U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis saw states as “laboratories of democracy” conducting “experiments” in public policy. Today, more than eight decades after Brandeis coined the phrase, state experimentation with tax policy makes it abundantly clear that tax policy has a direct impact on economic growth. As shown on page 19, each of the eleven states that enacted an income tax since 1960 now has a smaller share of state GDP relative to the other 39 states and each one also has a smaller share of state and local tax revenue. That is a remarkable statistic; those eleven states enacted a new source of tax revenue and they lost revenue share to other states! To the contrary, states with low tax burdens and states without an income tax consistently outshine their higher-burden peers the on the key, tangible measures like private sector job, GDP, and wage growth. What’s more, citizens are taking notice and “voting with their feet” by flocking to low-burden states from higher-burden counterparts. Skeptics try to dismiss this definitive migratory trend by cherry-picking success stories like Texas and Florida and characterizing them as ‘’happy accidents” of favorable geography, climate, and/or resource abundance.
The evaluation of economic development incentives requires thinking at the margin, not the entirety.
When considering the effect of economic development incentives, cities like Wichita use a benefit-cost analysis to determine whether the incentive is in the best interests of the city. The analysis usually also considers the county, state, and school districts, although these jurisdictions have no say over whether the incentive is granted, with a few exceptions. The idea is that by paying money now or forgiving future taxes, the city gains even more in increased tax collections. This is then pitched as a good deal for taxpayers: The city gets more jobs (usually) and a profit, too.
Economic activity usually generates tax revenue that flows to governmental agencies. When people work, they pay income taxes. When they buy stuff, they pay sales taxes. When they create new property, it is taxed. This happens whether or not the economic activity is a result of government incentive.
When calculating benefit-cost ratios, government takes credit for the increase in tax revenue from a company receiving economic development incentives. Government often says that without the incentive, the company would not have located in Wichita. Or, without the incentive, it would not have expanded in Wichita. Now, it is claimed that incentives are necessary to persuade companies to consider remaining in Wichita rather than moving somewhere else.
But there are a few problems with the arguments that cities and their economic development agencies promote. One is that the increase in tax revenue happens regardless of whether the company has received incentives. What about all the companies that locate to or expand in Wichita without receiving incentives? How do we calculate the benefit-cost ratio when a company receives no incentives? The answer is it can’t be calculated, as there is no government cost. Instead, there is only benefit.
Then, we don’t often ask why do some companies need incentives, and others do not? Do the companies that receive incentives really need them? Why do some companies receive incentives multiple times?
Related is that jurisdictions may grant relatively small incentives and then take credit for the entire deal. I’ve been told that when economic development agencies learn of a company moving to an area or expanding their Wichita operations, they swoop in with small incentives and take credit for the entire deal. The agency is then able to point to a small incentive and take credit for the entire deal. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to get the involved parties to speak on the record about this.
Further, governments may not credit the contribution of other governments. In the past when the Wichita economic development office presented information about an incentive it proposed to offer to a company, it would sometimes list the incentives the company is receiving from other governments. As an example, when the city offered incentives to NetApp in 2012, the city’s contribution was given as a maximum of $418,000. The agenda material mentioned — obliquely — that the State of Kansas was involved in the incentive package. Inquiry to the Kansas Department of Commerce revealed that the state had promoted incentives worth $35,160,017 to NetApp. Wichita’s incentive contribution is just 1.2 percent of what the state offered, which makes us wonder if the Wichita incentive was truly needed.
The importance of marginal thinking
When evaluating economic development incentives, we often fail to properly evaluate the marginal gains. Here’s an example of the importance of looking at marginal gains rather than the whole. In 2012, the City of Wichita developed a program called New HOME (New Home Ownership Made Easy). The crux of the program is to rebate Wichita city property taxes for five years to those who buy newly-built homes in certain neighborhoods under certain conditions.
The important question is how much new activity this program will induce. Often government takes credit for all economic activity that takes place. This ignores the economic activity that was going to take place naturally — in this case, new homes that are going to be built even without this subsidy program. According to data compiled by Wichita Area Builders Association and the WSU Center for Economic Development and Business Research — this is the data that was current at the time the Wichita city council made its decision to authorize the program — in 2011 462 new homes were started in the City of Wichita. The HOME program contemplated subsidizing 1,000 homes in a period of 22 months. That’s a rate of 545 homes per year — not much more than the present rate of 462 per year. But, the city has to give up collecting property tax on all these homes — even the ones that would be built anyway.
What we’re talking about is possibly inducing a small amount of additional activity over what would happen naturally and organically. But we have to subsidize a very large number of houses in order to achieve that. The lesson is that we need to evaluate the costs of this program based on the marginal activity it may induce, not all activity. For more, see Wichita new home tax rebate program: The analysis.
Now that the proposed Wichita sales tax has failed, how should Wichita pay for a future water supply?
At the December 2 meeting of the Wichita city council, discussion by Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) referred to the recent election in which Wichita voters rejected a proposed sales tax. (Video below, or click here to view at YouTube.) The major portion of the tax, $250 million collected over five years, would have been used to expand the ASR system as a way of providing for Wichita’s future water needs.
One of the arguments advanced by opponents of the sales tax such as myself is that water users should pay for future water supply. Advocates of the sales tax disagreed, arguing that Wichitans and visitors should pay higher sales taxes to fund a new water supply.
What does the arithmetic look like if we pay for a water supply though water bills? (Some use the term rates.) First, let’s set aside the questions of when the city needs an expanded water supply and how that water should be supplied.
Meitzner’s questioning of city public works director Alan King elicited how many water meters or accounts the water department has, which King said is almost 140,000. Meitzner then proceeded to ask if the cost of a new water supply — $250 million — was born equally by each of these customers, how much would that add to water bills? King said it would be in the range of “23, almost 24 dollars per bill, and at the high end something closer to 30 dollars per bill. That would be each month, you would have to pay that for 60 months.”
Meitzner then ran through computations that resulted in a cost of $1,500 per meter over five years to pay for the cost of a new water supply. He then compared that to sales tax opponents who said that the cost of the additional sales tax per family would be $160 per year. Meitzner said that would be an additional cost of $800 over five years to pay for everything the proposed sales tax was dedicated to, not just a new water supply.
The line of reasoning followed by Meitzner is superficially appealing but economically unsound. It is true that water bills would have to rise by quite a bit in order to raise $250 million over five years. But it seems unlikely that the city would decide to spread that cost equally among its water customers. Would the city ask its largest industrial customers to contribute the same amount each month as small households that do no outside irrigation? I don’t think that most people would think this is reasonable. But Meitzner’s arithmetic implies that the city would, or could, do exactly this.
There are many ways the city could apportion the cost of a new water supply among water users. First, the city could simply raise the price of a gallon of water. That would let water users participate in the funding of a new water supply in proportion to the amount of water they use.
Second, the city could add a fixed amount to each water bill, that money reserved for a future water supply. The city already has a fixed cost for water service. It’s referred to in the rate ordinance as the “minimum monthly” charge. It varies from $11.95 per month for the smallest hookups to $478.78 per month for the largest wholesale users. This amount could be increased by equal portion — say ten percent — for everyone. Or, if the city wants to reduce the burden on small households, it could leave the rate for small hookups as it is, and raise it for larger hookups.
Third, the city could decide to raise the price of a gallon of water by different amounts for different classes of water users. Wichita, like many cities, use a tiered structure of rates that separates summer irrigation water usage from household usage inside the home. How does Wichita’s tiered structure of rates compare to other cities? A recent Black & Veatch survey found for that the 50 cities in the survey, considering only the water portion of bills, the average cost for using 3,750 gallons per month is $19. For using 15,000 gallons, the cost is $65. That’s a ratio of 3.4 to 1. For Wichita, the survey reported costs of $18 and $36, for a ratio of 2.0 to 1.
These are two important numbers: 3.4 and 2.0. They mean that while the price per gallon of Wichita water becomes marginally more expensive as more water is used, the slope is as steep as the average. It means that Wichita households that use low amounts of water pay about average rates, but those Wichita households using a lot of water pay rates much less than average. This is something the city could easily adjust. It would also have the benefit of encouraging conservation, which is something the city says is important for our future.
