Tag Archives: Wichita Downtown Development Corporation

business-records-file-folders

This week, Wichita has a chance to increase government transparency

The Wichita City Council can decide to disclose how taxpayer money is spent, or let it remain being spent in secret.

The City of Wichita has three surrogate quasi-governmental agencies that are almost totally taxpayer-funded, specifically Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Each agency contends it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests.

Go Wichita Convention and Visitors BureauThese agencies spend considerable sums of tax money. This week the city will consider funding Go Wichita with a budget of $2,356,851 for 2015. That is not all the taxpayer money this agency will spend, as earlier this year the council voted to increase the city’s hotel tax by 2.75 cents per dollar, with the proceeds going to Go Wichita. City documents indicate that tax is estimated to generate $2.3 million per year.

That is a lot of tax money, and also a high proportion of the agency’s total funding. According to the 2012 IRS form 990 for Go Wichita, the organization had total revenue of $2,609,545. Of that, $2,270,288 was tax money from the city. That’s 87 percent taxpayer-funded. When the surge of higher hotel tax money starts flowing in, that percent will undoubtedly rise, perhaps to 93 percent or more.

Despite being nearly totally funded by taxes, Go Wichita refuses to supply spending records. Many believe that the Kansas Open Records Act requires that it comply with such requests. If the same money was being spent directly by the city, the records undoubtedly would be supplied.

City of Wichita Spends 2 million Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency RequestI’ve appeared before the council several times to ask that Go Wichita and similar organizations comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. See Go Wichita gets budget approved amid controversy over public accountability, City of Wichita Spends $2 million, Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency Request, and articles at Open Records in Kansas.

The lack of transparency at Go Wichita is more problematic than this. Earlier this year Go Wichita refused to provide to me its contract with a California firm retained to help with the re-branding of Wichita. When the Wichita Eagle later asked for the contract, it too was refused. If the city had entered into such a contract, it would be a public record. Contracts like this are published each week in the agenda packet for city council meetings. But Go Wichita feels it does not have to comply with simple transparency principles.

The City of Wichita could easily place conditions on the money it gives to these groups, requiring them to show taxpayers how their tax dollars are being spent. But the City does not do this. This is not transparency.

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

So let’s talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even it is the case that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit or prevent them from fulfilling requests for the types of records I’ve asked for. Even if the Sedgwick County District Attorney says that Go Wichita is not required to release documents, the law does not prevent the release of these records.

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

Why does Go Wichita want to keep secret how it spends taxpayer money, as much as $4.6 million next year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent? Many council members have spoken of how transparency is important. One said: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” That was Mayor Brewer speaking in his 2011 State of the City address.

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more. It costs the city and its agencies nothing, because the open records law lets government charge for filling records requests. I would ask, however, that in the spirit of open transparent government, in respect for citizens’ right to know how tax funds are spent, and as a way to atone for past misdeeds, that Go Wichita fulfill records requests at no charge.

Wichita Chamber of Commerce 2013-07-09 004

Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce: What is the attitude towards taxes?

Does the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce support free markets, capitalism, and economic freedom, or something else?

Your chamber of commerce radio buttonsVery often, local chambers of commerce support crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.

We saw this in Wichita this year, where the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce campaigned for a sales tax increase. The Chamber recommended that Wichitans vote in favor of a sales tax of one cent per dollar, with some of the proceeds to be dedicated for a jobs fund. (Other uses were to be for a new water supply, expanded bus transit, and accelerated neighborhood street repair.) Chamber leaders told the Wichita city council that if the jobs fund was not included in the package presented to voters, the Chamber would not support the sales tax.

Not long ago the Wichita Chamber was opposed to higher sales taxes. In March 2010, as chair of the Wichita Chamber, Sam Williams submitted a letter to the Wichita Eagle in which he wrote “Tax increases and government spending will not create employment or revive the state’s economic engine. Increasing the costs of goods and services will only lead to fewer purchases, more business closures, higher unemployment and less taxes being paid.”

In April of same year, he wrote again to the Eagle, advising Wichitans this: “Simply put, raising taxes hurts business, costs jobs and ultimately leads to fewer taxpayers and fewer taxes being paid to fund state and local government.”

Having espoused these anti-tax sentiments just four years ago, it’s curious that the Wichita Chamber would support and campaign for a sales tax for Wichita this year. This spills over to mayoral politics. As far as I saw, Sam Williams, — the Chamber’s chair in 2010 — did not take a public position on the sales tax this year. Except for this: Williams is chair of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and that organization endorsed the sales tax.

Regarding mayoral politics: Did you know that Sam Williams is running for mayor? And that it appears he has the support of the Wichita Chamber?

I have a request. If you see Sam Williams, would you ask him about his position on raising sales taxes?

Your chamber of commerce

Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce — since their membership is mostly business firms — support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s usually not the case. Here, in an excerpt from his article “Tax Chambers” economist Stephen Moore explains:

The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda — but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government.

In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes in his recent book, “Rip-Off,” “state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes.”

In the states, chambers have come to believe their primary function is to secure tax financing for sports stadiums, convention centers, high-tech research institutes and transit boondoggles. Some local chambers have reportedly asked local utilities, school administrators and even politicians to join; others have opened membership to arts councils, museums, civic associations and other “tax eater” entities.

“I used to think that public employee unions like the NEA were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions,” says Mr. Caldera of the Independence Institute. “I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself ‘the business community’ and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations.”

From Stephen Moore in the article “Tax Chambers” published in The Wall Street Journal February 10, 2007. The full article can be found here.

Wichita City Hall 2014-08-05 11

Wichita economic development items

The Wichita city council has been busy with economic development items, and more are upcoming.

At the November 25 meeting of the Wichita City Council, on the consent agenda, the council passed these items.

Approved a sublease in a warehouse. This action was necessary as the incentivized warehouse pays no property taxes due to a subsidy program. Given tax costs and industrial building rents, this policy gives these incentivized buildings a cost advantage of about 20 to 25 percent over competitors. That’s very high, and makes it difficult for existing buildings to compete. This lease is for 40,500 square feet for annual rent of $196,425.00, which is $4.85 per square foot. Competing warehouse space might be able to charge rent of $4.25 plus property tax of about $1.00, for a total rent of $5.25 per square foot to the tenant. In the case of the subsidized building, the landlord collects $4.85 instead of $4.25, and the tenant pays $4.85 instead of $5.25. Everyone’s happy. Everyone, that is, except for existing industrial landlords in Wichita — especially those with available space to rent — who must be wondering why they attempt to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage. Then, other commercial tenants must be wondering why they don’t get discounted rent. Taxpayers must be wondering why they have to make up the difference in taxes that the subsidized tenants aren’t paying. (On second thought, these parties may not be wondering about this, as we don’t have a general circulation newspaper or a business newspaper that cares to explain these things.) See Wichita speculative industrial buildings.

While asking for tax breaks, the owner of this building wanted you to pay higher taxes.
While asking for tax breaks, the owner of this building wanted you to pay higher taxes.
Set January 6 as the date for a public hearing on a TIF district project plan. This is the plan for Union Station in downtown Wichita. The public hearing for the formation of its tax increment financing district has already been held, and it passed. The project plan will consider and authorize the actual project and spending of taxpayer funds to reimburse the developer for various items. Unlike the formation of the TIF district, the county and school district have no ability to object to the project plan.

Set December 16 as the date for the public hearing on the formation of a community improvement district. This district is for the benefit of the River Vista project, the proposed apartments on the west bank of the Arkansas River between Douglas and First streets. CIDs redirect sales tax revenue from general government to the developers of the project. Say, does anyone remember Charter Ordinance No. 144, which says this land “shall be hereafter restricted to and maintained as open space”? See In Wichita, West Bank apartments seem to violate ordinance.

