Tag Archives: Wichita city government

Empowering and engaging Wichitans, or not

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita City Manager says “we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.” So what actually happens when you ask the city for data, including data that many governmental agencies make freely available? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast December 13, 2015.

Wichita water statistics update

The Wichita ASR water project produced little water in December. There were 31 days when river flow was adequate.

An important part of Wichita’s water supply infrastructure is the Aquifer Storage and Recovery program, or ASR. This is a program whereby water is taken from the Little Arkansas River, treated, and injected in the Equus Beds aquifer. That water is then available in the future as is other Equus Beds water.

With a cost so far of $247 million, the city believes that ASR is a proven technology that will provide water and drought protection for many years. In 2014 the city recommended that voters approve $250 million for its expansion, to be paid for by a sales tax. Voters rejected the tax in the November 2014 election.

December 2015 production

Flow of the Little Arkansas River at Valley Center. The ASR project is able to draw from the river when the flow is above 30 cfs at this measurement station.
Flow of the Little Arkansas River at Valley Center. The ASR project is able to draw from the river when the flow is above 30 cfs at this measurement station.
In December 2015, the ASR project recharged 19,138,651 gallons of water. The design capacity for ASR is 30,000,000 gallons per day, so production for the entire month of December is less than one day’s design capacity.

The ASR project is able to draw from the Little Arkansas River when the flow is above 30 cfs. As can be seen in the chart of the flow of the river, the flow was above this level every day. There were 31 days in December when there was adequate river flow for ASR to operate, counting only those days when the flow was above 30 cfs for the entire day.

ASR project background and production

According to city documents, the original capacity of the ASR phase II project to process water and pump it into the ground (the “recharge” process) was given as “Expected volume: 30 MGD for 120 days.” That translates to 3,600,000,000 (3.6 billion or 3,600 million) gallons per year. ASR phase II was completed in 2011.

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative since July 2013.
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative since July 2013.
At a city council workshop in April 2014, Director of Public Works and Utilities Alan King briefed the council on the history of ASR, mentioning the original belief that ASR would recharge 11,000 acre feet of water per year. But he gave a new estimate for production, telling the council that “What we’re finding is, we’re thinking we’re going to actually get 5,800 acre feet. Somewhere close to half of the original estimates.” The new estimate translates to 1,889,935,800 (1.9 billion) gallons per year.

Based on experience, the city has produced a revised estimate of ASR production capability. What has been the actual experience of ASR? The U.S. Geological Survey has ASR figures available here. I’ve gathered the data and performed an analysis. (Click charts for larger versions.)

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR phase II, monthly
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR phase II, monthly
I’ve produced a chart of the cumulative production of the Wichita ASR project compared with the original projections and the lower revised projections. The lines for projections rise smoothly, although it is expected that actual production is not smooth. The second phase of ASR was completed sometime in 2011, but no water was produced and recharged that year. Further, 2013 was a drought year, so to present ASR in the best possible light, I’ve prepared a chart starting in July 2013. That was when it started raining heavily, and data from USGS shows that the flow in the Little Arkansas River was much greater. Still, the ASR project is not keeping up with projections, even after goals were lowered.

On the chart of monthly production, the horizontal line represents the revised annual production projection expressed as a constant amount each month. This even rate of production is not likely, as river flow varies. In the three years that ASR phase II has been in production, that monthly target been exceeded in three months.

ASR days of flow and work through 2015-12
ASR operating efficiency through 2015-12Two nearby charts give an idea of the efficiency of operation of the ASR project. (Click charts for larger versions.) For each month, I counted how many days had a river flow above 30 cfs at every measurement for the day. (The flow is measured several dozen times a day.) If a day had all measurements above 30 cfs, I counted that as a day of adequate river flow. I then calculated the number of days of work actually accomplished using the water produced each month, the number of days of adequate river flow for the month, and the ASR design capacity.

As can be seen in the charts, the ASR project is operating far below its design goal. So far the city has not been able to provide an explanation as to why this project is not meeting its goals.

At one time the city was proud enough of the ASR project that it maintained an informative website at wichitawaterproject.org. That site no longer exists.
At one time the city was proud enough of the ASR project that it maintained an informative website at wichitawaterproject.org. That site no longer exists.

Property rights in Wichita: Your roof

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

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV: What the Kansas Legislature should do, and eminent domain

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: There are things simple and noncontroversial that the Kansas Legislasture should do in its upcoming session, and some things that won’t be easy but are important. Also, a look at eminent domain. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 106, broadcast January 3, 2016.

Wichita water statistics update

The Wichita ASR water project produced little water in November. There were 30 days when river flow was adequate.

An important part of Wichita’s water supply infrastructure is the Aquifer Storage and Recovery program, or ASR. This is a program whereby water is taken from the Little Arkansas River, treated, and injected in the Equus Beds aquifer. That water is then available in the future as is other Equus Beds water.

With a cost so far of $247 million, the city believes that ASR is a proven technology that will provide water and drought protection for many years. Last year the city recommended that voters approve $250 million for its expansion, to be paid for by a sales tax. Voters rejected the tax.

November 2015 production

Flow of the Little Arkansas River at Valley Center. The ASR project is able to draw from the river when the flow is above 30 cfs at this measurement station.
Flow of the Little Arkansas River at Valley Center. The ASR project is able to draw from the river when the flow is above 30 cfs at this measurement station.
In November 2015, the ASR project recharged 389,312 gallons of water. The design capacity for ASR is 30,000,000 gallons per day, so production for the entire month of November represents about one-third of a day’s capacity.

The ASR project is able to draw from the Little Arkansas River when the flow is above 30 cfs. As can be seen in the chart of the flow of the river, the flow was above this level every day. There were 30 days in November when there was adequate river flow for ASR to operate, counting only those days when the flow was above 30 cfs for the entire day.

ASR project background and production

According to city documents, the original capacity of the ASR phase II project to process water and pump it into the ground (the “recharge” process) was given as “Expected volume: 30 MGD for 120 days.” That translates to 3,600,000,000 (3.6 billion or 3,600 million) gallons per year. ASR phase II was completed in 2011.

