Tag Archives: Sue Schlapp

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

Wichita City Council fails to support informing the taxed

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.

It’s enlightening to look back at some examples of discussion at the Wichita City Council so that we remember the attitudes of council members and city bureaucrats towards citizens. In the following example, the council was considering whether Wichitans and visitors should be notified of the amount of extra sales tax — or even the existence of extra tax — they will pay when shopping at merchants located within Community Improvement Districts (CIDs). Did the council side with special interests or citizens?

At its December 7, 2010 meeting, the Wichita City Council considered whether stores in CIDs should be required to post signs warning shoppers of the amount of extra tax being charged. Some, including myself, felt that shoppers should have this information before deciding to shop in such a store.

In discussion from the bench, Jeff Longwell, who was Vice Mayor at the time, said it is important that we disclose these “types of collections” as they are taxing the public. But in a convoluted stretch of reasoning, he argued that posting a sign with a specific tax rate would be confusing to citizens: (View video below, or click here to view at YouTube.

“I was leaning to putting a percentage on there, but again if we have a website that spells out the percentage, I think that’s important. And number two, I guess I would be a little bit concerned how we would work through it — if you put a percentage on a development over here in downtown that’s only collecting one percent and someone walks in and sees a CID tax collected of one percent and just assumes every CID tax is one percent it would be confusing when they go to the next one, and it may scare them off if they see one that’s two percent, they’ll never go to one that’s maybe only one percent. So I think that proves an additional concern for some confusion. So having something on the front door that says we are financing this with a CID tax, where they’re made well aware that it’s collected there, I think to try and include a percentage might even add some confusion as we collect different CID taxes around the city.”

Longwell is content to tell people as they enter a store that they’re being taxed, but not how much tax they’re required to pay. We can summarize his attitude as this: Giving citizens too much information will confuse them.

Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp

Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp

Council Member Sue Schlapp (who left office in 2011 after reaching the city’s limit on length of service) said she supported transparency in government:

“Every tool we can have is necessary … This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion. Either we do it, and we do it in a way that it’s going to be useful and accomplish its purpose. … I understand totally the discussion of letting the public know. I think transparency is absolutely vital to everything we do in government. So I think we’re doing that very thing.”

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

Schlapp understood and said what everyone knows: That if you arm citizens with knowledge of high taxes, they’re likely to go somewhere else to shop. Well, maybe except for women, as Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), noted that women would still want to shop at a store in a CID if it is “very unique.”

Mayor Carl Brewer said he agreed with Schlapp and the other council members.

In the end, the council unanimously voted for requiring signage that reads, according to minutes from the meeting: “This project made possible by Community Improvement District Financing and includes the website.”

This sign doesn’t mention anything about the rate of extra sales tax that customers of CID merchants will pay. In fact, reading the sign, shoppers are not likely to sense that they’ll be paying any additional tax. The sign almost makes the Community Improvement District seem benevolent, not predatory.

Contrary to Schlapp’s assertions, this is not anything like government transparency.

Here’s what is really troubling: What does it say about Wichita’s economic development strategy that if you fully inform citizens and visitors on what they’re asked to pay, it renders the tool “useless,”as Schlapp contended?

It’s just another example of the council and staff being totally captured by special interests, preferring advancing the interests of their cronies rather than protecting citizens.

CID signs missing at some Wichita merchants

Not all merchants located in Wichita’s Community Improvement District program are displaying the required signage.

CIDs are a creation of the Kansas Legislature from the 2009 session. They allow merchants in a district to collect additional sales tax of up to two cents per dollar. At the time CIDs started forming, I and others suggested that the city require signage notifying shoppers that they would be paying an additional sales tax, and at what rate.

Not everyone thought that would be wise, according to discussion at a Wichita city council meeting. Informing shoppers as to the actual rate of extra tax would be, according to Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) confusing.

Council Member Sue Schlapp said that transparency is vital for government, but evidently not always, she argued: “This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion.”

A representative of a group wanting to establish a CID told the council that developers do not “have any interest in hiding something from the public, or keeping citizens from having full knowledge about these community improvement districts.”

But he added that the retailers they are trying to bring to Wichita would be discouraged by full disclosure of the extra sales tax that citizens would pay in their stores. “We want to make sure that anything that we do, or anything that we implement within a policy is appropriate and will not counteract the very tool we’re creating here.”

The compromise that emerged is a small sign that states “THIS PROJECT MADE POSSIBLE BY COMMUNITY IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT FINANCING” along with a reference to the city’s website to learn more, as explained in the city CID policy document.

That website, www.wichita.gov/CID/?, has information and maps of CIDs, but there’s no way to learn the names of stores in the CID, except for a few cases where the district is named after a merchant. (The city’s site also has broken links, dating from the redesign of the city’s website.)

Broadview Hotel 2013-07-09 004
Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview

Examination of merchants in Wichita’s CIDs found two examples of merchants not displaying the signs. Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview and Fairfield Inn at Waterwalk display no signs. Cabela’s displays the signs and is in compliance, but the design of these signs makes them difficult to see.

The city’s policy document regarding these signs doesn’t specify penalties for non-compliance, but that continued failure to comply would result in nonpayment. When asked about the missing signs, city staff said they will investigate and take corrective action.

Curiously, the new CVS drugstore in east Wichita displays the CID signage, but based on purchases made, the store isn’t collecting the CID tax it is entitled to collect.

Slideshow: Wichita CID signs.

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’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 City Council campaign contributions and Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel

Many people make campaign contributions to candidates whose ideals and goals they share. This is an important part of our political process. But when reading campaign finance reports for members of the Wichita City Council, one sees the same names appearing over and over, often making the maximum allowed contribution to candidates. Their spouses also contribute.

Looking at the candidates these people contribute to, we find that often there’s no commonality to the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. At first glance, it’s puzzling.

But then, when these people appear in the news after having received money from the Wichita City Council, it snaps into place: These campaign donors are not donating to those whose ideals they agree with. They’re donating so they can line their own pockets.

All told, parties associated with the proposed Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel project contributed at least $24,500 to current city council members during their most recent campaigns. This is split between two groups of people: executives associated with Key Construction and their spouses, and David Burk and his wife.

Those associated with Key Construction contributed $16,500, and the Burks contributed $8,000.

At a recent city council meeting, Mayor Brewer, along with council members Janet Miller and Lavonta Williams expressed varying degrees of outrage that people would link their acceptance of campaign contributions with their votes and conduct as officeholders.

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

Burk and the others must be expecting something from these campaign contributions. There’s no other reasonable explanation. Candidates and officeholders who accept these contributions know that Burk and his business partners are likely to appear before the council asking for money. If they find this distasteful or repugnant, they could simply refuse to accept Burk’s contributions, as well as those from people associated with Key Construction. But they don’t.

This is what writers like Randal O’Toole mean when he wrote “TIF puts city officials on the verge of corruption, favoring some developers and property owners over others.”

Some states and cities have “pay-to-play” laws which govern conduct of officeholders who have accepted campaign contributions from those seeking government contracts. An example is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

If Wichita had such a law, the city council couldn’t muster a quorum of its members to vote on the Douglas Place project, so pervasive are the campaign contributions.

