Tag Archives: Wichita city council

Wichita economic development items this week

Two economic development items on tap in Wichita this week illustrate failures or shortcomings of the regime.

Update: Both items passed by seven to zero votes at the March 1, 2016 council meeting.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider two economic development items.

The first item concerns a company named Epic Sports. In 2012 this company received property tax abatements from the City of Wichita in exchange for a 100 percent property tax exemption. The measure passed by a vote of six to one, with former council member Michael O’Donnell voting no.

Now Epic Sports has found greener pastures, it seems. Well, it didn’t just find them, it sought them, according to city documents: “The company approached economic development professionals in Butler County regarding incentives.” The same documents note “[Butler County] professionals did not target Epic Sports as a prospect for relocation.” With the new focus on regionalism, we can’t have one county poaching companies from another, it seems.

The city has negotiated that Epic Sports will repay 55 percent of the forgiven property taxes.

Here’s what is notable about this incident. Epic Sports has 110 employees and says it has outgrown its Wichita facility. City documents state the company has “searched for new facilities or land in the Wichita area but could not find a suitable property.” That is remarkable, if true. Wichita does not have any warehouse space suitable for a company of 110 employees? What, may I ask, have Wichita’s many economic development professionals been doing if we have no space for such a modestly-sized company? (On the other hand, with the focus on regionalism, and with Wichita and Butler County in the same region, why should we care?)

The second item the council will consider concerns a company that received a property tax exemption based on a commitment to invest a certain amount of capital and create a certain number of jobs. While the capital investment was made, the company has not met the jobs goal. In this case the city is invoking a portion of its economic development policy which allows modification of an incentive agreement based on poor economic conditions. If the Current Conditions Index, a product of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University, drops by five or more points during the term of an incentive agreement, the city can make a modification. Based on this, the city is extending the deadline for the company to meet the jobs goal. Repayment of forgiven property taxes could be required if the company does not meet the deadline.

Wichita to impose burdensome occupational requirements

The proposed massage therapist regulations in Wichita are likely to be ineffective, but will limit economic opportunity and harm consumers.

Kansas occupational license requirements, with proposed Wichita massage therapists. Click for larger.
Kansas occupational license requirements, with proposed Wichita massage therapists. Click for larger.
The Wichita City Council is concerned about human trafficking for the purposes of prostitution. That’s good. But the response the council is considering — which is licensing massage therapists — is not needed. We have strict laws already on the books that make human trafficking a serious criminal offense, which it is. The proposed Wichita regulations will simply make it more difficult for honest people to become massage therapists. Criminals will operate illegally. They are criminals, after all. Or, they will easily obtain false credentials.

Kansas already has many burdensome occupational licensure requirements that limit economic opportunity and protect entrenched interests. Nearby is a chart of the number of days training or experience required to obtain a license if various fields, according to Institute for Justice in 2012. 1 I’ve added the proposed Wichita massage therapist requirements. As you can see, it will require more than twice as much education to become a massage therapist as is required to become an emergency medical technician. How does that make sense?

Comparing the proposed Wichita requirements to the nation, we find that the Wichita standard is quite lax. 39 states license massage therapists, with the average education or training requirement being 139 days, with the range being from 117 days to 327 days2. Wichita is proposing 83 days, which might inspire one to ask this question: If the Wichita City Council is truly concerned about protecting Wichitans from getting a bad massage, why is it proposing such minimal requirements, compared to other states?

In reality, the high barriers to becoming a massage therapist in many states is testimony to the massage industry’s success in erecting barriers to entry. By making it difficult to become a massage therapist, the supply is lower than it could be, and prices are higher. Consumers lose.

As has been observed by myself: “City officials note that the existing local massage industry requested this regulation. That’s not surprising. The purpose of nearly all occupational licensure laws is to restrict entry to the industry so that existing practitioners can charge higher rates. That is a scam, especially against low-income people that need a masseuse or a plumber. It is also a burden to people who want to become plumbers, barbers, massage therapists, or one of the many other licensed occupations.” 3


Notes

  1. Institute for Justice, (2012). License to Work. Available at: ij.org/report/license-to-work/ Accessed 29 Feb. 2016.
  2. ibid
  3. Weeks, B. (2016). Massage business regulations likely to be ineffective, but will be onerous. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/massage-business-regulations-likely-ineffective-but-will-be-onerous/ .