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative since July 2013.
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative since July 2013.
At a city council workshop in April 2014, Director of Public Works and Utilities Alan King briefed the council on the history of ASR, mentioning the original belief that ASR would recharge 11,000 acre feet of water per year. But he gave a new estimate for production, telling the council that “What we’re finding is, we’re thinking we’re going to actually get 5,800 acre feet. Somewhere close to half of the original estimates.” The new estimate translates to 1,889,935,800 (1.9 billion) gallons per year.

Based on experience, the city has produced a revised estimate of ASR production capability. What has been the actual experience of ASR? The U.S. Geological Survey has ASR figures available here. I’ve gathered the data and performed an analysis. (Click charts for larger versions.)

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR phase II, monthly
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR phase II, monthly
I’ve produced a chart of the cumulative production of the Wichita ASR project compared with the original projections and the lower revised projections. The lines for projections rise smoothly, although it is expected that actual production is not smooth. The second phase of ASR was completed sometime in 2011, but no water was produced and recharged that year. Further, 2013 was a drought year, so to present ASR in the best possible light, I’ve prepared a chart starting in July 2013. That was when it started raining heavily, and data from USGS shows that the flow in the Little Arkansas River was much greater. Still, the ASR project is not keeping up with projections, even after goals were lowered.

On the chart of monthly production, the horizontal line represents the revised annual production projection expressed as a constant amount each month. This even rate of production is not likely, as river flow varies. In the three years that ASR phase II has been in production, that monthly target been exceeded in three months.

ASR days of flow and work through 2015-11
ASR operating efficiency through 2015-11Two nearby charts give an idea of the efficiency of operation of the ASR project. (Click charts for larger versions.) For each month, I counted how many days had a river flow above 30 cfs at every measurement for the day. (The flow is measured several dozen times a day.) If a day had all measurements above 30 cfs, I counted that as a day of adequate river flow. I then calculated the number of days of work actually accomplished using the water produced each month, the number of days of adequate river flow for the month, and the ASR design capacity.

As can be seen in the charts, the ASR project is operating far below its design goal. So far the city has not been able to provide an explanation as to why this project is not meeting its goals.

At one time the city was proud enough of the ASR project that it maintained an informative website at wichitawaterproject.org. That site no longer exists.
At one time the city was proud enough of the ASR project that it maintained an informative website at wichitawaterproject.org. That site no longer exists.

Employment by metropolitan area

An interactive visualization of employment in metropolitan areas.

Growth in Employment by MSA. Wichita is the bottom line.
Growth in Employment by MSA. Wichita is the bottom line. Click for larger version.
I’ve gathered employment data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis is an agency of the United States Department of Commerce, for all available metropolitan areas and present it in an interactive visualization using Tableau Public. In the visualization you may use several different presentations of the data and filter for specific areas and industries. The series are presented as the percentage change since the first values, so that relative growth, rather than magnitude, of employment is shown.

In the nearby example we can see that Wichita –- the bottom line — has performed poorly compared to some peers of interest.

Click here to access the visualization.

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

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

Wichita checkbook register

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

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

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

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

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

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

The records request

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

Denver open checkbook.
Denver open checkbook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I received an answer:

Mr. Weeks,

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

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

Sincerely,
Jay C. Hinkel,
Deputy City Attorney

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

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

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shownotes

Cash grants still in use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita to consider tax abatements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with these actions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita water and sewer rates proposed to rise

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

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

Kansas cities force tax breaks on others

When Kansas cities grant economic development incentives, they may also unilaterally take action that affects overlapping jurisdictions such as counties, school districts, and the state itself. The legislature should end this.

When Kansas cities create tax increment financing (TIF) districts, the overlapping county and school district(s) have an opportunity to veto its creation.

But for some other forms of incentives, such as tax increment financing district redevelopment plans, property tax abatements, and sales tax abatements, overlapping jurisdictions have no ability to object. There seems to be no rational basis for not giving these jurisdictions a chance to object to the erosion of their tax base.

This is especially important for school districts, as they are often the largest tax consumer. As an example, when the City of Wichita offered tax abatements to a company in June 2014, 47 percent of the abated taxes would have gone to the Wichita school district. But the school district did not participate in this decision. State law gave it no voice.

Supporters of economic development incentives say that the school district benefits from the incentives. The argument is that even though the district gives up some tax revenue now, it will get more in the future. This is the basis for the benefit-cost ratios Wichita uses to justify incentives. For itself, the City of Wichita requires a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or better, although there are many loopholes the city can use to grant incentives when this threshold is not met. For the June project, city documents reported these benefit-cost ratios for two overlapping jurisdictions:

Sedgwick County 1.18 to one
USD 259 1.00 to one

In this case, the city forced a benefit-cost ratio on the county that the city would not accept for itself, unless it uses a loophole. For the school district, the net benefit is zero.

The Kansas Legislature should look at ways to make sure that overlapping jurisdictions are not harmed when economic development incentives are granted by cities. The best way would be to require formal approval of the incentives by counties, school districts, and any other affected jurisdictions.

Two examples

In June 2014 the City of Wichita granted tax abatements for a new warehouse. City documents gave 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 is not known whether these ratios include the sales tax forgiveness.

While 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.

In November 2014 a project had these dollar amounts of property tax abatement shared among the taxing jurisdictions in these estimated amounts, according to city documents:

City $81,272
State $3,750
County $73,442
USD 259 $143,038

The listing of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is likely an oversight by the city, as the subject properties lie in the Derby school district. This is evident when the benefit-cost ratios are listed:

City of Wichita 1.98 to one
General Fund 1.78 to one
Debt Service 2.34 to one
Sedgwick County 1.54 to one
U.S.D. 260 1.00 to one (Derby school district)
State of Kansas 28.23 to one

Note that the ratio for the Derby school district is 1.00 to one, far below what the city requires for projects it considers for participation. That is, unless it uses a loophole.

