Tag Archives: Wichita city council

In Wichita, ‘free markets’ used to justify business welfare

Wichita City HallIncredibly, a prominent Wichita business uses the free market 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 this 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.”

(Bombardier receives millions each year in other government subsidies; see Kansas PEAK program: corporate welfare wrapped in obfuscation and Bombardier Learjet should pay just a little for examples.)

While the amount of the incentive granted in the December 10 action is small, the meeting was useful in letting 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 ideas.

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.”

We 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 flip 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.

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

Third, 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. What has happened, however, is that the 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 the by 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).

The 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.


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Wichita city code ignored, on purpose

When a city has laws that it doesn’t enforce, what are citizens to do?

City of Wichita logo

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.”

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.

I wonder whose interests the city attorney represents. The people of Wichita, who want to be governed in a fair and ethical manner? It doesn’t seem so.

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.

To see the Wichita city attorney explain why this Wichita city code doesn’t have to be followed, see Wichita city government ethics workshop.

Wichita logic Brewer fishing

Here’s the Wichita city code:

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

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

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

Wichita can advocate for government transparency, or not

Wichita City Hall

Government should be responsive to citizens when they make legitimate requests for records. Wichita should not hide behind non-profit entities and tortured interpretations of the law in order to keep records secret.

When the Wichita City Council considers renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, the council has another opportunity to decide whether it is truly in favor of open government and citizen access to records.

Go Wichita, along with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, contends that it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and most council members 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 action may be taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. We can call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

The legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. 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 Go Wichita to act as though it was a public agency 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.

It’s easy to bluster about open government. In one of his “State of the City” addresses, Mayor Brewer promoted the city’s efforts in accountability and transparency, telling the audience: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” Many other city documents mention transparency as a goal for the city.

Earlier this year, the city won an award for government transparency regarding the city’s website. In a statement, the city manager said the city “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.”

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.

Why open records are important

labette-community-college-donationHere’s an example as to why this issue is important: In 2009 Mike Howerter, a trustee for Labette Community College, noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Based on his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a political contribution. While it was determined that the college president committed no crime by making this political contribution using college funds, this is an example of the type of information that citizens may want regarding the way public funds are spent.

This is the type of information that I have requested. It is what is needed to perform effective oversight. It is what the City of Wichita has decided to avoid.

This item in the past

Two years ago I asked that the city council approve the contract with Go Wichita only after adding a provision that Go Wichita consider itself a public agency under the Kansas Open Records Act. Following are a few notes from the meeting (video may be viewed here or at the end of this article):

Discussion of this matter at the meeting reveals that city staff believes that the annual reports filed by Go Wichita along with periodic checks by city staff are sufficient oversight.

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf 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.

Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Misunderstanding the scope of KORA

In remarks from the bench Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Is the city overwhelmed with records requests?

Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].”

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I have made one request this year to the city citing the open records act. It was denied. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to his concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is typical of elected officials — disdain for providing records to citizens. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent. The city should not hide behind non-profit entities and torture the law in order to keep records secret.

Wichita’s attitude towards citizens

Randy Brown’s remarks are an excellent summation of the morality and politics of the city’s action and attitude regarding this matter.

The council ought to be wary of taking legal advice from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf. He has been wrong several times before when issuing guidance to this council regarding the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which is similar to the Open Records Act. He’s taken the blame and apologized for these violations. He was quoted in the Wichita Eagle as saying “I will make every effort to further a culture of openness and ensure that like mistakes are avoided in the future.”

But Rebenstorf’s attitude, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the clear meaning and intent of the law.

Why city council members would be opposed to what I have asked is unknown. Perhaps they know that among the public, issues relating to open records generally aren’t that important. Citizens ought to note the actions of Mayor Brewer. The mayor could easily put this matter to an end. He speaks of wanting to have open and transparent government, but when it comes time to make a tough call, his leadership is missing.

It’s becoming evident that Kansans need a better way to enforce compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act. It seems quite strange that local district attorneys are placed in a quasi-judicial role of deciding whether citizen complains are justified. If citizens disagree — and nearly everyone I’ve talked to thinks that the opinion issued by the Sedgwick County District Attorney is this matter is nonsensical and contrary to the letter and spirit of the law — they find themselves in the position of suing their government. That is costly, and citizens soon realize their own taxpayer dollars are used against them.

Wichita logic open records

WichitaLiberty.TV December 8, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV.16

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita city leaders are preparing to ask Wichita voters to approve a sales tax increase. What would this money be used for? Are there alternatives, such as private sector integration, that the city could consider? Then: What is the role of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce? Is it promoting capitalism, or something else? Finally, David Hart, who is Director of the Online Library of Liberty Project at the Liberty Fund, explains some of the lessons of Frederic Bastiat, including the broken window fallacy. Episode 23, broadcast December 8, 2013. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita economic development on tap

Wichita city hall

The role of government in economic development should be limited to that of providing the framework necessary for equally protecting the rights and property of all citizens, through the rule of law, and not by acting as a participant in any activity that places it in a position of granting a competitive advantage to one group of citizens to the exclusion of all others. When government becomes an active participant in economic activity, it abdicates its proper role of providing the legal framework and physical security that is essential for natural coercive-free trade to flourish.
— John Todd

This week the Wichita City Council will consider another economic development incentive in the form of property tax abatements, this time to a company described as a “frequent flyer” in this regard. The council ought to take a few moments to explain to citizens why this action is necessary, if in fact it is.

The company requesting the tax breaks is Hijos, LLC/JR Custom Metal Products, Inc. This company has received several incentives like the one it is requesting this week. The incentive being considered is under the 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 do, in a streamlined fashion, what the applicant company wants: Permission to skip the payment of property taxes.

Based on a formula the city has established to guide the awarding of economic development strategies, this company qualifies to have 46 percent of the property taxes forgiven. Not 45 percent, and not 47 percent. Precisely 46 percent. This reminds me of the old saw that economists use a decimal point to remind us they have a sense of humor.

There are a number of questions that the city council ought to answer and explain to citizens before it grants this special treatment.

1. Since the incentive being considered is in the form of reduced property taxes, does this mean that property taxes in Wichita are a barrier to investment? A related question is whether the tax breaks are required to make the project economically feasible, or does the company simply want to avoid its share of the tax burden?

2. What distinguishes this company and these jobs from others that will be created this month in Wichita? Why do these jobs require a subsidy, and so many others do not?

3. When granting tax breaks like this, how does the city council explain that the tax burden is not being applied fairly and evenly to everyone? Related: If the theory of taxation is ________ (fill in the blank with your favorite theory), how does this tax exemption coexist with that theory?

4. Has the city checked with the overlapping jurisdictions that will be affected by the tax abatements? These would be Sedgwick County, the Wichita school district, and the State of Kansas. When Wichita grants a tax break, it also abates these taxes, without advice or consent. Notice is required, however.

5. If we really believe in this benefit to the city (and similar benefits to the county, school district, and state) as proclaimed by the cost-benefit studies, why doesn’t the city make more investments like this? Surely there are other worthy companies could expand if not for the burden of property taxes. And that’s what this contemplated action means, if we are to believe it is anything but cronyism and business welfare: Property taxes in Wichita are what prevented this company from expanding. Erase 46 percent of the company’s property tax burden, and it is able to make new capital investment and jobs.

If it really is so easy to promote economic growth and job creation, we should be doing things like this at every city council meeting. Several times each meeting, don’t you think?

I also wonder about companies that made expansions as did this applicant company, but did not ask the city for incentives. What is their secret?

The reality is that these economic development incentives don’t work, if we are willing to consider the effect on everyone in the region instead of just this applicant company, and also if we are willing to consider the long-term effects instead of only the immediate.

Peer-reviewed research on economic development incentives — this is the conclusion of all the studies — find business location decisions to be favorably influenced by targeted tax incentives. That’s not a surprise. But the research also finds that the benefits to the communities that offered them were less than their costs.

Wichita and Peer Job Growth, Total Employment

If peer-reviewed research is not convincing, let’s take a look at the record of Wichita.
Here is a chart of job growth for Wichita, the nation, and our Visioneering peers. (Click it for a larger version, or click here for the interactive visualization, or here to watch a video.) The data shows that Wichita hasn’t been doing well.

So if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best, we have to also recognize that our efforts aren’t working.

Wichita city council advances economic development

city-council-chambers-sign-b

Can you fill in the blank?

Wichita City Council says: “By allowing Cessna to avoid paying property taxes, we are showing our support for the company.”

“By requiring other companies to pay their full share of property taxes, we are showing our ________ for these companies.”

Yesterday’s action taken by the Wichita City Council regarding economic development incentives granted to Cessna Aircraft Company through the Industrial Revenue Bond program may be confusing to some people. The Wichita Eagle is not helping citizens understand what is happening when the city issues IRBs. The headline and lede of the article illustrate: “Wichita approves $40.2 million in industrial revenue bonds for Cessna improvements.”

The bonds are a sideshow and not economically relevant. In fact, Wichita has a related program called EDX that implements the benefits of IRBs without the charade of a company buying its own bonds. The Eagle gets around to this, explaining: “Industrial revenue bonds are issued by governments without any taxpayer liability, a type of municipal bond repaid from the proceeds of bond sales. They do not affect the tax revenue or the credit of the issuing governmental entity. The company will buy its own bonds.”

This explanation isn’t accurate, however. IRBs do affect the tax revenue of the issuing governmental entity, because property purchased under the program is exempt from property taxation, and often sales tax. The article does finally explain why Cessna is applying for the IRBs: “The value of the abated taxes could be as much as $37,197 for the first year.”

That — or something like it — should have been the headline to this article. The fact that Kansas law grants tax abatements for bond-purchased property is the only reason that Cessna applied for the IRB program. As Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) explained from the bench and as quoted by the Wichita Eagle: “I’d like to confirm to the public that what we’re doing is voting to allow Cessna to purchase $40 million of their own bonds for all these improvements.”

I’m glad he understands. We still have to endure the spectacle of a governing body voting to allow a company to issue bonds that the company will purchase from itself. Perhaps someday we will have laws that allow a company to issue debt and purchase that same debt without governmental approval.

In remarks from the bench, several council members thanked Cessna for its commitment to Wichita. Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) thanked Cessna for showing their commitment to Wichita, “as they have for decades.” I wonder: What do other business owners in Wichita who have to pay their full share of taxes think about Cessna’s commitment to Wichita?

Clendenin also expressed appreciation for their charitable nature and their “humongous” heart. I wonder: Why doesn’t Cessna pay the same taxes that everyone else has to pay so that we may keep more of our own money to be charitable as we see fit?

In their remarks, no member of the Wichita City Council made the argument that is often used to justify economic development incentives: economic necessity. No one proffered that absent these tax breaks, Cessna would be unwilling or unable to make this investment. No one wondered that given that Cessna is such a good corporate citizen, why does it ask to be excused from shouldering the same tax burden that almost everyone else has to bear?

No one spoke on behalf of the other business firms in Wichita that, when wanting to make an investment to expand and hire people, are not able to qualify for the type of favored treatment that companies like Cessna receive.

No one offered any evidence that these jobs are somehow different from other jobs in Wichita that area created every day without companies receiving special tax treatment.

No one argued that the tax burden should be applied fairly and evenly to everyone.

No one made the moral case for free enterprise — rather than cronyism and business welfare — as the way to grow and diversify the Wichita economy.