Contributions by Douglas Place participants

In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table complied from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member and with his heart set on becoming the next mayor, leads the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Douglas Place project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Douglas Place project: $6,000.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), who is also vice mayor, received $5,000 from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, newly-elected Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, newly-elected Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with Douglas Place/Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

This article has been updated to include information from campaign finance reports filed in January 2012.

In Wichita, private tax policy on the rise

In a free society with a limited government, taxation should be restricted to being a way for government to raise funds to pay for services that all people benefit from. An example is police and fire protection. Even people who are opposed to taxation rationalize paying taxes that way. But in the city of Wichita, private tax policy is overtaking our city.

The Douglas Place project, a downtown hotel to be considered tomorrow by the Wichita City Council, makes use of several of these private tax policy strategies.

By private tax policy, I mean that the proceeds of a tax are used for the exclusive benefit of one person (or business firm), instead of used for the benefit of all. And in at least one case, private parties are being allowed to determine the city’s tax policy at their discretion.

The taxes collected by this private tax policy is still collected under the pretense of government authority. But instead of going to pay for government — things like police, fire, and schools — the tax is collected for the exclusive benefit of one party, not the public.

In Wichita and across Kansas, one example of taxation being used for the benefit of one person or business is the Community Improvement District (CID). Under this program, the business collects an extra tax that looks just like sales tax. Except — the proceeds of the extra CID tax are funneled back for the exclusive benefit of the people who own property in the district. The Douglas Place project is asking to collect an extra tax of two cents per dollar for its own benefit.

CIDs are a threat to unsuspecting customers who likely won’t be aware of the extra tax they’ll be paying until after they complete their purchases, if at all. Wichita decided against disclosing to citizens the amount of tax they’ll be paying with signage on stores. Instead, the city settled for a sign that says nothing except to check a city website for information about CIDs.

CIDs also present the City of Wichita as a high-tax place to live and do business. It’s a risk to our city’s reputation. Especially when you consider the Jeff Longwell strategy, which is that since these taxes are often used by hotels and other businesses that cater to visitors, Wichitans don’t pay them as much as do visitors.

Another example of private tax policy is when a tax such as Wichita’s hotel guest tax is redirected from its original goal. According to a description of the Tourism and Convention Fund in the city’s budget, the goal of the guest tax is to “support tourism and convention, infrastructure, and promotion of the City.” Its priorities are to be “Fund priorities are: 1) debt service for tourism and convention facilities, 2) operational deficit subsidies and 3) care and maintenance of Century II.”

But in the case of the Douglas Place project, the city is asking for a charter ordinance to be passed that would route 75 percent of this tax directly back to the Douglas Place owners. That’s not the proclaimed purpose of the guest tax, unless we consider private hotels to be part of the city’s tourism infrastructure. (I think some people think that way.)

At least in the case of Douglas Place the city is being more upfront with its citizens. The charter ordinance requires a two-thirds vote of the city council for passage, a higher bar than in the past. And, the city isn’t borrowing money to give to the hotel. That’s what the city has done in the past, as in the case of the Fairfield Inn & Suites Wichita Downtown that is part of the WaterWalk project. One of the many layers of subsidy going in to that hotel was that the city simply gifted the hotel $2,500,000, to be paid back by the hotel’s guest tax receipts.

Some will say that’s not really a gift, as the hotel will pay back the loan. But the loan is being repaid with taxes the hotel — more properly, its guests — must pay anyway. This is public taxation for private enrichment.

If you need further evidence that the city is turning over taxation to private hands, consider this: The charter ordinance is subject to a protest petition, and if sufficient signatures are gathered, the city council would have to either overturn the ordinance or hold an election to let the people decide.

Now, if such a tax is truly in the public interest, the city would hold such an election and bear its costs itself. But that’s not the case. In the agreement between the city and the Douglas Place developers, we see this: “If Developer requests a special election solely for the purpose of passing the charter ordinance in the event a sufficient protest petition is submitted, Developer shall reimburse the City for the actual out of pocket costs and expenses of conducting such election.”

In other words, the city is turning over to private interests the decision as to whether to have such an election. At least the citizens of Wichita won’t have to pay for it, if such an election happens.

Another example of private tax policy that the Douglas Place project is using is Tax increment financing, or a TIF district. This mechanism routes property taxes back to the development. In the case of Douglas Place, $3,325,000 of its own property taxes are being used to pay for its parking garage. That’s a deal most citizens can’t get.

Normally property taxes are used for the general operation of government. Not so in TIF districts, another example of public taxation for private enrichment. Again, these are taxes that the property must pay anyway.

Private taxation funds political entrepreneurship

In Wichita, especially in downtown, we see the rise of private tax policy, that is, the taxation power of government being used for private purposes. This private tax policy is pushed by Wichita’s political entrepreneurs. These are the people who would rather compete in the realm of politics rather than in the market.

Examples of Wichita’s political entrepreneurs include the developers of Douglas Place: David Burk of Marketplace Properties, and the principals of Key Construction.

Competing in the political arena is easier than competing in the market. To win in the political arena, you only have to convince a majority of the legislative body that controls your situation. Once you’ve convinced them the power of government takes over, and the people at large are forced to transfer money to the political entrepreneurs. In other words, they must engage in transactions they would not elect to perform, if left to their own free will.

In the free marketplace, however, entrepreneurs have to compete by offering products or services that people are willing to buy, free of coercion. That’s hard to do. But it’s the only way to gauge whether people really want what the entrepreneurs are selling.

One of the ways that political entrepreneurs compete is by making campaign contributions, and the developers of Douglas Place have mastered this technique. Key Construction principles contributed $13,500 to Mayor Carl Brewer and four city council members during their most recent campaigns. Council Member Jeff Longwell alone received $4,000 of that sum, and he also accepted another $2,000 from managing member David Burk and his wife.

All told, Burk and his wife contributed at least $7,500 to city council candidates who will be voting whether to give Burk money. Burk and others routinely make the maximum contribution to all — or nearly all — candidates, even those with widely varying political stances. How can someone explain Burk’s (and his wife’s) contributions to liberals like Miller and Williams, and also to conservatives like Longwell, Meitzner, and former council member Sue Schlapp?

The answer is: Burk will be asking these people for money.

Wichitans need to rise against these political entrepreneurs and their usurpation of a public function — taxation — for their own benefit. The politicians and bureaucrats who enable this should realize they should be serving the public interest, not the narrow and private enrichment of the few at the cost of many.

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 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: Sunday April 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday April 5, 2011

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

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

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Sunday March 13, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cabela’s CID should not be approved in Wichita

This week outdoor retailer Cabela’s will ask the Wichita City Council to create a Community Improvement District (CID) for its benefit. Creating the CID would allow Cabela’s — the only store in the proposed CID — to collect tax of an additional 1.2 cents per dollar sales from customers. Proceeds of one cent per dollar, less a handling fee, will be given to Cabela’s for its exclusive use, with 0.2 cents per dollar to be used for street and highway improvements near the proposed CID.

CIDs should be opposed as they turn over tax policy to the private sector. We should look at taxation as a way for government to raise funds to pay for services that all people benefit from. An example is police and fire protection. Even people who are opposed to taxation rationalize paying taxes that way.

