Tag Archives: Wichita city council

Wichita not good for small business

The Wichita Business Journal reports today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, we come to Wichita.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

If you don't like this statue, just don't go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.

In Wichita, if you don’t like it, just don’t go there

As Wichita city officials prepare a campaign to raise the sales tax in Wichita, let’s recall some council members’ attitude towards citizens.

At a Wichita City Council meeting in August 2012, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) advised taxpayers on what to do if they disagree with action taken by the council: Just don’t go there.

If you don't like this statue, just don't go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.

If you don’t like this statue, just don’t go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.

The topic that day was whether the council should decide to add fluoride to the city’s water, or should it let citizens vote on the matter. Williams expressed concern that if the council were to decide to fluoridate Wichita’s water, citizens would not be able to avoid ingesting the added fluoride. They wouldn’t have a choice.

By way of analogy, Williams counseled the concerned citizens: “Did you like the art that went down to WaterWalk? Maybe you didn’t. But you don’t have to go there.”

She also said we don’t have to go to the apartments that were built at WaterWalk, and we don’t have to stay at the Ambassador Hotel.

True, we can avoid these government-sponsored and subsidized places if we want to. But what Williams may have forgotten is that we can’t avoid being forced to pay for them.

Besides that, what does it say about a government where if we disagree with its actions, we’re told “you don’t have to go there”?

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WichitaLiberty.TV: For whose benefit are elections, school employment, wind power, unions, unemployment

Wichita City HallIn this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The controversy over the timing of city and school board elections provides an insight into government. Then: Can a candidate for governor’s claims about Kansas school employment be believed? Wind power is expensive electricity, very expensive. A Wichita auto dealer pushes back against union protests. Finally, what is the real rate of unemployment in America? Episode 36, broadcast March 23, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

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Wichita City Council to consider entrenching power of special interest groups

city-council-chambers-sign-800On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider a resolution in support of the status quo for city elections. Which is to say, the council will likely express its support for special interest groups whose goals are in conflict with the wellbeing of the public.

The proposed resolution expresses support for retaining the present system in which city council and school board members are elected in non-partisan elections held in the spring. Candidates for all other offices (county commissioner, district court judge, district attorney, county clerk, county treasurer, register of deeds, sheriff, state representative, state senator, governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, insurance commissioner, state board of education member, president, U.S. senator, U.S. representative, etc.) compete in partisan elections held in August and November.

Yes, the proposed resolution is full of language supporting lofty ideals. It mentions local control, concern over low voter turnout, the complexity of making changes, partisan politics, and even the Hatch Act, whatever that is.

(The Hatch Act restricts the ability of federal executive branch employees and certain state and local government employees to participate in some political activities, such as running for office in partisan elections. Non-partisan elections — that’s okay. The city is concerned that this could “disqualify many local candidates and office holders.” As if anyone already working for government also should also be an officeholder, non-partisan election or not.)

Why should we be concerned? Why would the city council support the current system of spring elections? Doesn’t the city council always act in the best interests of the body politic?

Here’s the answer, quite simply: In the spring elections, voter turnout is low. This makes it easier for special interest groups to influence the election outcomes. These special interest groups are not your friends (unless you are a member of one of the special groups).

Voter turnout is low in spring elections. Really low. I’ve gathered statistics for elections in Sedgwick County, and these numbers show that voter turnout in spring elections is much lower than in fall elections. (For these statistics I count the August primary as part of the fall election cycle.) Since 2000, turnout for fall elections, both primary and general, has been 44 percent. Over the same period, spring elections turnout has been 18 percent.

Remarkably, a special Wichita citywide election in February 2012 with just one question on the ballot had voter turnout of 13.7 percent. One year earlier, in April 2011, the spring general election had four of six city council districts contested and a citywide mayoral election. Turnout was 12.8 percent. That’s less than the turnout for a single-question election on year later.

The problem of low voter participation in off-cycle elections is not limited to Sedgwick County or Kansas. In her paper “Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups,” Sarah F. Anzia writes “A well developed literature has shown that the timing of elections matters a great deal for voter turnout. … When cities and school districts hold elections at times other than state and national elections, voter turnout is far lower than when those elections are held at the same time as presidential or gubernatorial elections.”

In the same paper, Anzia explains that when voter participation is low, it opens the door for special interest groups to dominate the election: “When an election is separated from other elections that attract higher turnout, many eligible voters abstain, but interest group members that have a large stake in the election outcome turn out at high rates regardless of the increase in the cost of voting. Moreover, interest groups’ efforts to strategically mobilize supportive voters have a greater impact on election outcomes when overall turnout is low. Consequently, the electoral influence of interest groups is greater in off-cycle elections than in on-cycle elections. As a result, the policy made by officials elected in off-cycle elections should be more favorable to dominant interest groups than policy made by officials elected in on-cycle elections.” (Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups, Sarah F. Anzia, Stanford University, Journal of Politics, April 2011, Vol. 73 Issue 2, p 412-427, version online here.)

Moving the spring elections so they are held in conjunction with the fall state and national elections will help reduce the electoral power and influence of special interest groups.

An example of special interests influencing elections

In January 2013 candidates for Wichita City Council filed campaign finance reports covering calendar year 2012. That year was the ramp-up period for elections that were held in February and March 2013. Two filings in particular illustrate the need for campaign finance and election reform in Wichita and Kansas.

Two incumbents, both who had indicated their intent to run in the spring 2013 elections, received campaign contributions in 2012 from only two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren.

The incumbent candidates receiving these contributions are Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita).

Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents during an entire year. Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. Those associated with Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

You may be wondering: Do these two groups have an extraordinarily keen interest in Wichita city government that’s not shared by anyone else?

Yes they do, and it’s not benevolent. Both have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin. Both groups are symptomatic of the problem of special interests influencing low-turnout elections. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita for details.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s city tourism fee, Special taxes for special people

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita City Council will hold a meeting regarding an industry that wants to tax itself, but really is taxing its customers. Also, the city may be skirting the law in holding the meeting. Then: The Kansas Legislature is considering special tax treatment for a certain class of business firms. What is the harm in doing this? Episode 35, broadcast March 16, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita council meeting may proceed without quorum

Wichita City Council chambers

Wichita City Council chambers

Tomorrow’s meeting of the Wichita City Council may proceed without a quorum. Or not.

Sec. 2.04.270 of the Wichita city code defines a quorum as “a majority of the members-elect of the council who shall be authorized to transact ordinary and usual city business at any council meeting.” That means four members. But the code doesn’t say anything about whether those members must be present in the council chambers, or may they participate remotely by telephone or other method.

Generally, assembling a quorum by including remote members is not legal. It’s not allowed in the Kansas Legislature, and also not in the United States Congress. (If you’ve seen season 2 of “House of Cards” there is a dramatic episode based on this principle.)

So will Tuesday’s meeting of the council be legitimate, in the sense of having a quorum present?

Maybe not. The city may realize there’s a problem, as the agenda packet recommends the council take this action: “Open the public hearing for public comment on the creation of a TBID, receive public comment, close the public hearing, and direct staff to return with an ordinance if appropriate.”

Generally, a meeting like this would have the recommendation to close the public hearing and pass the ordinance. So the city may contend that tomorrow’s meeting is only for the purpose of conducting a statutorily-required public hearing. Any actual lawmaking with ordinance-passing will be done later. Whether this makes the meeting legal, I don’t know.

In Wichita, West Bank apartments seem to violate ordinance

city-council-chambers-sign-mediumLast year the Wichita City Council selected a development team to build apartments on the West Bank of the Arkansas River, between Douglas Avenue and Second Street. But city leaders may have overlooked a Wichita City Charter Ordinance that sets aside this land to be “open space, committed to use for the purpose of public recreation and enjoyment.”

Click for larger version.

Click for larger version.

The building of apartments on this land would seem to be contrary to the language of this ordinance.

Section 10, paragraph (b) of Charter Ordinance No. 144 defines two tracts of land and specifies restrictions on their future use. The proposed apartment development, as can be seen in the nearby illustration, lies in the second tract. The ordinance says this land “shall be hereafter restricted to and maintained as open space.”

Following is the relevant portion of Charter Ordinance No. 144. Emphasis is added.

SECTION 1. Charter Ordinance No. 125 of the City of Wichita is hereby amended to add the following section:

“Section 10. (a) All real property subject to this Section and owned by the City of Wichita or the Board of Park Commissioners shall be subject to the restrictions on use established by this Section. Such restrictions shall apply to such property owned on the date of this ordinance and shall continue to apply to the property whether owned by the City, Board of Park Commissioners, or some other person or entity. These restrictions may hereafter be reduced to a less restrictive use or removed from any or all of the property by action of two-thirds of the members elect of the governing body. Any such action to reduce or remove restrictions shall be by resolution of the governing body.

“(b) This Section shall apply to that property located between McLean Boulevard and the Arkansas River and between Central Avenue and Douglas Avenue. The street boundaries shall continue to apply in the event of the relocation of any street.

That portion of the property North of Second Street shall be hereafter restricted to public use, meaning that such property shall be publicly owned and accessible to the public.

That portion of the property South of Second Street shall be hereafter restricted to and maintained as open space, committed to use for the purpose of public recreation and enjoyment.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s missing water, beyond politics and special interests

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The people of Wichita have told officials that water is an important issue. What has the city done in this regard? Then, Wichita Mayor Brewer Carl says it’s time to put politics and special interests aside. Is our political leadership capable of this? Episode 34, broadcast March 9, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)

Wichita seeks to add more tax to hotel bills

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita City Hall.

The city of Wichita wants hotel guests to make a “marketing investment” in Wichita by paying a “City Tourism Fee.”

This Tuesday the Wichita City Council will hold a public hearing regarding the formation of a Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID).

Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau

The main characteristic of the proposed TBID is that it will add 2.75 percent tax to most hotel rooms sold in the City of Wichita. The funds would go to Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau to be used to enhance that agency’s marketing efforts. The tax is estimated to raise $2.5 million per year.

What is the motivation of the city’s hotel operators to assent to this added tax on their product? City documents state: “Go Wichita estimates that the new marketing investment could result in a 6% rise in hotel occupancy and a growth of $12 million in hotel revenue.”

What the city calls a “marketing investment” will appear on hotel bills as the “City Tourism Fee,” according to city documents.

How to succeed in business by having others pay for your advertising

When most business firms want to increase their business through advertising, they pay for it themselves. They don’t tack on an additional “advertising fee” to customer’s bills.

But not so with Wichita hotels. Unlike most businesses, Wichita hotels propose to have someone else pay for their advertising.

On top of that, the city and the hotels don’t have the integrity to label the added tax to let customers know its true purpose. Instead, the tax will appear on customer bills as a “City Tourism Fee.” If hotel customers are angry at the fee, well, who is to blame? The hotel, which is merely collecting what city code says it must? Visitors to Wichita likely won’t know the real reason for the tax, which is to shift expenses to someone else through the mechanism of government.

Clever. I wonder if other industries will try something like this? Also: Will the Wichita hotels that currently engage in advertising reduce their spending on advertising, now that a government agency is in charge and taxpayers are footing the bill?

Who pays this tax

City leaders argue that taxes like hotel taxes are largely paid for by people from out of town. Whether that is a wise strategy is debatable. People and business firms notice these taxes. Wichita hotel owner Jim Korroch is an advocate of the new Wichita tax. But he told the Wichita Eagle recently “You know, I used to like to take my girls shopping at the Legends in Kansas City. I thought that was a great deal with the outlet malls, but for the first time I’ve looked at my receipts, and it isn’t. They charge almost 20 percent at the Legends with that district.” So he noticed — eventually — the high taxes charged.

Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)

Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)

If the tourism fee is implemented, some hotels in Wichita that are located in community improvement districts (including one Korroch owns) will have taxes totaling 17.9 percent added to customer bills.

Here’s something else regarding the myth of shifting hotel taxes to people from out of town. Are there are any Wichita business firms that have employees who live in other cities, and those employees travel to Wichita on business and stay in hotels? Often these hotel bills are paid by the employee and then reimbursed by the Wichita company they work for. So as far as a hotel knows, and as far as any marketing analysis might show, someone from Fresno spends a few days in a Wichita hotel. This person might work for Cargill Beef’s Fresno facility and have traveled to Wichita to visit the headquarters of Cargill Meat Solutions. In the end, the hotel bill and taxes are paid by Cargill Meat Solutions, a Wichita company.