We need to be aware of the cost of water
It’s important to have water users pay for a new water supply. The benefit is that water users will become acutely aware of the costs of a new water supply. That awareness is difficult to achieve. Many citizens are surprised to learn that the city has spent $247 million over the past decade on a water project, the ASR program. Nearly all that was paid by using long-term debt, the same type of debt that the city urged citizens to avoid during the sales tax campaign.
Paying for a new water supply through water bills would let commercial and industrial users participate in paying the cost of the project. These water users usually don’t pay a lot of sales tax. A restaurant, for example, does not pay sales tax on the food ingredients it purchases. An aircraft manufacturer does not pay sales tax on the raw materials and component parts it buys. But these companies have a water bill. Yet, the city recommended that low income households pay more sales tax on their groceries. The city said this is the best way to pay for a new water supply to protect our lawns and golf courses during a drought.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at some elements of Wichita’s legislative agenda for state government, in particular special tax treatment for special artists, problems with the city’s numbers regarding airfares, and why we should abandon the pursuit of passenger rail. Then, why are people not more involved in political affairs? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 67, broadcast December 7, 2014.
The Wichita city council has been busy with economic development items, and more are upcoming.
At the November 25 meeting of the Wichita City Council, on the consent agenda, the council passed these items.
Approved a sublease in a warehouse. This action was necessary as the incentivized warehouse pays no property taxes due to a subsidy program. Given tax costs and industrial building rents, this policy gives these incentivized buildings a cost advantage of about 20 to 25 percent over competitors. That’s very high, and makes it difficult for existing buildings to compete. This lease is for 40,500 square feet for annual rent of $196,425.00, which is $4.85 per square foot. Competing warehouse space might be able to charge rent of $4.25 plus property tax of about $1.00, for a total rent of $5.25 per square foot to the tenant. In the case of the subsidized building, the landlord collects $4.85 instead of $4.25, and the tenant pays $4.85 instead of $5.25. Everyone’s happy. Everyone, that is, except for existing industrial landlords in Wichita — especially those with available space to rent — who must be wondering why they attempt to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage. Then, other commercial tenants must be wondering why they don’t get discounted rent. Taxpayers must be wondering why they have to make up the difference in taxes that the subsidized tenants aren’t paying. (On second thought, these parties may not be wondering about this, as we don’t have a general circulation newspaper or a business newspaper that cares to explain these things.) See Wichita speculative industrial buildings.
Set January 6 as the date for a public hearing on a TIF district project plan. This is the plan for Union Station in downtown Wichita. The public hearing for the formation of its tax increment financing district has already been held, and it passed. The project plan will consider and authorize the actual project and spending of taxpayer funds to reimburse the developer for various items. Unlike the formation of the TIF district, the county and school district have no ability to object to the project plan.
Set December 16 as the date for the public hearing on the formation of a community improvement district. This district is for the benefit of the River Vista project, the proposed apartments on the west bank of the Arkansas River between Douglas and First streets. CIDs redirect sales tax revenue from general government to the developers of the project. Say, does anyone remember Charter Ordinance No. 144, which says this land “shall be hereafter restricted to and maintained as open space”? See In Wichita, West Bank apartments seem to violate ordinance.
On its December 2 agenda, the council has these items:
Property tax and sales tax exemptions for Bombardier Learjet. The council may grant property tax discounts worth as much as $268,548 per year for up to ten years, according to city documents. This will be split among taxing jurisdictions as follows: City $72,389, State $3,340, County $65,415, and USD 259 $127,404. The purchased items may also receive an exemption from sales tax, but city documents give no amount. Bombardier boasts of “Investing in the communities where we do business to ensure we have strong contexts for our operations” and “We support our home community through donations, sponsorships and our employee volunteering program.” Evidently this commitment to investment and support does not extend to shouldering the same tax burden that everyone else does.
Property tax exemptions for Cessna Aircraft Company. The council may grant property tax discounts worth as much as $302,311 per year for up to ten years, according to city documents. This will be split among taxing jurisdictions as follows: City $81,491, County $73,639, State $3,760, and USD 259 $143,421. Generally, items purchased with proceeds of the IRB program also receive sales tax exemption, but city documents do not mention this. Cessna speaks of its commitment to the communities where it operates, but evidently this commitment does not extend to shouldering the same tax burden that everyone else does.
Property tax exemptions for High Touch. This is an extension of tax breaks first granted last year. See In Wichita, the case for business welfare. Did you know the CEO of this company is also chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce? And that while campaigning for higher sales taxes in Wichita, including higher taxes on groceries for low-income households, he sought and received a sales tax exemption for his company?
Forgivable loan to Apex Engineering International. The Wichita Eagle reported that this company “has been growing briskly and adding employees.” Still, the company seeks incentives, in this case a forgivable loan from the city of $90,000. It will ask Sedgwick County for the same amount. These loans are grants of cash that do not need to be repaid as long as goals are met. Three years ago Apex received $1,272,000 in tax credits and grants under programs offered by the State of Kansas. It is not known at this time if Apex is receiving additional subsidy from the state. According to a company news release, “AEI was nominated for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce 2012 Small Business Awards. This prestigious award recognizes two companies each year who are selected based on specific criteria including: entrepreneurship, employee relations, diversity, community contribution and involvement, and leadership and performance.” Maybe we can justify this grant as repayment for Apex’s community contribution. This forgivable loan may receive resistance from some council members. Current council member and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) was recently quoted in the Wichita Eagle as wanting a “moratorium on forgivable loans right now until we can reassess the way that we do economic development.” While campaigning for his current office, Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) told an audience “I am not for forgivable loans.” He noted the contradiction inherent in the terms “forgivable” and “loan,” calling them “conflicting terms.” Meitzner has said he will run for his current office again.
Set January 6 as the date for the public hearing regarding the project plan for the Mosely Avenue Project TIF district in Old Town. This TIF district is a project of David Burk and Steve Barrett. Burk has received millions of taxpayer dollars in subsidy. But he’s not finished.
Consider whether to raise water bills by about 5 percent.
Consider a new lease agreement with Museum of World Treasures, Inc. which will, among other things, reduce the museum’s rent paid to the city from $60,000 per year to $1.
Consider passing the legislative agenda. See above for more on this topic.
Wichita government spending on economic development leads to imagined problems that require government intervention and more taxpayer contribution to resolve. The cycle of organic rebirth of cities is then replaced with bureaucratic management.
As the City of Wichita prepares its legislative agenda for 2015, an issue arises for the first year. It seems that the success of government spending on development has created rising property values, which creates higher tax bills, and that is a burden for some. Here’s the issue the city has identified: “Cultural arts enterprises in certain areas are threatened by rising property values and the resulting tax burden.”
Here’s the solution the city proposes: “The Wichita City Council supports state legislation that would allow local governments to use innovative measures to protect cultural arts enterprises from circumstantial increases in property taxes. The intent is to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.”
What are the “innovative measures” the city wants to use? Nothing special; just allowing a special group of people to shirk paying the same taxes that everyone else has to pay. The city wants to be able to use tax abatements for up to ten years. The percentage of taxes that could be forgiven could be as high as 80 percent.
So there’s really nothing innovative to see here. The city merely wants to broaden the application of tax forgiveness. Which means the tax base shrinks, and the people who still find themselves unlucky enough to still be part of the tax base face increasing demands for their tax payments.
The city manager said that artists from Commerce Street came to the city looking for a solution to their problem. Which is about the same problem that everyone else has: high taxes.
Here’s the nub of the problem, as explained by the city manager: “The more successful that we are with the redevelopment, the higher the value of the properties, and therefore harder for them who are on thin margins to begin with to stay in the districts, so they lose their charm of being the artistic or art districts.”