But CIDs turn tax policy over to the private sector for personal benefit. The money is collected under the pretense of government authority, but it is collected for the exclusive benefit of the owners of property in the CID.

This is perhaps the worst aspect of CIDs. Landlord and merchants already have a way to generate revenue from their customers under free exchange: through the prices posted or advertised for their products, plus consumers’ awareness of the sales tax rates that prevail in a state, county, and city.

But the most consumers will never be aware that they paid an extra tax for the exclusive benefit of the CID. (A bill working its way through the Kansas legislature may require detailing of sales taxes on cash register receipts.)

The Wichita city council had a chance to provide transparency to shoppers by requiring merchants in CIDs to post signs informing shoppers of the amount of extra tax to be changed in the store. But CID advocates got the city council to back down from that requirement. CID advocates know how powerful information is, and they along with their allies on the city council realized that signage with disclosure would harm CID merchants. Council Member Sue Schlapp succinctly summarized the subterfuge that must accompany the CID tax when she said: “This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion.” She voted against the signage requirement.

We should ask Cabela’s why their business model is so flimsy that allowing them to collect one percent additional from their customers makes the difference between feasibility and not. Cabela’s is notorious throughout the country for seeking all sorts of corporate welfare, and the CID is not likely to be the only subsidy the company seeks to extract from the city, county, school district, and/or state. It’s all in their business plan, as revealed in the company’s 2004 IPO filing: “Historically, we have been able to negotiate economic development arrangements relating to the construction of a number of our new destination retail stores, including free land, monetary grants and the recapture of incremental sales, property or other taxes through economic development bonds, with many local and state governments.”

Cabela’s and its supporters note that part of the 1.2 cents per dollar extra tax to be charged will be used to improve the intersection at Greenwich and K-96. The need of an upgrade there should be questioned. A Cabela’s spokesman told the Wichita Eagle that easy access to the store from the highway is needed because shoppers “come in with the big pickups, the Rvs.” We should note that there exists a full-service intersection with traffic signals less than one mile from the Cabela’s site. For half of the distance, Greenwich road is three lanes in each direction.

The proposed intersection can be viewed as an unnecessary public improvement — a sweetener to the deal — that doesn’t cost Cabela’s anything. Interestingly, the city’s adopted capital improvement plan for 2009 to 2018 contains “private contributions of $8.4 million for an interchange at K-96 and Greenwich Road.”

We also have to recognize the harmful effect of a subsidy granted to one company on its competitors. In this case, the city’s response is likely to be “let the competitors apply for a CID.” This pressure — where merchants of all types see other merchants benefiting from the state collecting taxes for their own benefit — is leading to “CID sprawl,” a term coined by Susan Estes. This accurately represents the natural result of the irresistible urge of the CID: charging your customers more and blaming it on the government.

In particular, a major competitor to Cabela’s is Gander Mountain in the downtown WaterWalk development. This store benefits from taxpayer subsidy, and if it were to close, Wichita taxpayers would be liable for bond payments. Further, the store is considered an anchor for the struggling development. A closed store surely would not be good for WaterWalk’s future.

Finally, Lynda Tyler, who is running for city council against current council member and Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell, wrote this letter which appeared in the Wichita Eagle. The questions she raises deserve answers.

Is Cabela’s revenue estimate accurate?

On the surface, the community improvement district for Cabela’s seems pretty simple: Those who shop at the store will help pay for the store and the K-96 on-ramps through an extra sales tax. But look at the numbers.

The Eagle reported that the CID is expected to generate $17.2 million over 22 years (Feb. 16 Business Today). That means it would generate an average of $781,818 per year. At 1.2 cents per dollar of sales, the Wichita store would have to have yearly sales of $65.1 million per year.

Cabela’s does not release its per store sales numbers, but according to an Aug. 23, 2007, Barron’s article, Cabela’s averaged about $348 in sales per square foot. On an 80,000-square-foot store, that would be $27.8 million of sales per year. That is less than half of the amount estimated for the Wichita store.

If we issue general obligation bonds and build the ramps based on an inflated number, it would be the taxpayer who stands to lose. If the city also issues revenue bonds based on the inflated numbers, there could be a disaster, too, if the store does $26 million instead of $65 million in sales.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Friday February 18, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Wednesday February 9, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday January 18, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

In Wichita, two large community improvement districts proposed

On Tuesday (January 11) the Wichita City Council will decide whether to accept petitions calling for the formation of two Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) in Wichita. In both cases, city staff recommends that the council accept the petitions and set February first as the date for the public hearing. It is on that date that the council will accept public input and vote whether to form each of the CIDs.

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

The districts proposed are two well-established Wichita shopping centers. Westway Shopping Center is at the southwest corner of West Pawnee Avenue and South Seneca Street. Eastgate Center is at the southeast corner of Kellogg and Rock Road.

In the case of Westway, city documents indicate that the funds from the CID proceeds are to be used for “public and private improvements and the payment of certain ongoing operating costs.” At Eastgate, funds will be used for “renovation and modernization.”

Both projects ask for one cent per dollar to be added to shoppers’ sales tax. Both ask to be implemented using the “pay-as-you-go” method, meaning that the city will not issue bonds. Instead, the city will send to the applicants the proceeds from the extra sales tax as it is collected.

Both applicants are represented by Polsinelli Shughart, an Overland Park law firm that has represented other clients that have received approval for community improvement districts from the Wichita City Council.

Signage discussion at city council

At the December 7, 2010 meeting of the Wichita City Council, the council considered whether stores in CIDs should be required to post signs warning shoppers of the amount of extra tax being charged. Some, including myself, feel that shoppers should have this information before deciding to shop in such a store.

At the meeting Korb Maxwell, a representative of Polsinelli Shughart, spoke to the city council in support of the CID legislation. While Maxwell spoke as though he was advocating for the public interest, he in fact works for a law firm that is representing the narrow interests of its clients.

Speaking to the council, Maxwell denied that developers “have any interest in hiding something from the public, or keeping citizens from having full knowledge about these community improvement districts.”

But he said — rather obliquely — that the retailers they are trying to bring to Wichita would be discouraged by full disclosure of the extra sales tax that citizens would pay in their stores. “We want to make sure that anything that we do, or anything that we implement within a policy is appropriate and will not counteract the very tool we’re creating here.”

He provided a suggested sign design that states that community improvement district financing was used, but not that customers will pay a higher sales tax in CID stores. Retailers would accept this, he said.

In discussion from the bench, Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell said it is important that we disclose these “types of collections” as they are taxing the public. But in a convoluted stretch of reasoning, he made a case that posting a sign with a specific sales tax would be confusing to citizens:

“I was leaning to putting a percentage on there, but again if we have a website that spells out the percentage, I think that’s important. And number two, I guess I would be a little bit concerned how we would work through it — if you put a percentage on a development over here in downtown that’s only collecting one percent and someone walks in and sees a CID tax collected of one percent and just assumes every CID tax is one percent it would be confusing when they go to the next one, and it may scare them off if they see one that’s two percent, they’ll never go to one that’s maybe only one percent. So I think that proves an additional concern for some confusion. So having something on the front door that says we are financing this with a CID tax, where they’re made well aware that it’s collected there, I think to try and include a percentage might even add some confusion as we collect different CID taxes around the city.”

