Tag Archives: Wichita city council

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Issues surrounding the Wichita sales tax and airport

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Who would be most harmed by the proposed Wichita sales tax? Also: A look at updated airport statistics, and what the city could do if it wants to pass the sales tax. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 55, broadcast August 17, 2014.

WichitaLiberty.TV set 2014-04-29 01 800

Economic development in Wichita, one tale

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at a recent episode of economic development in Wichita, and what can we learn from that. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast June 15, 2014.

For more on this issue, see A lesson for Wichita in economic development.

Additional cost of proposed Wichita sales tax as percent of after-tax income, by income quintile

Wichita sales tax hike would hit low income families hardest

Analysis of household expenditure data shows that a proposed sales tax in Wichita affects low income families in greatest proportion, confirming the regressive nature of sales taxes.

One of the criticisms of a sales tax is that it is regressive. That is, it affects low-income families in greatest proportion. This is an important consideration to explore, because in November Wichita voters will decide whether to create a new city sales tax of one cent per dollar. If enacted, the sales tax in Wichita would rise from 7.15 percent to 8.15 percent.

It’s an important issue because to hear some people talk, it seems as though they are saying the proposed tax is “one penny.” Anyone can afford that, they say. But the tax is an extra penny on each dollar spent, meaning that the cost of, say, fifty dollars of food at the grocery store increases by fifty cents, not one penny.

Further, we hear the sales tax spoken of as being a one percent increase. That’s true, if we mean a one percent increase in the cost of most things we buy. And one percent, after all, is just one percent. Not a big deal, people say. But considering the sales tax we pay, a relevant calculation is this: (8.15 – 7.15) / 7.15 = 14 percent. Which is to say, the amount of sales tax we pay will rise by 14 percent.

Click the table for a larger version.
Click the table for a larger version.
To explore the effect of the proposed sales tax on families of different incomes, I gathered data from the U.S. Census Bureau, specifically table 1101, which is “Quintiles of income before taxes: Annual expenditure means, shares, standard errors, and coefficient of variation, Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2012, (Selected Values).” This table divides families into five quintiles. It gives annual expenditures for each quintile in various categories. For each category, I judged whether it is subject to sales tax. For example, for housing, I indicated it is not subject to sales tax. This is not totally accurate, as some of the spending in this category may be for taxable items like maintenance and repair supplies. Food is subject to sales tax in Kansas, although low-income families may apply for a rebate of the tax. Despite these shortcomings, I feel this data gives us an approximation of the effect of the sales tax. (Click on the table to view a larger version, or see below for how to obtain the data.)

As you might imagine, as income rises, so does total taxable expenditures. Of interest, the percent of expenditures that are taxable is relatively constant across income levels.

Additional cost of proposed Wichita sales tax as percent of after-tax income, by income quintileAn important finding is the bottom line of the table, which shows the increase in cost due to the proposed sales tax as percent of income after taxes. This calculates the relative impact of the proposed sales tax increase as a percent of income. It is here that we expect to see the regressive nature of a sales tax appear. For all consumers, the increase in cost is 0.35 percent. For the lowest class of income, the increase in cost is 0.97 percent of income. It falls to 0.26 percent for the highest income class.

This means that the lowest income class of families experience an increase nearly four times the magnitude as do the highest income families, as a percentage of after-tax income. This is the regressive nature of sales taxes illustrated in numbers, and is something that Wichita policy makers and voters should consider.

I’ve made the data available as a Google Docs spreadsheet. Click here for access.

Wichita Airport Passengers, Monthly, All Carriers vs. Airtran/Southwest, through May 2014

Wichita airport statistics updated

Why do Kansans pay taxes, including sales tax on food, to fund millions in subsidy to a company that is experiencing a sustained streak of record profits?

As the Wichita City Council prepares to authorize funding for Southwest Airlines, it’s worth taking a look at updated statistics regarding the airport. The agenda item the council will consider is available here.

Passengers

Wichita Airport Passengers, Monthly, All Carriers vs. Airtran/Southwest, through May 2014
Wichita Airport Passengers, Monthly, All Carriers vs. Airtran/Southwest, through May 2014
The city has pointed to the arrival of Southwest last June as a game-changer for the airport. It’s true that passenger counts have increased. In the nearby chart I present monthly passenger counts, enplanements only, at the Wichita airport for all carriers and for Southwest separately. I’ve treated Southwest as a continuation of AirTran, as Southwest started service at the same time AirTran stopped, and Southwest is receiving a similar subsidy. I show monthly traffic, and also a 12-month moving average to smooth out the extreme monthly variations in passenger traffic. (Click on charts for larger versions.)

Of note is that while the Southwest passenger count is rising, it started from a low position. Also, the count has not risen to the level that AirTran experienced in the middle of the last decade and as recently as 2011.

Flights

Wichita Airport Passengers, Monthly, Compared to National, through April 2014
Wichita Airport Passengers, Monthly, Compared to National, through April 2014
Wichita Airport Monthly Departures, through April 2014
Wichita Airport Monthly Departures, through April 2014
Wichita Airport Monthly Departures, Weekdays Only, through April 2014
Wichita Airport Monthly Departures, Weekdays Only, through April 2014
Considering the number of flights leaving the Wichita airport, the recent trend is up. This is a departure from recent trends. Although the number of available flights nationally has been slowly falling, it was falling faster for Wichita. That trend, for now, is reversed, although the number of flights in Wichita is far below the level of a decade ago.

The number of flights is an important statistic. Greater attention is given to fares, but for many travelers, especially business travelers, an available flight at any price is paramount. Last year at this time I wrote “A program designed to bring low air fares to Wichita appears to meet that goal, but the unintended and inevitable consequences of the program are not being recognized. In particular, the number of flights available at the Wichita airport continues to decline.” So it is good news that the number of flights has risen.

Wichita compared to the nation

Wichita Airport Statistics, through 2013
Wichita Airport Statistics, through 2013
Looking at passengers through the end of 2013, Wichita has now experienced an uptick. Passenger traffic in Wichita had been relatively level at a time that national traffic was rising. The number of available seats on flights has started to rise in Wichita, while nationally the trend has been level the past several years.

Load factor — the percent of available seats that were sold — is rising in Wichita, as it is nationally.

The last set of four charts is from an interactive visualization I prepared using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Click here to open the visualization in a new window. You may select any number of airports for display on the charts.

Southwest profits

Recently Southwest reported record high profits for the quarter ending in June. The company said that net income was $485 million, which it said represented the fifth consecutive quarter of record profits.

We might ask this question: Why do Kansans across the state pay taxes, including sales tax on food, to fund millions in subsidy to a company that is experiencing a sustained streak of record profits?

Wichita City Hall 2014-08-05 11

What the Wichita city council could do

While the proposed Wichita city sales tax is a bad idea, the city could do a few things that would not only improve its chance of passage, but also improve local government.

This week the Wichita City Council passed an ordinance that starts the process of placing a sales tax measure on the November ballot. The one cent per dollar tax will be used for several initiatives, including an economic development jobs fund.

The city will need to gain the trust of citizens if the measure is to have any chance of passage. While I am personally opposed to the sales tax for some very good reasons, I nonetheless offer this advice to the city on what it could do to help pass the sales tax.

Oversight commissions

Presentations made by city hall state that the city council will appoint a private-sector led jobs commission. It would examine potential projects and make recommendations to the council. There will also be a citizens oversight committee and a jobs commission audit committee.

Wichita Investing in Jobs, How it WorksThe problem is that committees like these are usually stacked with city hall insiders, with people who want to personally gain from cronyism, and with people the city believes will be quietly compliant with what the city wants to do.

As an example, consider my appointment to the Wichita Airport Advisory Board last year. I had to be confirmed by the city council. I’ve been critical of the subsidy paid to airlines at the Wichita airport. I’ve researched airfares, air traffic, and the like. I’ve presented findings to the city council that were contrary to the city’s official position and that discovered a possible negative effect of the subsidy effort. Because of that, the council would not confirm my appointment. The city was not willing to have even one person on the airport board who might say wait, let’s take a look at this in a different way, and would have facts to support an alternative.

At Tuesday’s meeting the council assured citizens that it would not be the same group of city hall insiders serving on these boards. According to meeting minutes, council member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) said “Over the next few months there is going to be a lot more detail given to the public so that they can make an informed decision at the time this comes up to a vote in November.”

If the council is serious about this it could take a simple step: Appoint the members of these boards well in advance of the November election. Also, define the structure of the boards, such as the number of members, how appointed, term of appointment, and other details.

Transparency

The city says that the operations of the committees and the jobs fund will be transparent. But the city’s record in transparency is poor. For many years the city’s quasi-independent agencies have refused to release spending records. Many, such as I, believe this is contrary to not only the spirit, but the actual language of the Kansas Open Records Act. There is nothing the city has said that would lead us to believe that the city plans to change its stance towards the citizens’ right to know.

If the city wants to convince citizens that it has changed its attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know how tax money is spent, it could positively respond to the records requests made by myself and Kansas Policy Institute.

The city is also likely to engage in an educational and informational campaign on its cable television channel. If it does, a welcome gesture would be to offer time on the channel for citizen groups to present their side of the issues. The city’s cable channel is supposed to be a public access channel, but as of now, citizens have no ability to produce content for that channel.

In presentations to the council, reports released by the Texas Enterprise Fund have been used as examples of what Wichita might do to inform citizens on the economic development activities funded by the sales tax. But many in Texas are critical of the information provided about the fund’s operation.