Massage business regulations likely to be ineffective, but will be onerous

The Wichita City Council is likely to create a new regulatory regime for massage businesses in response to a problem that is already addressed by strict laws.

During a presentation to the Wichita City Council on February 23, 2016, police officials reported on a number of investigations and arrests. In 2015, there were 22 arrests for human trafficking and other violations. The presentation did not include what comprised “other violations,” nor did it contain any information about the disposition of these cases.

If the city is concerned about prostitution and child trafficking, the latter being a serious crime, we already have strong laws concerning this. As far as the two crimes being related: If you are a prostitute or promoter of such, you are already a criminal, according to the law. Committing more crimes, therefore, is just another step down the path you’ve already chosen.

A solution is to bring prostitution out of the shadows. Stop making consensual behavior between adults a crime. Then police can focus on actual and serious crime, like child trafficking.

But the zeal of the Wichita City Council for creating new regulatory regime is likely to overwhelm any rational thought about the problem. Now Wichita massage business owners and therapists are likely to be saddled with onerous licensing requirements. To become a newly-licensed therapist, you must possess one of several educational credentials, one of which is 500 hours of training. Existing therapists must meet similar requirements.

City officials note that the existing local massage industry requested this regulation. That’s not surprising. The purpose of nearly all occupational licensure laws is to restrict entry to the industry so that existing practitioners can charge higher rates. That is a scam, especially against low-income people that need a masseuse or a plumber. It is also a burden to people who want to become plumbers, barbers, massage therapists, or one of the many other licensed occupations.

It is both shocking and disappointing to realize that Wichita city bureaucrats and council members do not realize these economic realities. Another economic reality is that when licensing requirements are strict, the quality of service that many people receive declines. Investigating the demand for licensed plumbers, researchers found this:1

This proxy assumes that the more stringent are the barriers the higher will be the cost of licensed service and the smaller will be its quantity. These two effects increase the motivation of consumers to substitute their own services for those of trained professionals. This substitution process should show up in rising retail sales of plumbing supplies in more tightly restrictive states since licensed plumbers will generally purchase supplies wholesale. The implicit assumption is this causal chain is that self-service is on the average of lower quality than could be obtained from even a marginally trained journeyman plumber.

When presented with a convincing but fake credential, how diligently with Wichita officials investigate?
When presented with a convincing but fake credential, how diligently with Wichita officials investigate?
In other words, when strict licensure requirements make plumbers expensive, more people do their plumbing work themselves, and this work is likely to be of lower quality. It’s quite a stretch (literally and figuratively) to apply this reasoning to do-it-yourself massage, but here’s another economic reality: The more difficult it is to achieve a credential, the greater incentive to cheat. You don’t have to search very far before you find vendors advertising their services like this:

We are one of the oldest and most trusted seller of fake diplomas on the web. We use real diploma paper, the same paper that most major universities and high schools use. We also use professional security paper for our fake transcripts. We have more than 12 years experience in printing fake diplomas. You can rest assured that your fake diploma or fake transcript will look very authentic. We offer many different types of fake diplomas and fake certificates such as, FAKE GEDs, fake college diploma, fake university degree, fake high school diploma, fake college degree, or fake high school transcripts and fake skill certificate.

How diligently will Wichita’s bureaucratic machinery investigate when presented with a fake diploma certificate and transcript? The city’s record is not good. After the city passed new taxicab regulations, somehow the regulation that prohibited convicted sex offenders from receiving licenses was not implemented effectively. The city granted a taxi driver license to a man who was on the state sex offender registry. He raped a passenger.

I urge the city council to reject these regulations and devote the city’s resources to protecting people from actual crime.


Notes

  1. Carroll, Sidney L., and Robert J. Gaston. “Occupational Restrictions and the Quality of Service Received: Some Evidence”. Southern Economic Journal 47.4 (1981): 959–976.

Reforming economic development in Wichita

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Can we reform economic development in Wichita to give us the growth we need? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast May 10, 2015.