I think this means that Longwell’s okay with telling people as they enter a store that they’re being taxed, but not how much tax they’re being asked to pay. We can summarize his attitude as this: Giving citizens too much information will confuse them.

Council Member Sue Schlapp said she supported transparency in government:

“Every tool we can have is necessary … This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion. Either we do it, and we do it in a way that it’s going to be useful and accomplish its purpose. … I understand totally the discussion of letting the public know. I think transparency is absolutely vital to everything we do in government. So I think we’re doing that very thing.”

Schlapp understands and said what everyone knows: that if you arm citizens with knowledge of high taxes, they’re likely to go somewhere else.

Mayor Brewer said he agreed with Schlapp and the other council members.

In the end, the council unanimously voted for requiring signage that reads, according to minutes from the meeting: “This project made possible by Community Improvement District Financing and includes the website.”

This sign doesn’t mention anything about extra sales tax that customers of CID merchants will pay. Contrary to Schlapp’s assertions, this is not anything like government transparency.

This episode is a startling example of the council and staff being totally captured by special interests.

Sales tax increase spreading across Wichita

These two CIDs break new ground in that these shopping centers are not tourist destinations or trendy shops. Some council members like Longwell have justified past CIDs on the basis that since they are tourist destinations, much of the tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. This is not a wise policy, but even it it was, it does not apply to these two shopping centers.

Instead, these two applications are more indications that soon Wichita — its major retail centers and destinations, at least — is likely to be blanketed with community improvement districts charging up to an extra two cents per dollar sales tax. Currently, merchants in a CID are running the very real risk that once their customers become aware of the extra sales tax, they will shop somewhere else. But as CIDs become more prevalent in Wichita, this competitive disadvantage will disappear.

Step by step, a sales tax increase is engulfing Wichita, and our city council and mayor are fine with that happening. This is on top of the statewide sales tax increase from last year, which, despite claims of its supporters and opposition by conservatives, is likely a permanent fixture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita trash cooperative: gateway to mandatory recycling?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing, as far as I can tell.

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

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday November 22, 2010

Wichita city council this week. This week is workshop only, meaning that legislative action is limited to consent items. These items are voted on in bulk, unless a council member wants to “pull” an item for separate discussion and voting. Generally consent items are thought to be non-controversial, at least by the person who creates the agenda. This week one consent item may cause a bar to lose its license, as Hurst Laviana reports in the Wichita Eagle. Start time is 9:30 am instead of the usual 9:00 am.

Workshop to discuss Wichita trash. Tuesday’s Wichita city council meeting will have a workshop discussing a plan for a Wichita trash haulers’ cooperative and for a recycling plan. Brent Wistrom and Deb Gruver report in the Wichita Eagle. Conservatives on the council who favor big government — Jeff Longwell, Jim Skelton, and Sue Schlapp — seem to favor the proposal. I guess it is inevitable. But I worry that if we start relying on government to manage a simple thing like trash for us, the danger is that government will want to expand its realm of responsibility to providing things like water, jobs and economic development, employee training for business, housing for low-income people, golf courses, art museums and culture, transit, ice skating rinks, airports, dances for seniors, planning services, education, retirement plans, and health care.

Candidate for Wichita mayor noticed. Bob Nelson describes himself this way: “I am a 36 year old lawyer, technical consultant, and aviation industry professional. I am a long time Republican and conservative.” His website –maybe still in developmental state, but nonetheless visible to the world — is Bob Nelson for Mayor.

Former Wichita school chief in news. Former USD 259, the Wichita public school district superintendent Winston Brooks, now head of Albuquerque public schools, is in the news. An administrator alleges a hostile work environment and has been placed on leave with pay. It’s not the first time highly-paid administrators have been placed on paid leave for long periods since Brooks took over. The meaning of this to Wichita? Many of the current members of the Wichita school board loved Brooks and were sorry to see him leave Wichita.

Charter school studies examined. Carl Bialik, in a “The Numbers Guy” article in the Wall Street Journal, writes about the “confusing report cards” that charter schools have received in various studies. Some studies report glowing results for charters, and other report poor results as compared to regular public schools. Bailik does report one finding: “There is some consensus among these studies. Researchers generally have found that charter schools in low-income, urban areas boost test scores, while suburban charter schools in wealthier areas don’t.” Mentioned by one source quoted in the article is one of the best attributes of charter schools: they can’t force students to attend, so poor ones close down, unlike poor public schools.

Rasmussen polls from last week. “Talk about low expectations” was the start of the email message from Rasmussen Reports. Examples: “Just 26% of voters now think the country is heading in the right direction. This finding continues to fall since Election Day and is the lowest reading since mid-March, largely because Democrats are down but sentiments among Republicans and unaffiliated voters haven’t moved.” (Right Direction or Wrong Track) … “A plurality (47%) of voters believes America’s best days have come and gone, a number that has remained fairly constant since the beginning of the year.” … “Thirty percent (30%) of homeowners say the value of their home is less than what they still own on their mortgage.” … “Belief that a home is a good buy for a family remains at an 18-month low.” It’s all at What They Told Us: Reviewing Last Week’s Key Polls .

Sedgwick County Republicans elect leadership

Last night the Sedgwick County Republican Party met in an organizational meeting to elect its leadership for the next two years. The primary news made was in the contest for chairman and vice-chairman. The secretary and treasurer positions were not contested.

Some observers, including myself, saw the contest as being between “establishment” Republicans and a group associated with the tea party. Others cast the election as more between experienced and veteran party members versus relative newcomers, while still others saw the differences as based more on personalities than anything substantive. Whatever the terminology, the newcomers did not do well in the election.

The people attending the organizational meeting and voting on leadership are those elected or appointed as precinct committeemen or committeewomen. That election was held in August in conjunction with the statewide primary election.

In the past, there have been contentious election contests at the organizational meeting, with the dividing line being between conservatives and moderates, with the abortion issue prominent. The last organizational meeting in November 2008 was calm, with one slate of candidates offered for the leadership and delegate positions, with party leaders urging that no nominations be brought up from the floor.

This year’s meeting had two slates of candidates. One — clearly the establishment or veteran slate — was headed by Bob Dool, a Wichita businessman who has been serving as treasurer of the fourth congressional district party committee. Julie Sipe was the slate’s nominee for vice-chair. Dool was endorsed by Mike Pompeo, the recently-elected U.S. congressman from the Kansas fourth district, which includes all of Sedgwick County.

The other slate was headed by Jim Anderson, who recently ran for U.S. Congress, with Judy Park of Republican Women United as vice-chair.

There’s a backstory here that deserves mention. The 2008 organizational meeting, where there was one slate of candidates and any talk of offering nominations from the floor was strongly discouraged by party insiders, made a bad impression on many activists. Some were particularly disturbed that the slate of delegates to the fourth district committee — the next level up in the party hierarchy — included many people who were not elected precinct committeemen or committeewomen. To newcomers, the 2008 meeting smacked of “good ol’ boy” cronyism, with no consideration given to the newcomers who had ran for election to — and had to campaign in order to win — precinct committee positions.