Do any Wichita business firms employ consultants who travel to Wichita and stay in hotels, and those hotels bills are part of the consultants’ billable expense? In the end, who pays those taxes? A Wichita business firm does.

So at the public hearing, I hope someone asks the question: How often are these taxes actually paid by Wichita companies? Does the city know the answer to this?

Further: Isn’t it a sham to call this tax a “City Tourism Fee” when hometown companies are paying hotel bills for their employees and consultants to come to Wichita for business?

More secret spending

It is the position of Go Wichita that the agency doesn’t have to conform to the Kansas Open Records Act. The City of Wichita backs this interpretation of the law. Thus, we will have more taxpayer funds spent in secret.

The bureaucrats profit

Writing in Public Choice — A Primer Eamonn Butler explains the motivations of bureaucrats:

In terms of what bureaucrats actually do pursue, Niskanen suggested that budget maximisation provided a fair measure. It is an approximation to the objective of profit in the market context. And it provides a simple proxy for all the other things that go with a large and growing budget — such as job security, promotion prospects, salary increases and so on.

In their pursuit of these benefits, bureaucrats are just as much players in the political process as any other interest group — and they have no free-rider problem because their group is so well defined that they can easily keep the benefits of their lobbying to themselves. …

Bureaucrats can also rely on the political support of the interest groups that depend on the grants and programmes that they administer, and which would almost certainly like to see those budgets increased; and they can rely on the support of the commercial businesses that supply goods and services to the programmes that the agencies administer.

We see these characteristics revealing themselves: A government agency seeking to expand its budget and power, at the expense of taxpayers.

wichita-taxi regulations

Regulation failure leads to tragedy in Wichita

wichita-taxi regulations

When the Wichita City Council passed new taxicab regulations in 2012, the focus was on dirty cabs and slovenly drivers who were not acting as goodwill ambassadors for the city. Mayor Carl Brewer said he was “tired” of hearing complaints about drivers.

So the council passed new regulations regarding taxicabs, including the requirement that drivers attend customer service training provided by Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. Other regulations determine taxicab office staffing levels and level of supervision.

Bryon Scott Spohn, a taxi driver accused of raping a passenger.

But something very important slipped through the cracks. The Wichita Eagle has reported the city didn’t competently enforce regulations designed to protect passenger safety:

A Wichita taxicab driver now in prison for raping a passenger last year shouldn’t have been allowed to operate a taxi in the first place.

That’s because at the time Bryon Scott Spohn applied for a taxi driver’s license in late 2012, he was on a state sex offender registry for possession of child pornography. A city ordinance that went into effect in July 2012 says a taxi driver’s license shall not be issued to anyone who “is now or has ever been registered as a sexual offender with any state, county or local government.”

Spohn shouldn’t have received a taxi license but did because the new change banning registered sex offenders wasn’t communicated to staff members doing background checks on taxi driver applicants, city officials told The Eagle on Friday. The city has fixed the problem that led to the oversight in Spohn’s case, they said. Taxi driver in prison for raping passenger was on sex offender registry, March 3, 2014

The regulations regarding customer service training were implemented. But the really important regulations? Lack of oversight, says the city.

I wonder: Who is regulating the regulators?

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Government planning, taxes, and carbon

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The document holds some facts that ought to make Wichitans think, and think hard. Then: What is the purpose of high tax rates on high income earners? Finally: Advances in producing oil and natural gas make for a more competitive and carbon-efficient economy. Episode 33, broadcast March 2, 2014. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Water faucet

Where’s Wichita’s water?

Water faucet

As part of the Community Investments Plan process, citizens have told the City of Wichita they’re concerned about future water supply.

Through both the mailed survey and direct feedback obtained in citizen forums, creating a reliable source of water was the top priority, according to city documents released this week.

Those who have been paying attention might be surprised that there is a water crisis, and that citizens are concerned. That’s because when Bob Knight was mayor, he was told that Wichita had sufficient water for the next 50 years. That was about ten years ago.

More recently, the city prepared a document last March titled Wichita Area Future Water Supply: A Model Program for Other Municipalities. It touts an expensive investment that is part of a “plan to ensure that Wichita has the water it needs through the year 2050 and beyond.”

The project boasted of is the City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program or ASR. Its cost, so far for Phases I and II, is $247 million. Two more phases are contemplated.

City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program schematic diagram.

City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program schematic diagram.

Reading the document, published just last spring, one might be led to believe that everything is fine, water-wise: “In 1993 the Wichita City Council adopted an Integrated Local Water Supply Plan that identified cost effective water resources that would be adequate to meet Wichita’s water supply needs through the year 2050.”

But this month the Wichita Eagle reported “Wichita’s $240 million aquifer storage and recovery program — promoted to taxpayers in the early 1990s as a way to supply the city with water for 50 years — could soon be relegated to serving as a bit player in the city’s long-term water future.”

Later in the same article, the newspaper reported “The ASR project has been plagued by problems, city officials said, including equipment failures and a significant drought that idled the project because of low water levels in the Little Arkansas River.”

Despite this investment on nearly one-quarter billion dollars, and despite the plan’s boasts, Wichitans have been threatened with huge fines for excessive water usage. The Wichita City Council forced citizens to spend up to $1 million so that other people may install low-water usage appliances, and city decorative fountains were dry for a time in an effort to save water. Fortunately, not all the potential rebates were claimed.

What went wrong? Where’s Wichita’s water?

Last summer there was severe drought for a time, and it was easy to attribute Wichita’s water problems to that lack of rain. But that’s not the message we’re getting now.

It appears that the plans the city made for a future water supply were not adequate, and the spending to implement the plan has been, largely, wasted.

In Wichita, citizens want more transparency in city government

Wichita city hall

In a videographed meeting that is part of a comprehensive planning process, Wichitans openly question the process, repeatedly asking for an end to cronyism and secrecy at city hall.

As part of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Comprehensive Plan, the City of Wichita held a number of focus groups meetings. Their purpose, according to city documents, was to provide “information on the components of the Plan and provide input on a draft survey.”

(Some indication of the reverence given to the plan to city planners may be inferred by the city’s use of capitalization when referring to it.)

The community meetings were structured in a way reminiscent of the Delphi method, described in Wikipedia as “a structured communication technique, originally developed as a systematic, interactive forecasting method which relies on a panel of experts.” Others have a more skeptical view, believing that the Delphi technique leads citizens to believe they have participated in community democratic decision-making when in reality, that is not the goal of the process.

In October Americans for Prosperity-Kansas invited the city to hold a focus group meeting. Video from the meeting is below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Dave Barber, who is Advanced Plans Manager at Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Department, facilitated the meeting. Susan Estes of AFP was the meeting organizer and host. Mike Shatz is the videographer. His description of the meeting is “The City of Wichita is holding a series of meetings to gain input from the public on future spending plans. The meetings are based off a survey the city conducted, which, by all accounts, was full of loaded questions geared towards promoting the programs that city officials want to see. In this meeting, one of the first in the series, citizens openly question the process and repeatedly ask for an end to cronyism and secrecy at city hall.”

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

Wichita planning documents hold sobering numbers

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The planning process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constraining growth

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

Special taxes paid on a residential home.

Special taxes paid on a residential home.

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

Community input

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

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

Wichita flights compared to the nation.

Wichita flights compared to the nation.

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

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

Leadership of city fathers

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

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

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

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

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

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WichitaLiberty.TV February 23, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: There are efforts to have the Kansas Legislature expand the open records law to include the spending records of several taxpayer-funded agencies, but the City of Wichita wants to keep the records secret. Then, did you know the Kansas teachers union has a media response team? Finally, Arthur Brooks makes the moral case for free enterprise. Episode 32, broadcast February 23, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

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This week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda. I’ve excerpted the document here, and following are some of the most problematic items.

Agenda: Existing economic development tools are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our community.

First. The premise of this item is incorrect. We don’t have growth and prosperity in Wichita. Compared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. See For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure for details.

Second: In general, these incentives don’t work to increase prosperity. Click here for a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.

Third: Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development. The city’s document lists the tools the city wants the legislature to protect:

  • GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions
  • Industrial Revenue Bond tax abatements (IRBX)
  • Economic Development Exemptions (EDX)
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
  • Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds
  • Community Improvement Districts (CID)
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) tax rebates
  • Special Assessment financing for neighborhood infrastructure projects, facade improvements and abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
  • State Historic Preservation Tax Credits (HPTC)
  • State administration of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP) tax credits
  • Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT) grants
  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program
  • Economic Revitalization and Reinvestment Act bonding for major aviation and wind energy projects
  • Kansas Industrial Training (KIT) and Kansas Industrial Retraining (KIR) grants
  • Network Kansas tax credit funding
  • State support for Innovation Commercialization Centers in Commerce Department budget

That’s quite a list of incentive programs. Some of these are so valuable that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Agenda: GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions

This may refer to the city wanting to prevent these agencies from having to fulfill records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act. (If so, I wonder why the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation was left off.) City leaders say Wichita has an open and transparent government. But Kansas has a weak records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. This is an insult to citizens who are not able to access how their taxes are spent. For more on this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any legislative attempts to restrict the taxing and spending authority of local governments.

As Wichita city leaders prepare to ask for a higher sales tax rate in Wichita, we can hope that the legislature will save us from ourselves. At best, we can hope that the legislature requires that all tax rate increases be put to popular vote.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any restrictions on the use of state and/or local public monies to provide information to our citizens and to advocate on their behalf.

This is the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. As you can see in this document, many of the things that Wichita city leaders believe people want, or believe that will be good for their constituents, are actually harmful. Additionally, many of the methods the city uses to engage citizens to determine their needs are faulty. See In Wichita, there’s no option for dissent for an example. Also, see Wichita survey questions based on false premises.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the current framework for local elections, continuing the current February/April schedule of local primary and general elections, as well as the local option allowing non-partisan elections.

The present system of non-partisan elections held in the spring results in low voter turnout that lets special interest groups exercise greater influence than would be likely in fall elections. See my legislative testimony in Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the development of appropriate state and local incentives to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.

Translation: The city knows better than you how to provide for your entertainment and cultural edification, and will continue to tax you for your own benefit.

Agenda: Public support and awareness of the possibility of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton has grown over the past two years.

I’m not sure where the claim of public support and awareness growing comes from, but people are definitely not informed about the economics of passenger rail. In 2010, when the state rolled out several plans for this passenger rail service link, I reported as follows:

Expansion of rail service in Kansas is controversial, at least to some people, in that any form of rail service requires taxpayer involvement to pay for the service. First, taxpayer funding is required to pay for the start-up costs for the service. There are four alternatives being presented for rail service expansion in Kansas, and the start-up costs range from $156 million up to $479 million.

After this, taxpayer subsidies will be required every year to pay for the ongoing operational costs of providing passenger rail service. The four alternatives would require an annual operating subsidy ranging from $2.1 million up to $6.1 million. Taking the operating subsidy and dividing by the estimated number of passengers for each alternative, the per-passenger subsidy ranges from $35 up to $97 for every passenger who uses the service.

It would be one thing if tickets sales and other revenue sources such as sale of food and beverage paid for most of the cost of providing passenger rail service, and taxpayers were being asked to provide a little boost to get the service started and keep it running until it can sustain itself. But that’s not the case. Taxpayers are being asked to fully fund the start-up costs. Then, they’re expected to pay the majority of ongoing expenses, apparently forever.

Also, in Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas I reported on the Heartland Flyer route specifically. This is from 2010, but I doubt much has changed since then.

For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Asking the taxpayers of Wichita to pay subsidies each time someone boards an Amtrak train: This doesn’t sound like economic development, much less a program that people living in a free society should be forced to fund.

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Economic development in Wichita, steps one and two

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Critics of the economic development policies in use by the City of Wichita are often portrayed as not being able to see and appreciate the good things these policies are producing, even though they are unfolding right before our very eyes. The difference is that some look beyond the immediate — what is seen — and ask “And then what will happen?” — looking for the unseen.

Thomas Sowell explains the problem in a passage from the first chapter of Applied economics: thinking beyond stage one:

When we are talking about applied economic policies, we are no longer talking about pure economic principles, but about the interactions of politics and economics. The principles of economics remain the same, but the likelihood of those principles being applied unchanged is considerably reduced, because politics has its own principles and imperatives. It is not just that politicians’ top priority is getting elected and re-elected, or that their time horizon seldom extends beyond the next election. The general public as well behaves differently when making political decisions rather than economic decisions. Virtually no one puts as much time and close attention into deciding whether to vote for one candidate rather than another as is usually put into deciding whether to buy one house rather than another — or perhaps even one car rather than another.

