Tag Archives: Wichita city council

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.

WichitaLiberty.TV set 2014-04-29 01 800

WichitaLiberty.TV: Uber not for Wichita, Wichita fails at transparency, and Wichita jobs

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Uber is an innovative transportation service, but is probably illegal in Wichita. Then, the City of Wichita fails again at basic government transparency. Finally, a look at job growth in Wichita compared to other cities. Episode 45, broadcast June 1, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1967

In Wichita, everything that can be done has been done, except this

Discussions of Wichita’s deteriorating infrastructure and economy should lead us to ask: Who has been in charge, and is this all we can do?

Recently the City of Wichita decided to use a new method to measure the condition of city streets. The new method is Remaining Service Life (RSL). It’s a measure of the condition of city streets. The city has also used a Pavement Condition index.

A recent white paper from the city held this analysis of the city’s streets and their future condition:

The model demonstrated that, with the current level of $8 million in annual funding, the City’s street network would decline in value from the current $444.9 million to $79.6 million over the 40-year period. In addition, the current RSL value of 42,213 lane mile years would fall to 5,524 lane mile years. In other words, the continuation of past strategies with the current level of funding would result in a deterioration of the Wichita street infrastructure in the long term. However, over the same 40-year period, utilizing new strategies, the current level of funding would result in streets in basically the same condition as today, with the Network Service Value increasing by $14 million (to $458.3 million) and the RSL slightly higher at 42,898.

Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city's 2012 Performance Measure Report
Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city’s 2012 Performance Measure Report
The takeaway from this passage is that the city has not been maintaining its streets adequately. The city’s analysis finds that at current funding levels, the overall condition of Wichita’s streets will continue to decline. This message is not new. As you can see in this chart from the city, the Pavement Condition Index has been deteriorating, and as of its publication in the 2012 Performance Measures Report was projected to continue to decline. The black line running horizontally near the top of the chart is the city’s benchmark as to where it would like the pavement condition index to be.

In its explanation, the Performance Measure Report says “Because many streets in residential areas have deteriorated significantly, an increased investment in street maintenance will be necessary to raise Wichita’s street condition to the benchmark.” This represents future spending that will be required in order to correct the city’s lack of care for its capital assets.

Political leadership and long-term thinking

On these and other issues, 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.”

Carl Brewer as bystanderIt’s often said that business is interested only in short term results. Driven by the pressures of profit, business firms can’t invest for the long term. Investments and decisions involving a long time horizon, it is contended, must be left to government.

But here we see the city failing to maintain the assets we need to survive. Instead of proactively managing its assets, we have Wichita’s mayor telling us that we have to raise taxes to “catch up” with what we haven’t been doing. That is lack of long-term thinking and decision making.

When discussing the deteriorating condition of city assets or the city’s poor economy, Mayor Carl Brewer speaks as though he was a bystander. But he’s been mayor for over seven years, and was on the city council before that time. During that time, he and other city leaders have boasted of not increasing property taxes. While the property tax rate has been stable (in fact it has risen slightly), property tax revenue has increased due to development of new property and rising assessment values. Even with this rising revenue, the city has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. The way to interpret this is that the city has really been engaging in deficit spending under Brewer’s leadership. The city didn’t spend what was needed to maintain its assets — assets like streets, water, and sewer infrastructure — and now the mayor tells us we need to increase taxes and spending to make up for this.

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

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

This form of deficit spending is “off the books” and doesn’t appear in city financial statements. But it’s real, as the mayor now admits.

Everything that can be done, has been done

City leaders often tell us that budgets have been cut, services have been pared, salaries have been frozen, and there’s nothing more the city can do except to raise taxes.

But now and then, the city lets us know that there are alternatives. From the recent white paper: “Using the new model, street maintenance will be done more efficiently, matching treatment options to streets in the most efficient manner possible.”

Can we conclude that everything that can be done has been done, except operating more efficiently?

Wichita area future water supply cover

For Wichita, water supply decisions loom

Now that the Wichita City Council has all but recommended that voters raise taxes in order to spend $250 million for water supply enhancements, citizens need to consider recent history and how current decisions are made.

Through the Community Investments Plan process and by other means, citizens have told the City of Wichita they’re concerned about future water supply.

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

Wichita area future water supply coverMore recently, the city prepared a document in March 2013 titled Wichita Area Future Water Supply: A Model Program for Other Municipalities. It touts an expensive investment that is part of a “plan to ensure that Wichita has the water it needs through the year 2050 and beyond.”

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

City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program schematic diagram.
City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program schematic diagram.

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

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

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

Economic vs. political thinking

It appears the plan the city council favors is to expand the ASR project at a cost of $250 million, thereby doubling the amount spent on this project. Some council members have noted the low utilization of the ASR and see its expansion as a way to wring greater efficiency from the plant.

But this mode of thinking is not rational. What has been spent on the ASR is now properly classified as sunk costs. These are costs that have been spent and can’t be recovered. Sunk costs are not relevant to future decisions. Instead, the city needs to focus on the marginal improvements that can be made, and how to get the best value for these future costs.

That’s the economic way of making decisions. But, of course, decisions on Wichita’s future water supply are being made in the political sphere.

How did Wichita get in this position?

It’s vitally important that Wichita develop a plan for an abundant water supply. At the same time, we ought to be asking, as does Johnny Stevens, how this problem developed. The Wichita Business Journal reported this last summer:

Wichita officials — thanks to a couple of weeks of rain — said they were able this week to dodge possible water restrictions and punitive measures as a means of coping with the ongoing drought.

But Wichita developer Johnny Stevens voiced to me today something I have heard from others in the community recently.

“How did it even get to this point?” Stevens said. “It shouldn’t have gotten this far.”

Stevens thinks poor leadership is to blame and can’t understand how elected officials ever let the community seemingly come so close to the edge of such a critical issue.

He said long-term solutions are needed, but he also warns that they have to be made using solid data. Continue reading at Developer Johnny Stevens on water issue: How did it get to this?

Long-term thinking: This is not characteristic of political leaders, whose time horizon rarely extends beyond the next election season. Are there other ways to secure water for Wichita? Is Wichita considering private-sector solutions?

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1979

In Kansas and Wichita, there’s a reason for slow growth

If we in Kansas and Wichita wonder why our economic growth is slow and our economic development programs don’t seem to be producing results, there is data to tell us why: Our tax rates are too high.

In 2012 the Tax Foundation released a report that examines the tax costs on business in the states and in selected cities in each state. Location Matters Tax Foundation coverThe news for Kansas is worse than merely bad, as our state couldn’t have performed much worse: Kansas ranks 47th among the states for tax costs for mature business firms, and 48th for new firms.

The report is Location Matters: A Comparative Analysis of State Tax Costs on Business.

The study is unusual in that it looks at the impact of states’ tax burden on mature and new firms. This, according to report authors, “allows us to understand the effects of state tax incentives compared to a state’s core tax system.” In further explanation, the authors write: “The second measure is for the tax burden faced by newly established operations, those that have been in operation less than three years. This represents a state’s competitiveness after we have taken into account the various tax incentive programs it makes available to new investments.”

The report also looks at the tax costs for specific types of business firms. For Kansas, some individual results are better than overall, but still not good. For a mature corporate headquarters, Kansas ranks 30th. For locating a new corporate headquarters — one that would benefit from tax incentive programs — Kansas ranked 42nd. For a mature research and development facility, 46th; while new is ranked 49th. For a mature retail store, 38th, while new is ranked 45th.