Also on that day, during its workshop, the council heard items for the city’s legislative agenda. I have a several articles covering these topics as they relate to the legislative agenda: Airfares, passenger rail, cultural arts districts, and economic development.

On its December 2 agenda, the council has these items:

Property tax and sales tax exemptions for Bombardier Learjet. The council may grant property tax discounts worth as much as $268,548 per year for up to ten years, according to city documents. This will be split among taxing jurisdictions as follows: City $72,389, State $3,340, County $65,415, and USD 259 $127,404. The purchased items may also receive an exemption from sales tax, but city documents give no amount. Bombardier boasts of “Investing in the communities where we do business to ensure we have strong contexts for our operations” and “We support our home community through donations, sponsorships and our employee volunteering program.” Evidently this commitment to investment and support does not extend to shouldering the same tax burden that everyone else does.

Property tax exemptions for Cessna Aircraft Company. The council may grant property tax discounts worth as much as $302,311 per year for up to ten years, according to city documents. This will be split among taxing jurisdictions as follows: City $81,491, County $73,639, State $3,760, and USD 259 $143,421. Generally, items purchased with proceeds of the IRB program also receive sales tax exemption, but city documents do not mention this. Cessna speaks of its commitment to the communities where it operates, but evidently this commitment does not extend to shouldering the same tax burden that everyone else does.

High Touch Technologies in downtown Wichita, with sign calling for higher sales tax.
High Touch Technologies in downtown Wichita, with sign calling for higher sales tax.
Property tax exemptions for High Touch. This is an extension of tax breaks first granted last year. See In Wichita, the case for business welfare. Did you know the CEO of this company is also chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce? And that while campaigning for higher sales taxes in Wichita, including higher taxes on groceries for low-income households, he sought and received a sales tax exemption for his company?

Forgivable loan to Apex Engineering International. The Wichita Eagle reported that this company “has been growing briskly and adding employees.” Still, the company seeks incentives, in this case a forgivable loan from the city of $90,000. It will ask Sedgwick County for the same amount. These loans are grants of cash that do not need to be repaid as long as goals are met. Three years ago Apex received $1,272,000 in tax credits and grants under programs offered by the State of Kansas. It is not known at this time if Apex is receiving additional subsidy from the state. According to a company news release, “AEI was nominated for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce 2012 Small Business Awards. This prestigious award recognizes two companies each year who are selected based on specific criteria including: entrepreneurship, employee relations, diversity, community contribution and involvement, and leadership and performance.” Maybe we can justify this grant as repayment for Apex’s community contribution. This forgivable loan may receive resistance from some council members. Current council member and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) was recently quoted in the Wichita Eagle as wanting a “moratorium on forgivable loans right now until we can reassess the way that we do economic development.” While campaigning for his current office, Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) told an audience “I am not for forgivable loans.” He noted the contradiction inherent in the terms “forgivable” and “loan,” calling them “conflicting terms.” Meitzner has said he will run for his current office again.

Set January 6 as the date for the public hearing regarding the project plan for the Mosely Avenue Project TIF district in Old Town. This TIF district is a project of David Burk and Steve Barrett. Burk has received millions of taxpayer dollars in subsidy. But he’s not finished.

Consider whether to raise water bills by about 5 percent.

Consider a new lease agreement with Museum of World Treasures, Inc. which will, among other things, reduce the museum’s rent paid to the city from $60,000 per year to $1.

Consider passing the legislative agenda. See above for more on this topic.

Not all Wichita candidates support your right to know

As candidates spring up for Wichita mayor and city council, voters need to know that many, such as current district 2 council member Pete Meitzner and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell, have been openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer money is spent. Following is a news story by Craig Andres of KSN News. View video below, or click here. For more on this issue, see Open government in Kansas.

Transparency groups want to know where Wichita tax money is going to promote Wichita

WICHITA, Kansas — Public or private? GoWichita, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition get more than three million dollars a year. Some of that is taxpayer money.

“Why are their records not public?” asks Randy Brown with the Sunshine Coalition. “It’s ridiculous because we ought to know. These are largely tax supported entities. It’s our money that’s being used. There’s no reason in the world these things shouldn’t be open.”

The Sunshine Coalition is not alone. Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty is asking the same questions.

“I have asked several times for complete open records on these three entities,” says Weeks.” But the mayor and city council have not been interested.”

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner talked with KSN. We asked if the ledgers not being 100% public could be a problem.

“Okay, it could smell like that. But it’s not because we get boards. They have review boards,” says Meitzner. “They have review boards that are members of this community that would not allow it.”

Meitzner says the public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.

“The people that would be looking at that on a daily basis would be our peer city competitors,” explains Meitzner. “Oklahoma, Tulsa, Kansas City and Omaha, they would want to know everything that we are doing to get people downtown.”

Still, watchdog groups say they want to know more.

“The Mayor and the City Manager say all the time that we must be transparent, that we value giving records and information to the citizen,” says Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty. “But when it comes down to it they really don’t act in the same way that they say.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In election coverage, The Wichita Eagle has fallen short

Citizens want to trust their hometown newspaper as a reliable source of information. The Wichita Eagle has not only fallen short of this goal, it seems to have abandoned it.

The Wichita Eagle last week published a fact-check article titled “Fact check: ‘No’ campaign ad on sales tax misleading.” As of today, the day before the election, I’ve not seen any similar article examining ads from the “Yes Wichita” group that campaigns for the sales tax. Also, there has been little or no material that examined the city’s claims and informational material in a critical manner.

Wichita Eagle Building, detail
Wichita Eagle Building, detail
Someone told me that I should be disappointed that such articles have not appeared. I suppose I am, a little. But that is balanced by the increasing awareness of Wichitans that the Wichita Eagle is simply not doing its job.

It’s one thing for the opinion page to be stocked solely with liberal columnists and cartoonists, considering the content that is locally produced. But newspapers like the Eagle tell us that the newsroom is separate from the opinion page. The opinion page has endorsed passage of the sales tax. As far as the newsroom goes, by printing an article fact-checking one side of an issue and failing to produce similar pieces for the other side — well, readers are free to draw their own conclusions about the reliability of the Wichita Eagle newsroom.

As a privately-owned publication, the Wichita Eagle is free to do whatever it wants. But when readers see obvious neglect of a newspaper’s duty to inform readers, readers are correct to be concerned about the credibility of our state’s largest newspaper.

Citizens want to trust their hometown newspaper as a reliable source of information. The Wichita Eagle has not only fallen short of this goal, it seems to have abandoned it.

Here are some topics and questions the Eagle could have examined in fact-checking articles on the “Yes Wichita” campaign and the City of Wichita’s informational and educational campaign.

The Wichita Eagle could start with itself and explain why it chose a photograph of an arterial street to illustrate a story on a sales tax that is dedicated solely for neighborhood streets. The caption under the photo read “Road construction, such as on East 13th Street between Oliver and I-135, would be part of the projects paid for by a city sales tax.”

Issues regarding “Yes Wichita”

The “Yes Wichita” campaign uses an image of bursting wooden water pipes to persuade voters. Does Wichita have any wooden water pipes? And isn’t the purpose of the sales tax to build one parallel pipeline, not replace old water pipes? See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Water pipe(s).

The “Yes Wichita” campaign group claims that the sales tax will replace old rusty pipes that are dangerous. Is that true?