FITB - Cessna property tax abatements

Wichita Airport traffic: The video

In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.
– Frederic Bastiat

visualization-example-small

To keep airfares low at the Wichita Airport, the Wichita City Council in partnership with Sedgwick County and the State of Kansas pays a discount air carrier to operate in Wichita. While the program almost certainly has the intended effect on airfares, there is another effect: The trend of flights and seats available in Wichita is declining, and and at a rate faster than for the nation as a whole.

In this video, I use Tableau Public to analyze and present data from Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, to look at trends at the Wichita Airport. I presented this data in different form at a recent Wichita City Council meeting. This interactive visualization is available for you to use here: Wichita airport statistics: the visualization.

You may view the video presentation below, or click here to view it at YouTube, which will probably work best for this video.

Wichita City Council makes an uneconomic decision

Wichita City Hall

Last year the Wichita City Council was faced with a decision regarding a program designed to stimulate the sales of new homes. Analysis revealed that even though the city had an opportunity to make an investment with a purportedly high return on investment, it would be better off, dollar-wise, if it did not make the investment. What did the city council do? The following video explains the decision the council faced. View below, or click here to view in High Definition on YouTube. More information is at Wichita new home tax rebate program: The analysis and Wichita HOME program has negative consequences.

Cessna, another Wichita company asking for tax relief

Wichita City Hall

This week the Wichita City Council will consider granting economic development incentives to Cessna Aircraft Company. The incentives are in the form of property (ad valorem) tax relief, implemented through the city’s Industrial Revenue Bond program, as described by city documents:

Since 1991, the City Council has approved issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds (“IRBs”) totaling $1.2 billion to finance expansion and modernization of Cessna Aircraft Company (“Cessna”) facilities in Wichita. The City Council also authorized 100% ad valorem tax exemptions for all bond-financed property for periods of up to ten years.

The city does this for economic development, which in the eyes of politicians and bureaucrats, means jobs. Highly visible jobs, hopefully, that voters will be grateful for. So we might want to examine the record of job creation by Wichita’s economic development machinery. (We should note that Cessna is not the only aircraft company that Wichita has been generous to with subsidy.)

The Bureau of Economic Analysis, which is part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, provides economic data for metropolitan areas. One of the measures that Visioneering Wichita uses as a benchmark of performance is personal income growth. Specifically, per capita personal income growth. There are some issues related to per capita measures that require caution; see Wichita and peer GDP growth for an explanation.

personal-income-compound-growth-visioneering-peers-2012-11

Considering personal income growth, here is what Wichita looks like compared to our Visioneering peer cities, based on data from BEA (click on charts for larger versions).

This chart shows the compound annual growth rate in job creation. Note that Wichita, the violet line, is in last place. But it wasn’t always that way. It was during the decade of the 1990s that Wichita started to slip to last place. Coincidentally, that is the decade in which Wichita started offering economic development incentives to Cessna.

per-capita-personal-income-compound-growth-visioneering-peers-2012-11

Since Visioneering uses per capita personal income, I also present it. This time, I start the chart with 1990 data. It’s much the same story as the previous chart: Wichita is in last place.

Another benchmark Visioneering uses (but won’t present to the council) is job growth. Wichita does poorly here too, ranking in last place among our Visioneering peer cities except in one area: Government jobs. See Wichita job growth and Visioneering peers for details and a video. We should note that to the extent the government sector grows faster than the private sector, we become poorer.

We might ask the mayor and council members how this proposed action will help Wichita catch up to its self-identified peers. After all, city documents state that we’ve granted IRBs to Cessna in the past: $1,200,000,000 worth, according to city documents. The action contemplated this week is for up to $40,200,000 in bonds, or about three percent of the total granted to Cessna. These amounts are not loans to Cessna from the city, but instead represent the value of property that Cessna may have exempted from taxation: property and possibly sales taxes both.

Other companies have received similar treatment, and not always with good results. After the announcement of Boeing leaving in 2012, a news report contained this: “‘They weren’t totally honest with us,’ said [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer of Boeing, which has benefited from about $4 billion of municipal bonds and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax relief. ‘We thought the relationship was a lot stronger.’”

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 Cessna and other similarly-situated companies 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. This is being brought into sharp relief as the council considers asking Wichita voters to approve a sales tax increase.

Last month the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce featured a speaker who stressed the importance of entrepreneurship, as evidenced by the headline in the Wichita Eagle: Gallup CEO tells Wichita Chamber: Treat entrepreneurs like star athletes.

There’s plenty of other 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 the council is considering, 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 Policy

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

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

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

(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 for Cessna 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 city government ethics workshop

When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.
– Frederic Bastiat

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On Tuesday November 19 the Wichita City Council held a workshop. Two of the three topics presented were state and city laws regarding ethics.

As far as I can tell, the upshot is that the Wichita city ethics code is crafted so poorly that it is without meaning. More on this issue is at Wichita city code seemingly ignored.

The video for the presentation on state ethics is here, and the presentation starts on page 37 of this document.

The video for the presentation on city ethics is here, and the presentation is here.

WichitaLiberty.TV November 24, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV.09In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Host Bob Weeks takes a look at proceedings of a Wichita City Council meeting and uses it to illustrate some of the reasons why the Wichita-area economy is not growing very rapidly. Episode 21, broadcast November 24, 2013. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita economic development, a few issues

wichita-chamber-commerce-2013-11-05What should we conclude when the incoming chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce uses the threat of moving his company out of Wichita to extort tax breaks from the Wichita City Council?

What lesson should we learn when the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce is likely to recommend higher taxes for Wichitans, but its incoming chair asks to be excused from paying these taxes?

What example do we establish when the incoming chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce asks for tax breaks on office space he will rent, thereby giving him an advantage over other downtown landlords that do pay their full share of taxes?

Should we ask how Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer will achieve his goal of building the tax base when people ask to be excused from contributing to that base?

These are some of the issues the council should weigh tomorrow. For more on this matter, see In Wichita, the case for business welfare.

In Wichita, the case for business welfare

Wichita City HallOn Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider granting an exemption from paying property and sales tax for High Touch Technologies, a company located in downtown Wichita. 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.

helpful in offsetting the substantial capital requirements: Well. Who wouldn’t appreciate help in offsetting the cost of anything? I think we can 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 the city government to force be to subsidize your business, and let me make my own charitable contributions.

answer 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 may not be. 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 taught that it is through markets and their coordination of dispersed knowledge that we learn where to direct capital investment. It is simply impossible for this city government to effectively decide which companies Wichitans should invest their tax dollars in. It will still make that decision, however.

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 incorrect) 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.

These 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.

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, why does High Touch need this business welfare? Economic necessity is usually given as the justification of these incentives. Companies argue that there is no way the proposed investment is economic without taxpayer participation and subsidy. I don’t see this argument being advanced in this case.

Wichita and peer per capita income, Visioneering

Interestingly, Chambers is currently 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 Chambers is slated to be the next chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. It’s quite likely that the Chamber, under his leadership, will soon recommend that Wichitans pay higher sales and/or property taxes to support the Chamber’s goals.

These are the same taxes that Chambers’ company is asking to be excused from paying. Will this blatant cronyism be the template for next year’s 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.

Government-funded arts, again

city-council-chambers-sign-smallWith the Wichita City Council pondering the future of Century II, it’s time to take a look at the desirability of government-funded convention centers and arts.

Convention centers, as shown in Should Wichita expand its convention facilities?, are losers as far as providing economic benefit to the cities that build them. Government, too, ought to stay out of the funding and management of arts, if it respects its citizens.

Reading between the lines, it seems like the fate of Century II is sealed. I’d say its future is dim, as hinted at in this material from the agenda packet for Tuesday’s meeting of the city council:

Century II, a multi-purpose convention and performing arts venue was originally completed in 1969, with convention space added in 1985. Century II has served the community well and has provided a venue for a wide variety of events. The building is beginning to show signs of being outdated, as well as losing some of its functionality as a convention center due to the changing needs and requirements of convention clientele, causing the need for a planning and design study to determine current and future feasibility of possible renovations.

On Tuesday the council will consider spending up to $240,000 on what is described as “the initial phase of the design study.” We can anticipate that this contract will eventually cost much more.

Why does government feel it must provide arts to its citizens? The arguments that supporters of government-funded art use generally fall into two categories: That arts funding is good economics, and that since arts are good for life and culture, government must be involved.

The economic case for government art funding

Supporters of government art funding make the case that government-funded art is good for business and the economy. They have an impressive-looking study titled Arts & Economic Prosperity III: The Economic Impact of the Nonprofit Arts and Culture Industry in the State of Kansas, which makes the case that “communities that invest in the arts reap the additional benefit of jobs, economic growth, and a quality of life that positions those communities to compete in our 21st century creative economy.” Its single greatest defect is that it makes a simplistic and naive analysis of government spending.

As an example, the report concludes that the return on dollars spent on the arts is “a spectacular 7-to-1 return on investment that would even thrill Wall Street veterans.” It hardly merits mention that there aren’t legitimate investments that generate this type of return in any short time frame. If these returns were in fact true and valid, we should invest more — not less — in the arts. But as we shall see, these returns are not valid in any meaningful economic sense.

Where do these fabulous returns come from? Here’s a passage from the report that government art spending promoters rely on:

A theater company purchases a gallon of paint from the local hardware store for $20, generating the direct economic impact of the expenditure. The hardware store then uses a portion of the aforementioned $20 to pay the sales clerk’s salary; the sales clerk respends some of the money for groceries; the grocery store uses some of the money to pay its cashier; the cashier then spends some for the utility bill; and so on. The subsequent rounds of spending are the indirect economic impacts.

Thus, the initial expenditure by the theater company was followed by four additional rounds of spending (by the hardware store, sales clerk, grocery store, and the cashier). The effect of the theater company’s initial expenditure is the direct economic impact. The subsequent rounds of spending are all of the indirect impacts. The total impact is the sum of the direct and indirect impacts.

This is all true. But there’s a problem with this reasoning. It ignores the unseen effects of economic action. What the authors of this study fail to see is that anyone who buys a gallon of paint for any reason sets off the same chain of economic activity. There is no difference — except that a homeowner buying the paint is doing so voluntarily, while an arts organization using taxpayer-supplied money to buy the paint is using someone else’s money.

When the theater company spends $20 of taxpayer-provided money to buy paint: Where did that $20 come from? Isn’t it possible that a homeowner might have bought the same gallon of paint, but now is not able to because he must pay taxes to support the theater company? It’s easy to see the theater production with its taxpayer-funded painted set. It’s not easy to see the house that sits unpainted for a year to pay for the theater company’s paint. That is the seen and unseen.

The study also pumps up the return on government spending on arts by noting all the other spending that arts patrons do on things like dinner before and desert after arts events. But if people kept their own money instead of being taxed to support the arts, they would spend this money on other things, and those things might include restaurant meals, too. People would spend their money as they think best benefits them, not how someone else thinks they should.

This report — like most of its type that attempt to justify and promote government “investment” in someone’s pet program — focuses only on the benefits without considering secondary consequences or how these benefits are paid for. Henry Hazlitt, in his masterful book Economics in One Lesson explains:

While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for them plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.

It is, as Hazlitt terms it, “the special pleading of selfish interests” that drive much of the desire for government spending on the arts. Government-funded arts advocates can promote their case with economic fallacies all they want, but in the end that’s what their case relies on: “the special pleading of selfish interests.”

