Tag Archives: Wichita city council

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

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

Shownotes

Cash grants still in use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita to consider tax abatements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with these actions

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

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

There’s plenty of evidence that entrepreneurship, in particular young business firms, are the key to economic growth. But Wichita’s economic development policies, as evidenced by this action, are definitely stacked against the entrepreneur. As Wichita props up its established industries, it makes it more difficult for young firms to thrive. Wichita relies on targeted investment in our future. Our elected officials and bureaucrats believe they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. It’s a form of centralized planning by government that shapes the future direction of the Wichita economy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita water and sewer rates proposed to rise

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

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

For Wichita’s mayor, too many public hearings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita water optimization contract award should be reconsidered

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita to consider three tax abatements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with these actions

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

There’s plenty of evidence that entrepreneurship, in particular young business firms, are the key to economic growth. But Wichita’s economic development policies, as evidenced by this action, are definitely stacked against the entrepreneur. As Wichita props up its established industries, it makes it more difficult for young firms to thrive. Wichita relies on targeted investment in our future. Our elected officials and bureaucrats believe they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. It’s a form of centralized planning by the state that shapes the future direction of the Wichita economy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campaign contribution changes in Wichita

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longwell has also received stacked contributions from Key Construction.

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

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

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

Raises for Wichita mayor, council proposed

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

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

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

Also:

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s regulations and economic development

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

Entrepreneurship in Wichita

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

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

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

Wichita city council should have skipped this proclamation

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

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

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

City of Wichita tweet Irlen 2015-10-13

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

Wichita cheers its planned economy

While success in growing a company is welcome in Wichita, there are broader issues that affect the rest of the metropolitan area.

Tweet from Wichita city officials
Tweet from Wichita city officials
This week the Wichita City Council extended a property tax abatement for a manufacturing company in Wichita. The tax abatement was granted under the city’s Industrial Revenue Bonds program. Under this program no city money is lent to the company. The sole reason for the bonds is the accompanying property tax exemption, and in some cases, a sales tax exemption.

City documents from 2008 estimate the company will avoid paying $239,051 in property taxes for the first year. Savings for subsequent years are probably similar. This week’s action by the city council extends this benefit for another five years.

While the city’s economic development staff cheers the company’s success, important questions are not addressed. Perhaps the most important question is this: Was this tax abatement necessary for this expansion to proceed? City documents are silent on this question. At the 2008 council meeting the necessity of the tax abatement was not mentioned or discussed.

Why were the bonds necessary? The company did not lack access to credit, as city documents state the company purchased the bonds itself. The company either had cash, or access to credit.

Was it a question of feasibility? Some economic development programs require that the applicant demonstrate the necessity of an incentive. Often the city presents a “gap” analysis that purportedly shows a gap between available financing and what is necessary to make the project feasible. Something like this.

But no such claim was made for this matter.

Perhaps this proposed expansion just barely missed being economically feasible, and if the company could avoid paying the same property taxes that most everyone else pays, the project would be feasible.

But this argument was not advanced. If it had been, then we would be stuck with the question of why are Wichita industrial property taxes so high that investments like this are not feasible?

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

No one made that argument.

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

The problem with this action

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

There’s plenty of evidence that entrepreneurship, in particular young business firms, are the key to economic growth. But Wichita’s economic development policies, as evidenced by this action, are definitely stacked against the entrepreneur. As Wichita props up its established industries, it makes it more difficult for young firms to thrive. Wichita relies on targeted investment in our future. Our elected officials and bureaucrats believe they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. It’s a form of centralized planning by the state that shapes the future direction of the Wichita economy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV: Lack of information sharing by government, community improvement districts, and the last episode of “Love Gov”

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Do our governmental agencies really want to share data and documents with us? Community Improvement Districts and homeowners compared. And, the last episode of “Love Gov” from the Independent Institute. View below, or click here to view in high definition at YouTube. Episode 95, broadcast September 20, 2015.

Wichita’s demolition policy

Wichita homeowners must pay for demolition of their deteriorating homes, but the owners of a long-festering and highly visible commercial property get to use tax funds for their demolition expense.

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider condemnation of two houses in Wichita. In both cases the Board of Building Code Standards and Appeals recommends demolition of the buildings, at the owner’s expense.

