Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett spoke to the Wichita Pachyderm Club, providing an update on the activities in his office. This audio presentation was recorded April 8, 2016. Bennett’s visual presentation is available here. Also, a year in review for 2015 is available here.
Sedgwick County has released its annual report on the performance and status of economic development incentives for 2015.
Section I, titled “Summary Totals for Loans & Grants Executed 2005 — 2015,” holds data that must be interpreted carefully. The report shows a total of $11,682,500 in loans and grants. Of that total, $5,000,000 was advanced to Cessna in 2008 to help with the Columbus jet program. But Cessna canceled that program and repaid the loan. It’s almost as though this activity never took place.
Of particular interest is Section III, titled “Individual Loan & Grant Incentive Results.” These programs are specifically designed to induce the creation of jobs, and in some cases capital investment. This section holds a number of evaluations that read “Not Meeting Commitment.” One example is NetApp. The county reports that “Company Commitment at Compliance Review” is 268 jobs, but the county found that “Company Performance at Compliance Review” is 124 jobs, which is 46 percent of the goal. NetApp is significant as it is one of the larger incentives offered, and the jobs have high salaries.
Another observation is the small amount of the incentives. The majority are for less than $50,000, with one being $10,000. Often these small amounts are promoted as responsible for — or at least enabling — investments of millions of dollars. These incentives come with large costs besides the cash value. Companies must apply for the incentive, county and other agency staff must evaluate the application, there is deliberation by commissioners and council members, and then effort spent producing the thoughtful and thorough report such as this produced by the Chief Financial Officer of Sedgwick County. (The City of Wichita produces no similar report, despite dangling its possibility if voters passed a sales tax. See Wichita can implement transparency, even though tax did not pass.)
Click here to access this report.
The Sedgwick County Commission makes a bid for accountability with an economic development agency, but will likely fall short of anything meaningful.
The Greater Wichita Partnership is a reorganization of local economic development agencies. It has asked the Sedgwick County Commission for $300,000 to fund a portion of its activities this year. Those on the commission who are skeptical of GWP and its predecessors have asked for measurable outcomes of the progress GWP makes.
Here is a paragraph from the agreement with GWP that commissioners will consider this week:
9. Measurable Outcomes. GWP shall be subject to measureable outcomes as it shall determine, subject to review by the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. GWP shall present an annual report to the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners at a regularly-scheduled Commission meeting no later than December 31, 2016.
I appreciate the attempt by members of the county commission to ask for accountability. But this paragraph is so weak as to be meaningless. The nature of the measurable outcomes is not defined, even in broad strokes. Further, GWP gets to decide, at an unknown time, what constitutes the measurable outcomes. Then the county commission gets to “review” them, which is a weak — really, nonexistent — form of oversight. We ought to ask that the county commission “approve” them, and sooner rather than later.
But there is a bit of good news. Paragraph 10 of the agreement calls for a separate accounting fund to be created for the money the taxpayers of Sedgwick County will give to GWP. Then: “GWP agrees and understands that, by entering into this funding Agreement, any and all of its records, documents, and other information related to the Fund and the activities financed thereby shall be open and made available to the public upon request, in accordance with the Kansas Open Records Act.”
That’s good news, and a move towards the type of transparency and accountability that local governments — especially the City of Wichita — promote but finds difficult to actually deliver. Although this provision applies to only the county-supplied funds, hopefully GWP will realize that being transparent is better than being secretive.
A filing by a group seeking to recall a county commissioner declares “facts” that can’t possibly be known at this time.
Those hoping to recall Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau have filed a petition with the Kansas Supreme Court seeking to overturn the finding of the Sedgwick County District Attorney. That finding was the petition did not meet the grounds and conditions proscribed in Kansas law.
(Many news headlines and reporting use phrases like “District Attorney blocks petition.” That’s not accurate. The DA simply ruled that the petition did not meet the legal requirements.)
In the filing, under a section title “Statement of Facts,” paragraph 2 starts with “It is the will of the electors of Sedgwick County’s District 4 to seek the removal of Richard Ranzau from office …”
I’d like to know how the petitioner knows the will of the electors (voters) of district 4, specifically that they want to remove Ranzau from office. Since August 2008, Ranzau has prevailed in all four elections regarding his current office. In each election the revealed preference — or “will” — of the voters is that they preferred Ranzau to the alternatives, both other Republicans in two primary elections, and Democrats in two general elections. Each election was contested by experienced politicians who had held offices including that of Sedgwick County Commissioner, Wichita City Council Member, Kansas State Representative, and Kansas State Senator.
