Tag Archives: Lavonta Williams

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

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 increases its debt

Wichita has increased its long-term debt load and shifted tax money from debt repayment to current consumption.

Starting with a debt load of $813,493,172 in 2007, decisions made by the mayor and city council have increased that figure by $381,146,955 in 2011. That’s an increase of nearly 47 percent in four years. The debt level now stands at $1,194,640,127 as of December 31, 2011.

Mayor Carl Brewer and long-serving council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) have presided over this increase of long-term debt that city taxpayers will be paying for a long time.

Instead of seeking to retire this debt, the council has taken action that delays paying off the debt. According to the 2010 City Manager’s Policy Message, page CM-2, “One mill of property tax revenue will be shifted from the Debt Service Fund to the General Fund. In 2011 and 2012, one mill of property tax will be shifted to the General Fund to provide supplemental financing. The shift will last two years, and in 2013, one mill will be shifted back to the Debt Service Fund. The additional millage will provide a combined $5 million for economic development opportunities.”

In other words, the city has shifted tax money from debt repayment to current spending needs. While economic development seems like a worthy cause, it hasn’t worked very well for the city. In his most recent State of the City address, Mayor Brewer said that the city’s efforts in economic development had created “almost 1000 jobs” in 2011, one of the years in which debt service taxes were redirected to spending on economic development.

While “almost 1000″ sounds like a lot of jobs, that number deserves context. According to estimates from the Kansas Department of Labor, the civilian labor force in the City of Wichita for December 2011 was 192,876, with 178,156 people at work. This means that the 1,000 jobs created accounted for from 0.52 percent to 0.56 percent of our city’s workforce, depending on the denominator used. This miniscule number is dwarfed by the normal ebb and flow of other economic activity.

It is unknown how many of these jobs would have been created without the city’s economic development assistance, but the number must be substantial. Also, the mayor did not mention the costs of creating these jobs. These costs have a negative economic impact on those who pay these costs. This means that economic activity — and jobs — are lost somewhere else in order to pay for the incentives.

Wichita debt.

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.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday November 22, 2011

Ghana junket. A reader writes with information and opinion about the trip by Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast and east Wichita) to Ghana, Africa: “I found it interesting that the City Council $15,000 plus junket to Ghana was first advertised as a Sister City recruitment trip (And after the Police Chief and others were identified) the trip mission changed to Economic Development. I have no idea how Ghana can help us when 56% of their economy is agricultural and in 2002 the government opted for debt relief under the “Heavily Indebted Poor Country Program.”Tomorrow night the Ambassador of South Africa is visiting Wichita and making a presentation on Economic Development to the World Trade Council at the Marriott East in order to hopefully partner with Wichita in future economic development projects. So the point is this: South Africa has a GDP of $527.5 billion and is coming to us for economic development (they import machine and equipment), and the mayor is spending thousands of dollars to visit Ghana, a country with a $38.24 billion GDP and mostly agricultural. Finally, foreign governments that invited American delegations always provide security if there is a need for it.”

Kansas job recovery seen as slow. From Kansas Reporter: “IHS Global Insight, a Lexington, Mass., business information and forecasting firm, calculated that at the pace jobs are being created or recovered now, Kansas workers will not regain the more than 90,000 lost since April 2008 until the end of 2014.” More at Full Kansas jobs recovery remains three years away, forecasters say.

Village West defaults. The Legends at Village West, a huge shopping development in Kansas City near the Kansas Speedway, has defaulted on its loan. According to reporting in Commercial Real Estate Direct, the property never met its cash flow projections, topping out at $10.3 million per year in 2008. The loan assumed it would generate $11.1 million. Since 2008 cash flow has fallen. The public policy interest is that this facility, along with the nearby racetrack, received millions in sales tax (STAR) bond financing, to be repaid by taxpayers through sales tax collections.

No Pachyderm this week. Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, the Wichita Pachyderm Club will not meet on Friday. Upcoming speakers: On December 2: Kansas Representative Dennis Hedke speaking on “Energy and environmental policy.” … On December 9: Beccy Tanner, Kansas history writer and reporter for The Wichita Eagle, speaking on “The Kansas Sesquicentennial (150th) Anniversary.” … On December 16: David Kensinger, Chief of Staff to Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. … On December 23 there will be no meeting. The status of the December 30th meeting is undetermined at this time. … On January 6: Kansas Senator Garrett Love. … On January 13: Speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives Mike O’Neal, speaking on “The untold school finance story.” … on January 20: Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn.

Wichita city council: substance and process

Today the Wichita City Council will conduct a public hearing for the second time. The reason the council must hold the hearing again is that a mistake was made in the official notice of the hearing.

While I commend the city for realizing the mistake and following the letter of the law in conducting the hearing again, we must contrast this behavior, which is following the process according to the law, with the council’s past behavior, which has shown no regard for the spirit and substance of the law regarding public hearings.

The most recent example is when the city council approved a letter of intent to do something for which it had yet to hold a public hearing. That act made the public hearing a meaningless exercise. The council approved everything that was contained in the letter of intent, except that one item was modified, and that was not a result of the public hearing.

Another example is from 2008, when the council conducted a public hearing essentially in secret, making last-minute changes to the substance to be heard. At the time, Randy Brown, former editorial page editor for the Wichita Eagle and Executive Director of Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, agreed with my contention that the hearing was a “bait and switch” operation. Writing in a letter to the Eagle, Brown said:

Weeks is dead-on target when he says that conducting the public ‘s business in secret causes citizens to lose respect for government officials and corrupts the process of democracy (“TIF public hearing was bait and switch,” Dec. 5 Opinion). And that’s what happened when significant 11th-hour changes to the already controversial and questionable tax-increment financing plan for the downtown arena neighborhood were sneaked onto the Wichita City Council’s Tuesday agenda, essentially under cover of Monday evening’s darkness.

This may not have been a technical violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but it was an aggravated assault on its spirit. Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue.

The Wichita officials involved should publicly apologize, and the issue should be reopened. And this time, the public should be properly notified.

It turns out that the council’s actions regarding this hearing were permissible under the letter of the law, according to the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office.

We are left with the realization, however, that we have a city with elected officials and bureaucratic leaders that are careful to follow the letter of the law, but are unable — or unwilling — to see the larger picture regarding public policy. Substance is of little concern.

Following is my op-ed from the December 5, 2008 Wichita Eagle:

On Tuesday December 2, 2008, the Wichita City Council held a public hearing on the expansion of the Center City South Redevelopment District, commonly known as the downtown Wichita arena TIF district. As someone with an interest in this matter, I watched the city’s website for the appearance of the agenda report for this meeting. This document, also known as the “green sheets” and often several hundred pages in length, contains background information on items appearing on the meeting’s agenda.

At around 11:30 am Monday, the day before the meeting, I saw that the agenda report was available. I download it and printed the few pages of interest to me.

At the meeting Tuesday morning, I was surprised to hear council member Jim Skelton expressed his dismay that a change to the TIF plan wasn’t included in the material he printed and took home to read. This change, an addition of up to $10,000,000 in spending on parking, is material to the project. It’s also controversial, and if the public had known of this plan, I’m sure that many speakers would have attended the public hearing.

But the public didn’t have much notice of this controversial change to the plan. Inspection of the agenda report document — the version that contains the parking proposal — reveals that it was created at 4:30 pm on Monday. I don’t know how much longer after that it took to be placed on the city’s website. But we can conclude that citizens — and at least one city council member — didn’t have much time to discuss and debate the desirability of this parking plan.

The news media didn’t have time, either. Reporting in the Wichita Eagle on Monday and Tuesday didn’t mention the addition of the money for parking.

This last-minute change to the TIF plan tells us a few things. First, it reveals that the downtown arena TIF plan is a work in progress, with major components added on-the-fly just a few days before the meeting. That alone gives us reason to doubt its wisdom. Citizens should demand that the plan be withdrawn until we have sufficient time to discuss and deliberate matters as important as this. What happened on Tuesday doesn’t qualify as a meaningful public hearing on the actual plan. A better description is political bait and switch.

Second, when the business of democracy is conducted like this, citizens lose respect for both the government officials involved and the system itself. Instead of openness and transparency in government, we have citizens and, apparently, even elected officials shut out of the process.

Third, important questions arise: Why was the addition of the parking plan not made public until the eleventh hour? Was this done intentionally, so that opponents would not have time to prepare, or to even make arrangements to attend the meeting? Or was it simple incompetence and lack of care?

The officials involved — council members Jeff Longwell and Lavonta Williams, who negotiated the addition of the parking with county commissioners; Allen Bell, who is Wichita’s director of urban development; and Mayor Carl Brewer — need to answer to the citizens of Wichita as to why this important business was conducted in this haphazard manner that disrespects citizen involvement.

Ken-Mar TIF district, the bailouts

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council handles two items regarding the Ken-Mar shopping center being redeveloped in northeast Wichita. These items illustrate how inappropriate it is for the city to serve as either entrepreneur or partner with entrepreneurs, and is another lesson in how Wichita needs pay-to-play laws.

In August 2008 the city formed a tax increment financing (TIF) district to benefit the center. This allows $2.5 million of the center’s future property taxes to be earmarked for the district’s exclusive benefit. In January 2009 the city approved a development plan that specified how the public money would be spent, and how the development would proceed.

The developer of the project is Reverend Kevass Harding, a former Wichita school board member who has announced future political ambitions.

The first and most serious issue regarding this TIF district is that changes to the development plan mean that the district will not be able to meet its debt obligations. In the sobering words of the agenda report: “The TIF financial analysis indicates that the incremental tax revenue will not cover the debt service on City TIF bonds.”

City staff is proposing to shift the debt to the city’s debt service fund, using money there to pay off the $2.5 million in temporary TIF financing bonds. Then, Ken-Mar will repay the debt service fund through the district’s incremental tax revenue over a period of 17 years, along with three percent interest.

The original development plan from 2009 includes a table that specifies an interest rate of 4.91 percent for the TIF bonds. Now the city is replacing that with its own debt, and charging Harding and Ken-Mar just three percent interest. My calculations indicate this reduced interest rate will save Harding about $30,000 per year, or about $516,000 over the course of the loan.

This action can only be characterized as a bailout, with all the negative connotations that accompany that word. It’s not the first time Wichita has had to create a bailout for a failing TIF district.

