Tag Archives: Robert Layton

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton

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For Wichita city hall, an educational opportunity

Will Wichita city officials and sales tax boosters attend an educational event produced by a leading Kansas public policy institute? It will be an opportunity for city officials to demonstrate their commitment to soliciting input from the community.

Wichita voters will face a choice in November — whether to vote for or against a proposed sales tax of one cent per dollar. Wichita city council members and city hall bureaucrats say they have spent great effort educating Wichitans on issues relevant to the sales tax. Members of the “Yes Wichita” group are holding events to educate the public on why they should vote in favor of the tax.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1975All of the information presented by the city and the “Yes Wichita” group has a common ideological thread: That our city has problems, and the way to fix things is to implement a new tax and rely on government to provide the solutions it has determined we need.

City hall might be surprised to learn that there are differing opinions as to the nature and extent of our city’s problems, and different ideas about how to fix them. Some of these ideas are novel. Some may work, and some may not. (It’s far from certain that government-provided solutions will work.) Most of these diverse ideas are well-researched. They often rely on private sector initiative rather than government taxation and spending. They may rely on voluntary cooperation through markets rather than coercive government action.

Since city hall says that knowing the facts is important, you might think that city council members and city bureaucrats would welcome the production of educational events on sales tax topics. That’s why it was discouraging that a July forum on water issues produced by Kansas Policy Institute was attended by just a handful of city officials. Even worse, the city officials that attended left the meeting at its midpoint, as soon as the city’s public works director finished his presentation.

I understand that city council members are part-time employees paid a part-time salary. Some have outside jobs or businesses to run. But that’s not the case with the city’s public works director or its governmental affairs director. That’s not the case with the city manager, or the assistant city manager, or the city’s economic development staff.

It’s especially not the case for Mayor Carl Brewer. He is paid a full-time salary to be the leader of our community. When he shows little willingness to consider views other than those produced by city hall sycophants that work — directly or indirectly — for him and the council, we have a deficit of leadership in Wichita.

It’s especially grating because several city council members and the “Yes Wichita” group contend their opponents — like me — are misinformed and/or lying. (When pressed for specific examples, few are produced.)

If you’ve attended a city council meeting, you may have to sit through up to an hour of the mayor issuing proclamations and service awards before actual business starts. Fleets of city bureaucrats are in the audience during this time.

But none of these would spend just one hour listening to a presentation in July by a university professor that might hold a solution to our water supply issue.

kansas-policy-institute-logoI understand that city officials might not be the biggest fans of Kansas Policy Institute. It supports free markets and limited government. But city officials tell us that they want to hear from citizens. The city says it has gone to great lengths to collect input from citizens, implementing a website and holding numerous meetings.

About 70 people attended the KPI forum in July. Citizens were interested in what the speakers had to say. They sat politely through the presentation by the two city officials, even though I’m sure many in the audience were already familiar with the recycled slides they’d seen before.

But it appears that Wichita city officials were not interested in alternatives that weren’t developed by city hall. They can’t even pretend to be interested.

Now, this Friday morning September 19, Kansas Policy Institute is producing another forum on issues relevant to the proposed sales tax. The event’s agenda features six speakers over about four hours. Three speakers were selected by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. Two are from out of town. Another is an expert on the Wichita and Kansas economy. There will be opportunities for attendees to ask questions.

Will city council members, city hall bureaucrats, and members of the “Yes Wichita” leadership team attend this event?

The Fostering Economic Growth in Wichita event is open to everyone and presented at no charge by Kansas Policy Institute. For more information and registration, click here.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: The harm of cronyism, local and national

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Does Wichita have a problem with cronyism? The mayor, city council, and bureaucrats say no, but you can decide for yourself. Then, from LearnLiberty.org, the harm of cronyism at the national level. Episode 48, broadcast June 22, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita fails at open government and trustworthiness

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: At a time when Wichita city hall needs to cultivate the trust of citizens, another incident illustrates the entrenched attitude of the city towards its citizens. Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita logic Brewer fishing

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 3

Wichita will soon select a new city attorney. There are a few questions we ought to ask of candidates, such as: Will the next city attorney advise council members to refrain from making decisions worth millions to their friends and significant campaign contributors?

Two years ago as the Wichita City Council prepared to handle the appeal of the award of a Wichita Eagle Appearance Matters editorialconstruction contract, the Wichita Eagle editorialized that “appearance matters” on city contracts: “There will be an elephant in the Wichita City Council chambers today as Mayor Carl Brewer and the rest of the council formally consider Dondlinger and Sons’ long-shot final appeal of its loss of the contract to build the new airport terminal — the close ties of Brewer and other City Council members to Key Construction, including a letter Brewer wrote last year recommending Key to build the Cabela’s store in northeast Wichita.” (Eagle editorial: Appearance matters on city contracts, July 17, 2012)

The Eagle probably didn’t know at that time what we learned a short while later: There was Jeff Longwell district 5 2010unusual interest in Michigan about the airport contract decision, and the campaign bank account of Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell benefited financially.

On July 16, 2012 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner. Walbridge is a Michigan-based construction company that is partnering with Key Construction on the airport job. The contract is worth about $100 million.

Then on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign, and they’ve also been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns.

It is wrong to accept thousands in contributions from those who benefit directly from your vote. In many states it is illegal. But not in Kansas. Though legal, the timing of these contributions to Longwell’s campaign is indelicate.

Wichita logic Brewer fishingThe political influence of Key Construction and its partners extends beyond campaign contributions. Mayor Brewer’s personal Facebook profile has a photo album holding pictures of him on a fishing trip with Dave Wells of Key Construction.

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

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

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

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

Question: Did the outgoing city attorney advise the mayor and council members on this topic? We’ll probably never know due to attorney-client privilege. But a good question to ask city attorney candidates is how they would advise council members if another matter like this comes before the council.

Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.

Wichita, again, fails at government transparency

At a time when Wichita city hall needs to cultivate the trust of citizens, another incident illustrates the entrenched attitude of the city towards its citizens. Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know.

At its May 20, 2014 meeting the Wichita City Council considered approval of a sublease by Shannon No. 2, LLC. The subject property had received subsidy from the city under an economic development program, which is why council approval of the sublease was required. I’ll cover the economics of the lease and its importance to public policy in another article. For now, the important issue is the attitude of the city towards government transparency and citizen participation.

Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
In the agenda packet — that’s the detailed and often lengthy supplement to the council meeting agenda — some information regarding the Shannon lease was redacted, as you can see in the accompanying illustration. This piqued my interest, so I asked for the missing details.

Timing

The agenda packet is often made available Thursday afternoon, although sometimes it is delayed until Friday or even Monday. I sent an email message to the city’s chief information officer at 11:16 pm Thursday. After the message worked its way through several city departments, I received the information at 5:06 pm Monday. Since city council meetings are Tuesday morning, that left little time for research and contemplation.

This isn’t the first time citizens have been left with little information and even less time before council meetings. I was involved in an issue in 2008 where there was little time for citizens — council members, too — to absorb information before a council meeting. About this incident, former Wichita Eagle editorial board editor Randy Brown wrote this in a letter to the Eagle:

I’m fairly well acquainted with Bob Weeks, our extraconservative government watchdog. It’s fair to say that I agree with Weeks no more than one time in every 20 issues. But that one time is crucial to our democracy.

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

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

little-time-review-warren-loan-termsThe Wichita officials involved in this matter were council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). Longwell’s behavior and attitude is part of a pattern, because in another incident in the same year the Wichita Eagle reported “Wichita City Council members and the public got a first look at the contracts that could send a $6 million loan to the owners of the Old Town Warren Theatre just hours before today’s scheduled vote on the matter.” (Little time to review Warren terms, July 1, 2008)

That article quoted council member Longwell thusly: “It’s unlikely many residents would read the full contract even if it had been made public earlier.” This attitude is common among Wichita elected officials and bureaucrats, in my experience. The city formally lobbies the Kansas Legislature opposing any expansion of the Kansas Open Records Act, for example.

Consent agenda

The Shannon item was placed on the consent agenda. This is where items deemed to be non-controversial are voted on in bulk, perhaps two dozen or more at a time. Unless a council member asks to have an item “pulled” for discussion and a possible vote separate from the other consent items, there will be no discussion of any issues.

In 2012 there was an issue on the consent agenda that I felt deserved discussion. I researched and prepared an article at For Wichita’s Block 1 garage, public allocation is now zero parking spaces. At the council meeting, then-council member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) requested that I be able to present my findings to the council. But Mayor Carl Brewer and all five other city council members disagreed. They preferred to proceed as though the issue didn’t exist or was non-controversial. The message — the attitude — was that no time should be spent receiving information on the item. See For Wichita City Council, discussion is not wanted.

Wichita city officials, including Mayor Carl Brewer, say they are proud of the open and transparent city government they have created. But this episode, as well as others described in In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency, lets everyone know that transparency is dispensed, and accountability accepted, at the whim of the mayor, city council, and their bureaucratic enablers.

On his Facebook page, Clinton Coen wrote this about his city council representative James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and this incident:

“I am once again ashamed of my City Councilman. Councilman Clendenin should have stood alongside his colleague, Councilman O’Donnel, and allowed a citizen to address his concerns on an agenda item. All Mr. Clendenin had to do was say “second” and Mr. Weeks could have addressed the council, provided that a majority of the council voted to allow it. Instead, Mr. Clendenin chose to censor someone that has a differing opinion. By bringing it to a vote, accountability would have been created, instead the remainder of the council chose to take the cowardly path.”

Why redacted in the first place?

As shown in the earlier illustration, the city redacted a large chunk of information from the agenda packet that it made available to the public. The city did — after some time — positively It's easy to say value transparencyrespond to my request for the complete document. Which begs these questions: Why did the city feel that some information needed to be kept secret? Did city council members have access to the redacted information? Did any members of the public besides myself ask for the information? How many citizens might have been discouraged from asking by fear of the the hassle of asking city hall for information like this?

There’s also the consideration that the citizens of Wichita are parties to this transaction. How well these incentive programs work and what effect they have on the Wichita economy is an important matter of public policy. Without relatively complete information, citizens are not in a position to make judgments.

Cost

Often council members and bureaucrats complain that providing information to citizens is a financial burden to the city. But in this case, I’m sure the city would have been dollars ahead if it had simply published the complete lease in the agenda packet. My request bounced around several city offices — three that I know of — and I imagine that each handling of my request added cost.