There are more categories. Kansas ranks well in none.

The report also looked at two cities in each state, a major city and a mid-size city. For Kansas, the two cities are Wichita and Topeka.

Among the 50 cities chosen, Wichita ranks 30th for a mature corporate headquarters, but 42nd for a new corporate headquarters.

For a mature research and development facility, Wichita ranks 46th, and 49th for a new facility.

For a mature and new retail store, Wichita ranks 38th and 45th, respectively.

For a mature and new call center, Wichita ranks 43rd and 47th, respectively.

Kansas tax cost compared to neighbors
Kansas tax cost compared to neighbors
In its summary for Kansas, the authors note the fecklessness of Kansas economic development incentives: “Kansas offers among the most generous property tax abatements and investment tax credits across most firm types, yet these incentives seem to have little impact on the state’s rankings for new operations.”

It’s also useful to compare Kansas to our neighbors. The comparison is not favorable for Kansas.

The record in Wichita

Earlier this year Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition issued its annual report on its economic development activities for 2013. Its efforts, in its own words, “represent a projected 1,117 new jobs.”

gwedc-office-operationsThis report shows us that power of government to influence economic development is weak. GWEDC’s information said these jobs were for the geographical area of Sedgwick County. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force in Sedgwick County in 2013 was 242,744 persons. So the jobs created by GWEDC’s actions amounted to 0.46 percent of the labor force. This is a vanishingly small fraction. It is statistical noise. Other economic events overwhelm these efforts.

The report by the Tax Foundation helps us understand one reason why the economic development efforts of GWEDC, Sedgwick County, and Wichita are not working well: Our tax costs are too high.

While economic development incentives can help reduce the cost of taxes for selected firms, incentives don’t help the many firms that don’t receive them. In fact, the cost of these incentives is harmful to other firms. The Tax Foundation report points to this harm: “While many state officials view tax incentives as a necessary tool in their state’s ability to be competitive, others are beginning to question the cost-benefit of incentives and whether they are fair to mature firms that are paying full freight. Indeed, there is growing animosity among many business owners and executives to the generous tax incentives enjoyed by some of their direct competitors.”

It seems in Wichita that the thinking of our leaders has not reached the level of maturity required to understand that targeted incentives have great cost and damage the business climate. Instead of creating an environment in which all firms have a chance to thrive, government believes it can identify firms that are subsidy-worthy — at the exclusion of others.

But there is one incentive that can be offered to all firms: Reduce tax costs for everyone. The policy of reducing tax costs or granting incentives to the selected few is not working. This “active investor” approach to economic development is what has led companies in Wichita and Kansas to escape hundreds of millions in taxes — taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form.

Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business is Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policycritical of this approach to economic development. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”

In the same paper, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers that Wichita and Kansas has been pursuing and Wichita’s leaders want to ramp up: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”

In making his argument, Hall cites research on the futility of chasing large employers as an economic development strategy: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. To quote from the most comprehensive study: ‘The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.’”

There is also substantial research that is it young firms — distinguished from small business in general — that are the engine of economic growth for the future. We can’t detect which of the young firms will blossom into major success — or even small-scale successes. The only way to nurture them is through economic policies that all companies can benefit from. Reducing tax rates is an example of such a policy. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like IRBs is an example of precisely the wrong policy.

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach. We need to advocate for policies — at Wichita City Hall, at the Sedgwick County Commission, and at the Kansas Statehouse — that lead to sustainable economic development. We need political leaders who have the wisdom to realize this, and the courage to act appropriately. Which is to say, to not act in most circumstances, except to reduce the cost of government for everyone.

Requesting an Uber driver.

Uber, not for Wichita

A novel transportation service worked well for me on a recent trip to Washington, but Wichita doesn’t seem ready to embrace such innovation.

Have you heard of Uber and similar services? Uber says it is “… evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our [smartphone] apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 70 cities today, Uber’s rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.”

Uber works like this: Riders use their smartphones and the Uber app to request a ride. Drivers — who have undergone an application process and background check — acknowledge the request and pick up the rider. When the dropoff is made, payment is handled through the Uber app.

Being driven by Uber on the Washington Beltway.
Being driven by Uber on the Washington Beltway.
My first trip using Uber was from Dulles International Airport to my hotel in downtown Washington, a pretty long trip at nearly 27 miles. My Uber fare was $59.50. While that is expensive, my hotel’s website listed cab fare as $60. A private sedan would be $90, with reservations required.

So it seems like Uber is priced about the same as a regular taxicab. But: There’s a big difference. The Uber fare is all-inclusive. The way I elected to pay with Uber — which I suspect is probably the easiest way — was to store my credit card with the Uber system. As we approached my destination, I asked my driver if I could add a tip through the Uber app. He said no, there’s no need to. As he transferred my luggage to the bellman, it seemed awkward to not offer a tip. But I confirmed with DC natives that’s the way it is with Uber: No tipping.

No tipping! That’s refreshing. I’m tired of cab drivers extorting tips. But you may be asking: What motivates Uber drivers to offer good service? One factor is that customers rate their drivers through the smartphone app. An intriguing factor is that Uber drivers rate their passengers. Also, a customer service representative followed up regarding my trip. Another thing: My drivers seemed to like their job. They took pride in their clean cars and amenities.

And what service it was. There are several levels of Uber service. I used UberX, which is the least expensive. Other Uber services available in some cities include luxury cars or SUVs. The three cars I rode in were a Toyota Prius, a Lexus, and a Volvo. All were impeccably clean — both the cars and the polite drivers. On all three rides I was offered a bottle of water. Two cars had magazines for me to read. One had a bowl of wrapped candy on the seat next to me. Drivers asked if I was comfortable with the setting of the air conditioning. They were not blasting their radios, as has been the case with some of my cab trips.

In short, the service was great. While the Uber fare was the same as what my hotel estimated for a taxi fare, there was an important difference — no tip to the Uber driver. No need for cash, no need for a taxi driver to fumble with an awkward method of accepting credit cards.

A receipt from a trip using Uber. Click for larger version.
A receipt from a trip using Uber. Click for larger version.
And … a neat receipt available on the Uber website or in my email. When I’ve asked a cab driver for a receipt, I’ve received a blank form.

And … I had an estimate of the fare before I requested a driver. In my case, the estimate was $60.00, with the actual fare at $59.50. Remember, no tipping.

Uber in Wichita?

Recently Uber and Lyft (a similar service) started operations in Kansas City, Missouri. Nearly immediately the city council passed additional regulations that make it tougher — or impossible — for these services to operate.

Requesting an Uber driver.
Requesting an Uber driver.
In Wichita, it’s certain that Uber would be in violation of city ordinances. In 2012 the city passed new taxi regulations which erect and enforce substantial barriers to entering the taxicab market. Some of the most restrictive include these: Drivers must work for a company that has a central office staffed at least 40 hours per week; a taxicab company must have a dispatch system operating 24 hours per day, seven days per week; it must have enough cabs to operate city-wide service, which the city has determined is ten cabs; and a supervisor must be on duty at all times cabs are operating.

A dispatch system. That’s 1950s technology. Uber and similar services use smartphones. No dispatcher needed. No central office required. When you request a ride with the Uber app, you see a screen showing the available drivers nearby, along with an estimate of when the driver will arrive. You can watch the driver’s progress towards your pickup location. Can you do that with Wichita’s cab companies with their supervisors and dispatch systems?