The second item the council will deal with is a change to the development plan. The development agreement from 2009 contemplates that changes will need to be made, “with the approval of City Representative from time to time.”

While the agreement doesn’t explicitly state that changes to the plan must be approved before proceeding, this is the only reasonable way to interpret the agreement.

But in this case, Harding made changes before getting approval from the city. And he didn’t just use a different paint color or different flowers in the landscaping. Instead, he made a big change. He demolished a large portion of the structure that was to be renovated, according to the plan he agreed to.

The world changes. No doubt about that. Changes to plans are necessary to accommodate changes in the world. But this is more evidence of how government is not prepared to serve as entrepreneur, or as partner with entrepreneurs.

There was an agreement in place. Harding changed it, and only several months later is the city going to grant its approval. This places the city in the position of appearing not to care whether its agreements are followed. The council finds itself in the awkward position of approving an agreement to do something that’s already been done.

(This is not an unusual position for the city, as recently it approved a letter of intent to do something for which it had yet to hold a public hearing.)

Pay-to-play lesson

Underlying the story of Ken-Mar and Reverend Harding is a lesson on the need for pay-to-play laws in Wichita and Kansas. As reported in 2009, Harding and his wife made campaign contributions to Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), who is presently serving as vice-mayor. 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 in June 2008, 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.

The close linkage between the contributions and Harding asking the city council to grant him money illustrates the need for pay-to-play laws in Wichita and Kansas. These laws impose various restrictions on the activities of elected officials and the awarding of contracts or other largesse to those who have made political contributions.

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.”

In the absence of such laws, and with Harding and Williams unwilling to explain, we’re left with questions like these:

If the Ken-Mar TIF district served a genuine public purpose, why did the Hardings make the campaign contributions to Williams?

Must those who want to form a TIF district make contributions to the council member representing the district?

If council member Williams is accessible to her constituents, why the contributions?

Must those who receive money from the city offer a thank-you contribution?

None of these reflect well on the reputation of Wichita.

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.

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.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday August 16, 2011

Future of Kansas insurance exchange. “TOPEKA — A federal appeals court ruling in Georgia that overturned a portion of the nation’s latest health insurance law Friday did little to end confusion over how to follow that law in Kansas. A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which requires all Americans to carry health insurance or face penalties, is unconstitutional. The Court ruled that Congress exceeded its constitutional powers by requiring people to buy health insurance when they choose not to do so.” At issue is whether the state should continue to spend money and work on infrastructure to support Obamacare, when it appears increasingly likely that the law will be ruled unconstitutional. Gene Meyer reports in Kansas Reporter.

Concern over Wichita spending. At today’s city council meeting the council considered whether to pay travel expenses for Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to attend a sister cities exchange meeting in Mexico. The mayor announced that he would be paying his own airfare, that the hotel and meals would be paid for by the host city, so the only expense would be for his luggage and perhaps some incidental meals. Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said that if the city sends representatives on worthwhile missions, the city should pay all travel expenses. Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast and east Wichita) disagreed, noting that just last week she traveled to Texas on city business, and she paid for her own airfare. The mayor remarked that “primarily what we’re doing is we’re paying to perform the job we’re assigned to do,” and that previous commitments had been made that obligate the current council to follow through. … The next item was to pay for travel for other persons to attend the conference. The agenda packet for today’s meeting contained no information on these two items, certainly not the amounts of money involved or the persons to travel. … The council’s concern over spending on items like the mayor’s airfare is welcome, but this spending is small relative to the many areas in which the city could trim spending.

Kansas governor praises wind power. Today Kansas Governor Sam Brownback promoted investment in wind energy. In a press release he said “I want Kansas to be known as the ‘Renewable State.’ To get there, we have to balance the three E’s: Energy, Economy and the Environment. My first priority as Governor is to grow the Kansas economy, and getting wind power to market is a key component accomplishing that.” Contrary to the governor’s rosy picture, Lisa Linowes details the long string of failures of the wind power industry, including the fact that wind power is becoming more expensive, despite its massive federal subsidy. It is unknown why Brownback — who generally supports free markets — supports wind power and the government intervention necessary to prop up the industry. The same can be said for his support of ethanol, which is rapidly losing support for its three forms of government intervention that support it: a subsidy for its producers, a mandate to use it, and a tariff to protect domestic producers from foreign competition.

Corporate taxes. Mitt Romney made it an issue. David Henderson comments: “No, I’m making the simple point that a tax on corporations is a tax on people. I remember that in addressing the issue in the 1980s, the late Herb Stein said that it’s as if people think that if the government imposed a tax on cows, the tax would be paid by the cows.” In a video, Milton Friedman explained that “There’s no business to be taxed. There are people. Only people can pay taxes. … When you talk about a tax on business, it has to be paid by somebody. Either it’s paid by the stockholder, or it’s paid by the customer, or it’s paid by the worker. There’s no other way it can come from.” He also addressed the fiction that the Social Security tax is paid equally by employers and workers.

How the racism charge is used. The Capital Research Center has published a piece that illustrates how the political left tosses around a charge that no one wants to be accused of: racism. In an email the Center says: “Author Kevin Mooney examines a little-known group called Color of Change, which alleges that conservatives in the media are racists. Targeting figures like TV talk show host Glenn Beck and Fox News CEO Rupert Murdoch, Color of Change enjoys the praise of prominent left-of-center groups like Media Matters and MoveOn.org. Mooney says the Left admires Color of Change because it has learned how to use the incendiary charge of racism to stifle conservatives’ free speech.” … The report itself says: “The intense anti-Fox animus is not new, but this time conservatives have good cause to be concerned about one aspect of the new campaign against Fox. That campaign aims to exploit the most incendiary of tactics — the issue of race — to dislodge conservatives from prominent media posts. … Despite much evidence that contemporary America has moved beyond the tragic legacy of slavery and segregation, the Left remains eager to accuse its opponents of racism.” … It will come as no surprise that George Soros is a financier of this organization. The compete report is The Left Wing Targets Conservative Media.

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.

Wichita city council to decide between rule of law, or rule by situation

Tuesday’s Wichita City Council meeting will provide an opportunity for the mayor, council members, and city hall staff to let Wichitans know if our city is governed by the rule of law and proper respect for it, or if these values will be discarded for the convenience of one person and his business partners.

Here’s the situation: a person wants to gain approval of a tax increment financing (TIF) district project plan. This requires a public hearing, which the city has scheduled for September 13th.

But this schedule doesn’t suit the applicant. He has a personal business need — an expiring purchase option — and wants the city to issue a letter of intent stating that the city intends to do all the things that are the subject of the September public hearing.

The letter of intent is not binding, city officials tell us. The council will still have to hold the September public hearing and vote on the incentives the developer wants. And the list of incentives is large, amounting to many millions of dollars. Whether to issue these incentives deserves discussion and a public hearing.

But the letter of intent, in effect, circumvents the public hearing. It reduces the hearing to a meaningless exercise. No matter what information is presented at the September public hearing, no matter how strong public opinion might be against this project, 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 imagine 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?

And the developers are planning to take action based on this letter of intent. To them, the letter does have meaning. If it had no meaning, why would they ask for it?

That bears repeating: If the letter of intent is non-binding, why issue it at all?

The last time someone felt the city reneged on a letter of intent, it resulted in a court case that went all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court. I imagine the city is not anxious to repeat that experience.

Part of the purpose of public hearings and their advance notice, usually 30 days or so, is to give interested parties time to prepare for the hearing. But citizens are given just a few days notice of the proposed letter of intent. The parties who will receive the subsidies, of course, have known about this for some time. Their bureaucratic and political enablers have, too.

The issuance of the letter of intent on Tuesday, if the city council decides to do so, is an affront to the rule of law. It would be a powerful statement by the council that it intends to go ahead with the project and its subsides, public hearing — and citizens — be damned. It is a striking show of arrogance by the city and its political leadership, which is to say Mayor Carl Brewer.

After Tuesday’s meeting we will know one thing. We will know if the Wichita City Council and city staff value the rule of law more than the needs of one small group of people. We won’t really know about individual city staff, but the council members and mayor will have to vote on this item. We’ll know exactly where each of them stands. Expect waffling.

Tuesday provides citizens a chance to learn exactly how the mayor and each council members value the rule of law as compared to the needs of one person and his business partners. It is as simple as that.

The project

The project is the development of a new hotel in an existing building downtown. It sounds like a neat project and would be a great addition to Wichita. But — this project is a product of central government planning backed by massive government intervention in the form of millions of dollars of subsidy. Pretty much all the tools have been tapped in the proposed corporate welfare, even one form that will require the city to pass a special charter ordinance.

The lead developer, David Burk, is well known in Wichita and has produced a number of successful projects. (We must qualify this as “seemingly successful,” as it seems as all of Burk’s projects require some sort of taxpayer involvement and subsidy. So we don’t really know if these projects would be successful if they had to stand on their own.)

I’ve written extensively on the problems with government-directed planning and taxpayer-funded investment in downtown Wichita. See Downtown Wichita regulations on subsidy to be considered or Downtown Wichita revitalization for examples. This project suffers from all these problems.

Furthermore, we see the problems of the public choice theory of politics at play here. Perhaps most prominent is the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. In this case Burk and his partners stand to garner tremendous benefit, while everyone else pays. This is why Burk and his wife are generous campaign donors to both conservative and liberal city politicians.

Burk and past allegations

The involvement of Burk in the project, along with the city’s response, is problematic. City documents indicate that the city has investigated the backgrounds of the applicants for this project. The result is “no significant findings to report.” Evidently the city didn’t look very hard. In February 2010 the Wichita Eagle reported on the activities of David Burk with regard to property he owns in Old Town. Citizens reading these articles might have been alarmed at the actions of Burk. Certainly some city hall politicians and bureaucrats were.

The opening sentence of the Wichita Eagle article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property) raises the main allegation against Burk: “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.”

A number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s act.

According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.'”

Council member Lavonta Williams, now serving as vice mayor, was not pleased, either, according to her quotations: “‘Right now, it doesn’t look good,’ she said. ‘Are we happy about it? Absolutely not.'”

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, we can learn of the reaction by two other city hall officials: “Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said that having city development partners who benefit from tax increment financing appeal for lower property taxes ‘seems like an oxymoron.’ City Manager Robert Layton said 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. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high.