The only fact we know so far is that there are 100 citizens of Sedgwick County (not just district 4 residents) who have signed up to become recall petition circulators. Should the recall petition be approved, these circulators would have to gather a large number of valid signatures in a short period of time. If that petitioning effort is successful, there will be an election. It is at that time — and only that time — that the electors (voters) of district 4 express their will regarding the recall of Richard Ranzau.
The unfortunate news of the cancellation of a new aircraft program can be a learning opportunity for Wichita.
As Wichita seeks to grow its economy, the loss of a new aircraft program at one of the city’s major employers is unwelcome news. Now it is important that our leaders and officials seek to learn lessons from this loss. But first, we must acknowledge the loss. Wichita economic development officials are quick to trumpet successes, but so far there is no mention of this loss from the city or its economic development agencies.
The project received state, local and federal incentives. Lots of incentives. These incentives took the form of cash grants, forgiveness of taxes that would otherwise be due, and the ability to reroute its employee withholding taxes for the company’s exclusive benefit. So one lesson is that when local officials complain of the lack of money available for incentives, they are not being truthful.
A second lesson is the limited ability of incentives to overcome obstacles. In this case, the company said the incentives were necessary to make the project economically feasible. Incentives were awarded, but the project failed.
There are some important public policy issues that should be discussed:
Did the incentives induce Bombardier to take risks that it would not have taken had it been investing its own funds, or funds it had to raise from stockholders and debtholders?
Will the politicians that took credit for landing the Model 85 and its jobs now recognize the futility of their efforts?
Will the government agencies that took credit for creating jobs adjust their records?
Incentives like these are often justified using a benefit-cost ratio. This incident reminds us that these calculations are valid only if the investment works as planned. Will local governments recalculate the benefit-cost ratios based on the new information we now have?
Perhaps most important: Who has to pay the costs of these incentives? Part of the cost of this company’s investment, along with the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. This action — the award of incentives to an established company — is harmful to the Wichita economy for its strangling effect on entrepreneurship and young companies. As this company and others receive incentives and escape paying taxes, others have to pay.
There’s plenty of evidence that entrepreneurship, in particular young business firms, are the key to economic growth. But Wichita’s economic development policies, as evidenced by this action, are definitely stacked against the entrepreneur. As Wichita props up its established industries, it makes it more difficult for young firms to thrive. Wichita relies on targeted investment in our future. Our elected officials and bureaucrats believe they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. But as we see in the unfortunate news from Bombardier, this is not the case. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)
Here is an interactive version of the list of delinquent property taxes in Sedgwick County. This list is printed in a local newspaper three times each summer.
The Sedgwick County Treasurer issues a disclaimer regarding this list, which is that some of the taxes may have been paid, or are waiting the result of a grievance or protest.
Click here to open the interactive list in a new window. As shown in the illustration below, you may click to expand the addresses of properties for an owner, and sort by any column.
James Chung in Wichita, September 23, 2015.
Government promotes and promises transparency, but finds it difficult to actually provide.
In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV, I give some examples of how little information government actually shares with us, despite its proclamations. Click here to view in high definition at YouTube. Following, the script for this video excerpt.
During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax last year, a city document promised this if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.”
These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass. We were promised a website if the tax passed. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance.
Why is this information not available? Is the city’s communications staff overwhelmed and have no time to provide this type of information? During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”
Since then the city has hired additional communications staff, adding a Strategic Communications Director in March. Now, while the city’s Facebook page has some useful information, there is also time to promote Barry the Bison playing golf.
Now Wichitans have to wonder: Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax? Or is it a governing principle of our city? I think I know the answer.
Here’s another example. The Wichita transit system is a matter of interest right now. Funding for the system has been a problem for some years, and money for the bus system was part of the sales tax last year that Wichita voters rejected. So what is the city and the transit system doing to make information available? The answer is: not much. Some of the fundamental documents of government agencies are agendas, agenda reports, and minutes of meetings. And there is such a thing as the Wichita transit advisory board. But good luck finding agendas and minutes for this board. They do not exist. Well, I’m sure they exist somewhere. But they’re not available on the city’s website, or on the transit system’s’ own website. I’m sure that if you call or write someone will send these documents to you. But that takes time, both for citizens and government workers.
It is not difficult to do this, making documents available. There are many city agencies that make documents available, like the city council and airport advisory board. Earlier this year a local activist mentioned the lack of agendas and minutes for the transit board, bemoaning that there was no part-time web person to post the documents. Well, you don’t need a web person to do it. It is so simple that anyone can do it for free.