Since then, the tea party movement started in the winter months of early 2009. This movement, operating largely outside the established Republican party, grew to become a significant force nationally. Locally, a tea party activist group led by Craig Gabel and Lynda Tyler played a significant role in the November elections by working for Republican candidates, although the group did support one Democrat, Gwen Welshimer. The group played a crucial role in electing Benny Boman and Les Osterman to the Kansas House of Representatives by defeating incumbent Democrats. The group helped in the reelection of Phil Hermanson to the House, and helped elect Joseph Scapa and Jim Howell to open House seats. John Stevens and James Clendenin came surprisingly close to gaining election over their Democratic Party incumbents.

At the county level, the group was active in helping Richard Ranzau in his election to the county commission. Gabel estimates his group distributed 4,000 blended packets of literature, placed 600 signs, and made 40,000 robo-calls plus several thousand live calls.

Having played a role in local politics — successful by their own account, but perhaps not appreciated by everyone — the group wanted inclusion in the local Republican Party process. Neither Gabel or Tyler sought leadership positions. (Tyler is running for Wichita city council in the spring.) Instead, both wanted an open and honest process that was inclusive and gave everyone an opportunity to seek office, either as leadership or a delegate to the higher committee.

Both leaders seem genuinely concerned that the Republican Party be open and seek to grow. I asked Gabel what he would like to see in a chairman. He said: “A chair that would reach out to all portions of the Republican Party, that would keep the momentum flowing that was started in the election — someone interested in filling the precincts, raising funds, and educating people.” Reaching out to young people and minorities is also important, Gabel said.

As Dool made his candidacy for chair known, Gabel, Tyler, and others invited him to a meeting. Initially Dool did not want to meet and declined the invitation. A meeting with Dool took place earlier this week, said Gabel. He described the meeting as unproductive.

Back to last night’s organizational meeting: While social issues weren’t the primary issue on voters’ minds in the recent national election, abortion politics played a role last night. In his nominating speech for Dool, Mark Kahrs said that Dool “strongly supports the sanctity of life, which is the concern of this local party, and must remain the cornerstone of our party’s platform.” That drew applause from the audience.

Before that, in her speech Park, the nominee for vice-chair, said that someone in the audience was spreading rumors that she is not conservative and not pro-life. Park said these allegations were not true.

In nominating Jim Anderson, John Stevens praised Anderson for his experience in campaigning and technology. Explicitly referring to the tea party, Stevens said that we need as chair “a person who is inclusive of all Republicans, as well as tea party active people. These folks helped make it work this time. Don’t deny them.”

Speaking for himself, Dool said he wanted to increase the Republican Party base by increasing communication, hosting events for elected officials to meet with the public, increasing opportunities for all to participate in the political process, creating a business-friendly environment with lower taxes and less regulation, and raising enough money locally for a full-time employee. He said he supports the tea party movement, saying such populist movements have helped us stay true to the Founding Fathers’ principles.

In his speech, Anderson referred to his run for U.S. Congress. He also addressed an issue that many said would prevent them from voting for Anderson — his failure to endorse Mike Pompeo after Anderson lost to him and others in the Republican primary election in August. Anderson said he pledged his support to Pompeo — privately, though. Anderson said we need to grow the party by reaching out to all people, including independents.

The results of the election for vice-chair were Park 43 votes (21 percent), and Sipe 164 votes (79 percent).

For chair, the result was Anderson 59 votes (28 percent), and Dool 149 votes (72 percent).

In the selection of delegates to the fourth congressional district committee, voters had to select 98 delegates and 100 alternate delegates. A group called “Republicans for Conservative Leadership” provided a slate. The group headed by Gabel and Tyler had a slate, but the slate did not have enough names. The RCL slates won. (Disclaimer: my mother was on the RCL slate as an alternate delegate.)

Analysis

After the meeting, reaction was mixed as to whether the group of tea party or new activists felt welcomed into the process. Some felt the process was improved over 2008, as there were two candidates for each of the top leadership positions. Others felt that the outcome was nonetheless predetermined. But like in most elections, the winning candidates had the message most voters agreed with, and simply did a better job of campaigning for their positions.

Going forward, the local party has the same challenge as does the national party: how to integrate or channel the energy of the tea party. If the vote for the challengers — about one-fourth of the party members present — is a measure of the numbers in the tea party, it’s a significant force that Republicans should welcome. But an initial challenge for Dool and party leaders is that many tea party activists will resent anything they perceive as channeling of their energy or integration of their politics.

Also, some had asked that the slates of delegates should have been made available before the meeting. Voters had to vote for 98 delegates and 100 alternates. But party officials refused to release the names before the meeting, which seems to be the type of needless secret-keeping that breeds distrust and conspiracy theories.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Wednesday November 3, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Sunday October 17, 2010

Roots of tea party. Richard A. Vigeurie writing in Politico: “Asked about what stirred the tea party movement, [Former VU.S. Senator from Virginia George] Allen blamed President Barack Obama and the Democrats. ‘It’s what has happened in the last year,’ he said. Allen is flat-out wrong. Americans didn’t elect Obama, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as much as they threw out Republicans in 2006 and 2008. Americans were angry about the GOP officials’ lack of discipline and courage, and their profligate spending and abandonment of small-government, Republican principles.” Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott reacts: “Viguerie is right, of course, and his oped ought to be a reminder to all professional politicians in both major political parties that the Tea Party movement is at its most fundamental a reaction to the horrendous mess they have made of things in the nation’s capital.”

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer announces run for reelection. Here’s a list of Brewer’s prominent supporters, as reported by the Wichita Eagle’s Brent Wistrom: “Jack DeBoer, chairman of Consolidated Holdings and owner of WaterWalk; downtown developer David Burk; theater mogul Bill Warren; council member Sue Schlapp; Dave Wells, president of Key Construction; and Jeff Turner, CEO of Spirit AeroSystems, where Brewer worked before being elected in 2007.” As noted in comments to the article, the business people listed have benefited mightily from the city’s corporate welfare programs, which Brewer wholeheartedly supports as he readily accepts campaign contributions from those who benefit. Curious is the inclusion of city council member Sue Schlapp, who is quick to remind us of her conservative credentials, but nearly always votes for developer giveaways that end up costing city taxpayers. One name that is surprising to see on this list is Dave Burk. Earlier this year the Wichita Eagle reported this: “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.” It’s telling that Brewer would have him stand nearby as he announces his reelection plans.

Overheard on This Week in Kansas. Referring to Louisiana possibly using federal relief funds to pay for incentives to entice Wichita’s Hawker Beechcraft to relocate near the Baton Rouge airport, I said: “If we’re talking about Hurricane Katrina money being used to get these jobs, to my knowledge Baton Rouge wasn’t destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It’s not like these jobs are going to the ninth ward in New Orleans, which was hurt.”

Many Americans see government as a threat. Gallup Poll via ARRA News Service: “The percentage of Americans who think the federal government poses ‘an immediate threat’ to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens has increased significantly over the last seven years, rising from 30 percent to 46 percent, according to a Gallup poll. Only 51 percent of Americans now say they do not think the federal government poses ‘an immediate threat’ to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. Similarly, the percentage of Americans who think the federal government has too much power has also significantly increased, from 39 percent in 2002 to 59 percent today.” I would be interested in seeing similar polls for state, county, and city government, as well as school districts.