Attitude

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

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

The incidents describe above, combined with others, demonstrate that it’s easy for officials to say they value transparency and accountability. The actual delivery, however, is difficult for our current leaders.

Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. The incident described in this article is one more example of a divergence between the proclamations of city officials and their acts. It’s an attitude problem. All city hall has to do is get a new attitude.

For more on this topic, see A transparency agenda for Wichita.

Wichita City Hall

Wichita develops plans to make up for past planning mistakes

On several issues, including street maintenance, water supply, and economic development, Wichita government and civic leaders have let our city fall behind. Now they ask for your support for future plans to correct these mistakes in past plans.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.
Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

In February the City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The amounts of money involved are large, and portions represent deferred maintenance. That is, the city has not been taking care of the assets that taxpayers have paid for. When Wichita city leaders ask for more taxes to pay for this lack of stewardship, citizens need to ask for better accountability than what they’ve received.

The time frame of this planning process is the period 2013 to 2035. Under the heading “Trends & Challenges” we find some troubling information. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer hinted at the problem last year in his State of the City Address when he said the city would need to spend $2.1 billion over 30 years on maintenance and replacement of water and sewer systems. The city’s performance measure report also told us that our pavement condition index has been deteriorating, and is projected to continue to decline.

So if we’ve been paying attention, it should not have been a surprise to read this in the presentation: “Decades of under-investment in infrastructure maintenance … 38% of Wichita’s infrastructure is in ‘deficient/fair’ condition.”

The cost to remedy this lack of maintenance is substantial. The document says that on an annual basis, Wichita needs to spend $180 million on infrastructure depreciation/replacement costs. Currently the city spends $78 million on this, the presentation indicates.

The “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is given as an additional $45 to $55 million per year.

This is a lot of money. To place these numbers in context, here are some figures that help illustrate Wichita city finances:

Property tax collected in 2013: $105 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for fire department: $44 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for police department: $79 million

The amounts by which the city is deficient in maintaining its assets is staggering, compared to other expenses the city has. The size of the deficiency overwhelms possible sources of new revenue. A one cent per dollar increase in sales tax would not cover the deficiencies in maintaining our current assets. Then, remember the things Wichita wants to increase spending on — a new library, economic development, expanded public transit, new convention center, economic development, and perhaps other things.

The report lists three scenarios for future growth: Maintaining current trends, constrained suburban growth, and suburban and infill growth mix. Whenever we see words like “constrained” we need to be cautious. We need to be on guard. The Wichita Eagle reported this: “In the city’s recently completed series of 102 public meetings, citizens were clear, City Manager Robert Layton said: Redevelop the core. We’ve had enough suburban growth for awhile.”

It’s unclear how closely the findings from the public meetings reflects actual citizen preference. Cynics believe that these meetings are run in a way that produces a predetermined outcome aligned with what city officials want to hear. At any rate, when you ask people about their preferences, but there is no corresponding commitment to act on their proclaimed preferences, we have to wonder how genuine and reliable the results are.

There is a very reliable way to find out what people really want, however. Just let them do it. If people want to live downtown on in an inner city neighborhood, fine. If they want suburban-style living, that’s fine too. Well, it should be fine. But reading between the lines of city documents you get the impression that city planners don’t think people should live in suburban-style settings.

Community input

The survey that Wichita used has its own problems. Here’s an example of a question respondents were asked to agree or disagree with: “Local government, the school district, community organizations and the business community should work together to create an investment climate that is attractive to business.”

The meaning of an attractive investment climate means different things to different people. Some people want an investment climate where property rights are respected, where government refrains from meddling in the economy and transferring one person’s property to another. An environment free from cronyism, in other words. But the Wichita way is, unfortunately, cronyism, where government takes an active role in managing economic development. We in Wichita never know when our local government will take from us to give to politically-favored cronies, or when city hall will set up and subsidize a competitor to your business.

Wichita flights compared to the nation.
Wichita flights compared to the nation.

Sometimes the questions are misleading. A question relating to the subsidy program at the Wichita airport read “I’m willing to pay increased taxes or fees to support investment … that uses public dollars to reduce the cost and increase the number of commercial flights at Mid-Continent Airport.”

This is an example of a question which has a false premise. Since the subsidy programs have been in place, the number of flights from the Wichita airport has declined, not increased as the question would lead readers to believe. See Wichita flight options decrease, despite subsidies and Wichita airfare subsidy: The negative effects.

Leadership of city officials

On these and other issues, the Wichita Eagle quoted mayor Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”

It’s almost as if the mayor is speaking as a bystander. But he’s been mayor for nearly seven years, and was on the city council before that time. During that time, he and other city leaders have boasted of not increasing property taxes. While the property tax rate has been (fairly) stable, property tax revenue has increased due to development of new property and rising assessment values. Still, of this, the city has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. The way to interpret this is that the city has really been engaging in deficit spending under Brewer’s leadership. We didn’t spend what was needed to maintain our assets, and now the mayor tells us we need to increase spending to make up for this.

The economist Milton Friedman told us that it’s more important to look at government spending rather than the level of taxation. That’s because spending must eventually be paid for, either through current taxes or future taxation. The federal government generate deficits and can pay for spending through creating inflation. Fortunately, cities and states can’t do that.

But, as we’ve seen, cities like Wichita can incur costs without paying for them. This is a form of deficit spending. By deferring maintenance of our infrastructure, the city has pushed spending to future years. The report released in February gives an idea of the magnitude of this deferred spending: It’s huge.

This form of deficit spending is “off the books” and doesn’t appear in city financial statements. But it’s real, as the mayor now admits. The threat to our freedom to live where we want is real, too. We must be watchful and diligent.

Wichita not good for small business

The Wichita Business Journal reports today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, we come to Wichita.

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

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

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

toolbox-29058_640

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

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

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

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1960

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

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

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

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Attitude

Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. Here’s perhaps the most glaring example of how the city goes out of its way to conduct public business in secret.

Citizen watchdogs need access to records and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Each of these agencies refuses to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas law that’s designed to provide citizen access to records.

The city backs this interpretation. When legislation was introduced to bring these agencies under the umbrella of the Kansas Open Records Act, cities — including Wichita — protested vigorously, and the legislation went nowhere. Now, just this week the City of Wichita added a new tax to hotel bills that may generate $3 million per year for the convention and visitors bureau to spend. Unless the city changes its attitude towards citizens’ right to know, this money will be spent in secret.

Another example of the City of Wichita’s attitude towards citizens and open government took place at a Kansas Legislature committee hearing last year. I had asked for email to or from a certain official for a certain period of time. The response from the city was that my request would encompass some 19,000 email messages, and the city denied the request as too burdensome. Fair enough.

But the city’s lobbyist told legislators that my request for 19,000 emails was an example of abuse of the Kansas Open Records Act, and cited it as evidence as to why reform was not needed. But I did not request 19,000 email messages. I made a request for messages meeting a certain criteria, and I had no way of knowing in advance how many email messages this would entail. The City of Wichita denied this request as burdensome, so there was either no cost or very little cost for the city. No harm, no foul.

But the City of Wichita used this incident and a similar incident involving the Kansas Policy Institute as reasons that the Kansas Open Records Act needs no reform. This illustrates a problem with the attitude of Wichita city government towards citizens’ right to know.

This attitude may be noticed by the citizenry at large. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.

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

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

Website

An important way governments can communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. With the launching of the new City of Wichita website, the city has actually taken a step backwards in providing information to citizens.

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

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

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

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

mywichita_logo

As described here, MyWichita was a useful service. By using it, you could receive by email notices of new press releases, city council agendas and minutes, district advisory board agenda and minutes, agendas and minutes of other boards, and other items. Using MyWichita was much easier than having to check multiple sections of the city’s website looking for newly-released agendas, minutes, etc.

This email reminder service was very valuable. It’s a basic customer service feature of many commercial and governmental websites. But MyWichita didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing that replaces its function. When I asked about this missing functionality, the city said it was working on a replacement that should be available in a month or two. It’s been almost a year since I asked.

Spending data

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

Wichita spending data.
Wichita spending data.

Even after asking for checkbook spending data, Wichita can supply data of only limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult and beyond the capability of most citizens to translate the data to useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Legal notices

Kansas law requires that local government agencies publish legal notices for a variety of topics. Presently these are published in the Wichita Eagle at great cost to taxpayers. These notices could also be published on the city’s website, where they could be searched and archived. This would increase the usability of these documents at very little cost to the city.

Publish requests

When governmental agencies like the City of Wichita fulfill records requests, they could also publish the records on their websites. Most of the time the records are supplied electronically, so this is an additional simple (and low cost) step that would leverage the value of the city’s effort.

Leveraging our lobbyists

What do lobbyists, including taxpayer-funded lobbyists, do in Topeka? One thing they do is testify before committees, in both verbal and written form. Another thing they do is to prepare reports for the clients, advising them on upcoming legislation, analyzing how it affects them, and what the prospects for the bill might be. They also meet with legislators and their clients, which are your elected officials.

Here’s a proposal that will help citizens make best use of their taxpayer-funded lobbyists:

I see nothing in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows local governmental units in Kansas to refuse to disclose these documents: testimony, reports by lobbyists to their government clients, and the lobbyists’ calendars (or billing records for contract lobbyists). Instead of making citizens ask for these records, possibly paying fees to obtain what they’re already paying for, why don’t local governments post these documents immediately on their websites?

Citizens could then benefit from the activities of the lobbyists they’re paying for. They could learn more about legislation as it works its way through the process. Citizens could judge whether the positions taken by the government lobbyists they’re paying for are aligned with their policy preferences.

If the actions taken by taxpayer-funded lobbyists are truly in the public interest, you’d think that cities, counties, and school boards would already be making this information easily available. In any case, there should be no resistance to starting this program.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

Wichita planning documents hold sobering numbers

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.
Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

This week the City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The documents hold information that ought to make Wichitans think, and think hard. The amounts of money involved are large, and portions represent deferred maintenance. That is, the city has not been taking care of the assets that taxpayers have paid for.

The time frame of this planning process is the period 2013 to 2035. Under the heading “Trends & Challenges” we find some troubling information. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer hinted at the problem last year in his State of the City Address when he said the city would need to spend $2.1 billion over 30 years on maintenance and replacement of water and sewer systems. The city’s performance measure report also told us that our pavement condition index has been deteriorating, and is projected to continue to decline.