Here’s an example. This summer as Sedgwick County was preparing and debating its budget, I wanted to do some research on past budgets. But on the county’s website, the only budgets available were for this year and last year. There was nothing else.
So I asked for budgets and other financial documents. I received them on CD. Then I created a shared folder using Google Drive and uploaded the documents. Now, these documents are available to the world. They can be found using a Google search. Oh, and here’s something a little ironic. These old budgets had been on the Sedgwick County website at one time. Someone made the decision to remove them.
Creating this depository of budget documents cost nothing except a little bit of time. Well, if you have a lot of data to share, you might have to pay Google a little, like ten dollars per month for each agency or person. But it is so simple that there is no excuse for the failure of agencies like Wichita Transit to make documents like agendas and minutes available. You don’t need specialized personnel to do this work. All you need is the will and desire to make the documents available.
Here’s another example of how simple it can be to achieve transparency. These days live and archived video of governmental meetings is commonplace. Commonplace, that is, except for the Wichita public schools. If you want to see a meeting of the Wichita school board, you must either attend the meetings, or view delayed broadcasts on cable TV. There’s a simple and low-cost way to fix this. It’s called YouTube.
When the Sedgwick County Commission was faced with an aging web infrastructure for its archived broadcasts, it did the sensible thing. It created a YouTube channel and uploaded video of its meetings. Now citizens can view commission meetings at any time on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. This was an improvement over the old system, which was difficult to use and required special browser plug-ins. I could never get the video to play on my Iphone.
The Wichita school district could do the same. In fact, the district already has a YouTube channel. Yes, it takes a long time to upload two or three hours of video to YouTube, but once started the process runs in the background without intervention. No one has to sit and watch the process.
Earlier this year I asked why the district does not make video of its meetings available archived online. The district responded that it “has a long-standing commitment to the USD 259 community of showing unabridged recordings of regular Board of Education meetings on Cox Cable Channel 20 and more recently AT&T U-verse Channel 99.” The meetings are broadcast seven times starting the day after each meeting. Two of the broadcasts start at 1:00 am.
Showing meetings delayed on cable TV is okay. It was innovative at one time. But why aren’t meetings shown live? What if you can’t watch the meeting before it disappears from the broadcast schedule after a week? What if you don’t want to pay cable television bills? What if you want to watch meetings on your computer, tablet, or smartphone? I don’t think the fact that meetings are on cable TV means they can’t also be on YouTube.
There are two elements of irony here, if that is the correct term. One is that earlier this year the Wichita school district considered hiring a marketing firm to “gauge its reputation and suggest new branding strategies.” Here’s an idea: Act as though you care about people being able to view the district’s board meetings.
Second: In August the Wichita school district raised property taxes. The mill levy will rise by 2.86, an increase of about five percent from its present level. The projected cost is an additional $33 per year for a home worth $100.000. That is quite a large increase. That’s bad. What’s also bad is the district’s lack of respect for taxpayers. As I’ve just told you, it’s difficult to view a meeting of the school board, which is a sign that the district prefers to operate in the shadows as much as possible. The board will raise your taxes, and at the same time keep it difficult for you to see them do it.
Just for the sake of completeness, let’s not let the state of Kansas off the hook. Currently, the proceedings of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are not available on video. The audio is broadcast on the internet, but it’s live only. No archiving. You must listen live, or figure out some way to record it on your own.
But for eight dollars per month the legislature could make its audio proceedings available to listen to at any time. For eight dollars per month at least one podcast hosting company offers an unlimited plan. Unlimited storage, and unlimited bandwidth. That is just what is needed. And since the audio of the proceedings of the House and Senate is broadcast on the internet, it must pass through a computer somewhere. That computer could also be recording the audio. Once recorded, the process of uploading the audio to the podcast host is a trivial procedure.
But neither Kansas legislative chamber records their proceedings, according to the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House. I asked. Recordings of sessions are not available because they are not made. It would be simple to record audio of the Kansas House and Senate and make it available for anyone to listen to at any time. It is almost without cost. It would have great benefit.
Oh, and I can’t forget the federal government. In January I requested a document from the United States Department of Energy. I had several conversations and emails with a records clerk. We came to agreement as to what I would receive, or at least what I am requesting to receive. But I’ve received nothing so far. I don’t know if the document will be made available to me at no charge, or will I have to pay thousands of dollars. The Department of Energy is working on my request, they say. Our congressman Mike Pompeo and his office have intervened on my half. But after nine months: nothing.
All these levels of government — city, county, school district, state, and federal — say they value open records and transparency. But let me ask you: Do you think they really mean it?