Markets tell us the worth of things. William Anderson writing in the Freeman: “A public-works project such as the proposed tunnel makes sense if over time the marginal benefits outweigh the marginal costs. If they do not, then it provides a benefit to some at the expense of others, something the ancients might have called ‘unjust.’ Since the output of public works is not priced in the market, how would we know if costs exceed benefits? … Today, we see economic analysis turned on its head. Projected cost overruns suddenly are justified because ‘they provide jobs,’ as though higher costs mean more wealth created.” As Wichita begins to plan for spending on downtown Wichita revitalization, we need to rely on market signals for the relative worth of things. Despite the claims of planning firm Goody Clancy that downtown Wichita will be market-driven, it is in fact driven by politics, which is the opposite of markets. Nonetheless, the Wichita Eagle covers downtown revitalization as a business story, when it is really a political story.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Saturday October 9, 2010

This Week in Kansas: Tomorrow on KAKE Television‘s “This Week in Kansas” Kansas Policy Institute President Dave Trabert will be a guest speaking about economic development in Kansas. This is an important topic as Kansas is in “whack-a-mole” mode as we — case by case — defend our industry from poaching by other states. This Week in Kansas airs at 9:00 am on KAKE channel 10. The Winfield Daily Courier has other notes on this upcoming episode.

Sue Schlapp: Wichita Eagle Opinion Line Extra today: “At a past Wichita City Council meeting, council member Sue Schlapp got on her soapbox about needing less government in our lives. Then last week she turned around and voted for the community improvement district tax for the Broadview Hotel. Is this talking out of both sides of her mouth?” I’m glad someone other than I has noticed this.

Dave Unruh campaign billboardDave Unruh campaign billboard

Unruh’s record on taxes: A reader sent in this photograph of a Dave Unruh billboard supporting his run for reelection to the Sedgwick County Commission, noting the irony of the “Lower Taxes” message. The reader may have been referring to Unruh’s support of a solid waste management fee (a tax by another name), his vote in August 2006 to increase the county mill levy, and his enthusiastic support of the tax for the downtown arena, now known as the Intrust Bank Arena. The vote for a tax increase in 2006 was in part to build the National Center for Aviation Training, said to be necessary to keep Wichita aviation companies in Wichita. Nonetheless, Cessna, Bombardier Learjet, and recently Hawker Beechcraft have found it necessary to shake down the state and local government for even more corporate welfare. Still, I don’t recommend voting for Unruh’s opponent Betty Arnold, who recently wondered where was the government stimulus for USD 259, the Wichita public school district, on which board she serves. Evidently Arnold doesn’t realize that nearly every dollar the Wichita schools spend is government money.

Arnold’s website missing: By the way, Google can’t find a website supporting Betty Arnold’s campaign, which says a lot right there.

Goyle and Pompeo: Tomorrow Kansas fourth Congressional district candidates Democrat Raj Goyle and Republican Mike Pompeo debate at Congregation Emanu-El at 7011 E. Central in Wichita. State of the State KS reports: “The debate will be moderated by KAKE-TV’s Tim Brown from This Week In Kansas and will focus on both local economic, political and foreign policy issues facing the U.S. The debate is free and begins at 10:40 am. A brunch will be served before the debate for $7.” It appears that Reform party candidate Susan Ducey and Libertarian Shawn Smith will not appear. The two minor party candidates made credible appearances on a recent KWCH televised forum.

Goyle video, polls: Speaking of Goyle, video of Goyle endorsing presidential candidate Barack Obama in Texas has surfaced. And, more bad polls for Goyle.

Wichita, other city elections on horizon

Next spring Wichita and other cities in Kansas will hold elections for city council members, school board members, and perhaps mayor.

The filing deadline for candidates is January 25, 2011 at noon. The primary election is on March 1, and the general election is April 5.

These elections are non-partisan, meaning that candidates don’t run as members of a political party. Instead, the top two vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election.

The election calendar is a problem. Kansans presently have their political attention focused on our August primary, in which there are many hotly-contested battles. After that comes the November general election, which is likely to feature several races that generate intense interest and participation. Then comes the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season, when few want to think about politics.

Right after that is the filing deadline for city elections, and then quickly, the primary and general elections. It’s a schedule designed for incumbents.

In Wichita, there are three city council positions and the mayorship that are up for election. In district two, (click here for a map of districts), which is primarily the east side of Wichita, incumbent council member Sue Schlapp can’t run again because of the law limiting council members and the mayor to two four-year terms.

In district four — south and southwest Wichita — Paul Gray has also served two terms and can’t run again.

In district five — west and northwest Wichita — incumbent council member and Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell is in his first term and can run again if he chooses. He hasn’t revealed his plans publicly.

Mayor Carl Brewer is also in his first term and can run again. I’ve not heard him reveal his plans.

So far three candidates have publicly declared their intent to run. Former Executive Director of the Sedgwick County Democratic Party Jason Dilts has been actively running for the fourth district position for several months.

In April securities broker and tea party activist Lynda Tyler announced her intent to run in district five against Longwell.

Last week Galichia Heart Hospital CEO Steve Harris threw his hat in the ring for city council district two.

There are others — well-known and not — that are considering running.

Expect these issues to dominate the campaigns: First, downtown development — especially how to pay for it — is likely to be a dominant topic, as the Goody Clancy final plan is scheduled to be completed this fall. We can expect tremendous amounts of campaign funds to be directed to those candidates who favor taxpayer support and subsidy for politically-favored developers.

As many Wichita political and civic leaders speak admiringly of the city sales tax that has funded downtown redevelopment in Oklahoma City, we might even see a sales tax question on the primary or general election ballot.

The issue of taxpayer-funded economic development — whether downtown or elsewhere — may receive discussion too. Both Longwell and Brewer believe that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” for dishing out subsidy and tax breaks.

Water is likely to be an issue too, as Wichita’s water rates are going up.

Wichita Bowllagio hearing produces only delay

Yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council featured a lengthy public hearing for a proposed west-side entertainment development known as Bowllagio. Bowllagio is planned to have a bowling and entertainment center, a boutique hotel, and a restaurant owned by a celebrity television chef.

The developers of this project propose to make use of $13 million in STAR bond financing. STAR bonds are issued for the immediate benefit of the developers, with the sales tax collected in the district used to pay off the bonds. The project also proposes to be a Community Improvement District, which allows an additional two cents per dollar to be collected in sales tax, again for the benefit of the district.

The Kansas STAR bond process calls for several steps: First, a local governing body, like the City of Wichita, must approve the concept and set boundaries for the project. This is what yesterday’s agenda item called for. If approved by the council, the Kansas Secretary of Commerce would examine the project to see if it meets statutory criteria. If the Secretary approves the project, the city is then required to prepare a project plan and hold another public hearing concerning whether to adopt the project plan. The project plan must be passed by a two-thirds supermajority of the council.

One of the elements of the project plan, according to the 2010 Kansas Legislator Briefing Book, is a “marketing study conducted to examine the impact of the special bond project on similar businesses in the projected market area.” The effect of Bowllagio on existing Wichita-area businesses was a major source of concern for both council members and citizens speaking at the public hearing.