Some of Burk’s partners have a history of dealing with the city that is illustrative of their attitudes. In 2008 the Old Town Warren Theater was failing and its owners threatened to close it and leave the city with a huge loss on a TIF district formed for the theater’s benefit. Faced with this threat, the city made a no-interest and low-interest loan to the theater. The theater’s owners included David Wells, who is one of Burk’s partners in the project being considered by the council for the letter of intent.

Entrepreneurs are not always successful. Business failure, if handled honestly and honorably, is not shameful.

But when a business is already receiving taxpayer subsidy, and the response to failure is to demand even more from the taxpayer — that is shameful.

Burk and Wells, by the way, played a role in the WaterWalk project, which has a well-deserved reputation as a failed development. In 2011 the city’s budget includes a loss of slightly over one million dollars for the TIF district that has benefited its owners to the tune of over $41 million.

Burk has been personally enriched by city hall action before. An example from the same article: “A 2003 lease agreement gave Burk use of the retail strip at the front of the parking garage for $1 a year for the first five years.” Nearly-free property that you can then lease at market rates is a sweet deal.

These gentlemen have had their bite at the taxpayer-funded apple. Now they want another bite, on their own schedule, without regard to rule of law and the public.

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.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday January 31, 2011

Some downtown Wichita properties plummet in value. A strategy of Real Development — the “Minnesota Guys” — in Wichita has been to develop and sell floors of downtown office buildings as condominiums. Some of these floors have been foreclosed upon and have come back on the market. Some once carried mortgages of $400,000 or more, meaning that at one point a bank thought they were worth at least that much. But now four floors in the Broadway Plaza Building, three floors of the Petroleum Building, two floors of Sutton Place, and one floor of the Orpheum Office Center are available for sale at prices not much over $100,000, ranging from $14 to $25 per square foot. Other downtown office buildings — very plain properties — are listed at much higher prices. For example, one downtown property is listed at $82 per square foot. … Some of these floors have had declining appraisals. According to the Sedgwick County Treasurer, the fifth floor of Sutton Place, which is listed for sale at $135,000, was appraised in 2008 for $530,900. In 2009 the appraised value dropped to $215,000.

Kansas Days. The primary news made at this year’s Kansas Days gathering was the election of Todd Tiahrt to replace Mike Pompeo as national committeeman. Otherwise, there was a large turnout in Topeka with many receptions and meals that provided opportunities to meet officeholders and new friends, and to reacquaint with old friends from across the state. Plus, I got to sample the “Brownback” beer. It’s pretty good.

Williams named to national economic development committee. From Wichita Business Journal: “Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams has been named to a National League of Cities steering committee on Community and Economic Development Policy and Advocacy.” Undoubtedly for her unfailing support of any form of corporate welfare that comes before the Wichita City Council.

Mises University this summer. If you’re a college student and would like to receive instruction in Austrian Economics — “a rigorous and logical approach to economics that gives free markets their due and takes full account of the reality of human choice” — I suggest applying to the Ludwig von Mises Institute to attend Mises University this summer. I attended as a member observer in 2007, and it was a wonderful and very intense week. For more information, click on Mises University 2011. Scholarships are available.

A Rosa Parks moment for education. Kevin Huffman in the Washington Post: “Last week, 40-year-old Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar was released after serving nine days in jail on a felony conviction for tampering with records. Williams-Bolar’s offense? Lying about her address so her two daughters, zoned to the lousy Akron city schools, could attend better schools in the neighboring Copley-Fairlawn district. … In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school. But if you are poor, you’re out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy.” Kansas has no school choice programs to speak of, and so far Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has not expressed advocacy for school choice.

The state against blacks. The Wall Street Journal’s Jason L. Riley interviews economist Walter E. Williams on the occasion of the publication of his most recent book Up from the Projects: An Autobiography. The reason for the article’s title: “‘The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do, what Jim Crow couldn’t do, what the harshest racism couldn’t do,’ Mr. Williams says. ‘And that is to destroy the black family.'” … On economics and why it is important, Riley writes: “Over the decades, Mr. Williams’s writings have sought to highlight ‘the moral superiority of individual liberty and free markets,’ as he puts it. ‘I try to write so that economics is understandable to the ordinary person without an economics background.’ His motivation? ‘I think it’s important for people to understand the ideas of scarcity and decision-making in everyday life so that they won’t be ripped off by politicians,’ he says. ‘Politicians exploit economic illiteracy.'” … On the current state of politics: “Mr. Williams says he hopes that the tea party has staying power, but ‘liberty and limited government is the unusual state of human affairs. The normal state throughout mankind’s history is for him to be subject to arbitrary abuse and control by government..”

Professor Cornpone. From The Wall Street Journal Review & Outlook: “The last time these columns were lambasted by a presidential candidate in Iowa, he was Democrat Richard Gephardt and the year was 1988. The Missouri populist won the state caucuses in part on the rallying cry that ‘we’ve got to stop listening to the editorial writers and the establishment,’ especially about ethanol and trade. Imagine our amusement to find Republican Newt Gingrich joining such company. The former Speaker blew through Des Moines last Tuesday for the Renewable Fuels Association summit, and his keynote speech to the ethanol lobby was as pious a tribute to the fuel made from corn and tax dollars as we’ve ever heard. Mr. Gingrich explained that ‘the big-city attacks’ on ethanol subsidies are really attempts to deny prosperity to rural America … Yet today this now-mature industry enjoys far more than cash handouts, including tariffs on foreign competitors and a mandate to buy its product. Supporters are always inventing new reasons for these dispensations, like carbon benefits (nonexistent, according to the greens and most scientific evidence) and replacing foreign oil (imports are up). … Given that Mr. Gingrich aspires to be President, his ethanol lobbying raises larger questions about his convictions and judgment.” Another advocate for the ethanol boondoggle, and perhaps again a presidential candidate, is Kansas Governor Sam Brownback.

Politics and city managers to be topic. This Friday (February 4) the Wichita Pachyderm Club features as its speaker H. Edward Flentje, Professor at the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs, Wichita State University. His topic will be “The Political Roots of City Managers in Kansas.” The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Wednesdays in Wiedemann this week. Wednesday (February 2) Wichita State University’s Lynne Davis presents an organ recital as part of the “Wednesdays in Wiedemann” series. These recitals, which have no admission charge, start at 5:30 pm and last about 30 minutes. The location is Wiedemann Recital Hall (map) on the campus of Wichita State University. For more about Davis and WSU’s Great Marcussen Organ, see my story from earlier this year.

Government bird chirping. American Majority’s Beka Romm wonders about the wisdom of a mayor’s plan to broadcast bird songs on the city’s streets, and how we can decide whether government should be doing things like this.

Wichita Community Improvement District approvals signal increased interventionism

Yesterday’s action by the Wichita City Council in approving two Community Improvement Districts signals a new era in increased intervention in free markets by Wichita politicians and bureaucrats.

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from the 2009 session. They allow merchants in a district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. The extra sales tax is used for the exclusive benefit of the CID.

Although at past city council meetings some members seemed as though they might view the districts with skepticism, there was little meaningful discussion, and no council members voted against the formation of the districts.

The mayor and city council members are unable — or unwilling — to consider the harmful effects of their interventions in creating special tax districts.

Or, it might be that some strategic campaign contributions helped city council members make up their minds. While I believe that Council Member Lavonta Williams is an honest and honorable council member, we have to be concerned when campaign contributions are made by people who know they will be asking the council for special treatment and favor, as Christian Ablah did yesterday.

He got what he wanted from the council. Wichita taxpayers lost.

The city looks silly when it jumps through hoops to conform to laws that shape the way it conducts economic development. As I urged the council:

Let’s stop distinguishing between “eligible costs” and other costs. When we use a term like “eligible costs” it makes this process seem benign. It makes it seem as though we’re not really supplying corporate welfare and subsidy to the developers.

As long as the developer has to spend money on what we call “eligible costs,” the fact that the city subsidy is restricted to these costs has no economic meaning.

Suppose I gave you $10 with the stipulation that you could spend it only on next Monday. Would you deny that I had enriched you by $10? As long as you were planning to spend $10 next Monday, or could shift your spending, this restriction has no economic meaning.

The issue of high-tax districts being a consumer protection issue didn’t resonate with the council, either. There are several council members who normally would be in favor of exposing greedy merchants who overcharge people, but not in this case. Maybe it’s the campaign contributions again.

Even pointing out how the city works at cross-purposes with itself doesn’t work. We spend millions every year subsidizing airlines so that airfares to Wichita are low. Then we turn around and add extra tax to visitors’ hotel bills, with Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell and the Wichita Eagle editorial board approving this as a wise strategy.

People remember high taxes. I don’t think it’s a good strategy to establish high-tax districts designed to capture extra tax revenue from visitors to our city.

But perhaps the simplest public policy issue is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? Why the roundabout process of the state collecting extra sales tax, only to ship it back to the merchants in the CID?

No one at Wichita city hall wants to talk about this, at least in public.

Next month the city will hold public hearings for three proposed CIDs in addition to the two approved yesterday. I suspect that the next year will see many more proposed.

With each intervention like this — not to mention each TIF district, STAR bond, industrial revenue bond with accompanying tax abatement, forgivable loan, EDX property tax exemption, historic preservation income tax credit, and other programs — Wichita and Kansas move farther away from the principles of economic freedom that have created prosperity, and move closer to a centrally planned economy. Those have not worked out well.

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.

Wichita city hall silent on handling of ethics issue

A correction has been noted in this article.

On Tuesday the Wichita city council will hold a public hearing regarding a request by Real Development for a $2.5 million increase in tax increment district financing. While this proposal should be opposed on its merits, there is reason to give extra scrutiny to this matter. That’s because Real Development employs the services of Wichita public relations executive Beth King. What matters to public policy is that last year she and Wichita City Manager Robert Layton began a dating relationship which continues to the present.

Documents released to me in response to a records request indicate that King is no mere publicist. Instead, it is apparent she plays an active role in negotiations between city staff and Real Development.

The mayor, city manager, and city staff have policies in place to control what is an obvious conflict of interest. The efficacy of these policies might be the subject of discussion and debate — except there is no discussion.

The Wichita Eagle has researched a story on this matter. Reporters interviewed the mayor, city council members, and government ethics experts. (The following sentence in this article is in error. Eagle newsroom management says research was never developed into a story. See here for more.) But Eagle newsroom management has squashed the story, citing the difficulty of drawing a line between public and private behavior. (The Eagle has mentioned the dating relationship and briefly described the city’s response as a small part of a story marking Layton’s first anniversary as Wichita city manager.)