Sedgwick County Kansas doesn’t make available online budgets for more than two years, so I’ve obtained both recommended and adopted budgets and deposited them here. There are also other documents such as comprehensive annual financial reports.
The documents are also available through DocumentCloud below.
The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce urges spending over fiscally sound policies and tax restraint in Sedgwick County.
Today the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce issued a “key vote” alert. This procedure, used by political groups of all persuasions, alerts elected officials that the Chamber prefers a certain outcome on an issue. Those who vote in harmony with the Chamber are likely to receive support in their next election, while the noncompliant are implicitly threatened with opponents the Chamber will support.
Here’s what the Chamber sent to commissioners:
From: Barby Jobe
Sent: Tuesday, August 11, 2015 2:47 PM
TO: SEDGWICK COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS
FROM: WALTER BERRY, Vice Chair, Wichita Metro Chamber Government Relations Committee
RE: KEY VOTE ALERT
While we have not recently had many “key votes” at the local level, the Wichita Metro Chamber would like to alert you that we will be key voting the 2016 Budget.
The Chamber would like to encourage the Commission to consider a compromise by leaving the property tax rate as it is currently and reducing the amount of cash-funded roads thus allowing a reallocation of funds for economic development and education, culture and recreation, city partnerships, and health and human services.
Thank you for your consideration.
It’s unclear precisely what the Wichita Chamber is asking commissioners to do. It seems likely the Chamber is asking for support of “Plan C.” That is the plan drafted by commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh, which proposes deferring road maintenance in order to free funds for current spending. That plan sets the county on the course chosen by the city of Wichita some years ago. That is, defer maintenance on streets and other infrastructure to support current spending. That policy lead to declining quality of streets and a large backlog of other maintenance, with a recent report from the city finding that the “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is an additional $45 to $55 million per year.
This deferral of maintenance needs is a form of deficit spending. It’s curious that a purportedly conservative organization like the Wichita Chamber of Commerce would support that.
Well, it’s not really surprising. The Wichita Chamber has long advocated for more taxation and spending, taking the lead in promoting the one cent per dollar sales tax proposal in Wichita last year. The Chamber has supported big-spending Republicans over fiscal conservatives for office at several levels.
In Wichita, and across the country, local chambers of commerce support crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.
That may be surprising to read. Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce — since their membership is mostly business firms — support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s usually not the case. It’s certainly is not the case in Wichita, where the Chamber supports higher taxes, more government spending, more business welfare, more government planning and control, more cronyism — and less economic freedom. The predictable result is less prosperity, which has been the case in Wichita under the leadership of the Wichita Chamber, its policies, and the politicians and bureaucrats it supports.
Here, in an excerpt from his article “Tax Chambers” economist Stephen Moore — formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now with Heritage Foundation — explains the decline of the local chamber of commerce:
The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda — but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government.
In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes in his recent book, “Rip-Off,” “state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes.”
In the states, chambers have come to believe their primary function is to secure tax financing for sports stadiums, convention centers, high-tech research institutes and transit boondoggles. Some local chambers have reportedly asked local utilities, school administrators and even politicians to join; others have opened membership to arts councils, museums, civic associations and other “tax eater” entities.
“I used to think that public employee unions like the NEA were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions,” says Mr. Caldera of the Independence Institute. “I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself ‘the business community’ and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations.”
From Stephen Moore in the article “Tax Chambers” published in The Wall Street Journal February 10, 2007. The complete article is here.
An analysis of public health spending in Sedgwick County illuminates the consequences of public spending decisions. In particular, those calling for more spending on zoos and arts must consider the lives that could be saved by diverting this spending to public health, according to analysis from Kansas Health Institute.
Kansas Health Institute is concerned about proposed reductions in public health spending in Sedgwick County. Sunday it released a fact sheet titled Decreases in Public Health Spending Associated with More Deaths from Preventable Causes, subtitled “Analysis of how proposed public health funding reductions in Sedgwick County could lead to more preventable deaths over time.”
KHI’s analysis is based on the paper “Evidence Links Increases In Public Health Spending To Declines In Preventable Deaths,” Glen P. Mays and Sharla A. Smith, Health Affairs, 30, no.8 (2011):1585-1593, available here. Excerpts from the paper are below. KHI summarizes the findings of the paper as: “In short, the research showed that increased spending by local public health agencies over the thirteen-year period studied was linked to statistically significant declines in deaths from some preventable causes such as infant mortality, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”
KHI developed a model based on the paper’s findings to conclude that the proposed reductions in spending on public health in Sedgwick County would result in the deaths show in the nearby table from their fact sheet. The total of these numbers is an additional 65 deaths per year.
