Tag Archives: Paul Gray

Downtown Wichita economic development numbers questioned

When the Wichita City Council recently received the 2012 Project Downtown Annual Report, a city council member took the opportunity to question and clarify some of the facts and figures presented in the report.

Wichita Project Downtown Annual Report 2012

In his questions, Wichita City Council Member Paul Gray (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) asked whether the amount of public investment presented did, in fact, include all public investment.

In his answer, Scott Knebel, who is Downtown Revitalization Manager, said no, not all forms of public investment were included in the figures presented in the report. He told the council that an analysis is being prepared, perhaps to be available in May.

Gray urged Knebel to be more forthcoming when reporting on the level of public investment in order to gain a better level of community buy-in: “If you truly want a greater level of community buy-in, being as forthcoming as we can with the financial analysis of these projects and truly demonstrating what we as a community are putting in through all the different public financing mechanisms available. You may not persuade the people who don’t like public participation in projects — you’re not going to change their viewpoints by that and I don’t expect you to — but the difference is you may get more trust and buy-in from the community that thinks you’re not being forthcoming and honest with them.”

Regarding Wichita news media, Gray said the media may say “‘See, it’s a 90 percent private funded ratio versus 10 percent’ which is not really the case. We’re skewing actual numbers to demonstrate our successes downtown, but I think our successes downtown speak for themselves.”

Knebel and Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President Jeff Fluhr promised to be more forthcoming with investment figures in the future.

Gray also asked about the city’s practice of building retail space and practically giving it away to developers, who can then lease the space and earn outsized returns at taxpayer expense. I reported this at the time this lease was under consideration by the city council:

According to a letter of intent approved by the city council — and sure to become law after a public hearing at a meeting of the Wichita City Council on September 13th — the city is planning to build about 8,500 square feet of retail space in a downtown parking garage. The garage is being built, partly, to serve a hotel Burk and partners are developing.

Here are the details of the deal Burk and his partners are getting from the taxpayers of Wichita: The city plans to lease this space to Burk and $1.00 per year. Not $1.00 per square foot, but $1.00 for the entire space — all 8,500 square feet.

That’s the plan for the first five years. For the next 10, the city would charge $21,000 rent per year, which is a rate of about $2.50 per square foot.

For years 15 through 20, the rent increases to $63,000, or $7.41 per square foot. At the end of this period, Burk will have the option of purchasing the space for $1,120,000, which is a cost of about $132 per square foot.

That cost of $132 per square foot is within the range of what sources in the real estate industry tell me top-quality retail space costs to build in Wichita, which is from $130 to $140 per square foot. Rents asked for that space would be from $15 to $18 per square foot per year.

Using the low figure, Burk could expect to collect about $127,500 in annual rent on space he rents for $1.00, leaving a gross profit of $127,499 for him. As the $15 rent is a net figure, Burk’s tenants will pay taxes, insurance, and maintenance.

Wichita city manager Robert Layton answered Gray by saying that real estate leasing is not an area of the city’s expertise.

Without Gray’s questions, these important matters of public policy would likely not have been brought to public attention. For mentioning these topics, Gray was — in an attempt at humor by Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) — branded as “Debby Downer.”

Citizens might expect that as millions in public funds are invested, someone in city hall is keeping track, and that there is a plan for reporting these numbers. Citizens should ask why Mayor Brewer, City Manager Layton, and current council members are not concerned that there appears to be no such plan for accountability.

The notion of reporting that there was only $10.7 million in “public projects” in 2012 is absurd. Just one project, the Ambassador Hotel, received $15,407,075 in taxpayer funds to get started, and then was slated to receive $321,499 per year for the first five years, with smaller amounts for 22 years. Wichita voters rejected a small part of the ongoing subsidy, but the rest remained.

As to city manager Layton’s answer that the city is not experience in real estate leasing, my response is well, why then did you get involved? It’s not the first time the city has made such a sweetheart lease deal with some of the same parties. It’s become almost routine, as I reported at the time this lease was being considered:

While most citizens might be shocked at the many layers of subsidy offered to Burk, he’s accustomed to such treatment. In 2003, the city offered a similar deal to Burk and his partners for retail space that is part of the Old Town Cinema project. That deal was made with Cinema Old Town, LLC, whose resident agent is David Burk. According to the Wichita Eagle, other partners in this corporation include Wichita theater owner Bill Warren, real estate agent Steven Barrett, Key Construction and seven others.

David Wells, one of the owners of Key Construction, is a partner with Burk on the new hotel project, and Key is slated to build the garage under a process that doesn’t require competitive bidding, even though city money is used to pay for it. Note: Later the garage was put out for competitive bid.

The Old Town project let Burk and his partners lease 17,500 square feet of retail space from the City of Wichita for $1.00 per year for the first five years. Like the proposed project, that’s not $1.00 per square foot, but $1.00 per year for all 17,500 square feet.

I wonder: Is the fact that these parties — Burk, Key Construction, Bill Warren — are reliable campaign contributors to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members, does that mean anything?

Wichita Eagle reporting on this meeting is at City Council member Paul Gray questions numbers by Wichita Downtown Development.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita school district records request

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

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

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

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

City of Wichita

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

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

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

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

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

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

This is an important issue to resolve.

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

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

Here’s why the WDDC is a public agency subject to the Open Records Act. KSA 45-217 (f)(1) states: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The Kansas Attorney General’s office offers additional guidance: “A public agency is the state or any political or taxing subdivision, or any office, officer, or agency thereof, or any other entity, receiving or expending and supported in whole or part by public funds. It is some office or agency that is connected with state or local government.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last year I appeared again before the council to ask that Go Wichita agree that it is a public agency as defined in the open records act. Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

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

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

Discussion on this matter revealed a serious lack of knowledge by some council members regarding the Kansas Open Records Act. In remarks from the bench James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

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

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

Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].” Such a workshop would probably be presented by Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf. His attitude towards the open records law is that of hostility, and is not on the side of citizens.

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I made no requests that year to the city citing the open records act. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to Meitzner’s concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

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

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

Enforcement of Kansas Open Records Act

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

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

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

Additional information on this topic is at:

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Sunday April 10, 2011

Local elections, qualifications of Wichita’s elected officials. On today’s edition of the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas, Wichita State University’s Ken Ciboski, Chapman Rackaway of Fort Hays State University and myself join host Tim Brown to discuss local elections in Kansas. Mention was made of a recent article I wrote that was critical of the educational attainment of some Wichita City Council members. See Education gap on Wichita City Council.