For Wichita’s mayor, too many public hearings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita water optimization contract award should be reconsidered

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita to consider three tax abatements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with these actions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campaign contribution changes in Wichita

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longwell has also received stacked contributions from Key Construction.

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

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

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

Raises for Wichita mayor, council proposed

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

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

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

Also:

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

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

Wichita water statistics update

The Wichita ASR water project produced no water in October. There were two days when river flow was adequate.

An important part of Wichita’s water supply infrastructure is the Aquifer Storage and Recovery program, or ASR. This is a program whereby water is taken from the Little Arkansas River, treated, and injected in the Equus Beds aquifer. That water is then available in the future as is other Equus Beds water.

With a cost so far of $247 million, the city believes that ASR is a proven technology that will provide water and drought protection for many years. Last year the city recommended that voters approve $250 million for its expansion, to be paid for by a sales tax. Voters rejected the tax.

October 2015 production

Flow of the Little Arkansas River at Valley Center. The ASR project is able to draw from the river when the flow is above 30 cfs at this measurement station.
Flow of the Little Arkansas River at Valley Center. The ASR project is able to draw from the river when the flow is above 30 cfs at this measurement station.
In October 2015, the ASR project recharged no water. The ASR project is able to draw from the Little Arkansas River when the flow is above 30 cfs. As can be seen in the chart of the flow of the river, the flow was above this level only rarely. There were two days in October when there was adequate river flow for ASR to operate, counting only those days when the flow was above 30 cfs for the entire day.

The city has not provided an explanation as to why the project is recharging so little water.

ASR project background and production

According to city documents, the original capacity of the ASR phase II project to process water and pump it into the ground (the “recharge” process) was given as “Expected volume: 30 MGD for 120 days.” That translates to 3,600,000,000 (3.6 billion or 3,600 million) gallons per year. ASR phase II was completed in 2011.

At a city council workshop in April 2014, Director of Public Works and Utilities Alan King briefed the council on the history of ASR, mentioning the original belief that ASR would recharge 11,000 acre feet of water per year. But he gave a new estimate for production, telling the council that “What we’re finding is, we’re thinking we’re going to actually get 5,800 acre feet. Somewhere close to half of the original estimates.” The new estimate translates to 1,889,935,800 (1.9 billion) gallons per year.

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative since July 2013.
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative since July 2013.
Based on experience, the city has produced a revised estimate of ASR production capability. What has been the actual experience of ASR? The U.S. Geological Survey has ASR figures available here. I’ve gathered the data and performed an analysis. (Click charts for larger versions.)

I’ve produced a chart of the cumulative production of the Wichita ASR project compared with the original projections and the lower revised projections. The lines for projections rise smoothly, although it is expected that actual production is not smooth. The second phase of ASR was completed sometime in 2011, but no water was produced and recharged that year. So I started this chart with January 2012.

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR phase II, monthly
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR phase II, monthly
2013 was a drought year, so to present ASR in the best possible light, I’ve prepared a chart starting in July 2013. That was when it started raining heavily, and data from USGS shows that the flow in the Little Arkansas River was much greater. Still, the ASR project is not keeping up with projections, even after goals were lowered.

On the chart of monthly production, the horizontal line represents the revised annual production projection expressed as a constant amount each month. This even rate of production is not likely, as river flow varies. In the three years that ASR phase II has been in production, that monthly target been exceeded in three months.

ASR days of flow and work through 2015-10
ASR operating efficiency through 2015-10Two nearby charts give an idea of the efficiency of operation of the ASR project. (Click charts for larger versions.) For each month, I counted how many days had a river flow above 30 cfs at every measurement for the day. (The flow is measured several dozen times a day.) If a day had all measurements above 30 cfs, I counted that as a day of adequate river flow. I then calculated the number of days of work actually accomplished using the water produced each month, the number of days of adequate river flow for the month, and the ASR design capacity.

As can be seen in the charts, the ASR project is operating far below its design goal. So far the city has not been able to provide an explanation as to why this project is not meeting its goals.

At one time the city was proud enough of the ASR project that it maintained an informative website at wichitawaterproject.org. That site no longer exists.
At one time the city was proud enough of the ASR project that it maintained an informative website at wichitawaterproject.org. That site no longer exists.

Wichita officials, newspaper, just don’t get it on Ex-Im Bank

Wichita’s establishment prefers cronyism over capitalism.

It’s not surprising that companies that benefit from Export-Import Bank loans support its renewal. We can understand groups like the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce campaigning for the bank, as the Chamber is a special interest group that advocates for its members to the detriment of capitalism.

But we ought to expect more from the editorial board of the Wichita Eagle and Wichita city government officials. But the shiny object before them keeps them from seeing the harm of government programs like the Ex-Im Bank.

Ex-Im Bank by the Numbers

  • In 2013, 93% of Ex-Im loan guarantees went to just five major corporations.
  • From 2009-2013, the bank supported less than two percent of total U.S. exports
  • Based on CBO estimates, Ex-Im will cost taxpayers $2 billion over the next ten years
  • Between 2007-2014, there were 792 reported claims of fraud and 124 investigations launched into Ex-Im Bank
  • From 2010 to 2014, 66 years of prison sentences were handed down to corrupt employees of Ex-Im and its beneficiaries.
Wichita city tweet expressing approval of renewal of Export-Import Bank.
Wichita city tweet expressing approval of renewal of Export-Import Bank.

Bombardier can be a learning experience

The unfortunate news of the cancellation of a new aircraft program can be a learning opportunity for Wichita.

As Wichita seeks to grow its economy, the loss of a new aircraft program at one of the city’s major employers is unwelcome news. Now it is important that our leaders and officials seek to learn lessons from this loss. But first, we must acknowledge the loss. Wichita economic development officials are quick to trumpet successes, but so far there is no mention of this loss from the city or its economic development agencies.