The City and “Yes Wichita” give voters two choices regarding a future water supply: Either vote for the sales tax, or the city will use debt to pay for ASR expansion and it will cost an additional $221 million. But the decision to use debt has not been made, has it? Wouldn’t the city council have to vote to issue those bonds? Is there any guarantee that the council will do that?

The “Yes Wichita” group says that one-third of the sales tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But the city’s documents cite the Kansas Department of Revenue which gives the number as 13.5 percent. Which is correct? This is a difference of 2.5 times in the estimate of Wichita sales tax paid by visitors. This is a material difference in something used to persuade voters.

The city’s informational material states “The City has not increased the mill levy rate for 21 years.” In 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen. See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Tax rates.

“Yes Wichita” says there is a plan for the economic development portion of the sales tax. If the plan for economic development is definite, why did the city decide to participate in the development of another economic development plan just last month? What if that plan recommends something different than what the city has been telling voters? And if the plan is unlikely to recommend anything different, why do we need it?

Citizens have asked to know more about the types of spending records the city will provide. Will the city commit to providing checkbook register-level spending data? Or will the city set up separate agencies to hide the spending of taxpayer funds like it has with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Corporation?

Issues regarding the City of Wichita

Mayor Carl Brewer said the city spent $47,000 of taxpayer funds to send a letter and brochure to voters because he was concerned about misinformation. In light of some of the claims made by the “Yes Wichita” group, does the city have plans to inform voters of that misinformation?

Hasn’t the city really been campaigning in favor of the sales tax? Has the city manager been speaking to groups to give them reasons to vote against the tax? Does the city’s website provide any information that would give voters any reason to consider voting other than yes?

The “Yes Wichita” group refers voters to the city’s website and information to learn about the sales tax issue. Since the “Yes Wichita” group campaigns for the sales tax, it doesn’t seem likely it would refer voters to information that would be negative, or even neutral, towards the tax. Is this evidence that the city is, in fact, campaigning for the sales tax?

The “Yes Wichita” group says that one-third of the sales tax will be paid by visitors to Wichita. But the city’s documents cite the Kansas Department of Revenue which gives the number as 13.5%. Which is correct? This is a difference of 2.5 times in the estimate of Wichita sales tax paid by visitors. This is a material difference in something used to persuade voters. If “Yes Wichita” is wrong, will the city send a mailer to correct the misinformation?

The city’s informational material states “The City has not increased the mill levy rate for 21 years.” But the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports show that in 1994 the Wichita mill levy rate was 31.290, and in 2013 it was 32.509. That’s an increase of 1.219 mills, or 3.9 percent. The Wichita City Council did not take explicit action, such as passing an ordinance, to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to taxation by the city. While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. Whatever the cause, the mill levy has risen. Is this misinformation that needs to be corrected?

The city says that the ASR project is a proven solution that will provide for Wichita’s water needs for a long time. Has the city told voters that the present ASR system had its expected production rate cut in half? Has the city presented to voters that the present ASR system is still in its commissioning phase, and that new things are still being learned about how the system operates?

The City and “Yes Wichita” give voters two choices regarding a future water supply: Either vote for the sales tax, or the city will use debt to pay for ASR expansion and it will cost an additional $221 million. But the decision to use debt has not been made, has it? Wouldn’t the city council have to vote to issue those bonds? Is the any guarantee that the council will do that?

If the plan for economic development is definite, why did the city decide to participate in the development of another economic development plan just last month? What if that plan recommends something different than what the city has been telling voters? And if the plan is unlikely to recommend anything different, why do we need it?

Citizens have asked to know more about the types of spending records the city will provide. Will the city commit to providing checkbook register-level spending data? Or will the city set up separate agencies to hide the spending of taxpayer funds like it has with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Corporation?

The “Yes Wichita” campaign uses an image of bursting wooden water pipes to persuade voters. Does Wichita have any wooden water pipes? And isn’t the purpose of the sales tax to build one parallel pipeline, not replace old water pipes? If this advertisement by “Yes Wichita” is misleading, will the city send an educational mailing to correct this?

The Yes Wichita campaign group claims that the sales tax will replace old rusty pipes that are dangerous. Is that true? If not, will the city do anything to correct this misinformation?

Campaign activity at the office of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

Wichita Downtown Development Corporation campaigns for higher taxes, paid for by taxes

Campaign activity by the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation appears to be contrary to several opinions issued by Kansas Attorneys General regarding the use of public funds in elections.

While the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation presents itself as a non-profit organization that is independent of the City of Wichita, it receives 95 percent of its revenue from taxes, according to its most recent IRS Form 990. While Kansas has no statutes or court cases prohibiting the use of public funds for electioneering, there are at least two Kansas Attorney General opinions on this topic.

One, opinion 93-125, states in its synopsis: “The public purpose doctrine does not encompass the use of public funds to promote or advocate a governing body’s position on a matter which is before the electorate. However, public funds may be expended to educate and inform regarding issues to be voted upon by the electorate.”

Campaign activity at the office of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.
Campaign activity at the office of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.
The “governing body” in this instance is the Wichita City Council.

While some governing bodies spend taxpayer funds to present information about ballot measures, this is not the case with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. It explicitly campaigns in favor of the issue. It displays pro-sales tax campaign signs at its office. It publicly endorsed passage of the sales tax.

A more recent Kansas Attorney General opinion, 2001-13, holds this language: “While the Kansas appellate courts have not directly addressed the issue of whether public funds can be used to promote a position during an election, there are a number of cases from other jurisdictions that conclude that a public entity cannot do so.”

The opinion cites a court case: “Underlying this uniform judicial reluctance to sanction the use of public funds for election campaigns rests an implicit recognition that such expenditures raise potentially serious constitutional questions. A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several competing factions.”

The opinion reaffirms 93-125, stating: “In Attorney General Opinion No. 93-125, Attorney General Robert T. Stephan concluded that public funds may not be used to promote or advocate a city governing body’s position on a matter that is before the electorate.”

Given these Kansas Attorney General opinions, and considering good public policy, Wichita voters need to ask: Should an organization that is funded 95 percent by taxes be campaigning for a ballot issue?

Downtown Wichita campaigns for higher taxes on groceries and no taxes on downtown

This is the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. It routinely advocates for special deals whereby downtown developers don’t have to pay property taxes or sales taxes. Or if they do pay property taxes, they might be routed back to them for their exclusive benefit. But as you can see, WDDC campaigns for low-income households to pay more sales tax on groceries.

Say, did you know that WDDC is funded almost entirely with tax money? And that it wants to spend that money in secret?

Wichita Downtown Development Corporation 10-26-2014

WichitaLiberty.TV July 2, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: The proposed one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: We’ll talk about the proposed Wichita sales tax, including who pays it, and who gets special exemptions from paying it. Then, can we believe the promises the city makes about accountability and transparency? Finally, has the chosen solution for a future water supply proven itself as viable, and why are we asking low-income households to pay more sales tax on groceries for drought protection? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 63, broadcast October 26, 2014.

Wichita City Hall

For Wichita, another economic development plan

The Wichita City Council will consider a proposal from a consultant to “facilitate a community conversation for the creation of a new economic development diversification plan for the greater Wichita region.” Haven’t we been down this road before?

This week the Wichita City Council will consider funding “the formulation of a new economic development strategy.” Here’s a summary provided by the city:

Wichita State University approached STARNet about developing a proposal to assist WSU, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and the community with the formulation of a new economic development strategy. Over a period of almost ten months STARNet will manage a four phase process that will lead to an integrated economic development strategy that will prioritize how and where to deploy resources. The process will include a comprehensive review of the region’s assets and issues, development of a common vision, identification of priorties [sic] and egagement [sic] of stakeholders committed to strategy implementation.