Even when information is provided, it is subject to different interpretations by self-interested parties. On the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, the Houston Chronicle recently reported “Whether or not the fund has lost taxpayer money depends on which accounting method is applied. The Associated Press says a method common to government entities placed the fund’s value at $175 million, with a loss of $30 million. The governor’s office uses a private accounting standard that places the fund’s value at $230 million, a $25 million profit.”

In 2011 the Wall Street Journal reported on how job creation numbers can be stretched far beyond any sense of reason:

In Texas, Mr. Perry in a 2011 report to the legislature credited the Texas A&M Institute for Genomic Medicine with already producing more than 12,000 additional jobs. That’s ahead of the 5,000 promised by 2015.

According to the institute’s director, however, 10 people currently work in its new building. A Houston-area biotech firm that agreed to produce about 1,600 of the project’s jobs has instead cut its Texas staff by almost 400 people, and currently employs 220 people in the state.

What accounts for the discrepancy? To reach their estimate of 12,000-plus jobs created by the project, officials included every position added in Texas since 2005 in fields related sometimes only tangentially to biotechnology, according to state officials and documents provided by Texas A&M. They include jobs in things ike dental equipment, fertilizer manufacturing and medical imaging.

William Hoyt, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky who studies state economic-incentive programs across the U.S., said similar efforts elsewhere have been dogged by controversy over how many jobs they actually created. Even so, Mr. Hoyt said he hasn’t come across a definition as broad as that employed by Texas. “It’s hard to see jobs in dental supplies in El Paso being related to a genome clinic in College Station,” where Texas A&M’s main campus is located, he said.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Perry’s office in Austin, Texas, said the job totals for the A&M project were provided by the grant recipients, using figures compiled by the Texas Workforce Commission, the state’s labor agency, and hadn’t yet been “verified.” (Behind Perry’s Jobs Success, Numbers Draw New Scrutiny, October 11, 2011)

Locally, Wichita has had difficulty making information available. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on the problems.

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

“It will take us some time to pull together all the agenda reports on the five-year reviews going back to 2003. That same research will also reveal any abatements that were ‘retooled’ as a result of the five-year reviews,” city urban development director Allen Bell said. “I can tell you that none of the abatements were terminated.” (Wichita doubles property tax exemptions for businesses, October 20, 2013)

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

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

gwedc-office-operations

In fact, the city and its economic development agencies don’t even keep promotional websites current. GWEDC — that’s the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition credited with recruiting a company named InfoNXX to Wichita — doesn’t update its website to reflect current conditions. InfoNXX closed its facility in Wichita in 2012. When I looked at GWEDC’s website in October 2013, I found this on a page titled Office Operations:

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

Observe that the official Wichita-area economic development agency touted the existence of a company that no longer exists in Wichita, and claims a job count that the company never achieved. Also, at that time the USPS facility was in the process of closing and eliminating all Wichita jobs.

What is Wichita doing to convince citizens that it has moved beyond this level of negligence?

Sedgwick County Courthouse 2014-03-23

Sedgwick County elections: Commissioners

In Sedgwick County, two fiscally conservative commission candidates prevailed.

This year three of the five positions on the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners are up for election. Unlike the Wichita city Council, Sedgwick County commissioners run as members of a party, and compete in both primary and general elections. There can be independent and third-party candidates too. This year for one of the Sedgwick County commission districts the incumbent Republican ran unopposed. But in two other districts, there were spirited contests.

Sedgwick County Commission, district 4In district four, which covers north-central and northwest Wichita, Maize, Valley Center, and Park City, incumbent Richard Ranzau was challenged by Carolyn McGinn. She had held this position in the past, and then served in the Kansas Senate, an office she still holds. Ranzau is well known — notorious, we might say — for his tough line on spending taxpayer dollars. The McGinn campaign had about twice as much money to spend. A lot of that came from the people we know as Wichita’s crony capitalists, that is, people and companies who actively seek handouts from government. The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce endorsed McGinn. Now, you may think of your local chamber of commerce as pro-business. And, the chamber is pro-business, no doubt about it. But pro-business is not the same as pro-capitalism. Being pro-business is not the same as being in favor of economic freedom. Being pro-business is not the same as supporting a limited, constitutional, government that protects our freedoms and property rights.

I want to stress this point. Just this week Wichita’s own Charles Koch wrote an op-ed for USA Today. After expressing concern for the weak economy and its effect on workers, he offered a plan forward. He wrote “First, we need to encourage principled entrepreneurship. Companies should earn profits by creating value for customers and acting with integrity, the opposite of today’s rampant cronyism.”

Concluding his article, Koch wrote: “Our government’s decades-long, top-down approach to job creation has failed. Its policies have made our problems worse, leaving tens of millions chronically un- or underemployed, millions of whom have given up ever finding meaningful work. In doing so, our government has not only thwarted real job creation, it also has reduced the supply and quality of goods and services that make people’s lives better and undermined the culture required to sustain a free society. When it comes to creating opportunities for all, we can do much better. It’s time to let people seek opportunities that best suit their talents, for businesses to forsake cronyism, and for government to get out of the way.”

While Charles Koch was writing primarily about the United States government, the same principles apply to local government. And Wichita’s cronies — those who seek profits through politicians and bureaucrats rather than customers — they lined up behind Carolyn McGinn in a big way. By using their generous funding, she ran a negative campaign against Richard Ranzau. He forcefully and truthfully responded to her negative ads, and I’m pleased to say that I helped in that effort.

What was the result of the election? Ranzau won with 54 percent of the vote. He now moves on to face Democrat Melody McRae-Miller in the November general election. She held this county commission seat before McGinn, and she also served in the Kansas legislature, in the House of Representatives.

Sedgwick County Commission, district 5There was also a contest in district 5, which is Derby and parts of southeast Wichita. The one-term incumbent Jim Skelton declined to run for re-election. The two Republican candidates were Jim Howell and Dion Avello. Howell has represented parts of Derby in the Kansas House of Representatives for four years. Avello has been mayor of Derby for many years. The Wichita Chamber endorsed Howell in this race. Campaign funds were close in this race, with Howell having a small edge. The result of the election was Howell winning with 63 percent of the vote. He moves on to face the Democrat in the general election, former Rose Hill Mayor Richard Young.

22-CommissionWhat do the results of these elections mean? First, there may be a shift of power on the Sedgwick County commission. Currently, commissioners Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn are often in a minority of two against the other three commissioners. It’s thought that it Howell is elected, he would often join Ranzau and Peterjohn to form a working majority of three. That could cause a change in policy at the County commission, and that’s something that the Wichita chamber and Wichita’s cronies don’t want. It will be interesting to see who the chamber and the cronies support in the general election, Ranzau or the Democrat. In 2008, when Peterjohn ran for his first term, the Wichita chamber campaigned against him, making it their most important priority in that election.

For this shift to materialize, both Ranzau and Howell must win their November elections.

Wichita Chamber of Commerce 2013-07-09 004Ranzau’s victory is a defeat for the Wichita Chamber of Commerce. Besides endorsing McGinn, it made independent expenditures in her favor. This has broader implications than just one county commission district. This week the Wichita City Council voted in favor of placing a sales tax issue on the November ballot. The Wichita Chamber is strongly behind the sales tax in Wichita, and I would expect to see the chamber devote a lot of resources campaigning for its passage. Richard Ranzau is opposed to the sales tax increase. While his county commission district encompasses a lot of territory that is outside the City of Wichita, and it is only Wichita voters who will decide the sales tax issue, I think we can safely conclude that his victory paints a gloomy forecast for approval of a sales tax.

Looking even farther to the future. Ranzau’s county commission district overlaps part of Wichita city council district 5. That is currently represented by Jeff Longwell. He can’t run again because of term limits. Longwell is firmly in the grasp of Wichita’s cronies. Could Ranzau’s victory pave the way for a fiscally conservative city council candidate in district 5? That election will be next spring.

Also next spring Wichita will elect a new mayor. There are many names mentioned as candidates, including Longwell. What do the victories of Ranzau and Howell mean? What impact will the sales tax campaign and election result have on the spring elections?

24-Carolyn McGinn Key Construction 2014-07-02 01bThe Wichita Chamber and the Wichita cronies campaigned hard for Carolyn McGinn against Richard Ranzau. Well, I should clarify: They spent a lot of money on the campaign. Richard himself, his family, and his volunteers worked hard. The desire for economic freedom by Richard Ranzau and his volunteers was a more powerful force than the greed of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce, Key Construction, David Burk, and Bill Warren.

Keep this in mind. The Sedgwick County Commission has very little power to initiate the type of economic development incentives that the Wichita Chamber and the cronies want. That power rests almost totally at the Wichita City Council and the Kansas Department of Commerce. Also, the county commission has limited power to stop or object to incentives. Their main voice is the ability to cancel the formation of a tax increment financing district.

So if the Wichita Chamber and the cronies are willing to intervene to such extent in the campaign for county commissioner, think what they will be willing to do in city council or mayoral contests, if they see that their grip on the really big cookie jar might be in doubt. Since the departure of Michael O’Donnell for the Kansas Senate there has been no one on the Wichita city council who questions anything the Chamber and the cronies want. Not in any serious manner, that is. We see council members making false displays of pretense now and then, but that’s all they do.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 2015

Wichita city budget to have public hearing

This week the Wichita City Council holds the public hearing for the budget. Following are several observations.

(To view the budget, click here to go to wichita.gov. The best document to read is Volume I. The most important parts to read are the City Manager’s Policy Message (eleven pages) and the Budget Issues section (seven pages). Don’t worry; there are lots of pictures to skip over.)