Government art means, well, government art

Is anyone else offended, as I am, that government taxes us to provide for us the art that politicians, bureaucrats, and their sycophants think we should consume? What type of personality feels entitled to forcibly make these personal decisions for others?

Arts organizations need to survive on their own merits. They need to produce a product or service that satisfies their customers and patrons just as any other business or human endeavor must. This is especially true and important with something so personal as art. David Boaz, in his book The Politics of Freedom: Taking on The Left, The Right and Threats to Our Liberties writes this in a chapter titled “The Separation of Art and State”:

It is precisely because art has power, because it deals with basic human truths, that it must be kept separate from government. Government, as I noted earlier, involves the organization of coercion. In a free society coercion should be reserved only for such essential functions of government as protecting rights and punishing criminals. People should not be forced to contribute money to artistic endeavors that they may not approve, nor should artists be forced to trim their sails to meet government standards.

Government funding of anything involves government control. That insight, of course, is part of our folk wisdom: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” “Who takes the king’s shilling sings the king’s song.”

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Government art. Is this not a sterling example of an oxymoron? Must government weasel its way into every aspect of our lives? And the fact that government arts funding means tax dollars taken through coercion — don’t the government arts promoters realize this? How better to crush the human spirit — the same spirit that the arts are meant to uplift and enrich.

The more important to our culture we believe the arts to be, the stronger the case for getting government out of its funding. The “leveraging” or “seed” effect of government money is why. In a statement opposing the elimination of the Kansas Arts Commission in 2011, executive director Llewellyn Crain explained that “The Kansas Arts Commission provides valuable seed money that leverages private funds …”

This “seed money” effect is precisely why government should not be funding arts. David Boaz explains:

Defenders of arts funding seem blithely unaware of this danger when they praise the role of the national endowments as an imprimatur or seal of approval on artists and arts groups. Jane Alexander says, “The Federal role is small but very vital. We are a stimulus for leveraging state, local and private money. We are a linchpin for the puzzle of arts funding, a remarkably efficient way of stimulating private money.” Drama critic Robert Brustein asks, “How could the [National Endowment for the Arts] be ‘privatized’ and still retain its purpose as a funding agency functioning as a stamp of approval for deserving art?” … I suggest that that is just the kind of power no government in a free society should have.

We give up a lot when we turn over this power to government bureaucrats and arts commission cronies.

Government arts funding means that artists and arts organizations are distanced from their customers. Instead of having to continuously meet the test of the market, they must please government bureaucrats and politicians to get their funding. Instead of producing what the great unwashed mass of people want, they produce what they think will get government funding.

Without government funding, organizations that provide culture and art will have to satisfy their customers by providing products that people really want. That is, products that people are willing to pay for themselves, not what people say they want when someone else is paying the bill. With government funding, these organizations don’t have to face the discipline of the market. They can largely ignore what their customers really want. They can provide what they think their customers want, or, as I suspect is the case, what they believe the people should want, if only we were as enlightened as the elitists that staff arts commissions.

Without the discipline of the market, arts organizations will never know how their customers truly value their product. The safety net of government funding allows them to escape this reality. We have seen this many times in Wichita and Sedgwick County, as organizations fail to generate enough revenue to cover their costs, only to be bailed out by the government. Other businesses learn very quickly what their customers really want — that is, what their customers are willing to pay for — or they go out of business. That’s the profit and loss system. It provides all the feedback we need to determine whether an organization is meeting its customers’ desires. The arts are no different.

Some say that without government support there wouldn’t be any arts or museums. They say that art shouldn’t be subject to the harsh discipline of markets. Personally, I believe there is little doubt that art improves our lives. If we had more art and music, I feel we would have a better state. But asking government commissions to judge how much art and which art we should have is not the way to provide it. Instead, let the people tell us, through the mechanism of markets, what art and culture they really want.

It might turn out that what people want is different than from what government arts commission members believe the people should want. Would that be a surprise? Not to me. In the name of the people, we should disband government arts councils and government funding and let people decide on their own — without government intervention — how to spend their personal arts budgets on what they really value.

(The material by David Boaz is from a speech which may be read here: The Separation of Art and State.)

Curious Wichita ethics enigmas

Wichita City Hall

As he has done previously, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer decided not to vote on a matter involving Spirit Aerosystems at the November 5, 2013 meeting of the Wichita City Council.

The mayor didn’t give a reason for recusing himself, but it’s probably because he was formerly an employee at Spirit. So it’s good that he did this. But if we’re going to observe ethics protocols like this — and we should — let’s do them correctly. The mayor should have announced at the start of this item that he had to recuse himself, and then he should have left the bench and probably also the council chambers. Instead, Brewer presided over the presentation and discussion of the item, and then stated he wouldn’t be voting. It’s a small matter, but we might as well do things right.

What is much more important — and curious — is this: Brewer feels he can’t vote on an item involving a company where he was an employee. But, he has no such compunction about voting on matters that send taxpayer money to his fishing buddy, even via no-bid contracts.

Even more curious: Brewer thought it was ethical to vote to send taxpayer money to the movie theater owner who also sells his barbeque sauce.

Add to this confusing mix of ethical judgment calls: The mayor feels he can’t shop for his personal automobile in Wichita because he doesn’t want to be accused of getting a “special deal,” in his words.

If someone can explain this line of reasoning by the mayor and/or the city, I’d appreciate being enlightened.

It’s good to know that this mayor is concerned about ethical behavior when shopping for a car or voting on matters concerning his former employer. But I’m surprised, as this concern for virtue doesn’t match the behavior of the mayor and many members of the Wichita City Council. Shall we run down the list?

Exhibit 1: In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. Both of these parties are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members. Brewer and the head of Key Construction are apparently friends, embarking on fishing expeditions.

What citizens need to know is that Brewer and the Wichita City Council were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. At the time, no city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Exhibit 2: In July 2012 Brewer participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. Brewer’s judgment was in favor of Key Construction, even though its bid had the same defect as the lower bid. This decision cost taxpayers and airport users an extra $2 million, to the benefit of a major campaign donor and fishing buddy.

Exhibit 3: In a Wichita Eagle story that reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget” we learned this: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.”

Despite this personal experience, Brewer wrote a letter recommending Key Construction (and only Key), observing “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.”

Exhibit 4: In 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to movie theater owner Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

Warren’s theaters have received other financial benefits from the city under Brewer’s leadership, too. Then — and I swear I am not making this up — when Brewer started manufacturing and selling barbeque sauce, it was sold at Warren’s theaters.

Really. It happened.

What can we say about a mayor who is concerned about the appearance of impropriety when voting on economic development incentives for his former employer, but is not able to understand the problems with his own behavior in office?

That he feels he needs to shop for a car outside the city, but at the same time has no problem voting for overpriced no-bid contracts for campaign contributors and friends?

That he feels he can’t vote to give a tax break to his former employer, but votes to give millions to a campaign contributor, and then sells his barbeque sauce in that person’s business?

It’s difficult to understand or reconcile these decisions.

Spirit Aerosystems applies for tax relief

Wichita City HallThe Wichita City Council will consider excepting a large company from property and sales taxation. Is this action wise for the city’s economy?

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider granting Industrial Revenue Bonds to Spirit Aerosystems, the city’s largest employer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita’s management of incentives

Recent reporting told us what some have suspected: The city doesn’t manage its economic development efforts. One might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. But apparently that isn’t the case.

We need to recognize that because the city does not have at its immediate disposal the statistics about job creation, it is evident that the city is not managing this effort. Or, maybe it just doesn’t care. This is a management problem at the highest level. Shouldn’t we develop our management skills of tax abatements and other economic development incentives before we grant new?

Wichita’s results in economic development

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

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

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

A diversified economy

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

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

Do incentives work?

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

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

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

No evidence of large firm impacts on local economy”

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

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

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

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

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

Can officials manage growth?

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

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

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

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

Going forward

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

These targeted economic development efforts fail for several reasons. First is the knowledge problem, in that government simply does not know which companies are worthy of public investment. This lack of knowledge, however, does not stop governments from creating policies 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.

Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy

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

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

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV November 3, 2013

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Host Bob Weeks notices a recent Kansas City Star editorial made the case for higher school spending in Kansas, but is based on a premise that doesn’t exist in fact. Bob wonders if the City of Wichita is concerned with measuring and managing its economic development efforts. Amanda BillyRock illustrates another chapter of “Economics in One Lesson” titled “Fetish of Full Employment.” Episode 19, broadcast November 3, 2013. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

USA versus You: The problem of overcriminalization

Events in recent months have justifiably caused Americans to ask whether a powerful, activist, and interventionist government and bureaucracy is good to have. Those who have been looking at overcriminalization, however, have known that government and regulatory agencies have been targeting and oppressing Americans for a long time. And it’s getting worse.

USA vs. You cover

The new website USAvsYOU.com holds useful information for Americans to know about how law has changed in recent years, compared to how it operated for centuries before. The booklet available for reading is titled USA vs. You: The flood of criminal laws threatening your liberty.

As an example, here is a troubling trend:

In many criminal laws, the “guilty mind” requirement has been removed or weakened. This means people can go to prison regardless of whether they intended to break the law or knew their actions were in violation of the law.

Traditionally, crimes had two components: (l) mens reu (guilty mind), and (2) actus reus (bad act).

Today, many criminal laws and regulations have insufficient or no mens rea (guilty mind) requirement — meaning, a person need not know that his or her conduct is illegal in order to be guilty of the crime.

An example story is the following:

THE CRIME: Rescuing a baby deer

Jeff Counceller, a police officer, and his wife Jennifer spotted an injured baby deer on their neighbor’s porch. Instead of turning a blind eye to the dying fawn, the Councellers took the deer in and nursed it back to health.

An Indiana Conservation Officer spotted the fawn (named Dani) in the Councellers’ yard — and promptly charged the couple with unlawful possession of a deer, a misdemeanor offense. Fortunately for her, the day that “Little Orphan Dani” was to be euthanized by the state, the deer escaped into the wild. Due to public outrage, the government dropped the charges.

The website and booklet is a product of Heritage Foundation and it partners such as the American Civil Liberties Union. Heritage has been covering the issue of overcriminalization here. It describes the problem as this: “Overcriminalization describes the trend to use the criminal law rather than the civil law to solve every problem, to punish every mistake, and to compel compliance with regulatory objectives. Criminal law should be used only if a person intentionally flouts the law or engages in conduct that is morally blameworthy or dangerous.”

We have problems like this in Wichita, believe it or not. An ordinance passed by the Wichita City Council in 2010 might ensnare anyone visiting city hall, if they happen to have a broad-tip marker in their purse or briefcase:

Animated marker

“Possession of Graffiti Implements Prohibited in Public Places. It is unlawful for any person to have in his/her possession any graffiti implement while in, upon or within one hundred (100) feet of any public facility, park, playground, swimming pool, skate park, recreational facility, or other public building owned or operated by the city, county, state, or federal government, or while in, under or within one hundred (100) feet of an underpass, bridge, abutment, storm drain, spillway or similar types of infrastructure unless otherwise authorized.”

“Graffiti implements” are defined broadly earlier in the ordinance.

If you’re thinking about a career in taxicab driving, be advised that the city has ordinances punishing you if you’re found to have violated these standards: “Fail to maintain their personal appearance by being neat and clean in dress and person” and “Fail to keep clothing in good repair, free of rips, tears and stains.”