Requesting a driver in Wichita using Uber. It's not available.
Requesting a driver in Wichita using Uber. It’s not available.
Wichita has implemented regulations regarding the hygiene and local knowledge of taxi drivers, enforced by bureaucrats. How is Uber regulated? First, there are the customer ratings, a powerful force. Then, provided with Uber receipts is a map of the route the driver took to deliver riders to their destinations. If riders are concerned that drivers are padding fares by taking roundabout routes, that’s easy to see and resolve, and the Uber dashboard lets riders request a fare review. Can you imagine how difficult that would be in Wichita, to prove that your driver padded your fare or extorted a tip?

Regulation by bureaucrats, or regulation by customers. There’s a difference, and Wichita is served by the least effective, thanks to our city council.

To top it off, while Wichita has regulations regarding the personal hygiene of drivers and the cleanliness of their vehicles, the city fell short in protecting drives from something really important, like violent crime. After the city passed the new regulations, a passenger was raped by a driver. The Wichita Eagle reported “[the driver] shouldn’t have received a taxi license but did because the new change banning registered sex offenders wasn’t communicated to staff members doing background checks on taxi driver applicants, city officials told The Eagle on Friday. The city has fixed the problem that led to the oversight in Spohn’s case, they said.” (See Regulation failure leads to tragedy in Wichita.)

wichita-taxi regulationsThe regulations regarding customer service training were implemented. But the really important regulations? Lack of oversight, says the city. Which leads us to wonder: Who is regulating the regulators? If an Uber driver committed such a crime, the company would undoubtedly be held liable and experience a loss of reputation. But how do we hold city bureaucrats accountable for their regulatory failures?

Going forward

Will Wichita consider relaxing taxicab regulations so that Wichitans might be served by a superior service like Uber? Not likely, I would say. The city council is proud of the new and restrictive regulations. The city is served by three taxi companies, two having the same owner. These companies are likely to lobby aggressively against allowing Uber and similar services in Wichita, just as taxi companies have done in other cities.

Recent discussion about the future of transit in Wichita have not included services like Uber. At last week’s city council meeting Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) spoke about baby boomers who may soon be aging and either can’t drive, or don’t want to drive. Yet, she said, they have disposable income and want to spend it. These are ideal customers for Uber.

Uber and the like might not be a total replacement for traditional city bus transit. But it could help many people, and it could provided needed competition to the city’s taxicab fleet. But it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see Uber in Wichita soon, if at all.

Wichita logic Brewer fishing

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 3

Wichita will soon select a new city attorney. There are a few questions we ought to ask of candidates, such as: Will the next city attorney advise council members to refrain from making decisions worth millions to their friends and significant campaign contributors?

Two years ago as the Wichita City Council prepared to handle the appeal of the award of a Wichita Eagle Appearance Matters editorialconstruction contract, the Wichita Eagle editorialized that “appearance matters” on city contracts: “There will be an elephant in the Wichita City Council chambers today as Mayor Carl Brewer and the rest of the council formally consider Dondlinger and Sons’ long-shot final appeal of its loss of the contract to build the new airport terminal — the close ties of Brewer and other City Council members to Key Construction, including a letter Brewer wrote last year recommending Key to build the Cabela’s store in northeast Wichita.” (Eagle editorial: Appearance matters on city contracts, July 17, 2012)

The Eagle probably didn’t know at that time what we learned a short while later: There was Jeff Longwell district 5 2010unusual interest in Michigan about the airport contract decision, and the campaign bank account of Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell benefited financially.

On July 16, 2012 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner. Walbridge is a Michigan-based construction company that is partnering with Key Construction on the airport job. The contract is worth about $100 million.

Then on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign, and they’ve also been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns.

It is wrong to accept thousands in contributions from those who benefit directly from your vote. In many states it is illegal. But not in Kansas. Though legal, the timing of these contributions to Longwell’s campaign is indelicate.

Wichita logic Brewer fishingThe political influence of Key Construction and its partners extends beyond campaign contributions. Mayor Brewer’s personal Facebook profile has a photo album holding pictures of him on a fishing trip with Dave Wells of Key Construction.

Should the Wichita City Council have made the decision on the airport contract? City documents did not indicate whether the hearing was of a quasi-judicial nature, as it is sometimes when the council rules on certain matters involving appeal of decisions made by city authorities. But the council was asked to make decisions involving whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied.

That sounds a lot like the role of judges. In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in the words of legal watchdog group Judicial Watch, “… significant campaign contributions or other electoral assistance pose a risk of actual bias. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said: ‘Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause so too can fears of bias arise when a man chooses the judge in his own cause.’”

Judicial Watch also noted “The ruling will likely affect judges in 39 states that elect them — including Washington, Texas and California — from presiding over cases in which their campaign contributions could create a conflict of interest. The nation’s judicial code has long said that judges should disqualify themselves from proceedings in which impartiality might reasonably be questioned, but the Supreme Court ruling is the first to address hefty election spending.”

The mayor and council members are not judges. But they were asked to make a judge-like decision. If held to the same standards as the U.S. Supreme Court says judges must follow, Mayor Brewer and the five council members who accepted campaign contributions from Key Construction should not have participated in the decision on the Wichita airport construction contract. A similar argument can be made for city manager Robert Layton and all city employees. Directly or indirectly they serve at the pleasure of the council.

Question: Did the outgoing city attorney advise the mayor and council members on this topic? We’ll probably never know due to attorney-client privilege. But a good question to ask city attorney candidates is how they would advise council members if another matter like this comes before the council.

Wichita 2014-05-23 11.27.17

It was a little cloudy, so maybe that’s why

Wichita city leaders tell us that the budget and spending have been cut to the bone. Except for the waste, that is.

At 11:27 am, it was a little cloudy and rain threatened. So maybe that’s why these lights were switched on. Or maybe not — other similar lights and streetlights nearby were not lit.

The lights illustrated in this photograph are, undoubtedly, a small portion of the city’s spending. But Wichita 2014-05-23 11.27.17you 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.

WichitaLiberty.TV set 2014-04-29 01 800

WichitaLiberty.TV: Alternatives to raising taxes, how to become involved in politics, and bad behavior by elected officials

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita voters tell pollsters that they prefer alternatives to raising taxes. Then, how can you get involved in politics? A deadline is approaching soon. Finally, some examples of why we need to elect better people to office. Episode 44, broadcast May 25, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.

Wichita, again, fails at government transparency

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.

At its May 20, 2014 meeting the Wichita City Council considered approval of a sublease by Shannon No. 2, LLC. The subject property had received subsidy from the city under an economic development program, which is why council approval of the sublease was required. I’ll cover the economics of the lease and its importance to public policy in another article. For now, the important issue is the attitude of the city towards government transparency and citizen participation.

Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
In the agenda packet — that’s the detailed and often lengthy supplement to the council meeting agenda — some information regarding the Shannon lease was redacted, as you can see in the accompanying illustration. This piqued my interest, so I asked for the missing details.

Timing

The agenda packet is often made available Thursday afternoon, although sometimes it is delayed until Friday or even Monday. I sent an email message to the city’s chief information officer at 11:16 pm Thursday. After the message worked its way through several city departments, I received the information at 5:06 pm Monday. Since city council meetings are Tuesday morning, that left little time for research and contemplation.