The proposed solution, which will require a change to state law, is that a government bureaucrat will decide the boundaries of one or more cultural arts districts. The bureaucrat will also decide which types of business firms qualify for discounts on their taxes. Besides Commerce Street, the manager identified Delano, Old Town, and the Douglas Design District as possible districts where artists might receive 80 percent discounts on their property taxes.
After this, other taxpayers have to make up the lost tax revenue from the artists. That is, unless the city decides to reduce spending by the amount of the tax discounts. I’ve proposed that to the city in other similar circumstances, and the idea was rejected. I believe council members thought I was delusional.
There are many people and business firms that operate on the same “thin margins” that the city manager wants to help artists escape. We see them come to city hall seeking special treatment. As a result, the city plans and manages an increasing share of the economy, and economic freedom, entrepreneurship, and the potential for a truly dynamic economy decline.
Who will stake out the next frontier?
There are many problems with the idea the city is proposing.
One is that the city is asking poor people to pay their full share of property taxes while granting artists a discount. This is a serious problem of equity, which is that people in similar circumstances should be treated the same. Just because someone chooses art as a business or vocation doesn’t mean they should be treated specially with respect to the taxes they pay.
Another problem is that the process of establishing arts districts will interrupt the dynamism of the way cities develop. Arts districts develop because artists want (or need) places with cheap rent. Unless they can persuade city hall to grant property tax discounts, this generally means artists rent space in “bad” parts of town, that is, parts of town that are run down, blighted, and may have high crime rates. Thus, cheap rent.
If things go well, that is, the artists are successful and a community develops, things get fixed up. Rents rise. Taxes rise. The artists can’t afford the higher rent and taxes and have to move on. Which means the cycle repeats. The artists on the cutting edge find other places to move to, and the cycle repeats. Other parts of the city are reborn — organically — through the benefits of markets, not government bureaucracy. This is good.
Except: The City of Wichita is proposing to end the cycle by granting discounts on taxes to artists so they may remain where they are.
We replace dynamism with stagnation by bureaucracy. The city says this is innovative.
… results consistently point to significant negative effects of taxes on economic growth even after controlling for various other factors such as government spending, business cycle conditions, and monetary policy.
The idea that taxes affect economic growth has become politically contentious and the subject of much debate in the press and among advocacy groups. That is in part because there are competing theories about what drives economic growth. Some subscribe to Keynesian, demand-side factors, others Neo-classical, supply-side factors, while yet others subscribe to some mixture of the two or something entirely unique. The facts, historical and geographical variation in key parameters for example, should shed light on the debate. However, the economy is sufficiently complex that virtually any theory can find some support in the data.
For instance, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has found support for the theory that taxes have no effect on economic growth by looking at the U.S. experience since World War II and the dramatic variation in the statutory top marginal rate on individual income. They find the fastest economic growth occurred in the 1950s when the top rate was more than ninety percent. However, their study ignores the most basic problems with this sort of statistical analysis, including: the variation in the tax base to which the individual income tax applies; the variation in other taxes, particularly the corporate tax; the short-term versus long-term effects of tax policy; and reverse causality, whereby economic growth affects tax rates. These problems are all well known in the academic literature and have been dealt with in various ways, making the CRS study unpublishable in any peer-reviewed academic journal.
So what does the academic literature say about the empirical relationship between taxes and economic growth? While there are a variety of methods and data sources, the results consistently point to significant negative effects of taxes on economic growth even after controlling for various other factors such as government spending, business cycle conditions, and monetary policy. In this review of the literature, I find twenty-six such studies going back to 1983, and all but three of those studies, and every study in the last fifteen years, find a negative effect of taxes on growth. Of those studies that distinguish between types of taxes, corporate income taxes are found to be most harmful, followed by personal income taxes, consumption taxes and property taxes.
When Kansas cities grant economic development incentives, they may also unilaterally take action that affects overlapping jurisdictions such as counties, school districts, and the state itself. The legislature should end this.
When Kansas cities create tax increment financing (TIF) districts, the overlapping county and school district(s) have an opportunity to veto its creation. These other jurisdictions do not formally have to give their consent to its formation; if they do nothing, it is assumed they concur.
But for some other forms of incentives, such as tax increment financing district redevelopment plans, property tax abatements, and sales tax abatements, overlapping jurisdictions have no ability to object. There seems to be no rational basis for not giving these jurisdictions a chance to object to the erosion of their tax base.
This is especially important for school districts, as they are often the largest tax consumer. As an example, when the City of Wichita offered tax abatements to a company in June, 47 percent of the abated taxes would have gone to the Wichita school district. But the school district did not participate in this decision. State law gave it no voice.
Supporters of economic development incentives may say that the school district benefits from the incentives. Even though the district gives up some tax revenue now, it will get more in the future. This is the basis for the benefit-cost ratios the city uses to justify incentives. For itself, the City of Wichita requires a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or better, although there are many loopholes the city can use to grant incentives when this threshold is not met. For the June project, city documents reported these benefit-cost ratios for two overlapping jurisdictions:
Sedgwick County 1.18 to one
USD 259 1.00 to one
In this case, the city forced a benefit-cost ratio on the county that the city would not accept for itself, unless it uses a loophole. For the school district, the net benefit is zero.
The legislature should look at ways to make sure that overlapping jurisdictions are not harmed when economic development incentives are granted by cities. The best way would be to require formal approval of the incentives by counties and school districts.
In June the City of Wichita granted tax abatements for a new warehouse. City documents gave the benefit-cost ratios for the city and overlapping jurisdictions:
City of Wichita General Fund 1.30 to one
Sedgwick County 1.18 to one
USD 259 1.00 to one
State of Kansas 12.11 to one
It is not known whether these ratios include the sales tax forgiveness.
While the City of Wichita insists that projects show a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or better (although there are many exceptions), it doesn’t apply that standard for overlapping jurisdictions. Here, Sedgwick County experiences a benefit-cost ratio of 1.18 to one, and the Wichita school district (USD 259) 1.00 to one. These two governmental bodies have no input on the decision the city is making on their behalf. The school district’s share of the forgiven taxes is 47.4 percent.
USD 259 $143,038
The listing of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is likely an oversight by the city, as the Spirit properties lie in the Derby school district. This is evident when the benefit-cost ratios are listed:
City of Wichita 1.98 to one
General Fund 1.78 to one
Debt Service 2.34 to one
Sedgwick County 1.54 to one
U.S.D. 260 1.00 to one (Derby school district)
State of Kansas 28.23 to one
Note that the ratio for the Derby school district is 1.00 to one, far below what the city requires for projects it considers for participation. That is, unless it uses a loophole.
An ongoing study reveals that generally, property taxes on commercial and industrial property in Wichita are high. In particular, taxes on commercial property in Wichita are among the highest in the nation.
The study is produced by Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence. It’s titled “50 State Property Tax Comparison Study, March 2014″ and may be read here. It uses a variety of residential, apartment, commercial, and industrial property scenarios to analyze the nature of property taxation across the country. I’ve gathered data from selected tables for Wichita. A pdf version of the table is available here.
In Kansas, residential property is assessed at 11.5 percent of its appraised value. (Appraised value is the market value as determined by the assessor. Assessed value is multiplied by the mill levy rates of taxing jurisdictions in order to compute tax.) Commercial property is assessed at 25 percent of appraised value, and public utility property at 33 percent.
This means that commercial property pays 25 / 11.5 or 2.18 times the property tax rate as residential property. (The study reports a value of 2.263 for Wichita. The difference is likely due to the inclusion on utility property in their calculation.) The U.S. average is 1.716.
Whether higher assessment ratios on commercial property as compared to residential property is good public policy is a subject for debate. But because Wichita’s ratio is high, it leads to high property taxes on commercial property.
For residential property taxes, Wichita ranks below the national average. For a property valued at $150,000, the effective property tax rate in Wichita is 1.324 percent, while the national average is 1.508 percent. The results for a $300,000 property were similar.
Looking at commercial property, the study uses several scenarios with different total values and different values for fixtures. For example, for a $100,000 valued property with $20,000 fixtures (table 25), the study found that the national average for property tax is $2,591 or 2.159 percent of the property value. For Wichita the corresponding values are $3,588 or 2.990 percent, ranking ninth from the top. Wichita property taxes for this scenario are 38.5 percent higher than the national average.