The mill levy

The city says — many times — that the mill levy has not risen for a long time: “The 2015 Proposed Budget is based on City Council policy direction. It will not require a mill levy rate increase, for the 21st consecutive year.” (page 21)

Wichita mill levy rates. This table holds only the taxes levied by the City of Wichita and not any overlapping jurisdictions.
Wichita mill levy rates. This table holds only the taxes levied by the City of Wichita and not any overlapping jurisdictions.
In 2002 the City of Wichita mill levy rate was 31.845. In 2013 it was 32.509, based on the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. That’s an increase of 0.664 mills, or 2.09 percent, since 2002. In one year the mill levy rate increased .038 mills, or 0.12 percent. (These are for taxes levied by the City of Wichita only, and do not include any overlapping jurisdictions.)

Recent Wichita mill levy rates.
Recent Wichita mill levy rates.
The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to Wichita taxation.

Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative.
Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative.
While the city doesn’t have direct control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend.

The city may dismiss small changes in the mill levy as the result of errors in estimating assessed value. If there are errors in estimation, we would expect the errors to be random. That is, in some years we would expect the city to have estimated that assessed values would be lower than the actual value. In those years, the mill levy could go down. But that happened for only one year since 2002.

No matter what the cause, the Wichita city mill levy today is 2.09 percent higher than in 2002. The city should recognize this in its budget documents.

Stewardship of assets

Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city's 2012 Performance Measure Report
Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city’s 2012 Performance Measure Report
While the city boasts that the mill levy has not risen, part of the reason why it is (relatively) low is the city has not been taking care of the assets that citizens purchased and trusted the city to maintain. For example: “Pavement condition has slowly deteriorated over the last decade in Wichita. New pavement strategies will enhance the effectiveness of City efforts; however, additional funds would expedite improvements to streets in poor condition and help to more rapidly stabilize overall pavement conditions in Wichita.” (page 33)

Earlier this year the council received a document from the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee. It measured the amount by which the city is behind in maintaining its assets: “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 spending that the city has deferred to future years. The city knows this, too. The Wichita Eagle recently quoted Wichita Mayor Carl 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.”

The question is this: Does this budget make plans for correcting this maintenance deficit? The answer is: Yes, it does something, as described by the city: “In 2012, staff developed a new model to determine the impact of street treatment options. This model focuses on maximizing the return on investment of each treatment option. This method attempts to match the timing and method of treatment with the projected remaining service life (RSL) and value of the street network to ensure treatments maximize Wichita’s return on investment (ROI).” (page 34)

But this change is tiny compared to the magnitude of the problem. The budget talks about the proposed one cent per dollar sales tax that voters may be asked to approve. Of the nearly $80 million per year the sales tax might raise, only $5.5 million per year is allocated towards maintenance of infrastructure, in this case additional street maintenance. Remember, the city believes it needs to spend an additional $45 to $55 million per year “to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards.”

Outsourcing

The budget lists the areas in which Wichita has made use of outsourcing, which are the mowing of parks and security screening at city hall. The budget says that in 2015 the intergovernmental relations function will be outsourced. Also, the city will contract with private firms to supplement snow removal, and the removal of dead trees. The city is also soliciting proposals for some street maintenance activities.

But if this is all the city is doing regarding outsourcing, Wichita is missing out on many opportunities to improve service to citizens and reduce costs.

There’s a difference between government and business. As an example, consider city golf courses. Recently an advisory board recommended that the city improve customer service and salesmanship through training of golf staff and management. Successful businesses know that customer service and salesmanship are what business is all about, especially in a service-oriented product like golf. Businesses seek to provide good customer service because that is how they earn profit. But too often government sees customers as a burden, not an asset.

Outsourcing changes city services from being a burden placed on government employees, to something that a company actually wants to do.

Waste

Street lights in downtown Wichita, July 22, 2014.
Street lights in downtown Wichita, July 22, 2014.
I’ve illustrated many instances where the city is using electricity to light streetlights during the day. If the city seems unconcerned about such blatant and visible waste that surely must be easy to avoid, what does that tell us about waste that is not easily seen?

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Waste, economic development, and water issues.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichitans ought to ask city hall to stop blatant waste before it asks for more taxes. Then, a few questions about economic development incentives. Finally, how should we pay for a new water source, and is city hall open to outside ideas? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 53, broadcast July 27, 2014.

Wichita’s vampires and monsters

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita urges citizens to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation. Originally broadcast June 29, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

For more on this issue, see “Forget the vampires. Let’s tackle the real monsters.”

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1993

For Wichita’s new water supply, debt is suddenly bad

Wichita city leaders are telling us we need to spend a lot of money for a new water source. For some reason, debt has now become a dirty word.

Details are not firm (that’s a problem right there), but the amount needed is $250 million, city officials say. It could be less, they now speculate, maybe only $200 million.

To raise these funds, here’s the choice we’re given: Either (a) endure a sales tax for five years, or (b) borrow money, raise water bills for 20 years, and pay a lot of interest.

Wichita Area Future Water Supply: A Model Program for Other Municipalities
Wichita Area Future Water Supply: A Model Program for Other Municipalities
It’s a similar argument made in favor of a sales tax to pay for the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita. By paying higher sales tax for a short while, we avoid long-term debt.

There’s also the argument made that by using a sales tax, visitors to Wichita help pay for the water project. Of course, the sales tax is largely paid by local residents. My estimates indicate that raising the sales tax by one cent per dollar costs the average household $223 per year. That’s based on U.S. Census data of household spending in various categories, some subject to sales tax, and some not.

But even if we can get visitors to Wichita to pay part of the project’s cost through a sales tax, that’s not necessarily a wise course of action. By making it more expensive to visit Wichita, we make it a less desirable destination.

The motivation of those who argue for raising funds by getting outsiders to pay for our water project through a sales tax may be missing a subtle point. That is, much of what is “sold” in Wichita is not subject to sales tax, as the output of many manufacturers in Wichita isn’t taxed. The fuselages of Boeing 737 jetliners is an example. But these manufacturers use a lot of water and pay water bills. The cost of that they’ll probably pass on to their customers.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1993Of course, by making products manufactured in Wichita more expensive, we make them less desirable. There really is no free lunch, as the economists say.

All these arguments link the project with its funding too closely. They ought to be independent decisions.

What’s really curious is the city’s sudden aversion to debt. Almost all the money used to pay for the ASR to this point was borrowed. So far, the total cost of ASR is $247 million. It’s common to pay for long-lived capital assets with borrowed funds. So it’s strange for city council members to suddenly decide that debt is not good, and that we have to pay for this project with cash, which is what the sales tax does.

Here’s another alternative: If the project costs $250 million, let’s raise water bills by that amount over five years. In this way, water users pay for the new water supply, and we avoid the debt that city council members seem determined to avoid.

This might be a bitter pill to swallow. In 2013, the Wichita water utility collected about $65 million in revenue. That doesn’t represent the total that people pay on their water bills, as the sewer utility collected $50 million. Adding $50 million per year to water bills might seem like a large increase, and it would be.

But it’s important to have water users pay for water. Also, we need to be aware of the costs of a new water supply. That’s easier to accomplish when people pay this cost through their water bills. When paying through a general sales tax, this linkage is less obvious. There is less transparency, and ultimately, less accountability.

Wichita City Council Chambers

For Wichita leaders, novel alternatives on water not welcome

A forum on water issues featured a presentation by Wichita city officials and was attended by other city officials, but the city missed a learning opportunity.

This week Kansas Policy Institute held an educational form on the issues of water in the Wichita area. The event featured four presentations with questions and answers, with most being about one hour in length.

This was a welcome and important event, as the city is proposing to spend several hundred million dollars on an increased water supply. It is likely that citizens will be asked to approve a sales tax to pay this cost. It’s important that we get this right, and citizen skepticism is justified. The city has recently spent $247 million on a water project that hasn’t yet proved its value over a reasonably long trial. A former mayor has told audiences that he was assured Wichita had adequate water for the next 50 years. It was eleven years ago he was told that. Wichita’s current mayor has admitted that the city has not spent what was needed to maintain our current infrastructure, instead pushing those costs to the future.

Most of the information that Wichitans have access to is provided by city government. So when an independent group produces an educational event on an important topic, citizens might hope that Wichita city officials take part.

And, Wichita city officials did take part. The second of the four presentations was delivered by Wichita public works director Alan King and council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita). City governmental affairs director Dale Goter and council member Lavonta Williams were in the audience.

But after this presentation ended, the four city officials left.

What did they miss? They missed two additional presentations, or half the program. The city officials did not hear a presentation by Dr. Art Hall of Kansas University which presented novel ideas of using markets for water resources. Particularly, how Wichita could secure increased water supply by purchasing water rights and using the infrastructure it already has in place.

In the final presentation, the audience asked questions that the presenter was not able to answer. City officials like public works director King would have been able to provide the answers.

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

Come to think of it, where was the city manager? Assistant city manager? Other council members? The city’s economic development staff?

Where was Mayor Carl Brewer?

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

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

I understand that city officials might not be the biggest fans of Kansas Policy Institute. It supports free markets and limited government.

But city officials tell us that they want to hear from citizens. The city has gone to great lengths to collect input from citizens, implementing a website and holding numerous meetings.

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

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

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Economic development incentives, at the margin

visualization-exampleThe evaluation of economic development incentives requires thinking at the margin, not the entirety.

When considering the effect of economic development incentives, cities like Wichita use a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the incentive is in the best interests of the city. The analysis usually also considers the county, state, and school districts, although these jurisdictions have no say over whether the incentive is granted, with a few exceptions. The basic idea is that by paying money now or forgiving future taxes, the city gains even more in increased tax collections. This is then pitched as a good deal for taxpayers: The city gets more jobs (usually) and a profit, too.

