Tag Archives: Wichita city council

In Wichita, gap analysis illustrates our problems

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

Thank you for providing the gap analysis that I requested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Wichita, no difference between business and government?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Wichita, policies are made to be waived and ignored

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the city proposes to waive this requirement as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita City Council Chambers

Wichita city council schools citizens on civic involvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What citizens can learn from this meeting

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

Council members may criticize you based on incorrect facts.

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

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

city-council-chambers-sign-800

In Wichita, a public hearing with missing information

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later on, the same document states

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

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

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

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

Who reads the agenda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita advances in the field of cost savings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita logic Brewer fishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambassador Hotel sign 2014-03-07Why are measures like this necessary? The impetus for this policy is the no-bid contract awarded to Key Construction for the construction of the garage near the Ambassador Hotel, originally called Douglas Place, now known as Block One.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doesn't Wichita have a newspaperSo there were no “estimates” that Key Construction bested. But there was an objectionable no-bid contract that the council agreed to. Fortunately for Wichita, a few people objected and overrode the council’s bad decision.

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

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

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

The harm of pay-to-play

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a law, sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council members shall refrain 01Be advised: If you ask the mayor to adhere to this law, he may threaten to sue you.

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

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

Here’s the Wichita city code:

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

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

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

Warren Theater sells Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer's BBQ sauce

Problems with the Wichita economy. Is it cronyism?

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

Wichita government prefers rebates to markets

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

Wichita begins rebates and regulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not a single council member would do this.

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

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1992

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita property taxes

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

Targeted economic development incentives

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do incentives work?

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

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

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

No evidence of large firm impacts on local economy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Friday lunch, and even more lights are on

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background: In 2013 the Wichita City Council selected a development team to build apartments on the West Bank of the Arkansas River, between Douglas Avenue and Second Street. But city leaders may have overlooked a Wichita City Charter Ordinance that sets aside this land to be “open space, committed to use for the purpose of public recreation and enjoyment.”

Click for larger version.
Click for larger version.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Wichita, the attitude of some elected officials needs adjustment

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

Wichita Chamber of Commerce 2013-07-09 004

A lesson for Wichita in economic development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later in the letter:

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

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

Some remarks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prosperous company, establishing the template for seeking business welfare

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

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

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

Wichita and peer per capita income, Visioneering

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

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

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

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1975

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

A prominent Wichita business uses free markets to justify its request for economic development incentives. A gullible city council buys the argument.

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

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

The December 10 meeting was useful because a representative of Bombardier appeared before the council. His remarks help us understand how some prominent members of Wichita’s business community have distorted the principles of free markets and capitalism. As illustrated by the fawning of Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) and others, elected officials have long forsaken these principles.

Bombardier’s argument

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

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

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

A few thoughts: First, Bombardier is not investing in the community. The company is investing in itself. I’m sure Bombardier’s shareholders hope that is true.

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

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

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

The representative from Bombardier also said that the city’s incentives would reduce Bombardier’s investment risk. There is little doubt this is true. When a company is given money with no strings attached except what the company already intends to do and wants to do, that reduced a company’s risk. What has happened, however, is that risk has not been eliminated or reduced. It has merely been shifted to the people of Wichita, Sedgwick County, the Wichita public school district, and the State of Kansas. When government does this on a piecemeal basis, this is called cronyism. When done universally, we call this socialism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita fails at open government and trustworthiness

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

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

To compensate, Wichita switched on the street lights

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

city-council-chambers-sign-800

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.

kansas-policy-institute-2014-04-willing-to-fund

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?

wichita-mill-levy-chart-2014-05

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.