Tag Archives: Wichita city council

Another week in Wichita, more CID sprawl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita CID illustrates pitfalls of government intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita Business Journal reporting misses the point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita’s WaterWalk apartment deal

From August 2012, an episode of cronyism in Wichita.

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

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

The highlights of the deal include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waterwalk, a problematic development

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita, home to cronyism

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

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

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

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

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

Amendments to Wichita WaterWalk Developer Agreements

In Wichita, an incomplete economic development analysis

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

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

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

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

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

If only these numbers were a true and accurate representation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Wichita, benefitting from your sales taxes, but not paying their own

A Wichita real estate development benefits from the sales taxes you pay, but doesn’t want to pay themselves.

STAR bonds in Kansas. Click for larger version.
STAR bonds in Kansas. Click for larger version.
In Kansas, the STAR bond program allows cities to issue bonds (that is, to borrow money), give the proceeds (that is, cash) to a private business firm, and then pay off the bonds with the sales taxes paid by the business firm’s customers.

But sometimes this gift by taxpayers isn’t sufficient. In Wichita, despite benefitting from STAR bonds, a company wishes to skip paying sales taxes itself. This is what the Wichita City Council will consider tomorrow.

The Wichita Sports Forum (WSF) project on North Greenwich Road, according to city documents, is a project with a cost of $14,025,000. Of that, $7,525,000 (53.6 percent) may be paid for by the STAR bonds. These bonds will be paid off at no cost to the owners of WSF.

Additionally, according to city documents, the STAR bonds program carries with it a sales tax exemption. That is, if any of the bond proceeds are spent on items subject to sales tax (like building materials), WSF doesn’t pay the sales tax.

There’s another consideration, however. Some of the project is being paid for by the developers themselves rather than by STAR bonds. Stuff purchased with their money will be subject to sales tax. Evidently that is a problem, and the city has a way to step in and solve it.

Through the Industrial Revenue Bonds program, the WSF developers can avoid paying sales tax on $4,500,000 of building materials. City documents don’t mention this number, but with the sales tax rate in Wichita at 7.5 percent, this is a savings of $337,500. It’s as good as a grant of cash. Better, in fact. If the city granted this cash, it would be taxable as income. But forgiveness of taxes isn’t considered income.

In Kansas, low-income families must pay sales tax on their groceries, and at a rate that is among the highest in the country. Is it unseemly that having already benefited from millions in taxpayer subsidy and sales tax exemption, the developers of Wichita Sports Forum seek even more sales tax exemptions?

In Wichita, open records relief may be on the way

A new law in Kansas may provide opportunities for better enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act.

This year the Kansas Legislature passed HB 2256, captioned as “An act concerning public bodies or agencies; relating to the state of Kansas and local units of government; providing certain powers to the attorney general for investigation of violations of the open records act and the open meetings act; attorney general’s open government fund …”

The good part of this law is that it provides additional enforcement options when citizens feel that government agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Law. Before this law, citizens and news organizations had — effectively — two paths for seeking enforcement of KORA. One is private legal action at their own expense. The other is asking the local district attorney for an opinion.

Now the Kansas Attorney General may intervene, as noted in the summary of the new law: “The bill allows the Attorney General to determine, by a preponderance of the evidence after investigation, that a public agency has violated KORA or KOMA, and allows the Attorney General to enter into a consent order with the public agency or issue a finding of violation to the public agency prior to filing an action in district court.”

Not all aspects of this bill are positive, as it also confirms many exceptions to the records act and adds to them. It also adds to the authority of the Attorney General, as have other bills this year.

The City of Wichita has been obstinate in its insistence that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require it to fulfill certain requests for records of spending by its subordinate tax-funded agencies. The city believes that certain exceptions apply and allow the city to keep secret records of the spending of tax funds. The city may be correct in its interpretation of this law.

But the law — even if the city’s interpretation is correct — does not prohibit the city from releasing the records. The city could release the records, if it wanted to.

Fulfilling the legitimate records requests made by myself and others would go a long way towards keeping promises the city and its officials make, even recent promises.

The city’s official page for the mayor holds this: “Mayor Longwell has championed many issues related to improving the community including government accountability, accessibility and transparency …”

During the recent mayoral campaign, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle that he wants taxpayers to know where their money goes: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”

In a column in the Wichita Business Journal, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell wrote: “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.”