The Eagle’s editorial board has not written on this issue, either.

The line between private and public life is difficult to draw, no doubt. But when a company actively represented by a person who is involved in a dating relationship with the city’s top executive is asking the city for millions in tax increment financing, the line has definitely been crossed.

There needs to be a public discussion of the city’s response to this matter. The people of Wichita need to know that the city believes the conflict of interest has been handled, and by what measures. We need to hear from experts — and regular citizens — as to whether these policies are an appropriate and effective response.

In a meeting with Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer Friday afternoon, I told him of my concern about the lack of public disclosure of the measures the city has taken. The mayor stressed several times that the manager’s private life is not a subject for public discussion, and I agree.

The mayor feels that by providing information to news media and having been interviewed, his obligation is fulfilled. That could be true if the management of the Wichita Eagle, our town’s only daily newspaper, printed the story that would let citizens know of the city’s policies regarding this matter.

But since that story is apparently not forthcoming from the Eagle, I feel that the city needs to come forward and tell citizens of the policies it instituted and why the city believes they are effective. It is not appropriate for the city manager to do this, since he is the subject of these policies. Instead, this is the job of the mayor, as he is the political head of the city.

Besides this issue there is another area of concern. King served as campaign manager for Mayor Brewer and Council Member Lavonta Williams. Should theses elected officials abstain from participating in a decision involving a client of their campaign manager? At the minimum, these relationships need to be disclosed.

In his first state of the city address, the mayor addressed government accountability, stating: “I’m talking about public trust in government.” Citizens become cynical, however, when they feel there is a group of insiders — commonly called the “good ol’ boy network” — who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. An obvious conflict of interest can’t simply be swept under the rug — as the city has done in this case — without fueling this cynicism. There’s a tension between widespread knowledge of this matter and the city’s refusal to deal with it in public. This is the case whether the city’s policies are an effective and appropriate response, or if they are not.

David Burk, Wichita developer, overreaches

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 city council signals possible change in economic development incentive policy

At today’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, discussion by council members and their vote may signal a change in the city’s stance toward economic development incentives.

At issue was a request for extension of economic development incentives for a Wichita company. Five years ago the city council approved an economic development package for the company that included a tax abatement. As is the city’s policy, the council revisits the issue in five years to see if the company has meet its goal commitments. In the case of this company, one commitment — the building of a new facility — was met. The other commitment — creation of a certain number of jobs — was met early on during the period of the tax abatement, but employment has been declining in recent years, and employment is currently 100 jobs below the goal.

Recently the city council adopted new guidelines for companies that are not meeting their goals at the time of review. These guidelines make it easier for companies to qualify for the extension of the abatement. If the WSU Current Conditions Index has declined since the awarding of the incentives, the company will qualify for an extension if a majority of the goals are met. A company will also qualify for extension if their peak job creation numbers exceeded the goal, even if the number has fallen, as is the case with the company under consideration today.

Based on the new guidelines, city staff recommended to approve the extension of the incentives.

Council member Lavonta Williams asked if it was possible if, as an company receiving an incentive, could “I hire five people today and fire them by Friday and then meet my criteria?” The answer by city economic development director Allen Bell is that the policy contains no such guideline as to minimum period of employment.

Wichita city manager Bob Layton interjected that staff’s recommendation to approve the extension is a difficult one to make, as this company is in a declining pattern of employment. Additionally, the newly calculated benefit-to-cost ratios are low, and he said he is uncomfortable with that: “We’re actually subsidizing this business, so to speak, or others are subsidizing or bearing their load for debt service.”

Council member Sue Schlapp asked a question not covered by policy: if we deny the extension today, and next year the company improves its situation, could they come back and ask for the extension of the tax abatement then? There is no definitive answer to this question at this time, according to Bell and Layton.

Schlapp added that it seems like we’re “lowering the bar all the time” as to the granting of incentives.

Council member Paul Gray remarked that the council makes itself look bad in these situations, as it always grants extensions even though the city has created policies that should hold companies accountable to their committed goals. The reason for awarding the incentives, he said, was for the increase in employment, and that employment level has not been kept. “We need to start taking a harder stand on this, as we’re going to run out of money if we keep giving it all away.” Vice mayor Jim Skelton agreed.

No one from the public was there to speak on this matter.

Wichita mayor Carl BrewerWichita Mayor Carl Brewer was on the losing end of a 6 to 1 vote.

Gray made a motion to deny the staff recommendation of approval of the extension. Mayor Carl Brewer said that this vote, if it proceeds in the direction it appears to be going, will change the direction of many things that affect businesses in Wichita. He said that the intent of the council is to start holding individuals accountable, and there’s not been a track record of that. It’s been worse since the economy entered the recession, he said. He urged council members to make sure they know which way they’re going with this action. “This will be the direction that we’ll be going as we start working on policy, and it will be effective for everyone, whether it be large or whether it be small. … Just making sure that when we press that button and we head down this path, that we know what we’re doing.”

The vote was 6 to 1 in favor of Gray’s motion, with the mayor being the lone “No” vote.

Analysis

This action by the Wichita city council, being nearly unanimous, is very much different from its action just one week ago, when it employed one new method plus several existing methods to heap millions in subsidy on a downtown hotel developer.

Today’s discussion is another illustration of just how difficult it is to pick winners and losers, and how difficult it is to choose which companies the city should invest in. This is why I have recommended that Wichita grant tax abatements on all new capital investment.

Today’s action is especially cruel to the subject company. In the past, city staff has argued that withdrawing tax abatements when a company is struggling is harmful. In December 2008, economic development director Bell said this regarding a company that had not met its performance commitments: “I don’t think it would be productive at this time to further penalize them — as the market has already penalized them — by putting them back on the tax roles at this time.” This is further evidence that taxes are harmful to business and economic growth.

Council member Williams’ question about hiring and then quickly firing employees indicates that she must not be familiar with the costs of hiring and firing. Furthermore, a company’s unemployment insurance premiums are based on its history, and actions like this would certainly raise premiums by a large amount.

Extension of EDX Tax Exemption (Sharpline Converting, Inc.)

Waterwalk hotel issue receives public input

Tuesday’s meeting of the Wichita city council featured a lengthy discussion of a proposal that in the past, might have been passed without much public discussion. Instead, some useful information emerged, and the meeting opened the possibility of more citizen input not only on this item, but also on future city initiatives.

The issue is a proposal for a hotel in the city’s WaterWalk district. My preview of the matter, which includes the city-supplied agenda report, is at Waterwalk hotel deal breaks new ground for Wichita subsidies.

As an example of information that was revealed at this meeting, there was concern expressed by council member Sue Schlapp that the proposed hotel might be granted a period in which it would be the only hotel in WaterWalk. Bell replied that we don’t have the answer to this question, and that this has not been addressed. Later, a representative of WaterWalk revealed that the proposed hotel had an agreement that it would be the only hotel in WaterWalk for three years and possibly up to four years.

This is an important piece of new information, as downtown boosters continually speak of the idea of “critical mass.” The idea, I believe, is that multiple hotels may feed off the presence of each other, instead of being in competition with each other. Or it might be that if other hoteliers see this proposed hotel doing well, they’ll be induced to build one on their own. But if there will not be another hotel in WaterWalk for at least three years, that puts a damper on the formation of critical mass. Hotels, of course, could be built in other parts of downtown.

Council member Lavonta Williams asked about the survey the city is conducting to see if the proposed hotel would harm the city-owned Hyatt Hotel: Will it look at nearby hotels that the city doesn’t own? Bell said the consultant may look at those hotels, interview their management, and may be able to offer some information as to that. But Bell said that the present agreement considers only the Hyatt Hotel.

Council member Jell Longwell said we’re sensitive about the burden on our local taxpayers. But the taxes on the proposed hotel would fall on out-of-area taxpayers, he said. His clear implication was that taxing visitors to our city is okay. The problem is that many visitors to a city pay attention to taxes. When a $100 hotel bill blooms to $114.30 with taxes, people notice, even business travelers whose employers may pay the bill.

(The taxes are 6% for the transient guest tax or “bed tax,” 6.3% for our present sales tax, and another 2% for the Community Improvement District tax. Then if the governor has his way, there will another 1% in Kansas sales tax, and if some downtown boosters have their way, there will be yet another 1% city sales tax to provide subsidy for downtown.)

Council member Paul Gray answered his own question with: “why would you?” The question was why would anyone build a hotel downtown privately when there are several subsidized hotels already operating? The unlevel playing field was created long ago, he said, and it’s unlikely that anyone will develop a hotel without receiving similar benefits from the city. He also said that we’re on the hook for the bonds sold for the WaterWalk TIF district. He made reference to the “giant hole that we’ve already created with the financial obligations we’ve placed on that.”

After citizen John Todd spoke, Longwell asked how much lead time the council should give citizens for matters like this. He said that the Wichita Eagle reported the story, adding “I thought everybody read the Eagle.” (I wonder if Longwell has noticed the layoffs at the Wichita Eagle and the poor financial performance of most newspapers as fewer people read them.)

A search of the Eagle for stories on this topic shows a blog column from Wednesday January 6, just six days before the city council meeting where the item was to be considered. The Eagle printed stories on Friday and Sunday. These stories, however, don’t report the detailed information that some people would like to have. There’s simply not room in a newspaper, as the agenda report for this item contained ten pages of small print. Not many people are interested in such detail, either.

(The city’s agenda packet for this meeting, which is the important source of detailed information, became available on the city’s website probably late Thursday. The pdf file indicates that it was created at 4:51 pm that day.)

Longwell pressed Todd: “How much lead time do we need?” I have an answer for him. After I read the agenda packet Friday afternoon, I emailed Wichita public information officer Van Williams with a few questions. By Monday afternoon I hadn’t received a response. I’m not criticizing Williams, as he might have had any number of valid reasons for not replying to my questions right away. But even if he had replied Monday afternoon, that’s just a few business hours away from the meeting. That is definitely not enough time to digest a project of this scope.

Gray then asked Todd how much vetting does the public do on a project like this? The answer to this is: not enough, as the city has a recent history of problems with its development partners. In December 2008 the city was about to enter into an agreement with a developer when Dion Lefler of the Eagle uncovered very troubling facts about the developer’s past dealings. See Wichita city hall: more evidence of lax procedures for a summary.