The project received state, local and federal incentives. Lots of incentives. These incentives took the form of cash grants, forgiveness of taxes that would otherwise be due, and the ability to reroute its employee withholding taxes for the company’s exclusive benefit. So one lesson is that when local officials complain of the lack of money available for incentives, they are not being truthful.

A second lesson is the limited ability of incentives to overcome obstacles. In this case, the company said the incentives were necessary to make the project economically feasible. Incentives were awarded, but the project failed.

There are some important public policy issues that should be discussed:

Did the incentives induce Bombardier to take risks that it would not have taken had it been investing its own funds, or funds it had to raise from stockholders and debtholders?

Will the politicians that took credit for landing the Model 85 and its jobs now recognize the futility of their efforts?

Will the government agencies that took credit for creating jobs adjust their records?

Incentives like these are often justified using a benefit-cost ratio. This incident reminds us that these calculations are valid only if the investment works as planned. Will local governments recalculate the benefit-cost ratios based on the new information we now have?

Perhaps most important: Who has to pay the costs of these incentives? Part of the cost of this company’s investment, along with the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. This action — the award of incentives to an established company — is harmful to the Wichita economy for its strangling effect on entrepreneurship and young companies. As this company and others receive incentives and escape paying taxes, others have to pay.

There’s plenty of evidence that entrepreneurship, in particular young business firms, are the key to economic growth. But Wichita’s economic development policies, as evidenced by this action, are definitely stacked against the entrepreneur. As Wichita props up its established industries, it makes it more difficult for young firms to thrive. Wichita relies on targeted investment in our future. Our elected officials and bureaucrats believe they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. But as we see in the unfortunate news from Bombardier, this is not the case. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

Wichita’s growth in gross domestic product

An interactive visualization of gross domestic product for metropolitan areas.

Gross domestic product is the sum of the value of all goods and services produced for a period of time. The Bureau of Economic Analysis makes this statistic available for metropolitan areas. GDP is not the only way to measure the economic health of a region, but it is one way. I’ve gathered the data and made it available in an interactive visualization.

Growth of GDP for Wichita and selected cities. Click for larger version.
Growth of GDP for Wichita and selected cities. Click for larger version.
When using the visualization you may select total GDP, or GDP for private industry or government alone. You may select any number of metropolitan areas to appear on the chart. By clicking metro names in the legend, you can highlight or emphasize the series for one metro area. Use Ctrl+click to select more than one at a time.

Of note, recently James Chung delivered a lecture in Wichita. As part of the presentation, he mentioned three areas that he thought were doing things well: Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, and Omaha. A nearby illustration shows the visualization of the growth of GDP for these metro areas and Wichita. You can see that GDP for these areas have grown faster than has GDP for Wichita. (This visualization shows GDP change since the start of the chart, so that the growth of metro areas of different sizes can be compared.)

Growth of GDP for Wichita and selected cities. Click for larger version.
Growth of GDP for Wichita and selected cities. Click for larger version.
Another illustration compares Wichita to several cities that were part of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce’s city-to-city visits. While in some years the visit has been to cities like Austin that have grown rapidly, that is not always the case.

Click here to open the visualization in a new window.

Data is from Bureau of Economic Analysis, an agency of the United States Department of Commerce. Visualization created using Tableau.

Using the visualization.
Using the visualization.

Wichita employee pension costs

Pension costs for the largest of Wichita’s two funds have been rising rapidly.

The City of Wichita has two major pension funds, one for police and fire employees, and another for “regular” employees. These are defined benefit pensions, meaning that retirees are guaranteed a specific dollar benefit based on items like length of service and salary. While employees contribute part of their salary to the funds, it is up to the city to make contributions in sufficient amount to ensure that promised benefits can be paid.

These costs have been rising even though the city has not increased promised benefits to retirees.

There are two charts for each fund. One shows employer contributions and covered employee payroll in dollars, using two different scales. Then, a chart shows the contributions as a percent of covered employee payroll.

The employees’ fund is larger than the police and fire fund, with covered payrolls of $71 million and $65 million respectively.

Wichita Employee Retirement System Contributions 2015-10

Wichita Employee Retirement System Contributions Percent 2015-10

Wichita Police and Fire Retirement System Contributions 2015-10

Wichita Police and Fire Retirement System Contributions Percent 2015-10

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s regulations and economic development

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

Entrepreneurship in Wichita

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

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

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

Wichita city council should have skipped this proclamation

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

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

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

City of Wichita tweet Irlen 2015-10-13

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

Wichita water statistics update

The Wichita ASR water project produced no water in September, despite many days when river flow was adequate.

An important part of Wichita’s water supply infrastructure is the Aquifer Storage and Recovery program, or ASR. This is a program whereby water is taken from the Little Arkansas River, treated, and injected in the Equus Beds aquifer. That water is then available in the future as is other Equus Beds water.

With a cost so far of $247 million, the city believes that ASR is a proven technology that will provide water and drought protection for many years. Last year the city recommended that voters approve $250 million for its expansion, to be paid for by a sales tax. Voters rejected the tax.

September 2015 production

Flow of the Little Arkansas River at Valley Center. The ASR project is able to draw from the river when the flow is above 30 cfs at this measurement station.
Flow of the Little Arkansas River at Valley Center. The ASR project is able to draw from the river when the flow is above 30 cfs at this measurement station.
In September 2015, the ASR project recharged no water. The ASR project is able to draw from the Little Arkansas River when the flow is above 30 cfs. As can be seen in the chart of the flow of the river, the flow was above this level for many days. There were 18 days in September when there was adequate river flow for ASR to operate, counting only those days when the flow was above 30 cfs for the entire day.

The city has not provided an explanation as to why the project is recharging so little water.

ASR project background and production

According to city documents, the original capacity of the ASR phase II project to process water and pump it into the ground (the “recharge” process) was given as “Expected volume: 30 MGD for 120 days.” That translates to 3,600,000,000 (3.6 billion or 3,600 million) gallons per year. ASR phase II was completed in 2011.

