the stated goals of the program, which is to reduce cost to taxpayers. It’s a new program, he said, and would not reduce the cost to taxpayers.
He further questioned the ability of the grant program to help teach local communities to be fiscally responsible. With federal spending out of control, he said the federal government is not in a position to help in this regard.
He further said that talking in generalities sounds benign, and that he wanted to know what he is committing the county to this year. Repeating the concerns of Peterjohn, Ranzau said that accepting this grant would be accepting the policies of the Obama Administration as our own. He said that in the 2010 elections the people repudiated the agenda of the president, and this grant program is an example of the type of programs people have said they don’t want. It is concern with the agenda behind this grant program that is his greatest concern, he later explained.
Continuing, Ranzau questioned the ability of the federal government to create conditions for sustainable growth: “You’ve got to be kidding me. Look at the vision they now have for growth in this county. It’s a disaster. And now they want to take the same policies that have created and made our current economic situation worse — they want to bring them to our local communities by these sorts of grants.”
Both Ranzau and Peterjohn questioned the ability of this grant to produce affordable housing, citing the government’s role in the ongoing housing crisis.
Ranzau, who has voted against many grants, added that this is the “the worst and most troublesome grant” he’s seen in his time in office, adding that the grant is clearly an agenda created by President Obama. He said there are politicians who ran for office on platforms of limited government and fiscal responsibility, and this grant is an opportunity for them to “act on those values.”
In further discussion, it was brought out that each region makes its own definition of what sustainability means to it, but Yager provided this definition of sustainability: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In his remarks, Unruh said that Sedgwick County has been involved in sustainability thinking and planning for at least two years. He said this is a strategy that helps the county plan for the future. He asked manager Buchanan if the county had a definition of sustainability. Buchanan replied the County has taken a similar approach to the International City/County Management Association, which he said involves four factors: Economic stability — sufficient jobs and economic development; ensuring that local governments are fiscally healthy so that they can provide quality services; social equity, which he said ensures that the delivery of services in communities is equitable; and the environment, which he said was not about global warming, but rather making sure we’re not wasting natural resources.
Unruh said that we are not opposed to these principles, that these are reasonable activities for elected officials. He added that regionalism is the “whole measuring stick.” We must consider communities close to us when planning, he added. It is reasonable to get these people together on a voluntary and non-binding basis. While he said he didn’t like excess spending at the federal level, it is his money that the federal government is spending, and we should take advantage of this program, adding that we need to plan. If the plans are not acceptable, he said we could simply not adopt them. He disagreed with the contention of Ranzau and Peterjohn that this process causes the county to yield to any master plan developed by the federal government. He again mentioned that we are using our money to develop this plan, and asked our federal officeholders to stop spending money in this way.
He added that he believes in limited government and fiscal responsibility, and that accessing these resources does not make him “hypocritical, insincere, or untruthful.”
In rebuttal to Buchanan, Ranzau said that the grant funding document says that one of the goals is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are believed by many to be a cause of global warming or climate change. The document does mention helping regions “consider the interdependent challenges of … energy use and climate change.” This language was transmitted to commissioners in a letter from Buchanan. Ranzau again said it is important not to downplay the agenda that is associated with the grant funds. In earlier remarks, Ranzau had described how applications would be scored or ranked, and that winning applications would need to conform to the goals of HUD.
The commission voted to approve the grant, with Unruh, Norton, and Skelton voting in favor, and Ranzau and Peterjohn voting against.
Discussions such as these, where the role of government and the nature of the proper relationship between the federal government and states, counties, and cities, are a regular feature at Sedgwick County Commission meetings, due to the concerns of Peterjohn and Ranzau. These discussion do not often take place at the Wichita City Council, unless initiated by citizens whose testify on matters.
The remarks of chairman Unruh illustrated one of the important conundrums of our day. Many are opposed to the level of federal (and other government) spending. Polls indicate that more and more people are concerned about this issue. Yet, it is difficult to stop the spending.