Starnet proposal to Wichita City CouncilIt sounds from this as though the city has not been engaging in economic development and strategizing. This reminds me of the $658 million in tax abatements Boeing received over several decades. Wasn’t that economic development? The answer from pro-sales tax forces was no, that wasn’t paid in cash. Also, even though Boeing has left Wichita, the facilities still generate $6 million in property taxes. So, it really worked after all, they say.

(The tax abatements Boeing received were more valuable to the company than equivalent grants of cash. See What Boeing received from Wichita was better than cash.)

Here’s something else from the proposal summary: “Project Objective: Support formulation of a Wichita Economic Development Strategy that integrates existing initiatives (e.g. GWEDC and WSU); is supported by the majority of regional stakeholders and can be used to guide policy discussions for use of new City/County revenues for job formation.” (emphasis added)

I thought we already had a plan for the sales tax revenue, according to the city and the “Yes Wichita” group. Now we are told we need to start an expensive and lengthy planning process?

What about the cost and funding? “The total estimated cost of the project is $234,929. Funding partners include WSU, Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County. The City of Wichita is being asked to contribute an amount not to exceed $42,986. The funding partners will have an agreement with WSU who, in turn, will hold the contract with STARNet.”

Here is the first thing that will be done, according to the proposal: “Secure Co-chairs to Lead Initiative: This regional initiative begins with the designation of at least two or more high level, objective, economic leaders agreeing to co–chair the on–going initiative. The co-chairs are often effective when chosen from an existing regional development group.”

Wichita Chamber Leadership CouncilThis is written as through Wichita has been doing nothing in this regard. I wonder what the leaders of the Wichita Metro Chamber Leadership Council thinks of this? Here’s what the Chamber says about this council:

The Leadership Council is a think tank comprised of 100 top business, non-profit and public-sector CEO’s for the purpose of discussing and pursuing resolutions of major issues or projects to make the Wichita area competitive for job creation, talent attraction, capital investment and therefore long-term economic prosperity. Created by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Council is co-chaired by Charlie Chandler (Intrust Bank Chairman and CEO) and Jeff Turner (retired CEO of Spirit AeroSystems). The Council was formed in 2012 and held its first meeting in September of the same year.

So we’ve had two prominent Wichita business leaders shepherding an initiative for two years. Is this effort now discarded?

Here’s something to watch for. Proposals like this contain buzzwords — something new and exciting, something that leaders can use to show they’re on the cutting edge. So note this language in the proposal:

Moreover, economies don’t stop at municipal or county boundaries; they go where their residents drive to work—the “comutershed”. (Misused punctuation in the original.)

I wonder when city leaders start using this neologism — comutershed — if they will correct the spelling of one of its base words.

I urge taking a look at the proposal. The agenda packet is here: Wichita City Council, October 14, 2014.

Business records file folders

In Wichita, promises of accountability and transparency

Boosters of the proposed Wichita sales tax promise transparency. But Wichita has not delivered on that in the past, and still rebuffs the public’s right to know.

When a city council member apologizes to bureaucrats because they have to defend why their agencies won’t disclose how taxpayer money is spent, we have a problem. When the mayor and most other council members agree, the problem is compounded. Carl Brewer won’t be mayor past April, but the city council member that apologized to bureaucrats — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) — may continue serving in city government beyond next year’s elections. Wichita City Manager Robert Layton will likely continue serving for the foreseeable future.


Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner does not support the public’s right to know how taxpayer funds are spent.

Why is this important? Supporters of the proposed Wichita sales tax promise transparency in operations and spending, especially regarding the jobs fund. But requests for spending records by the city’s quasi-governmental agencies are routinely rebuffed. Simple requests for contracts without outside entities are rejected. The city supports this refusal to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act.

Here are some things voters may want to consider as they evaluate promises of future transparency and accountability:

  • Many of the people presently in charge at city hall and at agencies like Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition will still be in charge if the proposed sales tax passes.
  • The city council seems pleased with city manager Robert Layton. He has not advocated for citizens’ right to know how taxpayer money is spent despite being presented with compelling reasons why the city should act to increase transparency.
  • The Kansas Open Records Act does not prohibit the city and these agencies from releasing spending records. The city and agencies have made this decision, and have spent taxpayer resources fighting against the release of spending records.
  • If the city and its quasi-governmental agencies are serious about accountability and transparency, they could release the requested records today.
  • The city is unable to provide spending records in computer-readable form except for images. This data is not readily usable.
  • One of the co-chairs of the “Yes Wichita” group, Harvey Sorensen, has been a vigorous defender of government’s ability to spend taxpayer funds in secret, telling the city council that advocates for transparency simply want to embarrass the city, and there is no public purpose for their requests.

Given this background, on what basis do we believe that the city and its agencies will change their attitude towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer funds are spent?

If the city wants to convince citizens that it has changed its attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know how tax money is spent, it could positively respond to the records requests made by myself and Kansas Policy Institute.

Following, from December 2012, an illustration of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Union Station development drains taxes from important needs

Testimony of John Todd to the Wichita City Council, October 7, 2014.

I want to complement the Union Station LLC group for tackling an important redevelopment project in downtown Wichita.

I am troubled however, by the developer’s request for $17.3 million in Tax Increment Finance (TIF) funding for his project because it diverts increases in future property tax revenues away from the public treasury and back to the developer for 20 years. Under current taxing levies this means that roughly one-third or $5 million plus of future Union Station property tax revenues would be diverted from the City of Wichita needed for public safety items like police and fire protection, and the building of public infrastructure. Plus, roughly one-third or $5 million plus would be diverted from the Sedgwick County treasury needed to provide for our Court System, the maintenance of property ownership records, the Sheriff’s office and detention center. The last one-third or $5 million plus would be diverted from Wichita Public Schools needed for the education of our children.

Drain, waterThe diversion of future property tax revenues away from local governmental treasuries should concern every taxpaying citizen when one considers the many needs for these funds. On the city level, $5 million over 20 years could go a long way towards funding needed street maintenance and repairs, or providing the revenue needed for a viable public bus system, and finding a long-term solution to our cities’ future water needs. Sedgwick County could use $5 million to re-open the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch that helps turn boy’s lives around and makes our community a safer place to live and play by reducing recidivism and crime. And, just think of how many teachers could be hired with $5 million to prepare our young people for productive lives and jobs.

I am of the opinion that Mr. Gary Oborny has the track record to prove that he is one of the most creative and exceptional real estate developers in the City of Wichita and that he possesses the professional talents needed to make the Union Station project work without TIF public funding.

I believe at some point downtown redevelopment needs to be market driven, stand on its own, and pay taxes into the city treasury like other city development projects do.

Today, you have the opportunity to exercise your leadership skills in achieving this transformation. I urge you to seize it.

Water blue drop drip

Again, Wichita policies are fluid

Wichita city hall promises policies that are clear, predictable and transparent, except when they’re not.

On July 22, 2104, a presentation to the Wichita City Council sought to assure the council and public that a proposed jobs fund created with money collected by the proposed sales tax would have policies that govern the spending of funds: “GWEDC – Finds businesses to expand, recruit, follows established policies for retention/recruitment.”

But there’s a problem. It’s difficult for governments to establish policies that will satisfy everyone. How do we know today what we’ll need five or ten years down the road? When governments change policies to fit particular circumstances, taxpayers are rightfully concerned that the alterations are to suit the needs of special people — the cronies that feed from the city hall trough of taxpayer money. When you couple in what public choice theory tells us, which is that the cronies who want money from government have a much stronger motive to succeed than the bureaucrats are motivated to protect citizens and taxpayers, we can have trouble.