So if we’ve been paying attention, it should not have been a surprise to read this in the presentation: “Decades of under-investment in infrastructure maintenance … 38% of Wichita’s infrastructure is in ‘deficient/fair’ condition.”

The cost to remedy this lack of maintenance is substantial. The document says that on an annual basis, Wichita needs to spend $180 million on infrastructure depreciation/replacement costs. Currently the city spends $78 million on this, the presentation indicates.

The “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is given as an additional $45 to $55 million per year.

This is a lot of money. To place these numbers in context, here are some figures that help illustrate Wichita city finances:

Property tax collected in 2013: $105 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for fire department: $44 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for police department: $79 million

It’s thought that an additional one cent per dollar city sales tax would generate around $80 million per year.

The amounts by which the city is deficient in maintaining its assets is staggering, compared to other expenses the city has. The size of the deficiency overwhelms possible sources of new revenue. A one cent per dollar increase in sales tax would not cover the deficiencies in maintaining our current assets. Then, remember the things Wichita wants to increase spending on — a new library, economic development, expanded public transit, new convention center, economic development, and perhaps other things.

The report lists three scenarios for future growth: Maintaining current trends, constrained suburban growth, and suburban and infill growth mix. Whenever we see words like “constrained” we need to be cautious. We need to be on guard. The Wichita Eagle reported this: “In the city’s recently completed series of 102 public meetings, citizens were clear, City Manager Robert Layton said: Redevelop the core. We’ve had enough suburban growth for awhile.”

It’s unclear how closely the findings from the public meetings reflects actual citizen preference. Cynics believe that these meetings are run in a way that produces a predetermined outcome aligned with what city officials want to hear. At any rate, when you ask people about their preferences, but there is no corresponding commitment to act on their proclaimed preferences, we have to wonder how genuine and reliable the results are.

There is a very reliable way to find out what people really want, however. Just let them do it. If people want to live downtown on in an inner city neighborhood, fine. If they want suburban-style living, that’s fine too. Well, it should be fine. But reading between the lines of city documents you get the impression that city planners don’t think people should live in suburban-style settings.

Sometimes we don’t have to read between the lines. Sometimes the attitude of planners is explicit. In 2010 the city — actually the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation — employed Goody Clancy, a Boston-based planning firm, to help plan the revitalization of downtown Wichita. In the article Goody Clancy market findings presented to Wichita audience I reported on some of what the planners said. For example, David Dixon, the Goody Clancy principal for this project, told how that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is found only at the core. “Have dinner someplace, pass a cool shop, go to a great national music act at the arena, and then go to a bar, and if we’re lucky, stumble home.”

This idea that only downtown people are socially and culturally rich is an elitist attitude that we ought to reject. By the way, when I presented to the Wichita City Council on this topic, I noted that no council members, except for possibly one, lived in neighborhoods that might be described as in “the core.”

Other speakers from Goody Clancy revealed a condescending attitude towards those who hold values different from this group of planners. One presenter said “Outside of Manhattan and Chicago, the traditional family household generally looks for a single family detached house with yard, where they think their kids might play, and they never do.”

This, again, is an elitist attitude. No, it’s worse than that. It’s condescending. It reveals that the professional planning class thinks that the ordinary people of Wichita can’t decide for themselves what they really want. Somehow, people are duped into buying homes that don’t really meet their needs, and they’re not smart enough to realize that. That is the attitude of the professional planning class. It’s an elitism that Wichitans ought to reject.

The planning process

The planners tells us that the process is based on data. “Data-driven” is a term they use. But when we look under the covers at the data, we realize that we need to be very skeptical of claims.

Returning to the Goody Clancy plan for downtown Wichita, the principal planner used Walk Score in a presentation delivered in Wichita. Walk Score is purported to represent a measure of walkability of a location in a city. Walkability is a key design element of the master plan Goody Clancy has developed for downtown Wichita.

Walk Score is not a project of Goody Clancy, as far as I know, and Dixon is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of the Walk Score website. But he presented it and relied on it as an example of the data-driven approach that Goody Clancy takes.

Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, as presented by planning firm Goody Clancy. Click image for a larger version.
Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, as presented by planning firm Goody Clancy. Click image for a larger version.

The score for 525 E. Douglas, the block the Eaton Hotel and Wichita Downtown Development Corporation is located in and mentioned by Dixon as a walkable area, scored 91, which means it is a “walker’s paradise,” according to the Walk Score website.

But here’s where we can start to see just how bad the data used to develop these scores is. For a grocery store — an important component of walkability — the website indicates indicates a grocery store just 0.19 miles away. It’s “Pepsi Bottling Group,” located on Broadway between Douglas and First Streets. Those familiar with the area know there is no grocery store there, only office buildings. The claim of a grocery store here is false.

There were other claimed amenities where the data is just as bad. But the chairman of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation at that time said that Walk Score has been updated. I should no longer be concerned with the credibility of this data, he told me through a comment left on my website.

He was correct in one regard: Walk Score had been updated. For the same location the walk score was revised to 85%, which is considered “very walkable.” The “grocery store” is no longer the Pepsi Bottling Group. It’s now “Market Place,” whose address is given as 155 N. Market St # 220.

Someone strolling by that location would notice that address, 155 N. Market number 220, is the management office for an office building whose name is Market Place.

Still no grocery store. Nothing even resembling a grocery store.

I looked this week at the Walk Score website. It’s been updated and redesigned. Now for the same block in the heart of downtown Wichita the walk score is 74, which is “very walkable,” according to the site. In a narrative explanation, the site says this: “The closest grocery stores are Ray Sales Co, Market Place and The Hot Spot Detox Shop.”

Ray Sales Co., in the shadow of Intrust Bank Arena.
Ray Sales Co., in the shadow of Intrust Bank Arena.

I don’t know if you’ve been to Ray Sales, but it’s a tiny store with a very limited product selection. It’s not the type of place that will attract people to downtown Wichita. We know that because officials say a grocery store is one of downtown’s most pressing needs, despite the existence of Ray Sales.

Market Place is listed again as evidence of a grocery store in downtown Wichita. Remember, Market Place is the name of an office building located on Market Street. It’s not a grocery store.

The third location listed as a grocery store is a shop that sells kits to help people pass drug tests. It’s nothing like a grocery store.

Again, David Dixon and Goody Clancy did not create the Walk Score data. But they presented it to Wichitans as an example of the data-driven, market-oriented approach to planning that they use. Dixon cited Walk Score data as the basis for higher real estate values based on the walkability of the area and its surrounding amenities. But anyone who relies on the evidence Dixon and Goody Clancy presented would surely get burnt unless they investigated the area on their own.

Keep in mind that the presentation of this Walk Score data was made after Goody Clancy staff had spent considerable time in Wichita. That someone there could not immediately recognize how utterly bogus the data is: That should give us cause for concern that the entire planning process is based on similarly shoddy data and analysis.

Constraining growth

Returning to the city’s presentation: How does the city “constrain” suburban growth? By taking away the freedom for people to live where they want. Why would the city want do that? City leaders say that suburban development is expensive. It’s not sustainable. Suburban living depends on the personal automobile. And remember the attitude of the professional planners Wichita Downtown Development Corporation hired: People can’t be trusted to know what they really want for themselves.

Special taxes paid on a residential home.
Special taxes paid on a residential home.

If it really is more expensive to develop new suburban areas, the city should simply charge what it costs. To some extent this already happens. Anyone who builds a new home in a new area will pay for the residential street and other infrastructure through special taxes. If the city feels it needs to charge for building arterial streets to serve new suburban areas, it should do so. But the city should realize that people spending their own money to buy or rent a residence — this is the best indication of their true preferences. What people say in focus groups or on paper survey forms is nowhere near as reliable.

Community input

The survey that Wichita used has its own problems. Here’s an example of a question respondents were asked to agree or disagree with: “Local government, the school district, community organizations and the business community should work together to create an investment climate that is attractive to business.”

The meaning of an attractive investment climate means different things to different people. Some people want an investment climate where property rights are respected, where government refrains from meddling in the economy and transferring one person’s property to another. An environment free from cronyism, in other words. But the Wichita way is, unfortunately, cronyism, where government takes an active role in managing economic development. We in Wichita never know when our local government will take from us to give to politically-favored cronies, or when city hall will set up and subsidize a competitor to your business.

Wichita flights compared to the nation.
Wichita flights compared to the nation.

Sometimes the questions are misleading. A question relating to the subsidy program at the Wichita airport read “I’m willing to pay increased taxes or fees to support investment … that uses public dollars to reduce the cost and increase the number of commercial flights at Mid-Continent Airport.”

This is an example of a question which has a false premise. Since the subsidy programs have been in place, the number of flights from the Wichita airport has declined, not increased as the question would lead readers to believe. See Wichita flight options decrease, despite subsidies and Wichita airfare subsidy: The negative effects.

Leadership of city fathers

On these and other issues, the Wichita Eagle quoted mayor Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”

It’s almost as if the mayor is speaking as a bystander. But he’s been mayor for nearly seven years, and was on the city council before that time. During that time, he and other city leaders have boasted of not increasing property taxes. While the property tax rate has been stable, property tax revenue has increased due to development of new property and rising assessment values. In spite of this, the city has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. The way to interpret this is that the city has really been engaging in deficit spending under Brewer’s leadership. We didn’t spend what was needed to maintain our assets, and now the mayor tells us we need to increase spending to make up for this.

The economist Milton Friedman told us that it’s more important to look at government spending rather than the level of taxation. That’s because spending must eventually be paid for, either through current taxes or future taxation. The federal government generate deficits and can pay for spending through creating inflation. Fortunately, cities and states can’t do that.

But, as we’ve seen, cities like Wichita can incur costs without paying for them. This is a form of deficit spending. By deferring maintenance of our infrastructure, the city has pushed spending to future years. The report released this week gives an idea of the magnitude of this deferred spending: It’s huge.

This form of deficit spending is “off the books” and doesn’t appear in city financial statements. But it’s real, as the mayor now admits. The threat to our freedom to live where we want is real, too. We must be watchful and diligent.

File folder and documents

Kansas Open Records Act and the ‘public agency’ definition

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

File folder and documents

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

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

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

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

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

The City of Wichita has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following is the testimony I will deliver this week.

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

Chairman Kinzer and members of the Committee:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respectfully submitted,
Bob Weeks

For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, we come to Wichita.

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

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

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

toolbox-29058_640

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

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

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

Wichita’s policymaking on display

Wichita city hall logo

When asked to provide documents that establish the city’s proclaimed policy, Wichita city hall is not able to do so, leaving us to wonder just how policy is made.