Then-city council member Sharon Fearey — now a candidate for the Sedgwick County Commission — was disappointed that the Eagle uncovered these facts and reported them. See Sharon Fearey doesn’t appreciate the Wichita Eagle for the story and video.

Since then Wichita has a new city manager, and the city has said it has new procedures in place for investigation of the backgrounds of potential business partners. Other problems remain, however. Last month Wichita Eagle editorial writer Rhonda Holman wrote about missing or incorrect information provided to the city council:

Worse, when the council approved the Big Dog deal on a 5-2 vote, its members reportedly were unaware that the company had hired an investment banker to explore a possible sale or merger. Plus, city documents about Big Dog listed its employment at 115 when the number actually has dwindled to 30 to 40 (from a 2005 high of 336).

A policy meant to guide the use of tax abatements and other tools doesn’t work well if decisions are based on faulty information.

Going back to 2004, we have evidence that city council members were not familiar with even the most basic facts about our economic development programs. The article “Tax break triggers call for reform” published in the Wichita Eagle on August 1, 2004 reported this:

Public controversy over the Genesis bond has exposed some glaring flaws in the process used to review industrial revenue bonds and accompanying tax breaks.

For example, on July 13, Mayans and council members Sharon Fearey, Carl Brewer, Bob Martz and Paul Gray voted in favor of granting Genesis $11.8 million in industrial revenue bond financing for its expansion, along with a 50 percent break on property taxes worth $1.7 million.

They all said they didn’t know that, with that vote, they were also approving a sales tax exemption, estimated by Genesis to be worth about $375,000.

It’s not like the sales tax exemption that accompanies industrial revenue bonds was a secret at the time. An easily accessible web page on the City of Wichita’s web site explains it.

Regarding the present case, Schlapp said she would have liked to have known about the exclusivity period earlier. That’s just one example of something not contained in the agenda packet that is important for citizens and council members to know, and we didn’t know that before this meeting.

Gray also noted the history of some of the people at the council meeting who opposed the project, adding that he didn’t see them changing their minds. That attitude represents a simplistic view of the way public policy ought to be formed.

An issue like this has many facets. Some could possibly have merit, and some certainly are harmful. A discussion like what took place at this meeting can provide a forum for exploring these issues, and perhaps eliminating the bad in favor of the good. The fact that some might still be opposed to the project doesn’t negate this.

In the end, the council voted unanimously to defer this matter until its February 2 meeting.

Jeff Fluhr updates status of downtown Wichita

Last Friday, Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, addressed members and guests of the Wichita Pachyderm Club. His topic was the future of downtown Wichita and its revitalization.

“It’s very important that we have a downtown that is very clear and very concise on where it wants to go,” he said. He likened the development of downtown to the planning of an automobile trip, so that we don’t make major investments that we later regret.

The potential of increased private investment is an important goal for downtown. Predictability will help the private sector invest, he said.

As to the importance of downtown, he said that is where the distinctive quality of a city is found — its history, cultural arts, and other institutions that represent the community. Tourism is another goal of a revitalized downtown Wichita, along with an improved perception in the global market as a great place to do business.

Old Town is an example of success in Wichita, he said, an example of what can be done when people are creative and purposeful. He said that Wichita’s transit center, being located near the new Intrust Bank Arena, provides the potential to use mass transit.

As to the economics of downtown Wichita redevelopment, he showed a chart, nearly a year old, that compares public and private investment in downtown over the past ten years. The two amounts are nearly equal to each other. Fluhr said that Goody Clancy, the firm hired to to plan the revitalization of downtown Wichita, has offered the opinion that the way Wichita has measured investment in downtown — using capital investment only — is not an accurate picture. We should also take into account companies that may have moved into the downtown area because of the improvements that have been made. What types of jobs have been created, and what is the spin-off from them?

Addressing the WaterWalk project, he said that an important event took place last November, when people started moving in to the residential building. Now we see human activity in the development. The landscaping is being installed at this time.

Along Douglas, Fluhr said that gaps in the buildings are a problem. We need to bring storefronts back to downtown. This creates an atmosphere of walkability, which helps to bring residential back to downtown, an important thing he said we must continue to work on.

Mentioning the Q-Line, the free trolley bus service, Fluhr said that “we’ll literally have a couple thousand people that can be on this thing in a given night.”

Besides downtown, Fluhr said that they’re also looking at “first-ring” neighborhoods, the areas that surround downtown. In response to a question, he said we need a healthy city throughout. The first-ring neighborhoods may provide housing that is more affordable than in downtown proper.

Analysis

In comparing the planning of downtown Wichita to a car trip, Fluhr made the same presumption that Wichita city council member Lavonta Williams made when she compared downtown planning to planning her lessons as a schoolteacher. The planning of even a small portion of a city is an immensely more complicated task. That these two figures make such comparisons leads me to believe that we don’t understand the monumental scope of the task we’ve decided to undertake.

Regarding predictability being important to private sector investors: the planning process right now has created huge uncertainty as to the future of downtown. Who is likely to invest in downtown at this time, when so much is up in the air?

Further, the potential use of eminent domain to take property creates uncertainty, too. This is why it is important for the city to swear off the use of eminent domain, and even the threat of its use.

There’s also this concern I have about the predictability Fluhr said is needed for private investment to flourish: For the future to be certain, someone has to enforce the plans that have been made. All the methods that government has to enforce or encourage human behavior lead to loss of economic freedom: incentives, grants, tax abatements, subsidies, regulation, zoning, eminent domain, preferred treatment. All are contrary to economic freedom.

It’s also troubling that now we’re going to be measuring the economic impact of public investment in a new way, using — if I can read between the lines a bit — things like “multipliers” and other economic development jargon and devices to exaggerate the impact of public investment. It’s important to remember that when left to their own devices, Wichitans have made investments that have produced tremendous economic impact with their own multiplier effects. These investments, however, have not always been made in the politically-favored downtown area. Instead, they’re been made where people wanted them to be made, so their economic impact, in terms of creating wealth and things that people really want, has been greater than if directed by government planners.

As to the Q-Line claim of thousands of riders in a night, I hope Fluhr meant the potential capacity of the Q-Line system, as its actual ridership is much less and very expensive on a per-rider basis. See Wichita’s Q-Line an expensive ride for ridership numbers, which have been less than 1,500 per month.

It’s impossible not to appreciate Mr. Fluhr’s enthusiasm for his work and his genuine concern and vision for the future of downtown Wichita. I’m concerned, however, that Fluhr and the downtown Wichita revitalization boosters — let’s call them the “planners” — have fallen victim to what Randal O’Toole and others call the design fallacy.

O’Toole explains in his book The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future:

These planners are guilty of believing the design fallacy, the notion that architectural design is a major determinant in shaping human behavior. While design does play a role at the margins of certain things — for example, certain patterns can make housing more vulnerable to crime — the effects that planners project are often highly exaggerated.

Later O’Toole writes:

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. … Problems such as these stem from the design fallacy that is shared by so many planners and the architects who inspire them.

Do the Wichita planners suffer from the design fallacy? Fluhr mentioned “engagement of the river” as he has in past talks. Referring to a conversion of an old school building into residential use, he used language like “a dynamic living space in a renovated school,” “each of the units is unique,” and “taking distinctive architecture to us and bringing it to new use.”

Referring to our Carnegie Library, he said that its architecture is unique to Wichita, and wouldn’t be found in other cities. Projects like this, along with the Broadview Hotel and Union Station, should “remain in our fabric” as part of the “distinctive qualities that make us who we are.”

This focus on the architecture of buildings in a city is characteristic of past talks by Fluhr. So yes, I believe that he and the planners are influenced by the design fallacy. It’s something we’ll have to watch out for as we proceed with the planning process.

Lord’s Diner debate focused on wrong issues

At today’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, an item no longer on the agenda still caused some controversy.

The Lord’s Diner, a charitable organization, had proposed buying a city-owned building at 21st and Grove and making a second site for their effort to feed Wichita’s poor.

Opposition from community groups, however, drove the Lord’s Diner to withdraw its plans.

In today’s meeting, council members Sue Schlapp and Paul Gray spoke in favor of the Lord’s Diner’s plans on the basis of its charitable and humanitarian activity.

Council member Lavonta Williams, who represents the district where the proposed site exists, responded without mentioning the community’s real objection to the plan: they don’t want the type of people the Lord’s Diner serves congregating in the vicinity of the proposed location.

Mayor Carl Brewer spoke of how this has been a complicated issue. Council members must do the right thing, he said, which may not be the same as what the community wants. He said he recognizes the need to feed everyone, and there are people all over town that need help: “These are people who cannot help themselves.”

He said that people in key leadership positions said things that were “very bitter, very venomous,” and that citizens should “charge it to the mind and not the heart,” adding that “some people take desperate measures to be able to get what they want.” He asked that citizens not judge an entire community by the actions of a few.

The mayor said he sees an opportunity, and he urged everyone to work together.

What hasn’t been mentioned in the debate over this matter is that the proposal by the Lord’s Diner is a lawful use of the property. If we want to have a system that respects private property rights, that’s the only thing that matters.

Wichita Eagle reporting is at City takes Lord’s Diner proposal off table after diner pulls its offer. An informative blog post by Brent Wistrom is at Council members vent as Lord’s Diner plan sinks.

City council members on downtown Wichita revitalization

At the meeting of the Wichita City Council last week, several city council members gave their reasons for supporting the planning for the revitalization of downtown Wichita. It’s worthwhile to take a look at two members and their remarks.

Council member Janet Miller spoke first. (Click on Wichita downtown planning proposal: Janet Miller for video.)

“We’ve given the free market a chance in downtown,” Miller said. There’s a few things we can disagree with in this statement. First, the market downtown is not very “free.” There are TIF districts overlaying much of downtown, for example. These TIF districts are an example of government interventionism in the extreme, something quite different from free markets.

Besides this, Miller frames the decision incorrectly. To her, downtown redevelopment is something that must happen, and since people haven’t responded to this decree very well, that’s a failure of the market. But the correct decision point is when people and business decide to be downtown or somewhere else. That’s where we see free markets in action and the decisions people make. Because they make decisions other than what Miller wants them to make, that doesn’t mean that free markets have failed. Instead, people have simply made a decision other than what she believes is the correct decision.