This has happened before in Wichita. Last year when a project didn’t meet the (supposedly) required benefit-cost ratio, the city simply said that it didn’t apply in that case. See Wichita’s policymaking on display.

Now, Wichita seeks to modify its policies again in response to the wants and desires of one person.

Here’s the background you need to know. When the city passed a downtown development incentives policy in 2011, here’s what the city said was its goal: “The business plan recommends the development of a prudent public investment policy that is clear, predictable and transparent, maximizes public investment and enhances market-driven development.” (emphasis added)

The meeting minutes contained further elucidation: “Scott Kneibel Planning Department stated the purpose of the policy is to put in place something that is clear and predictable in terms of how the public would invest in downtown projects through partnership with the private sector. Stated that sort of statement by this governing body has not been made to date. Stated that is the purpose of this policy so that developers will know what types of investments the City of Wichita is interested in making and how the City of Wichita will make those decisions.” (emphasis added)

But as in the past, we find city proposing the change the standards in the middle of the game. Here’s an excerpt from the agenda packet for Tuesday’s meeting, in which a large incentive package for the redevelopment of Union Station may be considered: “In the opinion of the evaluation team, the established criteria do not adequately address projects such as Union Station where the requested incentives do not involve City debt.”

For this project we see that city policy is being modified on the fly to meet the circumstances of a particular project. This is not necessarily bad. Entrepreneurship demands flexibility. But the city promises policies that are clear, predictable and transparent, and city officials say Wichita has a transparent, open government.

Can you imagine conscientious developers who want to invest in downtown Wichita, but after studying the city’s policies, realize their projects don’t conform to the city’s published standards? How many moved on to other cities, not realizing that our standards can be altered and waived?

As Wichita voters consider the value to give to promises from city hall, they should consider these episodes when the city promises there will be “established policies” for the spending of economic development funds generated by the proposed sales tax.

Wichita Chamber presentation. Click for larger version.

To Wichita, a promise to wisely invest if sales tax passes

Claims of a reformed economic development process if Wichita voters approve a sales tax must be evaluated in light of past practice and the sameness of the people in charge. If these leaders are truly interested in reforming Wichita’s economic development machinery and processes, they could have started years ago using the generous incentives we already have.

At a conference produced by Kansas Policy Institute on Friday September 19, a panel presented the “nuts and bolts” of the jobs portion of the proposed Wichita sales tax that voters will see on their November ballots. I asked a question:

Listening to at least two of the three speakers, it sounds like Wichita’s not been using incentives. Two-and-a-half years ago when Boeing announced it was leaving Wichita, Mayor Brewer angrily produced a document saying since 1980, we’ve given Boeing $658 million in tax forgiveness. Last year the city and the state were somehow able to come up with $84,000 per job for 400 jobs here at NetApp. So we’ve been using a lot of incentives, haven’t we? What are we going to do different now, that hasn’t worked for us, clearly, in the past.

One of the panelists, Paul Allen, provided this answer:

I’m not sure that I agree that it hasn’t worked for us in the past. In fact, Boeing is still one of the largest taxpayers in the city. It has $6 million of real estate taxes paying a year. The Boeing facilities are still paying taxes in this community. Again, the jobs aren’t here, but Boeing on its rebates paid those back, those are on incremental property that it invested that came back on the tax rolls over time, and I think 6 million is the correct number last I looked there is still on the tax rolls in this city. So you have got pay back. And NetApp? NetApp is a win for the city. If you look at the economic models measuring the results of those 400 jobs and the fact that now the NetApp relationship likely to happen on the campus of Wichita State, that’s economic growth. Those are the kinds of jobs you need to attract. What are we going to do differently? We’re going to look at infrastructure more, we’re looking at a more integrated program across the spectrum. WSU is certainly a big part of that program, we’re going to get serious about diversification. We only talk about diversification in the city when the economy is down. We need to be a long-term program for diversification, taking the skills we have and looking at those skills and attracting companies here, helping our companies to expand. We need to invest in our work force, whether it’s at college level or particular to the technical colleges. Again those are the kinds of investments that are going to create a workforce that becomes attractive. It’s just one component, I think if we said it’s one tool in the toolbox. That’s a very important tool. And we are up against communities like Oklahoma City that has $75 million sitting in a fund and believe me that’s a lot more than we’ve invested in the last 10 years. And we will continue to get beaten in the competition if we don’t get more serious about being able to fight for the jobs and you can ask most business owners, particularly manufacturing, they’re called constantly from other communities trying to recruit then out of this community. And that competition is only going to get more intense, in my opinion. So we’ve got to be prepared to wisely invest our money.

(Paul Allen was Chair of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition for 2011, and Chair of Wichita Area Chamber of Commerce in 1998. The Wichita Chamber selected him to present the case for the sales tax at this conference.)

Allen’s pushback at the idea that the Boeing incentives were a failure produced a few gasps of astonishment from the audience. I’m sure that if any of Wichita’s elected officials had been in attendance, they would also have been surprised.

Response to Boeing AnnouncementIn January 2012, when Boeing announced it was leaving Wichita, people not happy. Mayor Carl Brewer in a written statement said “The City of Wichita, Sedgwick County and the State of Kansas have invested far too many taxpayer dollars in the past development of the Boeing Company to take this announcement lightly.” Kansas Representative Jim Ward, who at the time was Chair of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation, issued this statement regarding Boeing and incentives: “Boeing is the poster child for corporate tax incentives. This company has benefited from property tax incentives, sales tax exemptions, infrastructure investments and other tax breaks at every level of government. These incentives were provided in an effort to retain and create thousands of Kansas jobs. We will be less trusting in the future of corporate promises.” (See Fact-checking Yes Wichita: Boeing incentives)

But now an icon of Wichita’s business community says that since Boeing is paying $6 million per year in property taxes, it really was a good investment, after all. Today, however, no one is working in these buildings. No productive economic activity is taking place. But, government is collecting property taxes. This counts as an economic development success story, according to the people who support the proposed Wichita sales tax.

Wichita Chamber of Commerce 2013-07-09 004Another important thing to learn from this conference, which is hinted at in Allen’s answer, is that sales tax supporters are not recognizing all the incentives that we have in Wichita. One speaker said “It would be a travesty for you to do nothing.” (He was from out of town, but the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce selected him to speak and presented him as an expert.) But as we know from the premise of my question, we have many available incentives, and in large amounts, too.

Another problem is Allen’s disagreement that what we’ve done has not been working. This is contrary to the evidence the Wichita Chamber has been presenting, which is that we have lost thousands of jobs and are not growing as quickly as peer cities. That is the basis of their case for spending more on economic development.

Allen also spoke of a $75 million fund in Oklahoma City, saying it is much larger that what we’ve invested. I’m sure that Allen is not including all the incentives we’ve used. There were some years, for example, when the value of the abated taxes for Boeing was over $40 million. Last year the city initiated a process whereby NetApp saved $6,880,000 in sales tax, according to Kansas Department of Commerce documents. These tax abatements are more valuable than receiving the equivalent amount as a cash payment, as the company does not pay income taxes on the value of abated taxes.

"Yes Wichita" website
“Yes Wichita” website
Wichita voters will also want to consider the list of things Allen said we will do differently in the future. He spoke of concepts like infrastructure, an integrated program, diversification, investing in our work force, attracting companies, and helping existing companies expand. He told the audience “So we’ve got to be prepared to wisely invest our money.” There are two things to consider regarding this. First, these are the things we’ve been talking about doing for decades. Some of them we have been doing.

Second, the people saying these things — promising a new era of economic development in Wichita — are the same people who have been in charge for decades. They’ve been chairs of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, Visioneering Wichita, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. They’re the members of the leadership committee the Chamber formed.