Location of one of the houses recommended for demolition. The city's primary wastewater treatment plant is in the background.
Location of one of the houses recommended for demolition. The city’s primary wastewater treatment plant is in the background.
Action like this is common for residential property in Wichita. But we don’t often see commercial property demolished by city council action. Tomorrow’s proposed — and likely — action is in contrast with action taken a few weeks ago by the council. Then, the council allowed the owner of blighted commercial property located near the airport to collect additional sales tax from future customers in order to pay for demolition of a hotel and restaurant.

From Google Earth, a view of the restaurant and hotel on the subject property. If a house this blighted had been owned by a poor inner-city resident, the city would have long ago condemned and demolished the buildings, at the homeowner's expense.
From Google Earth, a view of the blighted restaurant and hotel on the property near the airport. If a house this blighted had been owned by a poor inner-city resident, the city would have long ago condemned and demolished the buildings, at the homeowner’s expense.
As reported in the Wichita Eagle, the restaurant had been vacant for about a decade. Supporters, say the newspaper, refer to the property as “blighted.” The council member that represents the area says it is “dilapidated” and “vacant for a long time.” It was described as contributing to an unsightly first impression of the city.

So why is the city likely to demolish two obscure houses while it let a long-time blighted commercial property languish in a highly visible location?

And why does the city charge homeowners for demolition, but allows a commercial property owner to pay for its demolition with tax money?

Another week in Wichita, more CID sprawl

Shoppers in west Wichita should prepare to pay higher taxes, if the city approves a Community Improvement District at Kellogg and West Streets.

Next week the Wichita City Council will consider the formation of a Community Improvement District (CID) surrounding the intersection of Kellogg and West Streets.

CIDs are a relatively recent creation of the Kansas Legislature. In a CID, merchants may charge additional sales tax, up to an extra two cents per dollar. For more about their mechanism, see Community improvement districts in Kansas. In the present case, the developer proposes to charge an extra one cent per dollar in tax. This extra sales tax, minus a handling fee, will be periodically remitted to the developer. It’s important to note that CID proceeds do not flow to the merchants who collect them.

This CID is “pay-as-you-go,” meaning the city is not issuing bonds or loaning money.

This CID, should the council approve, will contribute to CID sprawl. This is a condition in which more and more of the city is overtaken by CIDs and their higher taxes. In effect, a sales tax increase is taking effect. Because of the city’s weak protection of shoppers from these CID taxes, many Wichitans and visitors will pay higher taxes than they expected. This harms the reputation of Wichita.

(Of note, Kansas raised the statewide sales tax this year. Because Kansas is one of the few states that tax groceries at the full rate, low-income families are harmed most by the higher sales and CID taxes. See Kansas sales tax has disproportionate harmful effects for analysis.)

This CID is likely to be sold to citizens as contributing to public infrastructure. It’s true that a traffic signal on West Street and widening of that street are listed as uses of CID funds. But the amount budgeted is $350,000, which means that the improvements will not be substantial. This inclusion of public infrastructure is likely part of a strategy of sweetening the deal. It’s not all about greedy developers, the city will say. Some of the funds are going to public infrastructure. This strategy was used to justify the Cabela’s CID, in which part of the CID funds are paying for improvements to the intersection of K-96 and Greenwich Road.

This CID proposal contains two new provisions that may help blunt some of the criticism of CIDs as harmful to other business firms in the city. First is this condition: “Allow the City to review and approve or deny the relocation of any business within three miles of the district, for the first three years, on any property in which the developer requests reimbursement for the land acquisition.” This seems designed to restrict “poaching” of merchants from other nearby landlords who are not being subsidized by a CID. Whether this condition has any real meaning is unknown. In practice, the city has been reluctant to enforce restrictions similar to this.

Some of the first buildings to be demolished on West Street, according to a city schedule of milestones. Click for larger.
Some of the first buildings to be demolished on West Street, according to a city schedule of milestones. Click for larger.
Also there is this condition: “Demolition or rehabilitation of three identified structures and additional investment within the district within the timeframe below.” Following this is a schedule of milestones. This may be in response to instances where the city has authorized a subsidy program, but nothing happened, or happened slowly. The Exchange Place project at Douglas and Market is one example. Another is the CID at Central and Oliver. Principals of the Kellogg and West CID are also involved in the Central and Oliver CID, and little has happened there since its formation.

Another important public policy issue regarding CIDs is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? We can easily see their rationalization: It’s better for us that unwitting customers pay higher sales taxes rather than higher prices. We can blame government for the taxes, but we get the money. 1

Customers of merchants in CIDS ought to know in advance that an extra tax is charged. Some have recommended warning signage that protects customers from unknowingly shopping in stores, restaurants, and hotels that will be adding extra sales tax to purchases. Developers who want to benefit from CID money say that merchants object to signage, fearing it will drive away customers.