Wichita economic development not being managed

The Wichita Eagle has reported that Wichita has increased its granting of property tax exemptions in recent years. (Wichita doubles property tax exemptions for businesses, October 20, 2013) Buried in the story is the really important aspect of public policy. In his reporting, Bill Wilson wrote:

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

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

wichita-economic-development

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

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

This is a management problem at the highest level. In January when the city council awarded city manager Robert Layton a large raise, the praise from council members was effusive. This means one of several things: (a) that the mayor and city council have not asked for these job creation numbers, or (b) city council members don’t care about the numbers, or (c) they’re not interested in knowing the numbers. There could be other explanations, but all point to a lack of bureaucratic management and political oversight.

I wonder why the city officials didn’t explain that according to their analysis and way of thinking, these tax abatements don’t have a cost. When presented to the council, each abatement opportunity is generally accompanied by a benefit-cost analysis that purports to show that the city, county, school district, and state gain more in tax revenue than they forego from the abatement. Does this extra government revenue create jobs?

In any case, the number of jobs stemming from our economic development efforts is small. In his State of the City Address for 2012, Mayor Carl Brewer said that the city’s efforts in economic development had created “almost 1000 jobs.” While that sounds like a lot of jobs, that number deserves context. According to estimates from the Kansas Department of Labor, the civilian labor force in the City of Wichita for December 2011 was 192,876, with 178,156 people at work. This means that the 1,000 jobs created accounted for from 0.52 percent to 0.56 percent of our city’s workforce, depending on the denominator used. This minuscule number is dwarfed by the normal ebb and flow of other economic activity. (The mayor didn’t mention job creation figures in his 2013 address.)

The case of InfoNXX

Here’s an example of property tax abatements granted for which the city received little in return. In 2005, with great fanfare, the city announced that its economic development recruitment efforts had landed InfoNXX, an operator of call centers. The council agenda report of November 15, 2005 recommended that the council approve a letter of intent for tax abatements. The report stated this:

The Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition has worked with a national site consultant to recruit a new company to Wichita. InfoNXX, Inc., major provider of telephone directory assistance and enhanced information services to leading communications companies, businesses and consumers located principally in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Italy. As a result of the recruitment effort, InfoNXX will locate a large customer service center in the former MCI Building, near Rock Road and K-96 in northeast Wichita, and hire over 900 customer care representatives. As an economic development incentive, the City offered InfoNXX Industrial Revenue Bonds (IRBs) and property tax abatement on equipment and furnishings, subject to City Council approval.

RECOMMENDED ACTION: Approve a Letter of Intent to InfoNXX Inc. for Industrial Revenue Bonds in an amount not-to-exceed $6 million, subject to the Letter of Intent conditions, for a term of six-months, approve a 100% tax abatement on all bond-financed property for an initial five-year period plus an additional five years following City Council review, and authorize the application for a sales tax exemption on bond-financed property.

On December 13, 2005 the council approved the ordinance granting the tax abatements.

Fast forward to the February 15, 2011 council agenda packet. The five year initial property tax abatement granted in 2005 was over, and the council could extend it for another five years if the committed goals had been met. The agenda report gave this summary for capital investment: “Purchase furniture, fixtures and equipment for a capital investment of $6 million.” Results, according to city documents, were “Invested $7,331,379 million [sic] in FF&E.”

For job creation, the 2005 commitment was “Create 944 new jobs in five years.” Results, according to city documents, were “Created 870 new jobs; current job level is 185.”

InfoNXX was short of its job creation commitments, but the city used a loophole to grant a one-year extension of the tax abatement. That one-year extension was never the subject of further consideration, as InfoNXX changed its name, and in January 2012 closed the Wichita facility that was the subject of these incentives.

It’s unfortunate for Wichita and the InfoNXX employees that the facility closed. The important public policy consideration is that we learn from this. So, when Wichita counts the number of jobs created, does it adjust for short-lived jobs like these?

The answer, I believe, is no. We don’t adjust our job creation statistics, and we don’t learn.

gwedc-office-operations

In fact, we don’t even keep current. GWEDC — that’s the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition credited with recruiting InfoNXX to Wichita — doesn’t update its website to reflect current conditions. InfoNXX closed its facility in Wichita in 2012, and as we saw above, city documents said that at its peak the company employed 870 in Wichita. As of today, here’s what GWEDC says on a page titled Office Operations:

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

So the official Wichita-area economic development agency proclaims the existence of a company that no longer exists in Wichita, and claims a job count that the company never achieved. This is beyond careless negligence. This is malpractice.

The USPS Remote Encoding Center mentioned? It’s being closed this year.

Going forward

In his State of the City address for 2013 the Wichita mayor lamented the fact that Wichita has no dedicated funding source for economic development. It’s likely that Wichitans will be asked to approve increased taxes for economic development, as well as for many other things we want like a new central library, new water and sewer pipes, improved public transit, and downtown development.

But before Wichita officials ask for more taxes so there can be more spending, they need to convince us that they care about measuring and managing results. They haven’t shown this so far.

Cronyism and other problems in Wichita

city-council-chambers-sign-medium

Someone asked for a collection of articles about cronyism and other problems with Wichita city government. Here are a few.

Exchange Place still not good for Wichita, others
The Wichita City Council will consider a redevelopment plan for the Exchange Place project in downtown Wichita. Despite having shed the problems with the former owners, the project has become an even worse deal for the taxpayers of Wichita, Kansas, and the nation. Those looking for jobs and for investment capital to meet consumer demands are worse off, too. Article here.

Wichita performs a reference check, sort of
Citizens of Wichita are rightly concerned about whether our elected officials and bureaucrats are looking out for their interests, or only for the interests and welfare of a small group of city hall insiders. Read here or watch video here.

Wichita City Council makes an economic decision
Last year the Wichita City Council was faced with a decision regarding a program designed to stimulate the sales of new homes. Analysis revealed that even though the city had an opportunity to make an investment with a purportedly high return on investment, it would be better off, dollar-wise, if it did not make the investment. What did the city council do? This video explains the decision the council faced. More information is at Wichita new home tax rebate program: The analysis and Wichita HOME program has negative consequences.

Fish, sauce, and the law: You make the call
Should Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer vote on an upcoming issue before the Wichita City Council? The City of Wichita code seems to say he should not vote, but the Wichita City Attorney says the law doesn’t apply. This short video explains the issues. For more on this issue, see Wichita city code seemingly ignored.

Where is the downtown Wichita tax base?
There’s been much investment in downtown Wichita, we’re told, but the goal of increasing the tax base is farther away rather than closer. Assessed value is falling despite hundreds of millions of public and private investment. Article here.

The speck and the logs
What can we say about a mayor who is concerned about the appearance of impropriety when shopping for his personal automobile, but is not able to understand the problems with his own behavior in office? Article here.

Wichita mayor said to be ‘under lockdown’
When Wichita ABC affiliate KAKE Television ran a news story critical of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, reporter Jared Cerullo wasn’t able to interview Brewer to get his reaction to his critics. The mayor refused to talk to Cerullo. Former KAKE news anchor Jeff Herndon said that KAKE has “repeatedly” tried to get an on-camera interview with Brewer. But the mayor is always busy, Herndon said: “They’ve got him on lockdown. He’s not going to answer that.” Article and audio here.

Without government, there would be no change: Wichita Mayor
It’s worse than President Obama saying “You didn’t build that.” Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer tells us you can’t build that — not without government guidance and intervention, anyway. Article and video here.

Wichita: No such document
When asked to provide documents that establish the city’s proclaimed policy, Wichita city hall is not able to do so, leaving us to wonder just how policy is made. Article here.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer on public trust in government
If you ask Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to live up to the policies he himself promotes, you might be threatened with a lawsuit. Video here.

Is graft a problem in Wichita?
In his paper “History and Constitutionality of Pay-to-Play Campaign Finance Restrictions in America” Greg Schmid explains the problems that result from the “soft corruption” that pay-to-play laws combat. Is this a problem in Wichita? Is it possible that “Graft takes the collective wealth of working taxpayers and transfers that wealth to the benefit of corrupt government officials and their private sector accomplices” in Wichita? Article here.

Downtown Wichita economic development numbers questioned
When the Wichita City Council recently received the 2012 Project Downtown Annual Report, a city council member took the opportunity to question and clarify some of the facts and figures presented in the report. Article and video here.

In Wichita, Jeff Longwell has the solution to cronyism
At a recent Wichita City Council meeting, Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) was critical of topics broached by two speakers, admonishing them to “take a different approach.” Article and video here.

Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita
Candidates for Wichita City Council have filed campaign finance reports, and the filings illustrate the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita and Kansas. Article here.

In Wichita, a quest for campaign finance reform
Actions of the Wichita City Council have shown that campaign finance reform is needed. Citizen groups are investigating how to accomplish this needed reform, since the council has not shown interest in reforming itself. Article here.

Wichita WaterWalk apartment deal not good for citizens
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. Article here.

In Wichita, a problem with government ethics
I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas and explained the recent incidents that ought to cause Wichitans and Kansans to insist on reform regarding government ethics. Article and video here.

Wichita’s bailout culture
The Wichita City Council will consider a bailout of a real estate development. If the council takes this action, it is one more step in a series of bailouts granted by the city, and it sets up expectations that the city will continue bailouts, creating a severe climate of moral hazard. Article here.

In Wichita, pushing back against political cronyism
Usually, winning an election is a happy time. In most elections the winning side is happy because they elected a candidate to office who they feel has the better ideas. I’m glad we won. But my happiness is tempered by the realization that we simply prevented something bad from happening in Wichita. Article here.

No-bid contracts a problem in Wichita
Wichita Eagle reporting by Bill Wilson uncovers a problem with no-bid contracts for construction projects in Wichita. Fortunately, the city manager recognizes the problem and will propose a partial solution. Article here.

Kansas needs pay-to-play laws
In the wake of scandals some states and cities have passed “pay-to-play” laws. These laws may prohibit political campaign contributions by those who seek government contracts, prohibit officeholders from voting on laws that will benefit their campaign donors, or the laws may impose special disclosure requirements. Article here.

For Wichita city hall, ethics again an issue
Reports that the Wichita city manager’s fiancee is involved with a group seeking approval from the city for a project indicate that the city’s perspective on ethics could use reform. Article here.

Wichita TIF: Taxpayer-funded benefits to political players
It is now confirmed: In Wichita, tax increment financing (TIF) leads to taxpayer-funded waste that benefits those with political connections at city hall. Article here.

Wichita contracts, their meaning (or not)

Is the City of Wichita concerned that its contracts contain language that seems to be violated even before the contract is signed?

This week the Wichita City Council approved a development agreement for the apartments to be built on the west bank of the Arkansas River. The development agreement the council contemplated included this language in Section 11.06, titled “Conflicts of Interest.”

section-1106

No member of the City’s governing body or of any branch of the City’s government that has any power of review or approval of any of the Developer’s undertakings shall participate in any decisions relating thereto which affect such person’s personal interest or the interests of any corporation or partnership in which such person is directly or indirectly interested.

At Tuesday’s meeting I read this section of the contract to the council. I believe it is relevant for these reasons:

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

1. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is a member of a governing body that has power of approval over this project.

2. Bill Warren is one of the parties that owns this project.

3. Bill Warren also owns movie theaters.

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

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

The question is this: Does the mayor’s business relationship with Warren fall under the prohibitions described in the language of section 11.06? Evidently not. After I read section 11.06 I asked the mayor if he sold his sauce at Warren’s theaters. He answered yes. But no one — not any of the six city council members, not the city manager, not the city attorney, not any bureaucrat — thought my question was worthy of discussion.