This isn’t the first time citizens have been left with little information and even less time before council meetings. I was involved in an issue in 2008 where there was little time for citizens — council members, too — to absorb information before a council meeting. About this incident, former Wichita Eagle editorial board editor Randy Brown wrote this in a letter to the Eagle:

I’m fairly well acquainted with Bob Weeks, our extraconservative government watchdog. It’s fair to say that I agree with Weeks no more than one time in every 20 issues. But that one time is crucial to our democracy.

Weeks is dead-on target when he says that conducting the public’s business in secret causes citizens to lose respect for government officials and corrupts the process of democracy (“TIF public hearing was bait and switch,” Dec. 5 Opinion). And that’s what happened when significant 11th-hour changes to the already controversial and questionable tax-increment financing plan for the downtown arena neighborhood were sneaked onto the Wichita City Council’s Tuesday agenda, essentially under cover of Monday evening’s darkness.

This may not have been a technical violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but it was an aggravated assault on its spirit. Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue. Randy Brown: Reopen Downtown Wichita Arena TIF Public Hearing

little-time-review-warren-loan-termsThe Wichita officials involved in this matter were council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). Longwell’s behavior and attitude is part of a pattern, because in another incident in the same year the Wichita Eagle reported “Wichita City Council members and the public got a first look at the contracts that could send a $6 million loan to the owners of the Old Town Warren Theatre just hours before today’s scheduled vote on the matter.” (Little time to review Warren terms, July 1, 2008)

That article quoted council member Longwell thusly: “It’s unlikely many residents would read the full contract even if it had been made public earlier.” This attitude is common among Wichita elected officials and bureaucrats, in my experience. The city formally lobbies the Kansas Legislature opposing any expansion of the Kansas Open Records Act, for example.

Consent agenda

The Shannon item was placed on the consent agenda. This is where items deemed to be non-controversial are voted on in bulk, perhaps two dozen or more at a time. Unless a council member asks to have an item “pulled” for discussion and a possible vote separate from the other consent items, there will be no discussion of any issues.

In 2012 there was an issue on the consent agenda that I felt deserved discussion. I researched and prepared an article at For Wichita’s Block 1 garage, public allocation is now zero parking spaces. At the council meeting, then-council member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) requested that I be able to present my findings to the council. But Mayor Carl Brewer and all five other city council members disagreed. They preferred to proceed as though the issue didn’t exist or was non-controversial. The message — the attitude — was that no time should be spent receiving information on the item. See For Wichita City Council, discussion is not wanted.

Wichita city officials, including Mayor Carl Brewer, say they are proud of the open and transparent city government they have created. But this episode, as well as others described in In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency, lets everyone know that transparency is dispensed, and accountability accepted, at the whim of the mayor, city council, and their bureaucratic enablers.

On his Facebook page, Clinton Coen wrote this about his city council representative James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and this incident:

“I am once again ashamed of my City Councilman. Councilman Clendenin should have stood alongside his colleague, Councilman O’Donnel, and allowed a citizen to address his concerns on an agenda item. All Mr. Clendenin had to do was say “second” and Mr. Weeks could have addressed the council, provided that a majority of the council voted to allow it. Instead, Mr. Clendenin chose to censor someone that has a differing opinion. By bringing it to a vote, accountability would have been created, instead the remainder of the council chose to take the cowardly path.”

Why redacted in the first place?

As shown in the earlier illustration, the city redacted a large chunk of information from the agenda packet that it made available to the public. The city did — after some time — positively It's easy to say value transparencyrespond to my request for the complete document. Which begs these questions: Why did the city feel that some information needed to be kept secret? Did city council members have access to the redacted information? Did any members of the public besides myself ask for the information? How many citizens might have been discouraged from asking by fear of the the hassle of asking city hall for information like this?

There’s also the consideration that the citizens of Wichita are parties to this transaction. How well these incentive programs work and what effect they have on the Wichita economy is an important matter of public policy. Without relatively complete information, citizens are not in a position to make judgments.

Cost

Often council members and bureaucrats complain that providing information to citizens is a financial burden to the city. But in this case, I’m sure the city would have been dollars ahead if it had simply published the complete lease in the agenda packet. My request bounced around several city offices — three that I know of — and I imagine that each handling of my request added cost.

Attitude

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

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

The incidents describe above, combined with others, demonstrate that it’s easy for officials to say they value transparency and accountability. The actual delivery, however, is difficult for our current leaders.

Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. The incident described in this article is one more example of a divergence between the proclamations of city officials and their acts. It’s an attitude problem. All city hall has to do is get a new attitude.

For more on this topic, see A transparency agenda for Wichita.

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In Wichita, capitalism doesn’t work, until it works

Attitudes of Wichita government leaders towards capitalism reveal a lack of understanding. Is only a government-owned hotel able to make capital improvements?

Janet miller
Janet Miller
One of the problems Wichita faces as it decides the future level of government involvement in its economy is an anti-market and anti-capitalism bias of many council members. It’s also characteristic of city hall bureaucrats. The basic belief is that government is not hindered by the demands of businesses, such as profit. Therefore, it is able to do things that the private sector cannot, or will not, do. Wichita City Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) recently provided an example:

Council member Janet Miller called the Hyatt a special case and said she’s opposed to selling it.

“We have to maintain a high quality convention hotel,” she said. “The hotel makes a profit, but we reinvest the profits back into it. If we sell that property, a hotelier is unlikely to invest as much back into it as we do — debt service, stockholders, things like that. We don’t have that burden.” (Hyatt Regency Wichita focus of debate as council examines city-owned real estate, March 28, 2014 Wichita Eagle)

I don’t know if Miller reads the Wichita Eagle, but less than one month before, that newspaper reported this:

A $5 million renovation project at the Wichita Marriott hotel near east Kellogg and the Kansas Turnpike is complete.

The 10-month-long project encompassed nearly the entire ground floor of the 11-story, 294-room hotel at 9100 Corporate Hills Drive, said general manager Michelle Ruffin-Stein.

“We basically tore everything down and started from scratch,” said Ruffin-Stein, who added that the hotel remained in operation throughout the renovation.

She said it was the first extensive renovation of the hotel’s ground floor since the hotel opened in 1987. It follows a renovation of the hotel’s guest rooms about four years ago, she said. (Wichita Marriott hotel’s $5 million renovation complete, March 3, 2014 Wichita Eagle)

You draw your own conclusions. Here are a few that I’ve drawn.

If I owned or worked at the Wichita Marriott or other hotel in Wichita, I’d be offended with Miller’s implication that the Hyatt is Wichita’s only “high quality convention hotel.” Why did we pour millions in taxpayer subsidy into the Broadview and Ambassador hotels?

Even though it has the “burden” of being in the private sector, how was the Marriott able to invest millions in renovation?

How would you feel if you owned a high-quality convention hotel, like the Marriott, and the city operates a competitor that doesn’t have to worry about profits, debt service, and stockholders? Does that create an environment that encourages private investment? Perhaps this is why so many of the hotels that have opened recently in Wichita have sought and received millions in government subsidy.

The expressed attitude of Miller towards business and capitalism is common among government officials and bureaucrats. Yet, we are expected to trust people with these beliefs to lead our economic development efforts. It’s little wonder that the only solutions considered involve a greater role for government, including greater revenue for government.

Finally, I wonder if other hotels are more diligent than the Hyatt in keeping people from establishing meth labs in their rooms.

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 2

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. Will the next city attorney continue to obstruct government transparency or be an advocate for citizens’ right to know?

Hockaday sign explanationSince 2009 I have advocated for greater transparency regarding spending data for three quasi-governmental agencies. Others have since joined the quest. The agencies are Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. (See Open Government in Kansas for more information.)