The voter’s political decisions involve having a minute influence on policies which affect many other people, while economic decision-making is about having a major effect on one’s own personal well-being. It should not be surprising that the quantity and quality of thinking going into these very different kinds of decisions differ correspondingly. One of the ways in which these decisions differ is in not thinking through political decisions beyond the immediate consequences. When most voters do not think beyond stage one, many elected officials have no incentive to weigh what the consequences will be in later stages — and considerable incentives to avoid getting beyond what their constituents think and understand, for fear that rival politicians can drive a wedge between them and their constituents by catering to public misconceptions.

The economic decisions made by governing bodies like the Wichita City Council have a large impact on the lives of Wichitans. But as Sowell explains, these decisions are made by politicians for political reasons.

Sowell goes on to explain the danger of stopping the thinking process at stage one:

When I was an undergraduate studying economics under Professor Arthur Smithies of Harvard, he asked me in class one day what policy I favored on a particular issue of the times. Since I had strong feelings on that issue, I proceeded to answer him with enthusiasm, explaining what beneficial consequences I expected from the policy I advocated.

“And then what will happen?” he asked.

The question caught me off guard. However, as I thought about it, it became clear that the situation I described would lead to other economic consequences, which I then began to consider and to spell out.

“And what will happen after that?” Professor Smithies asked.

As I analyzed how the further economic reactions to the policy would unfold, I began to realize that these reactions would lead to consequences much less desirable than those at the first stage, and I began to waver somewhat.

“And then what will happen?” Smithies persisted.

By now I was beginning to see that the economic reverberations of the policy I advocated were likely to be pretty disastrous — and, in fact, much worse than the initial situation that it was designed to improve.

Simple as this little exercise may sound, it goes further than most economic discussions about policies on a wide range of issues. Most thinking stops at stage one.

We see stage one thinking all the time when looking at government. In Wichita, for example, a favorite question of city council members seeking to justify their support for government intervention such as a tax increment financing (TIF) district or some other form of subsidy is “How much more tax does the building pay now?” Or perhaps “How many jobs will (or did) the project create?”

These questions, and the answers to them, are examples of stage one thinking. The answers are easily obtained and cited as evidence of the success of the government program.

But driving by a store or hotel in a TIF district and noticing a building or people working at jobs does not tell the entire story. Using the existence of a building, or the payment of taxes, or jobs created, is stage one thinking, and no more than that.

Fortunately, there are people who have thought beyond stage one, and some concerning local economic development and TIF districts. And what they’ve found should spur politicians and bureaucrats to find ways to move beyond stage one in their thinking.

An example are economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman, who have studied tax increment financing extensively. Their article Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development states in its conclusion:

TIF districts grow much faster than other areas in their host municipalities. TIF boosters or naive analysts might point to this as evidence of the success of tax increment financing, but they would be wrong. Observing high growth in an area targeted for development is unremarkable.

So TIFs are good for the favored development that receives the subsidy — not a surprising finding. What about the rest of the city? Continuing from the same study:

If the use of tax increment financing stimulates economic development, there should be a positive relationship between TIF adoption and overall growth in municipalities. This did not occur. If, on the other hand, TIF merely moves capital around within a municipality, there should be no relationship between TIF adoption and growth. What we find, however, is a negative relationship. Municipalities that use TIF do worse.

We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF.

In a different paper (The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development), the same economists wrote “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not. … These findings suggest that TIF trades off higher growth in the TIF district for lower growth elsewhere. This hypothesis is bolstered by other empirical findings.”

Here we have an example of thinking beyond stage one. The results are opposite of what one-stage thinking produces.

Some city council members are concerned about creating jobs, and are swayed by the promises of developers that their establishments will employ a certain number of workers. Again, this thinking stops at stage one. But others have looked farther, as has Paul F. Byrne of Washburn University. The title of his recent report is Does Tax Increment Financing Deliver on Its Promise of Jobs? The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Municipal Employment Growth, and in its abstract we find this conclusion regarding the impact of TIF on jobs:

Increasingly, municipal leaders justify their use of tax increment financing (TIF) by touting its role in improving municipal employment. However, empirical studies on TIF have primarily examined TIF’s impact on property values, ignoring the claim that serves as the primary justification for its use. This article addresses the claim by examining the impact of TIF adoption on municipal employment growth in Illinois, looking for both general impact and impact specific to the type of development supported. Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment. These results are consistent with industrial TIF districts capturing employment that would have otherwise occurred outside of the adopting municipality and retail TIF districts shifting employment within the municipality to more labor-efficient retailers within the TIF district.

While this research might be used to support a TIF district for industrial development, TIF in Wichita is primarily used for retail development. And, when thinking beyond stage one, the effect on employment — considering the entire city — is negative.

It’s hard to think beyond stage one. It requires considering not only the seen, but also the unseen, as Frederic Bastiat taught us in his famous parable of the broken window. But over and over we see how politicians at all levels of government stop thinking at stage one. This is one of the many reasons why we need to return as much decision-making as possible to the private sector, and drastically limit the powers of politicians and governments.

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Viewing the seen and unseen

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The lesson of the book “Economics in One Lesson” by Henry Hazlitt is this: “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

(The Ludwig von Mises Institute has published an edition of this book which is available at no cost at its website; click here. Amanda BillyRock has illustrated most of the chapters in video. Click here for the playlist.)

Looking beyond what we see at first glance, that’s important. And considering everyone, not just some small group, is important too. You may be familiar with the term “special interest group.” A local example might be the Wichita Area Builders Association, which represents homebuilders. The purpose of groups like this — and I’m sorry to have to single out this group — is to represent their members, and them alone. So last year the Builders Association was able to persuade the Wichita City Council to pass a program that rebates Wichita property taxes on new homes for a few years. This makes it easier to sell these new homes. Homes which are built, of course, by members of the Wichita Area Builders Association.

Did the city council consider the long term effects of this policy, such as the effect on tax revenue in future years? Did the council consider the “Cash for Clunkers” effect, in which incentive programs induce people to buy now, only to depress sales in later years after the program ends? The answer is either a) No, the council did not consider these effects, or b) The council decided to ignore these effects.

Then, what about the effect on other groups besides the builders? Did the council consider that by offering savings when buying these select new homes, it likely reduced the appeal and value of all other homes across the city? Did the council consider that these new homes will require services like police and fire protection, but since they don’t contribute property tax, other taxpayers have to pay to provide these services?

And what about setting another precedent, that when business is not doing well, a special interest group appeals to government for special favors?

This is an example of the city council considering only the immediate effects of a policy, and also the effects on only a single group — the self-interested homebuilders. Things like this happen all the time.

Remember how Hazllitt said these groups will argue “plausibly and persistently?” That happened. As an example, Wichita State University economists prepared an analysis showing that this rebate program benefited the city. Did that analysis consider the long-term effects or only the immediate effects of the policy? Did that analysis consider the effects on all groups? I’m afraid that if we could look under the hood of these models, we’d find that they suffer from the problems Hazlitt warns about.

And the president of the Builders Association argued persuasively before the council. That’s an example of when Hazlitt wrote about a special interest group: “It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case.”

Hazlitt told us what we need to do in these cases, writing: “In these cases the answer consists in showing that the proposed policy would also have longer and less desirable effects, or that it could benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups.”

broken-window-glassSpecial interest groups expend lot of effort to get government to look at the seen and skip the unseen. That’s a reference to the famous parable of the broken window from chapter two of “Economics in One Lesson.” Ahe child who threw a rock through the window of the bakery. The crowd that gathered around the broken window: Someone suggested that the damage is actually a good thing, because the windowmaker now has work to do and earns money. And the windowmaker in turn will spend his new income somewhere else, and so forth. Economic development professionals who make arguments for subsidies to business call this the multiplier effect. It creates what they call indirect impacts.

A few years ago in an effort to drum up taxpayer subsidies for arts, a national organization — a special interest group — made this argument:

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A theater company purchases a gallon of paint from the local hardware store for $20, generating the direct economic impact of the expenditure. The hardware store then uses a portion of the aforementioned $20 to pay the sales clerk’s salary; the sales clerk respends some of the money for groceries; the grocery store uses some of the money to pay its cashier; the cashier then spends some for the utility bill; and so on. The subsequent rounds of spending are the indirect economic impacts.

Thus, the initial expenditure by the theater company was followed by four additional rounds of spending (by the hardware store, sales clerk, grocery store, and the cashier). The effect of the theater company’s initial expenditure is the direct economic impact. The subsequent rounds of spending are all of the indirect impacts. The total impact is the sum of the direct and indirect impacts.

That is the same argument made to excuse the destruction of the broken window in the bakery. Doesn’t this sound plausible? But Hazlitt, echoing Bastiat before him, notes this: The baker was going to buy a suit of clothes, and buying that suit would set off its own chain of economic activity.

But now he must spend that money on fixing the broken window. The new window is what is seen. The unbought suit of clothes is more difficult to see. It is the unseen.

If the window was not broken, the baker has a functional window and a new suit of clothes. After the window is broken, however, all the baker has is a replacement window. No new suit of clothes is purchased.

As Hazlitt summarized: “The glazier’s gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor’s loss of business. No new ‘employment’ has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. They will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.”

In the case I cited above, it’s easy to see the benefit granted to the homebuilders. But the economic activity that does not take place because of the diversion of resources to the homebuilders? Where is that? It is unseen.

When the theater company spends $20 of taxpayer-provided money to buy paint: Where did that $20 come from? Isn’t it possible that a homeowner might have bought the same gallon of paint, but now is not able to because he must pay taxes to support the theater company? It’s easy to see the theater production with its taxpayer-funded painted set. It’s not easy to see the house that sits unpainted for a year to pay for the theater company’s paint. That is the seen and unseen.

Wichita Chamber presentation. Click for larger version.

Wichita Chamber of Commerce: Why these panelists?

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Last week the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce conducted a panel discussion about economic development and job creation in Wichita. The experts selected as panelists tells us a lot about why the Wichita economy has suffered.

In case anyone is not aware of the performance of the Wichita-area economy, the Wichita Eagle reported “Exhibit No. 1 in their presentation was a Chamber of Commerce chart showing that, five years after the recession ended, Wichita had regained few, if any, jobs from the depths of the economic downturn — while other cities across the region have rebounded strongly.” (Wichita must step up efforts to attract jobs, civic leaders say, Thursday, February 6, 2014)

Wichita Chamber presentation. Click for larger version.

Wichita Chamber presentation. Click for larger version.

On the same event, the Wichita Business Journal reported “But the luncheon opened with a somber look at Wichita’s ranking among peer cities in the Midwest region. The chart shows Wichita area employment growth since January 2005 well below the other cities, barely above its 2005 employment.” (Chamber luncheon speakers: Wichita needs to compete better for jobs)

The news about the poor performance of Wichita in this regard is no surprise to readers of this site, although I’m not sure that those in charge, such as Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, believe the numbers. Brewer, along with Dave Unruh and Chamber president Wayne Chambers were the three panelists on Wichita economic development.

What is surprising is that Brewer and Unruh were selected as experts in this field, given the city’s poor performance and the tenure of these two leaders. Brewer has been mayor for nearly seven years, and has served on the city council 2001. Unruh has been in office since 2003, and has been chair of the commission several times, as he is currently.

Brewer — after 13 years holding city office — had this to say, according to the Eagle: “Brewer said the Wichita City Council will look at the results of a recent community engagement survey to see how high a priority to place on economic development.”

Imagine that. Our city’s longtime leader, as he enters the last year of his mayorality: Now he’s going to get serious about economic development, and will do so by relying on a citizen survey.

To use interactive visualizations that explore the Wichita economy, see Wichita’s growth in gross domestic product and For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure.

Wichita considers policy to rein in council’s bad behavior

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When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.
– P.J. O’Rourke

Your principle has placed these words above the entrance of the legislative chamber: “whosoever acquires any influence here can obtain his share of legal plunder.” And what has been the result? All classes have flung themselves upon the doors of the chamber crying:
“A share of the plunder for me, for me!”
– Frederic Bastiat

Update: The council deferred this item to a later date.