Economic activity generates tax revenue flowing to governmental agencies. When people work, they pay income taxes. When they buy stuff, they pay sales taxes. When they create new property or upgrade existing property, it is taxed.

In the calculation of cost-benefit ratios, when a company receives economic development incentives, government takes credit for the increase in tax revenue. Government often says that without the incentive, the company would not have located in Wichita. Or, it might not have expanded in Wichita. Or these days, it is claimed that incentives are necessary to persuade companies to consider remaining in Wichita rather than moving somewhere else.

But there are a few problems with the arguments that cities and their economic development agencies promote. One is that the increase in tax revenue happens regardless of whether the company has received incentives. What about all the companies that locate to or expand in Wichita without receiving incentives?

Related is that jurisdictions may grant relatively small incentives and then take credit for the entire deal. I’ve been told that when economic development agencies learn of a company moving to an area or expanding, they swoop in with small incentives and take credit for the entire deal. The agency is then able to point to a small incentive that enabled a huge deal. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to get the involved parties to speak on the record about this.

The importance of marginal thinking

Here’s an example of the importance of looking at marginal gains rather than the whole enchilada. In 2012, the City of Wichita developed a program called New HOME (New Home Ownership Made Easy). The crux of the program is to rebate Wichita city property taxes for five years to those who buy newly-built homes in certain neighborhoods under certain conditions.

Wichita City HallThe important question is how much new activity this program will induce. Often government takes credit for all economic activity that takes place. This ignores the economic activity that was going to take place naturally — in this case, new homes that are going to be built even without this subsidy program. According to data compiled by Wichita Area Builders Association and the WSU Center for Economic Development and Business Research — this is the data that was current at the time the Wichita city council made its decision to authorize the program — in 2011 462 new homes were started in the City of Wichita. The HOME program contemplated subsidizing 1,000 homes in a period of 22 months. That’s a rate of 545 homes per year — not much more than the present rate of 462 per year. But, the city has to give up collecting property tax on all these homes — even the ones that would be built anyway.

What we’re talking about is possibly inducing a small amount of additional activity over what would happen naturally and organically. But we have to subsidize a very large number of houses in order to achieve that. The lesson is that we need to evaluate the costs of this program based on the marginal activity it may induce, not all activity. For more, see Wichita new home tax rebate program: The analysis.

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Citizen activists and the proposed Wichita sales tax

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Two activists join host Bob Weeks to discuss activism at the local level. Then, what about the proposed sales tax increase in Wichita? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 51, broadcast July 13, 2014.

Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative.

Wichita property taxes rise again

The City of Wichita is fond of saying that it hasn’t raised its mill levy in many years. But the mill levy has risen in recent years.

Wichita mill levy rates. This table holds only the taxes levied by the City of Wichita and not any overlapping jurisdictions.
Wichita mill levy rates. This table holds only the taxes levied by the City of Wichita and not any overlapping jurisdictions.
In 2002 the City of Wichita mill levy rate was 31.845. In 2013 it was 32.509, based on the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. That’s an increase of 0.664 mills, or 2.09 percent, since 2002. In one year the mill levy rate increased .038 mills, or 0.12 percent. (These are for taxes levied by the City of Wichita only, and do not include any overlapping jurisdictions.)

Recent Wichita mill levy rates.
Recent Wichita mill levy rates.
The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to Wichita taxation.

Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative.
Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative.
While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend.

Despite the data that is readily available in the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports, some choose to remain misinformed and/or uninformed. The video below provides insight into the level of knowledge of some elected officials and city staff.

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Water, waste, signs, gaps, economic development, jobs, cronyism, and water again.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at a variety of topics, including an upcoming educational event concerning water in Wichita, more wasteful spending by the city, yard signs during election season, problems with economic development and cronyism in Wichita, and water again. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 50, broadcast July 6, 2014.

water fountain gargoyles fountain-197334_640

Examining Wichita’s water future

From Kansas Policy Institute.

water fountain gargoyles fountain-197334_640A proposal before the Wichita City Council would raise the sales tax in the city by 1% to fund several projects. The biggest piece of the proposal would be to fund additional water capacity for users of the city water system.

On Thursday 17 July, come hear from the City of Wichita and others on the scope of the problems, possible solutions, and the perspectives of several experts in the debate.

Click here to register for this event.

Date: Thursday 17 July
When: 7:30 a.m. registration and 8:00 a.m. start to presentations
Where: Wichita State University MetroPlex Room 132 ( 29th and Oliver)
Cost: Free with Advance Registration

A light breakfast will be served. The session will conclude by 12:15 p.m.

Speaker Line-up and Agenda:
7:30 a.m. — Registration and Breakfast
8:00 a.m. — Kansas Water Office on scope of water usage/needs in SCKS
9:00 a.m. — City of Wichita Proposal: Alan King, Dir. of Public Works, accompanied by Councilman Pete Meitzner
10:00 a.m. — Are Water Markets Applicable in Kansas?: Dr. Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics at the University of Kansas
11:00 a.m. — Wichita Chamber of Commerce Water Task Force Findings: Karma Mason, president of iSi Environmental

KPI is not taking a position of the water proposal before the City Council. This event is to provide a forum for relevant parties to present their perspective on the issue with the public. Each presenter will have 30 minutes for a presentation followed by an Q&A.

This is the first in a series of KPI-sponsored forums of this nature on the different aspects of the sales tax proposal. Future forums will be held on the economic development and street and transit proposals.

For more information about this event contact Kansas Policy Institute at 316.634.0218. To register, click here.

In Wichita, gap analysis illustrates our problems

Wichita City Hall.
Wichita City Hall.
Following is testimony provided to the Wichita City Council on July 1, 2014. Background on this issue may be found at In Wichita, a public hearing with missing information and Wichita city council schools citizens on civic involvement.

Thank you for providing the gap analysis that I requested.

If the gap analysis is credible, if it really is true that projects like this are not financially feasible without taxpayer assistance, what does that tell us about Wichita? Shouldn’t we work on fixing these problems for everyone, rather than parceling out business welfare on a piecemeal basis?

The agenda packet material for this item says there is a need for incentives “based on the current market.” But not long ago this council was told that downtown Wichita is booming. So why won’t the market support a project like this without a handout from city taxpayers? And if downtown is truly booming but we’re still giving out incentives, will we ever be able to wean ourselves off?

Based on my reading of the gap analysis document, I see another problem with the facade improvement program. It shifts costs from landlords to commercial tenants. Instead of paying for the facade improvement costs as part of a mortgage or other financing, these costs become additional property taxes that commercial tenants pay in addition to rent.

This is really a problem, as Kansas and Wichita commercial property taxes are high. Each year The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence survey property taxes. Considering the largest city in each of the states, Wichita property taxes are ninth highest in the nation for commercial property.

Wichita taxes are not just a little higher, but a lot higher. For example, for a commercial property valued at $100,000, Wichita property taxes are 38.5 percent higher than the national average.

Some of the reason why commercial property taxes are so high is due to the difference in assessment rates for various property classes. That’s not set by the City of Wichita. But the overall level of spending, and therefore the level of taxation, is set by this council. Further, the cost of incentives like this raise the cost of government for everyone else. One thing the city could do is to reduce spending somewhere else to offset the cost of this incentive. This would mean that other taxpayers do not have to bear the cost of this incentive.

If we wonder why the Wichita economy is not growing, commercial property tax rates and this council’s policy of targeted reductions are a large part of the problem.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Vampires on the prowl in Wichita and the city council’s treatment of citizens.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita urges citizens to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation. Then proceedings of a recent Wichita City Council meeting are instructive of the factors citizens should consider if they want to interact with the council and city government at a public hearing. Episode 49, broadcast June 29, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

In Wichita, no difference between business and government?

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Leaders in Wichita often liken government decision making to running a business, but there are important differences. That Wichita’s leaders in both government and business do not understand this is problematic. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. For more on this, see In Wichita, no differentiation between business and government.

Two street lights in downtown Wichita, June 20, 2014.

Forget the vampires. Let’s tackle the real monsters.

Public service announcements on Facebook and Wichita City Channel 7 urge Wichitans to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation.

Public service announcement crawler on Wichita's cable channel network, June 17, 2014.
Public service announcement crawler on Wichita’s cable channel network, June 17, 2014.
People are probably vaguely aware that many modern electrical and electronic devices consume electricity even when switched off. One source estimates that a cell phone charger consumes 0.26 watts of electrical power even when a phone is not plugged in. While in sleep mode, a flat panel computer display consumes 1.39 watts. A clock radio uses 2.01 watts. A microwave oven while not in use and with its door closed uses 3.08 watts. (These are average values.) A large Samsung smart television on standby uses 0.3 watts.

While appearing to be wasteful, this “vampire” power consumption often has a benefit. If you unplug your clock radio when you leave for work in the morning, you save a few dozen watts of power. But, you have to reset the clock when you want to use it again. If I unplug my Samsung smart television, I’ll probably have to reprogram it to my preferences. If I want save the power my microwave oven wastes, I’ll have to wrench my back lifting it out of the way so I can reach the outlet it plugs in to. That action, naturally, unleashes a cloud of dust bunnies to dirty my counters and floor.

Wichita city government Facebook page public service advice regarding "vampire" power waste.
Wichita city government Facebook page public service advice regarding “vampire” power waste.
Nonetheless, the City of Wichita uses its Facebook page and cable television network to urge its citizens take steps like these in order to save small amounts of electricity.

How much electricity do you suppose a city street light consumes? It depends on the type of light, but common street lights use from 100 to 200 watts. During the hours when the sun does not shine, we’re generally willing to pay for that in order to obtain the benefits of lighted streets and sidewalks.