Each agency contends it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and all council members except former Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and legislative attempts have been taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. I call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

In some council meetings, Rebenstorf has cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

Will the next city attorneyThe legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. It’s contrary to both the letter and spirit of the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), which opens with: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.

But the attitude of Rebenstorf and the city council towards open records and government transparency, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the unmistakably clear meaning and intent of the law.

Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example. In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking these agencies to act as though they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking these agencies from acting as though they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law. Will the next Wichita city attorney agree with the closed stance of the current regime, or be an advocate for greater government transparency?

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Old Town, Economic development incentives, and waste in Wichita

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at a special district proposed for Old Town, the process of granting economic development incentives and a cataloging of the available tools and amounts, and an example of waste in Wichita. Episode 43, broadcast May 18, 2014. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Wichita Old Town

Wichita seeks to form entertainment district

A proposed entertainment district in Old Town Wichita benefits a concentrated area but spreads costs across everyone while creating potential for abuse.

Wichita Old TownThis week the Wichita City Council will consider forming an entertainment district covering greater Old Town. The purpose of the new law, according to city documents, is to help control crime in the area. Current law enforcement efforts are not effective, declares the proposed statute: “WHEREAS, the occurrence of criminal activity in the Old Town Entertainment District and areas adjacent thereto continues to occur despite law enforcement’s increased efforts and presence within this district.”

Some of the features of the proposed law are a mandatory fine of $500 for certain crimes if they occur within the Old Town Entertainment District, and the ability to “map” or prohibit offenders from entering the Old Town Entertainment District. The punishment for repeat offenses escalates rapidly. To be able to control the behavior of Wichitans with fine granularity, the proposed ordinance contains definitions of “art,” “fine art,” and “art gallery.” The capacity of a coffee shop cannot be over 100 people. An “Entertainment Establishment” is not a place that holds book readings and storytelling. (Well, I’ve been to a few book readings that were certainly not entertaining.)

While Wichita civic leaders proclaim this ordinance as a step forward, let’s examine some points.

Costs and subsidy

Recall that Old Town was built using millions in taxpayer subsidy, both on and off the books. Although the tax increment financing district has ended, subsidy still flows to Old Town. An example of off-the-books subsidy is the large police presence required to keep Old Town safe. City documents hint at this, as in this excerpt from the agenda report for Tuesday’s city council meeting: “Crime statistics reveal that crime overall has decreased in Old Town due to higher police presence.”

In 2008 Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams was quoted as saying “As Old Town changed from a warehouse district to an entertainment district, it has presented a ‘tremendous challenge’ to public safety.”

In 2006 the Wichita Eagle reported on the level of policing required in Old Town, noting “Beginning Friday night, police will put two officers on horseback in Old Town and have as many as six more officers walking through the entertainment district, he said. Currently, around the bars’ 2 a.m. closing time, about a dozen officers patrol the area.”

The challenges of policing entertainment districts are well known and not unique to Wichita’s Old Town. See Policing Entertainment Districts for a research report. The extra costs of the policing are known, too. Two examples — others are easy to find — are these:

Policing costs exceed Scottsdale bar district’s revenue. “The annual cost for policing downtown Scottsdale’s entertainment district far exceeds the amount of revenue generated from the high concentration of bars in the area, according to city figures.”

Police Asking Bars To Pay Extra For Security. “Faced with a budget deficit, the Hartford Police Department is asking some downtown bars and restaurants to help pay the overtime costs for police officers assigned to maintain order in the city’s entertainment district during the busiest nights of the week, when large crowds of partygoers pose the most risk for public safety threats.”

Despite the extra costs of policing Old Town, at least one of its property owners who has received millions in taxpayer subsidy still thought his taxes were too high. Another Old Town merchant sought and received a no-interest and low-interest loan from the city when his business was failing, despite having already received taxpayer subsidy.

Potential loss of liberties

Special districts like that proposed for Old Town give police more power. With that comes increased potential for abuse. In Kansas City, the Power & Light District has been Power and Light District Kansas City 2009-09-16 39involved in lawsuits alleging racial discrimination as reported in Class-action lawsuit alleges racial discrimination at Power & Light. The dress code there is alleged to be targeted against young urban black men.

In Wichita’s Old Town, Mike Shatz has covered past incidents. On the proposed ordinance, he notes that “Like most of the laws in Old Town that govern the behavior of the patrons, it is expected that these new ordinances, if passed, would be primarily enforced outside the few bars that still cater to a primarily minority crowd.”

On the potential for racially discriminatory application of laws, Shatz writes “Anyone familiar with police activity in [this] district knows it will be the black men who are targeted by these new laws, and the arrest statistics will prove it.” Also: “White people, on the other hand, can actually get into full-on fist fights in front of police officers without repercussion, as I and other activists witnessed outside the Pumphouse (a bar in the district) while investigating Old Town policing activities last year.” See Old Town Association seeks to drive minorities out of the district with new laws

What have we done?

Does the need for special police power and special penalties in Old Town demonstrate that we’ve created something we really don’t want? Will Wichitans across the city be forced to pay for extra police that benefit a concentrated area of town, and it alone?

Along with the establishment of the entertainment district with its special laws, we could also ask that the property owners in that district absorb its extra costs. The district is defined in the proposed statute. It would be a simple matter to identify the properties in the district and add something extra to the property tax bills. Something like this is done to support the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation with funds to promote economic development. If that can be done, it’s not unreasonable for Wichitans to ask that Old Town tax itself to pay for its unique costs.

Public Choice - A PrimerBut laws like the entertainment district ordinance are usually tied to powerful economic interests who lobby the government for special protections. It is a problem identified and studied in public choice economics. As the Wichita City Council routinely votes in favor of special interests as opposed to the public good, we can expect that the council will fully embrace this new exemplar of special laws created for special people and special interest groups.

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In Wichita, the streetside seating is illuminated very well

Wichita city leaders tell us that the budget and spending have been cut to the bone. Except for the waste, that is.

Wichita street lights 2014-05-09 11.32.09The street 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 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.

Sedgwick County Kansas seal

In Wichita, no differentiation between business and government

Leaders in Wichita often liken government decision making to running a business, but there are important differences.

Sedgwick County Working for YouAs Wichita considers the future of its economy, a larger role for government is contemplated. The views of the people leading the effort to expand government management of the local economy are important to explore. Consider Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition Chairman Gary Schmitt, who is also an executive at Intrust Bank. Following is an excerpt from the minutes of the May 22, 2013 meeting of the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. The topic was a forgivable loan to Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. These loans are equivalent to a cash grant, as long as conditions are met. At the time of this meeting Schmitt was vice chair of GWEDC.

This discourse shows the value of elected officials like Karl Peterjohn, and also Richard Ranzau, as he too contributed to the understanding of this matter. When Michael O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council, he also contributed in this way.

Here’s what Schmitt told the commissioners, based on the meeting minutes: “I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future.”

Shortly after that he said “Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing.”

Wichita leaders need to understand businessThe problem is that when the bank Schmitt works for makes a loan, there are several forces in play that are not present in government. Perhaps the most obvious is that a bank loans money and expects to be repaid. In the case of the forgivable loan the commission was considering, the goal is that the loan is not repaid. These loans, remember, are a grant of cash, subject to a few conditions. If the recipient company is required to repay the loan, it is because it did not meet conditions such as job count or capital investment. In these circumstances, the company is probably not performing well economically, and therefore may not be able to repay the loan.