At an April meeting of the Wichita City Council, both Urban Development Director Allen Bell and Wichita city manager Robert Layton explained that for downtown projects, the city’s policy that the debt service fund must show a cost-benefit ratio of 1.3 to one or better doesn’t apply. (Video of Bell explaining this policy is here, and of Layton doing the same, here. Meeting minutes are here.)

More about this policy is available in In Wichita, economic development policies are questioned.

In that article, I mentioned that I attempted to find a document that states this policy. I asked the city to provide this document, or perhaps tell me when the city council acted to approve this policy, just as it has approved other similar policies.

After two days of searching, city officials have said that there is no such document that establishes this policy.

The people of Wichita ought to ask city hall just when this policy was made. City officials say Wichita has a transparent, open government. The Public-Private Partnership Evaluation Criteria for the redevelopment of downtown Wichita states “The business plan recommends public-private partnership criteria that are clear, predictable, and transparent.”

But in the first project to be approved under this plan, the city finds itself apparently making policy on the fly to fit the needs of a group of politically-connected developers. This is not economic development. Instead, it’s cronyism.

Some have said that we should just shrug this off as an innocent oversight. But this project is steeped in cronyism. It is the poster child for why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws so that city council members are prohibited from voting to send millions to their significant campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.

Soon the city will probably ask Wichitans to trust it with more tax revenue so the city can do more for its citizens. The city commissioned a survey to justify this. Also, the mayor wants a dedicated stream of funding so that the city can spend more on economic development.

In other words, the city wants its citizens to trust their government. But in order to gain that trust, the city needs to avoid episodes like this.

Wichita economic development not being managed

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

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

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

wichita-economic-development

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

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

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

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

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

The case of InfoNXX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gwedc-office-operations

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

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

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

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

Going forward

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

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

Wichita does it again

Government takes and gives

Wichita never seems to learn. Its government, that is.

The last time Key Construction was awarded a no-bid contract for building a parking garage in Wichita, it almost cost Wichita taxpayers an extra 27 percent. Now the Wichita City Council has done it again, awarding Key another no-bid contract for a project paid for by taxpayers.

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

Today the council voted to award Key another no-bid contract. City officials said that the garage is too intertwined with the rest of the project to be put out to bid. They said that in 2011, too.

After the 2011 incident, Wichita city manager Robert Layton told the Wichita Eagle that he would seek a policy change against no-bid contracts. But that didn’t happen today.

So taxpayers are likely to overpay again, and for a project benefiting a politically-connected firm.

There is hope for the taxpayers, however. After the 2011 award to Key, then-council member Michael O’Donnell objected. It’s said that Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) also objected. That’s when the city decided to put the garage out to competitive bid and saved taxpayers $1.3 million.

It’s possible this could happen again. Meitzner was absent for today’s vote. New council member Jeff Blubaugh now represents the same district that O’Donnell did two years ago. Maybe Wichita taxpayers can ask O’Donnell to talk to Blubaugh about this. Perhaps as Meitzner prepares his bid to be the next mayor, he could use this as an opportunity to exercise leadership in favor of taxpayer stewardship instead of protecting the system of cronyism.

Key Construction and Mayor Carl Brewer

Should Mayor Carl Brewer have participated in voting on this matter? Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008:

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

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

This no-bid contract for the garage is just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and its partners at taxpayer expense. Key, its executives, and their spouses are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members. Brewer and the head of Key Construction are apparently friends, embarking on fishing expeditions.

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

Then, in July 2012 Brewer participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. Brewer’s judgment was in favor of Key Construction, even though its bid had the same defect as the lower bid. This decision cost taxpayers and airport users an extra $2 million, to the benefit of a major campaign donor and fishing buddy.

In a Wichita Eagle story that reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget” we learned this: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.”

Despite this personal experience, Brewer wrote a letter recommending Key Construction (and only Key) for a project, observing “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.” The mayor’s recommendation is not consistent with the reality of Key’s experience with the City of Wichita.

Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin

Although city code has no prohibition against council members voting to enrich their significant campaign contributors with no-bid contracts, there ought to be such a law. And when the recipient company is a very significant contributor, we can’t help but wonder about the wisdom and stewardship exhibited by the council.

In 2012, as incumbent council members Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run for re-election, their campaigns, that year, were financed entirely by two sources. One of these was a group of principals and executives of Key Construction.

Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. For Williams, this was the only campaign money she received in 2012.

With relationships like these, can we have and confidence that the mayor and council are looking out for the interests of the citizens of Wichita, or for the interests of the significant campaign contributors and fishing buddies?

Wichita performs a reference check, the video

Citizens of Wichita are rightly concerned about whether our elected officials and bureaucrats are looking out for their interests, or only for the interests and welfare of a small group of city hall insiders. The video below explains, or click here to view in HD on YouTube. For an article on this topic, see Wichita performs a reference check, sort of.

Wichita performs a reference check, sort of

Wichita city hall logoFor a video presentation of this material, click on Wichita performs a reference check, the video.

Citizens of Wichita are rightly concerned about whether our elected officials and bureaucrats are looking out for their interests, or only for the interests and welfare of a small group of city hall insiders. Cronies, if you will.

A recent application filed with Wichita City Hall regarding the West Bank Development Project raises two questions: Did the government officials listed as references give their permission, and were any of the references contacted to learn what they knew about the applicants?

The application filed by the River Vista development team shows this: The team, consisting of George Laham, Dave Wells, Dave Burk, and Bill Warren listed numerous local, state, and federal officials as references. Here’s the list of officials that appeared one or more times:

Wichita city manager Robert Layton
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer
Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita)
Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita)
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett
Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter
Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh
Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback
U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo

Except for Jeff Easter, none of these officials gave permission for their names to be used in this way. (We didn’t get a response regarding Tim Norton.)

Furthermore, none of these officials were contacted by the evaluation committee whose job it is to vet these potential city partners.

A few questions: First, do you think it is appropriate for the city manager to be listed as a reference, given that anyone who reads this document would take it as an endorsement? No, of course it is not appropriate.

Related: Do you think it’s appropriate for the city manager to endorse one of the applicants? We don’t know if the presence of the city manager’s name as a reference implies an endorsement, because George Laham did not ask the city manager if he could be listed as a reference. We know this because we asked.

Further, the committee that evaluated the development teams did not call the city manager to inquire about George Laham. We asked about this, too. But making inquiries of references: Isn’t that what an evaluation committee or vetting team should do? But we know that the evaluation committee did not contact even one of these officials that were listed as references.

These applicants likely knew that the evaluation committee would not contact these references. Therefore, they freely listed these government officials. Which makes us wonder — what is the point of having an evaluation committee?

Even further: Is it appropriate for the city to partner with people who think it’s proper to list the city manager as a reference without asking if that was permissible, knowing that the manager wouldn’t be contacted? Same question regarding the mayor, governor, our U.S. Congressman, and district attorney?

In light of this — numerous government officials listed as references without their permission or knowledge, an evaluation committee that never contacted these officials, and the information that these references could have provided: Do you think the evaluation committee fulfilled its duty to perform due diligence on behalf of the interests of the people of Wichita?

What the evaluation committee might have learned

If the evaluation committee had contacted these references, here’s what might have been learned.

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

Also, two years ago Key Construction proposed — and was awarded by the city council — a no-bid contract for a parking garage. But the city later put the contract to competitive bid. Key, which first bid $6 million, later bid $4.7 million. If the desire of the majority of the city council, including Mayor Carl Brewer, had been realized, Wichita taxpayers would have sent an extra — and unnecessary — $1.3 million to a politically-connected construction company.

By the way, the mayor’s relationship with Wells means he should not have voted on this matter.

Dave Burk, Dave Wells: These two were original partners in WaterWalk, which has received over $40 million in subsidy, with little to show for results.

Dave Burk: He’s received many millions from many levels of government, but still thinks he doesn’t get enough. This is what we can conclude by his appeal of property taxes in a TIF district. Those taxes, even though they are rerouted back to him for his benefit, were still too high for his taste, and he appealed. The Wichita Eagle reported in the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property): “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

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

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

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, Wichita city manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.'”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

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

warren-bailout-poses-dilemma

Bill Warren: In 2008 the Old Town Warren Theater was failing and its owners — Bill Warren being one — threatened to close it and leave the city with a huge loss on a tax increment financing (TIF) district formed for the theater’s benefit. Faced with this threat, the city made a no-interest and low-interest loan to the theater. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Besides Warren, you may — or may not — be surprised to learn that the theater’s partners included Dave Wells and Dave Burk, the same two men mentioned above. Also, Mayor Brewer’s relationship with Warren means he should not have voted on this matter.

It hasn’t worked, but Wichita will do it again

man-digging-coinsTomorrow the Wichita City Council will, in all likelihood, issue more business welfare in an effort to create jobs in Wichita.

The applicant company is asking for relief from paying property taxes under the city’s Economic Development Exemption (EDX). The city’s economic development policy has a formula that determines how much tax can be excused, based on job creation and capital investment. In this case, according to city documents, “WSM Industries qualifies for a 59%, five-plus-five year tax exemption.” Not 50 percent, and not 60 percent. Precisely 59 percent is what the city judges.

Here’s how the tax savings breaks down among the various taxing jurisdictions:

City of Wichita: $4,500
Sedgwick County: $4,081
USD 259: $7,920
State of Kansas: $209
Total: $16,710

An analysis performed for the city indicates a favorable benefit-cost ratio for these incentives. This inspires a question: If we really believe in this benefit to the city (and similar benefits to the county, school district, and state), why doesn’t the city make more investments like this? Surely there are other worthy companies could expand if not for the burden of property taxes. And that’s what tomorrow’s contemplated action means, if we are to believe it is anything but cronyism and business welfare: Property taxes in Wichita are what prevented this company from expanding. Erase 59 percent of the company’s property tax burden, and it is able to make new capital investment and jobs.

If it really is so easy to promote economic growth and job creation, we should be doing things like this at every city council meeting. Several times each meeting, don’t you think?

I also wonder about companies that made expansions as did this applicant company, but did not ask the city for incentives. What is their secret?

The reality is that these economic development incentives don’t work, if we are willing to consider the effect on everyone in the region instead of just this applicant company, and also if we are willing to consider the long-term effects instead of only the immediate.

Peer-reviewed research on economic development incentives — this is the conclusion of all the studies — find business location decisions to be favorably influenced by targeted tax incentives. That’s not a surprise. But the research also finds that the benefits to the communities that offered them were less than their costs.