Steineger, Kansas senator, to address Pachyderms. This Friday (April 15) Kansas Senator Chris Steineger will speak to the members and guests of the Wichita Pachyderm Club on the topic “Using Business Principles to Restructure State and Local Government For Long-Term Efficiency.” Steineger, of Kansas City, has served in the Kansas Senate since 1997 and in December switched his affiliation from the Democratic to Republican party. Steineger has voted with Republicans on fiscal issues for many years. Explaining why he switched parties, he wrote “I am a fiscal hawk who believes Americans have been borrowing, spending, and living beyond their means for too long.” Steineger has spoken at events organized by Americans for Prosperity.

Washington Monument strategy. At about 11:00 pm Friday night, President Barack Obama spoke on television in front of a window where the Washington Monument could be seen in the background. He said that thanks to the just-struck agreement to continue funding the operations of the federal government, the monument would be open to visitors the next day. This is explicit use of the Washington Monument strategy, in which the response to any proposed cut or slowdown in the growth of government is illustrated in the most painful or visible way. As the Wikipedia entry states: “The most visible and most appreciated service that is provided by that entity is the first to be put on the chopping block.” … The president also said “I would not have made these cuts in better circumstances.”

Soros conference online. This weekend’s conference of the Institute for New Economic thinking has quite a few papers and videos online at the conference’s website. Surprise: Keynes and his economic theories are revered. Attendees are treated to papers and presentations like this: “It is the interdependence between the rule of law and the production and distribution of goods and services that gives capitalism its unity. The autonomy of the economy is thus an illusion, as is its ability to self-regulate. And we are in the current mess because the scales have tipped slightly too far in favour of this illusion. This shift in the balance represents an inversion of values. Efficiency, it was believed, would be better served if the workings of governments were regulated more tightly (especially in Europe, although the theory originates in America) and if the markets were deregulated to a greater extent. The ingenuity of the financial markets initially, then their blind sightedness, did the rest.” … What?

Economics in one lesson this Monday. On Monday (April 11), four videos based on Henry Hazlitt’s class work Economics in One Lesson will be shown in Wichita. The four topics included in Monday’s presentation will be The Lesson, The Broken Window, Public Works Means Taxes, and Credit Diverts Production. The event is Monday (April 11) at 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm at the Lionel D. Alford Library located at 3447 S. Meridian in Wichita. The library is just north of the I-235 exit on Meridian. The event’s sponsor is Americans for Prosperity, Kansas. For more information on this event contact John Todd at john@johntodd.net or 316-312-7335, or Susan Estes, AFP Field Director at sestes@afphq.org or 316-681-4415.

Wichita City Council this week. On Tuesday, the Wichita City Council considers only consent agenda items. Then, tributes — including video — to outgoing Council Members Paul Gray, Sue Schlapp, and Roger Smith and installation of new members. A new vice mayor will also be selected. … I don’t know if the city will be hosting a luncheon afterward. Two years ago a celebratory luncheon titled “Wichita City Council Changing of the Guard” cost over $1,000.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday April 5, 2011

Law, liberty, and the market symposium this week. This Friday (April 8) a symposium titled “Freedom, Liberty, and the Human Spirit” is offered in Wichita. The event is from 8:30 am to noon, in Alumni Auditorium in the Davis Administration Building on the campus of Friends University. The presenter is John R. Hays, Jr of Austin, Texas. The three sessions are titled Freedom’s not just another word for nothing left to lose; Who’s directing the show, and how can it possibly work without a director; and Markets, liberty, and economic progress. The event is free and open to the public, and attendees should reserve a seat by calling 316-295-5526. The sponsor for the symposium is the Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation.

Junket for Wichita lame ducks: the costs. Kim Hynes of KWCH Television reports on the expenses incurred by three lame duck Wichita City Council members to attend a training conference. It’s about $8,000. Particularly amusing — if it weren’t so sad — are the remarks made by Roger Smith as he attempts to justify attending a training conference when he — and the other two lame ducks Paul Gray and Sue Schlapp — will serve less than one month after returning from the conference. … It seems that some council members were not very careful with taxpayer funds when looking for airfares, as Gray spent $772.80 and Schlapp $688.80 on plane tickets. Several made the trip spending less than $400 on their ticket, and one for less than $300. Don’t we have a discount air carrier here in Wichita? … Deb Farris of KAKE Television reports, too. In her story Council Member Lavonta Williams and Mayor Carl Brewer attempt to justify the spending for the lame duck members.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Sunday March 13, 2011

Wichita city council this week. There is no meeting of the Wichita City Council this week, as most members will be attending a meeting of the National League of Cities in Washington, DC. These conferences are designed to help council members be more effective. But for three of the council members that will be attending, their future service on the council is measured in days, not years. These three lame duck members — Sue Schlapp, Paul Gray, and Roger Smith — will be leaving the council in April when their terms end. Their participation in this conference, at taxpayer expense, is nothing more than a junket — for lame ducks.

How attitudes can differ. At a recent forum of city council candidates, one candidate mentioned the five or six police officers conducting security screening of visitors seeking to enter Wichita city hall, recognizing that this doesn’t create a welcoming atmosphere for citizens. Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell said he thought the officers are “accommodating and welcoming.” It should be noted that Longwell carries a card that allows him to effortlessly enter city hall through turnstiles that bypass the screening that citizens endure. Further, it’s natural that the police officers are deferential to Longwell, just as most employees are to their bosses. … This attitude of Longwell is an example of just how removed elected officials can be from the citizens — and reality, too. Coupled with the closing of the city hall parking garage to citizens and the junket for lame ducks described above, the people of Wichita sense city hall elected officials and bureaucrats becoming increasingly removed from the concerns of the average person.

Private property and the price system. In The Science of Success, Charles Koch succinctly explains the importance of private property and prices to market economies and prosperity, how government planning can’t benefit from these factors, and the tragedy of the commons: “Private property is essential for both a market economy and prosperity. There cannot be a market economy without private property, and a society without private property cannot have prosperity. To ensure ongoing innovation in satisfying people’s needs, there must be a robust and evolving system of private property rights. Without a market system based on private property, no one can know how to effectively allocate resources. This is because they lack the information that comes from market prices. Those prices depend on voluntary exchanges by owners of private property. Prices and the resulting profit and loss guide entrepreneurs toward satisfying the needs of consumers. Through this system, consumers are able to direct entrepreneurs in efficiently allocating resources through knowledge and incentives in a way no central authority can. … The biggest problems in society have occurred in those areas thought to be best controlled in common: the atmosphere, bodies of water, air, streets, the body politic and human virtue. They all reflect aspects of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and function much better when methods are devised to give them characteristics of private property.”