Continue reading Reforming economic development in Wichita

Empowering and engaging Wichitans, or not

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita City Manager says “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.” So what actually happens when you ask the city for data, including data that many governmental agencies make freely available? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast December 13, 2015.

Property rights in Wichita: Your roof

The Wichita City Council will attempt to settle a dispute concerning whether a new roof should be allowed to have a vertical appearance rather than the horizontal appearance of the old.

1500 N. Park Place in Wichita, August 2015. From Google Maps. Click for larger version.
1500 N. Park Place in Wichita, August 2015. From Google Maps. Click for larger version.
Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will be asked to uphold a decision of the Historic Preservation Board (HPB) regarding the characteristics of a roof someone installed on their house. Here’s material from the agenda packet for the meeting:

Analysis: By a 4-0-1 vote, the HPB found the installation of the metal panel roof does encroach upon, damage and destroy the Park Place Fairview Historic District by installing a non-traditional roofing material and altering the horizontal pattern of the roof shingles which is a character-defining feature of the house. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards #2 and #3 specifically deal with the character of the building itself. There is no evidence in historic Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, historic aerial photographs of the property, or historic building permit records that 1500 North Park Place ever had a metal panel or standing seam metal roof. There is no evidence of the property’s roof structure that this house ever had anything other than cedar shingles or composite singles. The issue is not with the metal material, it is with the metal sheet which gives a vertical appearance given to a roof that had a horizontal appearance. The design guidelines adopted by City Council for this historic district do not mention metal panel roofing material as appropriate material for this district (Section 2.12.1021.1 of the Wichita Code of Ordinances). The applicant did not provide an option to use metal shingles that would have the same appearance as the existing shingle roof.

Since the property is a contributing structure in the WRHP, the RHKP and the NRHP, the metal panel roof cannot proceed without the City Council finding that there are not any “feasible and prudent alternatives” to the metal panel roofing material. (Emphasis added.)

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s attitude towards empowering citizens, tax credits, and school choice

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita’s attitude towards empowering citizens, government spending through tax credits, and school choice in Kansas. View below, or click here to view on YouTube. Episode 103, broadcast December 13, 2015.

Wichita checkbook register

A records request to the City of Wichita results in data as well as insight into the city’s attitude towards empowering citizens with data.

I asked the City of Wichita for checkbook spending records and received data for 2015 through September 25, as I asked. I’ve made the data available in a visualization using Tableau Public. Click here to access the visualization. (A visual guide for using the visualization is at the end of this article.)

Analyzing this data requires a bit of local knowledge. For example, there is a vendor named “Visit Wichita” that started to receive monthly payments in March. What about payments for January and February? Those were made to a vendor named “Go Wichita,” which then changed its name to “Visit Wichita.”

Similarly, there are payments made to both “Westar Energy” and “Westar Energy — EDI.” These are the same entities, just as “Visit Wichita” and “Go Wichita” are the same entity. To the city’s credit, the matching pairs have the same vendor number, which is good. But resolving this requires a different level of analysis.

There are interesting entries. For example, the city usually sends a few hundred dollars per month to the Kansas Turnpike Authority. Then in July, the city paid $3.7 million to KTA. A quick search of city council agenda packets didn’t reveal any reason for this.

Of note, it looks like there were 474 checks issued in amounts $20 or less. Bank of America has estimated that the total cost of sending a business check ranges from $4 to $20.

The records request

Wichita spending data from 2013.
Wichita spending data from 2013.
The city supplied this data in an Excel spreadsheet, in an arrangement that can easily be analyzed in Excel or loaded into other programs. This is a step forward. Two years ago, Wichita could supply data of limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult to translate the image data into machine-readable text, and even more difficult to reorganize it to a useful arrangement or format for analysis.

Denver open checkbook.
Denver open checkbook.

I had to pay $24.00 to the city for this data. That’s a problem. It is by now routine for governmental agencies to post spending data like this, but not at the City of Wichita. When I inquired, city officials told me that the present financial management system “does not include many modern system features such as an ‘open checkbook.’” An “open checkbook” refers to a modern web interface where citizens can query for specific data and perhaps perform other analysis. An example is Denver’s open checkbook.