Following, from 2012, discussion of problems with the City of Wichita and open government.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “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.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

How to turn $399,000 into $65,000 in downtown Wichita

Once embraced by Wichita officials as heroes, real estate listings for two floors of a downtown Wichita office building illustrate the carnage left behind by two developers.

Broadway Plaza Building, Wichita, KSA decade ago the “Minnesota Guys” were the darlings of downtown Wichita. With a controversial form of real estate ownership — tenancy in common — they promised to revive downtown Wichita. City officials and civic leaders praised them. The city council found them so endearing that it awarded the Minnesota Guys over $10 million in tax increment financing — later increased at their request — although the developers were never able to tap into those funds. Now the two developers are facing numerous felony charges relating to securities violations.

This week the Wichita Business Journal reports that two floors of a prominent downtown office building are for sale at very low prices. The building is Broadway Plaza at 105 S. Broadway.

In 2007 the fourth floor of this building had an appraised value of $388,000, according to Sedgwick County records. The value fell to $210,900 the next year and stayed at that value for five years. Now the appraised value is $98,000.

The value of the eleventh floor followed a similar trajectory, being valued at $399,000 in 2007, falling to $160,100 for four years, and now appraised at $82,300.

Now the asking price for each floor is $65,000. At attempt at sale at auction earlier this year failed to produce any bids. The asking price represents a cost of about $13 per square foot. That’s less than the annual rent for class A office space in Wichita, downtown and suburban.

In 2011 I reported on how some downtown Wichita properties are plummeting in value:

A strategy of Real Development — the “Minnesota Guys” — in Wichita has been to develop and sell floors of downtown office buildings as condominiums. Some of these floors have been foreclosed upon and have come back on the market. Some once carried mortgages of $400,000 or more, meaning that at one point a bank thought they were worth at least that much. But now four floors in the Broadway Plaza Building, three floors of the Petroleum Building, two floors of Sutton Place, and one floor of the Orpheum Office Center are available for sale at prices not much over $100,000, ranging from $14 to $25 per square foot. Other downtown office buildings — very plain properties — are listed at much higher prices. For example, one downtown property is listed at $82 per square foot. … Some of these floors have had declining appraisals. According to the Sedgwick County Treasurer, the fifth floor of Sutton Place, which is listed for sale at $135,000, was appraised in 2008 for $530,900. In 2009 the appraised value dropped to $215,000.

Cash incentives in Wichita still in use

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

We’ve been told that the city is not going to use cash incentives for economic development. But an item the Wichita City Council will consider this week includes a cash grant of $30,000. It follows a similar project the council considered two weeks ago that included a grant of $10,000.

The building at 100 S. Market as it appeared in 2009. This building is slated to receive a grant of $30,000 to improve its exterior.
The building at 100 S. Market as it appeared in 2009. This building is slated to receive a grant of $30,000 to improve its exterior.
These grants are part of the city’s facade improvement program. Under it, properties in certain parts of the city can apply to use special assessment financing to pay for the improvement of their outside appearance. The city borrows the funds and advances them to the property owner. The bonds are repaid through special assessment taxes that are added to the property’s tax bill.

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

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

With tax exemptions, what message does Wichita send to existing landlords?

As the City of Wichita prepares to grant special tax status to another new industrial building, existing landlords must be wondering why they struggle to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage. From June 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita property taxes

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

Targeted economic development incentives

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do incentives work?

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

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

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

No evidence of large firm impacts on local economy”

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

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

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV: Arts funding, property taxes, uninformed officials, tax increment financing, and social security

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Is Wichita risking a Soviet-style future? A look at Wichita property taxes, uninformed and misinformed elected officials, tax increment financing, and social security. View below, or click here to view on YouTube. Episode 86, broadcast June 7, 2015.

In Wichita, campaigning for a tax, then asking for exemption from paying

Having contributed $5,000 to persuade Wichita voters to raise the sales tax, a company now seeks exemption from paying any sales tax.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider an economic development incentive for Foley Industries, Inc. The company is asking to be relieved from paying nearly all property taxes on a proposed expansion, and also asks to avoid sales taxes on purchases related to the expansion.