(While the agreement doesn’t mention campaign contributions, I might remind the people of Wichita that during 2012, parties to this agreement and their surrogates provided all the campaign finance contributions that council members Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin received. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita. That’s a lot of personal interest in the careers of politicians.)

I recommend that if we are not willing to live up to this section of the contract that we strike it. Why have language in contracts that we ignore? Parties to the contract rationalize that if the city isn’t concerned about enforcing this section, why should they have to adhere to other sections?

While we’re at it, we might also consider striking Section 2.04.050 of the city code, titled “Code of ethics for council members.” This says, in part, “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

That language seems pretty clear to me. But we have a city attorney that says that this is simply advisory. 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 actually observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Job growth visualization updated

Despite the government shutdown, I was able to retrieve data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and update an interactive visualization. This shows job growth in states and areas within states.

I’ve structured this visualization so that you may click on a state, and all areas of the state that BLS tracks will appear. You can select one sector at a time: Government, Total Nonfarm, and Total Private. The data is indexed so that each area starts at the same relative level. Data is annual, current through 2012.

kansas-job-growth-government-sector-2013-10

Here’s a snapshot of Kansas for the Government sector, with Wichita highlighted. (Click for a larger version.) Compared to other areas in Kansas, Wichita does well in government jobs. Topeka, the purple line at the bottom, has experienced a loss in government jobs in recent years.

kansas-job-growth-private-sector-2013-10

Looking at the private sector, we see that Wichita does not perform well. When we couple slow growth of the private sector with faster growth of government, we’re setting the stage for even slower growth of the type of jobs that produce prosperity. Those are, of course, private sector jobs.

Wichita city leaders seem pleased with this performance. They continually praise those in charge of economic development. For more on this topic, see Wichita job growth and Visioneering peers.

Data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public. Use the visualization below, or click here to open it in a new window, which will probably work better in most cases.

Wichita does it again

Government takes and gives

Wichita never seems to learn. Its government, that is.

The last time Key Construction was awarded a no-bid contract for building a parking garage in Wichita, it almost cost Wichita taxpayers an extra 27 percent. Now the Wichita City Council has done it again, awarding Key another no-bid contract for a project paid for by taxpayers.

In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Today the council voted to award Key another no-bid contract. City officials said that the garage is too intertwined with the rest of the project to be put out to bid. They said that in 2011, too.

After the 2011 incident, Wichita city manager Robert Layton told the Wichita Eagle that he would seek a policy change against no-bid contracts. But that didn’t happen today.

So taxpayers are likely to overpay again, and for a project benefiting a politically-connected firm.

There is hope for the taxpayers, however. After the 2011 award to Key, then-council member Michael O’Donnell objected. It’s said that Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) also objected. That’s when the city decided to put the garage out to competitive bid and saved taxpayers $1.3 million.

It’s possible this could happen again. Meitzner was absent for today’s vote. New council member Jeff Blubaugh now represents the same district that O’Donnell did two years ago. Maybe Wichita taxpayers can ask O’Donnell to talk to Blubaugh about this. Perhaps as Meitzner prepares his bid to be the next mayor, he could use this as an opportunity to exercise leadership in favor of taxpayer stewardship instead of protecting the system of cronyism.

Key Construction and Mayor Carl Brewer

Should Mayor Carl Brewer have participated in voting on this matter? Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008:

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

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

This no-bid contract for the garage is just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and its partners at taxpayer expense. Key, its executives, and their spouses are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members. Brewer and the head of Key Construction are apparently friends, embarking on fishing expeditions.

What citizens need to know is that Brewer and the Wichita City Council were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. At the time, no city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Then, in July 2012 Brewer participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. Brewer’s judgment was in favor of Key Construction, even though its bid had the same defect as the lower bid. This decision cost taxpayers and airport users an extra $2 million, to the benefit of a major campaign donor and fishing buddy.

In a Wichita Eagle story that reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget” we learned this: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.”

Despite this personal experience, Brewer wrote a letter recommending Key Construction (and only Key) for a project, observing “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.” The mayor’s recommendation is not consistent with the reality of Key’s experience with the City of Wichita.

Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin

Although city code has no prohibition against council members voting to enrich their significant campaign contributors with no-bid contracts, there ought to be such a law. And when the recipient company is a very significant contributor, we can’t help but wonder about the wisdom and stewardship exhibited by the council.

In 2012, as incumbent council members Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run for re-election, their campaigns, that year, were financed entirely by two sources. One of these was a group of principals and executives of Key Construction.

Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. For Williams, this was the only campaign money she received in 2012.

With relationships like these, can we have and confidence that the mayor and council are looking out for the interests of the citizens of Wichita, or for the interests of the significant campaign contributors and fishing buddies?

Exchange Place still not good for Wichita, others

Wichita city hall logo

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider a redevelopment plan for the Exchange Place project in downtown Wichita. Despite having shed the problems with the former owners, the project has become an even worse deal for the taxpayers of Wichita, Kansas, and the nation. Those looking for jobs and for investment capital to meet consumer demands are worse off, too.

Here’s what the city council agenda packet gives as the sources of financing for this project.

HUD Loan Amount         $29,087,700
Private Equity            5,652,254
Tax Credit Equity        19,370,395
TIF Proceeds             12,500,000
Total Sources of Funds  $66,610,349

Consider each of these sources of funding. TIF, or tax increment financing, diverts future increased tax revenues away from their normal uses and diverts them back to the project. In this case, the city will borrow $12,500,000 by selling bonds. It will give this money to the developer. Then, TIF proceeds will be used to repay these bonds.

It sounds innocent, even beneficient and desirable. But if this project was not built within a TIF district, it would add $12,500,000 in tax revenues to the city, county, and school district. This is called “building up the tax base,” something politicians and bureaucrats say is an important goal. Downtown Wichita, however, has not done well in this regard, despite the claim of hundreds of millions in investment.

City leaders will tell us that tax increment financing is needed for economic development. Regarding the effect of tax increment financing districts on economic development, economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman have studied tax increment financing extensively. Their paper The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development bluntly states the overall impact of TIF: “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not.”

Later in the same paper the authors conclude: “These findings suggest that TIF trades off higher growth in the TIF district for lower growth elsewhere. This hypothesis is bolstered by other empirical findings.”

What about the effect of tax increment financing on job creation, that being another goal mentioned by politicians and bureaucrats? One person who has looked at the effect of TIF on jobs is Paul F. Byrne of Washburn University. He authored a recent report titled Does Tax Increment Financing Deliver on Its Promise of Jobs? The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Municipal Employment Growth. In its abstract we find this conclusion regarding the impact of TIF on jobs: “Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment.” This project is a retail project, and can be expected to have a negative effect on employment.

Another bad aspect of this project for citizens is what city documents describe as “tax credit equity.” The amount is $19,370,395. This is understatement at its finest. Tax credits are a direct transfer from taxpayers to the project developers, with very few strings attached.

A tax credit is an appropriation of money made through the tax system and economically equivalent to a direct grant of money. Recently some have started to use the word “tax appropriations” or “tax expenditures” to describe tax credits in recognition of this. These expenditures don’t go through the normal legislative process as do most appropriations. If the Kansas Legislature and United States Congress are not comfortable with writing this developer a check for over $19,000,000, they should not make a roundabout contribution through the tax system that has the same economic impact on the state’s and nation’s finances.

Citizens will be told that the tax credits are needed because rehabbing historic buildings is expensive. We should let politicians and bureaucrats know that living or working in a historic building is a premium amenity that one chooses, just like one might choose granite counter tops in their kitchen. We shouldn’t expect others to pay for these voluntary choices.

Then, there’s a “HUD Loan Amount,” which is actually a loan guarantee of $29,087,700. U.S. taxpayers are liable for this amount of money should the project not meet its projections.

The subsides to this project have real costs. This development will require services from the city, county, and school district, yet it won’t be contributing its full share of property taxes. So someone else has to pay.

The tax credits represent money that has to be made up by taxpayers across Kansas and the nation. Again, someone else has to pay. Since Kansas applies sales tax to food, even poor people buying groceries will be contributing to the cost of the grants given to this project through state tax credits.

We’ll be told that there’s a “funding gap” that taxpayers must step forward to fill. Why does that gap exist? It’s simple: Markets have decided that this project is not worth what it costs. If it was worth what it’s going to cost, and if the developer is reputable (as we’ve been promised), markets would be willing to fund the project. This happens every day all across the country, even during recessions.

What the city is proposing to do is to take risks with the taxpayers’ money that no one is willing to take with their own. Further, the spending and credit that is diverted from markets to this project wastes capital. There is less capital available for projects that people value, because it is diverted to projects that politicians and bureaucrats value.

The difficulty is that it’s easy to see the new project. The groundbreaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies that commemorate government intervention will be covered by television and newspapers. Politicians and bureaucrats are drawn to these events and will spend taxpayer funds to make sure you’re aware of them.

It’s more difficult to see that the harm that government intervention causes. That harm is dispersed and more difficult to spot. But the harm is real. If it is not, then we need to ask why our governments don’t do more of this type of development.

Driving by a development in a TIF district and noticing a building or people working at jobs does not tell the entire story. Recognizing the existence of a building, or the payment of taxes, or jobs created, is “stage one” thinking, and no more than that.

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

Americans for Prosperity releases findings on West Bank vetting process

From Americans for Prosperity-Kansas.

WICHITA, KAN. — The Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity met with reporters today to discuss the group’s findings on the vetting process of the preferred developer for the West Bank development.

AFP-Kansas Field Coordinator Susan Estes called for the city to re-issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) after discovering an oversight in the vetting process; the developers’ municipal references were not checked by the city prior to the city council’s final selection of the River Vista Project developer last month.

After the developers’ proposals were made public earlier this summer, Estes said an observant AFP member noticed that Mayor Brewer, Councilman Meitzner, Councilman Longwell and the city manager were listed as references by three of the developers of the River Vista project. Upon contacting those elected officials and others listed as references for both proposals, Estes said with one exception, all of the elected officials questioned did not know they were listed and did not give permission for their names to be used as references. In fact, some said they would not have allowed their name to be used.

Estes said the findings are troubling, as the departure from written policy raises questions as to what other information may have been left out when city councilmembers discussed the proposals last month.

“The evaluation of developers is a closed process and records are not available to the public, so we must rely on the city to conduct a thorough investigation,” she said. “Knowing the municipal references were skipped leads us to ask, what other steps were missed? What other information wasn’t considered?”

Estes said that although officials have said the developers’ financial references were verified, there is no way to know for certain given the secretive nature of the process. She said these concerns are cause for an even closer examination at the developers and their proposals.

“We’d like to call on the city to re-issue the RFP so the vetting can fully and properly be carried out,” Estes said. “Taxpayers need to feel policies put in place to protect them are being followed.”

Wichita performs a reference check, the video

Citizens of Wichita are rightly concerned about whether our elected officials and bureaucrats are looking out for their interests, or only for the interests and welfare of a small group of city hall insiders. The video below explains, or click here to view in HD on YouTube. For an article on this topic, see Wichita performs a reference check, sort of.

Wichita performs a reference check, sort of

Wichita city hall logo

For a video presentation of this material, click on Wichita performs a reference check, the video.