State law is silent on this. The City of Wichita requires a sign indicating that CID financing made the project possible, with no hint that customers will pay additional tax. The city also maintains a website showing CIDs. This form of notification is so weak as to be meaningless, but this was the decision the city council made. 2

CIDs allow property owners to establish their own private taxing district for their exclusive benefit. This goes against the grain of the way taxes are usually thought of. Generally, we use taxation as a way to pay for services that everyone benefits from, and from which we can’t exclude people. An example would be police protection. Everyone benefits from being safe, and we can’t exclude people from participating in — benefiting from — police protection.

But CIDs allow taxes to be collected for the benefit of one specific entity. This goes against the principle of broad-based taxation to pay for an array of services for everyone. But in this case, the people who benefit from the CID are quite easy to identify: the property owners in the district. We shouldn’t let private parties use a government function for their exclusive benefit.

  1. The premise of this question is not accurate, as it is not the merchants who receive CID funds. Landlords do. The more accurate question is why don’t landlords raise their rents?
  2. Weeks, B. (2014). Wichita City Council fails to support informing the taxed. Online. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: http://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-city-council-fails-support-informing-taxed/ Accessed 31 Aug. 2015.

Wichita CID illustrates pitfalls of government intervention

A proposed special tax district in Wichita holds the potential to harm consumers, the city’s reputation, and the business prospects of competitors. Besides, we shouldn’t let private parties use a government function for their exclusive benefit.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider the formation of a Community Improvement Districts to benefit a proposed hotel in west Wichita.

CIDs are a relatively recent creation of the Kansas Legislature. In a CID, merchants may charge additional sales tax, up to an extra two cents per dollar. For more about their mechanism, see Community improvement districts in Kansas. In the present case, the developer proposes to charge hotel guests an extra two cents per dollar in tax. If retail stores are developed, their customers will pay the CID tax too. This extra sales tax, minus a handling fee, will be periodically remitted to the developer.

From Google Earth, a view of the restaurant and hotel on the subject property. If a house this blighted had been owned by a poor inner-city resident, the city would have long ago condemned and demolished the building, at the homeowner's expense.
From Google Earth, a view of the restaurant and hotel on the subject property. If a house this blighted had been owned by a poor inner-city resident, the city would have long ago condemned and demolished the building, at the homeowner’s expense.
One reason to oppose the formation of this CID is it contributes to Wichita’s reputation as a city of high taxes. The nearby table gives an example of what a hotel bill will look like. There’s the existing guest tax of 6 percent. The city started collecting the 2.75 percent “tourism fee” this year. 1 (How many cities charge visitors a fee for visiting?) There’s the combined state and county sales tax of 7.5 percent, and then the CID tax of 2 percent. The total of these taxes is 18.25 percent.

A sample hotel bill in Wichita.
A sample hotel bill in Wichita.
The mayor and city council members note that these taxes are paid by people from out of town. They think it’s a smart strategy. But some significant fraction of these taxes are paid by Wichitans, particularly the many companies that have their scattered employees travel to Wichita. And, has anyone ever paid a hotel bill for visiting friends and relatives?

Welcome to Wichita Tourism Fee billboardBesides this, do we really want to punish our guests with these taxes? A city tourism fee? Welcome to Wichita, indeed.

Another important public policy issue regarding CIDs is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? We can easily see their rationalization: It’s better for us that unwitting customers pay higher sales taxes rather than higher prices. We can blame government for the taxes, but we get the money. 2

There is the competitive effect on other hotels in the area to consider. Some hotel owners feel the ability of one hotel to collect the CID tax for its own benefit gives an unfair competitive advantage.

Customers of merchants in CIDS ought to know in advance that an extra tax is charged. Some have recommended warning signage that protects customers from unknowingly shopping in stores, restaurants, and hotels that will be adding extra sales tax to purchases. Developers who want to benefit from CID money say that merchants object to signage, fearing it will drive away customers.

State law is silent on this. The City of Wichita requires a sign indicating that CID financing made the project possible, with no hint that customers will pay additional tax. The city also maintains a website showing CIDs. This form of notification is so weak as to be meaningless, but this was the decision the city council made. 3

CIDs allow property owners to establish their own private taxing district for their exclusive benefit. This goes against the grain of the way taxes are usually thought of. Generally, we use taxation as a way to pay for services that everyone benefits from, and from which we can’t exclude people. An example would be police protection. Everyone benefits from being safe, and we can’t exclude people from participating in — benefiting from — police protection.