The action the council will consider is a “letter of intent,” not the actual granting of the incentive. In practice, these letters are as good as having the actual ordinance in hand. Specifically, Foley asks for industrial revenue bonds, which carry a property tax exemption. (The city is not lending any money and has no responsibility to repay the bonds. In fact, Foley itself will purchase the bonds, according to city documents. The bonds are simply a mechanism for receiving tax exemptions.)

In this case, the city has decided Foley qualifies for a 95.5 percent five-year tax exemption on the IRB-financed real property improvements. After five years, the council may approve an additional five years if Foley meets employment targets. Details of the tax forgiveness are at the end of this article.

Foley is also applying for an exemption from paying sales tax on purchases related to the expansion. No dollar amount is given for the value of this. It could easily be worth over a million dollars.

Contribution by Foley Industries to Yes Wichita, the group that campaigned for a Wichita sales tax.
Contribution by Foley Industries to Yes Wichita, the group that campaigned for a Wichita sales tax.
Of note, Foley contributed $5,000 to the “Yes Wichita” group that campaigned in favor of a one cent per dollar sales tax last year. Now, it asks to avoid paying all sales tax.

Also, city policy is that incentives must have a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or greater, although there are many loopholes the city can use to grant incentives if this benchmark is not met. For the city, this benchmark is met, just barely. For Sedgwick County the ratio is 1.27 to one, and for the Wichita school district, the ratio is 1.05 to one, barely in positive territory. These two local jurisdictions might ask the city why it forces an incentive on them that violates the city’s own policy. The ratio for the school district is especially relevant, as 46 percent of the taxes that will be abated would go to it.

City documents indicate the expansion will allow Foley to add 12 employees over a five year period and retain 153 positions. This is an example of the city using incentives primarily to retain jobs. (Foley has dangled the threat of building its expanded facility in another city.)

It’s likely that Foley has applied to the Kansas Department of Commerce for benefits from programs such as PEAK (or Promoting Employment Across Kansas), HPIP, and others. Inquiry to the department produced this response: “As the Department does not have signed contracts with Foley Industries, we cannot share information about potential incentives.”

This request for property and sales tax relief reveals a problem: If companies can’t afford to make investments in Wichita unless they receive exemptions from paying taxes, we must conclude that taxes are too high. (An ongoing study reveals that generally, property taxes on commercial and industrial property in Wichita are high. In particular, taxes on commercial property in Wichita are among the highest in the nation. See here.) It’s either that, or this company simply doesn’t want to participate in paying for the cost of government like most other companies and people do.

Civic leaders say that our economic development policies must be reformed. In particular, our leaders say that cash incentives are on the way out. This deal does not include grants of cash, that is true. But forgiveness of taxes is more valuable to business firms than receiving cash. That’s because cash incentives are usually taxable as income, while forgiveness of taxes does not create taxable income. Each dollar of tax that is forgiven adds one dollar to after-tax profits. 1 2

Tax exemptions like this also disrupt the theory of taxation. We’ve often told by civic leaders that we pay taxes in order to receive all the wonderful service the city provides. It’s like paying club dues, they say, or the price of a civilized society. But when someone doesn’t pay, but continues to receive services, is it because they don’t like the services the city provides? Or doesn’t the company like being in the club?

Details

City documents say that the estimated tax value of exempted property for the first full year of the fully completed project would be $448,334, distributed as follows:

City of Wichita: $124,731
Sedgwick County: $112,606
State of Kansas: $5,730
USD 259: $205,267

The benefit-cost ratios are as follows:

City of Wichita General Fund 1.30 to one
City of Wichita Debt Service Fund 1.74 to one
Sedgwick County 1.27 to one
USD 259 1.05 to one
State of Kansas 9.07 to one

  1. Site Selection magazine, September 2009. 2015. ‘INCENTIVES — Site Selection Magazine, September 2009’. Siteselection.Com. Accessed May 1 2015. http://www.siteselection.com/issues/2009/sep/Incentives/
  2. The Continuing Saga of Non-Taxable Grants, Incentives, and Inducements. Americanbar.org,. 2015. http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/events/taxation/taxiq-fall11-breaks-saga-slides.authcheckdam.pdf.