While the next-generation Wichita financial system will probably have such a feature, there’s no reason why citizens can’t experience some of the benefits now. The spreadsheet of spending data like that I paid for could easily be posted on the city’s website on a monthly basis. People like myself will take that data and make it more useful, as I did. There is no reason why this should not be happening.

When I learned of the fee for these records, I asked for a waiver, sending this to the city’s records official:

I’d like to ask for a waiver of the requested fee. I ask this because check register data is an example of records that many governmental agencies make freely available on their websites. The Wichita Public School District and Sedgwick County are two local examples.

I’d like to also call attention to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, which allows for fee waivers in some circumstances: “…fee waivers are limited to situations in which a requester can show that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.”

I suggest that the records I am requesting will indeed “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government,” and that it is in the public interest of the people of Wichita that these records be freely available.

I received an answer:

Mr. Weeks,

Your request for waiver of fees is denied. KORA allows fees to be collected prior to finding and producing the document you seek. KSA 45-218(f). The extensive statute setting out how fees are to be determined, KSA 45-219, does not contain any provision for waiver in the manner you suggest.

The City will provide the document to you upon payment as invoiced.

Sincerely,
Jay C. Hinkel,
Deputy City Attorney

Mr. Hinkel is absolutely correct. Governmental agencies in Kansas have the right to charge for records, and the Kansas statutes do not mention the waiving of fees as do the federal statutes. But the Kansas Open Records Act does not require cities to charge for providing records, especially for records that the city should already be providing. Especially when citizens are willing to take that data and make it better, at no charge to the city.

Hinkel provided a lawyer’s answer. Here, however, is the public policy the city promotes, from a Wichita city news release from 2013:

“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 importance of transparency. The city wants to empower and engage citizens by providing information. Well. I offered to “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government,” but had to pay to do so.

When I asked city officials for clarification of why I had to pay to receive these records, communications staff told me: “I should note that the City has won multiple awards for openness and citizen participation, but City leaders recognize this work is never done. They strive each and every day to become more open and transparent and will continue to do so.”

I must disagree. This is not “open and transparent.” This is not how to “empower and engage” the people of Wichita. Not even close.

Wichita checkbook register visualization instructions.
Wichita checkbook register visualization instructions.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita outreach, city council, and entrepreneurship

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at Wichita community outreach and communications, rewriting city council history, and entrepreneurship. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 102, broadcast December 6, 2015.

Shownotes

Cash grants still in use

Wichita is moving away from the use of cash incentives for economic development, except for this.

We’ve been told that the city is not going to use cash incentives for economic development. But an item the Wichita City Council will consider this week includes a cash grant of $10,000.

125 N. Emporia, scheduled to receive economic development incentives.
125 N. Emporia, scheduled to receive economic development incentives. Courtesy Google.
This grant is part of the city’s facade improvement program. Under it, properties in certain parts of the city can apply to use special assessment financing to pay for the improvement of their outside appearance. The city borrows the funds and advances them to the property owner. The bonds are repaid through special assessment taxes that are added to the property’s tax bill.

This process is similar to the way the city finances improvements such as street, water, and sewer infrastructure in new neighborhoods or commercial developments. Except: The infrastructure in new development becomes the property of the city. For a facade improvement project, the improvements remain private property.

Are facade improvement cash grants an exception to the new era of economic development in Wichita? Or when will we start implementing these new policies? Some might say that the grants are not for the purposes of economic development. If not, then how does the city justify these grants?

There is perhaps an even more important question the city needs to recognize and answer, which is this: Why are incentives like this necessary? The city says that without the incentive the project is not economically feasible: “The Office of Urban Development has reviewed the economic (gap) analysis of the project and determined a financial need for incentives based on the current market.”

(In case council members make the argument that the facade improvement is not an incentive, remind them that city economic development officials disagree.)

What is it that makes this project economically unfeasible? Why is investment not possible without taxpayer assistance? These are the questions the city needs to answer before asking taxpayers to make a cash grant to this building’s owners.

Wichita to consider tax abatements

Wichita considers three tax abatements, in one case forcing an “investment” on others that it itself would not accept.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider three tax abatements to companies in the aerospace business. Two are very large companies, and one is in the small business category.