But CIDs allow taxes to be collected for the benefit of one specific entity. This goes against the principle of broad-based taxation to pay for an array of services for everyone. But in this case, the people who benefit from the CID are quite easy to identify: the property owners in the district. We shouldn’t let private parties use a government function for their exclusive benefit.

  1. Weeks, B. (2014). Wichita seeks to add more tax to hotel bills. Online. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: http://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-seeks-add-tax-hotel-bills/ Accessed 31 Aug. 2015.
  2. The premise of this question is not accurate, as it is not the merchants who receive CID funds. Landlords do. The more accurate question is why don’t landlords raise their rents?
  3. Weeks, B. (2014). Wichita City Council fails to support informing the taxed. Online. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: http://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-city-council-fails-support-informing-taxed/ Accessed 31 Aug. 2015.

Wichita Business Journal reporting misses the point

Reporting by the Wichita Business Journal regarding economic development incentives in Wichita makes a big mistake in overlooking where the real money is.

In a recent article discussing economic development incentives, the Wichita Business Journal looks at the situation in North Texas. (Incentives have meant big business in North Texas, Aug 24, 2015.)

Wichita Business Journal reporting misses the pointAn example used in the article is Toyota’s decision to move its North American headquarters to Plano. Toyota received incentives in conjunction. The article quotes Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America, as saying “The incentives are really important.” But that hasn’t always been the line from Toyota.

At the time of the announcement last year, Forbes reported that incentives were a small part of Toyota’s decision, and that other cities likely offered more. Similar reporting came from the Houston Chronicle.

We can easily imagine Lentz coming to his senses, realizing that he needs to credit the incentives with at least some role in Toyota’s decision. Otherwise the local taxpayers — who have to pay for the incentives — might feel duped.

But a serious problem with the article is the claim that “But incentives now seem to be off the table in Wichita.” This is an assertion made by others, including our mayor and city council members. Usually it’s qualified that cash incentives are off the table.

But incentives are far from gone in Wichita. Cash incentives — most commonly forgivable loans — may be gone, but these loans amounted to just a small fraction of the value of incentives used. (Would you like to be able to reference a database of incentives granted in Wichita? Many people would. But to my knowledge, no such list or database exists.)

Instead, the incentives most commonly used — where the real money is — are tax abatements.

Earlier this month I reported about an incentive considered and passed by the Wichita City Council. Through the city’s Industrial Revenue Bonds program, WSF developers avoid paying sales tax on $4,500,000 of building materials. City documents didn’t mention this number, but with the sales tax rate in Wichita at 7.5 percent, this is a savings of $337,500. It’s as good as a grant of cash. Better, in fact. If the city granted this cash, it would be taxable as income. But forgiveness of taxes isn’t considered income. 1 2 3

The sales tax abatement granted was on top of other incentives, most notably STAR bond financing of $7,525,000. These bonds will be repaid by sales tax collections from the project and surrounding merchants. The beneficiaries will pay nothing. 4

The incentives illustrated above are common in Wichita. Again, with the city failing to track the award of incentives, it’s difficult to know just how common.

But we can safely say that the assertion by the Wichita Business Journal that “Incentives now seem to be off the table in Wichita” is incorrect. Worse than that, it’s irresponsible to make such a statement.

  1. Stateandlocaltax.com, (2015). IRS Addresses Federal Tax Treatment of SALT Incentives : SALT Shaker : State & Local Tax Attorneys : Sutherland Asbill & Brennan Law Firm. Online. Available at: http://www.stateandlocaltax.com/policy-and-legislation/irs-addresses-federal-tax-treatment-of-salt-incentives/ Accessed 26 Aug. 2015.
  2. Journal of Accountancy, (2009). Location Tax Incentive Not Federal Taxable Income. Online. Available at: http://www.journalofaccountancy.com/issues/2009/apr/locationtaxincentive.html Accessed 26 Aug. 2015.
  3. American Institute of CPAs, (2015). Federal Treatment of State and Local Tax Incentives. Online. Available at: http://www.cpa2biz.com/Content/media/PRODUCER_CONTENT/Newsletters/Articles_2008/CorpTax/Federaltreat.jsp Accessed 26 Aug. 2015.
  4. Weeks, Bob. (2015). In Wichita, an incomplete economic development analysis. Online. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: http://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/in-wichita-an-incomplete-economic-development-analysis/ Accessed 26 Aug. 2015.