Perhaps in response to these findings, two Sedgwick County Commissioners have proposed eliminating the proposed cuts. To help understand the effects of this spending, I duplicated the analysis performed by KHI. I took the proposed increases in spending (or reductions in cuts) and subtracted the spending for public health, leaving $1,019,499 in spending that loosely qualifies as “quality of life” spending. It’s for things like the zoo, Exploration Place, economic development, and the like.
As can be seen in the nearby illustration, if this quality of life spending was instead spent on public health, we could save 43 lives per year. Based on the methodology used by KHI, this is the human cost of restoring only the proposed cuts to quality of life spending in Sedgwick County. If we were to use the totality of quality of life spending, or even just a subset like the $5.3 million spent on an elephant exhibit, the cost in human lives is large. This, of course, assumes that the KHI methodology is valid and reliable.
In its summary, the KHI report states: “Budget decisions have real consequences.” Those supporting spending on quality of life issues instead of public health have some explaining to do.
Excerpts from Mays et al.
“On balance, there is very little empirical evidence about the extent to which differences in public health spending levels contribute to differences in population health. Several cross-national studies have found weak and conflicting associations between spending and health outcomes at a national level.”
In a section titled “Limitations” the authors note “Several limitations of this analysis are worthy of emphasis. Although we used strong statistical controls to address possible sources of bias, it remains possible that factors distinct from, but closely correlated with, public health spending may explain some of the observed associations between spending and mortality.”
Also, “Local public health activities may have important and perhaps more immediate effects on these other indicators of health … this analysis may underestimate the health consequences of changes in local public health spending.”
In conclusion, the authors write: “Our analysis supports the contention that spending on local public health activities is a wise health investment. Increasing such investments in communities with historically low levels of spending may provide an effective way of reducing geographic disparities in population health. However, more money by itself is unlikely to generate significant and sustainable health gains.”
In Sedgwick County the debate over the budget has the dimension of a moral crusade, except for one thing.
As Sedgwick County debates next year’s budget, the arguments against a three percent cut in spending have been heated. Proponents of spending say the commissioners are not honoring commitments (see here and here), the commissioners are being short-sighted and foolish for proposing cuts, the county has a moral obligation to use taxes to care for the needy, and that county spending has a great economic benefit.
But what isn’t often mentioned is the nature of taxation and government spending. A new video from Learn Liberty offers a perspective on the morality of government that seems to be totally missing in the debate. View the video below, or click here.
In summary, the video poses these questions:
1. Is it moral for you to donate your money and time to (the zoo, Exploration Place, arts, health care for the poor, vocational education, payments to companies so they remain in the county instead of moving, a livestock show, the river festival, the sports commission, etc.)?
2. Is it moral for you to force other people to donate their time and money to (same list as in question one)?
3. Is it moral for government to force people to donate their time and money to (same list as in question one)?
If you answer “no” to question two, then how do you justify answering “yes” to question three? All sorts of rationalizations are available to support these two answers, such as:
1. Society is like a club, and taxes are the dues.
2. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.
3. Government owns the nation (state, county, city, school district), and if you want to live or do business there, you must pay rent.
4. Government gives (most) people back more in services and benefits than they pay in taxes.
5. Government makes investments with our taxes that earn it even more tax revenue.
Some of these have a grain of truth, such as taxes providing for the national defense and a justice system. These two things make it possible for us to be safe from foreign aggressors and to have our rights and property protected. It doesn’t take a whole lot — comparatively speaking — to provide these functions, but government goes way beyond.
In fact, the truth behind number four leads to a most uncivil society, where people spend vast amounts of time and money lobbying for government to take even more time and money away from others and give it to them — or to the things they think your money should be spent on. We end up fighting over things like zoos and arts, instead of cooperating to attain these desirable amenities.
And fight we do. The techniques are known in advance. The book Economics In One Lesson, first published in 1946 and available to read at the Foundation for Economic Education, explains fallacies (false or mistaken ideas) that are particularly common in the field of economics and public policy. At the very start of the book the author Henry Hazlitt explains:
Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine — the special pleading of selfish interests. While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for then plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.
In addition to these endless pleadings of self-interest, there is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.
An example of using the “best buyable minds” is the promotion of government spending on arts as having some magic power not present in other spending. These buyable minds have produced an impressive document titled Arts & Economic Prosperity III: The Economic Impact of the Nonprofit Arts and Culture Industry in the State of Kansas. It explains that when a theater company (presumably operating with a government grant) buys a gallon of paint, it sets off a chain of economic activity that benefits many people. True enough. It’s called commerce. But anyone buying the paint sets off the same chain of activity. The same, that is, except that homeowners spending their own money on paint are doing so voluntarily, while the government-subsidized theater company has used the force of government to take money from others.