Toward a free market in education. From The Objective Standard: “More and more Americans are coming to recognize the superiority of private schools over government-run or ‘public’ schools. Accordingly, many Americans are looking for ways to transform our government-laden education system into a thriving free market. As the laws of economics dictate, and as the better economists have demonstrated, under a free market the quality of education would soar, the range of options would expand, competition would abound, and prices would plummet. The question is: How do we get there from here?” Read more at Toward a Free Market in Education: School Vouchers or Tax Credits?. … This week in Kansas a committee will hold a hearing on HB 2367, known as the Kansas Education Liberty Act. This bill would implement a system of tax credits to support school choice, much like explained in the article.

Are lottery tickets like a state-owned casino? This week a committee in the Kansas House of Representatives will hear testimony regarding HB 2340, which would, according to its fiscal note, “exempt from the statewide smoking ban any bar that is authorized to sell lottery tickets under the Kansas Lottery Act.” The reasoning is that since the statewide smoking ban doesn’t apply to casinos because it would lessen revenue flowing to the state from gaming, the state ought to allow smoking where lottery tickets are sold, as they too generate revenue for the state.

Money, Banking and the Federal Reserve. This month’s meeting of the Wichita chapter of Americans for Prosperity, Kansas features a DVD presentation from the Ludwig von Mises Institute titled “Money, Banking and the Federal Reserve.” About the presentation: “Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson understood “The Monster.” But to most Americans today, Federal Reserve is just a name on the dollar bill. They have no idea of what the central bank does to the economy, or to their own economic lives; of how and why it was founded and operates; or of the sound money and banking that could end the statism, inflation, and business cycles that the Fed generates.” The event is Monday (March 14) at 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm at the Lionel D. Alford Library located at 3447 S. Meridian in Wichita. The library is just north of the I-235 exit on Meridian. For more information on this event contact John Todd at john@johntodd.net or 316-312-7335, or Susan Estes, AFP Field Director at sestes@afphq.org or 316-681-4415.

Wichita-area legislators to meet public. Saturday (March 19th) members of the South-Central Kansas Legislative Delegation will meet with the public. The meeting will be at Derby City Hall, 611 Mulberry Road (click for map), starting at 9:00 am. Generally these meetings last for two hours. Then on April 23 — right before the “wrap-up session” — there will be another meeting at the Wichita State University Hughes Metropolitan Complex, 5015 E. 29th Street (at Oliver).

Pompeo to meet with public. If you don’t get your fill of politics for the day after the meeting with state legislators, come meet with United States Representative Mike Pompeo, who is just completing two months in office. Pompeo will be holding a town hall meeting at Maize City Hall, 10100 W. Grady (click for map) starting at 1:00 pm on Saturday March 19th.

Losing the brains race. Veronique de Rugy writing in Reason: “In November the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released its Program for International Student Assessment scores, measuring educational achievement in 65 countries. The results are depressingly familiar: While students in many developed nations have been learning more and more over time, American 15-year-olds are stuck in the middle of the pack in many fundamental areas, including reading and math. Yet the United States is near the top in education spending.” … A solution is to introduce competition through markets in education: “Because of the lack of competition in the K–12 education system. Schooling in the United States is still based largely on residency; students remain tied to the neighborhood school regardless of how bad its performance may be. … With no need to convince students and parents to stay, schools in most districts lack the incentive to serve student needs or differentiate their product. To make matters worse, this lack of competition continues at the school level, where teacher hiring and firing decisions are stubbornly divorced from student performance, tied instead to funding levels and tenure.” The author notes that wealthy families already have school choice, as they can afford private schools or can afford to move to areas with public schools they think are better than the schools in most urban districts.

Teachers unions explained. A supporter of the teachers unions is questioned about her belief that the unions need more money and power. In Kansas, the teachers union in the form of Kansas National Education Association (KNEA) and its affiliates consistently opposes any attempt at reform.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Friday February 18, 2011

Wichita-area legislators to meet public. Tomorrow members of the South-Central Kansas Legislative Delegation will meet with the public. Tomorrow’s meeting is in the Sunflower Room of the Sedgwick County Extension Education Center, 21st and Tyler Rd, at 9:00 am. Generally these meetings last for two hours. The first of these meetings, two weeks ago, was focused more on hearing the concerns of citizens rather than allowing legislators to speak a lot. … Two other meetings have been scheduled. One is on March 19th — right before the legislature adjourns for its break — at Derby City Hall, 611 Mulberry Road. Then on April 23 — right before the “wrap-up session” — at the Wichita State University Hughes Metropolitan Complex, 5015 E. 29th Street (at Oliver).

This Week in Kansas. On This Week in Kansas Joe Aistrup of Kansas State University and co-author of of the new book on Kansas politics Kansas Politics and Government: The Clash of Political Cultures, Richard Schrock of Emporia State University and Education Frontlines, and myself join host Tim Brown to discuss immigration and abortion bills in Kansas, concealed carry on college campus, and public schools medicating students. This Week in Kansas airs on KAKE-TV channel 10 at 9:00 am Sunday.

Mandatory union political spending questioned. From Derrick Sontag of Americans for Prosperity, Kansas: “It was Thomas Jefferson who said, ‘To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.’ On that note the Kansas Legislature is considering House Bill 2130, commonly referred to as ‘paycheck protection.’ Money derived from public employee union membership dues, for example, is often spent on functions outside of bargaining and administrative activity. That’s certainly the prerogative of a union but the problem is in some instances members may not choose to support union political activity, yet their money is going towards just that. … This is not a bill designed to eliminate unions. Rather it provides workers the ability to protect themselves from financially supporting political candidates they otherwise wouldn’t support. The unions that effectively present their case as to why political activity should occur will more than likely earn the financial support of a number of its members. Members of public employee unions should have the right to fully safeguard against their money being spent on political causes and candidates they don’t support.”