Wichita’s WaterWalk apartment deal

From August 2012, an episode of cronyism in Wichita.

On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider the type of taxpayer-funded giveaway that voters have shown they don’t like. How council members vote may set the stage for city elections next March and April.

Tuesday’s item involves a proposed apartment development on the west bank of the Arkansas River across from the downtown WaterWalk development. The apartment developer is WaterWalk LLC, whose manager is Jack P. DeBoer.

The highlights of the deal include:

1. The lease of 4.4 acres of city-owned land for $1 per year, for the next 93 years. City documents say the land is valued by Sedgwick County at $479,000. The city paid $919,695 to acquire the land in 1994 and 1995. It’s listed as for sale with an asking price of $1,153,344. The city is, however, asking the apartment developer to pay the full $93 in advance.

2. Development of an amphitheater, which was part of the WaterWalk master plan. Originally planned to be just west of WaterWalk Place, the condominium development on Main Street, the amphitheater will now be implemented as a floating stage in the Arkansas River. A $247,500 Economic Development Initiative (EDI) grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will pay for a portion of the cost. Tuesday’s agenda item asks authorization to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for this stage.

Besides the sweetheart land lease, there are two other components of this deal that are troubling. One will undoubtedly be presented to city council members and the public as a big benefit to taxpayers, something that will actually profit the city. This is a provision that requires the apartment developer to pay “Additional Annual Rent.” Under this concept, each year the apartment developer will calculate “Adjusted Net Cash Flow” and remit 25 percent of that to the city.

To the casual observer, this seems like a magnanimous gesture by the apartment developer. It makes it look like the city has been a tough negotiator, hammering out a good deal for the city, letting citizens profit along with the apartment developer.

But the definition of cash flow includes a comprehensive list of expenses the may be deducted, including the cost of repaying any loans. There’s also an allowable expense called “Tenant Development Cost Return,” which is the apartment developer’s profit. The agreement defines this profit as 20 percent, and it’s deducted as part of the computation of “Adjusted Net Cash Flow.”

If there is ever any money left over after the dedication of all these expenses and profit margin, I will be surprised. Shocked, even. Here’s one reason why. One of the allowable deductions that goes into the computation of “Adjusted Net Cash Flow” is, according to city documents: “Amounts paid into any capital, furniture, fixture, equipment or other reserve.” There’s no restriction as to how much can be funneled into these reserve accounts. We can be sure that if this project was ever in the position where it looked like it might have to remit “Additional Annual Rent” to the city, contributions to these reserve funds would rise. Then, no funds paid to the city.

This is an example of the city appearing to be concerned for the welfare of taxpayers. In reality, this concept of “Additional Annual Rent” is worse than meaningless. It borders on deception.

Then, there’s this: The city has agreed to allow its ownership of the land (remember, the city is leasing the land to the apartment developer) to be subordinated to other debt the apartment developer may take on, such as the mortgage that will certainly be obtained. This means that if the apartment complex doesn’t succeed and there is foreclosure, the lender takes ownership of the city’s land.

Last week the city council passed a revision to its economic development policy that states that economic development incentives should have a cost-benefit ratio of at least 1.3 to one. No such number is given for this project.

Waterwalk, a problematic development

This deal is another chapter in the history of the troubled WaterWalk development. So far, WaterWalk has received some $41 million in public spending, and we have little to show for that investment.

Three years ago the Wichita Eagle editorialized: “Seven years into a project that was supposed to give Wichita a grand gathering place full of shops, restaurants and night spots as well as offices and condos, some City Council members and citizens remain skeptical at best about WaterWalk’s ability to deliver on its big promises. … True, the skepticism to date is richly deserved.” When our newspaper’s editorial board is critical of a government spending project in downtown Wichita, that’s a red letter day.

In 2009, after DeBoer took over the management of WaterWalk, the Wichita Eagle reported: “‘I’m not going down to City Hall with my hand out,’ DeBoer said. ‘I can’t. The city has put their money in it, and I’m happy with that. We’ve put a lot of our own money in and that’s OK. Now, time to deliver.'”

Leasing land worth $479,000 or $1,153,344 for one dollar per year: To me, that smells like a handout. It doesn’t sound like delivering on promises.

Around the time DeBoer took over the management of WaterWalk, Wichita city manager Robert Layton said no more public money would be put in to WaterWalk, according to Eagle reporting. Later he said those remarks were misinterpreted, with the Eagle reporting “[Layton] said the city won’t spend more on infrastructure, and that specific developments would be analyzed case by case to make sure they offer a return on investment for taxpayers and fit with the master plan.”