That’s a big difference, and one lost on most residents of Sedgwick County. I’m hopeful that the people pleading for more taxation and spending are simply unaware of these considerations, as if so, their minds can change. The alternative is much more bleak.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: As Sedgwick County proposes small spending cuts, those who benefit are vocal in their displeasure. Then, two more episodes from “Love Gov” covering health care and the housing market. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 91, broadcast August 9, 2015.
In Sedgwick County, we see that once companies are accustomed to government entitlements, any reduction is met with resistance.
When an executive of Spirit Aerosystems accused the Sedgwick County Commission of “working against us,” the company may have forgotten the assistance and special treatment the company has received from local governments and taxpayers. This assistance has amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades, when we consider both Spirit and its predecessor, Boeing.
Now, Spirit objects to a proposed reduction in funding to Wichita Area Technical College, and also cuts to local attractions such as the zoo. The proposed cut to WATC is less than the cut made the year before, although part of that cut was rescinded, making the proposed cut equal to last year’s cut. These cuts follow a trajectory recommended by the former county manager, who was widely praised as understanding and accommodating the needs of area business firms.
So when Spirit accuses county taxpayers as working against the company, it’s a little hard to stomach. Residents of Sedgwick County pay higher taxes so that Spirit can pay less.
Especially glaring is when companies ask for forgiveness of paying sales tax, as Spirit routinely does. In Kansas, low-income families must pay sales tax on their groceries, and at a rate that is among the highest in the country. Even more difficult to fathom are the companies that campaigned for a higher sales tax in Wichita, but engage in financial maneuvers designed to avoid paying any sales tax. Sometimes companies campaign for higher property taxes, especially school bonds, but then ask for exemption from paying those taxes. 1 2 3
Following, a discussion of a Spirit Aerosystems tax abatement request from 2014.
This week the Wichita City Council will hold a public hearing concerning the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds to Spirit AeroSystems, Inc. The purpose of the bonds is to allow Spirit to avoid paying property taxes on taxable property purchased with bond proceeds for a period of five years. The abatement may then be extended for another five years. Additionally, Spirit will not pay sales taxes on the purchased property.
City documents state that the property tax abatement will be shared among the taxing jurisdictions in these estimated amounts:
USD 259: $143,038
No value is supplied for the amount of sales tax that may be avoided. The listing of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is likely an oversight by the city, as the Spirit properties lie in the Derby school district. This is evident when the benefit-cost ratios are listed:
City of Wichita: 1.98 to one
General Fund: 1.78 to one
Debt Service: 2.34 to one
Sedgwick County: 1.54 to one
U.S.D. 260: 1.00 to one (Derby school district)
State of Kansas: 28.23 to one
The City of Wichita has a policy where economic development incentives should have a benefit cost ratio of 1.3 to one or greater for the city to participate, although there are many loopholes the city regularly uses to approve projects with smaller ratios. Note that the ratio for the Derby school district is 1.00 to one, far below what the city requires for projects it considers for participation. That is, unless it uses one of the many available loopholes.
We have to wonder why the City of Wichita imposes upon the Derby school district an economic development incentive that costs the Derby schools $143,038 per year, with no payoff? Generally the cost of economic development incentives are shouldered because there is the lure of a return, be it real or imaginary. But this is not the case for the Derby school district. This is especially relevant because the school district bears, by far, the largest share of the cost of the tax abatement.
The city’s past experience
Spirit Aerosystems is a spin-off from Boeing and has benefited from many tax abatements over the years. In a written statement in January 2012 at the time of Boeing’s announcement that it was leaving Wichita, Mayor Carl Brewer wrote “Our disappointment in Boeing’s decision to abandon its 80-year relationship with Wichita and the State of Kansas will not diminish any time soon. The City of Wichita, Sedgwick County and the State of Kansas have invested far too many taxpayer dollars in the past development of the Boeing Company to take this announcement lightly.”
Along with the mayor’s statement the city released a compilation of the industrial revenue bonds authorized for Boeing starting in 1979. The purpose of the IRBs is to allow Boeing to escape paying property taxes, and in many cases, sales taxes. According to the city’s compilation, Boeing was granted property tax relief totaling $657,992,250 from 1980 to 2017. No estimate for the amount of sales tax exemption is available. I’ve prepared a chart showing the value of property tax abatements in favor of Boeing each year, based on city documents. There were several years where the value of forgiven tax was over $40 million.