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers a policy designed to squelch the council’s ability to issue no-bid contracts for city projects. This policy is necessary to counter the past bad behavior of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and several council members, as well as their inability to police themselves regarding matters of ethical behavior by government officials.

The proposed policy is problematic. For some projects the developer will have to pay for “a third party expert to verify construction estimates and contracts with respect to reasonable market costs and appropriate allocation of costs between public and private funding.”

Why are measures like this necessary? The impetus for this policy is the no-bid contract awarded to Key Construction for the construction of the garage near the Ambassador Hotel, originally called Douglas Place, now known as Block One.

A letter of intent passed by the council on August 9, 2011 gives the cost of the garage: “Douglas Place LLC will administer the construction of the garage and urban park on behalf of the City and the City will pay the cost of designing and constructing the same at a cost not-to-exceed $6,800,000.” Of that, $770,000 was for the urban park, leaving about $6 million cost for the garage. The motion to approve the letter of intent passed with all council members except Michael O’Donnell voting in favor.

By the time the item appeared for consideration at the September 13, 2011 city council meeting, city documents gave the cost of the constructing the garage structure at an even $6 million. The motion to spend that amount on the garage passed with all members except O’Donnell voting in favor, except Brewer was absent and did not vote.

Then the city manager decided that the project should be put to competitive bid. Key Construction won that competition with a bid of about $4.7 million. Same garage, same company, but $1.3 million saved.

The Wichita Eagle tells the story like this: “The Ambassador garage at Douglas Place, awarded at $4.73 million to Key Construction — a partner in the hotel project and the project’s contractor — came in about 20 percent under estimates provided the City Council, on the heels of some city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled over budget.” (“Wichita City Council to consider bidding policy extension”, Wichita Eagle, Sunday, February 2, 2014)

Reading the Eagle story, citizens might conclude that due to excellent management by Key Construction, the garage was built at a 20 percent savings under “estimates.”

But that’s not at all what happened. It’s not even close to what really happened.

Without the intervention of O’Donnell, the city manager, and — according to press reports — city council member Pete Meitzner, the garage would have been built for $6 million. That was the intent of a majority of the council. The $6 million price tag for the no-bid contract was in the ordinance that passed, and in the letter of intent that passed a month before. There were no “estimates” as the Eagle reported. There was only the expressed desire of the council to spend $6 million.

So there were no “estimates” that Key Construction bested. But there was an objectionable no-bid contract that the council agreed to. Fortunately for Wichita, a few people objected and overrode the council’s bad decision.

We’re left to wonder why the Eagle retold the story with Key Construction in the role of hero. That’s about 180 degrees away from the role this company plays.

Key Construction is intimately involved in city politics. Its principals and executives contribute heavily to mayoral and city council election campaigns. Company president David Wells is a personal friend of the mayor.

Did Key’s political involvement and campaign contributions play a role in the council awarding the company a no-bid garage contract? Key Construction executives and their spouses are among a small group who routinely make maximum campaign contributions to candidates. These candidates are both liberal and conservative, which rebuts the presumption that these contributions are made for ideological reasons, that is, agreeing with the political positions of candidates. Instead, Key Construction and a few companies are political entrepreneurs. They seek to please politicians and bureaucrats, and by doing so, receive no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded benefits. This form of cronyism is harmful to Wichita taxpayers, as shown by the Ambassador Hotel garage.

The harm of pay-to-play

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

We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. The Ambassador Hotel garage contract is just one example. Citizens are working on this initiative on several fronts. Some find the actions of these candidates so distasteful and offensive that they are willing to take to the streets to gather thousands of signatures to force the Wichita City Council to act in a proper manner.

That huge effort shouldn’t be necessary. Why? The politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t give to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a “pay-to-play” law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

There is a law, sort of

Citizens who believe that city council members ought not to vote on matters involving their friends and business associates, we already have such a law. Sort of. Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008 (full section below):

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

Mayor Carl Brewer voted for this law, by the way. When asked about a specific application of this city law, the Wichita city attorney supplied this interpretation:

Related to the Mayor’s participation in the item, yes, City Code advises Council members to “refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors. … ” but the Code does not provide definitions or limits to these broad categories of constituents. Further, the City Code clearly requires Council members to “vote on all matters coming before the City Council except in those particular cases of conflict of interest. …” The city Code does not define what constitutes a conflict but the Council has historically applied the State law for that definition.

Applying that State law specific to local municipalities, the Mayor does not have any substantial interest in Douglas Place LLC, and therefore no conflict. Under the State ethics law, there was no requirement that the Mayor recuse himself from voting on the Ambassador Project.

So we have statutory language that reads “shall refrain,” but the city attorney interprets that to mean “advises.”

We also have statutory language that reads “business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” But the city attorney feels that these terms are not defined, and therefore the mayor and city council members need not be concerned about compliance with this law. We’re left to wonder whether this law has any meaning at all.

Be advised: If you ask the mayor to adhere to this law, he may threaten to sue you.

If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Giving that impression, through, would be false — and unethical.

Here’s the Wichita city code:

Sec. 2.04.050. — Code of ethics for council members.

Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of such elected officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of such transactions. In addition to the matters of pecuniary interest, council members shall refrain from making use of special knowledge or information before it is made available to the general public; shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors; shall refrain from repeated and continued violation of city council rules; shall refrain from appointing immediate family members, business associates, clients or employees to municipal boards and commissions; shall refrain from influencing the employment of municipal employees; shall refrain from requesting the fixing of traffic tickets and all other municipal code citations; shall refrain from seeking the employment of immediate family members in any municipal operation; shall refrain from using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates; and shall comply with all lawful actions, directives and orders of duly constituted municipal officials as such may be issued in the normal and lawful discharge of the duties of these municipal officials.

Council members shall conduct themselves so as to bring credit upon the city as a whole and so as to set an example of good ethical conduct for all citizens of the community. Council members shall bear in mind at all times their responsibility to the entire electorate, and shall refrain from actions benefiting special groups at the expense of the city as a whole and shall do everything in their power to ensure equal and impartial law enforcement throughout the city at large without respect to race, creed, color or the economic or the social position of individual citizens.

In Wichita, why do some pay taxes, and others don’t?

Wichita City Hall

A request by a luxury development in downtown Wichita raises issues, for example, why do we have to pay taxes?

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers yet another layer of business welfare for The Lux, a luxury real estate development in downtown Wichita. This project, despite having already received millions in assistance from taxpayers, is not economically viable, according to city documents.

Because the transaction contemplated tomorrow is shrouded in the mystery of Internal Revenue Bonds (IRBs), we can expect that the important aspects of this transaction will be under-reported. We’re likely to see headlines that The Lux is receiving $14,450,000 in IRBs. City council members may clumsily explain to citizens that the city is not lending this money, and that taxpayers are not on the hook if the bonds are not repaid. The city may tell us that a local bank will buy the bonds and that the Lux will issue a mortgage to protect the bank’s interest, as though that was a matter of public concern rather than a private business dealing.

The city’s documents, for all their words and effort spent in preparation, don’t state the amount of sales tax relief this project will receive. But the amount of the bonds contemplated is $14,450,000, so an upper estimate of the amount of sales tax forgone is that amount times the city’s sales tax rate, or $1,033,175.

The item on tomorrow’s agenda features another example of the city adapting to meet the needs of its cronies. The letter of intent originally called for a certain level of investment, but now that has been reduced:

The Letter of Intent approved by the City Council stated that “LUX Building, LLC has represented that it will make a total capital investment in the project of at least $24,000,000.” The projection was intended to be an estimate of the not-to-exceed project costs at that time and not a requirement of minimum capital investment. Since the actual total cost of the project will be closer to $20,000,000 the developer is requesting that the minimum investment requirement be waived.

It’s a small point, but big numbers like $24,000,000 are a “wow” factor to city council members and are cited and praised as evidence of the goodness of the city’s economic development incentives. But now: never mind.

Why do we tax?

TaxThere are a variety of theories of taxation, such as taxes being “dues” paid, or payment for services the city provides, or as the cost of a civilized society. In any case, we have to wonder why the owners of The Lux are being excused from paying perhaps one million dollars of these dues, or payment for government services it will consume, or it share of the cost of a civilized society.

Tale of two cash registers

Supporters will point to the cost/benefit ratios. These ratios are simply recognition that economic activity is good, and government taxes it. But unless the city, county, and state will each reduce their spending by the amount of sales tax forgiveness given to The Lux, other taxpayers have to pay.

It’s worth noting that the subsidy being granted to The Lux is in the form of sales tax exemption. Kansas taxes food at the same rate as everything else. This means that while the owners of The Lux are enjoying the privilege of saving perhaps one million dollars in sales tax, others — including poor people struggling to provide food for their families — are making up the sales tax that The Lux is not paying.

man-digging-coinsWhen other taxpayers have to bear the cost of incentives for the Lux and its owners, other spending and investment is reduced. While the spending on incentives is concentrated and easy to see — there will be groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies to make sure we don’t miss it — the missing spending and investment is dispersed. That means the missing spending and investment is difficult to see. But it is every bit as real as this project.

In fact, this missing spending and investment is more valuable than government spending on this project. That’s because when people spend and invest on their own, they choose what is most important to them, not what is important to politicians and bureaucrats. This is a special problem in Wichita, where the mayor and city council members have a history of awarding over-priced no-bid contracts to their campaign contributors. (A separate item on tomorrow’s agenda will attempt to address that problem.)

Sometimes these subsidies are justified by the claim that renovating historic buildings like The Lux is more expensive than new construction. If that’s true, we have to recognize that investing in, or living in, a historic building is a lifestyle choice. The people who make these choices should pay themselves, just like we expect others to pay for the characteristics of the housing they choose. For example , building a home with granite kitchen counter tops and marble floors in the bathrooms is more expensive than a plainer home. These premium features are chosen voluntarily by the homeowner, and it is right and just that they alone should pay for them.

We should recognize historic buildings for what they are: a premium feature or amenity whose extra cost should be born solely by those who chose to own them or rent them. There’s no difference between these premium features and choosing to live in a historic building. Those who desire them choose them voluntarily, and should pay their full cost. Forcing everyone to subsidize this choice is wrong. It’s an example of a special interest gone wild. But in Wichita we call this economic development.

The nature of tax credits

The sales tax exemption is not the only form of taxpayer subsidy The Lux will receive. The historic preservation tax credits approved for this the project are worth millions. These credits are equal to grants of cash. They are a cost to government that taxpayers must bear.

hidden-hand-government-spending-title
The confusing nature of tax credits leads citizens to believe that they have no cost to the state or federal government. But tax credits are equivalent to government spending. By mixing spending programs with taxation, some are lead to believe that tax credits are not cash handouts. But not everyone falls for this seductive trap. In an article in Cato Institutes’s Regulation magazine, Edward D. Kleinbard explains:

Specialists term these synthetic government spending programs “tax expenditures.” Tax expenditures are really spending programs, not tax rollbacks, because the missing tax revenues must be financed by more taxes on somebody else. … Tax expenditures dissolve the boundaries between government revenues and government spending. They reduce both the coherence of the tax law and our ability to conceptualize the very size and activities of our government. (The Hidden Hand of Government Spending, Fall 2010)

The use of tax credits to pay for economic development incentives leads many to believe that what government is doing is not a direct subsidy or payment. In order to clear things up, perhaps we should require that government write checks instead of issuing credits.

Indeed, if government issued checks to real estate developers, citizens would look at things differently. They’d wonder why they’re subsidizing the construction of expensive apartments and condos. They’d be angry. Using a semi-mysterious mechanism like tax credits shrouds the true economic transaction taking place.

These expenditures of tax money — being issued as credits rather than appropriations — go through a different process than most expenditures of taxpayer money. Recently some have started to use the word “tax appropriations” to describe tax credits. These expenditures don’t go through the normal legislative process as do most appropriations.

It’s time to recognize these historic preservation tax credits as payments to a special interest group. Unfortunately, as with most special interest groups, the group receiving the payment — tax credits in this case — has an extreme interest in the matter. They benefit greatly. But to the rest of the populace — well, does it really matter to them? John Stossel explains the problem like this:

The Public Choice school of economics calls this the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Individual members of relatively small interest groups stand to gain huge rewards when they lobby for government favors, but each taxpayer will pay only a tiny portion of the cost of any particular program, making opposition pointless.