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

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

In 2012 the Tax Foundation released a report that examines the tax costs on business in the states and in selected cities in each state. Location Matters Tax Foundation coverThe news for Kansas is worse than merely bad, as our state couldn’t have performed much worse: Kansas ranks 47th among the states for tax costs for mature business firms, and 48th for new firms. (Starting in 2013, Kansas income tax rates are lower, and we would expect that Kansas would rank somewhat better if the study was updated.)

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

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

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

There are more categories. Kansas ranks well in none.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The record in Wichita

Earlier this year Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition issued its annual report on its economic development activities for 2014. GWEDC says its efforts created or retained 424 jobs.

gwedc-office-operationsThis report shows us that power of government to influence economic development is weak. GWEDC’s information said these jobs were for the geographical area of Sedgwick County. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force in Sedgwick County in 2014 was 247,614 persons. So the jobs created by GWEDC’s actions amounted to 0.14 percent of the labor force. This is a vanishingly small fraction. It is statistical noise. Other economic events overwhelm these efforts.

GWEDC complains of not being able to compete because Wichita has few incentives. This is not true, as Wichita has many incentives to offer. Nonetheless, GWEDC says it could have created or retained another 3,010 jobs if adequate incentives had been available. Adding those jobs to the jobs it claims credit for amounts to 1.39 percent of the labor force, which is still a small number that is overwhelmed by other events.

Our tax costs are high

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV: Initiative and referendum

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: What recourse do citizens have when elected officials are not responsive? Initiative and referendum are two possibilities. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast May 3, 2015.

For more about this issue, see Wichita has examples of initiative and referendum and Initiative and referendum.

In Wichita, bad governmental behavior excused

A Wichita newspaper op-ed is either ignorant of, or decides to forgive and excuse, bad behavior in Wichita government, particularly by then-mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell.

In a column just before the April 2015 Wichita election, Bill Wilson, managing editor of the Wichita Business Journal, reported on fallacies during the mayoral campaign, fallacies he called “glaring.” 1 But only a juvenile interpretation of the facts surrounding the events could find them fallacious. This is especially troubling since Wilson covered city hall as a reporter for the Wichita Eagle.

The first reported fallacy concerns the award of the contract for the new Wichita airport terminal. Jeff Longwell, then a city council member, had received campaign contributions from executives of Key Construction, the local company bidding on the contract. He also received contributions from Walbridge, the Michigan partner of Key. The Walbridge contributions are problematic, as they were made just a few days before the vote. More arrived a few days after Longwell’s vote. 2

In his column Wilson had an explanation as to why the council voted the way it did. That explanation was a matter of dispute that the council had to resolve. But the validity of the explanation is not the point. The point is something larger than any single issue, which is this: The Wichita city council was asked to make decisions regarding whether discretion was abused or laws were improperly applied. It is not proper for a council member to participate in decisions like this while the ink is still wet on campaign contribution checks from a party to the dispute. Jeff Longwell should not have voted on this matter.

For that matter, several other council members should not have voted. Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received substantial campaign contributions from Key Construction executives several months before he voted on the airport contract. So too did Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) . In fact, the only contributions Williams received in 2012 were from Key Construction interests. 3

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted to send millions to Key, including overpriced no-bid contracts.
Then we have Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. Here he’s pictured fishing with his friend Dave Wells of Key Construction. Do you think it is proper for the mayor to have voted in a quasi-judicial role on a matter worth millions to his fishing buddy? How do you feel about the mayor voting for no-bid construction contracts for his friend? Contracts that later were found to be overpriced? 4

In Wichita, city council members receive campaign contributions while participating in a quasi-judicial proceeding involving the contributors. This doesn’t seem to be improper to the Wichita Business Journal. But it isn’t alone. The Wichita Eagle doesn’t object to any of this. Well, maybe once in a while it does, but not very strenuously or for very long.

Another problem: Wilson dismisses the claim that Longwell was able to exert much influence over the other six council members in order to benefit a project in his council district. But during the campaign, Longwell eagerly took credit for the good things that the city council did. Though Longwell was but one of seven votes, his commercials made it seem like he performed these deeds all by himself. But when things go wrong, well, he’s just one of seven votes.

The last fallacy Wilson objects to is this: “The idea that a $500 campaign contribution buys a vote, a specious claim by Americans for Prosperity that inexplicably lives on. If a council member’s vote is for sale for $500, their stupidity trumps their corruption. And yet some of these false claims remain in political advertising, despite being debunked by two media outlets — and here.”