In other scenarios, as the proportion of property value that is machinery and equipment increases, Wichita taxes are lower, compared to other states and cities. This is because Kansas no longer taxes this type of property.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll look at the results of the Wichita sales tax election and what might happen next. Then, we’ll evaluate the Wichita Eagle’s coverage during the campaign. Also, this election raised issues of the privacy of voter data. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 65, broadcast November 16, 2014.
Here’s a map I created of the “No” vote percentage by council district for the November 4, 2014 Wichita sales tax issue. To use an interactive version of this map, click here. On the interactive map you may scroll and zoom, and you may click on a district for more information.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and the city council are proud of their citizen engagement efforts. Should they be proud?
The day after the November 2014 election in which Wichita voters rejected a proposed city sales tax, Mayor Carl Brewer and most members of the Wichita City Council held a press conference to discuss the election. A theme of the mayor is that the city reached out to citizens, gathered feedback, and responded. Here are a few of his remarks:
As elected officials, it’s our duty and responsibility to listen to citizens each and every day. And certainly any and every thing that they have to say, whether we agree or disagree, is important to each and every one of us. Anytime they are able to provide us that, we should continue to try to reach out and try to find ways to be able to talk to them. …
We appreciate the engagement process of talking to citizens, finding out what’s important to them. Last night was part of that process. …
We will certainly be engaging them, the individuals in opposition. As you heard me say, the city of Wichita — the city council members — we represent everyone in the entire city. From that standpoint, everyone’s opinion is important to us. As you heard me say earlier, whether we agree or disagree, or just have a neutral position on whatever issue that may be, it is important to us, and we’re certainly willing to listen, and we certainly want their input.
So just how does Wichita city government rate in citizen involvement and engagement? As it turns out, there is a survey on this topic. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.
The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey. It also tells us that the city expects to re-survey citizens in 2014. For that year, the city has given itself the lofty target of 40 percent of citizens rating the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement as excellent or good.
In the press conference Mayor Brewer also said “We did the Facebook and we did the Twitter.” Except, the city ignored many questions about the sales tax that were posted on its Facebook wall.
Here’s another example of how the mayor and council welcome citizen involvement. Wichita participates in a program designed to produce lower air fares at the Wichita airport. It probably works. But I’ve done research, and there is another effect. As can be seen in the nearby chart, the number of flights and the number of available seats is declining in Wichita. These measures are also declining on a national level, but they are declining faster in Wichita than for the nation. See also Wichita airport statistics: the visualization and Kansas Affordable Airfares program: Benefits and consequences.
About this time Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn had appointed me to serve on the Wichita Airport Advisory Board. That required city council approval. Only one council member vote to approve my appointment. In its reporting, the Wichita Eagle said: “Mayor Carl Brewer was clear after the meeting: The city wants a positive voice on the airport advisory board, which provides advice to the council on airport-related issues. ‘We want someone who will participate, someone who will contribute,’ Brewer said. ‘We want someone who will make Affordable Airfares better, who will make the airport better. You’ve seen what he does here,’ Brewer went on, referencing Weeks’ frequent appearances before the council to question its ethics and spending habits. ‘So the question becomes, ‘Why?'”
As far as I know, I am the only person who has done this research on the rapidly declining availability of flights and seats available in Wichita. You might think the city would be interested in information like this, and would welcome someone with the ability to produce such research on a citizen board. But that doesn’t matter. From this incident, we learn that the city does not welcome those who bring inconvenient facts to the table.
“I don’t normally spend this much time having a conversation with you because I know it doesn’t do any good.”
— Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to conservative blogger Bob Weeks as the two argued over cronyism during Tuesday’s City Council meeting
“I really wasn’t offended today … because the mayor’s been ruder to better people than me.”
— Weeks’ response when asked about the exchange after the meeting
At least Mayor Brewer didn’t threaten to sue me. As we’ve seen, if you ask the mayor to to live up to the policies he himself promotes, he may launch a rant that ends with you being threatened with a lawsuit.
Despite the stunning defeat of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer’s proposed sales tax increase, and the fact that in April, Brewer’s term limit will expire, he and the City Council are determined to take action in financing the projects that the Wichita voters just shot down.
The sales tax increase was defeated by an overwhelming 62-38 percentage margin, signifying very low support for the Mayor’s plan, largely due to a severe lack of transparency in regards to economic development, and the fact that the four proposed projects (water, transit, street maintenance, and job incentives) were bundled together, forcing voters to either approve or deny the entire package.
(Note: Based on feedback from readers, I’ve made a change in the way the change in tax collections is reported. Instead of showing 179 percent, I now show 79 percent. This expresses the value as a percentage change rather than a change in index value from 100. The meaning of the data is the same, but now it is expressed in a manner that is easier to understand and consistent with other figures in this visualization.)
Here is an interactive visualization that holds property tax data for Kansas counties from 1997 to 2013.
There are several charts, including line charts of trends and maps of data and changes in data. On the line charts, click on any single county or more to highlight. (Use Ctrl+click to add counties.)
Click here to open the visualization in a new window.
Here’s a map I created of the “No” vote percentage by precinct. To use an interactive version of this map, click here. On the interactive map you may scroll and zoom, and you may click on a precinct for more information.
Citizens want to trust their hometown newspaper as a reliable source of information. The Wichita Eagle has not only fallen short of this goal, it seems to have abandoned it.
The Wichita Eagle last week published a fact-check article titled “Fact check: ‘No’ campaign ad on sales tax misleading.” As of today, the day before the election, I’ve not seen any similar article examining ads from the “Yes Wichita” group that campaigns for the sales tax. Also, there has been little or no material that examined the city’s claims and informational material in a critical manner.
Someone told me that I should be disappointed that such articles have not appeared. I suppose I am, a little. But that is balanced by the increasing awareness of Wichitans that the Wichita Eagle is simply not doing its job.
It’s one thing for the opinion page to be stocked solely with liberal columnists and cartoonists, considering the content that is locally produced. But newspapers like the Eagle tell us that the newsroom is separate from the opinion page. The opinion page has endorsed passage of the sales tax. As far as the newsroom goes, by printing an article fact-checking one side of an issue and failing to produce similar pieces for the other side — well, readers are free to draw their own conclusions about the reliability of the Wichita Eagle newsroom.
As a privately-owned publication, the Wichita Eagle is free to do whatever it wants. But when readers see obvious neglect of a newspaper’s duty to inform readers, readers are correct to be concerned about the credibility of our state’s largest newspaper.
Citizens want to trust their hometown newspaper as a reliable source of information. The Wichita Eagle has not only fallen short of this goal, it seems to have abandoned it.
Here are some topics and questions the Eagle could have examined in fact-checking articles on the “Yes Wichita” campaign and the City of Wichita’s informational and educational campaign.
The Wichita Eagle could start with itself and explain why it chose a photograph of an arterial street to illustrate a story on a sales tax that is dedicated solely for neighborhood streets. The caption under the photo read “Road construction, such as on East 13th Street between Oliver and I-135, would be part of the projects paid for by a city sales tax.”
Issues regarding “Yes Wichita”
The “Yes Wichita” campaign uses an image of bursting wooden water pipes to persuade voters. Does Wichita have any wooden water pipes? And isn’t the purpose of the sales tax to build one parallel pipeline, not replace old water pipes? See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Water pipe(s).
The “Yes Wichita” campaign group claims that the sales tax will replace old rusty pipes that are dangerous. Is that true?
The City and “Yes Wichita” give voters two choices regarding a future water supply: Either vote for the sales tax, or the city will use debt to pay for ASR expansion and it will cost an additional $221 million. But the decision to use debt has not been made, has it? Wouldn’t the city council have to vote to issue those bonds? Is there any guarantee that the council will do that?
The “Yes Wichita” group says that one-third of the sales tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But the city’s documents cite the Kansas Department of Revenue which gives the number as 13.5 percent. Which is correct? This is a difference of 2.5 times in the estimate of Wichita sales tax paid by visitors. This is a material difference in something used to persuade voters.