Tom Woods: Rollback. This week I traveled to Kansas State University to attend a lecture by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.. His topic, mostly, was his new book Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse. Of the book, Woods explains: “The book does two things. First, it lays bare the true fiscal position of the U.S. government, and shows why some kind of default is not merely possible but inevitable. … By far the more central part of the book is this: the critical first step for reversing this mess and checking the seemingly unstoppable federal advance is to stick a dagger through the heart of the myths by which government has secured the confidence and consent of the people. We know these myths by heart. Government acts on behalf of the public good. It keeps us safe. It protects us against monopolies. It provides indispensable services we could not provide for ourselves. Without it, America would be populated by illiterates, half of us would be dead from quack medicine or exploding consumer products, and the other half would lead a feudal existence under the iron fist of private firms that worked them to the bone for a dollar a week. Thus Americans tolerate much government predation because they have bought into the myth that state intervention may be an irritant, but the alternative of a free society would be far worse.”

$100 million in cuts. It’s two years old, but this video places a proposal by President Barack Obama to cut $100 million from the federal budget in context. As the video explains, the scale of numbers so large — millions, billions, trillions — are often difficult to grasp. … Currently some Republicans in Congress are trying to cut $100 billion (1,000 times as much) from the federal budget, and it’s a difficult process. Even a cut of this size is not enough. As Tom Woods recently wrote in Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse: “America is staring default in the face, and the boldest proposal we hear is for trimming $100 billion. That’s like taking three dollars off a trip to the moon.”

Brownback plan ignored in Wichita. At this week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council I explained to council members a few points of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s economic development plan and how several actions the council was considering were directly in opposition to that plan. No council member asked a question. No Wichita news media reported on how the council ignored the governor’s plan. Especially troubling is how the Wichita Eagle had two reporters attending the meeting, yet there was no mention in that newspaper as to how the council voted several times against the principles of the Brownback plan. … Especially puzzling are the votes of Sue Schlapp, who held a leadership role in the Brownback campaign. Video and more is here.

National League of Cities junket defended. Speaking of Schlapp and other city council members, the Wichita Eagle printed a letter from the Executive Director of the National League of Cities defending the value of the conference for city council members. Fair enough. But the problem is that Wichita is sending council members to the conference who will serve less than one month after the conference. These council members — Sue Schlapp, Paul Gray, and Roger Smith — ought to refrain from spending taxpayer money on this trip, which is a junket for lame ducks.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Wednesday February 9, 2011

ACLU leader to speak in Wichita. On Friday (February 11) the speaker at the meeting of the Wichita Pachyderm Club will be Doug Bonney, who is Chief Council and Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri. His topic will be “150 Years of Kansas Liberty.” This speaking invitation has caused a bit of controversy, with some Pachyderm Club members — and non-members — criticizing the selection of a speaker whose group is associated with liberal political causes. But the invitation is in line with the club’s mission of political education, as stated on the national Pachyderm website: “To promote practical political education and the dissemination of information on our political system.” Previous speakers who don’t fit the club’s Republican Party affinity have included Democrats WSU political science professor Dr. Mel Kahn and Kansas school board member Dr. Walt Chappell, and Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, whose mission is to end the war on drugs. All these speakers provided valuable information and education. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Information added to KansasOpenGov.org. KansasOpenGov.org, a government transparency initiative provided by the Kansas Policy Institute, has added new sections of data to its offerings. Added this week are checkbook and payroll registers for school districts in Topeka, Wichita, Great Bend, Colby, and Pittsburg. An interesting observation: Wichita has two union stewards on the payroll. The Wichita school district says the cost of compensation, benefits, etc. are reimbursed by the union, but while serving as union employees, they continue to build up seniority and earn credit towards their taxpayer-funded pensions. More information from KPI is at More districts added — taxpayers have new tools.

“The Citizen” launches. This week a new print newspaper launched covering Kansas City and the states of Kansas and Missouri. It’s available in an online version, too. Named the citizen, it describes itself as “We’re a new monthly newspaper for the Kansas City metro area. Our first issue is available right now. Are we biased? Yes — just like every other newspaper and magazine. Are we different? Yes — because we’re not afraid to admit that things like a love of freedom and a belief in personal responsibility matter, and they inform what we choose to cover. We’re free to readers and ad-supported.”

Economic development in Wichita explained. Maybe. You be the judge, as Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and city council member Janet Miller explain. Video here.

Limits on state agency advertising proposed. Kansas state treasurer Ron Estes has proposed a ban on appearances by elected officials in public service announcements using state resources 60 days before an election. This was an issue before last year’s election in November, mostly for the treasurer and secretary of state contests. Said Estes: “These public service announcements are intended to educate the citizens of Kansas on the programs available by the state to help serve their best interests. They are not intended to serve as a free campaign commercial for an incumbent before an election.” More information is here. After this issue is handled, I propose a next step: reigning in the agency websites, which functioned as campaign billboards for most elected state agency heads.

Wichita lame ducks to take junket. As The Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman explains, Wichita city council members with less than a month left to serve should not be traveling to conferences whose nominal mission is to help them be better council members. But Paul Gray, Sue Schlapp and Roger Smith will do just that, based on action taken in yesterday’s council meeting. As Holman writes: “All governing boards should curb junkets for members approaching the exits. Taxpayers should not have to subsidize the air travel, hotel rooms and networking and schmoozing of elected officials whose service is all but over.”

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday January 18, 2011

Education reformer to speak in Kansas. Next week the Kansas Policy Institute hosts education reform expert Dr. Matthew Ladner at several events in Kansas. In Wichita, he will speak at a free breakfast event on Tuesday January 25th. Information on that event and those in Topeka and Overland Park can be found at Kansas Policy Institute Upcoming Events. Ladner, of the Goldwater Institute, will speak on the topic “Good to Great — Lessons for Kansas from Florida’s education revolution.” Florida has been at the forefront of education reform in recent years, according to a study by EducationNext. Kansas, on the other hand, ranks very low in studies that look at education reform among the states. An invitation to the Wichita event is here. RSVPs are requested by January 20th.

Wichita council candidate websites spotted. This is not a comprehensive list of candidates. Instead, these are city council candidates’ websites that have been noticed. District 2, currently held by Sue Schlapp, who may not run due to term limits: Steve Harris, Paul Savage, Charlie Stevens. … District 3, currently held by Roger Smith on an interim basis: Clinton Coen, James Clendenin…. District 4, currently held by Paul Gray, who may not run due to term limits: Joshua Blick, Michael O’Donnell. … District 5, currently held by Jeff Longwell: Jeff Longwell, Lynda Tyler.