These people are Wichita’s business establishment. They’ve been in charge during the time the Wichita economy has fallen behind. Now, they promise reform. We will do things differently and better, they say. Now, we will prepare to invest wisely, Allen told the audience.

If these leaders are truly interested in reforming Wichita’s economic development machinery and processes, they could have started years ago using the generous incentives we already have.

Hanging file folders

Claims of future transparency of Wichita tax money spending

Claims by boosters of a proposed Wichita sales tax that the city will be transparent in how money is spent must be examined in light of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

When a city council member apologizes to bureaucrats because they have to defend why their agencies won’t disclose how taxpayer money is spent, we have a problem. When the mayor and most other council members agree, the problem is compounded. Carl Brewer won’t be mayor past April, but the city council member that apologized to bureaucrats — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) — may continue serving in city government beyond next year’s elections. Wichita City Manager Robert Layton will likely continue serving for the foreseeable future.

Why is this important? Supporters of the proposed Wichita sales tax promise transparency in operations and spending. But requests for spending records by the city’s quasi-governmental agencies are routinely rebuffed. The city supports their refusal to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. Many of the people presently in charge at city hall and at agencies like Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition will still be in charge if the proposed sales tax passes. What assurances do we have that they will change their attitude towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer funds are spent?

Following, from December 2012, an illustration of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Wichita Spends 2 million Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency Request

For proposed Wichita sales tax, claims of transparency

Claims of valuing and promoting government transparency by the City of Wichita are contradicted by its taxpayer-funded surrogates.

As boosters of a proposed Wichita sales tax promise accountability and transparency in how money will be spent, especially the portion designated for jobs and economic development, voters may want to consider the city’s past and present attitude towards government transparency and open records.

Brochure from Kansas Attorney General's office
Brochure from Kansas Attorney General’s office
The city has three surrogate quasi-governmental agencies that are almost totally taxpayer-funded, specifically Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Each agency contends it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests.

These agencies spend considerable sums of tax money. In December the city approved funding Go Wichita with $2,322,021 for 2014, along with a supplemental appropriation of $150,000. Earlier this year the council voted to increase the city’s hotel tax by 2.75 cents per dollar, with the proceeds going to Go Wichita. That tax is thought to raise $2.5 million per year.

That’s a lot of tax money. It’s also a very high portion of the agency’s total funding. According to the 2012 IRS form 990 for Go Wichita, the organization had total revenue of $2,609,545. Of that, $2,270,288 was tax money from the city. That’s 87 percent taxpayer-funded. When the surge of higher hotel tax money starts flowing in, that percent will undoubtedly rise, perhaps to 93 percent or more.

Despite being nearly totally funded by taxes, Go Wichita refuses to supply spending records. Many believe that the Kansas Open Records Act requires that it comply with such requests. If the same money was being spent directly by the city, the records would be supplied.

City of Wichita Spends 2 million Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency RequestI’ve appeared before the council several times to ask that Go Wichita and similar organizations comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. See Go Wichita gets budget approved amid controversy over public accountability, City of Wichita Spends $2 million, Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency Request, and articles at Open Records in Kansas.

This week Go Wichita refused to provide to me its contract with a California firm retained to help with the re-branding of Wichita. If the city had entered into such a contract, it would be public record. But Go Wichita feels it does not have to comply with simple transparency principles.

Supporters of the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax promise transparency in the way decisions are made and money is spent. Below, Mike Shatz explains how this promise is hollow.

City of Wichita wants to increase sales tax by 14%

The City of Wichita funnels your tax dollars into “non-profit” development groups that refuse to show us how that money is spent, and now the City wants you to vote in favor of a sales tax increase so they can give these organizations even more of your money.

These groups, Go Wichita, The Downtown Development Corporation, and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, get roughly 90% of their overall funding from Wichita tax dollars, but claim that they are exempt from the Kansas Open Records Act, because they are “private” organizations.

The City of Wichita could easily place conditions on the money it gives to these groups, requiring them to show taxpayers how their tax dollars are being spent, but the City refuses to do so. This is not transparency.

Continue reading at Kansas Exposed.

Located across the street from the Transit Center, the city-owned garage on William Street suffers from maintenance issues that diminish its value for its intended use: retail space.

Would you rent space from this landlord?

Located across the street from the Transit Center, the city-owned garage on William Street suffers from maintenance issues that diminish its value for its intended use: retail space.
Located across the street from the Transit Center, the city-owned garage on William Street suffers from maintenance issues that diminish its value for its intended use: retail space.

Commercial retail space owned by the City of Wichita in a desirable downtown location was built to be rented. But most is vacant, and maintenance issues go unresolved.

At one time it was thought that the Wichita city-owned parking structure in the 400 block of East William Street would house retail shops along the street. But the present state of the property should cause us to be wary of government economic development efforts.

As reported by the Wichita Eagle twenty years ago on Wednesday, October 20, 1993:

The council also approved a plan to spend about $76 a square foot to construct roughly 6,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor of the parking garage. The space would lease for an estimated $8.70 a square foot.

Council member Sheldon Kamen questioned that part of the plan. ”I just can’t visualize spending $76 a square foot,” he said. “If I was a developer I wouldn’t spend $76 a square foot for retail space on William street.”

Council member Joan Cole disagreed with Kamen, calling $8.70 a “very good price” that would attract tenants. ”It is my feeling there are small operations that would find this kind of small space very attractive,” she said.

(Adjusted for inflation, these prices would be $122 and $14 today)

What has been the results of the city’s venture into commercial real estate? As can be seen in this video from September, a Wichita city government office occupied some of the space, but the office had moved to another location. Now, Wichita Festivals occupies some of the space, but much is still empty.

Rusted awnings near retail space in the city-owned garage on William Street in Wichita,
Rusted awnings near retail space in the city-owned garage on William Street in Wichita,

Inspecting the building last September, I found that this city-owned property had maintenance issues that might, in some circumstances, be considered as contributing to blight. Based on a recent walk-by, maintenance hasn’t improved in the ten months since then. Maybe that’s why there’s apparently little demand to rent this space.

At the city-owned garage on William Street in Wichita, a duct tape repair is still in use after ten months.
At the city-owned garage on William Street in Wichita, a duct tape repair is still in use after ten months.

It’s not as though the building has many of advantages that city planners tell us are needed for a vital downtown Wichita. It’s adjacent to the block with the Eaton Hotel and the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, the agency charged with promoting downtown. This retail space is right across the street from the city’s bus transit center. It’s also one block away from the Intrust Bank Arena, which was promoted as a driver of commerce and activity for the surrounding area. Its Walk Score — a measure promoted by city planners — is 71, which is deemed “Very Walkable. Most errands can be accomplished on foot.”

Considering all the advantages this government-owned property has, it’s failing. It’s becoming blighted. The best thing the city could do is sell this property so that the benefits of markets and the profit-and-loss system can replace management by Wichita city hall bureaucrats.

Questions for the next Wichita city attorney: Number 2

Wichita’s city attorney is retiring, and the city will select a replacement. There are a few questions that we ought to ask of candidates. Will the next city attorney continue to obstruct government transparency or be an advocate for citizens’ right to know?

Hockaday sign explanationSince 2009 I have advocated for greater transparency regarding spending data for three quasi-governmental agencies. Others have since joined the quest. The agencies are Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. (See Open Government in Kansas for more information.)

Each agency contends it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and all council members except former Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and legislative attempts have been taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. I call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

In some council meetings, Rebenstorf has cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

Will the next city attorneyThe legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. It’s contrary to both the letter and spirit of the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), which opens with: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.