Wichita, home to cronyism

Measures like the city council will consider on Tuesday are what leads to cynicism regarding city government. It reinforces that notion that there is a network of insiders — the “good ol’ boy network” — that gets what it wants from city staff and officeholders. This deal — the sweetheart land giveaway, the deceptive appearance of profit sharing, the subordination of the city’s interests — doesn’t generate prosperity for Wichita and citizen confidence in its government. Instead, this deal contributes to the stench of cronyism that permeates and infests Wichita City Hall.

Two recent elections have shown that Wichitans don’t much care for this culture of giveaways to the politically connected class. People don’t like crony capitalism. They know it doesn’t work. The city defends these giveaways by saying they create jobs. But Wichita economic development is failing. Our city is not doing well, in spite of all the money spent on economic development efforts.

Additionally, when it is apparent that a “good ol’ boy” network of insiders 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?

Last year Charles Koch, chairman of the board and CEO of Wichita-based Koch Industries, wrote in the pages of the Wall Street Journal this regarding cronyism: “Government spending on business only aggravates the problem. Too many businesses have successfully lobbied for special favors and treatment by seeking mandates for their products, subsidies (in the form of cash payments from the government), and regulations or tariffs to keep more efficient competitors at bay. Crony capitalism is much easier than competing in an open market. But it erodes our overall standard of living and stifles entrepreneurs by rewarding the politically favored rather than those who provide what consumers want.”

WaterWalk and Jack DeBoer have already received generous financial assistance ($41 million) from the taxpayers of Wichita. That the city would consider even one dollar more is a scandal.

Amendments to Wichita WaterWalk Developer Agreements

In Wichita, an incomplete economic development analysis

The Wichita City Council will consider an economic development incentive based on an analysis that is nowhere near complete.

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider granting a sales tax exemption for a real estate development in northeast Wichita. (For background, see In Wichita, benefitting from your sales taxes, but not paying their own.)

As evidence of the goodness of the project and why the city should forego collecting sales tax, the council has been presented with these benefit-cost figures:

City of Wichita General Fund: 44.67 to 1
City of Wichita Debt Service Fund: NA
Sedgwick County: 100.23 to 1
USD 375: NA
State of Kansas: 65.28 to 1

Undoubtedly council members will congratulate themselves on their wisdom and foresight for being able to invest $1.00 and get back $44.67 in return. And look at what a favor the council is doing for the county and state! For an investment of $1.00, they’ll get back $100.23 and $65.28.

If only these numbers were a true and accurate representation.

The source of these numbers is that the city is giving up a relatively small amount of sales tax revenue, but gaining a lot of property tax (and other tax) revenue in the future. This is true, as far as we can predict these things.

The problem is that one of the numbers used to calculate the benefit-cost ratio is incomplete, and far from being complete. (Click here to view the analysis prepared for the city.)

The source of the calculation starts with the city giving up $16,227 of its share of sales tax revenue, based on the action the council will likely approve on August 11. This is the city’s cost, according to city documents. Then, future tax revenues are estimated, discounted to present value, and compared to the cost. The result is the benefit-cost ratio.

This calculation could make sense if the city included all costs in the calculation. But it hasn’t done that. First, the project benefits from STAR bonds. These bonds carry a sales tax exemption on goods purchased with bond proceeds, which means that the city (and other jurisdictions) are forgoing the collection of other sales tax revenue in addition to the sales tax used in the present calculation. This foregone revenue is of precisely the same nature as other foregone sales tax revenue that the city includes in its calculation.

Additionally, the project benefits from up to $7,525,000 in STAR bonds financing. These bonds will be repaid by sales tax collections from the project and surrounding merchants. This represents more sales tax revenue that the city and other jurisdictions will not be able to spend on anything except paying principle and interest in these bonds.

If these costs were included in the benefit-cost ratio calculation, I don’t know what the result would be, except that it would be different, and probably a great deal lower. It might even be below the city’s threshold for projects.

No matter your opinion on the wisdom of the city investing in public-private partnerships, the city council ought to insist on complete information. That hasn’t happened in this case. The city is using only part of its costs, but pretending that these costs are responsible for producing all revenues.

Who do we hold accountable for this? The benefit-cost ratios are computed by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. It uses figures provided by the city. In the past, when results like these have been questioned, the city has cited the economists at CEDBR as evidence that the figures are valid and reliable. By splitting the responsibility for these calculations, accountability is avoided.