In two cases the tax abatements are implemented through industrial revenue bonds. Under this program the city is not lending money. Instead, the program is a vehicle, created by under Kansas law, for companies to avoid paying property tax. In some cases companies may also avoid paying sales tax.

In another case the property tax abatement is conveyed through the city’s Economic Development Tax Exemption (“EDX”) program, which allows the city to forgive the payment of property taxes. In many instances, the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds is required by law in order to achieve tax forbearance. The EDX program does away with the often meaningless issuance of bonds, and lets the city implement, in a streamlined fashion, the primary economic goal: Granting permission to skip the payment of property taxes.

The goal of the industrial revenue bonds, however, is often obscured by news media and the city itself. For example, in the agenda material for the Cessna IRBs, the city states “Bond proceeds will be utilized to finance capital investment in the Wichita facilities.”

But later in the same document, we see “The IRBs will be purchased by Cessna and will not be offered to the public.” So the IRBs — the bonds the city is authorizing — aren’t really financing anything. By buying the bonds itself, Cessna is self-financing the purchases or obtaining the funds in some other way. The IRBs are merely a device to grant tax abatements. Nothing more than that — except that the bond program obfuscates the true economic meaning of the transaction, adds costs to the applicant company, and adds cost to the city (offset to some degree by fees paid by the applicant company).

Regardless of the cost and hassle to Cessna, the program has a payoff. City documents state that Cessna could save as much as $317,357 per year in property taxes.

For the Bombardier Learjet IRBs, the city tells us that “Bond-financed purchases are also exempt from state and local sales taxes.” The amount of abated taxes is not given.

For Perfekta, an aerospace supplier, the city is using the EDX program to convey a property tax abatement, with the estimated value of the tax exemption in the first full year being approximately $110,792, according to the agenda packet.

In this case, the city did not award a 100 percent tax abatement. This is due to the city’s policy of requiring a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one, although there are exceptions the city may use. In this case, the city adjusted the amount of tax abatement down until the 1.3 benchmark was achieved, as described in city documents: “To achieve the ratio of benefits to costs of at least 1.3 to 1.0 as required in the City/County Economic Development Policy, the percentage abatement should be reduced to an 89% tax exemption on a five-plus-five year basis.”

The benefit-cost ratio is calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University based on data supplied by the applicant company and the city. The rationale behind these calculations is a matter of debate. Even if valid, calculating the ratio with such precision is folly, reminding us of the old saw “Economists use a decimal point to remind us they have a sense of humor.”

Of note, while the city wants to “earn” a 1.3 ratio of benefits to costs, it forces a lower ratio on two overlapping jurisdiction, as shown in city documents:

City of Wichita 1.34 to 1
City of Wichita General Fund 1.30 to 1
Sedgwick County 1.24 to 1
USD 259 1.17 to 1
State of Kansas 7.94 to 1

The county and school district have no choice but to accept the decision made by the city and accept a “return” lower than the city would accept for itself.

The city presents a benefit-cost ratio to illustrate that by giving up some property taxes, it gains even more tax revenue from other sources. But a positive benefit-cost ratio is not remarkable. Economic activity generally spawns more economic activity, which government then taxes. The question is: Did the city, county, school district, and state need to give up tax revenue in order to make these investments possible?

The problem with these actions

Part of the cost of these companies’ investment, along with the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. But we can’t identify which firms will be successful. So we need an economic development strategy that creates an environment where these young entrepreneurial firms have the greatest chance to survive. The action the Wichita city council is considering this week works against entrepreneurial firms. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

A major reason why these tax abatements are harmful to the Wichita economy is its strangling effect on entrepreneurship and young companies. As these companies and others escape paying taxes, others have to pay. This increases the burden of the cost of government on everyone else — in particular on the companies we need to nurture.

There’s plenty of evidence that entrepreneurship, in particular young business firms, are the key to economic growth. But Wichita’s economic development policies, as evidenced by this action, are definitely stacked against the entrepreneur. As Wichita props up its established industries, it makes it more difficult for young firms to thrive. Wichita relies on targeted investment in our future. Our elected officials and bureaucrats believe 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 government that shapes the future direction of the Wichita 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 for the awarding of 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. Young entrepreneurial companies are particularly vulnerable.

Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development PolicyProfessor 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.'”