Another example of how a bank is different from government is that at a bank, both parties enter the loan transaction voluntarily. The bank’s shareholders and depositors are voluntary participants. Perhaps not explicitly for each loan, but if I do not like the policies or loans my bank has made, I can easily move my shares and deposits to another bank. But for these government loans, I personally have appeared several times before governmental bodies asking that the loan not be made. I did not consent. And changing government is much more difficult than changing banks.

Another difference between Schmitt’s bank and government is that bank’s goal is to earn a profit. Government doesn’t calculate profit. It is not able to, and when it tries, it efforts fall short. For one thing, government conscripts its capital. It faces no market test as to whether it is making good investments. It doesn’t have to compete with other institutions for capital, as a private bank does. Ludwig von Mises taught us that government can’t calculate profit and loss, the essential measure that lets us know if a business is making efficient use of resources. Thomas DiLorenzo elaborated, writing: “There is no such thing as real accounting in government, of course, since there are no profit-and-loss statements, only budgets. Consequently, there is no way of ever knowing, in an accounting sense, whether government is adding value or destroying it.”

An example of this lack of accounting for capital comes from the same governmental body making this forgivable loan. In Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense is important, even today, I explain that proper attention given to the depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita would recognize and account for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. But the county doesn’t do that, at least not in its most visible annual reporting of the arena’s financial results.

Governments locally do have a measure of what they consider to be “profit.” It’s the benefit-cost ratio calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. This is the source of the “$1 invested and get a return of over $2.40″ that Schmitt referenced. But the “benefits” that go into this calculation are quite different from the profits that business firms attempt to earn. Most importantly, the benefits that government claims are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of additional tax revenue paid to government. This is very different from the profits companies earn in voluntary market transactions.

Government usually 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. There is much evidence that economic development incentives rank low on the list of factors businesses consider when making investments. A related observation is that if the relatively small investment government makes in incentives is solely or even partially responsible for such wonderful outcomes in terms of jobs, why doesn’t government do this more often? If the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners has such power to create economic growth, why is anyone unemployed?

Those, like Gary Schmitt, who are preparing to lead Wichita’s efforts in stimulating its economy believe that government should take on a larger role. We need to make sure that these leaders understand the fundamental differences between government and business, and how government can — and can’t — help business grow.

Following is an excerpt from the meeting minutes:

Chairman Skelton said, “Okay, thank you. Anybody else who wishes to speak today? Please state your name and address for the record.”

Mr. Gary Schmitt, (address redacted to respect privacy) greeted the Commissioners and said, “I work at Intrust Bank and I am the Vice-Chair of GWEDC. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I want to thank all of you also for just saving the county $700,000 by refinancing the bond issue. I think that was a great move. I think that’s exactly what we need to do to help support our county.

Mr. Schmitt said, “Also want to say I think Starwood coming to Wichita with 900 jobs in the very near future is a big win for Wichita, for Sedgwick County and our community. And I just want to encourage you to support the $200,000 investment. I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future. And I think having 900 people employed in basically starter jobs, or jobs to fill the gap in their financial needs for their families is very important also. So thank you very much for the opportunity to speak. I encourage you to support positive vote on this.”

Chairman Skelton said, “Commissioner Peterjohn.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Mr. Schmidt, I thank you for coming down and speaking today and your efforts on behalf of GWEDC. One of the things I struggle with these issues when they come before the Commission is what is the, how do we come up with an optimum number? I mean, why is $200,000 the right figure for the county’s contribution. And also, I mean, other than the fact that the city approved a similar amount yesterday, and when this comes to us and the calculations are coming from a, I think, a basic input and output model that fluctuates, depending on what assumptions you feed into it, I struggle with, you know, how do we determine, when you get a proposal at the bank, somebody comes in and says, hey, I would like to borrow x number of dollars for this project, we expect a net present value or rate of return of so much, and based on a loan cost of a certain interest rate, we get those very specific calculations. Can you provide any insight, in terms of why $200,000 is the optimal number for this forgivable loan over 5 years, and help me out on that point?”

Mr. Schmitt said, “I’ll try. GWEDC basically is a cooperation between businesses, business community leaders and also the city and the county government. We sort of have all the players at the table. And it’s very similar to what we do at the bank, when somebody comes in and asks for a proposal, we have to understand what our capacity is, what our expectations are, and we analyze all that. By using WSU calculate return on investment, that’s similar to what we do at the bank to calculate our return on investment. Now, I’m sure Starwood would be very excited if we said we will give you $2 million instead of $200,000, but we negotiated a number that we thought was acceptable to Starwood and also us.

“Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing. So, Mr. Peterjohn, I think we’ve tried to do everything we can to bring the best deal to the community we possibly can.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Well then help me out, in terms of the point that was raised over, we’ve got a forgivable loan for five years, but the calculation, in terms of return and so on are over 10 years. So basically our clawback provisions don’t exist from year 6 through 10.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “Well…”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “And then you’ve got that disparity.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “You know, the other interesting thing is they have a 15 year lease out there on the building. So our expectation is they will be a minimum of 15 years. So do we do it on 5, 10, or 15 years. So, I understand your question. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Okay. Thank you for coming down and providing…” Mr. Schmitt said, “You are welcome. Thank you.”

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Wichitans willing to fund basics

Wichita City Hall SignIn Wichita, voters are willing to pay a higher sales tax for fundamentals like infrastructure and water supply, and less willing for business incentives, downtown development, and convention centers.

In April Kansas Policy Institute commissioned SurveyUSA to conduct a scientific poll concerning current topics in Wichita. The press release from KPI, along with a link to the complete survey results, is available at Poll: Wichitans don’t want sales tax increase.

In a series of questions asking if Wichita voters would be willing to pay a higher sales tax to provide certain services, a pattern appeared: Voters are willing to pay for things that are fundamental in nature, and less willing to pay for others.

As can be seen in the nearby chart, voters are willing to pay for infrastructure, and more willing to pay for maintenance of existing infrastructure than for new infrastructure. Voters are most willing to pay for securing a long-term water source.

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For business incentives, downtown development, and convention centers, Wichita voters express less willingness to pay higher sales tax to fund these items.

For the first three items, the average was 68 percent of voters willing to pay a higher sales tax. For the last three, the average is 30 percent.

Following is the complete text of the questions:

Would you personally be willing to pay a higher sales tax in the city of Wichita to fund incentives to businesses expanding in Wichita or moving here from other states?

Would you personally be willing to pay a higher sales tax in the city of Wichita to fund maintenance work on existing infrastructure, such as sewers and roads?

Would you personally be willing to pay a higher sales tax in the city of Wichita to fund new infrastructure, such as new highways and passenger rail connections?

Would you personally be willing to pay a higher sales tax in the city of Wichita to continue developing downtown Wichita with apartments, businesses, and entertainment destinations?

Would you personally be willing to pay a higher sales tax in the city of Wichita to expand or renovate convention spaces, such as the Hyatt Hotel and Century II?

Would you personally be willing to pay a higher sales tax in the city of Wichita to secure a long-term water source?

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Wichita property tax rate, the history

The City of Wichita is fond of saying that it hasn’t raised its mill levy in many years. But the mill levy has increased in recent years, and the use of the tax revenue has shifted.

wichita-mill-levy-table-2014-05In 2002 the City of Wichita mill levy rate was 31.845. In 2012 it was 32.471, based on the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. That’s an increase of 0.626 mills, or 1.97 percent. 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. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend.