At a city council workshop in April 2014, Director of Public Works and Utilities Alan King briefed the council on the history of ASR, mentioning the original belief that ASR would recharge 11,000 acre feet of water per year. But he gave a new estimate for production, telling the council that “What we’re finding is, we’re thinking we’re going to actually get 5,800 acre feet. Somewhere close to half of the original estimates.” The new estimate translates to 1,889,935,800 (1.9 billion) gallons per year.

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative since July 2013.
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative since July 2013.
Based on experience, the city has produced a revised estimate of ASR production capability. What has been the actual experience of ASR? The U.S. Geological Survey has ASR figures available here. I’ve gathered the data and performed an analysis. (Click charts for larger versions.)

I’ve produced a chart of the cumulative production of the Wichita ASR project compared with the original projections and the lower revised projections. The lines for projections rise smoothly, although it is expected that actual production is not smooth. The second phase of ASR was completed sometime in 2011, but no water was produced and recharged that year. So I started this chart with January 2012.

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR phase II, monthly.
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR phase II, monthly.
2013 was a drought year, so to present ASR in the best possible light, I’ve prepared a chart starting in July 2013. That was when it started raining heavily, and data from USGS shows that the flow in the Little Arkansas River was much greater. Still, the ASR project is not keeping up with projections, even after goals were lowered.

On the chart of monthly production, the horizontal line represents the revised annual production projection expressed as a constant amount each month. This even rate of production is not likely, as river flow varies. In the three years that ASR phase II has been in production, that monthly target been exceeded in three months.

ASR days of flow and work through 2015-09ASR operating efficiency through 2015-09Two nearby charts give an idea of the efficiency of operation of the ASR project. (Click charts for larger versions.) For each month, I counted how many days had a river flow above 30 cfs at every measurement for the day. (The flow is measured several dozen times a day.) If a day had all measurements above 30 cfs, I counted that as a day of adequate river flow. I then calculated the number of days of work actually accomplished using the water produced each month, the number of days of adequate river flow for the month, and the ASR design capacity.

As can be seen in the charts, the ASR project is operating far below its design goal. So far the city has not been able to provide an explanation as to why this project is not meeting its goals.

At one time the city was proud enough of the ASR project that it maintained an informative website at wichitawaterproject.org. That site no longer exists.
At one time the city was proud enough of the ASR project that it maintained an informative website at wichitawaterproject.org. That site no longer exists.

Despite growth of sharing economy, Wichita relies on centralization

The sharing economy provides for the decentralization and privatization of regulation, but the City of Wichita clings to the old ways.

Letter in Wichita Eagle, excerpt
Letter in Wichita Eagle, excerpt
In May the Wichita Eagle printed a letter from a Wichitan describing his recent cab ride from the airport: “I got in the cab to go home, and that turned out to be the most offensive encounter of my trip. The driver was dressed perfectly for slopping hogs. The cab plainly stank. There were spills, trash, crumbs, scuzzy windows, sticky door panels. Ugh.”

Not having been in a taxicab in Wichita for some years, I was surprised to learn of this person’s experience. There is a law, after all. Section 3.84.140 of the Wichita municipal code provides that “Any vehicle used as a taxicab shall be kept clean, of good appearance … ” Section 3.84.320 mandates that no taxicab driver shall “Fail to maintain their personal appearance by being neat and clean in dress and person.” Also, no driver shall “Fail to keep clothing in good repair, free of rips, tears and stains” or “Operate any taxicab which is not in a clean and/or sanitary condition.”

These laws were implemented in 2012 as a result of former mayor Carl Brewer’s frustration with the complaints he received regarding Wichita taxicabs. The instinct of politicians and bureaucrats is that if there’s a problem, a new or tougher law can provide the solution. The regulations mentioned above are part of the city’s solution, as are mandatory customer service training classes.

But as we learn from May of this year, these regulations aren’t working, according to at least one person whose judgment the Wichita Eagle trusted enough to print.

At the time, the city’s actions in creating tougher regulations had a whiff of plausibility. But right about the time that Wichita implemented new regulations the market for personal rides started to change. That change was the increasing popularity, availability, and refinement of Uber and other similar services. Uber started operations in Wichita in 2014.

What is different about Uber from regular taxicabs? For one, drivers are rated each time they serve a passenger. (Passengers are rated too, by the drivers.)

Which form of regulation do you suppose is most effective? Regulation by government, or regulation by consumers? The letter in the Eagle tells of the failure of government regulation. But no one except that passenger likely knows how bad was the experience of riding in that cab. (Well, that passenger and the driver’s others passengers, probably. A cab doesn’t get that grungy in just a day.)

But a bad Uber trip contributes to a driver’s public reputation. (Bad passengers also develop a reputation that drivers can see.) It’s a powerful system of regulation of each and every time service is provided.

Further evidence of the failure of laws and regulations — or the city’s application and enforcement of them — is that the letter writer begged the city to pass laws that are already on the books: “Wichita, please enact standards for dress, cleanliness and vehicle condition to protect our reputation. Don’t let the impression of the nation’s best airport be sullied by taxicabs.”

Decentralize and privatize

Jeffrey Tucker
Jeffrey Tucker
Last week the author Jeffrey Tucker appeared on WichitaLiberty.TV. As we talked about Uber and other services in the sharing economy, I mentioned that this is the decentralization of regulation. Tucker repeated the idea, calling it the privatization of regulation. Both terms apply.

But Wichita’s 2012 taxicab regulations are still the law. As the Wichita Eagle reports, drivers are being trained by bureaucrats. Cabs are still dirty and drivers slovenly. It seems to me that the Wichita regulations are contrary to how Uber operates, leaving the company operating in the shadows, vulnerable to a clampdown at any time. That is something the city needs to change.

Wichita cheers its planned economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no such claim was made for this matter.

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

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

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

No one made that argument.

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

The problem with this action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita perpetuates wasteful system of grants; feels good about it

While praising the U.S. Economic Development Administration for a grant to Wichita State university, Wichita city planners boost the growth of wasteful government spending.