(For a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view, see Research on economic development incentives. A sample finding is “General fiscal policy found to be mildly effective, while targeted incentives reduced economic performance (as measured by per capita income).”)

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 for everyone is an example of such a policy. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like the Wichita city council is considering this week is an example of precisely the wrong policy.

In explaining the importance of dynamism, Hall wrote: “Generally speaking, dynamism represents persistent, annual change in about one-third of Kansas jobs. Job creation may be a key goal of economic development policy but job creation is a residual economic outcome of business dynamism. The policy challenge centers on promoting dynamism by establishing a business environment that induces business birth and expansion without bias related to the size or type of business.”

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach, especially the policies that prop up our established companies to the detriment of dynamism. 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 water and sewer rates proposed to rise

At its Tuesday December 1, 2015 meeting the Wichita City Council is scheduled to consider new water and sewer rates. The following table from the agenda packet shows the proposed changes for different classes of customers.

Wichita Combined Monthly Water and Sewer Bills for 2016
Wichita Combined Monthly Water and Sewer Bills for 2016. Click for larger version.

For Wichita’s mayor, too many public hearings

Is the Wichita city council burdened with too many public hearings? Wichita’s mayor seems to think so.

Bob Weeks Facebook post 2015-10-20It’s not like the Wichita City Council is overburdened with citizens wanting to speak at public hearings. Sure, once in a while when the council is considering something really important like renaming the airport, many will want to speak.

But by and large, the routine business of the council is conducted with little input from the public. (This includes the dishing out of grants, tax abatements, and other favors worth millions to council members’ campaign contributors and cronies.) Many public hearings draw no speakers. For others, maybe one or two citizens will appear and offer an opinion.

Yet, it has become commonplace for the new mayor and council members to carp about the length of city council meetings.

City of Wichita Facebook post.
City of Wichita Facebook post.
This is in a city that just last week received an award for, in part, “community engagement.” Which tells us a lot about the worth and validity of these awards.

But for Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell, too many public hearings means, well, too much community engagement. Or, maybe too much of his time wasted. He didn’t say which, but I think we know what he meant.

Oh, and the public hearing where the mayor brought up his concern about wasting time with too many public hearings? No one wanted to speak. Video below.

Wichita water optimization contract award should be reconsidered

Seeking an objective analysis of water and sewer utilities, Wichita considers a firm that has obstacles to objectivity.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider awarding a contract for “optimization” of the city’s water and sewer utilities. The firm that city staff is recommending for the contract should not be chosen.

The city says there were three criteria it used in selecting a firm: Long term or short term need, required expertise, and objectivity. Having expertise in the subject matter is, of course, important. Right after that is objectivity. But in making the case for awarding the contract to a company named CH2M Hill, the city lists a number of local projects the company was involved with. The city promotes these as “knowledge of the local situation.” Also mentioned are the local residents already working for CH2M Hill.

Having local Wichita residents as employees and having been responsible for creating some of Wichita’s water and sewer utility infrastructure are factors that work against an objective analysis. Can we imagine this company objectively analyzing the ASR project after having built or managed a substantial portion of the project?

This is vitally important, as the ASR project has been underperforming and shows little progress.

Wichita city document, excerpt.
Wichita city document, excerpt.

Wichita to consider three tax abatements

When considering whether to grant three property tax abatements, the Wichita city council is unlikely to ask this question: Why can’t these companies expand if they have to pay the same taxes everyone else pays?

This week the Wichita City Council will consider property tax abatements for three different companies.

Wichita Urban DevelopmentOne is a new request for property tax relief under the city’s Economic Development Tax Exemption (EDX) program. The company is a supplier to the aerospace industry.

The second is a request for a five-year extension of a five-year property tax abatement. The company met the goals established five years ago. This company is a supplier to the aerospace industry.

The third is another request for a five-year extension of a five-year property tax abatement. The company met the goals established five years ago. This company is a supplier to the oil and gas industry.

To justify the cost of the tax abatements, the city presents benefit-cost ratio calculations. The city requires that the ratio be at least 1.3 to one, although there are exceptions. In each of these three cases the benefit-cost ratio for the school district is less than 1.3 to one. The city, in other words, is forcing school districts to accept investments that the city itself would not make, unless it invoked an exception. The school districts have no ability to limit their participation in these tax abatements other than lobbying the city.