That’s the situation we face with the historic preservation tax credits. A few real estate developers will enrich themselves at taxpayer expense. Well-to-do renters will get a better deal. To everyone else, it’s just another way that government nickels and dimes us to death.

What’s the matter with Wichita?

We have to wonder why so many projects in downtown Wichita require massive doses of taxpayer subsidy. Here’s what city documents tell us:

The Office of Urban Development has reviewed the economic (gap) analysis of the project and determined a financial need for incentives exists based on the current market. The project lender, Intrust Bank, has advised that the bank cannot increase the loan amount, leaving a gap in funding sources that is filled by the City’s facade program.

When the city is willing to fill in financing gaps, you can be sure that gaps will be created.

Here’s an idea: Instead of handing out economic development incentives on a piecemeal basis, let’s try to fix what prevents projects like The Lux from moving forward on its own. If, in fact, the obstacles are real, and don’t exist only in the imagination of those seeking to finance their projects on the backs of Wichita taxpayers.

WichitaLiberty.TV February 2, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A Kansas college professor claims that college costs are rising only a tad faster than inflation. We’ll take a look at the actual numbers. Then, this week Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered the annual State of the City address. A few things deserve comment. Episode 30, broadcast February 2, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

The state of Wichita, 2014

Wichita city hall

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered the annual State of the City address. He said a few things that deserve discussion.

This week Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered his annual State of the City address. We expect a certain amount of bragging and over-the-top community pride, things like “Wichita is the BEST place to work and raise a family!” That’s good, to a point. Because if we take these boasts seriously, and if they are not based on factual information, then we have a problem. We may believe that everything is fine in Wichita. But if the actual state of the city is otherwise, we may take unwise action that ultimately is harmful.

(While the city took prominent measures to promote the mayor’s speech, so far the text has not been made available on the city’s website. But you may click here to read it.)

Here’s an example, and perhaps the most important. The mayor said “Our community partnerships have helped us overcome the challenges of the great recession — which brought layoffs to many sectors of our economy.” But the problem is that we haven’t overcome the recession.

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If we take a look at job growth in Wichita over the last two decades, we see Wichita performing very poorly. That’s not only on an absolute basis, but relative to our self-chosen peer cities. The relative part is important, because the recession was nation-wide. All cities suffered. Note that there are a few cities over which Wichita ranked higher: Springfield, Illinois, and Wichita Falls, Texas. These cities are relevant because we recently hired people from these cities to lead our economic development efforts.

wichita-chamber-job-growth-2013-12

I’ve shown data like this to the city council. I don’t think they believed me. I can understand their reluctance, as it’s not easy to admit things like this. Few like to admit failure. But that doesn’t excuse a reluctance to face facts. I also believe that some council members think that city hall critics take joy in presenting these figures. At least for me, that’s not true. I realize that these statistics tell a story of human hardship. So for those who don’t believe or trust my research, here’s a chart prepared by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce for a presentation to its leadership committee. It uses a different time frame and a slightly different set of peers for comparison, but the results are the same: Wichita lags behind in terms of job growth.

Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition

Despite this evidence, the mayor thinks we’re doing well, and he is proud of our economic development efforts. In his address, he told the audience this: “For the past five years — the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition has helped generate nearly 10,000 jobs and more than 400 million in capital investment.”

That sounds like a lot of jobs. But we have to temper that number. We know that we don’t update our job statistics to reflect jobs that didn’t last for very long. We also must realize that some of these jobs would have been created without the involvement of our economic development agencies. We also must realize that these economic development efforts have a cost, and that cost is harmful to our economy and job creation.

But even if we give our economic development agencies sole credit for these 10,000 jobs, let’s apply a little arithmetic to provide some context. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that the labor force in the Wichita Metropolitan area is about 302,000 people. that number, by the way, has been declining since 2009. If we take the 10,000 jobs — recognizing that was for five years — that averages to 2,000 jobs per year. That’s in the neighborhood of six percent of the labor force.

Does that represent a significant factor in the Wichita area economy? Remember, that calculation gives government more credit that it deserves. When we combine this with Wichita’s lackluster performance in creating jobs compared to our peers, I really don’t think we should be proud of our government’s economic development efforts.

In his State of the City Address, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer also said we need to “continue to diversify our economy.” But we’re not doing that. Our economic development programs heavily favor the aviation industry, which makes it more difficult for aspiring companies in other diverse industries to start and thrive.

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The mayor told the audience that “We will also continue to support our successful affordable airfares program.” This is the program whereby Wichita and the state of Kansas pay a discount airline to provide service in Wichita. It was AirTran, but is now Southwest. It is thought that if one airline has low fares, others will reduce their fares to match. That’s probably the case. But I’ve done the 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.

The mayor also asked for cooperation in using Southwest Airlines, advising the audience: “So when you make your corporate travel plans, please remember our community’s commitment to supporting low-cost carriers.” Well. How would you feel if you worked for one of our air carriers that don’t receive a subsidy, such as American, United, and Delta? How would you feel if you owned stock in one of these airlines, as does nearly everyone who holds broad-based index funds in their retirement or investment accounts?

In the past, the subsidized discount carrier has carried around ten percent of Wichita’s passengers. So we are vitally dependent on the legacy, or major, airlines, and we don’t need to insult them, as I believe the mayor did.

(To help you explore Wichita airport data, I’ve created an interactive visualization. Click here to open the visualization in a new window. You may add or remove any number of airports. Or, if you’d like to watch a video, click on Wichita Airport statistics: The video.)

Water was another topic that the mayor touched on. He told the audience: “The city has also invested in the second phase of the aquifer storage and recovery project known as ASR. New construction was completed in time to help with the drought. More than 100 million gallons were diverted from the little Arkansas River directly to customers.” 100 million gallons sounds like a lot of water. But what is the context? Well, 100 million gallons is about how much water we use on a single hot summer day.

And what about the ASR, or aquifer storage and recovery program? Its cost, so far for Phases I and II, is $247 million. Two more phases are contemplated. Despite this investment, and despite the plan’s boasts, Wichitans were threatened with huge fines for excessive water usage. The Wichita City Council also started a rebate program so that citizens were forced to pay for other people to buy low-water usage appliances. Expensive city decorative fountains were dry for a time.

Why were these measures necessary? A document created in March 2013 — that’s just as Wichita realized the city was running out of water — is titled “Wichita Area Future Water Supply: A Model Program for Other Municipalities.” It states: “In 1993 the Wichita City Council adopted an Integrated Local Water Supply Plan that identified cost effective water resources that would be adequate to meet Wichita’s water supply needs through the year 2050.” This squares with what former mayor Bob Knight recently told the Wichita Pachyderm Club, that when he was in office, Wichita had sufficient water for the next 50 years. He was told that about 10 years ago.

Just to give you an idea of how seriously we should take the claims made in speeches like this, here’s what the mayor told us in his 2009 State of the City Address: “We will continue work on the state-of-the art water supply system, known as the ASR project. It will provide the Wichita area with sufficient water for the next 50 years. Economic Development is not possible without an adequate water supply.” The mayor’s right. We need an adequate water supply. But it appears that despite huge expense and the boasts of city officials — including the mayor — we don’t have a secure water supply.

The mayor also addressed transit. He asked the community to answer a few questions, such as:

Should we have more stops to drop off and pick up riders?
Should we run later hours during the week and on the weekends?
Should we find new partners to extend our service area and help with costs?

The problem with questions like these are that citizens don’t have all the information needed to make an informed answer. Would we like to have more bus service? Who could answer no to such a question?

But if the mayor had told us that the cost per passenger mile for Wichita transit buses is 95 cents, or that only 30 percent of the operating costs are paid by fares, people might answer these questions differently. (That 30 percent would be lower if we included the cost of capital, that is, the cost of the buses.) And when the mayor asked citizens to weigh in at the Activate Wichita website: I looked, and there’s no topic for transit.

But even if citizens were informed of these costs, their answers are still not fully reliable. That’s because of the disconnect between the payment for the service and the actual bus service. Because so much of the cost of providing bus service is paid for someone else, we don’t really see the total cost of a bus trip. That’s often a problem with services provided by the government. Since someone else is paying, there’s not the same concern for receiving value as there is when people spend their own money.

activate-wichita-rate-this-idea

The Activate Wichita website, by the way. When citizens are asked to rate ideas, to express their approval or — well, that’s the problem. Your choices for voting on an idea are: “I Love It!” … “I Like It!” … “It’s OK.” … “Neutral.” That’s it. There’s no voting option for expressing disagreement or disapproval with an idea. “Neutral” is as much dissent as Wichitans are allowed to express in this system. On this system that city leaders say they rely on for gathering citizen input, there needs to be a voting selection that expresses disagreement or disapproval with an idea. Otherwise when votes are tallied, the worst that any idea can be is “neutral.” City planners may get a false impression that all these ideas a fine and dandy.

wichita-citizen-involvement-2012

On the topic of citizen involvement: The mayor also told us this: “A few weeks ago – the city launched the Office of Community Engagement.” That’s something that the city needs, based on data the city has gathered. The Wichita Performance Measures Report holds some data from a survey called the National Research Center National Citizen Survey. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart I 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 values for the last three administrations of the survey are between 35 percent and 39 percent. The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center. The report 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. Maybe an Office of Community Engagement will help.

Last year the city conducted an extensive survey of residents. Of this survey, the mayor said: “We learned that more than 70% of our residents are willing to rise above their personal interests to do what’s best for the community.”

The problem with this is that it relies on the false concept of a conflict between personal interests and what is good for the community. In the marketplace, which is the opposite of government, people advance their self-interest in one legitimate way: By finding out the goods and services that others want, and then providing them. If you can do this well and efficiently, you can earn profits. It’s the quest for profits — that’s self interest — that drives people to figure out what others want, and then to work hard to provide that. Everyone benefits.

This quest for profits could, and should, apply to areas that are under the control of government. But people are so afraid that someone will earn a profit by serving their fellow man. Recently John Stossel spotlighted a park in New York City that is run by a private corporation with the aim of earning a profit. People are happy with the new park. They feel safe, even though the park doesn’t discriminate and still lets homeless people stay there. There’s commerce going on, selling food, for example. People like that, and evidence of that is the profit being earned. But Stossel’s guest was critical and unhappy because someone was earning a profit, even though park patrons were happy with the park and most were unaware of its private sector operation.

So when the park was operated by the city — for the common good, that is — not many people used it. It was dirty and trashy, and people didn’t feel safe. Under the profit motive, people like the park and they use it. So where is the conflict between personal interest and what is good for the community?

Now, not everything government does is bad. But when government dabbles in areas that the private sector can do very well, we see problems. As an example, the city wants to help real estate developers, but the city handled a recent situation so badly that the mayor apologized in his address, saying “We are also taking steps to ensure we have integrity and openness when we solicit proposals for development in the core area.”

Citizens that pay attention at city hall also note there are several small groups that contribute heavily to campaigns. Then the mayor and council members vote to give financial benefits to these people. These are not isolated incidents. This behavior is repeated over and over. Some cities have laws against this type of behavior. But in Wichita, while we’re being encouraged to put “what is good for the community” above our personal self-interest, we see city hall run over by cronyism. That is, by people using city government for their own interests. In the name of the “common good,” of course.

At the end of his speech, the mayor asked citizens to “get into the game,” saying: “We need you to be a player — not a spectator — to win a better and brighter tomorrow.”

But we’ve seen what happens when people want to be involved, but not in the way the mayor and council want. Do you remember the chart of airport data? Last year I presented that information to the city council. It so happened that Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn had appointed me to the Airport Advisory Board, and later in that same meeting the city council voted on my appointment. I was rejected. Only one council member voted in my favor. The Wichita Eagle reported: “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.” A positive voice is more valued than a critical voice, it seems.

Council members shall refrain 01

You may also remember how Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity testified at a meeting of the Wichita City Council. She cited a section of the Wichita City Code that says council members shall refrain from making decisions involving, among other things, friends and business associates. She asked the mayor to observe that part of the city code. But the mayor lashed out at Estes and others and threatened a lawsuit.

At least this year the mayor didn’t mention the importance of open and transparent government, as he usually does. Because based on Activate Wichita — where there is no disagreement allowed, to rejecting board appointments simply because someone might be critical of the city’s programs, to threatening those who ask the mayor and council members to follow the laws that they passed, to the city’s hostile attitude towards the citizen’s right to know: The message we get is this: The city welcomes your involvement, but only up to a point. Question the authority, and you’re not welcome.