Speaking during the public hearing, Ray Baty, who is manager of a Wichita bowling center, said Bowllagio is not a new concept, but rather one that would compete with existing programs already in Wichita. The C.A.T.S. system, a training system promoted by Bowllagio developers, is actually a portable system, Baty said.

He contended that introduction of Bowllagio to the market will not grow the market for bowling, but will further divide the existing market, resulting in a loss of revenue and profit for existing bowling centers. He said that bowling centers lose six percent of their customers each year, a trend that he said is national.

Frank DeSocio, owner of several bowling centers in Wichita, told the council that the bowling training promoted by Bowllagio developers already happens in Wichita at the present. He mentioned five full-time bowling teachers and coaches already working in Wichita bowling centers.

He added that Wichita does very well in obtaining and hosting tournaments, mentioning 17 PBA live televised tournaments that took place in Wichita, 10 regional events, a BPA womens’ open, six intercollegiate championships that were televised live, and numerous Kansas state high school championships.

“Everything the Maxwell Group [developer of Bowllagio] claims they want to do is already being done in Wichita by the current bowling centers,” qualifying that he’s speaking only of the bowling side of the Bowllagio proposal, not the restaurants.

In my remarks to the council, I mentioned that Wichita has had examples of restaurants or other establishments being announced — sometimes by the mayor in his annual state of the city address — but then the development failed to materialize. I expressed concern that we might commit to a large amount of STAR bond financing based on big plans that never advance beyond some small initial stage.

Susan Estes told the council that “this is an extremely profound day” for the City of Wichita. She asked will the city help one business owner over another business owner in the same industry? She said that Bowllagio has some unique aspects, but it is a bowling alley. Its other entertainment features are also available in Wichita. We are using tax money to compete against existing businesses, she said.

In response to a question by a homeowner in the project area, the mayor, indicating he believed he speaks for the council, said the council would not support using eminent domain to remove the homeowner from his home.

During discussion by council members, a subject of controversy was whether approving project boundaries and forwarding the application to the Secretary of Commerce constitutes an endorsement of the project by the City of Wichita. Some council members wanted to pass an ordinance that would establish the boundaries of the district, and then have the Secretary decide whether the project meets the statutory requirements for a STAR bond project. Wichita economic development director Allen Bell mentioned that the council’s endorsement of the project might be a factor the Secretary would consider in determining whether to approve the project.

A question from Council Member Lavonta Williams elicited Bell’s further opinion that the Secretary is “looking for a signal from the council” regarding its support for the project. Lack of local support, he added, would be taken in a “negative way.” Council Member Paul Gray agreed with this assessment.

Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell disagreed, saying that all the Secretary needs is a geographic boundary for the proposed project. He contended that the process starts with setting the boundaries, and that other questions are difficult or impossible to answer without doing this. There are too many unknowns, he added, to give this project a formal endorsement at this time.

Longwell also mentioned a report that showed that the south-central region of Kansas, which includes Wichita, receives fewer state economic development funds, relative to population, than the northeast Kansas region. He said we needed to “equal the playing field.”

Longwell said he didn’t want to put together a package that would harm existing businesses, saying he wouldn’t vote for the project if an independent study showed that result would happen.

Council Member Jim Skelton asked about the property taxes the development would pay. Bell replied that the property taxes should increase by a large amount, as the land is vacant now and is planned to receive $95 million of development. He said that while STAR bonds and Community Improvement District financing is proposed for this development, the plan does not include property tax abatements, industrial revenue bonds, tax increment financing, or any other diversion of property taxes.

Council Member Janet Miller asked if the Kansas STAR bond statutes prohibited adding these other types of incentives to the project. The answer, according to Bell, is that these programs could be added on to this development, as has been done in some Kansas STAR bond districts.

Later Miller referred to the “lack of information to make an education decision about the project.” She wondered why the developers would not spend “one-tenth of one percent of their $50 million dollar investment” ($50,000) to produce the studies that would give the council the information it needs to decide whether to send the project to the Secretary of Commerce with its support.

When City Manager Bob Layton suggested a delay to gather more information from the developers, council members readily agreed. Layton said that city staff will visit with the developers, looking for an approach that will make council members comfortable with proceeding, addressing some of the information needs expressed today.

Due to scheduling, Layton said that this matter would need to appear on next week’s agenda, or there would be a one month delay before it could be considered at a council meeting.

The council voted unanimously to defer the item for one week, and to keep open the public hearing.

Analysis

An important issue to many council members is the potential harmful affect of Bowllagio on existing businesses, particularly bowling centers. Miller’s suggestion that the developers spend the money to have an independent assessment of this performed is entirely sensible.

But I don’t think a study of that scope can be performed in one week. As it is now, the city will probably rely on information provided by the developers. It must be recognized that they have a $13 million incentive to produce information favorable to their cause. In his remarks, Gray recognized that proof that Bowllagio will not harm existing businesses will not come from “somebody advocating for the project.” It would require a third-party, independent analysis, he said.

As of now, it is difficult to see how information that will satisfy council members can be produced by next week’s meeting.

In my opinion, the local bowling center operators are justifiably concerned that a subsidized competitor will harm their business. They were able to show that many of the purportedly unique aspects of the Bowllagio concept are already available in Wichita, and have been for some time.

Further, it’s not only direct competitors such as bowling centers that we need to be concerned for. Since the development is proposed to include a Mexican restaurant, what will its impact be on existing Mexican restaurants? And not only restaurants offering that cuisine, but all other restaurants?

In a broader sense, a subsidized business competes with all other businesses in the market for employees and other goods and services that all business firms purchase.

Longwell’s contention that we can still “kill” the project at a later date if reports come back showing negative impact on local businesses is, in my opinion, an empty promise. If the Kansas Secretary of Commerce approves this project, it would be very difficult for the council to vote against Wichita receiving $13 million in state tax dollars, especially in light of Longwell’s argument that the Wichita area doesn’t receive nearly enough of this economic development money.

While council members such as Schlapp say they’re in favor of free markets, she and the other council members nearly always vote in favor of intervention in markets. The fact that the city council members have so many questions about the proposal tells us that this plan is, in fact, a form of centralized planning by government.

As I remarked to the council, developments such as this are portrayed as a success story, in that someone has confidence in Wichita because they’re investing here. But I wonder why these people won’t invest in Wichita unless they receive millions in payments or tax forgiveness from the city, county, school board, and/or state.

Aren’t the real heroes in Wichita the people — many of them small business owners — who invest in Wichita without the benefit of TIF districts, tax abatements, STAR bonds, or other forms of subsidy or incentive?

These people, besides facing subsidized competition, additionally have to pay the taxes that make the subsidies to others possible.

Regarding the mayor’s statement that eminent domain will not be supported for this project: Kansas law does not prohibit the use of eminent domain to acquire property in a STAR bond district (K.S.A. 12-17,172).

If the city wants to assure property owners that their property will not be subject to seizure by eminent domain, the city can add language to that effect in the ordinance. With four city council positions — including the mayorship — up for election next spring, it’s possible that a future city council might not be opposed to the use of eminent domain. This change could take place during the time Bowllagio developers are acquiring property. An ordinance would help prevent this from happening.

Similarly, if it is not the intent of the developers to seek additional forms of subsidy such as tax increment financing or property tax abatements, appropriate language could be added to the authorizing ordinance.