The city’s informational material states “The City has not increased the mill levy rate for 21 years.” In 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen. See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Tax rates.
“Yes Wichita” says there is a plan for the economic development portion of the sales tax. If the plan for economic development is definite, why did the city decide to participate in the development of another economic development plan just last month? What if that plan recommends something different than what the city has been telling voters? And if the plan is unlikely to recommend anything different, why do we need it?
Citizens have asked to know more about the types of spending records the city will provide. Will the city commit to providing checkbook register-level spending data? Or will the city set up separate agencies to hide the spending of taxpayer funds like it has with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Corporation?
Issues regarding the City of Wichita
Mayor Carl Brewer said the city spent $47,000 of taxpayer funds to send a letter and brochure to voters because he was concerned about misinformation. In light of some of the claims made by the “Yes Wichita” group, does the city have plans to inform voters of that misinformation?
Hasn’t the city really been campaigning in favor of the sales tax? Has the city manager been speaking to groups to give them reasons to vote against the tax? Does the city’s website provide any information that would give voters any reason to consider voting other than yes?
The “Yes Wichita” group refers voters to the city’s website and information to learn about the sales tax issue. Since the “Yes Wichita” group campaigns for the sales tax, it doesn’t seem likely it would refer voters to information that would be negative, or even neutral, towards the tax. Is this evidence that the city is, in fact, campaigning for the sales tax?
The “Yes Wichita” group says that one-third of the sales tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But the city’s documents cite the Kansas Department of Revenue which gives the number as 13.5%. Which is correct? This is a difference of 2.5 times in the estimate of Wichita sales tax paid by visitors. This is a material difference in something used to persuade voters. If “Yes Wichita” is wrong, will the city send a mailer to correct the misinformation?
The city’s informational material states “The City has not increased the mill levy rate for 21 years.” But the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports show that in 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen. Is this misinformation that needs to be corrected?
The city says that the ASR project is a proven solution that will provide for Wichita’s water needs for a long time. Has the city told voters that the present ASR system had its expected production rate cut in half? Has the city presented to voters that the present ASR system is still in its commissioning phase, and that new things are still being learned about how the system operates?
The City and “Yes Wichita” give voters two choices regarding a future water supply: Either vote for the sales tax, or the city will use debt to pay for ASR expansion and it will cost an additional $221 million. But the decision to use debt has not been made, has it? Wouldn’t the city council have to vote to issue those bonds? Is the any guarantee that the council will do that?
If the plan for economic development is definite, why did the city decide to participate in the development of another economic development plan just last month? What if that plan recommends something different than what the city has been telling voters? And if the plan is unlikely to recommend anything different, why do we need it?
Citizens have asked to know more about the types of spending records the city will provide. Will the city commit to providing checkbook register-level spending data? Or will the city set up separate agencies to hide the spending of taxpayer funds like it has with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Corporation?
The “Yes Wichita” campaign uses an image of bursting wooden water pipes to persuade voters. Does Wichita have any wooden water pipes? And isn’t the purpose of the sales tax to build one parallel pipeline, not replace old water pipes? If this advertisement by “Yes Wichita” is misleading, will the city send an educational mailing to correct this?
The Yes Wichita campaign group claims that the sales tax will replace old rusty pipes that are dangerous. Is that true? If not, will the city do anything to correct this misinformation?
Campaign activity by the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation appears to be contrary to several opinions issued by Kansas Attorneys General regarding the use of public funds in elections.
While the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation presents itself as a non-profit organization that is independent of the City of Wichita, it receives 95 percent of its revenue from taxes, according to its most recent IRS Form 990. While Kansas has no statutes or court cases prohibiting the use of public funds for electioneering, there are at least two Kansas Attorney General opinions on this topic.
One, opinion 93-125, states in its synopsis: “The public purpose doctrine does not encompass the use of public funds to promote or advocate a governing body’s position on a matter which is before the electorate. However, public funds may be expended to educate and inform regarding issues to be voted upon by the electorate.”
While some governing bodies spend taxpayer funds to present information about ballot measures, this is not the case with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. It explicitly campaigns in favor of the issue. It displays pro-sales tax campaign signs at its office. It publicly endorsed passage of the sales tax.
A more recent Kansas Attorney General opinion, 2001-13, holds this language: “While the Kansas appellate courts have not directly addressed the issue of whether public funds can be used to promote a position during an election, there are a number of cases from other jurisdictions that conclude that a public entity cannot do so.”
The opinion cites a court case: “Underlying this uniform judicial reluctance to sanction the use of public funds for election campaigns rests an implicit recognition that such expenditures raise potentially serious constitutional questions. A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several competing factions.”
The opinion reaffirms 93-125, stating: “In Attorney General Opinion No. 93-125, Attorney General Robert T. Stephan concluded that public funds may not be used to promote or advocate a city governing body’s position on a matter that is before the electorate.”
Given these Kansas Attorney General opinions, and considering good public policy, Wichita voters need to ask: Should an organization that is funded 95 percent by taxes be campaigning for a ballot issue?
The “Yes Wichita” campaign group makes a Facebook post with false information to Wichita voters. Will Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer send a mailer to Wichitans warning them of this misleading information?
Here’s a post from the “Yes Wichita” Facebook page. This group campaigns in favor of the one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax that is on the November ballot.
The claim made in this post is incorrect and misleading.
The sales tax plan regarding water calls for the augmentation of one pipe, as shown in this table from the city’s plan. The plan does not say, or imply, replacing pipes, as this advertisement indicates.
The plan also says that sales tax revenue “Builds an additional pipeline.” Not “Replace 60 year old water pipes” as promoted to voters by “Yes Wichita.” The plan builds an additional parallel pipeline.
Plus, the pipe that is the subject of the city’s water plan is 60 years old, but there is no indication that it needs replacement.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute talks about KPI’s recent policy brief “A Five-Year Budget Plan for the State of Kansas: How to balance the budget and have healthy ending balances without tax increases or service reductions.” View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 64, broadcast November 2, 2014.
At a forum on October 28, “Yes Wichita” co-chair Moji Fanimokun told the audience that “Property taxes haven’t been raised in over 21 years in Wichita.”
This claim — that the mill levy has not been raised for a long time — is commonly made by the city and “Yes Wichita” supporters. It’s useful to take a look at actual numbers to see what has happened.
In 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen, contrary to the claims of “Yes Wichita.”
Apart from the focus on the mill levy, voters may want to know that the dollars of property tax the city collects has risen. This growth comes from new property being created (although old property disappears, too), and from increases in assessed value of existing property. From 1994 to 2011 property tax revenue increased from $58.672 to $119.745 million, or 104 percent. We didn’t experience anything near that rate of growth in the combination of population or inflation. It’s true that these values have slowed in growth or even declined in recent years. But that’s a symptom of the problem: When tax revenue increases, so to does spending, and we become accustomed to a certain level. When revenue increases don’t keep pace with history, government finds it difficult to make the necessary cuts.
The material below is from the agenda for the October 28, 2014 Wichita City Council meeting. It appeared on the consent agenda, which means it was handled in bulk with other items. The meeting minutes don’t show that there was any discussion on this item.
Without some background information, it may be difficult to interpret this material, so I’ll do it for you.
There is a company in Wichita named High Touch Technologies. Last year it asked the city council for relief from paying property taxes and sales taxes to help pay for the renovation of its headquarters building. Now it has asked for an extension of this tax relief period.
This year the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce is campaigning for a higher sales tax in Wichita.
Did you know that Kansas is one of only 14 states that apply sales tax to groceries? And that only Mississippi has a higher statewide sales tax rate on groceries than does Kansas?
I told you this is awkward.
Here’s an excerpt from the relevant city document.