But when street lights are burning in the middle of a day, they provide absolutely no value. Street lights turned on during the day provide none of the convenience of “vampire” power usage, such as not needing to reset your clocks and move your microwave oven every day.

Bench lights and street lights in downtown Wichita switched on in the middle of the day.
Bench lights and street lights in downtown Wichita switched on in the middle of the day.
So while the City of Wichita uses its television channel to hector citizens into adding inconvenience to their lives in order to save vanishingly small amounts of electricity, the city apparently has no misgivings about using large amounts of electricity to needlessly illuminate the noonday sky, week after week.

As I’ve shown, the city often has street lights turned on at noon on days with no clouds in the sky. (See here for examples.) Yesterday dozens of city street lights were turned on at 2:30 in the afternoon on a sunny day for many blocks in downtown Wichita. This is not an isolated mistake. It is a pattern. (Even if it is cloudy and raining, the street lights add no discernible illumination during daylight.)

There’s something else. Each of us can choose the balance between “vampire” power waste and inconvenience based on our own values. If we choose to use “vampire” power in order to add convenience to our lives, we have to pay for it.

Two street lights in downtown Wichita, June 20, 2014.
Two street lights in downtown Wichita, June 20, 2014.
But the Wichita city hall bureaucrats who burn street lights in the noonday sun week after week are spending your money, not theirs.

(Yes, city hall bureaucrats pay taxes to the city just like you and I, so their tax money is also wasted. But because the cost of this waste is spread over the entire city, the motivation for any one person to take steps to eliminate the waste is small. Especially if, like a city hall bureaucrat would, you’d have to actually work in order to achieve savings. But these same bureaucrats and politicians urge you to work harder in your home in order to save small amounts of “vampire” electricity.)

The wasteful expenditures on street lights I’ve been illustrating for several weeks are located in districts of the city represented by Janet Miller and Lavonta Williams. Both express concern for the environment and criticize the purported harm man has caused the earth by emitting greenhouse gases. Here’s an opportunity for them to act on their beliefs.

For Wichita, policies are made to be waived and ignored

The City of Wichita says it wants policies to be predictable and reliable, but finds it difficult to live up to that goal.

From 2009, an example of how the City of Wichita makes policy on the fly to suit the current situation. The policy change benefited a building developed by “The Minnesota Guys,” who, since the time of this article, fell into disfavor with pretty much everyone in Wichita, including the city council.

When the Lofts at St. Francis needed routine repairs, the city waived policies to use special assessment financing.
When the Lofts at St. Francis needed routine repairs, the city waived policies to use special assessment financing.
Regarding public policy, this episode illustrated the city broadening the application of special assessment financing. Traditionally special assessment financing has been limited to instances such as the city building streets and sewers in new areas of town, allowing commercial and residential property owners to repay the costs over 15 years. But the item approved by the council at this meeting was for repair of existing buildings, not construction of new infrastructure. Additionally, the work financed by the special assessment taxes will be owned by the private property owners. When the city uses special assessment financing to build streets and sewers in new neighborhoods the city owns this infrastructure, even though it is paid for by nearby property owners.

To approve this financing, the city had to bend or waive two policies. That’s problematic, as the city tells citizens it wants policies and council behavior to be consistent and predictable. Although this incident is from five years ago, not much has changed since then. See Wichita: No such document for an example from last year. Following is Wichita special assessments for repairs is bad policy. Other articles on this topic are In Wichita, waiving guidelines makes for bad policy and At Wichita city council, special pleading of selfish interests.

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At Tuesday’s meeting (August 18, 2009) of the Wichita City Council, a privately-owned condominium association is seeking special assessment financing to make repairs to its building. In order for the association to succeed in its request, the council will have to waive two guidelines of Wichita’s facade improvement program.

Special assessment financing means that the cost of the repairs, up to $112,620 in this case, will be added to the building’s property taxes. Actually, in this case, to each of the condominium owners’ taxes. They’ll pay it off over the course of 15 years. (A conversation with the president of the homeowners association brought out the possibility that the actual assessment may be in the neighborhood of $75,000.)

So the city is not giving this money to the building’s owners. They’ll have to pay it back. The city is, however, setting new precedent in this action.

Special assessment financing has traditionally been used to fund infrastructure such as streets and sewers, and new infrastructure at that. The city, under its facade improvement program, now allows this type of financing to be used to make repairs and renovations to existing buildings. That’s if the building is located in one of the politically-favored areas of town.

By using special assessment financing in this way, the city seeks to direct investment towards parts of town that it feels doesn’t have enough investment. This form of centralized government planning is bad public policy. The city should stop doing this, and let people freely choose where to invest.

Besides this, two guidelines in the city’s facade improvement program must be waived for this project to obtain special assessment financing.

The first is the private investment match. This is designed to ensure that the property owners have “skin in the game” and that the taxes will be paid back.

Here, the city is proposing that since the building’s owners have made a past investment in this property, there’s no need to require a concurrent investment. It hardly needs to be noted that anyone who has purchased property has made a past investment in that property.

Second, facade improvement projects are required to undergo a gap analysis to “prove” the need for public financing. According to the city’s report: “This project does not lend itself to this type of gap analysis; however, staff believes that conventional financing would be difficult to obtain for exterior repairs to a residential condominium property like this.”

So the city proposes to waive this requirement as well.

There seems to me to be a defect in the manner of ownership of this building. While the homeowners association and the condominium owners might not have anticipated that repairs would be needed so soon after the building’s opening, they must have contemplated that repairs and maintenance — to either exterior or interior common areas — would be needed at some time. How does the association plan to pay for these?

So what will happen if the city council doesn’t approve the special assessment financing? The agenda report states “Each individual condo owner would be required to fund a share of the cost.”

Isn’t that what private property owners do: fund the cost of repairs to their property?

According to the Sedgwick County Treasurer’s office, the appraised values of these condos range from $103,000 to $310,200, with an average value of $201,943. The maximum amount being added to each condo’s assessment is $4,022, although the actual amount may be closer to $3,000.

That’s along the lines of what it might cost to perform a few repairs and paint a house that’s worth what these condos are worth.

Let’s ask that these owners do just what thousands of homeowners in Wichita do every year: take responsibility for the maintenance of their own property without looking to city hall for help.

Lofts at St. Francis Agenda Report 2009-08-18 by Bob Weeks

WichitaLiberty.TV set 2014-04-29 01 800

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

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

Wichita City Council Chambers

Wichita city council schools citizens on civic involvement

Proceedings of a recent Wichita City Council meeting are instructive of the factors citizens should consider if they want to interact with the council and city government at a public hearing.

At the June 17, 2014 meeting of the Wichita City Council, one agenda item was a public hearing to consider adding a property to the city’s facade improvement program. Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity-Kansas appeared before the council during the hearing to express concern that a member of AFP (me) had made a request for information on the item, but had not received the information by the time of the public hearing. Background on my request and its importance to public policy can be found at In Wichita, a public hearing with missing information. Video of this meeting is below, or click here to view at YouTube.

From the bench, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said that this Pete Meitzer District 2 2012item had been “discussed in length last week,” referring to what would be the June 10, 2014 meeting. A reading of council agendas and minutes shows that it was actually at the June 3 meeting when the item was presented. Further, the June 3 matter was a different item. It’s a small detail, but the purpose of the June 3 item was to approve and accept the property owners petition and set the date for a public hearing. That public hearing was held on June 17.

At the June 3 meeting, contrary to Meitzner’s assertion, there was no substantive discussion on this item except for the presentation by city staff. There really was no need for discussion at that time, as the purpose of the agenda item was to accept the petition and set a date for a public hearing. If the petition is valid in its form, I don’t believe the council has any choice but to accept it and set a date for a public hearing. The purpose of the public hearing is to, naturally, hear from the public.

At the June 17 meeting during the public hearing, Meitzner questioned Estes and city staff. He asked if there was a “gap analysis” performed on all special assessments the city establishes. When told no, he asked Open Recordswhy is the gap analysis needed for this project and not for others. The assistant city manager explained that it is required for economic development projects like the one under consideration today, but not for others.

Questioning at the meeting also revealed that there are legal issues regarding whether the gap analysis can be disclosed to the public. The city has told me it will respond to my request for the document by June 20. The city is treating my friendly request for the document as a request made under the Kansas Open Records Act. That law is permeated with loopholes and exceptions that give government many pretexts to avoid disclosure of documents.

The meeting also featured an impassioned attack on Estes and her allies from a citizen speaker. The attack was based on incorrect information, as was explained to the citizen in the meeting.

What citizens can learn from this meeting

If you don’t ask for information on a schedule that pleases the city council, you may be criticized by multiple council members.

Council members may criticize you based on incorrect facts.

Council members may grill you based on their lack of knowledge of — or incorrect understanding of — city policy.

If you ask for information from the City of Wichita, but don’t also ask for the same from other jurisdictions, a city council member may seek to discredit you.

city-council-chambers-sign-800

In Wichita, a public hearing with missing information

The Wichita City Council is holding a public hearing, but citizens don’t have information that would be useful if they’re interested in conducting oversight.

Wichita City Library, 1965Wichita’s facade improvement program provides for the financing of the exterior faces of buildings in certain areas of the city. The money that is advanced to the developers, along with interest charges, are added to the property tax bills for the property, spread over 15 years. In this respect the program is similar to when the city builds streets and sewers in new areas of town and allows homeowners to pay these costs over 15 years. Except, the facade improvement program is for repair of existing buildings, not construction of new infrastructure. Additionally, the work financed by the facade improvement program is owned by the private property owner. When the city constructs streets and sewers in new neighborhoods, the city owns them.

There’s another difference. In the item to be considered today, there is a grant of $20,000. This is a gift of cash with few strings attached, except that it be spent on something the owner must spend anyway.