Although the mill levy has increased slightly, property tax revenue collected has risen faster. From 2002 to 2012 property tax revenue increased from $82.948 to $118.990 million, or 43.5 percent. We didn’t experience anything near that rate of growth in population or inflation. For the same period sales tax revenue to the city rose from $40.982 million to $54.095 million, or 32.0 percent.

wichita-mill-levy-chart-2014-05The allocation of city property tax revenue has shifted in a troubling way. According to the 2010 City Manager’s Policy Message, page CM-2, “One mill of property tax revenue will be shifted from the Debt Service Fund to the General Fund. In 2011 and 2012, one mill of property tax will be shifted to the General Fund to provide supplemental financing. The shift will last two years, and in 2013, one mill will be shifted back to the Debt Service Fund. The additional millage will provide a combined $5 million for economic development opportunities.”

This shift has not caused the city to delay paying off debt. This city is making its scheduled payments. But we need to recognize that approximately 2.5 mills (now about 2 mills) that could have been used to retire debt has instead been shifted to support current spending. Instead of spending this money on current consumption — including economic development spending that has produced little result — we could have, for example, used that money to purchase some of our outstanding bonds.

The video below is of interest as it provides insight into the level of knowledge of some elected officials and city staff.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1994

Wichita’s benchmark not applicable to overlapping jurisdictions, it seems

Wichita Economic DevelopmentThe City of Wichita insists on a certain level of return on investment for its economic development incentives, but doesn’t apply that criteria to overlapping jurisdictions.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider an economic development incentive to a company. The council requires that incentive projects show a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or greater, meaning that the city expects to gain $1.30 or more for every dollar it invests in the incentive program.

For the project the city will consider on May 6, that threshold is met for the city’s general and debt service funds, and also for Sedgwick County and the State of Kansas. But for USD 259, the Wichita public school district, the benefit-cost ratio is 1.23 to one. That’s below the criteria the city requires for itself, although the policy contains many exceptions.

The program used to deliver this incentive is Economic Development Exemption (EDX) . It provides relief from property taxes based on a formula that considers job creation and capital investment. In this case, the company qualifies for a 93.25 percent real property tax exemption for up to ten years. Not 92 percent, and not 94 percent. Instead, the city has determined that precisely 93.25 percent is the correct amount of property tax exemption to be awarded. (Which reminds me of the saying that economists use a decimal point now and then to remind us they have a sense of humor.)

Furthermore, the decision to award the tax exemption is made solely by the City of Wichita. The other taxing jurisdictions have no say in the matter and no ability to object. So while Wichita requires a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or better, it’s saddling the Wichita school district with a benefit-cost ratio of 1.23 to one.

This is all the more meaningful when we consider that the Wichita school district is the largest participant in the incentive. The amount of tax revenue the school district is giving up — perhaps against its will — is almost as large as the city, county, and state put together. These are the amounts of foregone tax revenue for each jurisdiction, according to city documents.

City $14,096
State $651
County $12,738
USD 259 $24,810

Perhaps it’s time to consider laws in Kansas that would allow counties, school districts, and the state to opt out of economic development incentive decisions made by cities.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1968

Poll: Wichitans don’t want sales tax increase

kansas-policy-institute-logoFollowing is a press release from Kansas Policy Institute.

Scientific Poll: Wichitans Don’t Want Sales Tax Increase

They’re opposed to business incentives, want to pursue privatization over tax increases, and have concerns about how city hall has recently spent money.

May 2, 2014 — Wichita — According to a newly released poll from Kansas Policy Institute, Wichitans may want more jobs and a secure water source but they certainly don’t support a sales tax increase as the means to get either. A scientific survey of 502 registered Wichita voters, conducted by SurveyUSA, shows strong opposition to a sales tax increase, as well as a possible explanation for their opposition. Full results, cross tabs, and methodology are available here.

  • 63 percent oppose a sales tax increase to provide incentives to businesses; only 28 percent support the idea
  • 64 percent oppose a sales tax increase to expand or renovate convention spaces such as the Hyatt Hotel and Century II; only 28 percent support the idea
  • 78 percent would be willing to pay a higher sales tax to secure a long-term water source and build new infrastructure but 65 percent believe the City should fund those projects through privatization rather than raise taxes.

“Government typically claims that citizen support for certain projects means they are also supportive of higher taxes, but that’s often because citizens are presented with false choices,” said Dave Trabert, president of Kansas Policy Institute. “That’s exactly what the City of Wichita did with their ACT ICT community meetings. Wichita officials were simply looking for justification to do what they wanted to do — raise taxes.”

Trabert believes the survey provides insight on citizens’ opposition to tax increases. “Only 28 percent of Wichitans believe city officials have efficiently used taxpayer money. 78 percent believe the City should adjust spending and be more efficient to fund new infrastructure and secure a long-term water source. City officials would understand that if they had an honest dialogue with citizens about all of the options, instead of just pushing a tax increase.”

Kansas Policy Institute is planning a series of public forums over the coming months to examine multiple options for long-term water solutions, economic development and infrastructure. National experts on privatization and other options will be brought in, as well as government officials who have successfully used privatization to provide services. The effectiveness of taxpayer subsidies will also be explored. Local elected officials and other civic leaders will be invited to participate.

city-council-chambers-sign-b

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 1

Wichita City Hall SignWichita’s city attorney is retiring soon, and the city will select a replacement. There are a few questions that we ought to ask of candidates, such as the following.

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.”

Wichita city attorney candidate, here’s a question: If a member of the Wichita city council had a business relationship with a person, and then that person was involved in a matter that the city council was called to vote on, how would you advise the council member?

It’s not a hypothetical question. Last year the Wichita city council had to make a decision regarding two development teams that had applied to build a project. (See Wichita contracts, their meaning (or not) for video.) It included various forms of subsidy. Here are some facts that no one disputes:

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

1. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is a member of the Wichita City Council and was in position to make a decision.

2. Bill Warren was one of the parties applying for the project.

3. Bill Warren also owns movie theaters.

4. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer owns a company that manufactures barbeque sauce.

5. Brewer’s sauce was sold at Warren’s theaters.

It seems straightforward, doesn’t it? The mayor should not have participated in a decision involving his business partner. That seems to be the clear meaning of the city code. But the mayor proceeded to participate in the discussion and vote.

Now, I don’t know what happened behind the scenes. Did the mayor ask the city attorney for his opinion on whether he should abstain from voting? If so, what did the city attorney say? Did the mayor follow or disregard the advice?

Wichitans ought to be interested in the tenor of the advice the next city attorney will provide to council members and the city’s staff of bureaucrats. Will the next city attorney ignore the plain meaning of laws in order to provide legal cover for the council and staff? Or, will the attorney provide advice that respects citizens and the rule of law?

We probably won’t ever know.

Here’s the Wichita city code:

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

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

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

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1971

Wichita economic development incentives: Do they help?

The Wichita City Council regularly awards economic development incentives. Are these incentives helpful, or not?

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1971In November the Wichita City Council granted Industrial Revenue Bonds to Spirit Aerosystems.

The amount of the proposed bond issue was $49,000,000. The purpose of these IRBs is to allow the recipient to escape the payment of property taxes, and often sales taxes too. This action by the council may exempt up to $49,000,000 of property from taxation, both ad valorem (property) and sales. A 100 percent exemption is proposed for five years, plus a second five years if conditions are met.