But the attitude of Rebenstorf and the city council towards open records and government transparency, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the unmistakably clear meaning and intent of the law.

Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example. In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking these agencies to act as though they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking these agencies from acting as though they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law. Will the next Wichita city attorney agree with the closed stance of the current regime, or be an advocate for greater government transparency?

Wichita Old Town

Wichita seeks to form entertainment district

A proposed entertainment district in Old Town Wichita benefits a concentrated area but spreads costs across everyone while creating potential for abuse.

Wichita Old TownThis week the Wichita City Council will consider forming an entertainment district covering greater Old Town. The purpose of the new law, according to city documents, is to help control crime in the area. Current law enforcement efforts are not effective, declares the proposed statute: “WHEREAS, the occurrence of criminal activity in the Old Town Entertainment District and areas adjacent thereto continues to occur despite law enforcement’s increased efforts and presence within this district.”

Some of the features of the proposed law are a mandatory fine of $500 for certain crimes if they occur within the Old Town Entertainment District, and the ability to “map” or prohibit offenders from entering the Old Town Entertainment District. The punishment for repeat offenses escalates rapidly. To be able to control the behavior of Wichitans with fine granularity, the proposed ordinance contains definitions of “art,” “fine art,” and “art gallery.” The capacity of a coffee shop cannot be over 100 people. An “Entertainment Establishment” is not a place that holds book readings and storytelling. (Well, I’ve been to a few book readings that were certainly not entertaining.)

While Wichita civic leaders proclaim this ordinance as a step forward, let’s examine some points.

Costs and subsidy

Recall that Old Town was built using millions in taxpayer subsidy, both on and off the books. Although the tax increment financing district has ended, subsidy still flows to Old Town. An example of off-the-books subsidy is the large police presence required to keep Old Town safe. City documents hint at this, as in this excerpt from the agenda report for Tuesday’s city council meeting: “Crime statistics reveal that crime overall has decreased in Old Town due to higher police presence.”

In 2008 Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams was quoted as saying “As Old Town changed from a warehouse district to an entertainment district, it has presented a ‘tremendous challenge’ to public safety.”

In 2006 the Wichita Eagle reported on the level of policing required in Old Town, noting “Beginning Friday night, police will put two officers on horseback in Old Town and have as many as six more officers walking through the entertainment district, he said. Currently, around the bars’ 2 a.m. closing time, about a dozen officers patrol the area.”

The challenges of policing entertainment districts are well known and not unique to Wichita’s Old Town. See Policing Entertainment Districts for a research report. The extra costs of the policing are known, too. Two examples — others are easy to find — are these:

Policing costs exceed Scottsdale bar district’s revenue. “The annual cost for policing downtown Scottsdale’s entertainment district far exceeds the amount of revenue generated from the high concentration of bars in the area, according to city figures.”

Police Asking Bars To Pay Extra For Security. “Faced with a budget deficit, the Hartford Police Department is asking some downtown bars and restaurants to help pay the overtime costs for police officers assigned to maintain order in the city’s entertainment district during the busiest nights of the week, when large crowds of partygoers pose the most risk for public safety threats.”

Despite the extra costs of policing Old Town, at least one of its property owners who has received millions in taxpayer subsidy still thought his taxes were too high. Another Old Town merchant sought and received a no-interest and low-interest loan from the city when his business was failing, despite having already received taxpayer subsidy.

Potential loss of liberties

Special districts like that proposed for Old Town give police more power. With that comes increased potential for abuse. In Kansas City, the Power & Light District has been Power and Light District Kansas City 2009-09-16 39involved in lawsuits alleging racial discrimination as reported in Class-action lawsuit alleges racial discrimination at Power & Light. The dress code there is alleged to be targeted against young urban black men.

In Wichita’s Old Town, Mike Shatz has covered past incidents. On the proposed ordinance, he notes that “Like most of the laws in Old Town that govern the behavior of the patrons, it is expected that these new ordinances, if passed, would be primarily enforced outside the few bars that still cater to a primarily minority crowd.”

On the potential for racially discriminatory application of laws, Shatz writes “Anyone familiar with police activity in [this] district knows it will be the black men who are targeted by these new laws, and the arrest statistics will prove it.” Also: “White people, on the other hand, can actually get into full-on fist fights in front of police officers without repercussion, as I and other activists witnessed outside the Pumphouse (a bar in the district) while investigating Old Town policing activities last year.” See Old Town Association seeks to drive minorities out of the district with new laws

What have we done?

Does the need for special police power and special penalties in Old Town demonstrate that we’ve created something we really don’t want? Will Wichitans across the city be forced to pay for extra police that benefit a concentrated area of town, and it alone?

Along with the establishment of the entertainment district with its special laws, we could also ask that the property owners in that district absorb its extra costs. The district is defined in the proposed statute. It would be a simple matter to identify the properties in the district and add something extra to the property tax bills. Something like this is done to support the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation with funds to promote economic development. If that can be done, it’s not unreasonable for Wichitans to ask that Old Town tax itself to pay for its unique costs.

Public Choice - A PrimerBut laws like the entertainment district ordinance are usually tied to powerful economic interests who lobby the government for special protections. It is a problem identified and studied in public choice economics. As the Wichita City Council routinely votes in favor of special interests as opposed to the public good, we can expect that the council will fully embrace this new exemplar of special laws created for special people and special interest groups.

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1960

During Sunshine Week, here are a few things Wichita could do

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1960The City of Wichita says it values open and transparent government, but the city could improve several areas of providing information and records to citizens.

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

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

Attitude

Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. Here’s perhaps the most glaring example of how the city goes out of its way to conduct public business in secret.

Citizen watchdogs need access to records and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Each of these agencies refuses to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas law that’s designed to provide citizen access to records.

The city backs this interpretation. When legislation was introduced to bring these agencies under the umbrella of the Kansas Open Records Act, cities — including Wichita — protested vigorously, and the legislation went nowhere. Now, just this week the City of Wichita added a new tax to hotel bills that may generate $3 million per year for the convention and visitors bureau to spend. Unless the city changes its attitude towards citizens’ right to know, this money will be spent in secret.

Another example of the City of Wichita’s attitude towards citizens and open government took place at a Kansas Legislature committee hearing last year. I had asked for email to or from a certain official for a certain period of time. The response from the city was that my request would encompass some 19,000 email messages, and the city denied the request as too burdensome. Fair enough.

But the city’s lobbyist told legislators that my request for 19,000 emails was an example of abuse of the Kansas Open Records Act, and cited it as evidence as to why reform was not needed. But I did not request 19,000 email messages. I made a request for messages meeting a certain criteria, and I had no way of knowing in advance how many email messages this would entail. The City of Wichita denied this request as burdensome, so there was either no cost or very little cost for the city. No harm, no foul.

But the City of Wichita used this incident and a similar incident involving the Kansas Policy Institute as reasons that the Kansas Open Records Act needs no reform. This illustrates a problem with the attitude of Wichita city government towards citizens’ right to know.

This attitude may be noticed by the citizenry at large. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.

Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement."
Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.”

The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey.

Website

An important way governments can communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. With the launching of the new City of Wichita website, the city has actually taken a step backwards in providing information to citizens.

From the former version of the City of Wichita website, showing budgets available for many years.
From the former version of the City of Wichita website, showing budgets available for many years.

Here’s an example. The old city website had budgets going back a long way, back to the budget for 1960 — 1961. The oldest budget I can find on the present website is for 2006.

Looking for minutes of important boards such as the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, we find similar results. On the old website, minutes of MAPC were available back to 1999. The new version of the website seems to have minutes back to only 2012.