Wichita and Peer Job Growth, Total Employment

If peer-reviewed research is not convincing, let’s take a look at the record of Wichita.
Here is a chart of job growth for Wichita, the nation, and our Visioneering peers. (Click it for a larger version, or click here for the interactive visualization, or here to watch a video.) The data shows that Wichita hasn’t been doing well.

So if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best, we have to also recognize that our efforts aren’t working. Several long-serving politicians and bureaucrats that have presided over this failure: Mayor Carl Brewer has been on the city council or served as mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for many years. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for more than two decades. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. It is these officials who have presided over the dismal record of Wichita.

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

WichitaLiberty.TV August 25, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks leads viewers through the first two chapters of Henry Hazlitt’s book “Economics in One Lesson,” using cartoons created by Amanda BillyRock. It’s about looking at not only the immediate effects but at the longer effects of any act or policy; and tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups. Amanda uses the parable of the broken window to illustrate. Then, Bob wonders about an evaluation committee formed by the City of Wichita to vet downtown development partners: Did the committee overlook important information, and why didn’t the city council object as its members had previously? Episode 10, broadcast August 25, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Wichita’s evaluation of development team should be reconsidered

Dump truck carrying coinsIn an effort to avoid mistakes made in the past and inspire confidence in the process, parties wishing to receive economic development subsidies for projects in downtown Wichita are evaluated on a variety of measures. The evaluation matrix released for a project to be considered next week by the Wichita City Council, however, ought to be recalculated.

City documents describe one of two competing projects as this: “River Vista is proposed by River Vista LLC, a development group comprised of George Laham, Dave Burk, Dave Wells and Bill Warren.”

wichita-evaluation-matrix-2013-08

It’s this ownership team that ought to cause the city concern. Two of the evaluation criteria are “Past project experience with the City of Wichita” and “References, especially from other municipal partners.” This development team was awarded the maximum number of points possible for each (points being a positive measure). Here are a few things that the evaluation committee may not have considered when awarding these points.

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

Despite these two cost overruns on city projects, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer wrote in a letter recommending Key Construction on a different matter: “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.” Maybe that’s what the evaluation committee relied on.

Also, two years ago Key Construction proposed — and was awarded by the city council — a no-bid contract for a parking garage. But the city later put the contract to competitive bid. Key, which first bid $6 million, later bid $4.7 million. This no-bid contract awarded to Key was cronyism in the extreme. If the desire of the majority of the city council, including Mayor Carl Brewer, had been realized, Wichita taxpayers would have sent an extra — and unnecessary — $1.3 million to a politically-connected construction company. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita for an example of how Key Construction has mastered political cronyism.

By the way, the mayor’s relationship with Wells means he should not participate in voting on this matter.

Dave Burk, Dave Wells: These two were original partners in WaterWalk, which has received over $40 million in subsidy, with little to show for results.

Dave Burk: He’s received many millions from many levels of government, but still thinks he doesn’t get enough. This is what we can conclude by his appeal of property taxes in a TIF district. Those taxes, even though they are rerouted back to him for his benefit, were still too high for his taste, and he appealed. The Wichita Eagle reported in the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property): “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

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

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

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

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, we can learn of the reaction by two other city hall officials: “Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said that having city development partners who benefit from tax increment financing appeal for lower property taxes ‘seems like an oxymoron.’ City Manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.'”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

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

warren-bailout-poses-dilemma

Bill Warren: In 2008 the Old Town Warren Theater was failing and its owners — Bill Warren being one — threatened to close it and leave the city with a huge loss on a TIF district formed for the theater’s benefit. Faced with this threat, the city made a no-interest and low-interest loan to the theater. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Besides Warren, you may — or may not — be surprised to learn that the theater’s partners included Dave Wells and Dave Burk, the same two men mentioned above. Also, Mayor Brewer’s relationship with Warren means he should not participate in voting on this matter.

With the history of these parties working in public-private partnerships, the Wichita City Council needs to question the matrix delivered by the evaluation committee.

Wichita: No such document

Wichita city hall logo

When asked to provide documents that establish the city’s proclaimed policy, Wichita city hall is not able to do so, leaving us to wonder just how policy is made.

At last week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, both Urban Development Director Allen Bell and Wichita city manager Robert Layton explained that for downtown projects, the city’s policy that the debt service fund must show a cost-benefit ratio of 1.3 to one or better doesn’t apply. (Video of Bell explaining this policy is here, and of Layton doing the same, here. Meeting minutes are here.)

More about this policy is available in In Wichita, economic development policies are questioned.

In that article, I mentioned that I attempted to find a document that states this policy. I asked the city to provide this document, or perhaps tell me when the city council acted to approve this policy, just as it has approved other similar policies.

After two days of searching, city officials have said that there is no such document that establishes this policy.

The people of Wichita ought to ask city hall just when this policy was made. City officials say Wichita has a transparent, open government. The Public-Private Partnership Evaluation Criteria for the redevelopment of downtown Wichita states “The business plan recommends public-private partnership criteria that are clear, predictable, and transparent.”

But in the first project to be approved under this plan, the city finds itself apparently making policy on the fly to fit the needs of a group of politically-connected developers. This is not economic development. Instead, it’s cronyism.

In Wichita, economic development policies are questioned

For an update on this story, see Wichita: No such document.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, I was prepared to ask the council to not approve issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds. My reason, explained here, was that the cost-benefit analysis did not meet the standard the city has established in its economic development incentives policy.

At the meeting, though, Urban Development Director Allen Bell and Wichita city manager Robert Layton both explained that for downtown projects, the city’s policy that the debt service fund must show a cost-benefit ratio of 1.3 to one or better doesn’t apply. (Video of Bell explaining this policy is here, and of Layton doing the same, here.)

I thought I should have known about that policy. I felt bad — embarrassed, even — for not being aware of it.

There’s a certain logic to their arguments. The parking garage is available to the public — at least some parking stalls. But the garage was not built until the Ambassador Hotel project was finalized. And the number of parking spots actually available to the public is difficult to determine. One analysis shows that the number of spots available to the public is zero, although the city says otherwise.

So the next day I sought to inform myself of this policy regarding the cost-benefit ratio for the city’s debt service fund for downtown projects.

I found a document titled “City of Wichita Downtown Development Incentives Policy” as approved by the Wichita City Council on May 17, 2011. It doesn’t address cost-benefit ratios for any funds, at least by my reading.

(By the way, that document, which was available on the city’s website at wichita.gov, wasn’t available after the city recently transitioned to a new website.)

There is also the evaluation matrix for downtown projects. It includes as a criterion “Extent City’s ROI exceeds benefit/cost ratio of 1.3:1 on CEDBR Model.”

I don’t see either of these documents supporting what was stated by two top city officials at Tuesday’s meeting, that the cost-benefit ratio of 1.3 to one requirement does not apply to the debt service fund for downtown projects.

I’ve asked the city to provide such a policy document. So far, city officials have searched, but no such document has been provided. You’d think that if there is a document containing this policy, it would be readily accessible.

Whether the “new” policy explained Tuesday by Messrs. Bell and Layton is sound public policy is something that should be discussed. It might be a desirable policy.

But this entire episode smacks of molding public policy in order to fit the situation at hand.

The city relies on cost-benefit analysis produced by Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research. The positive result produced for the general fund — the 2.62 that Bell referred to — was used to justify the public investments the city asked taxpayers to make in September 2011.

We didn’t know about the unfavorable result for the city’s debt service at that time. City officials, however, knew, as it’s contained in the analysis provided to the city from CEDBR.

City officials could have — if they had wanted to — explained this special debt service policy for downtown projects at that time. City officials or the mayor could have explained that part of the Ambassador Hotel project doesn’t meet the city’s economic development policies, but here’s why the project is a good idea nonetheless.

City officials and the mayor could have used that opportunity to inform Wichitans of the special policy for downtown projects regarding the debt service fund, if such a policy actually existed at that time.

But they didn’t do that. And if the policy actually existed at that time, it was a well-kept secret, and was until Tuesday.

I’m sure some will say that we should just shrug this off as an innocent oversight. But this project is steeped in cronyism. It is the poster child for why Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws so that city council members are prohibited from voting to send millions to their significant campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.

Soon the city will probably ask Wichitans to trust it with more tax revenue so the city can do more for its citizens. The city commissioned a survey to justify this. Also, the mayor wants a dedicated stream of funding so that the city can spend more on economic development.

In other words, the city wants its citizens to trust their government. But in order to gain that trust, the city needs to avoid episodes like this.

Wichita economic development and the election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several long-serving politicians and bureaucrats that have presided over this failure: Mayor Carl Brewer has been on the city council or served as mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for many years.

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

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

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

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.

Wichita economic development solution, postponed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita’s job creation record

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

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

The next chart shows Wichita job growth by sector.

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

Mixed message on Southwest subsidies

Now that Southwest Airlines has announced that it will offer service in Wichita, the question is this: Will Southwest tap the subsidy?

Last year city manager Bob Layton said he feels “pretty good” about Wichita’s chances in receiving service from the popular discount airline. He said that we need to keep the Affordable Airfares Program to keep Southwest interested in Wichita. But later he said “The Southwest business model doesn’t require subsidies over a long period of time.”

A mixed message.

From the Wichita Eagle: “[Southwest vice president for airport affairs Bob] Montgomery said Southwest may initially utilize Affordable Airfares revenue to mitigate ‘risk’ but hopes to grow its business so the public subsidies aren’t needed.”

Mixed.

“[Kansas Governor Sam] Brownback also committed during the news conference to recommending the extension of Affordable Airfares during the 2013 legislative session, calling its potential role helping defray Southwest’s risk entering the Wichita market appropriate. ‘The program is doing what we want,’ the governor said. ‘It’s a good program, and I’m going to propose continuing it.'”

Mixed message again. Especially so for a governor who is being praised for his free market beliefs. Or, as in Forbes: “Sam Brownback is a dazzlingly Reaganesque success as governor of Kansas.”

The Southwest executive again: “But Montgomery said the fate of Affordable Airfares will have no bearing on Southwest’s future in Wichita. ‘We are here with no conditions, no demands,’ he said. ‘We ask that y’all fly Southwest, because this is a tough business.'”

Mixed.