In particular, the grant process is thorny. The principled stand of Ranzau, and sometimes Peterjohn, is that we should simply refuse to participate in the spending — both federal and local — that grants imply, and in the process also accepting the strings attached to them. Others, Unruh and Skelton in particular, have what they believe is a pragmatic view, arguing that it is our money that paid for these grant programs, and so by participating in grants we are getting back some of the tax funds we send to Washington. This reasoning allows Unruh to profess belief in limited government and fiscal responsibility while at the same time participating in this spending.
But there is no doubt that accepting federal money such as these grant funds means buying in to at least parts of the progressive Obama agenda, something that I think conservatives like Unruh and Skelton would not do on a stand-alone basis. This is an example of the power and temptation of what appears to be “free” federal money, and Ranzau and Peterjohn are correctly concerned and appropriately wary.
It is even more troublesome to realize that this power over us is exercised using our own money, as Skelton and Unruh rightly recognize, but nonetheless go along.
There may be a legislative solution someday. First, we can elect federal officials who will stop these programs. But the temptation to bring money back to the home district, either through grant programs or old-fashioned pork barrel spending, is overwhelming. Just this week U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, who voted against raising the debt ceiling in August, pledged to find more federal funds to pay for Wichita’s aquifer storage and recovery program.
An example of legislation that may work is a bill recently introduced by U. S. Representative Mike Pompeo of Wichita and others. The bill is H. R. 2961: To amend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to have Early Innovator grant funds returned by States apply towards deficit reduction. The purpose of the bill is to direct the early innovator grant funds that Kansas Governor Sam Brownback returned towards deficit reduction, rather than being spent somewhere else.
The fiscal conservatives who vote to accept federal grant funds should be aware of research that indicates that these grants cause future tax increases. In my reporting on such a study I wrote: This is important because, in their words, “Federal grants often result in states creating new programs and hiring new employees, and when the federal funding for that specific purpose is discontinued, these new state programs must either be discontinued or financed through increases in state own source taxes.” … The authors caution: “Far from always being an unintended consequence, some federal grants are made with the intention that states will pick up funding the program in the future.”
The conclusion to this research paper (Do Intergovernmental Grants Create Ratchets in State and Local Taxes?) states:
Our results clearly demonstrate that grant funding to state and local governments results in higher own source revenue and taxes in the future to support the programs initiated with the federal grant monies. … Most importantly, our results suggest that the recent large increase in federal grants to state and local governments that has occurred as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will have significant future tax implications at the state and local level as these governments raise revenue to continue these newly funded programs into the future. Federal grants to state and local governments have risen from $461 billion in 2008 to $654 billion in 2010. Based on our estimates, future state taxes will rise by between 33 and 42 cents for every dollar in federal grants states received today, while local revenues will rise by between 23 and 46 cents for every dollar in federal (or state) grants received today. Using our estimates, this increase of $200 billion in federal grants will eventually result in roughly $80 billion in future state and local tax and own source revenue increases. This suggests the true cost of fiscal stimulus is underestimated when the costs of future state and local tax increases are overlooked.
The situation in which we find ourselves was accurately described by economist Walter E. Williams in his recent visit to Wichita. As I reported: “The essence of our relationship with government is coercion,” Williams told the audience. This, he said, represents our major problem as a nation today: We’ve come to accept the idea of government taking from one to give to another. But the blame, Williams said, does not belong with politicians — “at least not very much.” Instead, he said that the blame lies with us, the people who elect them to office in order to get things for us. A candidate who said he would do only the things that the Constitution authorizes would not have much of a chance at being elected.
The further problem is that if Kansans don’t elect officials who will bring federal dollars to Kansas, it doesn’t mean that Kansans will pay lower federal taxes. The money, taken from Kansans, will go to other states, leading to this conundrum: “That is, once legalized theft begins, it pays for everybody to participate.”
We face a moral dilemma, then. Williams listed several great empires that declined for doing precisely what we’re doing: “Bread and circuses,” or big government spending.