The city uses benefit-cost ratios to justify its expenditures on economic development incentives. The reasoning is that by spending cash (such as on a forgivable loan) or forgiving taxes (as in the current case), the city (and county, state, and school district) gain even more than they give up. Generally, Wichita requires a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to 1 or better, although there are many exceptions and loopholes that are used if a potential deal doesn’t meet this criteria.

The council’s agenda packet gives benefit-cost ratios for the various taxing authorities, but it doesn’t list the dollar amounts of the tax abatements. Usually these dollar amounts are supplied.

One of the taxing jurisdictions affected by this proposed action is USD 260, the Derby school district, as the property is within its boundaries. In this case, the benefit-cost ratio given for the Derby school district is 1.00 to 1. Since the City of Wichita requires 1.3 to 1 or better for itself, by what right does the city impose a burden on a school district that it would not accept for itself? (The tax rate for Derby schools is 59.3 mills; while for the City of Wichita the rate is 32.5 mills.)

It’s important to note that the benefits claimed from the IRBs are in the form of increased taxes paid.

The harm of this incentive is that the taxes not paid by Spirit Aerosystems are shifted to other taxpayers. The money these taxpayers would have spent or invested is instead spent on taxes. Instead of people and businesses firms deciding how to spend or invest, Wichita City Hall does this for them. This brings into play a whole host of problems. These include the deficit of knowledge needed to make good investment decisions, decisions being made for political rather than economic reasons, and the corrosive influence of cronyism.

There is something the city could to do alleviate this problem. Would the city consider reducing its spending by the amount of tax being abated? In this case, the cost of these tax abatements will not be born by others. So far, the city has not considered this possibility.

Wichita’s management of incentives

Recent reporting told us what some have suspected: The city doesn’t manage its economic development efforts. One 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. Shouldn’t we develop our management skills of tax abatements and other economic development incentives before we grant new?

Wichita’s results in economic development

Wichita and Peer Job Growth, Total Employment
Despite the complaints of many that Wichita doesn’t have a rich treasure chest of incentives, the city has been granting tax abatements for years. What is the result? Not very good. Wichita is in last place in job creation (and other measures of economic growth) among our Visioneering peer cities. See here Wichita and Visioneering peers job growth.

If we believe that incentives have a place, then we have to ask why Wichita has done so poorly.

Particularly relevant to this applicant today: Boeing, its predecessor, received many millions in incentives. After the announcement of Boeing leaving in 2012, a new report contained this: “‘They weren’t totally honest with us,’ said [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer of Boeing, which has benefited from about $4 billion of municipal bonds and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax relief. ‘We thought the relationship was a lot stronger.’” Has anything changed?

A few remarks and questions about incentives

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?

A diversified economy

wichita-detroit-job-industry-concentration
The mayor and council members have said that we need to diversify our economy. The award of incentives to Spirit Aerosystems reduces diversification. It gives special benefits worth millions to the largest company in our most concentrated industry. The costs of these incentives are born by other companies, especially entrepreneurs and start up companies. It’s these entrepreneurs and young companies that must be the source of diversity and dynamism in our economy.

(If we really believe that these incentives have no cost, why don’t we offer them more often? Think of how many companies go out of business each month. Many of them could be saved with just a little infusion of cash. Why doesn’t the city rescue these firms with incentives?)

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.

Can officials manage growth?

Alan Peters and Peter Fisher wrote an academic paper titled The Failures of Economic Development Incentives, published in Journal of the American Planning Association. A few quotes from the study, with emphasis added:

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

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

In 2008 Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit investigated spending on economic development. It found about the same as did Peters and Fisher.

Going forward

Politicians and bureaucrats promote programs like this tax abatement as targeted investment in our economic future. They believe that they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. It’s a form of centralized planning by the state that shapes the future direction of the Wichita and Kansas economy.

These targeted economic development efforts fail for several reasons. First is the knowledge problem, in that government simply does not know which companies are worthy of public investment. This lack of knowledge, however, does not stop governments from creating policies and awarding incentives. This “active investor” approach to economic development is what has led to companies receiving grants or escaping hundreds of millions in taxes — taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form.

Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy

Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business is critical of this approach to economic development. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”

In the same paper, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”

In making his argument, Hall cites research on the futility of chasing large employers as an economic development strategy: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. To quote from the most comprehensive study: ‘The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.’”

There is also substantial research that is it young firms — distinguished from small business in general — that are the engine of economic growth for the future. We can’t detect which of the young firms will blossom into major success — or even small-scale successes. The only way to nurture them is through economic policies that all companies can benefit from. Reducing tax rates is an example of such a policy. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like IRBs is an example of precisely the wrong policy.

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach. We need to advocate for policies — at Wichita City Hall, at the Sedgwick County Commission, and at the Kansas Statehouse — that lead to sustainable economic development. We need political leaders who have the wisdom to realize this, and the courage to act appropriately. Which is to say, to not act in most circumstances.

Wichita City Hall

Wichita develops plans to make up for past planning mistakes

On several issues, including street maintenance, water supply, and economic development, Wichita government and civic leaders have let our city fall behind. Now they ask for your support for future plans to correct these mistakes in past plans.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.
Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

In February the City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The amounts of money involved are large, and portions represent deferred maintenance. That is, the city has not been taking care of the assets that taxpayers have paid for. When Wichita city leaders ask for more taxes to pay for this lack of stewardship, citizens need to ask for better accountability than what they’ve received.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community input

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

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

Wichita flights compared to the nation.
Wichita flights compared to the nation.

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

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

Leadership of city officials

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita not good for small business

The Wichita Business Journal reports today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, we come to Wichita.

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

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

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

toolbox-29058_640

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

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

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

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

Wichita City Council fails to support informing the taxed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you don't like this statue, just don't go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.
If you don’t like this statue, just don’t go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.
The topic that day was whether the council should decide to add fluoride to the city’s water, or should it let citizens vote on the matter. Williams expressed concern that if the council were to decide to fluoridate Wichita’s water, citizens would not be able to avoid ingesting the added fluoride. They wouldn’t have a choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wichita City Council to consider entrenching power of special interest groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An example of special interests influencing elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita council meeting may proceed without quorum

Wichita City Council chambers
Wichita City Council chambers

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Wichita, West Bank apartments seem to violate ordinance

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

Click for larger version.
Click for larger version.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita seeks to add more tax to hotel bills

Wichita City Hall.
Wichita City Hall.

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

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

Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who pays this tax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More secret spending

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

The bureaucrats profit

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

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

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

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

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

wichita-taxi regulations

Regulation failure leads to tragedy in Wichita

wichita-taxi regulations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder: Who is regulating the regulators?

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Government planning, taxes, and carbon

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

Water faucet

Where’s Wichita’s water?

Water faucet

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

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

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

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

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

City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program schematic diagram.
City of Wichita Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program schematic diagram.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Wichita, citizens want more transparency in city government

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

Wichita planning documents hold sobering numbers

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.
Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The planning process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constraining growth

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

Special taxes paid on a residential home.
Special taxes paid on a residential home.

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

Community input

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

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

Wichita flights compared to the nation.
Wichita flights compared to the nation.

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

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

Leadership of city fathers

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

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

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV.20

WichitaLiberty.TV February 23, 2014

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

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

presentation-512

Economic development in Wichita, steps one and two

presentation-512

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And then what will happen?” he asked.

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

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

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

“And then what will happen?” Smithies persisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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