A few points: First, it’s not just a $500 contribution. We find many examples of individual $500 contributions from executives of the same company, along with spouses and other family members. The contributions are effectively stacked. Second, sometimes campaigns are funded to a large extent by these stacked contributions from just one or two firms. 5 Third, if these contributions are not seen as valuable to those who make them, why do the same small groups of business interests make the maximum contributions year after year?

As far as the claims being debunked: A few weeks ago I showed you the inexplicably bad reporting from the Wichita Eagle. 6 The Business Journal didn’t do any better.

Wilson’s op-ed seems more like an audition for a job at city hall than a critical look at the campaign and its issues. Making a move from news media to a government job in communications is a common career move. There are three former journalists working in Wichita city hall. One former Wichita Eagle reporter went to work for the Wichita school district. There are many examples in Topeka. It’s a problem when journalists who are supposed to be exercising watchdog duty over government agencies end up working for them. We can also recognize when journalists are auditioning for jobs in government.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita economic development, Kansas schools and spending, minimum wage

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Can we reform economic development in Wichita to give us the growth we need? Kansas school test scores, school spending, and how the Wichita district spends your money. Then, who is helped by raising the minimum wage? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 84, broadcast May 10, 2015.

Wichita property tax rates up again

The City of Wichita says that it hasn’t raised its mill levy in many years. Data shows the mill levy has risen, and its use has shifted from debt service to current consumption.

Wichita mill levy rates. This table holds only the taxes levied by the City of Wichita and not any overlapping jurisdictions.
Wichita mill levy rates. This table holds only the taxes levied by the City of Wichita and not any overlapping jurisdictions.
In 1994 the City of Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290. In 2014 it was 32.652, based on the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and the Sedgwick County Clerk. That’s an increase of 1.362 mills, or 4.35 percent, since 1994. (These are for taxes levied by the City of Wichita only, and do not include any overlapping jurisdictions.)

The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to Wichita taxation.

Wichita mill levy rates. Click for larger version.
Wichita mill levy rates. Click for larger version.
While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend.

Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative. Click for larger version.
Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative. Click for larger version.
Also, while some may argue that an increase of 4.35 percent over two decades is not very much, this is an increase in a rate of taxation, not actual tax revenue. The revenue collected is a function of the mill levy rate multiplied by the value of taxable property. Revenue has risen, due both to appreciation in the value of property and an increase in the amount of property.

Application of tax revenue has shifted

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

Wichita mill levy, percent dedicated to debt service. Click for larger version.
Wichita mill levy, percent dedicated to debt service. Click for larger version.
In 2005 the mill levy dedicated to debt service was 10.022. In 2014 it was 8.537. That’s a reduction of 1.485 mills (14.8 percent) of property tax revenue dedicated for paying off debt. Another interpretation of this is that in 2005, 31.4 percent of Wichita property tax revenue was dedicated to debt service. In 2014 it was 26.1 percent.

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

Despite the data that is readily available in the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports, some choose to remain misinformed and/or uninformed. The video below provides insight into the level of knowledge of some elected officials and city staff.

Wichita economic development, the need for reform

An incentives deal for a Wichita company illustrates a capacity problem and the need for reform.

Next week the Wichita City Council will consider an economic development incentives package intended to enable a local manufacturing company to expand its operations.

R and R Aerospace benefits 2015-05-05City documents give some detail regarding the amounts of property tax to be forgiven on an annual basis, for a period of up to ten years. In the past, city documents have often mentioned other incentive programs that will benefit the company, but that information is missing. Other sources mention two state programs — PEAK and HPIP — the company may benefit from, but amounts are not available.

In order to prepare the incentives package, several events took place. There was a visit to the company. Then another visit and tour. Then economic development officials helped the company apply for benefits from the Kansas Department of Commerce. Then these officials worked closely with Wichita city staff on an incentive package.

City documents state that the expansion will create 28 jobs over the next five years. Obtaining these jobs took a lot of effort from Wichita and Kansas economic development machinery. Multiple agencies and fleets of bureaucrats at GWEDC, the City of Wichita, Sedgwick County, and the State of Kansas were involved. Wichita State University had to be involved. All this to create 5.6 jobs per year for five years.