Southwest has started service in cities comparable to Wichita without government subsidy or with only small levels of assistance. Let’s hope our city and state leaders can do the same.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita school district records request

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

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

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

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

City of Wichita

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is an important issue to resolve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enforcement of Kansas Open Records Act

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

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

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

Additional information on this topic is at:

Wichita WaterWalk apartment deal not good for citizens

On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider the type of taxpayer-funded giveaway that voters have shown they don’t like. How council members vote may set the stage for city elections next March and April.

Tuesday’s item involves a proposed apartment development on the west bank of the Arkansas River across from the downtown WaterWalk development. The apartment developer is WaterWalk LLC, whose manager is Jack P. DeBoer.

The highlights of the deal include:

1. The lease of 4.4 acres of city-owned land for $1 per year, for the next 93 years. City documents say the land is valued by Sedgwick County at $479,000. The city paid $919,695 to acquire the land in 1994 and 1995. It’s listed as for sale with an asking price of $1,153,344. The city is, however, asking the apartment developer to pay the full $93 in advance.

2. Development of an amphitheater, which was part of the WaterWalk master plan. Originally planned to be just west of WaterWalk Place, the condominium development on Main Street, the amphitheater will now be implemented as a floating stage in the Arkansas River. A $247,500 Economic Development Initiative (EDI) grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will pay for a portion of the cost. Tuesday’s agenda item asks authorization to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for this stage.

Besides the sweetheart land lease, there are two other components of this deal that are troubling. One will undoubtedly be presented to city council members and the public as a big benefit to taxpayers, something that will actually profit the city. This is a provision that requires the apartment developer to pay “Additional Annual Rent.” Under this concept, each year the apartment developer will calculate “Adjusted Net Cash Flow” and remit 25 percent of that to the city.

To the casual observer, this seems like a magnanimous gesture by the apartment developer. It makes it look like the city has been a tough negotiator, hammering out a good deal for the city, letting citizens profit along with the apartment developer.

But the definition of cash flow includes a comprehensive list of expenses the may be deducted, including the cost of repaying any loans. There’s also an allowable expense called “Tenant Development Cost Return,” which is the apartment developer’s profit. The agreement defines this profit as 20 percent, and it’s deducted as part of the computation of “Adjusted Net Cash Flow.”

If there is ever any money left over after the dedication of all these expenses and profit margin, I will be surprised. Shocked, even. Here’s one reason why. One of the allowable deductions that goes into the computation of “Adjusted Net Cash Flow” is, according to city documents: “Amounts paid into any capital, furniture, fixture, equipment or other reserve.” There’s no restriction as to how much can be funneled into these reserve accounts. We can be sure that if this project was ever in the position where it looked like it might have to remit “Additional Annual Rent” to the city, contributions to these reserve funds would rise. Then, no funds paid to the city.

This is an example of the city appearing to be concerned for the welfare of taxpayers. In reality, this concept of “Additional Annual Rent” is worse than meaningless. It borders on deception.

Then, there’s this: The city has agreed to allow its ownership of the land (remember, the city is leasing the land to the apartment developer) to be subordinated to other debt the apartment developer may take on, such as the mortgage that will certainly be obtained. This means that if the apartment complex doesn’t succeed and there is foreclosure, the lender takes ownership of the city’s land.

Last week the city council passed a revision to its economic development policy that states that economic development incentives should have a cost-benefit ratio of at least 1.3 to one. No such number is given for this project.

Waterwalk, a problematic development

This deal is another chapter in the history of the troubled WaterWalk development. So far, WaterWalk has received some $41 million in public spending, and we have little to show for that investment.

Three years ago the Wichita Eagle editorialized: “Seven years into a project that was supposed to give Wichita a grand gathering place full of shops, restaurants and night spots as well as offices and condos, some City Council members and citizens remain skeptical at best about WaterWalk’s ability to deliver on its big promises. … True, the skepticism to date is richly deserved.” When our newspaper’s editorial board is critical of a government spending project in downtown Wichita, that’s a red letter day.

In 2009, after DeBoer took over the management of WaterWalk, the Wichita Eagle reported: “‘I’m not going down to City Hall with my hand out,’ DeBoer said. ‘I can’t. The city has put their money in it, and I’m happy with that. We’ve put a lot of our own money in and that’s OK. Now, time to deliver.'”

Leasing land worth $479,000 or $1,153,344 for one dollar per year: To me, that smells like a handout. It doesn’t sound like delivering on promises.

Around the time DeBoer took over the management of WaterWalk, Wichita city manager Robert Layton said no more public money would be put in to WaterWalk, according to Eagle reporting. Later he said those remarks were misinterpreted, with the Eagle reporting “[Layton] said the city won’t spend more on infrastructure, and that specific developments would be analyzed case by case to make sure they offer a return on investment for taxpayers and fit with the master plan.”

Wichita, home to cronyism

Measures like the city council will consider on Tuesday are what leads to cynicism regarding city government. It reinforces that notion that there is a network of insiders — the “good ol’ boy network” — that gets what it wants from city staff and officeholders. This deal — the sweetheart land giveaway, the deceptive appearance of profit sharing, the subordination of the city’s interests — doesn’t generate prosperity for Wichita and citizen confidence in its government. Instead, this deal contributes to the stench of cronyism that permeates and infests Wichita City Hall.

Two recent elections have shown that Wichitans don’t much care for this culture of giveaways to the politically connected class. People don’t like crony capitalism. They know it doesn’t work. The city defends these giveaways by saying they create jobs. But Wichita economic development is failing. Our city is not doing well, in spite of all the money spent on economic development efforts.

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

Last year Charles Koch, chairman of the board and CEO of Wichita-based Koch Industries, wrote in the pages of the Wall Street Journal this regarding cronyism: “Government spending on business only aggravates the problem. Too many businesses have successfully lobbied for special favors and treatment by seeking mandates for their products, subsidies (in the form of cash payments from the government), and regulations or tariffs to keep more efficient competitors at bay. Crony capitalism is much easier than competing in an open market. But it erodes our overall standard of living and stifles entrepreneurs by rewarding the politically favored rather than those who provide what consumers want.”

WaterWalk and Jack DeBoer have already received generous financial assistance ($41 million) from the taxpayers of Wichita. That the city would consider even one dollar more is a scandal.

Amendments to Wichita WaterWalk Developer Agreements

Wichita City Council can’t judge airport contract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita taxicab regulations likely to impede progress

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider new taxicab regulations that, city hall hopes, will improve tax service in Wichita. But the regulations create high barriers to entry that stifle entrepreneurship and market competition, likely dooming the program to fail.

The problem is that some feel that Wichita’s taxicab companies are not delivering good service. There have been complaints about both the drivers and the conditions of cabs. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said he was tired of hearing complaints about the taxicabs. He has tired slowly, however, as it’s taken eleven years of Brewer as either city council member or mayor for a solution to be proposed.

In some cities, the permit or medallion to operate a cab costs many thousands of dollars, even hundreds of thousands in New York City and other large cities. Wichita’s proposed fees are not exorbitant: Just $200 annually for a taxicab company and $100 annually per taxicab. (In Wichita there are three taxicab companies, but two have the same ownership.)

Further, Wichita does not restrict the number of taxicab companies, the number of cabs, or prohibit cruising for fares, as do some cities. This sounds like light-handed regulation, which if so, should induce new entrants to the market for providing taxi service. The market competition thereby created would normally be expected to drive down fares and improve service.

But Wichita’s regulations create substantial barriers to entering the taxicab market. Some of the most restrictive include these: A central office, staffed at least 40 hours per week; a dispatch system operating 24 hours per day, seven days per week; enough cabs to operate city-wide service, which the city has determined is ten cabs; and a supervisor on duty at all times cabs are operating.

These requirements, in effect, eliminate the small-time entrepreneur and the solo operator from entering the market. Things like dispatch systems, a central office, a fleet of ten taxicabs, and supervisors sound good. But these are costly, and they aren’t all necessary to get started in the business, or even perhaps to thrive. Since some of the complaints are the lack of available cabs at the airport, we need more cabs, not fewer.

If a person wanted to simply concentrate on picking up fares from the airport or cruising downtown looking for street hails, a dispatch system is not necessary. Neither is a supervisor or an office.

Yes, a cab without a dispatch system will miss out on fares that other cabs will be able to service. But the decision as to whether to use a dispatch system should be made by taxicab drivers or owners, not the city. Certainly, for some drivers and companies the economic benefit of such systems will become apparent, and they will invest in them. Others won’t.

The regulations in Wichita make it difficult for new taxicab operators to enter the market, leaving the city’s citizens and visitors served by a near-monopoly of two companies. That hasn’t worked out well, at least according to city officials. A new government regulator with a new set of regulations to enforce isn’t likely to help create a thriving market for taxicabs in Wichita.

But these market-based considerations and potential solutions, evidently, are not considered by the city. At a workshop on the topic, Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) noted the near-monopoly of taxicabs companies and asked if the city had looked at ways of creating more competition in the market?

The presenter of the proposed regulations, a public management fellow in the city manager’s office, said, simply, “we have not, no.” (We’re left to wonder if this proposed regulatory expansion is just an exercise, or make-work, for a recent graduate of the school of public administration at Wichita State University.) City Manager Robert Layton interjected, adding “we are believers in the free market system,” saying that he hoped that the new regulations and fare structure would make it easier to enter the market. I don’t think anyone at the meeting picked up on the irony.

Wichita’s bailout culture

On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider a bailout of a real estate development. If the council takes this action, it is one more step in a series of bailouts granted by the city, and it sets up expectations that the city will continue bailouts, creating a severe climate of moral hazard.

The property in question, owned by South Beech Development, LLC, received a loan from the city in 1995 under the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, a project of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. According to city documents, the project has not generated sufficient cash flow to pay back this loan. The loan balance of $195,000 and $368,437 in accrued interest are unpaid.

The recommendation by city staff includes forgiveness of the $368,437 in accrued interest owed the city and a reduction in the loan interest rate, among other provisions. City documents indicate that if the project does not continue to meet the guidelines of the HUD grant, the city will owe HUD the loan balance of $195,000.

There is no way to characterize the recommend action as anything other than a bailout at taxpayer expense. It’s not the first time the city has done this. In 2008 the city made a $6 million no-interest and low-interest loan to movie theater own Bill Warren and his partners. The theater was in a tax increment financing (TIF) district. The city had borrowed money and used it to benefit the Warren project and others nearby, including building a parking garage that charged only $10 per month for each parking space. The expectation was that the theater would be able to pay off the TIF bonds through its property taxes. But when the theater wasn’t performing well, Warren threatened to close it. That would leave city taxpayers on the hook for the bonds, so the city lent Warren the money.