She also said this: “Without incentives, the free market just doesn’t work.” To which I say: “Where there are incentives, markets are not free.” That’s government interventionism. It’s axiomatic.

Then, there’s this quote from Miller: “Just like the human body cannot succeed with rot at its core, neither can a city be healthy with rot at its core.” Variations on this nostrum are constantly repeated by government-subsidized downtown revitalization supporters. This analogy is meaningless. I’ve asked the city to supply evidence of this — something more authoritative than the mayor’s vision and dreams — and so far none has been supplied.

Regarding public and private investment in downtown Wichita: A document published earlier this year showed that public and private investment in downtown Wichita over the past decade is nearly even, or about a one to one ratio. Now Miller says: “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.”

So has something new been discovered in the last ten years that allows public-private partnerships to reap such fabulous rewards? It doesn’t seem likely.

Furthermore, if it is possible to achieve such impressive results from public investment, why is this our goal only now? Shouldn’t we have had this goal earlier? Is this an example of the incompetence of previous city councils, of which Mayor Brewer has been a member for many years?

Council member Lavonta Williams, in her remarks, said that we must have a plan, comparing the planning of downtown revitalization to planning her classes when she was a schoolteacher. (Click on Wichita downtown planning proposal: Lavonta Williams for video.)

“Without a plan, there is chaos,” she said, noting that some people think that the things we’ve done downtown may be chaotic. “Hopefully this bond will bring us all together. … Downtown is everybody’s community, but it’s not going to be if you don’t have everybody buying in to what’s going on.”

She urged citizens to attend meetings so that their comments are validated.

William’s analogy — downtown planning and running her classroom — is not meaningful. There’s simply no comparison between the two. One is a highly structured situation, while the other is a problem of immense complexity with very little structure. My post Planning downtown Wichita revitalization: an impossible task? summarizes some of the characteristics that make planning such a difficult task. Deluding ourselves that the task is as simple as Williams posits is a sure path to failure.

Then, I have some news for Williams: not everyone is going to buy in to these plans and the huge public subsidies that will accompany them. We’re not all going to come together on this. As council member Miller recognized in her remarks: “There’s a great variety of opinions on this subject.”

Wichita planning firm hopefuls make pitch

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, the four planning firms that were selected as finalists for the master plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita made their public presentations. I was able to attend three of the presentations.

In his opening remarks to the Tuesday session, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said that tonight is an important night for our community. He said that the revitalization effort is about more than just downtown, but about all of us. “Downtown is our front porch.” We must come together as a community in this effort.

Studies of other cities, he said, show that downtown revitalization leads to more jobs, tourism, increased property values, and increased satisfaction and pride in our city.

“Feet on the street,” the mayor said, means that everything people want can be provided in a walkable area.

The planning firms and their representatives are all immensely confident in their capabilities and proud of their past achievements. Most use grand language — “dynamic,” “bold plan, “innovative,” “forward-looking.”

Community engagement is important, all firms said. So is the public-private partnership. Leveraging public investment with private investment was always mentioned.

Transit — including public transit — was emphasized by the firms. One firm promoted “bicycle-oriented development.” In a nod to the green revolution — whether that’s a good idea or not — “sustainability” was often mentioned, with one firm having an expert in just that on its panel of presenters.

There was actually some distinction between the presenting forms. One makes use of a charrette, which is a period of intense design activity. Another firm said it doesn’t use this practice.

For one firm, the presenter said that the firm had been in Wichita for three months gathering information and meeting with Wichitans.

The presentations and the printed proposals are full of grand and attractive images of the firms’ projects in other cities. One firm, in its presentation, showed several images of parts of downtown Wichita where there was a vacant lot or other empty space. Then, said the presenter, imagine if it looked like this! And the empty space would be filled in with attractive buildings of immense size and scale.

Sometimes the presenters said things that made me wonder about their actual knowledge of Wichita. One said that because Wichita has such a stable economy, it is attractive to outside investors. While it’s true that our housing market has been relatively stable — we never had the huge run-up in prices and then a crash — it a common compliant that Wichita is too dependent on aviation, and that we need to diversify our local economy.

Another presenter, and I am not kidding, praised the WaterWalk development as an example of a Wichita success. I also learned that we must prepare — at least according to one firm — for the return of passenger rail service to Wichita.

I was surprised that most of the planning firms used a variety of experts in different fields — economics and economic development, transit, planning, architecture, sustainability, civil engineering, traffic, and transit are some of the examples. One firm had partnered with local experts.

Each firm presented for about an hour, with time for just a few questions from the selection committee.

Going forward, the selection committee will select one firm to recommend to the Wichita city council. The target date for this is tomorrow. Then, it’s thought that on October 13 the city council will make the selection — or maybe choose none of the firms.

Since the city council has the final say, I was surprised that only council member Lavonta Williams attended, besides, of course, Mayor Brewer.

After the steering committee makes its recommendation, I plan to examine that firm’s proposal more closely. We also need to take a look at the results of their previous projects. For example, were they financed through tax increment financing (TIF) districts, and how are those districts performing? What other type of public subsidy was necessary to make the projects work (or not)? Was eminent domain used to transfer property from one person to another, just because the new owner would pay more in taxes? If there was rezoning, was it done with overlays that respected existing property use rights?

These are some of the questions that we’ll want to get answers to. These are the important things I learned about during my trip to Anaheim’s Platinum Triangle development. Will Wichita pursue a freedom-friendly planning process as used there?

In addition, we need to decide whether we want to plan at all, at least in the comprehensive way that the planning firms are promoting. A book I recently read, The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, presents evidence of the harm that centralized government planning causes. Listening to the presentations, I recognized the firms were planning to use many of the dangerous practices and beliefs mentioned in this book.

Wichita city council: more travel on tap

At tomorrow’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, approval of more travel is on the agenda.

Tomorrow’s agenda item is this: “Approval of travel expenses for Mayor Brewer, Council Member Schlapp, Council Member Gray, and Council Member Williams to attend the NLC Congress of Cities in San Antonio, Texas, November 10-15, 2009.” This is all the information that is available.

The reaction of citizens to council member Janet Miller’s junketeering to France has been overwhelmingly against this type of wasteful travel. Now we have four members of the council traveling for five days to a National League of Cities event.

What is the value of this conference? Citizens might be excused for assuming that an organization with such a lofty name acts only in the interest of citizens. In reality, the NLC is a special interest group, and its interests are not always in line with citizen concerns. For example, this position paper outlines its stance on the use of eminent domain for economic development. It’s a position, as you can imagine, in favor of cities’ rights to take property for economic development.

At Wichita city council, special pleading of selfish interests

At yesterday’s meeting of the the Wichita City Council, a matter was presented to the council that provided an illustration of basic economic principles that are foreign to the council.

A condominium homeowners association asked for special assessment tax financing to make repairs to the building. My remarks that I delivered at the meeting were based on my post In Wichita, waiving guidelines makes for bad policy.

David M. Bryan, a Wichita attorney and resident of the building, represented the the homeowners association that is asking for the special assessment financing. He spoke after I did. His wife accompanied him to the podium.

Bryan’s case for help was based on factors that — besides being irrelevant — show just what a fiasco this matter is. It also illustrates just how selfish these condominium owners are in expecting the city to bail them out of their problem.

First, he says that he and the other condo owners represent one of the goals of downtown redevelopment. “We all took that leap of faith and bought the lofts” when the building was still under construction.

He didn’t know what tuckpointing was when he moved in to this building, and he and the other residents didn’t know that this [the need for repair] was going to happen.

He said that he thinks the building represents a sound and good investment in downtown redevelopment, and that the building is part of what the city council wants to accomplish.

Conventional financing for these repairs would, Bryan said, require personal guarantees by all residents, and that would prevent the individual units from being sold unless the entire loan was paid off.

(In my testimony, I made the point that the amount that each condominium owner needs to pay to fix the building is on the order of what it would cost to paint a conventional house of the same value as these units. There’s also a defect in the ownership structure of this building if there is no way to pay for repairs like the present situation, as things like this are foreseeable.)

Council member Paul Gray, speaking from the bench, expressed concern that approval of this request sets a precedent for other condominium buildings in Wichita to make the same request that this building has made.

In the end, council member Lavonta Williams made the motion to approve the financing. All members except Gray voted for it. Vice-Mayor Jim Skelton was not present.

After the council voted, Mrs. Bryan gave Wichita economic development director Allen Bell a pat on the back, and Bell and Mr. Bryan shared a congratulatory handshake. You can see these things by attending the meetings in person.

It appears that the city’s desire for downtown redevelopment is an unsustainable goal that can’t be maintained without continued subsidy. The message is this: When a downtown development gets in financial trouble, make a beeline to city hall. This was the case last year when the Warren Theater received a no- and low-interest loan from the city, propping up the city’s ill-conceived investment in a TIF district benefiting that theater.

Recently we learned that rehabilitation of a downtown hotel is on hold because historic tax credits — that is, outright gifts to developers — are on hold because the state can’t afford to grant them.

Now, buildings that need small repairs that can be deemed to be part of the city’s plan for downtown redevelopment are eligible for special assessment financing.

I don’t think the council is aware of the corrosive effect of these special favors. No news media reported this story. It is a small amount of money that is involved in this case. This matter is emblematic, however, of an activist city council and city staff who believe they can direct economic investment in Wichita better than its citizens can on their own.

While listening to Bryan make his case, I thought this is an illustration of the lessons Henry Hazlitt taught us in his classic work Economics in One Lesson. The first chapter may be read at One Lesson, which I excerpt here:

Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics, or medicine — the special pleading of selfish interests.

While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. …

In addition to these endless pleadings of self-interest, there is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups.

Wichita election results equal status quo, worse

The result of yesterday’s elections in Wichita is an endorsement for the status quo. For those interested in liberty, free markets, and education in Wichita, the election was a total disaster.

On the Wichita city council, the two incumbents running for re-election won. For the open seat, Janet Miller won. While her website talks of fiscal responsibility, it’s a safe bet that Miller is on the side of increasing the size, scope, and intrusiveness of city government.

The election of Miller doesn’t signal a huge shift on the council, as Sharon Fearey, her predecessor, favored an expansionary city government.