Schools’ funding claims questioned. “Much of the increase in state spending for schools since 2005 has accumulated in cash reserve funds rather than being spent in classrooms, according to an analysis of unencumbered cash reserves held by districts.” The Kansas Watchdog story by Paul Soutar continues: “Carryover cash in accessible district funds has increased by $306 million since 2005, the year the Kansas Supreme Court’s Montoy decision went into effect. Cash in these funds grew to about $743 in 2010, up $187 million since 2008. The carryover, or unencumbered cash, is money appropriated in previous years but not spent and with no claims against it for unpaid bills or other obligations. The cash accumulates in more than 30 distinct funds.” … The balances in these funds rise when money is not spent as fast as it is put in. School districts argue that they need some fund balances — and they do — but the growing balances, year after year for most districts, undermines the claims of school spending advocates.

Kansas schools rated. “Kansas elementary and secondary schools rose one spot in a new national performance ranking, but are still below the U.S. average and many other states, the publishers of Education Week reported this week. The publication’s 15th annual ‘Quality Counts’ survey of how precollegiate schools are faring across the nation, ranks Kansas’ performance 37th in the nation, up one place from last year’s assessment, but still lower than the national average.” The Kansas reporter story mentions state school board member Walt Chappell and his concern that Kansas’ state-controlled student achievement scores — which show rapidly rising performance — may not be valid or reliable: “Even so, the Education Week rankings and others like them are important, said Walt Chappell, a state board of education member who in the past has expressed skepticism about claims of educational excellence that he believes don’t square with students’ college entrance exams or the state’s double digit high school dropout rates. At the very least, ‘here is another outside observer taking another look at our schools and telling us there is room for improvement,’ Chappell said.”

Insurance costs on the rise in Kansas. From Kansas Reporter: “Health insurance premiums have gone up 5 to 7 percent in Kansas because of the federal Patient Affordable Care Act, an underwriters’ group official told lawmakers Thursday.” Mandates for increased coverage are seen as a cause.

Economic freedom at decline, across the U.S. and in Wichita

Earlier this year Robert Lawson appeared in Wichita to speak about economic freedom throughout the world. While the United States presently ranks well, that is changing. Writing this month in The Freeman, Lawson and his colleagues warn of dangerous trends — particularly the Obama Administration’s response to the recession — that pose a threat to the economic freedom that powers growth and prosperity.

While the article is focused primarily at the national economy, there are lessons to be learned locally, too. In particular, increasing intervention into the state and local economy leads to compounding the loss of economic freedom.

As an example, the Wichita City Council has just approved a plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita that calls for public investment to be made downtown. While the plan is promoted as a market-based plan, it is, instead, a government plan to redirect investment from where people have decided it should be to where politicians, bureaucrats, and their patrons think it should be. These patrons are sometimes called “crony capitalists,” as explained in this passage from the article (James D. Gwartney, Joshua C. Hall and Robert A. Lawson:
The Decline in Economic Freedom
):

It is important to distinguish between market entrepreneurs and crony capitalists. Market entrepreneurs succeed by providing customers with better products, more reliable service, and lower prices than are available elsewhere. They succeed by creating wealth — by producing goods and services that are worth more than the value of the resources required for their production. Crony capitalists are different: They get ahead through subsidies, special tax breaks, regulatory favors, and other forms of political favoritism. Rather than providing consumers with better products at attractive prices, crony capitalists form an alliance with politicians. The crony capitalists provide the politicians with contributions, other political resources, and, in some cases, bribes in exchange for subsidies and regulations that give them an advantage relative to other firms. Rather than create wealth, crony capitalists form a coalition with political officials to plunder wealth from taxpayers and other citizens.

We are now in the midst of a great debate between the proponents of limited government and open markets on the one hand and those favoring more collectivism and political direction of the economy on the other. The outcome of this debate will determine the future of both economic freedom and the prosperity of Americans and others throughout the world.

In Wichita, “those favoring more collectivism and political direction of the economy” are winning. Not only are they winning the actual political votes, they are also winning the battles within their own minds. Astonishingly, many of the crony capitalists in Wichita have deluded themselves into believing that they are supporters of free markets and capitalism. But taxpayer-supported institutions like Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Visioneering Wichita exist for the very purpose of directing taxpayer funds toward the crony capitalists. Even the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce plays a role in the plunder of the taxpayer, with its president nodding in approval as nominally conservative members of the Wichita City Council expressed their support for the collectivist, anti-market vision for downtown Wichita.

The heads of each of these organizations, along with city council members Sue Schlapp, Paul Gray, Jim Skelton, and Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell consider themselves to be conservatives. Many of these have personally assured me they are in favor of free markets.

The actions of the council members, not only their enthusiastic embrace of the downtown plan, but their interventions — at nearly every meeting, week after week — that interfere with the market economy and destroy economic freedom, show that none have even a basic understanding of the difference between the economic means and the political means. Writing in his recent book The Science of Success, Koch Industries Chairman and CEO Charles Koch explains the difference:

The economic means of profiting involves voluntarily exchanging your goods or services for the goods or services of others. Parties will not voluntarily enter into an exchange unless they both believe they will be better off. Therefore, you can only profit over time in a system of voluntary exchange (a market) by making others better off.

The political means of profiting transfers goods or services from one party to another by force or fraud. A coerced or fraudulent exchange leaves at least one of the parties worse off. Examples are stealing, committing fraud, polluting, using unsafe practices, filing baseless lawsuits, lobbying government to hamper competitors or obtain subsidies and promoting self-serving redistribution programs.

The economic means creates wealth by making each participant, and, therefore, society as a whole, better off. The political means, at best, merely distributes wealth. As a general system, it causes the overcoming majority of people to be worse off. (emphasis added)

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday December 6, 2010

Cato scholar to speak on economic freedom. Friday’s meeting (December 10) of the Wichita Pachyderm Club features noted Cato Institute scholar, Principal Attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, and author Timothy Sandefur. He will discuss his recent book The Right to Earn a Living: Economic Freedom and the Law. A description of the book at Amazon.com reads: “America’s founders thought the right to earn a living was so basic and obvious that it didn’t need to be mentioned in the Bill of Rights. Yet today that right is burdened by a wide array of government rules and regulations that play favorites, rewrite contracts, encourage frivolous lawsuits, seize private property, and manipulate economic choices to achieve outcomes that bureaucrats favor. The Right to Earn a Living charts the history of this fundamental human right, from the constitutional system that was designed to protect it by limiting government’s powers, to the Civil War Amendments that expanded protection to all Americans, regardless of race. It then focuses on the Progressive-era judges who began to erode those protections, and concludes with today’s controversies over abusive occupational licensing laws, freedom of speech in advertising, regulatory takings, and much more.” … Of the book, Dick Armey said: “Government today puts so many burdens and restrictions on entrepreneurs and business owners that we’re squandering our most precious resource: the entrepreneurial spirit and drive of our people. Sandefur’s book explains how this problem began, and what steps we can take to ensure that we all enjoy the freedom to pursue the American Dream.” … The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Success factor for liberals identified. On last night’s installment of The Right, All Along: The Rise, Fall & Future of Conservatism, economist Arthur Laffer issued this assessment of the presidency of Bill Clinton: “Two groups I love are principled conservatives and unprincipled liberals. And Bill Clinton I viewed as an unprincipled liberal. And he did one of the best jobs — one of the best presidents we’ve ever had.” It’s an interesting observation by Laffer that for liberals to have success, they must be unprincipled.