That’s a similar situation to what the council will face Tuesday. If it doesn’t prop up a failing investment, it’s going to cost us nonetheless. We find that government subsidy paves the way for bailouts, again.

There are other examples. Last October the city restructured the loan agreement for the Ken-Mar TIF district. This shopping center had already received $2.5 million in TIF financing, but the development turned out to be not as profitable as projected. Despite the fact that the city had a personal guarantee from the developers to cover any shortfall in TIF revenues, the city restructured the loan, saving the developers about $30,000 per year. Another bailout, and to politically-connected developers, providing another lesson on how Wichita and Kansas need pay-to-play laws.

Most recently the city bailed out new home developers with a program that rebates the first five years of city property taxes for buyers. City Manager Robert Layton said the “tipping point” for him was the ability for the city to collect delinquent taxes from the home builders. Despite the fact that the city tells us that there is a very low probability that these special taxes will go uncollected, the city issued another bailout.

Moral hazard

In economics, moral hazard describes “the idea that some actor will engage in overly risky behavior because he believes that he’ll be bailed out if the risk goes bad.” (Jagadeesh Gokhale, When to Worry about Moral Hazard?)

In a Cato Institute Policy Analysis, authors W. Lee Hoskins and James W. Coons write this regarding moral hazard: “It sends a message to investors, both foreign and domestic, that they can invest with little fear of a total loss. That weakens the integrity of financial contracts and the scrutiny that contracting parties would otherwise apply to each other. It also results in excessive risk taking because a third party bears the risk.”

The Wikipedia entry on moral hazard explains “Moral hazard arises because an individual or institution does not take the full consequences and responsibilities of its actions, and therefore has a tendency to act less carefully than it otherwise would, leaving another party to hold some responsibility for the consequences of those actions.”

All this applies to the City of Wichita and the bailouts it has issued, and the one to South Beech that it is considering next week. When people believe the city — or any other governmental or quasi-governmental agency — will come to their aid if something goes wrong, it means that the risk taken is not real. The taxpayers of Wichita have taken on the risk of these projects without agreeing to. The loan agreement between the city and South Beech didn’t say that the city would forgive the loan interest if business was not good. But now the city proposes acting as though there was such an agreement, shifting business risk from borrower to creditor.

This rewriting of contracts in arrears is a prime example of moral hazard. We have decreasing confidence that the City of Wichita is willing to hold its private sector partners to their word. This situation is sometimes referred to as socialization of risk, and privatization of profit. It applies to what the Wichita City Council is considering, and the council should reject this bailout.

Part of this article was rewritten to clarify the nature of the city assistance given to the Old Town Warren Theater.

Wichita ethics kerfuffle quashed; lessons learned

On Friday the Wichita Eagle reported that the involvement of Wichita public relations consultant Beth King in a project seeking city approval was a problem for three members of the Wichita City Council. Not so, however, for the city manager, the mayor, and three other council members.

The crux of the problem is that King is engaged to be married to Wichita City Manager Robert Layton.

But now, as reported in the Wichita Eagle King will step down from her assignment of providing public relations support to the project. With that, the problem is solved, according to city hall standards. The story reports: “About an hour after King announced her resignation, Layton announced that all staff work and recommendations on the STAR bond proposal by GoodSports will be approved by Mayor Carl Brewer in an effort to enhance the project’s transparency.”

So now the issue is put to rest. What have we learned?

In a press release, on comments left on this site, and in personal email correspondence, King says that she has made changes to her business model based on her involvement with the city manager. That’s fine.

But King is not a government employee or elected official. She is not constrained by the special set of ethics rules that should apply to those working in government.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and manager Layton, however, are — or should be — constrained by ethics rules different from the private sector. And while Layton has come around — only after realizing that three city council members were concerned — Mayor Brewer still doesn’t see a problem.

That is the lesson Wichitans need to learn from this episode.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday January 16, 2012

Tax cuts = extra income? Commenting on Kansas tax reform, Wichita Business Journal editor Bill Roy said “Certainly for business people, it’s the elimination of the income tax on business income. … They’ll appreciate having that extra income that they can use on other things in their business.” I don’t know how much thought Roy gave to these remarks, but his easy likening of lower taxes to extra income is symptomatic of the problem: We have become accustomed to government having a claim on our income. In the rare instances where government gives up part of that claim, we taxpayers are supposed to view it as a gift, as something extra. Roy’s remarks were broadcast on the KPTS television program Impact while discussing Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s tax reform plan. … Similar lines of thinking are revealed whenever it is said that tax cuts “cost” the government. The proper way of thinking is that government is a cost to the people, and whenever the cost of government is reduced, we experience a benefit. That is, we the people, as contrasted to the political class. If the government cuts taxes, the government gives us nothing. It simply takes less of what is ours in the first place. … I’m also reminded of former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who when commenting on a reduction of the Kansas business machinery tax, said “We’re not giving away money for the sake of giving it away.”

Revenue-neutral tax reform. If Kansas tax reform is to be revenue-neutral, that — by definition — means that if one person pays less, someone else has to make up the difference. Peter Hancock of Kansas Education Policy Report has such an example in his post Winners and Losers in Brownback’s Tax Plan. A low-income family would experience a tax increase of $442 (mostly through loss of the Earned Income Tax Credit), while a middle class family with business income would save about $300. These examples were released by Kansas Democrats. … Hancock also reports that the Brownback administration’s projections assume 5.9 percent annual growth, instead of the standard 4 percent used by the Consensus Estimating Group. A common criticism of President Barack Obama’s administration is that its projections are based on an overly-optimistic rate of future economic growth. We shouldn’t do the same in Kansas.

Peterjohn to speak. This Friday (January 20th) the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn. He says he will speak on “critical national problems we are facing with a historical perspective.” The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club. Upcoming speakers: On January 27, 2012: The Honorable Jennifer Jones, Administrative Judge, Wichita Municipal Court, speaking on “An overview of the Wichita Municipal Court.”

Southwest to fly to Wichita. Since it gobbled up AirTran, the question has been: Will Southwest Airlines provide service in Wichita? Now we know the answer is yes. While the airline has recently started service in some markets without the large, ongoing subsidies that Wichita and the state provide, that won’t be the case in Wichita, according to news reports. … Last year I reported on Southwest starting service in Charleston, South Carolina, whose metropolitan area population is similar to that of Wichita: “In the Charleston situation, there evidently won’t be the massive state-supplied subsidy as we have in Kansas. But Southwest will still get a leg up: A USA Today story quotes a Charleston airport official saying ‘Southwest didn’t want a state subsidy, but was interested in the airport’s incentives a temporary waiver of landing fees, up to $10,000 to market new flights, and up to $150,000 for other start-up costs.'” That’s a lot less than what Wichita and Kansas offer. .. Will the need for subsidies last? About this time last year, Wichita City Manager Robert Layton said “The Southwest business model doesn’t require subsidies over a long period of time.” Of course, we were told that the subsidy for AirTran would be required for only a short period, but the program grew and grew until it is now considered part of our state’s transportation infrastructure.

Kansas economic development incentives. In an Insight Kansas column, Professor Chapman Rackaway of Fort Hays State University concludes: “No state will abandon the tax-incentive recruitment strategy for fear of being the only business suitor with nothing to offer. But the tax-incentive strategy remains a risky one, and perhaps it is time for Kansas and other governments to re-evaluate the practice.” … Earlier in the article he cites the lack of oversight among the states: “States and localities are regularly in competition with one another for scarce jobs. However, a 2001 article in Economic Development Quarterly reported that, despite the billions distributed annually as incentives, states were doing little evaluation of incentives’ effectiveness or their return on investment.” (Kansas has done a little of this; see here. A quote from the Kansas audit: “Most studies of economic development incentives suggest these incentives don’t have a significant impact on economic growth. The literature we reviewed concluded that, thus far, negative and inconclusive findings are far more numerous than positive findings. Most reviews of economic development assistance find few results are achieved — a theme that audits in Kansas and other states commonly find, as well. Findings of ineffectiveness include promised jobs weren’t created, return on investment is low or negative, and incentives offered weren’t a determining factor.” But also: “The literature also suggests that economic development incentives must be offered to remain competitive with other states.”) … But I think there is a way out. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business wrote this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers that are the subject of Rackaway’s article: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”

Story is broken. “Prof. Art Carden responds to ‘The Story of Broke,’ a recent video by the creators of ‘The Story of Stuff.’ In ‘The Story of Broke,’ Annie Leonard claims that the government isn’t actually broke. Rather, the government just wastes resources on the wrong things like subsidies to the dinosaur economy and war. She claims that the government should change its ways, and instead, subsidize firms that will bring us the future we really want. Art Carden agrees with Leonard that war and subsidies are wasteful, but is skeptical of notion that there is one unified vision for the future. To Carden, everyone has a different vision for the future. Our path to the future, he argues, is determined by the interactions of billions of unique individuals pursuing their own objectives. … Carden concludes that government spending won’t buy a brighter future. A brighter future will emerge when people are allowed to spend money on things they care about. Put another way, positive change will come from billions of people cooperating freely and voluntarily with one another, not from pushing trillions of dollars through a broken political process.” This video is from LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies, and many other informative videos are available.

For Wichita city hall, ethics again an issue

Reports that the Wichita city manager’s fiancee is involved with a group seeking approval from the city for a project indicate that the city’s perspective on ethics could use reform.

Nearly two years ago Wichita public relations executive Beth King was involved with a group seeking tax increment financing from the city. At the time I met with Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and expressed my concerns that since King was dating City Manager Robert Layton, there might be a conflict of interest. If not, then at least the appearance of that.

Brewer assured me that there were policies in place to guard against problems, and there was no need to be concerned. During the city council meeting where this issue was discussed, the manager did remove himself, saying that the assistant manager had handled the issue.

But evidently, the mayor’s policies haven’t worked, at least for some council members. According to Wichita Eagle reporting today, three council members believe King’s involvement in the current project is a problem, and the mayor was surprised to learn of King’s involvement.

Brewer and other city council members describe King’s roll as minor — just public relations — and therefore not a problem.

CityEthics.org has a model ethics code that cities and counties might adopt. It states: “An official or employee may not use his or her official position or office, or take or fail to take any action, or influence others to take or fail to take any action, in a manner which he or she knows, or has reason to believe, may result in a personal or financial benefit, not shared with a substantial segment of the city’s population, for any of the following persons or entities …”

Surprisingly, the code does not mention “fiancee” as a person to whom this code should apply. But I think common sense tells us that it should.