For all the information provided in city documents, some important questions remain unanswered. Perhaps the most important question is this: Are these tax abatements necessary for these companies to carry out their expansion plans? City documents are silent on this question.

Was it a question of feasibility? Some economic development programs require that the applicant demonstrate the necessity of an incentive. Often the city presents a “gap” analysis that purportedly shows a gap between available financing and what is necessary to make the project feasible. But these arguments were not advanced. If they had — that is, if the companies say that if they have to pay property taxes then they can’t afford to expand — then we would be stuck with this question: Why are Wichita industrial property taxes so high that investments like this are not feasible?

The city presents a benefit-cost ratio showing that by giving up some property taxes, it gains even more tax revenue from other sources. But a positive benefit-cost ratio is not remarkable. Economic activity generally spawns more economic activity, which government then taxes. The question is: Did the city, county, school district, and state need to give up tax revenue in order to make this investment possible? (That’s right. The action by the city affected three other jurisdictions.)

Part of the cost of these companies’ investment, along with the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. But we can’t identify which firms will be successful. So we need an economic development strategy that creates an environment where these young entrepreneurial firms have the greatest chance to survive. The action the Wichita city council took this week works against entrepreneurial firms. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

The problem with these actions

A major reason why these tax abatements are harmful to the Wichita economy is its strangling effect on entrepreneurship and young companies. As these companies and others escape paying taxes, others have to pay. This increases the burden of the cost of government on everyone else — in particular on the companies we need to nurture.

There’s plenty of evidence that entrepreneurship, in particular young business firms, are the key to economic growth. But Wichita’s economic development policies, as evidenced by this action, are definitely stacked against the entrepreneur. As Wichita props up its established industries, it makes it more difficult for young firms to thrive. Wichita relies on targeted investment in our future. Our elected officials and bureaucrats believe 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 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 for the awarding of 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. Young entrepreneurial companies are particularly vulnerable.

Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development PolicyProfessor 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.'”

(For a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view, see Research on economic development incentives. A sample finding is “General fiscal policy found to be mildly effective, while targeted incentives reduced economic performance (as measured by per capita income).”)

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 for everyone is an example of such a policy. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like the Wichita city council used this week is an example of precisely the wrong policy.

In explaining the importance of dynamism, Hall wrote: “Generally speaking, dynamism represents persistent, annual change in about one-third of Kansas jobs. Job creation may be a key goal of economic development policy but job creation is a residual economic outcome of business dynamism. The policy challenge centers on promoting dynamism by establishing a business environment that induces business birth and expansion without bias related to the size or type of business.”

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach, especially the policies that prop up our established companies to the detriment of dynamism. 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.

Campaign contribution changes in Wichita

A change to Wichita city election law is likely to have little practical effect.

Currently Wichita city code prohibits certain entities from making campaign contributions to candidates for city council and mayor: “Contributions by political committees as defined by K.S.A. 25-4143, as amended, corporations, partnerships, trusts, labor unions, business groups or other such organizations are expressly prohibited.”

The intent of this law is to limit the influence of businesses and unions on city elections. This week the Wichita City Council will consider striking this portion of city code. The contribution limit of $500 to a candidate for the primary election, and $500 again for the general election, is proposed to be retained.

The practical effect of removing the restriction on campaign contributions from corporations and other entities is likely to be minor. Here’s why.

Last year, lamenting the role of money in national elections, a Wichitan wrote in the Wichita Eagle “Locally, I understand that elections for the Wichita City Council underwent ideal, nonpartisan campaign-finance reform years ago, and that these limits are scrupulously practiced.” This view is naive and doesn’t reflect the reality of current campaign finance practice in Wichita. That is, the stacking of contributions from multiple members of interested groups. For example, a frequent practice is that a business might have several of its executives and their spouses make contributions to a candidate. Because the contributions are made by multiple people, the money is contributed within the campaign finance limitation framework. But the net effect is a lot of money going to a candidate’s campaign in order to advance the interests of the business, thereby circumventing the intent of campaign finance restrictions.

Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Here’s how a handful of self-interested groups stack campaign contributions.