The jobs are welcome. But this incident and many others like it reveal a capacity problem, which is this: We probably need to be creating 5.6 jobs every working hour of every day in order to make any significant progress in economic growth. If it takes this much effort to create 28 jobs over five years, how much effort will it take to create the many thousands of jobs we need to create every year?

This assumes, of course, that the incentives are necessary to enable the company to expand. City documents state that the tax exemption is necessary to make the project “viable.” It’s likely that the mayor or city council members will say that if we don’t award the incentives, the company won’t be able to expand. Or perhaps the company will expand in some other city. So the incentives really don’t have any cost, they will tell citizens.

This only hints at a larger problem. If companies can’t afford to make investments in Wichita unless they receive exemptions from paying taxes, we must conclude that taxes are too high. (An ongoing study reveals that generally, property taxes on commercial and industrial property in Wichita are high. In particular, taxes on commercial property in Wichita are among the highest in the nation. See here.) It’s either that, or this company simply doesn’t want to participate in paying for the cost of government like most other companies and people do.

To top it off, this expansion and the new jobs seem far from certain. City documents state the company is “bidding on a new work package” and the “expansion project would be completed in phases
based upon the timing and demand of the work package.”

Civic leaders say that our economic development policies must be reformed. So far that isn’t happening. Our leaders say that cash incentives are on the way out. This deal does not include grants of cash, that is true. But forgiveness of taxes is more valuable to business firms than receiving cash. That’s because cash incentives are usually taxable as income, while forgiveness of taxes does not create taxable income. Each dollar of tax that is forgiven adds one dollar to after-tax profits. 1

The large amount of bureaucratic effort and cost spent to obtain a small number of speculative jobs lets us know that we need to do something else in order to grow our local economy. We need to create a dynamic economy, focusing our efforts on creating an environment where growth can occur organically without management by government. Dr. Art Hall’s paper
Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy provides much more information on the need for this.

Another thing we can do to help organically grow our economy and jobs is to reform our local regulatory regime. Recently Kansas Policy Institute released a study of regulation and its impact at the state and local level. This is different from most investigations of regulation, as they usually focus on regulation at the federal level.

Business Perceptions of the Economic Impact of State and Local Government Regulation coverThe study is titled “Business Perceptions of the Economic Impact of State and Local Government Regulation.” It was conducted by the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University. Click here to view the entire document.

Following is an excerpt from the introduction by James Franko, Vice President and Policy Director at Kansas Policy Institute. It points to a path forward.

Surprising to some, the businesses interviewed did not have as much of a problem with the regulations themselves, or the need for regulations, but with their application and enforcement. Across industries and focus group sessions the key themes were clear — give businesses transparency in what regulations are being applied, how they are employed, provide flexibility in meeting those goals, and allow an opportunity for compliance.

Sometimes things can be said so often as to lose their punch and become little more than the platitudes referenced above. The findings from Hugo Wall are clear that businesses will adapt and comply with regulations if they are transparent and accountable. Many in the public can be forgiven for thinking this was already the case. Thankfully, local and state governments can ensure this happens with minimal additional expense.

A transparent and accountable regulatory regime should be considered the “low hanging fruit” of government. Individuals and communities will always land on different places along the continuum of appropriate regulation. And, a give and take will always exist between regulators and the regulated. Those two truisms, however, should do nothing to undermine the need for regulations to be applied equally, based on clear rules and interpretations, and to give each business an opportunity to comply. (emphasis added)

Creating a dynamic economy and a reformed regulatory regime should cost very little. The benefits would apply to all companies — large or small, startup or established, local or relocations, in any industry.

Our civic leaders say that our economic development efforts must be reformed. Will the path forward be a dynamic economy and reformed regulation? Or will it be more bureaucracy, chasing five jobs at a time?

  1. Site Selection magazine, September 2009. 2015. ‘INCENTIVES — Site Selection Magazine, September 2009’. Siteselection.Com. Accessed May 1 2015. http://www.siteselection.com/issues/2009/sep/Incentives/

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas revenue and spending, initiative and referendum, and rebuliding liberty

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Kansas Legislature appears ready to raise taxes instead of reforming spending. Wichita voters have used initiative and referendum, but voters can’t use it at the state level. A look at a new book “By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission.” View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 83, broadcast May 3, 2015.