Citizens of Wichita are rightly concerned about whether our elected officials and bureaucrats are looking out for their interests, or only for the interests and welfare of a small group of city hall insiders. Cronies, if you will.

A recent application filed with Wichita City Hall regarding the West Bank Development Project raises two questions: Did the government officials listed as references give their permission, and were any of the references contacted to learn what they knew about the applicants?

The application filed by the River Vista development team shows this: The team, consisting of George Laham, Dave Wells, Dave Burk, and Bill Warren listed numerous local, state, and federal officials as references. Here’s the list of officials that appeared one or more times:

Wichita city manager Robert Layton
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer
Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita)
Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita)
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett
Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter
Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh
Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback
U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo

Except for Jeff Easter, none of these officials gave permission for their names to be used in this way. (We didn’t get a response regarding Tim Norton.)

Furthermore, none of these officials were contacted by the evaluation committee whose job it is to vet these potential city partners.

A few questions: First, do you think it is appropriate for the city manager to be listed as a reference, given that anyone who reads this document would take it as an endorsement? No, of course it is not appropriate.

Related: Do you think it’s appropriate for the city manager to endorse one of the applicants? We don’t know if the presence of the city manager’s name as a reference implies an endorsement, because George Laham did not ask the city manager if he could be listed as a reference. We know this because we asked.

Further, the committee that evaluated the development teams did not call the city manager to inquire about George Laham. We asked about this, too. But making inquiries of references: Isn’t that what an evaluation committee or vetting team should do? But we know that the evaluation committee did not contact even one of these officials that were listed as references.

These applicants likely knew that the evaluation committee would not contact these references. Therefore, they freely listed these government officials. Which makes us wonder — what is the point of having an evaluation committee?

Even further: Is it appropriate for the city to partner with people who think it’s proper to list the city manager as a reference without asking if that was permissible, knowing that the manager wouldn’t be contacted? Same question regarding the mayor, governor, our U.S. Congressman, and district attorney?

In light of this — numerous government officials listed as references without their permission or knowledge, an evaluation committee that never contacted these officials, and the information that these references could have provided: Do you think the evaluation committee fulfilled its duty to perform due diligence on behalf of the interests of the people of Wichita?

What the evaluation committee might have learned

If the evaluation committee had contacted these references, here’s what might have been learned.

Dave Wells: Wells is president of Key Construction. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget.” Noting the cost overruns, reporter Bill Wilson wrote: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.” (Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects.)

Also, two years ago Key Construction proposed — and was awarded by the city council — a no-bid contract for a parking garage. But the city later put the contract to competitive bid. Key, which first bid $6 million, later bid $4.7 million. If the desire of the majority of the city council, including Mayor Carl Brewer, had been realized, Wichita taxpayers would have sent an extra — and unnecessary — $1.3 million to a politically-connected construction company.

By the way, the mayor’s relationship with Wells means he should not have voted on this matter.

Dave Burk, Dave Wells: These two were original partners in WaterWalk, which has received over $40 million in subsidy, with little to show for results.

Dave Burk: He’s received many millions from many levels of government, but still thinks he doesn’t get enough. This is what we can conclude by his appeal of property taxes in a TIF district. Those taxes, even though they are rerouted back to him for his benefit, were still too high for his taste, and he appealed. The Wichita Eagle reported in the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property): “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

rebenstorf-quote-dave-burkA number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s act. According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.’”

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, Wichita city manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.’”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high. Now he wants more city taxpayer subsidy.

warren-bailout-poses-dilemma

Bill Warren: In 2008 the Old Town Warren Theater was failing and its owners — Bill Warren being one — threatened to close it and leave the city with a huge loss on a tax increment financing (TIF) district formed for the theater’s benefit. Faced with this threat, the city made a no-interest and low-interest loan to the theater. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Besides Warren, you may — or may not — be surprised to learn that the theater’s partners included Dave Wells and Dave Burk, the same two men mentioned above. Also, Mayor Brewer’s relationship with Warren means he should not have voted on this matter.

It hasn’t worked, but Wichita will do it again

man-digging-coins

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will, in all likelihood, issue more business welfare in an effort to create jobs in Wichita.

The applicant company is asking for relief from paying property taxes under the city’s Economic Development Exemption (EDX). The city’s economic development policy has a formula that determines how much tax can be excused, based on job creation and capital investment. In this case, according to city documents, “WSM Industries qualifies for a 59%, five-plus-five year tax exemption.” Not 50 percent, and not 60 percent. Precisely 59 percent is what the city judges.

Here’s how the tax savings breaks down among the various taxing jurisdictions:

City of Wichita: $4,500
Sedgwick County: $4,081
USD 259: $7,920
State of Kansas: $209
Total: $16,710

An analysis performed for the city indicates a favorable benefit-cost ratio for these incentives. This inspires a question: If we really believe in this benefit to the city (and similar benefits to the county, school district, and state), why doesn’t the city make more investments like this? Surely there are other worthy companies could expand if not for the burden of property taxes. And that’s what tomorrow’s contemplated action means, if we are to believe it is anything but cronyism and business welfare: Property taxes in Wichita are what prevented this company from expanding. Erase 59 percent of the company’s property tax burden, and it is able to make new capital investment and jobs.

If it really is so easy to promote economic growth and job creation, we should be doing things like this at every city council meeting. Several times each meeting, don’t you think?

I also wonder about companies that made expansions as did this applicant company, but did not ask the city for incentives. What is their secret?

The reality is that these economic development incentives don’t work, if we are willing to consider the effect on everyone in the region instead of just this applicant company, and also if we are willing to consider the long-term effects instead of only the immediate.

Peer-reviewed research on economic development incentives — this is the conclusion of all the studies — find business location decisions to be favorably influenced by targeted tax incentives. That’s not a surprise. But the research also finds that the benefits to the communities that offered them were less than their costs.

Wichita and Peer Job Growth, Total Employment

If peer-reviewed research is not convincing, let’s take a look at the record of Wichita.
Here is a chart of job growth for Wichita, the nation, and our Visioneering peers. (Click it for a larger version, or click here for the interactive visualization, or here to watch a video.) The data shows that Wichita hasn’t been doing well.

So if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best, we have to also recognize that our efforts aren’t working. Several long-serving politicians and bureaucrats that have presided over this failure: Mayor Carl Brewer has been on the city council or served as mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for many years. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for more than two decades. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. It is these officials who have presided over the dismal record of Wichita.

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

For Wichita, more districts, more taxes, more bureaucracy

red-tape-person-upset

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider formation of a Tourism Business Improvement District. Actually, the council will formation of a planning committee to determine boundaries, parameters, budgets, and how to fund the budget.

The impetus behind the TBID, according to city documents, is “Go Wichita has proposed that a TBID be created to enhance its marketing efforts.” Go Wichita is the Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. The source of its funds, again from city documents: “A fee is assessed to each of these properties based on room night sales. This fee is usually determined as a percentage of the room rate or as a flat dollar amount per night. The funds collected in the district are spent exclusively for the benefit of the hotels and are usually programmed by the local convention and visitor’s bureau.”

What will be done with the money that is raised? “The funds generated from the district would be used to increase convention advertising in key meeting planner publications, convention sales initiatives in key markets and digital advertising. Additionally, a significant portion of the new funds would be earmarked for leisure marketing efforts.”

Tomorrow’s action contemplated by the council is just the formation of a planning committee, not he actual TBID. So there’s still time to think this through. Here’s what I hope the city considers:

First, is there any way to distinguish this “fee” from a tax? A tax that will probably be passed along to visitors to Wichita?

Second: Is there any way to characterize this as anything other than an expansion of bureaucracy in Wichita? I really wonder if the hotel operators know what they’re getting themselves mixed up in. If the hotels feel they need more marketing firepower to attract business to Wichita, I’m sure they’d do better to form a voluntary association to undertake this task. This would be nimble and flexible in way that a government bureaucracy can never be. But who will stand up to this expansion of our tourism bureaucracy? A hotel owner that wishes to receive referrals? Like most government bureaucrats, those who will run this new program “profit” from increasing their power and influence, and by expansion of their budgets, perks, and staffs. They won’t look favorably on those who don’t go along with the program.

Then: The members of the committee are appointed by the mayor. Hotel owners: Do you want Carl Brewer to be in charge of appointing people to oversee something important to your business?

Finally, the people of Wichita need to realize that pursuit of convention and tourism business is not the wisest path to follow. Wall Street Journal reporting from last year concluded with:

“Mr. Sanders, the University of Texas professor, predicts the glut of convention space will only get worse, because a number of cities continue to push expansions. He blames cities’ hired consultants, who he said predict “all these people are going to come and do wonderful things to your economy.”

“But the problem is they aren’t coming anymore, because there are lots of other convention centers … that desperately want that business,” he said. “So Atlanta steals from Boston, Orlando steals from Chicago and Las Vegas steals from everywhere.”

The “Mr. Sanders” referred to in the Journal reporting is Heywood T. Sanders, who is professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is a noted critic of public efforts to chase convention business for economic development. His 2005 report report Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy was published by the left-leaning think tank The Brookings Institution. It provides a look at the realities of the convention trade.

Sanders writes that convention center business has been on the decline, and it started well before the terrorist attacks in 2001. In a section titled “Trends: Portrait of a Faltering Industry” we can read that attendance is down, exhibit space demand is down, and hotel room demand in cities has fallen too.

The author notes that the decline in convention business is a structural decline: “[Reasons for decline] are the product of industry consolidation, particularly in the hardware and home improvement industry, reductions in business travel in the face of increasing cost and difficulty, and alternative means of conveying and gathering information.” These are not cyclical trends that are likely to reverse in the future.

Despite shrinking demand, cities are building more convention space: “Despite diminishing demand, the last few years have seen a remarkable boom in the volume of exhibit space in U. S. convention centers.” The building of larger convention centers in many cities means that more cities are able to host the larger events, or, cities can now host several smaller events simultaneously. The result, says the author, is fierce competition for both large and small events.

What about the costs? The author introduces a section on costs with: “The studies that justify both the new center space and the publicly-owned hotels paint a picture of tens of thousands of new out-of-town visitors and millions of dollars in economic impact. Despite that rhetoric, these projects carry real risks and larger potential costs, particularly in an uncertain and highly competitive environment.”

The convention center is just the start of costs: “A new [convention] center is thus often followed by a subsidized or fully publicly-owned hotel.” Wichita, of course, has a fully publicly-owned hotel, the large 303-room Hyatt. Now Wichita has been providing, and will probably continue, subsidy programs to other downtown hotels. None of the hotels alone provide as many rooms as Wichita convention planners say the city needs, so we are likely to see proposals for a subsidies to hotels continue.

In fact, until Wichita has as many hotel rooms as our nation’s largest convention cities have, there is always a larger goal — a next step on the ladder. Can you imagine our city leaders ever proclaiming that we have enough hotel rooms in downtown Wichita?

Other things Sanders says that are likely to be proposed are a sports arena. Wichita, of course, recently opened a taxpayer-financed and government-owned facility, the Intrust Bank Arena. After a brief honeymoon fling with good financial performance, the arena has settled down to a less-acceptable level of revenue production. Residents of Sedgwick County, which owns the arena, should be cautioned that the financial results hailed by the county don’t include depreciation costs, so the true financial picture is not anywhere near complete.

Entertainment, retail, and cultural attractions are often proposed, Sanders writes, and Wichita downtown planners have indicated their desire for these.