Tweet from Wichita city officials
Tweet from Wichita city officials
News that Wichita State University received a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration was praised by City of Wichita bureaucrats. Such praise only serves to perpetuate a federal agency that does more harm than good, entrenching the “You take yours, I’ll take mine” logic that leads to ever-rising spending.

The tweet from Wichita city planners is designed to make us feel happy for Wichita State University. Having accepted these funds, now we have to tolerate grants like these made by the EDA:

    Harry Reid Research Park
  • In 2008, the EDA provided $2,000,000 to begin construction of the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park in Las Vegas, NV. For many years the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park featured a paved road and a website claiming the first anticipated tenant would move in in 2010. But there are signs of life now in 2015, according to the article Signs of life emerge at UNLV’s long-dormant technology park.)
  • In 2010, $25,000,000 was spent by the EDA for a Global Climate Mitigation Incentive Fund and $2,000,000 for a “culinary amphitheater,” wine tasting room and gift shop in Washington State.
  • In 2011, the EDA gave a New Mexico town $1,500,000 to renovate a theater.
  • In 2013, the EDA also gave Massachusetts $1.4 million to promote new video games.
  • Back in the 1980s, the EDA used taxpayer dollars to build replicas of the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian Pyramids in the middle of Indiana. They were never completed — it is now a dumping ground for tires.

So in exchange for WSU receiving a few million dollars, we have to put up with the above. We have to wonder if Harry Reid being the number one Senate Democrat had anything to do with a grant for a facility named in his honor. We have yet another government agency staffed with a fleet of bureaucrats, including a chief who will travel to Wichita to promote and defend his agency. We have another government agency that believes it can better decide how to invest capital than the owners of the capital. We have another example of shipping tax dollars to Washington, seeing a large fraction skimmed off the top, then cities and states begging for scraps from the leftovers.

Rep. Pompeo on the EDA

U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo has sponsored legislation and offered amendments to end the EDA. In January 2012 he wrote an op-ed which explains the harm of the EDA. Here is an excerpt:

Last week, Secretary Fernandez invited himself to Wichita at taxpayer expense and met with the Wichita Eagle’s editorial board. Afterwards, the paper accurately noted I am advocating eliminating the EDA even though that agency occasionally awards grant money to projects in South Central Kansas. They just don’t get it. Thanks to decades of this flawed “You take yours, I’ll take mine” Washington logic, our nation now faces a crippling $16 trillion national debt.

I first learned about the EDA when Secretary Fernandez testified in front of my subcommittee that the benefits of EDA projects exceed the costs and cited the absurd example of a $1.4 million award for “infrastructure” that allegedly helped a Minnesota town secure a new $1.6 billion steel mill. As a former CEO, I knew there is no way that a taxpayer subsidy equal to less than one-tenth of one percent (0.1%) of the total capital needed made a difference in launching the project. That mill was getting built whether EDA’s grant came through or not. So, I decided to dig further.

I discovered that the EDA is a federal agency we can do without. Similar to earmarks that gave us the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” or the Department of Energy loan guarantee scandal that produced Solyndra, the EDA advances local projects that narrowly benefit a particular company or community. To be sure, the EDA occasionally supports a local project here in Kansas. But it takes our tax money every year for projects in 400-plus other congressional districts, many if not most of which are boondoggles. For example: EDA gave $2 million to help construct UNLV’s Harry Reid Research and Technology Park; $2 million for a “culinary amphitheater,” tasting room, and gift shop at a Washington state winery; and $500,000 to construct (never-completed) replicas of the Great Pyramids in rural Indiana.

Several times in recent decades, the Government Accountability Office has questioned the value and efficacy of the EDA. Good-government groups like Citizens Against Government Waste have called for dismantling the agency. In addition, eliminating the EDA was listed among the recommendations of President Obama’s own bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Commission.

So why hasn’t it been shut down already? Politics. The EDA spreads taxpayer-funded project money far and wide and attacks congressmen who fail to support EDA grants. Soon after that initial hearing, Secretary Fernandez flew in his regional director — again at taxpayer expense — to show me “all the great things we are doing in your home district” and handed me a list of recent and pending local grants. Hint, hint. You can’t say I wasn’t warned to back off. Indeed, Eagle editors missed the real story here: Secretary Fernandez flew to Wichita because he is a bureaucrat trying to save his high-paying gig. The bureaucracy strikes back when conservatives take on bloated, out-of-control, public spending, so I guess I’m making progress.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not faulting cities, universities, or companies for having sought “free” federal money from the EDA. The fault lies squarely with a Washington culture that insists every program is sacred and there is no spending left to cut.

A federal agency run at the Assistant Secretary level has not been eliminated in decades. Now is the time. My bill to eliminate the EDA (HR 3090) would take one small step toward restoring fiscal sanity and constitutional government.

Last year Pompeo offered an amendment to H.R. 4660, the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2015, to eliminate the Economic Development Administration (or the “Earmark Distribution Agency”). The amendment would send EDA’s total funding — $247 million in FY 2015 — to the Deficit Reduction Account, saving up to $2.5 billion over 10 years based on current levels.

“We need to solve America’s debt crisis before it is too late, and that means reducing wasteful spending, no matter the agency or branch of government,” said Rep. Pompeo. “The EDA should be called the ‘Earmark Distribution Agency,’ as it continues to spend taxpayer dollars on local pet projects in a way similar to congressional earmarks — which have already been banned by the House.”

Following, Pompeo’s remarks on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.

Wichita ASR water project work accomplished

The $247 million Wichita ASR water project operates at just a fraction of its design capacity.

An important part of Wichita’s water supply infrastructure is the Aquifer Storage and Recovery program, or ASR. This is a program whereby water is taken from the Little Arkansas River, treated, and injected in the Equus Beds aquifer. That water is then available in the future as is other Equus Beds water.

With a cost so far of $247 million, the city believes that ASR is a proven technology that will provide water and drought protection for many years. Last year the city recommended that voters approve $250 million for its expansion, to be paid for by a sales tax. Voters rejected the tax.