Southwest Airlines topic of Wichita Eagle article

Sunday’s Wichita Eagle carried a story featuring local elected officials’ reaction to the possibility that Southwest Airlines would start service to Wichita. (City, county officials cautiously weigh subsidy for Southwest Airlines, May 30, 2010)

A source of controversy is over the payments of public funds that are thought to be necessary to acquire the service. The Eagle article quotes an unnamed source as saying it would take about $3 million in public funds to “get the service up and running.” It is not disclosed whether this is a one-time requirement, or if this is $3 million per year for some specific period, or perhaps forever.

Wichitans may want to remember that the subsidy paid to AirTran started small and was promoted as a temporary measure until the airline could establish itself in Wichita. The program, however, has grown to a combined $7 million annual payment from the state, county, and city. It seems unlikely that this number will ever drop.

At one time Wichita was a city known for its entrepreneurs. But recently the New York Times noted that Wichita is known as a “pioneer in the business of paying airlines to continue service.”

An interesting tidbit in the Eagle story is Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp making a distinction between a “subsidy” and an “incentive.” What we offer to Southwest would be an incentive, not a subsidy, she said.

The overall tone of the article is that Wichita City Council Members and Sedgwick County Commissioners are making a show of concern, wanting to be “realistic,” desiring more details and something “reasonable and feasible.”

Despite this show of concern and prudence, if this matter comes before these bodies, I’ll be surprised if even one member votes against it.

One thing this article did not mention is that Charleston, South Carolina was able to lure Southwest without having to pay a subsidy.

By way of comparison, the Wichita metropolitan area population is 612,683 (2009 estimate), while the Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville, metropolitan area populations is 659,191. In 2008, there were 780,756 enplanements at the Wichita airport, while there were 1,174,667 at the Charleston airport.

According to reports, the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates a $139 million economic impact with the arrival of Southwest. An economic impact analysis has been prepared for the City of Wichita, but Wichita officials will not release it, citing an exception in the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA).

Wichita city council signals possible change in economic development incentive policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

Waterwalk hotel issue receives public input

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita city council discusses economic development incentives, again

At this week’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, underperforming companies that have received economic incentives was at issue.

Wichita grants incentives — usually in the form of an escape from paying property taxes — to companies. Usually there are conditions attached to the incentives, such as a certain amount of capital investment or employment targets. Recently — and in the past two or so years — several companies that received incentives have not met employment goals. Should the city rescind the tax breaks in these cases? Or should there be recognition that there’s a tough economy at the moment, and should the company be excused from meeting the goals it pledged?

During a period of questions from the bench, council member Sue Schlapp remarked: “We have to be flexible, don’t we? … Especially in today’s economy, we need to be very careful that we’re not too rigid in what we’re doing.”

Council member Jeff Longwell said he’d like to see something that rewards companies that bring in business from outside our community. Economic development head Allen Bell answered that the policy is limited to companies that bring in wealth from outside. Businesses that are here because their customers are here are not eligible for economic incentives, he said.

Longwell also expressed concern about companies that use temporary employees. Should that increase in payroll be included as a benefit, even if the employees are only temps? Bell said yes, even though these jobs are not as good as direct hire placements. Wichita City Manager Bob Layton interjected that we shouldn’t count seasonal peak employee ramp-up in benefit calculations.

Longwell added that we ought to include the fact that some companies drive up hotel occupancy rates due to the nature of their business. Bell said that this is a factor in the WSU analysis.

Vice-mayor Jim Skelton inquired about details of the model that WSU uses to calculate the economic benefit of incentives. These calculations, Bell said, are required by the Kansas Legislature. The model presently used is unique to WSU. It focuses on the fiscal impact that an economic development project has on cities, counties, school districts, and the state. It takes into account jobs created, capital that is invested, and other factors. It includes such factors as the need for additional police and other government services, additional sales and bed tax, and other revenue sources. It then performs a present value calculation and produces a ratio. A value greater than one means the benefits exceed the costs.

City manager Layton said that these incentives represent a contract between the business and the city. The business promises to grow the economy, and the city makes an investment in the company. The council presently is struggling with how to judge the performance of companies that have received incentives in a down economy. The WSU index makes sense, he said. If economic conditions are poor, we now have a tool to judge the performance of the companies that received incentives. There are now extenuating circumstances, he said.

Mayor Carl Brewer said that we recognize there are challenges, and that in an ideal world we shouldn’t have to provide incentives. But he said we have several options: Be competitive and provide incentives and fight to keep what we have, or don’t provide incentives and see what happens. He said we know what would happen in that case. Businesses will go where they can get these incentives, he said, and we can’t argue that. There will always be incentives, he said, and we have to be competitive.

The council unanimously approved a revision to the policy that recognizes down periods of economic activity. Then, it approved the extension of tax breaks to three companies that had not met all their performance goals. Passage was not unanimous in two cases, with some council members voting against the extension of the incentives. Dion Lefler’s reporting in the Wichita Eagle is at Wichita City Council eases rules on tax abatements.

Analysis

Contrary to the belief of the mayor, council members, and city hall bureaucrats, economic development incentives aren’t all they’re promoted to be. The state of Kansas spent some $1.3 billion on incentives over five years. In a recent report produced by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit, one of the summary points is this: “Most studies of economic development incentives suggest these incentives don’t have a significant impact on economic growth.” See In Wichita, let’s have economic development for all for more on this report and a link to the document.

There is an interesting academic paper titled The Failures of Economic Development Incentives, published in Journal of the American Planning Association. A few quotes from the study, with emphasis added:

Given the weak effects of incentives on the location choices of businesses at the interstate level, state governments and their local governments in the aggregate probably lose far more revenue, by cutting taxes to firms that would have located in that state anyway than they gain from the few firms induced to change location.

On the three major questions — Do economic development incentives create new jobs? Are those jobs taken by targeted populations in targeted places? Are incentives, at worst, only moderately revenue negative? — traditional economic development incentives do not fare well. It is possible that incentives do induce significant new growth, that the beneficiaries of that growth are mainly those who have greatest difficulty in the labor market, and that both states and local governments benefit fiscally from that growth. But after decades of policy experimentation and literally hundreds of scholarly studies, none of these claims is clearly substantiated. Indeed, as we have argued in this article, there is a good chance that all of these claims are false.

The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state or local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering their expectations about their ability to micromanage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing the foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.

On the surface of things, to the average person, it would seem that spending (or granting tax breaks, it’s the same thing) to attract new businesses makes a lot of sense. It’s a win-win deal, backers say. Everyone benefits. This is why it is so appealing to politicians. It lets them trumpet their achievements doing something that no one should reasonably disagree with. After all, who could be against jobs and prosperity? But the evidence that these schemes work is lacking, as this legislative audit and article show.

I have suggested to the city council that a broad-based tax abatement on new capital investment could propel economic growth in Wichita. See Wichita universal tax exemption could propel growth.

But a plan like this doesn’t give bureaucrats much to do, and gives politicians little to crow about to their constituents at election time. All it’s good for is the people who want economic growth.

Wichita city council discusses economic development incentives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few more observations:

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

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

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

Lord’s Diner debate focused on wrong issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita city council: more travel on tap

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

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

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

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