Kansas Representative Jim Ward, who at the time was Chair of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation, issued this statement regarding Boeing and incentives:
Boeing is the poster child for corporate tax incentives. This company has benefited from property tax incentives, sales tax exemptions, infrastructure investments and other tax breaks at every level of government. These incentives were provided in an effort to retain and create thousands of Kansas jobs. We will be less trusting in the future of corporate promises.
Not all the Boeing incentives started with Wichita city government action. But the biggest benefit to Boeing, which is the property tax abatements through industrial revenue bonds, starts with Wichita city council action. By authorizing IRBs, the city council cancels property taxes not only for the city, but also for the county, state, and school district.
Sedgwick County taxpayers have been generous with funding for Wichita Area Technical College, and the former county manager has recommended reducing its funding.
During the July 16, 2014 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, county manager Bill Buchanan presented the recommended budget for 2015. It included a cut in funding for Wichita Area Technical College in the amount of $150,000. In response to a question, Buchanan told the commissioners:
“The new president has been assertive and aggressive in trying to deal with their financial issues. They have, he has turned that financial, that institution around financially. They are in pretty healthy shape. They have a fund balance that’s relatively strong, and it’s in my opinion that our subsidy, although it was critical in the beginning, is less critical in their operations now, and perhaps it would be time for us, when we face our own fiscal issues, to reduce their funding so we can address some of ours.”
Under the leadership of Chair Dave Unruh, this reduction in funding was approved.
At the January 7, 2015 meeting of the commission, again under the leadership of Unruh, the commission heard an off-agenda item to restore $50,000 of the funding for 2015, making the cut $100,000. That item passed. Being an off-agenda item, there is little or no public notice. Commissioner Karl Peterjohn noted this in his remarks: “I frankly would feel much more comfortable if we postponed this issue until we could get it published in the paper and have at least whatever public attention that that would generate provided, as opposed to taking another Off Agenda item that’s going to increase county spending.”
In support of Peterjohn’s motion to delay the decision for a week, Commissioner Richard Ranzau expressed concern over the lack of financial information made available to commissioners. He also repeated the manager’s recommendation that WATC needs less county funding: “Well, I’d like to have more financial information. It’s my understanding that since the state has increased funding for Vocational Ed, they’re doing very well, their reserves increased significantly, and that’s why, I mean, I was told the reason we could reduce it $150,000 was because they were doing so well. I support what they’re doing out there, but if they’ve had an influx of money from the state, a result of Vocational Ed legislation then I think it’s appropriate to adjust our spending, and I’m not prepared to increase it by $50,000 without more financial information, and that’s why I support Commissioner Peterjohn’s motion to postpone this a week so we can get more information and make a more educated decision on this. There is really no reason for hurry through this in my estimation.”
In summary, the Sedgwick County manager recommended that commissioners reduce funding to WATC, as its need for county funding has declined. Under commission chair Unruh, the commission did so, in the net amount of $100,000. The same amount is proposed for cuts this year. In light of this, the criticism of WATC beneficiaries like Spirit Aerosystems is unfounded.
By the way, the commission has been criticized for considering off-agenda items since Ranzau became chair in January, with the Wichita Eagle editorial board describing one off-agenda vote as “abrupt.” In another op-ed, Rhonda Holman complained that “The move came in an off-agenda item, with little opportunity for GWEDC and the business community to argue against it.”
Whether off-agenda items are good or bad public policy seems to depend on the whim of the Eagle editorial board.
That so many speakers at a public hearing were in favor of government spending is not surprising.
In a letter to the editor of the Wichita Eagle the writer stated “But apparently few of them felt strongly enough to come to the commission hearing and express their support of budget cuts.” He was referring to the public hearing on Wednesday July 29, when some 50 people spoke, and just three supported cuts.
This lopsided ratio is not surprising. It’s an example of the well-known phenomenon of concentrated benefits and dispersed (or diffuse) costs. Explained in this video, it observes that for most government spending programs, the benefits are showered on a few very visible recipients who benefit greatly. There were 47 of these speaking at last week’s public hearing.
But the costs of these spending programs are spread across everyone, or at least a large group. For them, the cost is small. In fact, politicians use this argument in favor of their spending programs. Dave Unruh observed that the proposed county property tax cuts amount to savings of $1.37 per year for a $100,000 house. His arithmetic is correct, and so is his understanding of human nature. Most people look at the small cost of any single government spending program and realize it’s not worth much personal effort to save $1.37 (or whatever) per year.