For the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, all four incumbents won. This is terrible news for Wichita schoolchildren and taxpayers. As outlined in my post Wichita school board members should not be re-elected, the Wichita school district is moving exactly in the wrong direction on many issues.

The board members have a bad attitude, too. Walt Chappell, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education, recently experienced the overbearing arrogance of this board. My post Wichita school board video shows why members should not be re-elected holds the video that exposes these attitudes.

But as reported in the Wichita Eagle, board members are pleased. Connie Dietz actually said “This wasn’t time for new people to be on the board.”

When people like Dietz believe that they — and only they — have the ability to successfully run the Wichita schools, we’re in a lot of trouble. Wichita schoolchildren now face great danger, as any possibility of meaningful reform in the Wichita school district is becoming less likely.

Lavonta Williams still exploiting dead man

I had thought this issue would be over, that Wichita city council candidate Lavonta Williams would revise her campaign materials and make the needed corrections. But here’s a report from a citizen:

“I received a new mailer today from Lavonta and she is STILL using the dead man’s name as a supporter. This is clearly intentional and unacceptable.”

Original reporting is at Wichita political endorsements from the other side and Another unlikely Lavonta Williams voter.

Cornejo & Sons Campaign Contributions

A few weeks ago, Cornejo & Sons, Inc., a Wichita company, was reported to be in serious violation of agreements with the City of Wichita regarding a construction landfill.

The Wichita Eagle story Cornejo landfill along K-15 taller than permitted reports the contemporary details. My post Cornejo & Sons campaign contributions history recaps some of this company’s problems with political campaign contributions in the past.

Undoubtedly this company and its landfill will be in front of the Wichita city council before too long. Voters may want to know to whom has Cornejo or its associates contributed recently. Here’s what my inspection of campaign finance reports shows:

Lavonta Williams (candidate in district 1) received a contribution of $300 from company president Ron Cornejo on April 17, 2008. Another $500 was received on March 4, 2009.

Bob Aldrich (candidate in district 6) received a contribution of $200 from company president Ron Cornejo on January 28, 2009.

More unlikely Lavonta Williams voters

I don’t want to emphasize this too much, as these cases are not in the same league as listing an endorsement from a dead man (Wichita political endorsements from the other side and Campaign mailer listed endorsement from dead man ).

But for completeness — possibly, who knows — here’s the rundown on a few more people who are listed on Lavonta Williams’ campaign literature under the heading “Join us in voting WILLIAMS on April 7:”

Elder Herman Hicks. He lives in Derby.

Reverend Kevass Harding. He lives in Bel Aire, outside the Wichita city limits. But he works at a church in district 1, and is involved in Wichita taxpayer-subsidized real estate development there, too. But he can’t vote in district 1.

Brother Clifford Easiley. He lives in precinct 224, in city council district 2. (It’s spelled “Easily” on the mail piece.)

Reverend Lincoln Montgomery. He lives in precinct 218 in the exclusive Willowbend neighborhood. That’s a long way, figuratively, from the inner-city church he serves in district 1.

Another unlikely Lavonta Williams voter

Today’s Wichita Eagle contains a story that provides some detail behind something readers of this blog already knew. The Eagle story Campaign mailer listed endorsement from dead man tells how Val Jackson, a prominent Wichita businessman who died in 2002, came to be listed as someone who will be voting for Lavonta Williams.

Sharp-eyed readers who received that mailing might notice another name that doesn’t belong in a list of those who will be voting for Lavonta Williams: John Kemp.

A look at the voter file shows there’s no one with a name close to this registered to vote in district 1.

There is, however, a John Kemp active in city politics in his role as a member of a District Advisory Board. But he lives in and serves on the DAB for district 3.

Since he doesn’t live in Williams’ district, it’s hard to see how he’ll be voting for her.

While it would be easy to brush off these mistakes as trivial, this sloppiness in Williams’ campaign material is the same sloppiness we’ve become accustomed to in city hall. Whether intentional or not, it’s a cause for concern.

It further raises the issue of who is really pulling the strings on the Williams campaign team. Is it the candidate herself, or her advisors such as Beth King, with ties to those who seek subsidy from Wichita city hall? The post Williams — King — Minnesota Guys connection raises concern supplies details of one such connection.

Williams — King — Minnesota Guys connection raises concern

There’s a triangle of influence and connections that should raise flags of caution as voters decide the makeup of the Wichita city council.

At the center is Beth King, a Wichita public relations executive. She’s well known in city hall, having managed the mayoral campaign of Carl Brewer in 2007. She’s said to be a close advisor to him. Her name is so familiar that when her emails are forwarded among department heads in city hall, she’s referred to as simply “Beth.” No last name is necessary.

The connection that voters should be aware of is this: King is the campaign manager for Lavonta Williams, who is seeking election to the district 1 council seat she holds after being appointed to fill the remainder of Brewer’s term after he was elected mayor.

King is also the public relations consultant for Real Development. This firm — best known for its principals the “Minnesota Guys” — is a beneficiary of Wichita taxpayer dollars in the form of TIF districts and facade improvement loans paid back by special tax assessments.

Lavonta Williams voted for each of the programs the Minnesota Guys wanted. Enthusiastically.

The Minnesota Guys will be asking for more TIF financing, according to Wichita Eagle reporting.

Lavonta Williams, should she be elected to a new term on the council, will be voting on whether to give the Minnesota Guys access to more Wichita taxpayer funds.

Who will advise Williams how to vote? Beth King, her campaign manager, with financial ties to the Minnesota Guys?

It’s a relationship too close for taxpayer comfort.

Wichita City Arts tech studio proposed

Randy Roebuck, in a presentation at the Wichita city council workshop, promoted the idea of a “digital oasis” in Wichita. It would be a place where people can go to get free help with technologies such as cell phones and computers.

He told of how an Apple Genius Bar does things like this. Council member Jim Skelton asked who runs an Apple Genius Bar? Apple Computer Corporation, of course.

Later council member Paul Gray continued with questions based on Skelton’s. Why not an Apple Genius Bar in Wichita? Why is the city competing with private business? City officials insist they are not trying to compete with private business. Instead, it’s a resource for training and education.

Council member Jeff Longwell said this idea is “on the right path,” as long as it doesn’t cost a lot.

Lavonta Williams said this will attract a different group of people to downtown Wichita. She said it’s something we need.

Mayor Carl Brewer mentioned that not everyone who would want to use a facility like this might not be able to afford its cost. He didn’t mention that someone else should pay for them, but that’s what this program will do.

“It’s part of creating an environment where we have everything that anybody could possibly want. … If the private sector’s really wanting to get out there and they’re willing to invest their dollars and they want to start their business, we should let them.”

This illustrates the mayor’s — and several other council members’ — vision of an expansive city government, providing for citizen needs all the way through arts, entertainment, and now computer tech support.

Then there’s the mayor’s language that we (Wichita city government) should let the private sector do something. I really hope the mayor misspoke here.

This is a bad idea. It seems to me that there may be people in Wichita city hall with too much time on their hands if they have time to come up with ideas like this.

View the video of the portion of the city council workshop where this presentation was made by clicking on Wichita city council workshop, March 24, 2009.

The slides shown to the council members aren’t available on the city’s website, to my knowledge. I captured them from video, and they may be viewed by clicking on Wichita City Arts tech studio presentation.

Read Wichita Eagle reporting by clicking on Cyber Alliance plans to offer free technical training. reporting on KWCH is at Wichita Considers “Digital Oasis”.

From Kevass Harding to Lavonta Williams

One of the unusual sightings on the campaign finance report filed last month by Lavonta Williams, current Wichita city council member and candidate for re-election, is two contributions totaling $1,000 from Kevass Harding and his wife. These contributions represent the maximum it was possible for two people to give at the time.

These contributions are unusual in that the Hardings don’t show up very often on the lists of contributors to local politicians. On May 20, 2008, Kevass Harding contributed $250 to Donald Betts, Jr. in his campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. Then on November 24, 2008, Teketa Harding contributed $50 to Kansas House candidate Cheryl McFarthing.

So the Hardings do contribute a little bit now and then. But the $1,000 to council member Williams represents a new step forward for the Hardings.

I have a theory as to why the Hardings made these contributions, but it will have to remain just that, as none of the parties have answered direct questions about this contribution. All that we know for certain is that these contributions were made last June, right before Harding’s application for the Ken-Mar TIF district went before the Wichita city council, of which Lavonta Williams is a member, in July and August.

I’ve asked both parties to explain whether there was or was not a connection between the contributions and the application for the TIF district. Williams answered the question obliquely, not addressing the questions that Wichitans want the answer to (see Lavonta Williams Campaign Contributions Raise a Few Questions). Harding didn’t respond to email or telephone inquiries. But that’s not surprising, as last summer he wouldn’t return my telephone calls. That’s even though I am his constituent, as he is the at-large member of the Wichita school board.

So we’re left to wonder.

Lavonta Williams campaign contributions raise a few questions

See end of article for disclosure.

Analysis of the campaign finance report recently filed by Lavonta Williams, current Wichita city council member and candidate for re-election, revealed a few interesting insights about her campaign.

First: The campaign contributions are concentrated from one industry. Of the $16,550 in cash contributions raised by the Williams campaign and disclosed in this report, $10,500 (63%) came from sources that are real estate developers, or from people closely connected to them such as their spouses. These developers are often asking city hall for subsidy or favor.

I asked council member Williams a few questions by email, such as: Can you explain why this industry supports your candidacy so strongly? Do you think there is any linkage between your support for TIF districts and other subsidies that benefit many of these developers and their contributions? (Her answer is reported following.)

Second, this concentration of contributions by one industry may be even stronger than reported above. It appears that $1,050 in contributions are from 14 attorneys (or spouses) that work for one law firm, Hinkle Elkouri Law Firm LLC. This firm has among its clients several of the developers who contributed the 63% reported above. I asked council member Williams if there is any reason for the generosity of this one law firm.

Third, even non-downtown developers are contributing to the Williams campaign. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the Williams campaign. This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for TIF district financing. I asked council member Williams these questions: How did Harding come to make this contribution? How did he know that you were considering a run for office? Was there any connection between the contribution and your advocacy for his TIF district?

I received an email message from council member Williams in response to my questions. Here it is, in its entirety:

Mr. Weeks,

Throughout my 35+ years of service as an educator, neighborhood and community activist, I have met and worked with many people who have given back to this community and made a difference in the lives of Wichitans. Some of them are supporting my campaign, and I am grateful for that support as we continue to work together, in our various ways, to making Wichita a better place.