That’s the state of Wichita government, that government to be distinguished from the many wonderful people who live here. We can be thankful for the difference.

Wichita debt levels projected to rise

Delano Clock Tower, Wichita

According to the most recent edition of Wichita’s Performance Measure Report, the city’s debt levels are projected to rise, based on two measures.

One measure, named “Outstanding Net General Obligation Debt as a Percentage of Assessed Value,” will nearly triple in value from a recent low. In 2011 this measure was 1.25 percent. In 2015 the target value is 3.59 percent. The nearby chart shows this graphically (click for a larger version.)

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Describing this measure, the city document explains “The level of outstanding debt as a percentage of assessed valuation is based on currently anticipated debt needs of the 2011-2020 Adopted Capital Improvement Program. The percentage is expected to increase as additional debt financing projects are implemented.”

In “Factors impacting outcomes,” the city explains “Slow assessed valuation growth coupled with increasing debt will lead to an increase in this measure.”

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Another measure is “Outstanding General Obligation Debt Service as a Percentage of Debt Service Fund Taxes Levied.” This measure is projected to rise to over twice its recent low value of 30 percent in 2009 to 64 percent in 2015.

The performance report describes this measure: “This is a measure of flexibility; if the percentage is lower, there are more future opportunities to initiate projects paid for with bonds.”

The document also explains: “In the past, the City of Wichita’s borrowing needs have been lower because more projects were paid for with cash, rather than bonds.” Additionally, “Anticipated debt issuances will increase, based on programmed CIP improvements.”

Transparency groups want to know where Wichita tax money is going to promote Wichita

By Craig Andres, KSN News. View video below, or click here. For more on this issue, see Open government in Kansas.

WICHITA, Kansas — Public or private? GoWichita, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition get more than three million dollars a year. Some of that is taxpayer money.

“Why are their records not public?” asks Randy Brown with the Sunshine Coalition. “It’s ridiculous because we ought to know. These are largely tax supported entities. It’s our money that’s being used. There’s no reason in the world these things shouldn’t be open.”

The Sunshine Coalition is not alone. Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty is asking the same questions.

“I have asked several times for complete open records on these three entities,” says Weeks.” But the mayor and city council have not been interested.”

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner talked with KSN. We asked if the ledgers not being 100% public could be a problem.

“Okay, it could smell like that. But it’s not because we get boards. They have review boards,” says Meitzner. “They have review boards that are members of this community that would not allow it.”

Meitzner says the public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.

“The people that would be looking at that on a daily basis would be our peer city competitors,” explains Meitzner. “Oklahoma, Tulsa, Kansas City and Omaha, they would want to know everything that we are doing to get people downtown.”

Still, watchdog groups say they want to know more.

“The Mayor and the City Manager say all the time that we must be transparent, that we value giving records and information to the citizen,” says Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty. “But when it comes down to it they really don’t act in the same way that they say.”

WichitaLiberty.TV January 19, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: How much would you pay to visit the Wichita Art Museum? You might be surprised to learn how much each visit really costs. Then: A transparency agenda for Wichita city government and the Kansas Legislature. Finally, a look at public schools wasting money. Episode 28, broadcast January 19, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita’s growth in gross domestic product

Wichita City HallCompared to peer areas, Wichita’s record of growth in gross domestic product is similar to that of job creation: Wichita performs poorly.

Looking at growth in GDP, Wichita lags behind the metropolitan statistical areas that we consider our peers (according to Visioneering Wichita), but not behind all the peer cities that I selected. Wichita does better than Springfield, Illinois, for example. I chose to include that as a peer metropolitan area because that’s the immediate past city that Gary Plummer worked in. He was president of that city’s Chamber of Commerce, and is now president of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Wichita also does better than Wichita Falls, Texas. That city is the immediate past home of Tim Chase. He was the head of Wichita Falls Economic Development Corporation. He’s now president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development for the Wichita area.

What Wichita is missing

If the Wichita-area GDP grew faster, Wichita could generate many more jobs.

growth-gdp-metropolitan-area-wichita-2012-01From 2001 to 2012, Wichita GDP grew at a rate of 0.734 percent per year, compounded annually. U.S. Metropolitan areas, as a whole, managed 1.571 percent growth over the same period. That seems like a small difference, just 0.837 percentage points. But over time, compounding adds up, so to speak. Here’s what it could amount to.

GDP in the Wichita MSA in 2012 was $29,644 million (current dollars). For that year the number of people working averaged 285,600, so each job contributed, on average, $103,796 to GDP.

A metropolitan area the size of Wichita that grew at the historic growth rate of all U.S. Metropolitan areas would be producing an additional $2,751 million in GDP in ten years, compared to a metropolitan area growing at Wichita’s historical rate. That could mean an additional 26,000 jobs.

Using the visualization.

Using the visualization.

If you’d like to use the interactive visualization of metropolitan GDP data, you may click here to open it in a new window. Data is from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis along with author’s own calculations. Visualization created using Tableau Public.

Visit Wichita, and pay a tourism fee

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The Wichita City Council will consider adding a 2.75 percent tax to hotel bills, calling it a “City Tourism Fee.” Welcome to Wichita!

This week the Wichita City Council will consider advancing the formation of a Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID).

The main characteristic of the proposed TBID is that it will add 2.75 percent fee to most hotel rooms sold in the City of Wichita. The funds would go to Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau to be used to enhance Go Wichita’s market efforts. The cost of the effort is estimated at $2.5 million per year. The item the city council will consider Tuesday will set a date for a public hearing, if the council agrees to proceed.

What is the motivation of the city’s hotel operators to assent to this added tax on their product? City documents state: “Go Wichita estimates that the new marketing investment could result in a 6% rise in hotel occupancy and a growth of $12 million in hotel revenue.”

A few remarks:

First: If it’s true that increased marketing of Wichita’s hotels will result in increased business, who is in the best position to undertake this effort? Hotel operators themselves, or the government bureaucrats that staff tourism bureaus?

Second: The proposal indicates that hotels will collect this money via an item on the bill that will be called the “City Tourism Fee.” I wonder: Is there any way to distinguish this “fee” from a tax? Not only that, but a tax that will explicitly be passed along to visitors to Wichita?

It would be one thing if the city required hotels to remit 2.75 percent of their revenue to the TBID. It’s another matter for the city to levy a fee for the privilege of staying in a hotel room in Wichita and list it on hotel bills. There’s nothing like saying “thank you” for visiting Wichita by adding 2.75 percent to your hotel costs.

Coming to Wichita for business

There will be quite a bit of tax on a Wichita hotel bill if the TBID is implemented. Start with 7.15 percent sales tax. Add six percent hotel guest tax. Now add 2.75 percent tourism fee. That’s 15.9 percent total tax. Except: If the hotel is one of several located in a Community Improvement Districts, guests may need to add an additional two percent, for a total of 17.9 percent in tax.

But I forgot. Not all of that is tax. Some of it is a only a fee assessed for the privilege of visiting Wichita and staying in a hotel.

Third: This will be more taxpayer funds that are spent in relative secrecy, because it is the position of Go Wichita and the city that the agency doesn’t have to conform to the Kansas Open Records Act.

Go Wichita Convention and Visitors BureauFourth: Is there any way to characterize this as anything other than an expansion of bureaucracy in Wichita? I really wonder if the hotel operators know what they’re getting themselves mixed up in. If the hotels feel they need more marketing firepower to attract business to Wichita, I’m sure they’d do better to form a voluntary association to undertake this task. This would be nimble and flexible in way that a government bureaucracy can never be. But who will stand up to this expansion of our tourism bureaucracy? A hotel owner who wishes to receive referrals? Like most government bureaucrats, those who will run this new program “profit” from increasing their power and influence, and by expansion of their budgets, perks, and staffs. They won’t look favorably on those who don’t go along with the program.

Finally, the people of Wichita need to realize that pursuit of convention and tourism business is not a wise path to economic development and prosperity. Wall Street Journal reporting from last year concluded with:

“Mr. Sanders, the University of Texas professor, predicts the glut of convention space will only get worse, because a number of cities continue to push expansions. He blames cities’ hired consultants, who he said predict “all these people are going to come and do wonderful things to your economy.”

“But the problem is they aren’t coming anymore, because there are lots of other convention centers … that desperately want that business,” he said. “So Atlanta steals from Boston, Orlando steals from Chicago and Las Vegas steals from everywhere.”

The “Mr. Sanders” referred to in the Journal reporting is Heywood T. Sanders, who is professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is a noted critic of public efforts to chase convention business for economic development. His 2005 report report Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy was published by the left-leaning think tank The Brookings Institution. It provides a look at the realities of the convention trade.

Sanders writes that convention center business has been on the decline, and it started well before the terrorist attacks in 2001. In a section titled “Trends: Portrait of a Faltering Industry” we can read that attendance is down, exhibit space demand is down, and hotel room demand in cities has fallen too.

The author notes that the decline in convention business is a structural decline: “[Reasons for decline] are the product of industry consolidation, particularly in the hardware and home improvement industry, reductions in business travel in the face of increasing cost and difficulty, and alternative means of conveying and gathering information.” These are not cyclical trends that are likely to reverse in the future.

Despite shrinking demand, cities are building more convention space: “Despite diminishing demand, the last few years have seen a remarkable boom in the volume of exhibit space in U. S. convention centers.” The building of larger convention centers in many cities means that more cities are able to host the larger events, or, cities can now host several smaller events simultaneously. The result, says the author, is fierce competition for both large and small events.

What about the costs? The author introduces a section on costs with: “The studies that justify both the new center space and the publicly-owned hotels paint a picture of tens of thousands of new out-of-town visitors and millions of dollars in economic impact. Despite that rhetoric, these projects carry real risks and larger potential costs, particularly in an uncertain and highly competitive environment.”

The convention center is just the start of costs: “A new [convention] center is thus often followed by a subsidized or fully publicly-owned hotel.” Wichita, of course, has a fully publicly-owned hotel, the large 303-room Hyatt. Now Wichita has been providing, and will probably continue, subsidy programs to other downtown hotels. None of the hotels alone provide as many rooms as Wichita convention planners say the city needs, so we are likely to see proposals for a subsidies to hotels continue.

In fact, until Wichita has as many hotel rooms as our nation’s largest convention cities have, there is always a larger goal — a next step on the ladder. Can you imagine our city leaders ever proclaiming that we have enough hotel rooms in downtown Wichita?

Other things Sanders says that are likely to be proposed are a sports arena. Wichita, of course, recently opened a taxpayer-financed and government-owned facility, the Intrust Bank Arena. After a brief honeymoon fling with good financial performance, the arena has settled down to a less-acceptable level of revenue production. Residents of Sedgwick County, which owns the arena, should be cautioned that the financial results hailed by the county don’t include depreciation costs, so the true financial picture is not anywhere near complete.

Entertainment, retail, and cultural attractions are often proposed, Sanders writes, and Wichita downtown planners have indicated their desire for these.

The conclusion to this paper describes Wichita’s current situation and foreshadows what is likely for the future of Wichita:

But if taxing, spending, and building have been successful, the performance and results of that investment have been decidedly less so. Existing convention centers have seen their business evaporate, while new centers and expansions are delivering remarkably little in terms of attendance and activity.

What is even more striking, in city after city, is that the new private investment and development that these centers were supposed to spur — and the associated thousands of new visitors — has simply not occurred. Rather, city and convention bureau officials now argue that cities need more space, and more convenience, to lure those promised conventions. And so underperforming convention centers now must be redeemed by public investment and ownership of big new hotels. When those hotels fail to deliver the promises, then the excuse is that more attractions, or more retail shops, or even more convention center space will be needed to achieve the goal of thousands of new visitors.

Wichita campaign finance reform, and local elections in Kansas

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In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: An illustration of the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita and Kansas. A related issue is the need to change the timing of local elections in Kansas. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

In January 2013 candidates for Wichita City Council filed campaign finance reports, and the filings illustrate the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita and Kansas.

Two incumbents, both who have indicated their intent to run in the spring elections, received campaign contributions in 2012 from two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren.

The incumbent candidates receiving these contributions are Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita).

Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents. As the election grew nearer, other parties contributed to these candidates. But for one year, only two groups made contributions.