Joshua Blick for Wichita City Council. A website for a candidate for Wichita City Council district 4 is up and running. Joshua Blick’s site says: “Joshua Blick is an active leader in District 4; he is the President of his neighborhood association and a local business owner. Joshua also passionately supports the growth and sustainability of new jobs for Wichita, and improving the quality of living for every resident in this great city.” District 4 covers the southwest side of Wichita. The incumbent council member, Paul Gray, may not run again because of term limits.

Washington is why the economy is not growing. Mark Tapscott of the Washington Examiner runs through the reasons why the economy is not growing: “On every front, the federal government is creating more investment-killing tax uncertainty, issuing endless pages of new bureaucratic regulations on the economy, and preventing firms from taking actions that could create hundreds of thousands of new positions and kick-start a muscular recovery with real legs. … Obama is also tightening the federal bureaucracy’s regulatory straightjacket on economic growth. As the Heritage Foundation reported a week before the election, the hidden tax of regulation costs at least $1.75 trillion annually. … Then there is the Obama Permitorium on energy exploration and production here in the United States, which threatens even greater long-term damage to the economy’s ability to generate new jobs and growth. … Instead, Obama is spending billions of tax dollars to subsidize alternative energy programs that cannot possibly replace the energy produced by oil, coal or natural gas until 2030 at the earliest.” The full article is Mark Tapscott: Washington is why the economy is not growing.

Rasmussen polls from last week. Current Congress not appreciated: “Most voters continue to give this Congress poor marks in its closing days, and they still don’t believe the national legislature has passed anything to significantly improve life in America.” Full story here. Ability of Congress to substantially cut spending is doubted, especially by Republicans. See Most Voters Don’t Expect Big Spending Cuts From New Congress. About half of Americans believe that lenghty unemployment benefits increase the number of unemployed people. See Americans Question Whether Extended Unemployment Benefits Do More Harm Than Good. Almost half say repeal of Obamacare would be good for the economy. See Health Care Law.

Kansas Democrats not quite dead. Tim Carpenter of the Topeka Capital-Journal looks at the results of the November election in Kansas and the future for Kansas Democrats. An important process to watch is reapportionment, when new legislative districts will be drawn: “The reapportionment debate is likely to have an urban vs. rural character as districts are reconfigured to correspond with population growth in urban counties, especially Johnson County, and erosion of residents in rural areas of the state. The math isn’t clear yet, but results of the 2010 Census could trigger loss of two rural Senate districts and six rural House districts.” As for the future of Democrats, two observers say “They are back in the Stone Ages” and “We’re seeing a definite balance-of-power shift.” One observer warns that breakdown of the “union of Republican social and economic conservatives” could be an opening for Democrats and moderate Republicans. See KS Dems: Weaker, but not dead.

Young Republicans group started. Lynda Tyler of Kansans for Liberty is shepherding a new group of young Republicans. Writes Lynda: “Do you know a high school student, child, grandchild in the teen years who is interested in learning more about politics and getting involved? Perhaps you would like to get them involved. Chase Blasi has started the Sedgwick Teen Age Republicans group known as STARS. We are sponsoring them and would like to help the group grow so see below for details on their next meeting.” Lynda is hosting a Christmas Party for this group. Write to her at lyndaty@swbell.net for more information.

Wichita trash cooperative: gateway to mandatory recycling?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing, as far as I can tell.

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

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Friday November 12, 2010

Dilts drops campaign for city council. Jason Dilts has announced that he is ending his campaign for a position on the Wichita City Council. He had been running for the district 4 position currently held by Paul Gray, who is precluded from running again by the city’s term limit law. While Dilts’ politics are liberal and might have been expected to depart from those of the incumbent, Gray voted for nearly every spending measure that came before the council. … Dilts’ departure leaves this district without any publicly declared candidates. The filing deadline for city and school board elections is January 24, 2011. The primary election is March 1, and the general election is on April 5. These elections are non-partisan, meaning that candidates run without party identification, although everyone who cares knows who belongs to which party. In the primary, the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.

OTB: One-term Barack. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics predicts a dim future for President Barack Obama and his chances for reelection. Sabato’s most recent “Crystal Ball” column starts off with “The wreckage of the Democratic Party is strewn just about everywhere. President Obama’s carefully constructed 2008 Electoral College breakthrough is now just broken, a long-ago memory of what might have been a lasting shift in partisan alignment.” After presenting the evidence, Sabato concludes: “There’s only one logical conclusion to be drawn: President Barack Obama is down for the count, will have an early lame duck presidency, and will be out of the White House in two years.”

Project Downtown: The Master Plan for Wichita. The “final draft” version of the plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita is now available. Click on Project Downtown: The Master Plan for Wichita. Perhaps after the “final draft” comes the “first permanent version?” Next week the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission will hold a public hearing to consider adoption of the plan. The meeting is at 1:30 pm Thursday Nov. 18, in the tenth floor conference room at Wichita City Hall, 455 N. Main. This is an opportunity for the public to comment on this project. I’m thinking I’ll be there.

Wichita city hall garage closing. Letter to Wichita Eagle, in part: “The bureaucrats reserve for themselves convenient services, while those they are supposed to serve do without and are exposed to parking-meter violations and parking fines. Wichita government has a history of poor service to its citizens. Recent examples include the mismanagement of the Wichita water utility and resulting increases in our water bills, and the increased fees assessed to homeowners for home protection alarms. Yet we see good-old-boy deals on below-market rate loans and tax incentives to every project that comes before city officials, worthy or not.”