The Eagle article described Brewer as “disappointed that council members raised the issue to the media.” If the mayor is concerned that this issue is harming the reputation of the city, there is a solution: Act, Mr. Mayor, as though you are concerned. Establish clear ethics guidelines for the conduct of city employees.

Simply removing one’s self from discussion of, or involvement in, a particular issue isn’t sufficient remedy, however. Most people know where their boss’ interest lie.

Wichita’s political class

From June.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita general fund spending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to critics: stop grandstanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita City Council bows to special interests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few observations from the meeting follow.

Public investment

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

Order of events and media coverage

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

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

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

Questions not answered

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campaign contributions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mayor’s criticisms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the letter of intent, in effect, circumvents the public hearing. It reduces the hearing to a meaningless exercise. No matter what information is presented at the September public hearing, no matter how strong public opinion might be against this project, is there any real likelihood that the council would not proceed with this plan and its incentives, having already passed a letter of intent to do so? I imagine that persuasive arguments will be made that since the city issued a letter of intent, and since the developers may have already taken action based on that letter, it follows that the city is obligated to pass the plan. Otherwise, who would ever vest any meaning in a future letter of intent from this city?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The project

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

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

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

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

Burk and past allegations

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, we can learn of the reaction by two other city hall officials: “Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said that having city development partners who benefit from tax increment financing appeal for lower property taxes ‘seems like an oxymoron.’ City Manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.'”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita’s letter of intent for Douglas Place LLC

On Tuesday August 9th the Wichita City Council will consider passing a letter of intent to do something. Then, on September 13th, the council will hold a public hearing on whether the city should do the things contained in the letter of intent. Is this putting the cart before the horse? The agenda packet for the meeting is available at Wichita city council agendas, or an excerpt of the relevant pages is at Letter of Intent for Downtown Incentives for the Douglas Place Project.

Mayor Carl Brewer
Manager Robert Layton

Gentlemen,

I am concerned about the letter of intent for Douglas Place LLC to be considered at Tuesday’s city council meeting. Without regard to the merits of this project, it seems that endorsing a letter of intent regarding a matter, and then later on holding a public hearing on the very same matter, reduces the public hearing to a meaningless exercise.

I realize that Tuesday’s item is only to pass a letter of intent, and that the council would still have to pass ordinances implementing the ideas mentioned in the letter. The text of the letter states so: “This letter of intent is subject in all respects to subsequent actions by the City Council to authorize specific incentives outlined herein and does not constitute a binding obligation of the parties … ”

But prior to this, in the same paragraph, the letter states “… this Letter of Intent with Douglas Place LLC, is submitted in order to set forth the agreement of the parties concerning the principal elements of Douglas Place LLC’s commitment to the City and the City’s intent to provide the incentives outlined herein … ” (emphasis added)

The city’s intent could not be more clear.

Mayor and Manager, no matter what information is presented at the September 13 public hearing, and no matter how strong public opinion might be against this project, is there any real likelihood that the council would not proceed with this plan and its incentives, having already passed a letter of intent to do so? I imagine that persuasive arguments will be made that since the city issued a letter of intent, and since the developers may have already taken action based on that letter, it follows that the city is obligated to pass the plan. Otherwise, who would ever vest any meaning in a future letter of intent from this city?

May I also ask this: What is the need for this letter of intent? If the developer is not going to take action based on the proposed letter, why is it necessary?

I would urge the city to withdraw consideration of this letter of intent until after a public hearing is held.

Wichita and its political class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita general fund spending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday February 21, 2011

Kansas legislature website. Over the weekend a new version of the website for the Kansas Legislature appeared. It has a new design over what’s been available for the last six weeks or so. It will take a while to shake out the new site, but here are a few observations: Finally, pdf documents are displayed in a standard — that is to say plain — method that should be usable on devices of all types. … Attempting a search produces a “page not found” error. … There is no mobile version that works on devices like an Iphone, which is a popular thing to have these days. … There is a link named “A/V Live” which is not active at this time, but points to the goal of having committee testimony broadcast on the website. Here’s a better idea: almost all conferees that testify before committees have written testimony that is provided to committee members. Make that testimony available to the people of Kansas. This could be done fairly easily — and inexpensively — and is more useful. … The Wichita Eagle has some reporting today about the troubles with the new site. But the biggest question is: why is this work being done during the legislative session? Why not do it from June through December when the legislature is not in session and demand for the site is less? Why wasn’t the old site left running while the new site was built?

Legislators on Governor’s plan. At a meeting with Wichita-area legislators on Saturday, some spoke on Governor Brownback’s economic development plan. As with much of the news media, legislators seem mostly oriented on the reorganization of some agencies rather than the call for an end — or at least reduction — of targeted incentives and subsidies. Some legislators emphasized that we are competing with other states for jobs. It will be difficult for elected officials to give up the arms race of offering subsidy to companies to come to Kansas, or as we see in the Hawker Beechcraft deal, simply agree to remain in Kansas, even with a smaller number of jobs. … The governor’s plan still contains a slush fund for attracting jobs to Kansas, which should keep the big-government fans happy for a while.

Could Wisconsin demonstrations come to Kansas? At the meeting with legislators, I asked if the demonstrations taking place in Wisconsin could be seen in Kansas. There, state employees are protesting the governor’s proposal to ask them to pay more for health insurance and pensions. Also proposed are measures that would reduce the power of the state workers union. Representative Jim Ward said: “I don’t think it would happen in Kansas.” While people in Kansas are passionate, we have a tradition of civility, he added. … The Kansas public employee retirement system is among the most underfunded and will probably require someone to pay more. The process of selecting who has to pay — employees or taxpayers — is likely to be contentious.

Wichita trash. It seems likely that Wichitans will see another trash plan proposed, according to Wichita Eagle reporting. The urge by government bureaucrats like city manager Robert Layton to create a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist is compelling, it seems. While some Wichitans are paying much more than others for trash service, the publicity generated by the Eagle reporting has informed everyone as to how much trash service should cost. … Most candidates for city council seem to be against city involvement in trash service.

Wichita mayoral forum didn’t go well. According to reporting from KWCH, a forum for candidates for Wichita mayor didn’t go well: “Wichita residents came to a political forum to listen to political issues, but left shaking their heads.” Continuing in the story: “Some say they weren’t impressed with incumbent Carl Brewer either. ‘The Mayor was just relying on his name and everyone else just had wild views,’ said one listener. ‘The Mayor basically knew he wasn’t going anywhere,’ said another listener. Onlookers say a meeting that was supposed to educate them on important issues, just left them with a bad feeling about the political future of Wichita. ‘They just proved why I shouldn’t vote for them in my opinion,’ said Graham.”

Wichita City Council this week. The Wichita City Council will not meet this week, as it’s a Tuesday after a holiday. Most private sector workers might have trouble remembering there is a holiday today, but not so for the city council.

Sedgwick County commission this week. At Wednesday’s meeting, the Sedgwick County Commission has several important items on its agenda. The commission will be asked to adopt Project Downtown: The Master Plan for Wichita, November 2010 as an amendment to the Wichita-Sedgwick County Comprehensive Plan. This is the plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita prepared by planning firm Goody Clancy. This item is not a public hearing, and it is not known how much time commission chair Dave Unruh, who assumed that position in January, will allow for citizens to address the commission. Previous chairs Karl Peterjohn and Kelly Parks — as well as current Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer — always asked if citizens wanted to speak on an item and were generous with time allotted. … Also Jeremy Hill of Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research will make a presentation. CEDBR has been criticized for for a report it produced on the economic impact of the Affordable Airfares program. That report was produced before Hill started his tenure at CEDBR. … The appraiser will report on real estate valuation trends in Sedgwick County.

Wichita city manager Robert Layton on the air

Yesterday Wichita city manager Robert Layton appeared as a guest on the Gene Countryman Show on KNSS Radio in Wichita and spoke on a number of topics brought up by the host and callers.

Several times host Gene Countryman referred to Wichita theater owner Bill Warren and his assessment of Layton as “best city manager the city’s ever had,” calling Warren’s assessment “high praise.” Warren has good reason to heap praise on Layton. He and his partners have benefited handsomely from actions the Wichita City Council has taken at Layton’s recommendation. Most recently Warren escaped paying property taxes on a new movie theater, and negotiated a deal in where the property tax on an existing property will increase at an agreed-upon rate that is likely lower than what would happen otherwise. Before Layton’s arrival in Wichita, the council heaped subsidy on Warren too, once bailing out the failing Warren Old Town Theater with an interest-free loan.

Layton also said criticism causes him to “bristle a little bit,” but dismissed his critics as a small minority, although he said he doesn’t discount it.

On the possible arrival of Southwest Airlines to Wichita, Layton said he feels “pretty good” about Wichita’s chances in receiving service from the popular discount airline. He said that we need to keep the Affordable Airfares Program to keep Southwest interested in Wichita. But later he said “The Southwest business model doesn’t require subsidies over a long period of time.”

But as I wrote in 2006, we’ve been told before that the airfare subsidies were meant to be temporary: “From the beginning, we in the Wichita area have been told each year that the AirTran subsidy was intended as a temporary measure, that soon AirTran would be able to stand on its own, and there will be no need to continue the subsidy.” History has shown, however, that the subsidy has grown to the point where the entire state funds the subsidy for Wichita. It appears to be a permanent part of the state’s economic program, with Governor Brownback expressing support for continued funding for the program.

On downtown, Layton said that the city doesn’t want to place businesses in downtown who will be on tax breaks or tax exempt for ten years. If the city is to achieve this goal, it will take a 180 degree change in the mindset in city hall where the mayor and vice-mayor Jeff Longwell complain that we don’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to incentive businesses. In his State of the City address last week, one of the achievements Mayor Carl Brewer was proud of was the decision by Cargill to locate a facility in downtown Wichita. According to city documents, “The City has also offered a 100% five-plus-five year tax abatement on the new facility.” This is precisely the type of tax break Layton spoke against. Cargill, by the way, received many other forms of subsidy — let’s be clear — corporate welfare — for its decision.

On the plan for how to handle Wichita’s trash, Layton said his intent was to start a community dialog on the subject, and that has happened. Layton praised Iowa’s bottle bill, which adds five cents to the price of items sold in bottles. He said it makes it easier for people to recycle.