On November 19, 2013 the City Council approved a one-year Letter of Intent for the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds (“IRBs”) in an amount not to exceed $2,000,000 for the purpose of financing the cost of acquiring and remodeling a 106,000 square foot office building located at 110 S. Main in downtown Wichita, for use as a corporate headquarters for High Touch. One Twenty South Main, LLC is the real estate holding entity that acquired the building and will sublease space to High Touch. One Twenty South Main, LLC originally intended to finance the acquisition and renovation with one bond issue. It is now planning on two bonds issues, one in late 2014 and one in late 2015. The first bond issue will finance the acquisition of the building and repairs to the elevators. The second will finance the cost of tenant improvements to occur in 2015. No additional bonding capacity is being requested. The current Letter of Intent and sales tax exemption expire November 19, 2014. One Twenty South Main, LLC is requesting an extension of the Letter of Intent and the sales tax exemption through December 31, 2015 to accommodate all work contemplated as part of this project.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is concerned about misinformation being spread regarding the proposed Wichita sales tax.
In November Wichita voters will decide whether to create a sales tax of one cent per dollar. The largest intended purpose of the funds is to create a new water supply. Set aside for a moment the question whether Wichita needs a new water source. Set aside the question of whether ASR is the best way to provide a new water source. What’s left is how to pay for it.
In its informational material, the city presents two choices for paying for a new water supply: Either (a) raise funds through the sales tax, or (b) borrow funds that Wichitans will pay back on their water bills, along with a pile of interest.
As you can see in the nearby material prepared by the city, the costs are either $250 million (sales tax) or $471 million (borrow and pay interest). The preference of the city is evident: Sales tax. The “Yes Wichita ” group agrees.
Are there other alternatives to these two choices? Could we raise the funds through water bills over the same five-year period as the proposed sales tax? Would this let commercial and industrial water users participate in the costs of a new water supply?
Last week I posed this question at a Wichita water town hall meeting. Wichita Director of Public Works Alan King responded yes, this is possible, adding “I think you’re right. I think that there’s more than one alternative to funding.” A video excerpt of this meeting is available here.
The response of the city’s public works director contradicts the possibilities the city presents to voters. Is this an example of the type of misinformation the mayor wants to clear up?
Last week Mayor Carl Brewer told the Wichita Eagle “We decided to do a mailer because there was a lot of misinformation that was going out where people didn’t quite understand what was going on. By doing the mailer, we’re able to educate everyone.”
The city spent $47,000 sending the mailer. But as we see, it has only contributed to the misinformation.
The city’s threat to voters
Here’s what is happening. City hall gives us two choices. It’s either (a) do what we want (sales tax), or (b) we’ll do something that’s really bad (borrow and pay interest). Wichita voters shouldn’t settle for this array of choices.
Let me emphasize that. The city’s informational material says if voters don’t pass the sales tax, the city will do something unwise. But the city did that very same bad thing to pay for the current ASR project, that is, borrow money and pay interest. But now the city says pass the sales tax or we will do something bad to you. Pass the sales tax or the city will issue long-term debt and you will pay a lot of interest.
Pass the sales tax, or we will do again what we did to pay for the current ASR project. And that would be bad for you and the city.
Are there other alternatives for raising $250 million for a new water source (assuming it is actually needed)? Of course there are. The best way would be to raise water bills by $250 million over five years. In this way, water users pay for the new water supply, and we avoid the long-term debt that city council members and “Yes Wichita” seem determined to avoid.
Water bills would have to rise by quite a bit in order to raise $250 million over five years. The city could decide to raise rates by different amounts for different classes of water users. The city could adjust its tiered residential rate structure to be more in line with the average of other large cities. (See Wichita water rates seen as not encouraging conservation.) But the total cost of the higher water bills would be exactly the same as the cost of the sales tax: $250 million.
It’s important to have water users pay for a new water supply. The benefit is that water users will become acutely aware of the costs of a new water supply. That awareness is difficult to achieve. Many citizens are surprised to learn that the city has spent $247 million over the past decade on a water project, the ASR program. Almost all of that was paid for with long-term debt, the same debt that the city now says is bad.
Paying for a new water supply through water bills would let commercial and industrial users participate in paying the cost of the project. These water users usually don’t pay a lot of sales tax. A restaurant, for example, does not pay sales tax on the food ingredients it purchases. An aircraft manufacturer does not pay sales tax on the raw materials and component parts it buys. But these companies do have a water bill. Yet, the city recommends that low income households pay more sales tax on their groceries. The city says this is the best way to pay for a new water supply to protect our lawns and golf courses during a drought.
At two forums on the proposed Wichita sales tax, leaders of the “Yes Wichita” group provided contradicting visions for plans for economic development spending, and for its oversight.
On Tuesday the League of Women Voters — Wichita Metro sponsored a forum on the proposed one cent per dollar sales tax that appears on the November ballot. I appeared on behalf of the Coalition for a Better Wichita, a group that opposed the proposed sales tax. At the forum, a member of the audience wondered about whether proceeds of the sales tax would be given to Wichita State University. Speaking on behalf of “Yes Wichita,” one of its co-chairs Harvey Sorensen replied “there’s been no ask from Wichita State, there’s been no commitment to Wichita State.” When the questioner pushed back, Sorensen named several infrastructure needs of the WSU innovation campus that might be funded by sales tax revenue. Later, he said “there really have been no commitments” and challenged the questioner to “read me the data.” (For audio of this forum, click here.)
The next day television station KCTU sponsored a debate in which I also participated. Michael Monteferrante represented “Yes Wichita.” He is a co-chair of that campaign. In response to a question, he said of the $80 million of sales tax dollars earmarked for economic development and jobs, “32 million dollars of it will be going to Wichita State University to work on fantastic training for our workforce. Another 32 million will go to just training some of the workforce in terms of our elimination of aerospace jobs. And just 16 million of the 80 million dollars will be going to retention and jobs and areas that will require the oversight that Mr. Weeks is talking about.” (For audio of this event, click here.)
These two co-chairs of the “Yes Wichita” campaign offered contradictory answer to questions about the plans for the economic development aspect of the proposed sales tax. Coupled with Wichita’s hiring two weeks ago of a firm to form an economic development plan for Wichita, citizens are rightly concerned to doubt that the city has a plan for the sales tax.
As far as the promised oversight, citizens might also be alarmed to learn of Monteferrante’s statement that only $16 million of the spending requires oversight.
On Wednesday October 29 KCTU Television held a televised debate on the issue of the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax. Michael Monteferrante represented “Yes Wichita.” He is a co-chair of that campaign. I represented Coalition for a Better Wichita, substituting for Jennifer Baysinger, who was not able to attend. R.J. Dickens was the moderator.
This is the audio portion of the broadcast. It is about one hour in length. It represents the complete program.
On Tuesday October 28 the League of Women Voters — Wichita Metro held a lunchtime forum on the issue of the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax. Harvey Sorensen and Moji Fanimokun represented “Yes Wichita.” Both are co-chairs of that campaign. I represented Coalition for a Better Wichita, substituting for Jennifer Baysinger, who was not able to attend. Paul Babich was the moderator.
The audio presentation is about 53 minutes long. It represents the complete forum.
Following, from Kansas Senator Michael O’Donnell, a discussion of issues surrounding the proposed Wichita one cent per dollar sales tax. O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council for nearly two years before resigning to serve in the senate.
We are less than one week from an incredibly important election cycle where those of us in Wichita will vote for our future in a 4, 5 or 6 year timeframe; Governor for 4, Sales tax for 5 and Senator for 6. Before we go to the polls, the Wichita City Council needs to level with the public and answer critical questions, if not, they continue the “politics-as-usual” game that has been exhaustingly prevalent during the all-too-disappointing Brewer administration. Is City Hall hoping to “run out the clock,” praying the public will become so disengaged with the election that somehow Wichitans will think the city has been straight-forward? Maybe I am being too critical, but it’s hard not to be critical when I experienced the “you can’t fight City Hall” realities directly. I saw first-hand how City Hall can be a barrier to quality of life instead of helping to enable it. Here are a list of 5 questions — one for each year of the tax — we need to have answered (and should have had answered long ago):
As the City of Wichita recommends voters spend $250 million on the expansion of a water project, the project’s accompanying website was abandoned, and has now disappeared.
The Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) project is a Wichita water utility system. So far its cost has been $247 million. As part of the proposed Wichita one cent per dollar sales tax, another $250 million is earmarked to be spent on its expansion.
To help Wichitans learn about the ASR system, the city built a website at wichitawaterproject.org. Nearby is how the front page of that website appeared in January 2012. As you can see, it’s an attractive design. It holds much information about how ASR works and why the city says we need it.
Here’s how the same website looks today. Around the middle of October the website went “dark.” Prior to this shutdown, it appears that the last time the website was significantly updated was December 2011.
What has happened since January 2012 and now? First, a major city investment was completed. That’s Phase II of the ASR project. The ASR website says Phase II is expected to cost $220 million. But the ASR website was not updated to track the progress of Phase II during its completion and commissioning stages.
The second thing that’s happened since the ASR website was abandoned is that the city has decided that expansion of the ASR system is the best way to provide for future Wichita water supply. In November voters will decide whether a one cent per dollar sales tax will be implemented, with 63 percent of the funds used to pay for ASR expansion.
So the ASR system is important. If the city proceeds with its plan, about one-half billion dollars will have been spent on the project, plus an unknown amount of financing charges from the city’s decision to pay for the current system with long-term debt. ($500 million is about $1,300 for each Wichita resident.)
Here’s an indication of the city’s priorities. The city’s communication staff has time to produce videos about something called “Ghoulish Gala.” (It’s a fundraising event for Botanica.) The city has the time and capability to produce and post news releases on items like a Beatles tribute concert coming to Century II.
But what about something really important, like the spending of half a billion dollars on a water project? That website has been abandoned.
City Government Relations Director Dale Goter explained to me that a staff person had been updating the ASR website, but that person is no longer available.
The handling of the ASR website represents a management failure. The ASR website was attractive. It had a lot of functionality. Sites like that are somewhat complex and may require people with experience and training for their creation and updating.
But citizens need basic information about their government. Websites that are simple and functional are easy to build, maintain, and update. There are systems like wordpress.com where websites can be hosted at no charge. It takes about five minutes to take a press release or budget document and post it on a WordPress site.
But that’s not what the city decided to do. It went with a fancy design instead of a simple and functional design that could be maintained and updated by city communications or public works staff. Now, that website has disappeared, right at the time the ASR system is in the center of the news.
I wonder: Was the ASR website really needed, if the city did not care that it was abandoned?
The most important thing Wichita voters need to know that the city is delinquent in maintaining the assets that taxpayers have purchased. The cost to remedy this lack of maintenance is substantial. On an annual basis, Wichita needs to spend $180 million on infrastructure depreciation/replacement costs. Currently the city spends $78 million on this, the presentation indicates.
The “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is given as an additional $45 to $55 million per year.
How does this relate to the proposed sales tax? Of the funds the sales tax is projected to raise over five years, $27.8 million is allocated for street maintenance and repairs. That’s $5.6 million per year.
Subtract that from what the Community Investments Plan says we need to spend on deficient infrastructure, and we’re left with (roughly) $40 to $50 million per year in additional spending on deficient infrastructure. Remember, that’s on top of ongoing infrastructure depreciation/replacement costs.
Does the proposed sales tax do anything to address those needs? Possibly. Part of the sales tax would be used to augment the large water pipeline from the Equus Beds. That pipeline is 60 years old, but there is no indication that it needs replacement. But other than that, the proposed sales tax does not address deficient maintenance.
What will the city do about this deficiency? Is it likely that Wichitans will be asked to provide additional tax revenue to address the city’s deficient infrastructure? So far, city hall hasn’t asked for that, except for recommending that Wichita voters approve $5.6 million per year for streets from a sales tax.
But if we believe the numbers in the Community Investments Plan, we should be prepared for city hall to ask for much more tax revenue. That is, if the city is to adequately maintain the things that taxpayers have paid to provide.
Besides this maintenance backlog, there are other calls for new city spending.
Earlier this year the city council considered various proposals for spending a new source of tax money. Four survived the discussion and will be the recipient of sales tax funds, if Wichita voters approve. Those needs are a new water supply, jobs and economic development, transit, and street maintenance and repair.
There were proposals that did not make the, generally in the category of “quality of life” facilities. These include a new convention center, new performing arts center, new central library, newly renovated Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, renovation of the Dunbar Theater, renovation of O.J. Watson Park, and help for the homeless.
Evidently there are many who are not happy that these proposals will not receive sales tax money. Rumors afloat that groups — including city officials — are plotting for another sales tax increase to fund these items.
People are rightly concerned that even though the proposed Wichita sales tax ordinance specifies an end to the tax in five years, these taxes have a way of continuing. The State of Kansas recently had a temporary sales tax. It went away, but only partly. The Kansas state sales tax rate we pay today is higher than it was before the start of the “temporary” sales tax.
But the people who want to spend your tax dollars on these “quality of life” items aren’t content to wait five years for the proposed sales tax to end before asking for their share of sales tax revenue. They are plotting to have it start perhaps one year from now.
These are things that Wichita voters need to consider: There is a backlog of maintenance, and there is appetite for more tax revenue so there may be more government spending. Even if the sales tax passes, these remain unfulfilled.
To pay for a new Wichita water supply, the city gives voters two choices. Either (a) vote for a sales tax, or (b) the city will issue long-term debt and the city will have to pay an additional $221 million in interest expense.
Are there alternatives, such as raising the funds through water bills over the same five-year period as the proposed sales tax? Would this let commercial and industrial water users participate in the costs of a new water supply?
In this excerpt from a water town hall meeting, Wichita Director of Public Works Alan King responds. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.
What is Wichita gaining with a new water supply? Is a new supply needed for basic uses such as household, commercial, and industrial? At a town hall meeting on water issues, Wichita Director of Public Works Alan King explains.
The expansion of the Aquifer Storage and Recovery project, or ASR, is the largest planned use of the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax.
Of note, the proposed water supply provides protection for what is called a one percent drought. There is debate as to whether the city should prepare for a two percent drought instead.
View a video excerpt of the meeting below, or click here to view at YouTube.
Last week the City of Wichita held a town hall meeting on water issues. The issue is ripe because the city has placed a one cent per dollar sales tax on the November ballot. The largest share of the revenue, 63 percent, is earmarked for expansion of the Aquifer Storage and Recovery project, or ASR.
I appeared at the meeting and expressed my concerns regarding things I had recently learned, which is that we’ve cut expectations for ASR production in half. Also, ASR is still in commissioning stage.
Alan King, Director of Public Works for the City of Wichita, said the individual components of the ASR systems have been tested, and that the tests have been successful. He confirmed that the original estimates of production were too high.
We also learned that there have been days where there was sufficient water in the Little Arkansas River to draw from it, but that sometimes the levels of bromide or atrazine have been too high, and the water could not be used.
View a video excerpt of the meeting below, or click here to view at YouTube.
In an advertisement in the Wichita Eagle and in a mailer sent to Wichita voters, the “Yes Wichita” group makes a series of statements regarding plans for a new water supply. It’s important that Wichita voters be aware of the complete facts and context of these claims so that they make an informed decision on how to vote.
The city has proposed a one cent per dollar sales tax. The largest portion — 63 percent or $250 million — is earmarked for a new water supply. Voters will see this question on the ballots for the November 4, 2014 election.
Here’s what the “Yes Wichita” group has stated under the heading “The Plan For Affordable Long-term Water Supply” along with what voters also need to know.
Save taxpayers $221 million over 20 years in costs. This statement is true only if the Wichita city council decides to pay for ASR expansion by using long-term debt. That decision has not been made. Besides that, there are other ways to raise this money. And if using debt for water projects is bad, why did the city borrow over $200 million for the current ASR project, and hundreds of millions for other water projects? See By threatening an unwise alternative, Wichita campaigns for the sales tax.