City documents indicate this is a project with a cost of $2,500.000.

Here’s the public policy angle. City documents state, regarding this item:

In 2009, the Facade Improvement Program was revised to require that private funding for overall project costs be at least equal to public funding and that applicants show a financial need for public assistance in order to complete the project, based on the owner’s ability to finance the project and assuming a market-based return on investment.

Later on, the same document states

The Office of Urban Development has reviewed the economic (“gap”) analysis of the project and determined a financial need for incentives based on the current market.

In other words, without the benefit of the facade improvement loan and grant, the project would not be economically feasible. Which, to me, seems curious. A $20,000 grant for a $2,500,000 Economists use a decimal pointproject is 0.8 percent of the project. The lower interest rate for the $156,034 being financed under the program provides some small additional benefit. These values are small compared to the scope of the project. It is not possible to forecast future revenues and expenses with the precision necessary to conclude that the facade improvement program boosts this project over the bar of economic feasibility, whatever that is.

We’ll probably not know what that bar is. I asked for the “gap” analysis. It doesn’t appear that it will be available before today’s meeting. I asked for it Thursday evening, and the city’s public information officer has followed up with me to see if I received the document, but I do not have it. The public doesn’t have it. I doubt if city council members have it.

The item today is a public hearing. The law requires it to be held so that the council can receive input from the public. Whether the public is informed — that’s a different matter.

Who reads the agenda

The agenda packet for the previous week contained a mistake. It was a mistake that is easy to make and not of any serious consequence. The wrong pages appeared for an item, and the correct pages were not in the packet. When I inquired about this late Monday afternoon — not long before the Tuesday meeting — the city’s public information office thanked me for bringing this to the city’s attention. A correction was promptly published.

Which leads me to wonder: Had anyone else read the agenda with sufficient attention to notice that mistake?

In Wichita, the news is not always news the city thinks you should know

In February 2012 the City of Wichita held an election, but you wouldn’t have learned of the results if your only news source was the city’s website or television station. In the following article from March 2012, I wonder why news of the election results was overlooked by the city.

After last week’s election results in Wichita in which voters canceled an ordinance passed by the city council, I noticed there was no mention of the election results on the city’s website. So I dashed off a note to several responsible authorities, writing this:

The City of Wichita's website reports news stories like this, but not the results of a city election held two weeks later.
The City of Wichita’s website reports news stories like this, but not the results of a city election held two weeks later.
“I notice that the city’s website carries no news on the results of the February 28th election. Is this oversight unintentional? Or does the city intend to continue spending its taxpayer-funded news producing efforts on stories with headlines like ‘Valentine’s at Mid-Continent Airport,’ ‘Rain Garden Workshops in February,’ and ‘Firefighter Receives Puppy Rescued at Fire Scene’?”

It’s not as though city staff doesn’t have time to produce a story on the election. The city’s public affairs department employs 15 people with an annual budget of some $1.3 million. While some of these employees are neighborhood assistants, there are still plenty of people who could spend an hour or two writing a story announcing the results of the February 28th election.

Except: That doesn’t fit in with the city’s political strategy. That strategy appears to be to ignore the results of the election, or to characterize the election as a narrowly-focused referendum on one obscure economic development tool.

At one time, however, the attitude of city hall was that the election was over the entire future of downtown Wichita. Mayor Carl Brewer said the election would cause “turmoil inside the community, unrest.” Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said we needed to have an early election date so “avoid community discourse and debate.” He later backpedaled from these remarks.

But now that city hall and its allies lost the election, the issue is now cast as having been very narrow, after all. Citizens aren’t against economic development incentives, they say. They’re just against hotel guest tax rebates.

This narrow interpretation illustrates — again — that we have a city council, city hall bureaucracy, and allied economic development machinery that is totally captured by special interests. Furthermore, the revealed purpose of the city’s public affairs department, including its television channel, is now seen as the promotion of Wichita city government, not Wichita and its citizens. These are two very different things.

At least the street light in the background was turned off.

Wichita advances in the field of cost savings

When Wichita city leaders tell us that the budget and spending have been cut to the bone, that everything that can be done to save money has already been done, remember my Friday trips to downtown for lunch.

With two of the four sidewalk bench lights illuminating the sidewalk despite the cloudless midday sky, there is good news: The street light in the background was not switched on. Neither were other nearby street lights. This is progress for Wichita.

At least the street light in the background was turned off.
At least the street light in the background was turned off.
The lights illustrated in this photograph are, undoubtedly, a small portion of the city’s spending. But you don’t have to look very hard to find waste like this, and we know that small examples of waste are multiplied many times. So when city leaders tell us that there is nowhere left to cut in the budget, that everything that can be done to trim the fat has already been done, and that the only thing we can do is raise taxes — well, think of this photograph and others illustrated in Another Friday lunch, and even more lights are on, To compensate, Wichita switched on the street lights, In Wichita, the streetside seating is illuminated very well, In Wichita, the rooftops are well-lit and On a sunny day in downtown Wichita you can see the street lights.

This is not to say that waste like this does not occur in the private sector. Of course it does. But businesses and individuals have a powerful incentive to avoid waste that isn’t present in government: Businesses and people are spending their own money. And even if they waste money, it’s their money, not ours.

WichitaLiberty.TV set 2014-04-29 01 800

WichitaLiberty.TV: Tech advice for activism, then a lesson in economic development in Wichita

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A few tips on using your computer and the internet. Then, how to be informed. Finally, a look at a recent episode of economic development in Wichita, and what we can we learn from that. Episode 47, broadcast June 15, 2014. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Wichita logic Brewer fishing

Before asking for more taxes, Wichita city hall needs to earn trust

Before Wichita city hall asks its subjects for more tax revenue, it needs to regain the trust of Wichitans. Following, from February, an illustration of the problems city hall has created for itself. And, how it would be helpful if the editorial board of the state’s largest newspaper acted as though it cared about ethics, cronyism, government transparency, and corruption.

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

Mayor's Downtown VisionTomorrow 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.”

Ambassador Hotel sign 2014-03-07Why 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.

Hockaday sign explanationThen 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.

Doesn't Wichita have a newspaperSo 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?

Wait a minute: Doesn’t Wichita have a newspaper that keeps a watchful eye on cronyism and corruption? With an editorial board that crusades against these ills?

The answer is no. No such newspaper exists in Wichita.

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.

Council members shall refrain 01Be 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; Wichita logic Brewer fishingshall 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.

Warren Theater sells Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer's BBQ sauce

Problems with the Wichita economy. Is it cronyism?

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita economy has not performed well. Could cronyism be a contributing factor? Mayor Carl Brewer says it’s time to put politics and special interests aside. Is our political leadership capable of doing this? View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita government prefers rebates to markets

Today the Wichita City Council may decide to revive a program to issue rebates to persons who purchase water-saving appliances. The program was started last summer, but less than half the allocated rebate money was claimed. The city will argue that this program has no cost, as the funds are left over from last year’s program. Except: The city could use the money not spent on rebates to either reduce water rates or retire water system debt. Following is an article from last year on this topic.

Wichita begins rebates and regulation

Instead of relying on market forces, Wichita imposes a new tax and prepares a new regulatory regime.

Equus BedsAt today’s meeting of the Wichita City Council, the city decided to spend up to $1 million this year on rebates to encourage people to buy water-efficient appliances. This will save a vanishingly small amount of water at tremendous cost.

The worst realization from today’s city council meeting is how readily citizens, politicians, and bureaucrats will toss aside economic thinking. The antimarket bias that Bryan Caplan explains in The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies was in full display — even by the conservative members of the council.

It’s also clear that some council members want to go down the road of austerity rather than abundance.

What did we learn today? Many speakers used the terms “conservation” and “judicious.” Conservation is good. Judicious use is good. But each person applies different meanings to these concepts. A great thing about living in a (relatively) free economy is that each person gets to choose to spend their time and money on the things that are important to them, and in the amounts they want. We make these choices many times each day. Sometimes we’re aware of making them, and sometimes we’re not.

For example: If you’re watching television alone in your home, and you go to the kitchen to get a snack, do you turn off the television for the moment that you’re not watching it? No? Well, isn’t it wasting electricity and contributing to global warming to have a switched-on television that no one is watching, even for just a moment?

Some people may turn off the television in this scenario. But most people probably decide that the effort required to save a minute’s worth of electricity consumption by a television isn’t worth the effort required.

(By the way, the type of television programs you watch each evening: Is it worth burning dirty coal (or running precious water through dams, or splitting our finite supply of uranium atoms, or spoiling landscapes and killing birds with wind turbines) just so you can watch Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow rant? Or prison documentaries? Or celebrity gossip? Reruns of shows you’re already seen? And I’ve seen you fall asleep while watching television! What a monumental waste. We should require sleep sensors on all new televisions and rebates to retrofit old sets.)

But when people leave their homes empty to go to work, almost everyone turns off the television, lights, and other appliances. Many may adjust their thermostats to save energy. People make the choice to do this based on the costs of leaving the lights on all day versus the cost of turning them on and off. No one needs to tell them to do this. The relative prices of things do this.

(You may be noting that children have to be told to turn off televisions and lights. That’s true. It’s true because they generally aren’t aware of the prices of things, as they don’t pay utility bills. But adults do.)

In most areas of life, people use the relative prices of things to make decisions about how to allocate their efforts and consume scarce resources. Wichita could be doing that with water, but it isn’t.

The conservation measures recommended by speakers today all have a cost. Sometimes the cost is money. In some cases the cost is time and convenience. In others the cost is a less attractive city without green lawns and working fountains. In many cases, the cost is shifted to someone else who is unwilling to voluntarily bear the cost, as in the rebate program.