Some Kansas counties voted against judges. Last week’s elections in Kansas offered voters the opportunity to vote whether several Kansas Supreme Court and Kansas Court of Appeals justices should be retained in office. Voters decided to retain all by roughly a two-to-one margin. But some Kansas counties voted against retaining the judges. In particular, some western Kansas counties, Cherokee county in extreme southeastern Kansas, and Coffey county in east-central Kansas voted against the judges. A Kansas Watchdog story asked Fort Hays State University political science professor Chapman Rackaway for his analysis. He said “I think you’re seeing more an expression of a philosophy than a particular agenda against these particular justices.” He noted “A more libertarian streak runs strong in western Kansas, and along with that comes a philosophy of ‘throw the bums out.'” He also says that “I think if you ran a correlation of votes you’d find that the strongest Libertarian and Republican results would come from some of the counties you’ve pointed out. In the end, then, this is more about general change than it is a specific policy or judge.”

Health insurance profits. Watching liberal media so you don’t have to: Cenk Uygur, who appears on the liberal television network MSNBC, reported on the profits of health insurance companies. He said that health insurance companies earned $9.3 billion in profits for the first three months of the year, up 41 percent in the last year, adding “Do we really want to leave decisions about our health and our lives to a corporation whose sole purpose is to make money off of us? They get billions in profits by taking in more money from us than they pay out for our care. I’m not sure that makes a lot of sense.” First: citing a number like these profit figures without providing context means very little. Health insurance company profits — in terms of the industry’s size — have been low in recent years. Second: Have the insurance companies figured out how to the “game” the Obamacare plan? It wouldn’t be the first time large companies have co-opted government regulation for their own profit. Third: Do you — as does Uygur — trust the government to make decisions regarding your health care? The idea of a benevolent government paternally caring for our best interests is dangerous. Profit is a more reliable motive. The problem is that health insurance companies compete in a highly regulated market, where the profit motive is not fully able to express itself. Contrast the market for automobile insurance, where companies compete vigorously for business. In that industry, complaints of companies refusing to pay legitimate claims are rare. That’s because with auto insurance, consumers have a wide variety of companies to select from. That’s not the case with health insurance, where the choice for many people is made by their employer. Dissatisfied consumers have little ability to switch to another company.

KansasOpenGov.org revamped. The Kansas Policy Institute announces a major revision of its government transparency website KansasOpenGov.org. I’ll have a longer article about this website next week.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Wednesday November 3, 2010

Republican Party on probation. Noted conservative figure Richard A. Viguerie of ConservativeHQ.com expressed a common idea: “Voters have given Republicans one more chance to get it right. They are on probation, and if they mess up again, they won’t get another chance. The last time the Republicans were in charge, they became the party of big spending, Big Government, and Big Business. They abandoned the philosophy of Ronald Reagan and cozied up to lobbyists and special interests. And they paid a price at the polls.”

Limited government and economic freedom not desired. In today’s Wichita Eagle editorial assessing the election results, Rhonda Holman just can’t grasp the importance of limited government and economic freedom to prosperity. Instead, she prefers what some call “nuanced” politicians, who can be pressured by newspapers to vote for big-government boondoggles: “Incumbent Commissioner Dave Unruh and Wichita City Council member Jim Skelton already have proved to be thoughtful leaders; the same cannot be said of Richard Ranzau, whose tea party tendencies could put important county priorities at risk.” The victories of Ranzau — there were two, one in the primary over an Establishment Republican and again in the general election over a Democrat in a Democratic district — were gained the old-fashioned way: by meeting voters and letting them know what he stands for. And he was not bashful in his message of limited government. Both times, voters responded. The Wichita Eagle ought to take notice.

Future of Sedgwick County Commission. Yesterday’s defeat of incumbent Gwen Welshimer by Jim Skelton replaces a commissioner committed to low taxes and spending with someone with a less convincing record. While Skelton has sometimes voted against TIF districts — he and Paul Gray voted against the $10.3 million Exchange Place TIF district, although they were okay with it at $9.3 million — he firmly believes it is his duty — as city council member and as future county commissioner — to direct the economic development of the region.

Future of Wichita City Council. Skelton’s move to the county commission means there will be another new face on the council be fore long. Already the spring elections will bring two new faces, as members Sue Schlapp and Paul Gray will be leaving the council due to term limits. Now Skelton will be replaced, either by city council appointment or election next spring, depending on the timing of Skelton’s resignation. That’s a total of three new members. Mayor Carl Brewer and Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell must run for relection in the spring if they want to stay on the council. Brewer has already announced his intent to run.

Commission criticized as “gutless.” Because Wichita real estate developer Rob Snyder wasn’t granted some $400,000 in taxpayer subsidy because of the action of the Sedgwick County Commission, he criticized the commission as “gutless,” according to Wichita Eagle reporting. When testifying before the Wichita City Council as to the need for his developer welfare, Snyder whined about how that earmarks are now unpopular with the American public and not available to finance his proposed Save-A-Lot grocery store. An earmark — that is to say, a grant of money paid for by U.S. taxpayers — was used as a large part of the financing for the other Save-A-Lot in Wichita at 13th and Grove.

Kahn to substitute at Pachyderm. A scheduling change means Wichita State University political science professor Mel Kahn will be the presenter at this Friday’s (November 4) meeting of the Wichita Pachyderm Club. The always-interesting and entertaining Kahn will speak on the topic “Do Political Attacks Help or Harm our Republic?” This seems like a timely topic given the recent general and primary elections. The public is welcome at Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Community Improvement Districts discussed in Wichita

At yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, council members approved the start of the process to create two Community Improvement Districts in Wichita. Yesterday’s action sets August 10 as the date for a public hearing.

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from last year. They allow merchants in a geographic 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. More background may be read in the article Wichita community improvement districts should have warning signs.

In my remarks to the council, I asked the city to consider consumer protection and education regarding CIDs. I noted that just by crossing a street and shopping within the boundaries of a CID, consumers will have to pay higher sales tax. How would consumers know this in advance?

Council member Paul Gray noted that by crossing a street, consumers might enter a different municipality and have to pay more sales tax. While this is true — the neighboring city of Andover is considering a one-cent city sales tax — the Wichita city council can’t control what its neighbors do. But it can control what happens within the boundaries of Wichita.

Gray said that he didn’t want to create community improvement districts and then handicap them with further government regulation. I agree. But the proper way to avoid this extra regulation is to avoid government intervention in the first place by forging the creation of community improvement districts.