So do these two groups have an extraordinarily keen interest in Wichita city government that’s not shared by anyone else? Yes they do, and it’s not benevolent. Both have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin. We’ve covered the benefits these parties have received, such as overpriced no-bid contracts and interest-free loans made to prop up an earlier failing loan from taxpayers. We need laws in Wichita and Kansas like some states and cities have. These are generally called pay to play laws, and they can be very simple, such as elected officials can’t vote on matters that enrich their significant campaign contributors. It could be that easy. See Kansas needs pay-to-play laws for more.

Here’s something that seems inconsequential, but is really important: The timing of our city council and school board elections. Currently these are held in the spring of odd-numbered years. These elections are also non-partisan, meaning that candidates don’t run as members of a political party.

I was asked to testify before a committee of the Kansas Senate. In preparation, I did some research. I found that for elections in Sedgwick County, voter turnout in spring elections is much lower than in fall elections. Since 2000, turnout for fall elections, both primary and general, has been 44 percent. Over the same period, spring elections turnout has been 18 percent. Other research I found confirmed that this pattern is common across the country.

You may be asking: Is this a problem?

Political scientist Sarah Anzia has done the research. She wrote this in a research paper: “When an election is separated from other elections that attract higher turnout, many eligible voters abstain, but interest group members that have a large stake in the election outcome turn out at high rates regardless of the increase in the cost of voting. Moreover, interest groups’ efforts to strategically mobilize supportive voters have a greater impact on election outcomes when overall turnout is low. Consequently, the electoral influence of interest groups is greater in off-cycle elections than in on-cycle elections. As a result, the policy made by officials elected in off-cycle elections should be more favorable to dominant interest groups than policy made by officials elected in on-cycle elections.” For more on this issue, see Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Special interest groups benefit from these low-turnout spring elections. Do you remember the first story I reported on today, where campaign contributions for two Wichita city council members came from only two sources? That’s an illustration of special interest groups in action. It’s harmful to our city and its economy.

What happened to the bill I testified on? There was much opposition by cities and school boards and the special interest groups that benefit from these low-turnout, off-cycle elections. The bill went nowhere. I hope that it is revived this year for another attempt.

A transparency agenda for Wichita

Wichita City Hall

Kansas has a weak open records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. But with a simple change of attitude towards open government and citizens’ right to know, Wichita could live up to the goals its leaders have set.

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

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

Wichita logic open records
But when we look at some specific areas of government transparency, we find that the city’s efforts are deficient. Below are a few areas in which the city could improve. Much more is available here: Open government in Kansas

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.

In reality, Kansas has a weak open records law. Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. But with a simple change of attitude towards open government and citizens’ right to know, Wichita could live up to the goals its leaders have set.

Attitude

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

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

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position. (Click here to read the determination.) The only course of action open to me as a citizen watchdog is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit.

There is one other course of action, however. That is, these agencies and the city could fulfill the records requests that I have made. These agencies believe the law doesn’t require them to release the records, but the law does not prohibit or restrict releasing the records. They could fulfill requests if they wanted to, which goes back to the attitude of the city. For more, see Wichita, again, fails at open government.

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

An example of why this is important is the case of Mike Howerter, a trustee of Labette Community College in Parsons. He noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Upon his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a political campaign contribution. While the college president committed no violation by making this political contribution using college funds, this is an example of the type of information that citizens may want regarding the way public funds are spent.

Website

The most important way governments can communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. While the former website had its share of problems — such as a search feature that didn’t work very well — the new website has been a step backwards.

For example, it appears that for citizen review boards like the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and Historic Preservation Board, agendas and minutes prior to 2012 did not survive the conversion to the new website. Other documents that were previously available but appear to be missing after the conversion include the daily arrest reports. It appears that only a few years of past budgets are available, but the comprehensive annual financial reports are available for about ten years back. (If I missed any documents that are actually available, I apologize. But the fact that I couldn’t find them is its own problem.)

The prior website had a service called “MyWichita.” This was a very useful service. After registration, citizens could see a list of documents and check the types of documents for which they’d like to receive notification when newly available, such as meeting agenda and minutes. This email reminder service was very valuable. It didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing new to replace its function.

The search feature on the new website is better than on the old. But there is a curious twist to the new search: It gives different results depending on the starting page. This could be a potentially useful feature if users were made aware of it. For example, if the user is currently viewing the Finance Department web page and starts a search, the system could give the user a choice of search just the Finance Department, or all of the website. Presently, it appears that the search would be confined to just the Finance Department, and users could easily conclude that documents they searched for don’t exist, when in fact they do.

Most new websites in recent years will adapt so they are usable from mobile devices like smartphones. Not so with the new Wichita website.

Spending data

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

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

Legal notices

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

Publish requests

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

Leveraging our lobbyists

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

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This week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda. I’ve excerpted the document here, and following are some of the most problematic items.

Agenda: Existing economic development tools are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our community.

First. The premise of this item is incorrect. We don’t have growth and prosperity in Wichita. Compared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. See For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure for details.

Second: In general, these incentives don’t work to increase prosperity. Click here for a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.

Third: Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development. The city’s document lists the tools the city wants the legislature to protect:

  • GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions
  • Industrial Revenue Bond tax abatements (IRBX)
  • Economic Development Exemptions (EDX)
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
  • Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds
  • Community Improvement Districts (CID)
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) tax rebates
  • Special Assessment financing for neighborhood infrastructure projects, facade improvements and abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
  • State Historic Preservation Tax Credits (HPTC)
  • State administration of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP) tax credits
  • Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT) grants
  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program
  • Economic Revitalization and Reinvestment Act bonding for major aviation and wind energy projects
  • Kansas Industrial Training (KIT) and Kansas Industrial Retraining (KIR) grants
  • Network Kansas tax credit funding
  • State support for Innovation Commercialization Centers in Commerce Department budget

That’s quite a list of incentive programs. Some of these are so valuable that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Agenda: GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions

This may refer to the city wanting to prevent these agencies from having to fulfill records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act. (If so, I wonder why the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation was left off.) City leaders say Wichita has an open and transparent government. But Kansas has a weak records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. This is an insult to citizens who are not able to access how their taxes are spent. For more on this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any legislative attempts to restrict the taxing and spending authority of local governments.

As Wichita city leaders prepare to ask for a higher sales tax rate in Wichita, we can hope that the legislature will save us from ourselves. At best, we can hope that the legislature requires that all tax rate increases be put to popular vote.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any restrictions on the use of state and/or local public monies to provide information to our citizens and to advocate on their behalf.

This is the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. As you can see in this document, many of the things that Wichita city leaders believe people want, or believe that will be good for their constituents, are actually harmful. Additionally, many of the methods the city uses to engage citizens to determine their needs are faulty. See In Wichita, there’s no option for dissent for an example. Also, see Wichita survey questions based on false premises.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the current framework for local elections, continuing the current February/April schedule of local primary and general elections, as well as the local option allowing non-partisan elections.

The present system of non-partisan elections held in the spring results in low voter turnout that lets special interest groups exercise greater influence than would be likely in fall elections. See my legislative testimony in Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the development of appropriate state and local incentives to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.

Translation: The city knows better than you how to provide for your entertainment and cultural edification, and will continue to tax you for your own benefit.

Agenda: Public support and awareness of the possibility of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton has grown over the past two years.

I’m not sure where the claim of public support and awareness growing comes from, but people are definitely not informed about the economics of passenger rail. In 2010, when the state rolled out several plans for this passenger rail service link, I reported as follows:

Expansion of rail service in Kansas is controversial, at least to some people, in that any form of rail service requires taxpayer involvement to pay for the service. First, taxpayer funding is required to pay for the start-up costs for the service. There are four alternatives being presented for rail service expansion in Kansas, and the start-up costs range from $156 million up to $479 million.

After this, taxpayer subsidies will be required every year to pay for the ongoing operational costs of providing passenger rail service. The four alternatives would require an annual operating subsidy ranging from $2.1 million up to $6.1 million. Taking the operating subsidy and dividing by the estimated number of passengers for each alternative, the per-passenger subsidy ranges from $35 up to $97 for every passenger who uses the service.

It would be one thing if tickets sales and other revenue sources such as sale of food and beverage paid for most of the cost of providing passenger rail service, and taxpayers were being asked to provide a little boost to get the service started and keep it running until it can sustain itself. But that’s not the case. Taxpayers are being asked to fully fund the start-up costs. Then, they’re expected to pay the majority of ongoing expenses, apparently forever.

Also, in Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas I reported on the Heartland Flyer route specifically. This is from 2010, but I doubt much has changed since then.

For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Asking the taxpayers of Wichita to pay subsidies each time someone boards an Amtrak train: This doesn’t sound like economic development, much less a program that people living in a free society should be forced to fund.

For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, we come to Wichita.

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

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

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

toolbox-29058_640

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV January 5, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look back at a few problematic issues regarding ethical government in Wichita in 2013. Topics include: Campaign contributions, the timing of city and school board elections, Mayor Carl Brewer’s integrity and threats, the need for campaign finance reform, the firing of a television news reporter, the apparently non-transparent way the city formulates policy, and the useless feedback systems the city relies on. Episode 26, broadcast January 5, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita’s policymaking on display

Wichita city hall logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Wichita, more tax for more transit?

Wichita City Hall

In 2014 it is likely that Wichitans will be asked to pay an increased sales tax, part of which would fund the existing bus transit service, as the system is not sustaining itself. Another part of the increased sales tax might expand the service. Wichitans ought to think twice before voting to spend additional taxpayer funds for either reason. In fact, Wichita ought to consider spending less on public transit, and look to the private sector to provide transit that people want to use, and which meets their real needs.

Transit is expensive. To be more precise, government-provided transit is expensive. I’ve gathered data from the National Transit Database and provided it in a more useful format that that provided by the government. You may click here to use this interactive visualization of operating costs. (This table provides the codes that are used.) As for Wichita, the nearby excerpt (click for a larger version) shows that for 2011, the cost per passenger mile for the “regular” bus service was $0.97. This is not the cost to move a bus one mile. It is the cost to move one passenger one mile. This value is not out of line compared to other cities.

wichita-transit-2014-01

If Wichita were to expand its transit service to offer wider coverage and longer hours of service, the cost per passenger mile probably would not go down. We would still have a system that is very expensive, especially considering the level of service that would still be provided.

Can the private sector do better? One thing we could do is to outsource or privatize the transit system. Government would still pay for the system, but the private sector would operate the buses. This would likely be an improvement, as outsourcing almost always results in lower costs and improved service.

(By the way, many people would be surprised to learn of the fraction of expenses paid for through fares. Considering operating expenses only, the number is 13.5 percent. Considering operating and capital costs, just 12.1 percent comes from fare revenue. The remainder is provided by taxpayers. So when a bus rider puts a dollar in the farebox, taxpayers contribute an additional six dollars to fund the system.)

What Wichita could do to really improve service is to allow private competition to the existing transit system. Here’s an example of what could happen:

Brooklyn’s dollar van fleet is a tantalizing demonstration of how we might supplement mass transit with privately-owned mini-transit entrepreneurs.

America’s 20th largest bus service — hauling 120,000 riders a day — is profitable and also illegal. It’s not really a bus service at all, but a willy-nilly aggregation of 350 licensed and 500 unlicensed privately-owned “dollar vans” that roam the streets of Brooklyn and Queens, picking up passengers from street corners where city buses are either missing or inconvenient. The dollar van fleet is a tantalizing demonstration of how we might supplement mass transit to include privately-owned mini-transit entrepreneurs, giving people alternative ways to get around, and creating jobs. (The (Illegal) Private Bus System That Works, The Atlantic.)

This is not an example of government paying a private-sector company to do a job that government formerly did. Instead, this is allowing the private sector to operate on its own, free to succeed or fail based on how well it provides service. It’s allowing the private sector to be flexible and innovative in ways that government bureaucracy, like our transit system, is not able.

There are other things we could do to help improve transit service in Wichita. On his television show, John Stossel recently had a segment on a system called “Lyft.” This is a system available in about a dozen large cities in America, and there are other similar systems. You might sign up to be a driver. You go through a background check, and if you pass, you’re a driver for Lyft. Then people who need a ride use their smart phone to request a trip. You, as a Lyft driver, can decide if you’d like to provide the ride.

After the driver drops off the rider, the rider — that is the customer — decides how much to pay the driver for the ride. The system makes a suggestion, but other than that it’s up to the customer to decide how much to pay. As you might imagine, the system uses feedback to rate both drivers and customers. People in the Lyft system have an incentive to be good providers of service, and also good consumers of service.