According to city documents, the original capacity of the ASR phase II project to process water and pump it into the ground (the “recharge” process) was given as “Expected volume: 30 MGD for 120 days.” That translates to 3,600,000,000 (3.6 billion or 3,600 million) gallons per year. ASR phase II was completed in 2011.

ASR days of flow and work through 2015-08The ASR project is able to draw from the Little Arkansas River when the flow is above 30 cubic feet per second. It doesn’t flow at that rate every day of the year. That’s why the expected production volume is calculated based on 120 days of operation per year.

What has been the experience of the ASR project? I’ve gathered data from the U.S. Geological Survey on the flow of the Little Arkansas River at the relevant measuring station. USGS also has production figures. I’ve presented these previously in articles like Wichita water statistics update.

ASR operating efficiency through 2015-08The nearby charts give an idea of the efficiency of operation of the ASR project. (Click charts for larger versions.) For each month, I counted how many days had a river flow above 30 cfs at every measurement for the day. (The flow is measured several dozen times a day.) If a day had all measurements above 30 cfs, I counted that as a day of adequate river flow. I then calculated the number of days of work actually accomplished using the water produced each month, the number of days of adequate river flow for the month, and the ASR design capacity.

As can be seen in the charts, the ASR project is operating far below its design goal. So far the city has not been able to provide an explanation as to why this project is not meeting its goals.

Where are our documents?

Government promotes and promises transparency, but finds it difficult to actually provide.

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV, I give some examples of how little information government actually shares with us, despite its proclamations. Click here to view in high definition at YouTube. Following, the script for this video excerpt.

During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax last year, a city document promised this if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.”

These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass. We were promised a website if the tax passed. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance.

Why is this information not available? Is the city’s communications staff overwhelmed and have no time to provide this type of information? During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”

Wichita Facebook page example 2015-09-14 aSince then the city has hired additional communications staff, adding a Strategic Communications Director in March. Now, while the city’s Facebook page has some useful information, there is also time to promote Barry the Bison playing golf.

Now Wichitans have to wonder: Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax? Or is it a governing principle of our city? I think I know the answer.

Here’s another example. The Wichita transit system is a matter of interest right now. Funding for the system has been a problem for some years, and money for the bus system was part of the sales tax last year that Wichita voters rejected. So what is the city and the transit system doing to make information available? The answer is: not much. Wichita Transit Advisory BoardSome of the fundamental documents of government agencies are agendas, agenda reports, and minutes of meetings. And there is such a thing as the Wichita transit advisory board. But good luck finding agendas and minutes for this board. They do not exist. Well, I’m sure they exist somewhere. But they’re not available on the city’s website, or on the transit system’s’ own website. I’m sure that if you call or write someone will send these documents to you. But that takes time, both for citizens and government workers.

It is not difficult to do this, making documents available. There are many city agencies that make documents available, like the city council and airport advisory board. Earlier this year a local activist mentioned the lack of agendas and minutes for the transit board, bemoaning that there was no part-time web person to post the documents. Well, you don’t need a web person to do it. It is so simple that anyone can do it for free.

Here’s an example. This summer as Sedgwick County was preparing and debating its budget, I wanted to do some research on past budgets. But on the county’s website, the only budgets available were for this year and last year. There was nothing else.

11-Sedgwick County FinancialsSo I asked for budgets and other financial documents. I received them on CD. Then I created a shared folder using Google Drive and uploaded the documents. Now, these documents are available to the world. They can be found using a Google search. Oh, and here’s something a little ironic. These old budgets had been on the Sedgwick County website at one time. Someone made the decision to remove them.

Creating this depository of budget documents cost nothing except a little bit of time. Well, if you have a lot of data to share, you might have to pay Google a little, like ten dollars per month for each agency or person. But it is so simple that there is no excuse for the failure of agencies like Wichita Transit to make documents like agendas and minutes available. You don’t need specialized personnel to do this work. All you need is the will and desire to make the documents available.

Here’s another example of how simple it can be to achieve transparency. These days live and archived video of governmental meetings is commonplace. Commonplace, that is, except for the Wichita public schools. If you want to see a meeting of the Wichita school board, you must either attend the meetings, or view delayed broadcasts on cable TV. There’s a simple and low-cost way to fix this. It’s called YouTube.

When the Sedgwick County Commission was faced with an aging web infrastructure for its archived broadcasts, it did the sensible thing. It created a YouTube channel and uploaded video of its meetings. Now citizens can view commission meetings at any time on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. This was an improvement over the old system, which was difficult to use and required special browser plug-ins. I could never get the video to play on my Iphone.

Wichita public schools  YouTubeThe Wichita school district could do the same. In fact, the district already has a YouTube channel. Yes, it takes a long time to upload two or three hours of video to YouTube, but once started the process runs in the background without intervention. No one has to sit and watch the process.

Earlier this year I asked why the district does not make video of its meetings available archived online. The district responded that it “has a long-standing commitment to the USD 259 community of showing unabridged recordings of regular Board of Education meetings on Cox Cable Channel 20 and more recently AT&T U-verse Channel 99.” The meetings are broadcast seven times starting the day after each meeting. Two of the broadcasts start at 1:00 am.

Showing meetings delayed on cable TV is okay. It was innovative at one time. But why aren’t meetings shown live? What if you can’t watch the meeting before it disappears from the broadcast schedule after a week? What if you don’t want to pay cable television bills? What if you want to watch meetings on your computer, tablet, or smartphone? I don’t think the fact that meetings are on cable TV means they can’t also be on YouTube.

There are two elements of irony here, if that is the correct term. One is that earlier this year the Wichita school district considered hiring a marketing firm to “gauge its reputation and suggest new branding strategies.” Here’s an idea: Act as though you care about people being able to view the district’s board meetings.