The conclusion to this paper describes Wichita’s current situation and foreshadows what is likely for the future of Wichita:

But if taxing, spending, and building have been successful, the performance and results of that investment have been decidedly less so. Existing convention centers have seen their business evaporate, while new centers and expansions are delivering remarkably little in terms of attendance and activity.

What is even more striking, in city after city, is that the new private investment and development that these centers were supposed to spur — and the associated thousands of new visitors — has simply not occurred. Rather, city and convention bureau officials now argue that cities need more space, and more convenience, to lure those promised conventions. And so underperforming convention centers now must be redeemed by public investment and ownership of big new hotels. When those hotels fail to deliver the promises, then the excuse is that more attractions, or more retail shops, or even more convention center space will be needed to achieve the goal of thousands of new visitors.

We already see some of this excuse-making taking place: Private investment in downtown Wichita has been weak, it is said, because there’s not yet a critical mass of development. It is promised by downtown boosters that given enough public money, critical mass will be achieved, and private investment will rush in. But since there is no definition of what constitutes critical mass, this excuse is always available to justify failure.

WichitaLiberty.TV September 8, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks wonders if Wichitans will be asked to support increased sales taxes, especially for supporting bus transit. But do we really want more buses and fewer personal automobiles? Amanda BillyRock illustrates “Economics in One Lesson” Chapter 4, which is titled “Public Works mean Taxes.” Then, Bob’s video illustrates the Wichita City Council making a decision for uneconomic reasons, and Bob suspects cronyism is the real motive. Episode 12, broadcast September 8, 2013. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita economic development: And then what will happen?

magnifying-glass-2

The whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.
– Henry Hazlitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And then what will happen?” he asked.

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

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

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

“And then what will happen?” Smithies persisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV September 1, 2013

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In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks presents an analysis of the delinquent real estate tax list and wonders why our institutions don’t provide this simple enhancement. Then, a review of the first two chapters of “Economics in One Lesson” with application to situations in Wichita. Finally, Amanda BillyRock illustrates Chapter 3: Blessings Of Destruction, and examples in Wichita are noted. Episode 11, broadcast September 1, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Wichita City Council makes an economic decision

Last year the Wichita City Council was faced with a decision regarding a program designed to stimulate the sales of new homes. Analysis revealed that even though the city had an opportunity to make an investment with a purportedly high return on investment, it would be better off, dollar-wise, if it did not make the investment. What did the city council do? The following video explains the decision the council faced. View below, or click here to view in high definition on YouTube. More information is at Wichita new home tax rebate program: The analysis and Wichita HOME program has negative consequences.

A vision for Wichita

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Why are some in Wichita so insistent on pushing their vision of what our city should look like, and why are they willing and eager to use the coercive force of government to achieve their vision? In the article below, Randal O’Toole, using a work by Thomas Sowell, provides much insight into understanding why.

Reading this post, I couldn’t help think of Wichita: the “manufactured crisis” of too much driving and too little walking; the desire by many, including several Wichita City Council members — even self-styled conservative members — to expand the power and reach of government; and the denial of responsibility for obvious failures like Waterwalk.

project-downtown-logoWe should remember that the plan for downtown Wichita developed by Boston planning firm Goody Clancy is a plan developed by and for self-styled elites. We only need to remember when David Dixon, Goody Clancy’s principal, told Wichitans that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is only found at the core. That’s an insult to the vast majority of Wichitans, but the elites in Wichita evidently believe it, or are willing to tolerate this insult in order to achieve their vision.

O’Toole visited Wichita in 2010 and presented a fascinating lecture.

The Vision of the Urbanites

By Randal O’Toole

As the Antiplanner has traveled and visited people all over the country, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. Though I’ve met thousands of suburban and rural residents who are very happy with their homes and lifestyles, I’ve never met one who thinks the power of government should be used to force others to live in the same lifestyle. Yet I’ve met lots of urban residents who openly admit that they believe their lifestyle is so perfect that government should force more if not most people to live in dense, “walkable” cities.

Do cities turn people into liberal fascists? Or do liberal fascists naturally congregate into cities, and if so, why?

A general description of the phenomenon I’ve observed can be found in Thomas Sowell’s 1995 book, The Vision of the Anointed. Sowell says that America’s liberal elites view themselves as smarter or more insightful than everyone else, and thus qualified to impose their ideas on everyone else. The process of doing so, says Sowell, follows four steps (p. 8):

First, the anointed identify or, more usually, manufacture a crisis. Sowell’s book reviews three such crises: poverty, crime, and teen pregnancy, all of which were declining in the 1960s when the liberals turned them into crises. The crises relevant to this blog include such things as urban sprawl (totally manufactured as in fact it is not a problem at all) and auto driving (while some of the effects of driving are negative, these are easily corrected while the overall benefits of driving are positive).

Second, the anointed propose a solution that inevitably involves government action. Sowell makes it clear that the the leadership of the elites go out of their way to define or manufacture the crises in ways that make it appear the government action are the only solutions. In other words, their real goal is to make government bigger, not to solve problems. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it doesn’t really matter; what matters is they propose the wrong solutions to problems that often don’t really exist.

Third, once the solution is implemented, the results turn out to be very different, and often far worse, than predicted by the anointed. Crime, poverty, and teen pregnancy went up, not down, when government stepped in to “fix” these problems in the 1960s. In the case of urban planning, anti-sprawl policies made housing unaffordable and led to the recent mortgage crisis. Anti-automobile policies make congestion worse and therefore waste even more energy and produce more pollution.

The final stage is one of denial, in which the elites claim that their policies had nothing to do with the worsening results. Other factors were at work, they claim; in fact, the results might have been even worse if their enlightened policies had not been put into effect.

Sowell notes that the anointed use several tactics to promote their ideas. For example, “empirical evidence itself may be viewed as suspect, insofar as it is inconsistent with that vision” (p. 2). Whenever the Antiplanner uses data to show that there is no urban sprawl crisis or rail transit doesn’t work in a debate with an urban anointed, the inevitable response is some version of “figures don’t lie but liars figure.” “Statistics can be used to show anything you want,” is another version. These comforting words leave the anointed free to dismiss any data and all that conflict with their vision.

A second fundamental tactic is to presume that they have the moral high ground. “Those who accept this vision are deemed to be not merely factually correct but morally on a higher plane,” says Sowell. “Put differently, those who disagree with the prevailing vision are seen as being not merely in error, but in sin” (pp. 2-3). The term “smart growth” is a classic example of this tactic, used solely to bludgeon any dissenters with the claim that they must favor “dumb growth.”

Relying on tactics like these, the anointed avoid confronting the fraudulent nature of their crises and the failures of their solutions. “What is remarkable is how few arguments are really engaged in, and how many substitutes for arguments there are,” says Sowell (p. 6).

While The Vision of the Anointed describes the situation, it doesn’t answer the fundamental question of why people think that way. A partial answer is provided by Sowell’s 1987 book, A Conflict of Visions, in which Sowell traces two different world views back to the late eighteenth century. One view, expressed by Adam Smith, is that humans are imperfect and so we should design institutions that work even if the face of these imperfections. The other view, proposed by William Godwin, is that humans are perfectable, which suggests that the benign hand of government authority should be used to guide people to that perfection.

Today, the Tea Party represents the descendants of Adam Smith, while urban planners are descendants of Godwin. As University of California planners Mel Webber and Fred Collignon wrote more than a decade ago, urban planners were “heir to the postulates of the Enlightenment with its faith in perfectibility.”

The question still remains: why are urbanites more susceptible to the vision of the anointed? Perhaps part of the answer is that the constant friction between strangers that cities impose on their residents leads to a desire for government authority to protect people from those frictions. But a larger part of the answer may be that the role of government is far more visible in cities than elsewhere, and far larger in cities today than in the past, so residents of those cities cannot imagine living without it — and those who want more government are attracted to those cities. In any case, everyone in general and urbanites in particular should be wary of any ideas that make government bigger, as they are probably just part of some elitist scheme to coercively impose their vision on everyone else.

The link to this article at O’Toole’s site is The Vision of the Urbanites.

Seen and unseen on display

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The lesson of the book “Economics in One Lesson” by Henry Hazlitt is this: “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

(The Ludwig von Mises Institute has published an edition of this book which is available at no cost at its website; click here. Amanda BillyRock has illustrated most of the chapters in video. Click here for the playlist.)

Looking beyond what we see at first glance, that’s important. And considering everyone, not just some small group, is important too. You may be familiar with the term “special interest group.” A local example might be the Wichita Area Builders Association, which represents homebuilders. The purpose of groups like this — and I’m sorry to have to single out this group — is to represent their members, and them alone. So last year the Builders Association was able to persuade the Wichita City Council to pass a program that rebates Wichita property taxes on new homes for a few years. This makes it easier to sell these new homes. Homes which are built, of course, by members of the Wichita Area Builders Association.

Did the city council consider the long term effects of this policy, such as the effect on tax revenue in future years? Did the council consider the “Cash for Clunkers” effect, in which incentive programs induce people to buy now, only to depress sales in later years after the program ends? The answer is either a) No, the council did not consider these effects, or b) The council decided to ignore these effects.

Then, what about the effect on other groups besides the builders? Did the council consider that by offering savings when buying these select new homes, it likely reduced the appeal and value of all other homes across the city? Did the council consider that these new homes will require services like police and fire protection, but since they don’t contribute property tax, other taxpayers have to pay to provide these services?

And what about setting another precedent, that when business is not doing well, a special interest group appeals to government for special favors?

This is an example of the city council considering only the immediate effects of a policy, and also the effects on only a single group — the self-interested homebuilders. Things like this happen all the time.

Remember how Hazllitt said these groups will argue “plausibly and persistently?” That happened. As an example, Wichita State University economists prepared an analysis showing that this rebate program benefited the city. Did that analysis consider the long-term effects or only the immediate effects of the policy? Did that analysis consider the effects on all groups? I’m afraid that if we could look under the hood of these models, we’d find that they suffer from the problems Hazlitt warns about.

And the president of the Builders Association argued persuasively before the council. That’s an example of when Hazlitt wrote about a special interest group: “It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case.”

Hazlitt told us what we need to do in these cases, writing: “In these cases the answer consists in showing that the proposed policy would also have longer and less desirable effects, or that it could benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups.”

broken-window-glassSpecial interest groups expend lot of effort to get government to look at the seen and skip the unseen. That’s a reference to the famous parable of the broken window from chapter two of “Economics in One Lesson.” Ahe child who threw a rock through the window of the bakery. The crowd that gathered around the broken window: Someone suggested that the damage is actually a good thing, because the windowmaker now has work to do and earns money. And the windowmaker in turn will spend his new income somewhere else, and so forth. Economic development professionals who make arguments for subsidies to business call this the multiplier effect. It creates what they call indirect impacts.

A few years ago in an effort to drum up taxpayer subsidies for arts, a national organization — a special interest group — made this argument:

paint-bucket

A theater company purchases a gallon of paint from the local hardware store for $20, generating the direct economic impact of the expenditure. The hardware store then uses a portion of the aforementioned $20 to pay the sales clerk’s salary; the sales clerk respends some of the money for groceries; the grocery store uses some of the money to pay its cashier; the cashier then spends some for the utility bill; and so on. The subsequent rounds of spending are the indirect economic impacts.