Isn’t that a tremendous contrast to the way government works? Government works through force — through taxation — requiring all of us to pay to support a bus system that very few people use. And few people use the system because — like most government programs — the service is lousy. It’s a self-perpetuating feedback loop. Lousy government service leads to few people using the service, which leads to the need for more subsidy. But in the Lyft system people willingly cooperate, aided by technology.

Could Lyft work in Wichita? Not likely, because government stands in the way. I’m pretty sure Lyft would be illegal in Wichita. The city recently passed taxicab regulations that are quite strict: Taxi companies must have a central office, staffed at least 40 hours per week; a dispatch system operating 24 hours per day, seven days per week; enough cabs to operate city-wide service, which the city has determined is ten cabs; and a supervisor on duty at all times cabs are operating.

These regulations stifle innovation and entrepreneurship. Things like Lyft and the dollar vans aren’t compatible with these regulations. These regulations mean that our present transit and taxi service — which no one seems happy with — is all that we will ever have.

Here’s something else: In the Lyft system, passengers ride in the front seat of the car next to the driver. Total strangers do that! Can you imagine if you asked to sit in the front seat of a taxicab in Wichita? This is the private sector versus government-regulated monopolies.

transit-service-in-wichita

Recently the director of the Wichita transit system made a presentation to Wichita City Council members outlining various possibilities about what Wichita could do with bus service. Was allowing the private sector a role in providing transit a possibility? Not that I heard. It’s just not in the DNA of government bureaucrats and unfortunately, many elected officials, to consider letting the private sector do a job.

Wichita economic development: Worth higher taxes?

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita city and business leaders are likely to ask Wichitans to support a higher sales tax in order to support additional economic development efforts. Should Wichitans vote in favor of this? View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Another thing that a tax increase in Wichita might be used for is for economic development. That is, paying subsidies to companies so that they will provide jobs in Wichita.

wichita-chamber-job-growth-2013-12
It’s felt that Wichita needs to step up its economic development efforts because things haven’t been going well lately. Not that everyone agrees. You’ve seen the charts I showed you, showing the growth of jobs in Wichita and also other economic indicators. When we compare Wichita with the nation as a whole and with our Visioneering peer cities, Wichita is almost always in last place. When I presented this data to the Wichita city Council, the Council members did not believe these numbers. So here’s a chart that was presented recently at a Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce meeting. It uses the same data source that I use, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and it shows the same data using the same methodology. It comes to the same conclusion: Wichita performs poorly.

Our chamber of commerce and its leadership will use this poor performance to argue that Wichita needs to spend more money on economic development. And that’s a problem.

Your chamber of commerce radio buttons
Very often, local chambers of commerce support principles of crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.

Now you may be confused. Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce, since their membership is mostly business firms, support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s not always the case. Here, in an excerpt from his Wall Street Journal article “Tax Chambers” Stephen Moore explains:

“The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda — but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government.

“In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes, state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes.”

This is the argument that the Wichita Chamber of Commerce and the city council will be making: We don’t spend enough on business welfare. Capitalism and the free market: These things don’t work, they will tell us. Only government can save Wichita from decline. Business leaders will tell us we need more taxes for more spending on economic development. But be careful here:

There’s a difference between “business leaders” and “capitalists.”

Last year Charles Koch explained the difference in an article in the Wall Street Journal. He wrote:

“Far too many businesses have been all too eager to lobby for maintaining and increasing subsidies and mandates paid by taxpayers and consumers. This growing partnership between business and government is a destructive force, undermining not just our economy and our political system, but the very foundations of our culture.”

He continued:

“The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

In his article, Koch makes an important observation when he defines cronyism: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.”

You regular viewers know that we have a problem with cronyism in Wichita. This is exemplified by incidents like where a mayor votes to send millions of taxpayer dollars to a man who owns movie theaters, and then the mayor sells his barbeque sauce in those theaters. It’s when a real estate developer lists the mayor and city manager as business references when bidding for a city project and thinks that no one will care or notice. It’s when a city council member receives thousands in campaign contributions from an out-of-state construction company right at the time he votes to award a contract to that company. It’s when the city council votes to give over-priced no-bid construction contracts to their significant campaign contributors.

In other words, instead of allowing people to direct resources to where they believe they will be most useful, our local government direct resources to their cronies. Where it’s useful for their political careers.

I’m of the opinion that it has harmed Wichita’s economic growth. It’s one of the reasons why Wichita is the bottom line in the charts we’ve seen. But many of our business leaders, and almost all of our political leaders, propose more of the same.

That’s right. Instead of focusing on things like water and sewer pipes, government wants to raise taxes so that it can direct more of our economy. Having neglected our water and sewer infrastructure to the point where the mayor says we need to spend at the rate of $70 million dollars per year for the next 30 years, our city leaders are going to ask us for more tax money so that they can try to fix the Wichita economy.

Returning to Stephen Moore’s article. Here he quotes Jon Caldera of the Independence Institute. “I used to think that public employee unions like the National Education Association were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions. I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself ‘the business community’ and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations.”

Let’s ask our business and political leaders some questions. First, will we acknowledge Wichita’s poor economic performance, or will we continue to ignore the facts and statistics? Second: Will we realize that the cozy relationship between city hall and a small group of insiders — Wichita’s cronies, if you will — is harmful and corrosive? Third: Will we realize that free enterprise and capitalism work better than cronyism?

In Wichita, ‘free markets’ used to justify business welfare

Wichita City HallIncredibly, a prominent Wichita business uses the free market to justify its request for economic development incentives. A gullible city council buys the argument.

At the December 10, 2013 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Bombardier LearJet received an economic development incentive that will let it avoid paying some property taxes on newly-purchased property. The amount involved in this particular incident is relatively small. According to city documents, “the value of the abated taxes on that investment could be as much as $1,980.”

(Bombardier receives millions each year in other government subsidies; see Kansas PEAK program: corporate welfare wrapped in obfuscation and Bombardier Learjet should pay just a little for examples.)

While the amount of the incentive granted in the December 10 action is small, the meeting was useful in letting us understand how some prominent members of Wichita’s business community have distorted the principles of free markets and capitalism. As illustrated by the fawning of Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) and others, elected officials have long forsaken these ideas.

Bombardier’s argument

Don Pufahl, who is Director of Finance at Bombardier Learjet, addressed the council regarding this matter. He started his remarks on a positive note, telling the council “There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.”

We must be careful when using the term incentive. In a free-market economy or capitalism, incentive refers to the motivation of the possibility of earning profits. Another incentive — the flip side of the same coin — is avoiding losses. That’s why capitalism is called a profit-and-loss system. The losses are just as important as profits, as losses are a signal that the economic activity is not valued, and the resources should be shifted to somewhere else where they are valued more highly.

But in the field of economic development as practiced by government, incentive means something given to or granted to a company. That’s what the representative from Bombardier meant by incentive. He explained: “One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.”

A few thoughts: First, Bombardier is not investing in the community. The company is investing in itself.

Second, the free market system that the speaker seemed to praise is a system based on voluntary exchange. That flows from property rights, which is the fundamental idea that people own themselves and the product of their labor, and are free to exchange with others, or to not exchange. But when government uses incentives, many people do not consent to the exchange. That’s not a free market system.

Third, an important part of a free market system is market competition. That is, business firms compete with others for customers. They also compete with other business firms for resources needed for production, such as capital. When government makes these decisions instead of markets, we don’t have a free market system. Instead, we have cronyism. Charles G. Koch has described the harm of cronyism, recently writing: “The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

In the same article Koch wrote: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.” (Charles G. Koch: Corporate cronyism harms America)

The representative from Bombardier also said that the city’s incentives would reduce Bombardier’s investment risk. There is little doubt this is true. What has happened, however, is that the risk has not been eliminated or reduced. It has merely been shifted to the people of Wichita, Sedgwick County, the Wichita public school district, and the State of Kansas. When government does this on a piecemeal basis, this is called cronyism. When done universally, we call this socialism.

We can easily argue that actions like this — and especially the large subsidies granted to Bombardier the by state — increase the risk of these investments. Since the subsidies reduce the cost of its investment, Bombardier may be motivated to make risky investments that it might otherwise not make, were it investing its own funds (and that of its shareholders).

The cost of Bombardier’s investments, and the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. But we can’t identify these. We don’t know who they are. But we need an economic development strategy that creates an environment where these young entrepreneurial firms have the greatest chance to survive. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

Now the city and Bombardier will say that these investments have a payoff for the taxpayer. That is, if Bombardier grows, it will pay more in taxes, and that constitutes “profit” for taxpayers. Even if we accept that premise — that the city “profits” from collecting taxes — why do we need to invest in Bombardier in order to harvest its “profits” when there are so many companies that pay taxes without requiring subsidy?

Finally, the representative from Bombardier said that these incentives are not a handout. I don’t see how anyone can say that and maintain a straight face.

wichita-chamber-job-growth-2013-12
It would be one thing if the Wichita area was thriving economically. But it isn’t. We’re in last place among our self-identified peers, as illustrated in Wichita and Visioneering peers job growth. Minutes from a recent meeting of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development, holds this paragraph: “As shown in the Chart below Wichita economy suffered the largest loss of employment among peer cities and has not seen any signs of rebounding as the other communities have. Wichita lost 31,000 jobs during the recession principally due to the down turn in general aviation.”

Following is a fuller representation of the Bombardier representative’s remarks to the council.

There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.

One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.

As the company moves forward to invest in the community, those investments are not without risk. … Your incentives allow us to offset some of that risk so that we can move forward with those investments, which hopefully create new jobs and also then also improves the quality of life in our community. … These incentives are not a handout. They are a way that the local government uses such things to offset some of the risk that is involved in local companies as they invest in the community, bring jobs to the community, and improve the community overall.


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Wichita city code ignored, on purpose

When a city has laws that it doesn’t enforce, what are citizens to do?

City of Wichita logo

Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008 (full section below):

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

When asked about a specific application of this city law, the Wichita city attorney supplied this interpretation:

Related to the Mayor’s participation in the item, yes, City Code advises Council members to “refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors. … ” but the Code does not provide definitions or limits to these broad categories of constituents. Further, the City Code clearly requires Council members to “vote on all matters coming before the City Council except in those particular cases of conflict of interest. …” The city Code does not define what constitutes a conflict but the Council has historically applied the State law for that definition.

Applying that State law specific to local municipalities, the Mayor does not have any substantial interest in Douglas Place LLC, and therefore no conflict. Under the State ethics law, there was no requirement that the Mayor recuse himself from voting on the Ambassador Project.

So we have statutory language that reads “shall refrain,” but the city attorney interprets that to mean “advises.”

We also have statutory language that reads “business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.” But the city attorney feels that these terms are not defined, and therefore the mayor and city council members need not be concerned about compliance with this law.

I wonder whose interests the city attorney represents. The people of Wichita, who want to be governed in a fair and ethical manner? It doesn’t seem so.

If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Giving that impression, through, would be false — and unethical.

To see the Wichita city attorney explain why this Wichita city code doesn’t have to be followed, see Wichita city government ethics workshop.

Wichita logic Brewer fishing

Here’s the Wichita city code:

Sec. 2.04.050. — Code of ethics for council members.

Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of such elected officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of such transactions. In addition to the matters of pecuniary interest, council members shall refrain from making use of special knowledge or information before it is made available to the general public; shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors; shall refrain from repeated and continued violation of city council rules; shall refrain from appointing immediate family members, business associates, clients or employees to municipal boards and commissions; shall refrain from influencing the employment of municipal employees; shall refrain from requesting the fixing of traffic tickets and all other municipal code citations; shall refrain from seeking the employment of immediate family members in any municipal operation; shall refrain from using their influence as members of the governing body in attempts to secure contracts, zoning or other favorable municipal action for friends, customers, clients, immediate family members or business associates; and shall comply with all lawful actions, directives and orders of duly constituted municipal officials as such may be issued in the normal and lawful discharge of the duties of these municipal officials.

Council members shall conduct themselves so as to bring credit upon the city as a whole and so as to set an example of good ethical conduct for all citizens of the community. Council members shall bear in mind at all times their responsibility to the entire electorate, and shall refrain from actions benefiting special groups at the expense of the city as a whole and shall do everything in their power to ensure equal and impartial law enforcement throughout the city at large without respect to race, creed, color or the economic or the social position of individual citizens.