Second: In August the Wichita school district raised property taxes. The mill levy will rise by 2.86, an increase of about five percent from its present level. The projected cost is an additional $33 per year for a home worth $100.000. That is quite a large increase. That’s bad. What’s also bad is the district’s lack of respect for taxpayers. As I’ve just told you, it’s difficult to view a meeting of the school board, which is a sign that the district prefers to operate in the shadows as much as possible. The board will raise your taxes, and at the same time keep it difficult for you to see them do it.

Just for the sake of completeness, let’s not let the state of Kansas off the hook. Currently, the proceedings of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are not available on video. The audio is broadcast on the internet, but it’s live only. No archiving. You must listen live, or figure out some way to record it on your own.

But for eight dollars per month the legislature could make its audio proceedings available to listen to at any time. For eight dollars per month at least one podcast hosting company offers an unlimited plan. Unlimited storage, and unlimited bandwidth. That is just what is needed. And since the audio of the proceedings of the House and Senate is broadcast on the internet, it must pass through a computer somewhere. That computer could also be recording the audio. Once recorded, the process of uploading the audio to the podcast host is a trivial procedure.

But neither Kansas legislative chamber records their proceedings, according to the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House. I asked. Recordings of sessions are not available because they are not made. It would be simple to record audio of the Kansas House and Senate and make it available for anyone to listen to at any time. It is almost without cost. It would have great benefit.

Oh, and I can’t forget the federal government. In January I requested a document from the United States Department of Energy. I had several conversations and emails with a records clerk. We came to agreement as to what I would receive, or at least what I am requesting to receive. But I’ve received nothing so far. I don’t know if the document will be made available to me at no charge, or will I have to pay thousands of dollars. The Department of Energy is working on my request, they say. Our congressman Mike Pompeo and his office have intervened on my half. But after nine months: nothing.

All these levels of government — city, county, school district, state, and federal — say they value open records and transparency. But let me ask you: Do you think they really mean it?

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

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

Wichita’s demolition policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita can implement transparency, even though tax did not pass

Wichitans have to wonder: Was transparency promised only as an inducement to vote for the sales tax? Or is it a governing principle of our city?

During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax last year, a city document promised this if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.”

The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.”

Useful information from the city on Facebook.
Useful information from the city on Facebook.
These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass.

We were promised a website if the tax passed. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance.

Why is this information not available? Is the communications staff overwhelmed and have no time to provide this type of information? During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”

Then, there are posts like this. Is this preventing staff from providing useful information like the city promised if the sales tax passed?
Then, there are posts like this. Is this preventing staff from providing useful information like the city promised if the sales tax passed?
Since then the city has hired additional communications staff, adding a Strategic Communications Director in March. Now, while the city’s Facebook page has some useful information, there is also time to promote Barry the Bison playing golf.

Now Wichitans have to wonder: Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax? Or is it a governing principle of our city?

Wichita water statistics update

The Wichita ASR water project produced more water in August than in July, but continues to fail to produce water at the projected rate or design capacity.

An important part of Wichita’s water supply infrastructure is the Aquifer Storage and Recovery program, or ASR. This is a program whereby water is taken from the Little Arkansas River, treated, and injected in the Equus Beds aquifer. That water is then available in the future as is other Equus Beds water.

With a cost so far of $247 million, the city believes that ASR is a proven technology that will provide water and drought protection for many years. Last year the city recommended that voters approve $250 million for its expansion, to be paid for by a sales tax. Voters rejected the tax.

According to city documents, the original capacity of the ASR phase II project to process water and pump it into the ground (the “recharge” process) was given as “Expected volume: 30 MGD for 120 days.” That translates to 3,600,000,000 (3.6 billion or 3,600 million) gallons per year. ASR phase II was completed in 2011.

At a city council workshop in April 2014, Director of Public Works and Utilities Alan King briefed the council on the history of ASR, mentioning the original belief that ASR would recharge 11,000 acre feet of water per year. But he gave a new estimate for production, telling the council that “What we’re finding is, we’re thinking we’re going to actually get 5,800 acre feet. Somewhere close to half of the original estimates.” The new estimate translates to 1,889,935,800 (1.9 billion) gallons per year.

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative.
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative.
Based on experience, the city has produced a revised estimate of ASR production capability. What has been the actual experience of ASR? The U.S. Geological Survey has ASR figures available here. I’ve gathered the data and performed an analysis. (Click charts for larger versions.)

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative since July 2013.
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR Phase II, cumulative since July 2013.
I’ve produced a chart of the cumulative production of the Wichita ASR project compared with the original projections and the lower revised projections. The lines for projections rise smoothly, although it is expected that actual production is not smooth. The second phase of ASR was completed sometime in 2011, but no water was produced and recharged that year. So I started this chart with January 2012.

2013 was a drought year, so to present ASR in the best possible light, I’ve prepared a chart starting in July 2013. That was when it started raining heavily, and data from USGS shows that the flow in the Little Arkansas River was much greater. Still, the ASR project is not keeping up with projections, even after goals were lowered.

Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR phase II.
Gallons of Water Recharged Through Recharge Basins and Wells during Wichita ASR phase II.
On the chart of monthly production, the horizontal line represents the revised annual production projection expressed as a constant amount each month. This even rate of production is not likely, as river flow varies. In the three years that ASR phase II has been in production, that monthly target been exceeded in three months.

August 2015 production

In August 2015, the ASR project recharged 158 million gallons of water. Its design capacity is 30 million gallons per day, so the work done in August represents less than six days of design capacity. The ASR project is able to draw from the Little Arkansas River when the flow is above 30 cfs. As can be seen in the chart of the flow of the river, the flow was above this level for the entire month.

Flow of the Little Arkansas River at Valley Center. The ASR project is able to draw from the river when the flow is above 30 cfs at this measurement station.
Flow of the Little Arkansas River at Valley Center. The ASR project is able to draw from the river when the flow is above 30 cfs at this measurement station.
At one time the city was proud enough of the ASR project that it maintained an informative website at wichitawaterproject.org. That site no longer exists.
At one time the city was proud enough of the ASR project that it maintained an informative website at wichitawaterproject.org. That site no longer exists.

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