Thus, the initial expenditure by the theater company was followed by four additional rounds of spending (by the hardware store, sales clerk, grocery store, and the cashier). The effect of the theater company’s initial expenditure is the direct economic impact. The subsequent rounds of spending are all of the indirect impacts. The total impact is the sum of the direct and indirect impacts.

That is the same argument made to excuse the destruction of the broken window in the bakery. Doesn’t this sound plausible? But Hazlitt, echoing Bastiat before him, notes this: The baker was going to buy a suit of clothes, and buying that suit would set off its own chain of economic activity.

But now he must spend that money on fixing the broken window. The new window is what is seen. The unbought suit of clothes is more difficult to see. It is the unseen.

If the window was not broken, the baker has a functional window and a new suit of clothes. After the window is broken, however, all the baker has is a replacement window. No new suit of clothes is purchased.

As Hazlitt summarized: “The glazier’s gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor’s loss of business. No new ‘employment’ has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. They will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.”

In the case I cited above, it’s easy to see the benefit granted to the homebuilders. But the economic activity that does not take place because of the diversion of resources to the homebuilders? Where is that? It is unseen.

When the theater company spends $20 of taxpayer-provided money to buy paint: Where did that $20 come from? Isn’t it possible that a homeowner might have bought the same gallon of paint, but now is not able to because he must pay taxes to support the theater company? It’s easy to see the theater production with its taxpayer-funded painted set. It’s not easy to see the house that sits unpainted for a year to pay for the theater company’s paint. That is the seen and unseen.

Incentive program ignores ‘One Lesson’

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Recording an episode of WichitaLiberty.TV on the topic of “Economics in One Lesson” reminded me of a story I reported last year. The lesson is “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” A program implemented last year in Wichita provides examples of how governments ignore this lesson.

A document released by the City of Wichita casts strong doubt on the wisdom of a new home property tax rebate program. The document also lets us know that city staff are not being entirely honest with the citizens of Wichita.

The new home tax rebate program, according to city documents prepared for the February 14, 2012 city council meeting, provides free Wichita city property taxes to buyers of qualifying new homes: “To promote additional new home construction and new home ownership, the City of Wichita, after extensive coordination and discussion with WABA, is proposing a New HOME (New Home Ownership Made Easy) Program. The program will provide a 5 year rebate of City property taxes for eligible property. To be eligible, property must be in a participating development, with all taxes through 2010 (general and special assessment) current in the development. In addition, to be eligible, the special assessment and general taxes must be paid current at the date of sale and closing of a property.”

WABA is The Wichita Area Builders Association , a trade association for home builders. The document recently released is a study or analysis of the program dated February 1 from Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research.

During the period of the tax rebate program, the study estimates that 787 homes would be built and sold even if there was no rebate program. It is assumed that 1,000 homes would be sold during that period with the rebate program, but that is not certain.

Following is an excerpt from a table that presents the results of analysis. The benefits and costs are to the City of Wichita General Fund. Benefits are, according to the study, “sales tax revenues, from construction worker spending and construction material purchases, and property tax revenues.” The costs are the lost revenue due to the tax rebates.

                   No Incentives    Incentives
Public Benefits       $2,364,429    $3,004,315
Public Costs                  $0    $2,032,312
Net Public Benefits   $2,364,429      $730,457
Return on Investment      N/A           1.48

Some, undoubtedly, will focus on the return on investment (ROI) ratio of 1.48 if the tax rebate incentive is used. (There is no such ratio if there are no incentives, as there is no investment.) The study explains the ratio this way: “for every dollar invested, the city will receive the initial dollar plus an additional 48 cents in return.”

That sounds like a good deal, and the ratios like this that are calculated by CEDBR are often used by the city to justify incentives.

But there is another way to look at this deal: the net value to the city. In this case, if the city doesn’t offer the incentives, the benefits to the city are $2,364,429. If incentives are used, the benefits are $730,457. This means that if the city does nothing, it is $1,633,972 to the better.

That’s right: Even though the city has an opportunity to make an investment with a purportedly high ROI, it would be better off, dollar-wise, if it did not make the investment.

The analysis concludes that with the tax rebate program, there will be more construction jobs. But, caution the study authors: “Please note, the jobs supported in 2012 and 2013 are not net new jobs — they are jobs that already exist. The analysis simply identifies a funding stream for these jobs.”

In a separate but similar analysis dated March 22, 2012 prepared for Sedgwick County, some limitations of the analysis were itemized, as follows:

It was beyond the scope of this analysis to account for:

  • Changes in household consumption due to a change in homeownership.
  • The impact of renters who become owners. The program would likely encourage renters to become homebuyers. As these individuals leave the rental market, there may be adverse effects, including falling rental rates.
  • An increase in demand. Although an increase in new home purchases, above existing demand, is likely if incentives are offered, the actual increase in demand has not been quantified.
  • Any increase in demand that offsets future home purchases. It is likely that any increase in new home purchases will simply offset future home purchases as seen in the national Cash for Clunkers program.
  • A change in the price of new homes due to additional supply or higher demand.
  • A fall in home prices, or the associated tax collections, from existing homes. There is a strong likelihood that the increased demand in new homes could lower the value of existing homes.
  • Sunk costs. All costs associated with the creation of a new development, including specials, are viewed as sunk costs. Because they have already occurred, these sunk costs are not included in the analysis.
  • Increased cost of public services. Incentives provided to rural areas could increase public costs as new services are required, including roads, sewer, fire and the like. These increased costs are location specific and not included in the analysis.
  • Cost associated with not providing incentives. The costs associated with a poor new home market have not been analyzed. Without incentives, new home purchases are expected to be lower. This could have negative consequences to builders, developers and taxing entities.

Some of these problems I presented to the city council in my testimony delivered at the February 14th council meeting. Specifically, I warned council members of the devaluing of existing homes, the “cash for clunkers” effect, the costs of providing city services to homes that aren’t contributing property tax to pay for them, and the question of how much new activity will be induced: “Related to this is the question as to how much new activity this program will induce. Often government takes credit for all economic activity that takes place. This ignores the economic activity that was going to take place naturally — in this case, new homes that are going to be built even without this subsidy program … But, the city has to give up collecting property tax on all these homes — even the ones that would be built anyway.

In the case of a new home property tax rebate program for Sedgwick County, the study concludes that the benefit of the program to the county is negative $1,832,294 — a huge cost.

Missing candor

Now that the CEDBR study is released, we can see how city staff failed to present the entire economic impact of the tax rebate program to citizens. Here’s what city staff presented to council members, and by extension, all Wichitans:

“The Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University analyzed the fiscal impact of the proposed New HOME incentive program on the City’s General Fund. The analysis compares the present value cost of incentives to the present value benefits of direct and indirect jobs created and construction expenditures. In this case, a 1.48 to one ratio of benefits-to costs is reported.”

Every word in this statement is true. But what’s missing is that if the city does nothing, it is $1,633,972 better off.

City staff had this information. Sources tell me, however, that staff did not present it to council members or the public before the council voted on the program. We are left with this conclusion: City staff presented only the information from the study that promoted the result the city wanted. This is lying by omission.

This is not the first time city staff has misled the council and the public. Regarding the economic impact of subsidies to the Ambassador Hotel, the city touted a positive cost-benefit ratio to one fund, while ignoring a negative impact to a much larger fund. The difference was a factor of 23 times. Later the city backpedaled, saying that it didn’t intend for downtown projects to be evaluated on the cost-benefit ratio to the debt service fund. See In Wichita, economic development policies are questioned.

At some time council members and citizens need to demand that someone be held accountable for this behavior. Demands for accountability are not likely to come from the city council, as many members have shown themselves willing to overlook all facts and reason in order to promote their goals. The editorial board of the Wichita Eagle does the same. It remains important for citizens to perform this watchdog function.

Wichita Eagle reporting on this matter is at Sedgwick County won’t join property tax rebate for new-home buyers.

WichitaLiberty.TV August 25, 2013

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In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks leads viewers through the first two chapters of Henry Hazlitt’s book “Economics in One Lesson,” using cartoons created by Amanda BillyRock. It’s about looking at not only the immediate effects but at the longer effects of any act or policy; and tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups. Amanda uses the parable of the broken window to illustrate. Then, Bob wonders about an evaluation committee formed by the City of Wichita to vet downtown development partners: Did the committee overlook important information, and why didn’t the city council object as its members had previously? Episode 10, broadcast August 25, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

WichitaLiberty.TV August 18, 2013

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In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks shows his “Prezi” that illustrates the disregard for the law shown by Wichita’s mayor. Then, Bob walks viewers through a visualization that illustrates the unintended consequences of government intervention at the Wichita Airport. Finally, Bob introduces Henry Hazlitt’s book “Economics in One Lesson,” which will be the topic of future episodes of WichitaLiberty.TV. Episode 9, broadcast August 18, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Wichita income is not keeping up

Visioneering Wichita uses per capita income growth as one benchmark of economic progress. What do the numbers say about the city’s progress? The following video illustrates. View below, or click here to view in higher resolution at YouTube, which may work better for some people.

For more in this, and to access the interactive visualization, see Wichita personal income growth benchmark.

Change in needed in Wichita

A version of this op-ed by John Todd appeared in the Wichita Eagle.

John Todd, American PatriotChange is desperately needed in Wichita — change to allow exceptionalism and end failed economic subsidies.

Once again, several of the favored downtown development group partners have lined up outside City Hall with outstretched palms to receive prime city owned Arkansas River corridor land for bargain basement prices layered with generous incentives.

I heartily support private real estate development downtown and across Wichita. It creates jobs, enhances quality of life, expands the tax base and provides economic uplift. However, projects involving generous taxpayer funded “economic development” incentive handouts transfer the risk and tax burden from developers back to taxpayers who rarely realize any direct benefits from the projects.

The downtown WaterWalk project essentially gave away 20 acres of prime city owned land with a reported $41 million incentive package that included diverting tax revenue to the developer with unknown benefits to taxpayers. Compare this with the Waterfront development at 13th and Webb Road that received no subsidy and generates an estimated $2.5 million in annual tax revenues for the public treasury.

To paraphrase a thought attributed to several authors: “A Democracy cannot survive as a permanent form of government, because, when people discover they can vote money for themselves out of the public treasury, they will bankrupt it.”

I believe it is time for the citizens of Wichita to move forward by putting a new marketing program in place titled, “Capitalizing on Exceptionalism: A New Chapter in Wichita.”

To make it work, we must enlist the support of key, wealth producing, connected people of influence in our community as well as the everyday hard working citizen entrepreneurs and craftsmen, and provide the marketing forum for them to recognize and realize that Wichita can be exceptional, and that we don’t have to embrace a “follow the herd” mentality that will lead us to economic destruction and mediocrity.

We must change the “entitlement” mentality that permeates the social and the business segments of our whole country, starting in particular with our own community. Wichita can become the exceptional example of economic prosperity others will strive to emulate.

If we can move away from the entitlement attitude and get government out of the way, our private sector entrepreneurs and craftsmen can match anyone in the country; and all of this can be achieved by rejecting the corporate welfare trap we have fallen into.

John Todd
Wichita

WichitaLiberty.TV August 11, 2013

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In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks asks if shoppers have ever paid extra sales tax in Wichita’s Community Improvement Districts, and describes efforts by the city to avoid disclosure of this tax. Then, are there similarities between Wichita and Detroit? Finally, a Sedgwick County Commissioner is worried about agriculture being driven out of the county, but Bob thinks he doesn’t need to worry. Episode 8, broadcast August 11, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.