But perhaps the most important 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?

City council members and city staff did not provide an answer to this question.

Gray did not vote on this measure as a family member is employed by the business seeking this CID. Council member Lavonta Williams was absent. All other council members voted to approve the petition and set a public hearing on August 10.

Wichita Eagle reporting on this issue is at Public hearings set on sales tax districts at WaterWalk and Central and Oliver. Wichita Business Journal reporting is at City Council moves forward on two CIDs.

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 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.

Wichita city council discusses economic development incentives

Last week a Wichita company that’s expanding made an application for industrial revenue bonds and accompanying property tax abatements. The company’s application wasn’t timely, and for that reason is not likely to receive the requested help. The discussion surrounding the item provides insight into city council members’ ideas about the role of the city in economic development.

Industrial revenue bonds, or IRBs, are not a loan from the city, and the city does not make any guarantee that the bonds will be repaid. The primary benefit to the recipient of IRBs is that the property purchased with the bonds will generally be exempt, in whole or in part, from property taxes for some period. Also, the company may not have to pay sales tax on the property purchased with the bonds.

The agenda report for this item is at Request for Letter of Intent for Industrial Revenue Bonds, Michelle Becker, Inc. (District V).

In introducing the item, the city’s economic development chief Allen Bell said that because the project has already started construction, it falls outside the guidelines for the city’s IRB program. The construction is 85% to 90% complete.

A question by council member Sue Schlapp established that if the company had made application before the building was started, the application would have been approved as routine.

She also asked that if we approve this action today, will we have to go back and look at other businesses that are in the same place? Wichita City Manager Bob Layton asked that the council establish guidelines that if a project has already started, a project is not eligible for this type of assistance.

There was also some discussion about whether this company would move away from Wichita if the tax abatement was not granted. Since the building is already under construction, Bell said this is evidence that the company is intending to stay in Wichita. “It’s difficult to think of an incentive as something that’s given after the fact,” he said.

A question by council member Paul Gray established that there have not been many cases where companies have asked for tax breaks retroactively, according to Bell’s answer. Bell also said that he didn’t think that approving the current application would spur an avalanche of similar requests.

Gray also noted that we can create economic disparities between companies by granting incentives, so how do we justify doing this? Bell’s answer was that an important consideration is bringing business from out of state instead of taking business away from other local companies.

Layton added that an important consideration is whether the project can more forward without public assistance.

Council member Jeff Longwell remarked that “we really don’t have that many tools in our toolbox for emerging businesses.” Bell agreed.

In later discussion, Longwell said “I hate to penalize this emerging company … I should have got them in on this process long before we did and we wouldn’t even be having this argument. So I suppose I am at fault in part of this delay.”

Gray said that because we’re not competing against another community for this company — the normal use of incentives — he can’t support this application.

Council member Janet Miller said that the appropriate time to look at incentives is, as the manager said, when we think a company can’t move forward without the incentive. She also noted that we’re being asked to approve an action for which we’re going to soon have a policy against.

Schlapp, indicating a desire to approve the incentive, asked for justification: “We have a company here that doesn’t need an incentive but wants an incentive … can somebody justify that?”

Longwell said it’s not as simple as a need and a want. He said the applicant is a smart, well-managed company. But we shouldn’t use the qualifier of helping only the companies that couldn’t succeed without the city’s help. “Why not reward some some of those companies that are very well managed and run smart and have the ability to grow even more with our help than without it?” Again he referred to the lack of tools for emerging businesses. “We ought to be helping these types of companies that we think can truly prosper even more with our help … I think they fully warrant our help because they’re successful …”

Mayor Carl Brewer said that we have a proven track record of trying to help businesses and to get businesses to come to our area. He agreed with Longwell in that we need additional tools to use for economic development, as other communities have been competing successfully. We don’t have the same tools that other communities have, he said.

Longwell suggested the city visit with the applicant about her financing. He made a motion to defer this item. Council member Williams asked about the impending completion of the project, since it’s scheduled to be completed at the end of December. The answer from the manager was that with regard to IRBs, the project would not be eligible after it’s complete. The motion passed with Council member and Vice-mayor Jim Skelton opposed.

Analysis

What’s striking about the discussion are these two things:

First, many council members and some city staff believe that the city doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” for shoveling incentives on companies for economic development purposes. Evidently the ability to grant exemptions from property taxation — and not only the city’s property tax levy, but also that of the county, school district, and state — along with the ability to make outright gifts of money is not enough.

Second, many council members and some city staff believe that they can determine which companies are worthy of incentives.

According to city manager Layton, the city is going to revisit its economic development policies soon. This would be a good time for Wichita to come up with ideas that would benefit all companies, not only those that fall within guidelines that the council or city staff creates. My suggestion, explained in Wichita universal tax exemption could propel growth, is to give all new capital investment a tax abatement for a period of five years.

At the state level, there has been some discussion about the costs of tax abatements or exemptions. In a recent debate in Wichita, Kansas Secretary of Revenue Joan Wagnon used the term “tax expenditures” to describe these giveaways of the state’s income. The idea is that if the state (or other governmental body) didn’t create tax abatements or exemptions, revenue to the government would be higher. Her debate opponent Alan Cobb said it’s wrong to term these tax giveaways as “expenditures,” as the money belongs to the people first, a position I agree with.

There is the related issue of these tax abatements or exemptions really being appropriations of money that, if processed through the normal process of legislative hearings, etc., would be noticed for what they are. In Wichita city government we don’t have hearings quite like the Kansas Legislature, but the idea is the same: if this company had asked for a grant from the city for $22,253 (that’s the value of the first year of the requested tax abatement, with a similar figure for the following nine years, less $2,500 a year to the city for administrative fees), citizens — news media too — would quite likely look at this matter differently. Presented as industrial revenue bonds — just what are those anyway? — and a tax abatement, well, it all seems so … so innocent, so municipal.

A few more observations:

Council member Jeff Longwell’s confession of being at fault for the lateness of this company’s application should be remembered by voters in the next election, should he decide to seek to retain his current post, or — as some have told me — he seeks the mayorship of the city.

There’s also Longwell’s use of the term “reward,” in that the city should “reward some some of those companies that are very well managed and run smart.” I’d like to remind him and the rest of the council that the free enterprise system contains a very powerful reward mechanism for companies that do well: profit. That alone is sufficient.

Coverage from the Wichita Eagle is at Wichita City Council puts off tax breaks for accounting firm.

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.

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 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”.