At least we’ll be able to measure the cost of the rebate program. For most of the other costs, we’re pretending they don’t exist.

Instead of relying on economics and markets, Wichita is turning to a regulatory regime. Instead of pricing water rationally and letting each person and family decide how much water to use, politicians and bureaucrats will decide for us.

All city council members and the mayor approved this expansion of regulation and taxation.

(Yes, it’s true that the rebates will be funded from the water department, but that’s a distinction without meaningful difference.)

The motion made by Mayor Carl Brewer contained some provisions that are probably good ideas. But it also contained the appliance rebate measure. Someone on the council could have made a substitute motion that omitted the rebates, and there could have been a vote.

But not a single council member would do this.

It’s strange that we turn over such important functions as our water supply to politicians and bureaucrats, isn’t it?

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1992

With new tax exemptions, what is the message Wichita sends to existing landlords?

As the City of Wichita prepares to grant special tax status to another new industrial building, existing landlords must be wondering why they struggle to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage.

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers whether to grant property and sales tax exemptions to a proposed speculative industrial building in north central Wichita. If approved, this will be the second project undertaken under new economic development policies that allow for this type of tax exemption.

Those with tax abatementsCity documents estimate that the property tax savings for the first year will be $312,055. This exemption will be granted for five years, with a second five year period possible if performance goals are met.

The city documents also state that the project will also apply for a sales tax exemption, but no estimate of these tax savings are given. It’s common for a project of this type to have about half its cost in purchases subject to sales tax. With “site work and building” at $10,350,000, sales tax in Wichita on half that amount is $370,012. Undoubtedly a rough estimate, it nonetheless gives an idea of how much sales tax the developers will avoid paying.

(If city hall has its way, the sales tax in Wichita will soon increase by one cent per dollar, meaning the developers of this project would save $421,762 in sales tax. While others will hurry to make purchases before the higher sales tax rate takes effect — if it does — these developers will be in no hurry. Their sales tax is locked in at zero percent. In fact, once having a sales tax or property tax exemption, these developers are now in a position to root for higher sales and property tax rates, as that increases costs for their competitors, thereby giving these tax-exempt developers a competitive advantage.)

City documents give the benefit-cost ratios for the city and overlapping jurisdictions:

City of Wichita General Fund 1.30 to one
Sedgwick County 1.18 to one
USD 259 1.00 to one
State of Kansas 12.11 to one

It’s not known whether these ratios include the sales tax forgiveness.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1992While the City of Wichita insists that projects show a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or better (although there are many exceptions), it doesn’t apply that standard for overlapping jurisdictions. Here, Sedgwick County experiences a benefit-cost ratio of 1.18 to one, and the Wichita school district (USD 259) 1.00 to one. These two governmental bodies have no input on the decision the city is making on their behalf. The school district’s share of the forgiven taxes is 47.4 percent.

When the city granted a similar tax exemption to a speculative warehouse in southwest Wichita, my estimates were that its landlord has a cost advantage of about 20 percent over other property owners. Existing industrial landlords in Wichita — especially those with available space to rent and those who may lose tenants to this new building — must be wondering why they struggle to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage.

Wichita property taxes

Property taxes in Wichita are high for industrial buildings, and even higher for commercial buildings. See Wichita property taxes compared. So it’s difficult to blame developers for seeking relief. But instead of offering tax relief to those who ask and to those city hall approves of, it would be better to have lower taxes for everyone.

Targeted economic development incentives

The targeted economic development efforts of governments like Wichita fail for several reasons. First is the knowledge problem, in that government simply does not know which companies are worthy of public investment. In the case of the Wichita, do we really know which industries should be targeted? Is 1.3 to one really the benchmark we should seek, or would we be better off by insisting on 1.4 to one? Or should we relax the requirement to 1.2 to one so that more projects might qualify?

This assumes that these benefit-costs ratios have validity. This is far from certain, as follows:

1. The benefits that government claims are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of higher tax revenue. This is very different from the profits companies earn in voluntary market transactions.

2. Government claims that in order to get these “benefits,” the incentives must be paid. But often the new economic activity (expansion, etc.) would have happened anyway without the incentives.

3. Why is it that most companies are able to grow without incentives, but only a few companies require incentives? What is special about these companies?

4. If the relatively small investment the city makes in incentives is solely responsible for such wonderful outcomes in terms of jobs, why doesn’t the city do this more often? If the city has such power to create economic growth, why is anyone unemployed?

Do incentives work?

The uncontroverted peer-reviewed research tells us that targeted economic development incentives don’t work, if we consider the entire economy. See: Research on economic development incentives. Some of the conclusions of the studies listed there include:

No evidence of incentive impact on manufacturing value-added or unemployment”

Small reduction in employment by businesses which received Ohio’s tax incentives”

No evidence of large firm impacts on local economy”

No permanent employment increase across a quasi-experimental panel of all Cabela’s stores”

“Employment impact of large firms is less than gross job creation (by about 70%)”

These research programs illustrate the fallacy of the seen and the unseen. It is easy to see the jobs being created by economic development incentives. It’s undeniable that jobs are created at firms that receive incentives, at least most of the time. But these jobs are easy to see. It’s easy for news reporters to find the newly-hired and grateful workers, or to show video footage of a new manufacturing plant.

But it’s very difficult to find specific instances of the harm that government intervention produces. It is, generally, dispersed. People who lose their jobs usually don’t know the root cause of why they are now unemployed. Businesses whose sales decline often can’t figure out why.

But evidence tells us this is true: These incentives, along with other forms of government interventionism, do more harm than good.

Three of four bench lights are switched on near noontime, as well as street lights for two blocks.

Another Friday lunch, and even more lights are on

When Wichita city leaders tell us that the budget and spending have been cut to the bone, that everything that can be done to save money has already been done, remember my Friday trips to downtown for lunch.

Three of four bench lights are switched on near noontime, as well as street lights for two blocks.
Three of four bench lights are switched on near noontime, as well as street lights for two blocks.
Last Friday at lunchtime two of the four sidewalk bench lights were illuminating the midday sidewalk. Yesterday three of four were turned on. You can also see that the street lights for two city blocks were also switched on, and one photograph shows that lights on the top floor of the city-owned parking garage were also turned on.

Near noon on a cloudy day, Wichita turns on bench lights, street lights, and in the distance, the lights on the roof of its parking garage.
Near noon on a cloudy day, Wichita turns on bench lights, street lights, and in the distance, the lights on the roof of its parking garage.
Driving through downtown, there were many other blocks on which the street lights were switched on in the middle of a day. Well, it was cloudy.

The lights illustrated in this photograph are, undoubtedly, a small portion of the city’s spending. But you don’t have to look very hard to find waste like this, and we know that small examples of waste are multiplied many times. So when city leaders tell us that there is nowhere left to cut in the budget, that everything that can be done to trim the fat has already been done, and that the only thing we can do is raise taxes — well, think of this photograph and others illustrated in To compensate, Wichita switched on the street lights, In Wichita, the streetside seating is illuminated very well, In Wichita, the rooftops are well-lit and On a sunny day in downtown Wichita you can see the street lights.

This is not to say that waste like this does not occur in the private sector. Of course it does. But businesses and individuals have a powerful incentive to avoid waste that isn’t present in government: Businesses and people are spending their own money. And even if they waste money, it’s their money, not ours.

The city has no trouble creating laws, but sometimes has trouble following them.

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 4

Wichita’s city attorney is retiring, and the city will select a replacement. There are a few questions that we ought to ask of candidates, such as: Can the city disregard charter ordinances when they inconvenience the council’s cronies?

In awarding a contract for an apartment development, city leaders seem to have overlooked a Wichita City Charter Ordinance that sets aside the development area to be “open space, committed to use for the purpose of public recreation and enjoyment.” But the land was desired by a group of campaign contributors, friends, and business partners of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. Many of the partners had also received taxpayer subsidy from the city under the mayor’s leadership. In other words, it appears that the city legal staff disregarded a charter ordinance because it was not convenient for the mayor’s cronies.

The city creates laws, but sometimes has trouble following them.
The city creates many laws, but sometimes has trouble following them.
This begs a few questions, such as: Did the city attorney advise the mayor and council of this charter ordinance? We’ll probably never know due to attorney-client confidentiality.

But there is this really important question: Who does the Wichita city attorney represent? Whose interest does the city legal staff protect? The answer is the city attorney works for the city manager, who in turn works for the mayor and city council. These are the city attorney’s clients.

Which leads to this question, which the most important: Who represents the citizens of Wichita?

Some cities have an ombudsman, whose duty is to look out for the interests of citizens. You might think this is the raison dêtre of the mayor and council members — “the most important reason or purpose for someone or something’s existence.” We’ve learned, however, that this is not the case in Wichita.

Background: In 2013 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.

In Wichita, the attitude of some elected officials needs adjustment

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Attitudes of Wichita government leaders towards capitalism reveal a lack of understanding. Is only a government-owned hotel able to make capital improvements? Then, two examples of the disdain elected officials express towards their constituents who don’t agree with them. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita Chamber of Commerce 2013-07-09 004

A lesson for Wichita in economic development

When a prominent Wichita business executive and civic leader asked for tax relief, his reasoning allows us to more fully understand the city’s economic development efforts and nature of the people city hall trusts to lead these endeavors.

In November 2013 the Wichita City Council granted an exemption from paying property and sales tax for High Touch Technologies, a company located in downtown Wichita. This application is of more than usual interest as the company’s CEO,

High Touch, Wichita, Kansas.
High Touch, Wichita, Kansas.
Wayne Chambers, is now chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber, along with its subsidiary Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, are the main agencies in charge of economic development for the Wichita area. Under Chambers’ leadership, these organizations are recommending that the city council authorize a vote on raising the Wichita sales tax for the purposes of economic development.

Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of this company’s application and the city’s agenda packet material (available here).

In its application letter, High Touch argues as follows (emphasis added):

To demonstrate our commitment to Wichita, as well as accommodate our expected growth plans, High Touch Technologies would like to purchase a 106,000 sq. ft. building in Downtown Wichita.

At this time, High Touch Technologies is requesting your support for the issuance of approximately $2,000,000 City of Wichita, Kansas, Taxable Industrial Revenue Bonds. High Touch greatly appreciates any support we can receive on the purchase of this office building through the City’s participation of Industrial Revenue Bonds and the property tax savings associated with this financing method. We intend to continue our growth and expansion over the next several years and these benefits would be helpful in offsetting the substantial capital requirements associated with this project.

High Touch Technologies believes in Wichita and support the community and its economy through corporate stewardship programs. We look forward to working with you and Members of the Council on this project and are always available to answer questions regarding this project or any of our business activities.

Later in the letter:

The applicant agrees to enter into an agreement for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) equal to the ad valorem property tax payment amount for the 2013 tax year. The applicant respectfully requests that the payments be capped at that rate for a period of ten (10) years. The tax abatement will permit the applicant to proceed with the anticipated project, allow for its anticipated growth, and result in the public benefits otherwise outlined herein.

The issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds will be used to lower the cost of office space in the acquired building. The lower costs will give High Touch, Inc. incentive to grow its presence in the corporate office in Wichita. New employees will be added to this Wichita office instead of other offices across the U.S. The savings in office space will allow High Touch, Inc. to use those savings for expansion.

Some remarks:

To demonstrate our commitment to Wichita: This is ironic because High Touch is asking to be excused from paying the same property taxes that most other people and business firms have to pay. Instead of commitment, this demonstrates hostility to the taxpayers of Wichita, who will have to pay more so that this company can pay less.

chutzpa definition 2But that irony is surpassed by the spectacle — chutzpa — of the incoming chair of a city’s chamber of commerce threatening to move his company out of the city unless the company receives incentives.

helpful in offsetting the substantial capital requirements: Well. Who wouldn’t appreciate help in offsetting the cost of anything? We should categorize this as unpersuasive.

corporate stewardship programs: Underlying this argument is that because High Touch makes charitable contributions, it should be excused from the same tax burden that most of us face. Here’s a better argument: Be a good corporate citizen by paying your fair share of taxes. Don’t ask for others to pay your share of taxes. That will let citizens make their own charitable contributions, instead of subsidizing what Wayne Chambers want to do.

Cronyism in Wichita - High Touchanswer questions regarding this project or any of our business activities: This refers to how the members of the city council will make a judgment that this business is worthy of subsidy, and that others are not. The notion that the City of Wichita can decide which companies are worthy of tax exemptions and investment is an illustration of what economist Frederich Hayek called a “conceit.” It’s so dangerous that his book on the topic is titled “The Fatal Conceit.” The failure of government planning throughout the world has demonstrated that it is through markets and their coordination of dispersed knowledge that we best learn where to direct capital investment. It is simply impossible for this city government to effectively decide in which companies Wichitans should invest their tax dollars. Nonetheless the city council made the decision, and it wants a larger role.

Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT): High Touch is not proposing to totally escape its tax burden. Only partially so, through the PILOT. But the proposed payment is quite generous to the company. A few quick (and probably imprecise) calculations shows how small the PILOT is compared to what taxes would be. City documents indicate the proceeds of the IRBs will be used to pay for $2,000,000 of improvements. This amount of commercial property times 25% assessment ratio times 120.602 mill levy rate equals $60,301 in taxes. High Touch, through the PILOT, is proposing to pay $33,250, just a little more than half of what the taxes might be.

But the true value of the taxes being avoided is probably much higher. As an example, nearby office space is listed for sale at $28 per square foot, and that’s a distress-level price. Applying that price to this building, its value would be almost $3 million. If we look at market capitalization rates, which are generally given as from nine to eleven percent for class A space, we arrive at a much higher value: If we say $10 per square foot rental rate times 106,000 square feet at nine percent cap rate, the value would be almost $12 million. Taxes on that would be about $300,000 per year.

Wichita Chamber of Commerce 2013-07-09 004These are back-of-the-envelope calculations using assumed values that may not be accurate, but this gives an idea of what’s actually happening in this transaction: High Touch is seeking to avoid paying a lot of taxes, year after year. But by offering to pay a small fraction as PILOT, the company appears magnanimous.

payments be capped at that rate for a period of ten (10) years: High Touch proposed that what it’s paying in lieu of taxes not be subject to increases. Everyone else’s property taxes, of course, are subject to increases due to either assessed value increases or mill rate increases, or both. High Touch requests an exemption from these forces that almost everyone else faces.

lower the cost of office space: Again, who wouldn’t enjoy lower business or personal expenses? The cost of this incentive spreads the cost of government across a smaller tax base than would otherwise be, raising the cost of government for almost everyone else.

added to this Wichita office instead of other offices across the U.S.: The threat of relocation or expansion elsewhere is routinely used to leverage benefits from frightened local governments. These threats can’t be taken at face value. There is no way to know their validity.

use those savings for expansion: Implicit in this argument is that Wichita taxes prevent companies from expanding. True or not, this is a problem: If taxes are too high, we’re missing out on economic growth. If taxes are not too high, but some companies seek exemption from paying them nonetheless, that’s a problem too.

A prosperous company, establishing the template for seeking business welfare

In a December 2011 interview with the Wichita Eagle, the High Touch CEO bragged of how well the company is doing. The newspaper reported “Ask Wayne Chambers how business is, and he’s going to tell you it’s good. Very good. … Chambers said this week that after two years of robust growth, he’s looking for another one in 2012. ‘We have every reason to believe we’ll continue that growth pattern,’ he said.”

In February 2013 the Wichita Business Journal reported “It should be a great year for High Touch Inc. That’s the initial prediction of CEO Wayne Chambers, who says actions the company took during and leading up to 2012 have positioned High Touch to become a true ‘IT solutions provider.’”

If we take Chambers at his word — that his company is successful — why does High Touch need this business welfare? Economic necessity is usually given as the justification of these incentives. Companies argue that the proposed investment is not feasible and uneconomic without taxpayer participation and subsidy. I don’t see this argument being advanced in this case.

Wichita and peer per capita income, Visioneering

Interestingly, at the time of this application Chambers was co-chair of Visioneering Wichita, which advocates for greater government involvement in just about everything, including the management of the local economy. One of the benchmarks of Visioneering is “Exceed the highest of the annual percentage job growth rate of the U.S., Omaha, Tulsa, Kansas City and Oklahoma City.” As shown in this article and this video, Wichita badly lags the nation and our Visioneering peer cities on this benchmark. Visioneering officials didn’t want to present these results to government officials this year, perhaps on the theory that it’s better to ignore problems that to confront them.

Now Wayne Chambers is the chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. Under his leadership, the Chamber of Commerce recommends that Wichitans pay higher sales tax to support the Chambers’ projects.

Will this blatant cronyism be the template for future management of economic development in Wichita? Let’s hope not, as the working people of Wichita can’t tolerate much more of our sub-par economic growth.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1975

In Wichita, ‘free markets’ cited in case for economic development incentives

A prominent Wichita business uses free markets 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 that 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.”

Wichita Economic DevelopmentThis week Bombardier was before the council again asking for property tax abatements. City documents estimate the amount of tax to be forgiven as $1,098,294 annually, for up to ten years. The document prepared for council members did not address sales tax, but generally sales taxes are forgiven when using the program Bombardier qualified for.

The December 10 meeting was useful because a representative of Bombardier appeared before the council. His remarks help 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 principles.

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.”

Economic development incentives reduce riskWe 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 other 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. I’m sure Bombardier’s shareholders hope that is true.

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

Milton Friedman: Capitalism and FreedomThird, 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. When a company is given money with no strings attached except what the company already intends to do and wants to do, that reduced a company’s risk. What has happened, however, is that 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 by the 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).

Entrepreneurship, EntrepreneurThe 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.

Wichita fails at open government and trustworthiness

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

Wichita Streetlights 5-30-2014 11-20-52 AM

To compensate, Wichita switched on the street lights

When Wichita city leaders tell us that the budget and spending have been cut to the bone, that everything that can be done to save money has already been done, remember my Friday trips to downtown for lunch.

Wichita Streetlights 5-30-2014 11-20-52 AMAt 11:20 am on a Friday with the sun brightly accentuating the fluffy clouds, it’s a good thing that only two of the four bench lights are lit. The other two, however, have probably expired from having been switched on all day for the past month.

But to compensate for the loss of those two, it appears the city decided to switch on the nearby overhead street lights.

Wichita Streetlights 5-30-2014 11-24-15 AMThe lights illustrated in this photograph are, undoubtedly, a small portion of the city’s spending. But you don’t have to look very hard to find waste like this, and we know that small examples of waste are multiplied many times. So when city leaders tell us that there is nowhere left to cut in the budget, that everything that can be done to trim the fat has already been done, and that the only thing we can do is raise taxes — well, think of this photograph and others illustrated in In Wichita, the streetside seating is illuminated very well, In Wichita, the rooftops are well-lit and On a sunny day in downtown Wichita you can see the street lights.

This is not to say that waste like this does not occur in the private sector. Of course it does. But businesses and individuals have a powerful incentive to avoid waste that isn’t present in government: Businesses and people are spending their own money.