Stacked campaign contributions to Lavonta Williams from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions to Lavonta Williams from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
In 2012 council members James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run again for their offices in spring 2013. Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, two groups of related parties accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents for an entire year. A group associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000 — $4,000 to Williams, and $3,000 to Clendenin. Another group of people associated with movie theater owner Bill Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

Stacked campaign contributions to Jeff Longwell from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions to Jeff Longwell from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
In July 2012, as Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell (then a city council member) was running for the Sedgwick County Commission, his campaign received a series of contributions from a Michigan construction company. Several executives and spouses contributed. At the time, Longwell was preparing to vote in a matter involving a contract that the Michigan company and its Wichita partner wanted. That partner was Key Construction, a company that actively stacks contributions to city council candidates.

Longwell has also received stacked contributions from Key Construction.

The casual observer might not detect the stacking of campaign contributions by looking at campaign finance reports. That’s because for city offices, the name of the company a contributor works for isn’t required. Industry and occupation are required, but these aren’t of much help. Further, contribution reports are not filed electronically, so the information is not easy to analyze. Some reports are even submitted using handwriting, and barely legible handwriting at that.

The campaign finance reform that Wichita really needs is quite simple. It’s called a pay-to-play law, and it can be a simple as this: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

In other words, you can make contributions to candidates. You can ask the council to give you contracts and other stuff. But you can’t do both. It’s a reform we need, but our elected officials are not interested.

Raises for Wichita mayor, council proposed

This week (Tuesday November 10, 2015) the Wichita City Council will consider pay raises for the mayor and council members. City documents give the details in agenda item IV-6:

Currently, salaries for Council Members vary from $36,167 to $36,998. Had salaries been consistently adjusted each year since 2009 to reflect the CPI-U Index, all Council Members would have salaries at $38,723. The Mayor’s salary also reflects voluntary deferrals and is currently $87,712. Staff is recommending setting base salaries at $40,000 for Council Members and $90,000 for the Mayor. This would approximate the same General Pay Adjustment afforded to City Employees in 2015 and 2016.

The effect of this is pay raises ranging from 8.1 percent to 10.6 percent for council members, and 2.6 percent for the mayor.

Also:

Adjustments for City Council members’ salaries will no longer be tied to the CPI-U. This index was cumbersome for staff to implement. The amendments provide that City Council members will receive the same yearly general pay adjustment granted to exempt City employees.

The effect of the latter amendment is that the mayor and council members will receive annual pay increases without having to bother to vote to raise their salary.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s regulations and economic development

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Do Wichita’s many laws and regulations accomplish their goals? Then, are Wichita’s economic development policies likely to work? Episode 98, broadcast October 18, 2015. View below, or click here to view in high definition at YouTube.

Entrepreneurship in Wichita

As Wichita seeks to reboot its spirit of entrepreneurship, we should make sure we do things that have a chance of working. The Kauffman Foundation has conducted research. One paper is Guidelines for Local and State Governments to Promote Entrepreneurship. In its introduction, it holds this:

In this paper, we begin with a critical overview of two of the most commonly used strategies to promote entrepreneurship: creating public venture funds and business incubators. We then explain that these strategies often neglect an essential principle: connectivity and learning by entrepreneurs. Next, we describe ways in which public venture funds and incubators can be reorganized based on the connectivity principle before concluding with several other recommendations for how cities and states can promote entrepreneurship and begin to see real results that transform economies and provide new opportunities to residents.

Kauffman also has many videos based on its research into this topic. An example is Myth-busting Entrepreneurship.

Wichita city council should have skipped this proclamation

The Wichita city council issues a proclamation for a controversial medical issue.

Do you advocate for a condition that is not a “distinct, predictably identifiable disease with a reasonable pathophysiological mechanism,” favoring a method of treatment that is not “appropriate and effective,” and your method of treatment has been repudiated by The American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus and American Association of Certified Orthoptists because it has no scientific basis? 1

If so, the Wichita City Council and Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell may issue a proclamation for you.

City of Wichita tweet Irlen 2015-10-13

  1. Wikipedia, (2015). Scotopic sensitivity syndrome. Available at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotopic_sensitivity_syndrome Accessed 13 Oct. 2015.