I think we can say that Ms. Williams chooses not to answer the questions I asked.

Fourth, there are some peculiar aspects of this campaign finance report regarding dates. The cover sheet states the report covers the time period April 1, 2008 through July 16, 2008. A check with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission confirmed that the report should have covered through December 31, 2008, as did the reports for other candidates for city council.

That office told me they had checked with the Williams campaign, and that the campaign said there were no contributions from the middle of July to the end of December. It seems strange that there would be a flurry of contributions to the campaign in June and July, and then nothing — not even one contribution — for the remaining months of 2008.

A curious omission from the list of contributors is anyone connected to Real Development.

It won’t be long before another campaign finance report will be due. It will be interesting to see if council member Williams can broaden the base of her supporters.

Disclosure: I am a supporter of James Barfield, an opponent of council member Williams, and have provided volunteer service to his campaign.

Walking Door-to-Door with Marcey — ummm — Lavonta?

Wichita city council member Lavonta Williams just launched the website that supports her campaign for re-election.

It’s a nice website, but it has a little mistake that gives us a clue as to who might be running Williams’ campaign.

Her “Get involved” page lists this as one of the ways you can help Williams: “Walking door-to-door with Marcey.”

Marcey? Who is this Marcey? How could someone make the mistake of using the name “Marcey” when it should be “Lavonta?”

I don’t know, but last year the campaign for Sedgwick County Commissioner of Marcey Gregory, mayor of Goddard, was managed by Wichita public relations personality Beth King. Could there be a connection?

Wichita TIF public hearing was bait and switch

This appeared in today’s Wichita Eagle.

On Tuesday December 2, 2008, the Wichita City Council held a public hearing on the expansion of the Center City South Redevelopment District, commonly known as the downtown Wichita arena TIF district. As someone with an interest in this matter, I watched the city’s website for the appearance of the agenda report for this meeting. This document, also known as the “green sheets” and often several hundred pages in length, contains background information on items appearing on the meeting’s agenda.

At around 11:30 am Monday, the day before the meeting, I saw that the agenda report was available. I download it and printed the few pages of interest to me.

At the meeting Tuesday morning, I was surprised to hear council member Jim Skelton expressed his dismay that a change to the TIF plan wasn’t included in the material he printed and took home to read. This change, an addition of up to $10,000,000 in spending on parking, is material to the project. It’s also controversial, and if the public had known of this plan, I’m sure that many speakers would have attended the public hearing.

But the public didn’t have much notice of this controversial change to the plan. Inspection of the agenda report document — the version that contains the parking proposal — reveals that it was created at 4:30 pm on Monday. I don’t know how much longer after that it took to be placed on the city’s website. But we can conclude that citizens — and at least one city council member — didn’t have much time to discuss and debate the desirability of this parking plan.

The news media didn’t have time, either. Reporting in the Wichita Eagle on Monday and Tuesday didn’t mention the addition of the money for parking.

This last-minute change to the TIF plan tells us a few things. First, it reveals that the downtown arena TIF plan is a work in progress, with major components added on-the-fly just a few days before the meeting. That alone gives us reason to doubt its wisdom. Citizens should demand that the plan be withdrawn until we have sufficient time to discuss and deliberate matters as important as this. What happened on Tuesday doesn’t qualify as a meaningful public hearing on the actual plan. A better description is political bait and switch.

Second, when the business of democracy is conducted like this, citizens lose respect for both the government officials involved and the system itself. Instead of openness and transparency in government, we have citizens and, apparently, even elected officials shut out of the process.

Third, important questions arise: Why was the addition of the parking plan not made public until the eleventh hour? Was this done intentionally, so that opponents would not have time to prepare, or to even make arrangements to attend the meeting? Or was it simple incompetence and lack of care?

The officials involved — council members Jeff Longwell and Lavonta Williams, who negotiated the addition of the parking with county commissioners; Allen Bell, who is Wichita’s director of urban development; and Mayor Carl Brewer — need to answer to the citizens of Wichita as to why this important business was conducted in this haphazard manner that disrespects citizen involvement.

Additional coverage:
Wichita TIF Districts Mean Central Government Planning
Downtown Wichita Arena TIF District Testimony
Jim Skelton is Frustrated
Downtown Wichita Arena TIF District Still a Bad Idea
Wichita Mayor and City Council Prefer to Work Out of Media Spotlight
Wichita’s Naysayers Are Saying Yes to Liberty
Tiff over Wichita TIFs
Downtown Wichita Arena TIF District
Do Wichita TIF Districts Create Value?
Wichita City Council’s Misunderstanding of Tax Increment Financing
Tax Increment Financing in Wichita Benefits Few
Tax Increment Financing in Iowa

Climate change alarmism in Kansas is expensive

Today’s Wichita Eagle reports on the high cost of climate change mitigation. (Climate cleanup costs could trickle down) Before Kansans commit to expensive courses of action that will be ineffective, we need to consider the wisdom of this action.

As reported in the article, “there is the worry that regulation will drive up costs and push industry and jobs to other places.” Climate change alarmists treat these yet-to-be-passed regulations as a given, and are sure that they’ll be implemented. These regulations, however, are bad public policy, and there’s no reason why we should base current decisions on the threat of bad regulations being passed in the future. In fact, to do so would be highly irresponsible.

Reported as a counterbalance to the huge costs of complying with bad regulation is “But others argue that regulations will spur innovation, creating more jobs.” It’s true that a forced move to a “green” economy would necessitate the need for workers to do things. What’s really important, however, is whether these jobs would increase the wealth of our country. That depends partly on the validity of the threat that climate change presents, and that threat is disputed. If the threat is not real, or if the effect would be minor, then these “green” jobs have all the characteristics of “make-work” jobs. They put people to work, but produce nothing of value.

Furthermore, we might find ourselves spending huge sums to reduce greenhouse gases when other countries are increasing their emissions rapidly. Melissa Cohlmia of Koch Industries got this exactly right when she mentioned countries that “will not participate in efforts to limit greenhouse gases.” I’ve written about this before in relation to efforts in Kansas to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. A little arithmetic tells us that anything we as Kansans do is just a drop in the ocean. In fact, as I report in KEEP’s Goal is Predetermined and Ineffectual, “even if Kansas stopped producing all carbon emissions, the effect would be overcome in about 16 months of just the growth in China’s emissions.”

Rate increases in utility bills are burdensome to customers. When the local electric utility proposed raising monthly bills by $10 for the average consumer, ratepayers protested vigorously. When the City of Wichita proposed adding perhaps $3 or $4 to monthly residential water bills, council member Lavonta Williams expressed concern that this would be a hardship for many of the residents in her district. Whenever forecasts call for higher natural gas prices, we’re warned that some people will not be able to heat their homes.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer’s Reformulated TIF Plan Still a Bad Idea

Today the Wichita City Council holds a special meeting to consider a reformulated plan to provide tax increment financing (TIF) for the area surrounding the downtown Wichita arena. It’s still a bad idea.

It appears there are two major changes in the new plan. First, the TIF district is smaller. Second, spending on the district would be 70 percent of the new property taxes — the “increment” — instead of 100 percent.

Why is this plan a bad idea? Why, you may be asking, aren’t I in favor of development and progress in downtown?

To me, there’s a difference between entrepreneurs working in markets and government centralized planning. That’s one of the reasons why I oppose this TIF district. It represents government making plans for us, rather than people deciding themselves what they want. It’s the difference between political entrepreneurs — who work to please elected officials — and market entrepreneurs — who work to please customers.

If it turns out that when people express their preferences freely that they don’t really want much downtown development, that’s okay with me. I, for one, do not feel that I have the superior knowledge needed to tell people where they should go for fun and entertainment. I’d rather let people decide themselves.

I’m not willing to use the blunt tool of government to direct people and their money to where I think it should go. I wouldn’t do that even if I was convinced I was right.

But there are people in Wichita who don’t share my view of free people trading freely in free markets. Mayor Carl Brewer and several city council members — Sharon Fearey and Lavonta Williams being most prominent among them — and quasi-governmental organizations such as the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation feel differently. They feel that they know better than Wichitans do where development should be happening, and they’re willing to use the tools of government to force their vision upon you.

This is what’s happening at this time. This is why Wichitans need to oppose this TIF district.

Other article about TIF districts in Wichita: Do Wichita TIF Districts Create Value?, Downtown Wichita Arena TIF District, Wichita City Council’s Misunderstanding of Tax Increment Financing, Tax Increment Financing in Wichita Benefits Few, Tiff over Wichita TIFs, and Wichita City Manager’s Warning is Too Late.

Wichita Smoking Ban Starts. Sharon Fearey is Excited.

Today, September 4, 2008, marks the first day of the ban on smoking in Wichita. It’s not quite a total ban, and that has some smoking ban supporters upset. In a letter to the Wichita Eagle, anti-smoking activist Cindy Claycomb writes “If you are a supporter of clean indoor air, please do not spend your money in businesses that allow smoking indoors, including smoking rooms. If we continue to spend our money at places that allow smoking indoors, that tells the business owners that we do not care — that we will tolerate secondhand smoke even though we all know the harmful effects.”

Not everyone is upset, though. In the Wichita Eagle article Smoking ban takes effect; for smokers, end of an era, Wichita city council member Sharon Fearey is quoted as “I feel this is an exciting time for the city.” If, like council member Fearey, you appreciate increasing government and bureaucratic management of the lives of Wichitans, you might be excited, too. Those who value liberty and freedom, however, are saddened — even if they aren’t smokers.

Fortunately Ms. Fearey is precluded from running again for her seat on the city council by term limits. The two architects of this smoking ban — Lavonta Williams and Jeff Longwell — can run for election again. The position held by Ms. Williams is up for grabs in the March 2009 primary. Hopefully the citizens of Wichita city council district one will elect someone respectful of property rights, not to mention personal rights.

For more coverage of the smoking issue and why it’s important, these articles will be of interest: It’s Not the Same as Pee In the Swimming Pool, Haze Surrounds Wichita Smoking Ban, Property Rights Should Control Kansas Smoking Decisions, Let Property Rights Rule Wichita Smoking Decisions, Testimony Opposing Kansas Smoking Ban, and No More Smoking Laws, Please.