Replace 60 year old aging pipelines so water is transported safely. The sales tax plan for water calls for the augmentation of one pipe, as shown in the city’s plan. Not replacing pipes plural, as this advertisement indicates. Plus, the pipe that is the subject of the city’s water plan is 60 years old, but there is no indication that it needs replacement.
Tourists, visitors and renters help pay for our water. This is true. It is also true that if funds were raised through higher water bills, these people would also pay. Also, city documents regarding the sales tax state: “The State of Kansas estimates that 13% of sales taxes paid in the Wichita area are paid by non-residents based on a report at www.ksrevenue.org/pullfactor.html.” But at the “Yes Wichita” website, there is a different claim: “If we fund a new water source through a sales tax instead of water bills or property taxes, visitors and tourists will pay the sales tax, reducing the burden of this cost to Wichitans by about one-third.” Which is it? 13 percent, or 33 percent? Will “Yes Wichita” show us their figures or provide a reference for the basis of this claim?
Prevent future high water rate increases. This is true. If we experience a prolonged drought, water rates would have to rise to cover the fixed costs of the water utility. That is, if we have such a drought. That may not happen, or it may not happen for many years.
Fund ASR improvements which would provide new wells and a water storage site. This is true. What’s left is to decide whether making these additional investments in the ASR project is wise. We’ve learned that the expectations of ASR have been cut in half. We’ve learned that the ASR project is still in its commissioning phase, and it has not been turned loose for actual production for any significant period. I do not believe we have enough knowledge and experience to judge the success or failure of ASR. See Should Wichita expand a water system that is still in commissioning stage?
This is the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. It routinely advocates for special deals whereby downtown developers don’t have to pay property taxes or sales taxes. Or if they do pay property taxes, they might be routed back to them for their exclusive benefit. But as you can see, WDDC campaigns for low-income households to pay more sales tax on groceries.
Here’s a snippet from a recent “Yes Wichita” advertisement and mailer. This group campaigns in favor of the one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax that is on the November ballot.
Following is the entire quote from the Wichita Eagle story. I’ve used bold type for the parts that the advertisement used. Everything else was discarded. Do you think it is misleading to leave out the part about how a significant portion of the rate increase will happen regardless of the sales tax vote?
“Without the sales tax, water rates would have to increase 32 percent over the next four years to pay for expansion at the city’s Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) facility northwest of Wichita. That would set the rates high enough so the city could start making bond payments in 2018, Public Works and Utilities Director Alan King said.
That increase would be on top of projected water rate increases totaling nearly 20 percent over the next four years to meet regular maintenance needs of the existing infrastructure.
So the total rate increase for the water base charge would be nearly 52 percent by 2018.”
Why is the City of Wichita spending taxpayer money mailing to voters who don’t live in the city and can’t vote on the issue?
A resident of Bel Aire thought it was curious that she received an informational mailing regarding an issue she can’t vote on. The issue is the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax that is on the November ballot.
What is curious about her receiving this mail about the Wichita sales tax? She can’t vote on this issue because she lives in Bel Aire, not in Wichita. Only those voters who live in Wichita will have the question on their ballots. Bel Aire is a nice town, but it is not Wichita.
So why did the City of Wichita spend tax dollars informing residents of Bel Aire about an issue on which they may not vote?
Many Wichitans question whether the city should have spent tax dollars on this mailer. Especially when it’s pretty clear that the material is designed to encourage citizens to vote in favor of the tax.
(If you doubt whether the city’s educational material is advocating for passage of the sales tax, consider this: The “Yes Wichita” group campaigns for passage of the tax. This group refers voters to the city’s website to learn about the issue. “Yes Wichita” would not do that if the city’s material contained anything that might discourage a “Yes” vote.)
I’ve been involved in political campaigns. I’ve always been quite careful to send mail only to those voters who live in the relevant jurisdiction. That is, I don’t waste donors’ money mailing to people who are not able to vote for my candidate.
The return address on this envelope indicates the mail came from the Office of the Mayor. So may I ask, Mayor Carl Brewer, why are you wasting taxpayer money sending mail to people who can’t vote on this issue?
Here’s a large sign that urges Wichita voters to approve a higher sales tax. This sign is located on the property of a restaurant that’s part of a chain. Its president actively campaigns for the higher sales tax. Say, did you know that restaurants do not pay sales tax on the food they purchase? But low-income Wichitans pay sales tax on their groceries, and at a rate that is nearly the highest in the nation. (Only 14 states have sales tax for groceries, and Kansas has the second-highest rate.)
Does this seem fair and just, that the president of a restaurant chain would campaign for higher sales tax on groceries? On top of this, almost two-thirds of the sales tax revenue would fund a project that protects wealthy neighborhoods from lawn irrigation restrictions during an extended drought. For this, low-income households are asked to pay higher sales taxes on their food.
This is Union Station in downtown Wichita. Its owner has secured a deal whereby future property taxes will be diverted to him rather than funding the costs of government like fixing streets, running the buses, and paying schoolteachers. This project may also receive a sales tax exemption. But as you can see, the owner wants low-income households in Wichita to pay more sales tax on their groceries.
Analysis of household expenditure data shows that a proposed sales tax in Wichita affects low income families in greatest proportion, confirming the regressive nature of sales taxes.
One of the criticisms of a sales tax is that it is regressive. That is, it affects low-income families in greatest proportion. This is an important consideration to explore, because in November Wichita voters will decide whether to create a new city sales tax of one cent per dollar. If enacted, the sales tax in Wichita would rise from 7.15 percent to 8.15 percent.
It’s an important issue because to hear some people talk, it seems as though they are saying the proposed tax is “one penny.” Anyone can afford that, they say. But the tax is an extra penny on each dollar spent, meaning that the cost of, say, fifty dollars of food at the grocery store increases by fifty cents, not one penny.
Further, we hear the sales tax spoken of as being a one percent increase. That’s true, if we mean a one percent increase in the cost of most things we buy. And one percent, after all, is just one percent. Not a big deal, people say. But considering the sales tax we pay, a relevant calculation is this: (8.15 – 7.15) / 7.15 = 14 percent. Which is to say, the amount of sales tax we pay will rise by 14 percent.
To explore the effect of the proposed sales tax on families of different incomes, I gathered data from the U.S. Census Bureau, specifically table 1101, which is “Quintiles of income before taxes: Annual expenditure means, shares, standard errors, and coefficient of variation, Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2012, (Selected Values).” This table divides families into five quintiles. It gives annual expenditures for each quintile in various categories. For each category, I judged whether it is subject to sales tax. For example, for housing, I indicated it is not subject to sales tax. This is not totally accurate, as some of the spending in this category may be for taxable items like maintenance and repair supplies. Food is subject to sales tax in Kansas, although low-income families may apply for a rebate of the tax. Despite these shortcomings, I feel this data gives us an approximation of the effect of the sales tax. (Click on the table to view a larger version, or see below for how to obtain the data.)
As you might imagine, as income rises, so does total taxable expenditures. Of interest, the percent of expenditures that are taxable is relatively constant across income levels.
An important finding is the bottom line of the table, which shows the increase in cost due to the proposed sales tax as percent of income after taxes. This calculates the relative impact of the proposed sales tax increase as a percent of income. It is here that we expect to see the regressive nature of a sales tax appear. For all consumers, the increase in cost is 0.35 percent. For the lowest class of income, the increase in cost is 0.97 percent of income. It falls to 0.26 percent for the highest income class.
This means that the lowest income class of families experience an increase nearly four times the magnitude as do the highest income families, as a percentage of after-tax income. This is the regressive nature of sales taxes illustrated in numbers, and is something that Wichita policy makers and voters should consider.
I’ve made the data available as a Google Docs spreadsheet. Click here for access.
In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll talk about the proposed Wichita sales tax, including who pays it, and who gets special exemptions from paying it. Then, can we believe the promises the city makes about accountability and transparency? Finally, has the chosen solution for a future water supply proven itself as viable, and why are we asking low-income households to pay more sales tax on groceries for drought protection? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 63, broadcast October 26, 2014.
Individual liberty, limited government, economic freedom, and free markets in Wichita and Kansas