Since the costs of each spending program is small for any single person, not many get worked up and take action. That’s why only three of 50 speakers opposed the spending programs. Politicians and beneficiaries of spending programs rely on this imbalance of motives.
Not often mentioned is that most of the organizations seeking county funding are charities. Anyone may make contributions directly to them. Some people have testified that they don’t need a cut in taxes, or that they would be willing to be taxed more so that these organizations could have more funding. Perhaps these people don’t realize that it is within their power to make contributions to these charities at any time.
It seems we have forgotten that charity is a voluntary act, and that government taxation and spending is not charitable. This is evidence of further drift from a civil society where things like zoos and medical care for the poor are handled on a voluntary and cooperative basis. Instead, we fight.
The Sedgwick County Commission has been generous with zoo funding, spending far more than agreed upon and granting a moratorium on loan payments and interest.
In September 2013 the Sedgwick County Commission agreed on a new funding plan with the Sedgwick County Zoo for years 2014 through 2018. For 2016 the recommended budget calls for keeping funding the same as the 2015 level instead of a 6.9 percent increase as indicated by the 2013 plan.
That’s the plan. What actually happened is quite different.
In September 2014 the commission voted to give the zoo $5.3 million to help pay for a new elephant exhibit. This contribution was not in any funding agreement, and the money was paid in January 2015. This extra funding is almost as large as the planned funding for 2015, which was about $5.6 million.
For next year the commission proposes drawing back just a little, proposing that 2016 funding be the same as 2015 planned and actual funding.
But instead of being grateful for the contribution of $5.3 million for the elephant exhibit, zoo boosters are bitter because the commission is proposing to keep zoo funding level from 2015 to 2016. Level, that is, if one ignores an extra $5.3 million from the county in 2015.
When considering zoo funding we also need to factor in the zoo’s failure to keep its commitment to the county. The zoo has borrowed money from the county so it could build a restaurant. Now the zoo is enjoying a deferral of loan payments and a break from accumulating interest charges. See For Sedgwick County Zoo, a moratorium on its commitment.
By the way, the 2013 funding plan holds that “either party may terminate this agreement by giving written notice.” The parties contemplated that one may not be able or willing to meet the plan.
As the Sedgwick County Zoo and its supporters criticize commissioners for failing to honor commitments, the Zoo is enjoying a deferral of loan payments and a break from accumulating interest charges.
In 2007 the Sedgwick County commission authorized a loan of up to $2.4 million to the zoo to build a restaurant. The idea for this is credited to just-retired County Manager Bill Buchanan. According to meeting minutes from February 21, 2007, the Manager told the commissioners “A new restaurant in the zoo will make some money for the zoo, it is a feature that zoos around the country use as a way to attract people and as an additional revenue source.” As for the county’s role in the venture, the manager said “I’ve viewed this as a way to invest our money, rather than with a Treasury note[,] with a partner.”
Buchanan pitched the loan as a way for the county to earn a little bit more interest than a Treasury note, and as a way for the Zoo to save over $100,000 in interest. If the Zoo was not able to repay the loan, the manager said the county’s annual contribution to the Zoo could be a repayment source. “No one is anticipating that,” said Buchanan.
Immediately after the manager spoke Chris Chronis, the county’s Chief Financial Officer, told the commissioners that “despite what you may have concluded from what the Manager just said, we do not consider this an investment. In fact, it would not be a permitted investment under State law.” Instead, he told the commissioners it should be considered “a loan for economic development purposes.”
Mark Reed, the Zoo Director, told the commissioners “it is my desire and hope to have this paid off in five to seven years.”
What has been the result of this loan?
The zoo borrowed a total of $2,251,100 in two draws in 2007 and 2008. Payments were made through 2013. As of the end of 2014 the zoo owed $936,044 on this loan, according to the county’s annual financial report and other documents.
In 2013 the commission authorized a five-year moratorium on loan payments, to start in 2014. Besides deferring loan payments, the commission decided that interest will not accrue during the moratorium. The deferred payments are in the amount of $234,011.11 for each year.
The Sedgwick County recommended budget for 2016 reduces projected deficits.
In February Sedgwick County Commissioners were presented with a forecast of budget deficits through 2020, as can be seen in the nearby illustration provided by the county. (Click charts for larger versions.)
The recommended budget reduces the deficits in each year, as can be seen in the second chart provided by the county. The bar chart provides a different view of the same figures.
During a meeting with commissioners, the county’s financial officer said “In each year this budget provides for a reduction in the anticipated deficit.” He also added that it improves the county’s financial picture.
The recommended budget cuts spending in some areas. An alternative that could be proposed by commissioners is to raise taxes, either property or sales.