Also, something that had been very useful is missing, and hasn’t been replaced: MyWichita.

mywichita_logo

As described here, MyWichita was a useful service. By using it, you could receive by email notices of new press releases, city council agendas and minutes, district advisory board agenda and minutes, agendas and minutes of other boards, and other items. Using MyWichita was much easier than having to check multiple sections of the city’s website looking for newly-released agendas, minutes, etc.

This email reminder service was very valuable. It’s a basic customer service feature of many commercial and governmental websites. But MyWichita didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing that replaces its function. When I asked about this missing functionality, the city said it was working on a replacement that should be available in a month or two. It’s been almost a year since I asked.

Spending data

Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, and also the Wichita school district. Not so the City of Wichita.

Wichita spending data.
Wichita spending data.

Even after asking for checkbook spending data, Wichita can supply data of only limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult and beyond the capability of most citizens to translate the data to useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Legal notices

Kansas law requires that local government agencies publish legal notices for a variety of topics. Presently these are published in the Wichita Eagle at great cost to taxpayers. These notices could also be published on the city’s website, where they could be searched and archived. This would increase the usability of these documents at very little cost to the city.

Publish requests

When governmental agencies like the City of Wichita fulfill records requests, they could also publish the records on their websites. Most of the time the records are supplied electronically, so this is an additional simple (and low cost) step that would leverage the value of the city’s effort.

Leveraging our lobbyists

What do lobbyists, including taxpayer-funded lobbyists, do in Topeka? One thing they do is testify before committees, in both verbal and written form. Another thing they do is to prepare reports for the clients, advising them on upcoming legislation, analyzing how it affects them, and what the prospects for the bill might be. They also meet with legislators and their clients, which are your elected officials.

Here’s a proposal that will help citizens make best use of their taxpayer-funded lobbyists:

I see nothing in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows local governmental units in Kansas to refuse to disclose these documents: testimony, reports by lobbyists to their government clients, and the lobbyists’ calendars (or billing records for contract lobbyists). Instead of making citizens ask for these records, possibly paying fees to obtain what they’re already paying for, why don’t local governments post these documents immediately on their websites?

Citizens could then benefit from the activities of the lobbyists they’re paying for. They could learn more about legislation as it works its way through the process. Citizens could judge whether the positions taken by the government lobbyists they’re paying for are aligned with their policy preferences.

If the actions taken by taxpayer-funded lobbyists are truly in the public interest, you’d think that cities, counties, and school boards would already be making this information easily available. In any case, there should be no resistance to starting this program.

WichitaLiberty.TV.24

WichitaLiberty.TV: Government planning, taxes, and carbon

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The document holds some facts that ought to make Wichitans think, and think hard. Then: What is the purpose of high tax rates on high income earners? Finally: Advances in producing oil and natural gas make for a more competitive and carbon-efficient economy. Episode 33, broadcast March 2, 2014. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Located across the street from the Transit Center, the city-owned garage on William Street suffers from maintenance issues that diminish its value for its intended use: retail space.

As landlord, Wichita has a few issues

Located across the street from the Transit Center, the city-owned garage on William Street suffers from maintenance issues that diminish its value for its intended use: retail space.
Located across the street from the Transit Center, the city-owned garage on William Street suffers from maintenance issues that diminish its value for its intended use: retail space.

Commercial retail space owned by the City of Wichita in a desirable downtown location was built to be rented. But most is vacant, and maintenance issues go unresolved.

At one time it was thought that the Wichita city-owned parking structure in the 400 block of East William Street would house retail shops along the street. But the present state of the property should cause us to be wary of government economic development efforts.

As reported by the Wichita Eagle twenty years ago on Wednesday, October 20, 1993:

The council also approved a plan to spend about $76 a square foot to construct roughly 6,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor of the parking garage. The space would lease for an estimated $8.70 a square foot.

Council member Sheldon Kamen questioned that part of the plan. ”I just can’t visualize spending $76 a square foot,” he said. “If I was a developer I wouldn’t spend $76 a square foot for retail space on William street.”

Council member Joan Cole disagreed with Kamen, calling $8.70 a “very good price” that would attract tenants. ”It is my feeling there are small operations that would find this kind of small space very attractive,” she said.

(Adjusted for inflation, these prices would be $122 and $14 today)

What has been the results of the city’s venture into commercial real estate? As can be seen in this video from September, a Wichita city government office occupied some of the space, but the office had moved to another location. Now, Wichita Festivals occupies some of the space, but much is still empty.

Rusted awnings near retail space in the city-owned garage on William Street in Wichita,
Rusted awnings near retail space in the city-owned garage on William Street in Wichita,

Inspecting the building last September, I found that this city-owned property had maintenance issues that might, in some circumstances, be considered as contributing to blight. As can be seen in the nearby photos taken this week (click them for larger versions), maintenance hasn’t improved in the nearly six months since then. Maybe that’s why there’s apparently little demand to rent this space.

At the city-owned garage on William Street in Wichita, a duct tape repair is still in use after six months.
At the city-owned garage on William Street in Wichita, a duct tape repair is still in use after six months.

It’s not as though the building has many of advantages that city planners tell us are needed for a vital downtown Wichita. There are hundreds of state employees parking in the garage each workday. It’s adjacent to the block with the Eaton Hotel and the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, the agency charged with promoting downtown. This retail space is right across the street from the city’s bus transit center. It’s also one block away from the Intrust Bank Arena, which was promoted as a driver of commerce and activity for the surrounding area. Its Walk Score — a measure promoted by city planners — is 71, which is deemed “Very Walkable.”

Considering all the advantages this government-owned property has, it’s failing. It’s becoming blighted. The best thing the city could do is sell this property so that the benefits of markets and the profit-and-loss system can replace city bureaucrats.

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

Wichita planning documents hold sobering numbers

Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.
Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investment Plan logo.

This week the City of Wichita held a workshop where the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee delivered a progress report to the city council. The documents hold information that ought to make Wichitans think, and think hard. The amounts of money involved are large, and portions represent deferred maintenance. That is, the city has not been taking care of the assets that taxpayers have paid for.

The time frame of this planning process is the period 2013 to 2035. Under the heading “Trends & Challenges” we find some troubling information. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer hinted at the problem last year in his State of the City Address when he said the city would need to spend $2.1 billion over 30 years on maintenance and replacement of water and sewer systems. The city’s performance measure report also told us that our pavement condition index has been deteriorating, and is projected to continue to decline.

So if we’ve been paying attention, it should not have been a surprise to read this in the presentation: “Decades of under-investment in infrastructure maintenance … 38% of Wichita’s infrastructure is in ‘deficient/fair’ condition.”

The cost to remedy this lack of maintenance is substantial. The document says that on an annual basis, Wichita needs to spend $180 million on infrastructure depreciation/replacement costs. Currently the city spends $78 million on this, the presentation indicates.

The “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is given as an additional $45 to $55 million per year.

This is a lot of money. To place these numbers in context, here are some figures that help illustrate Wichita city finances:

Property tax collected in 2013: $105 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for fire department: $44 million
Budgeted 2014 expenditures for police department: $79 million

It’s thought that an additional one cent per dollar city sales tax would generate around $80 million per year.

The amounts by which the city is deficient in maintaining its assets is staggering, compared to other expenses the city has. The size of the deficiency overwhelms possible sources of new revenue. A one cent per dollar increase in sales tax would not cover the deficiencies in maintaining our current assets. Then, remember the things Wichita wants to increase spending on — a new library, economic development, expanded public transit, new convention center, economic development, and perhaps other things.

The report lists three scenarios for future growth: Maintaining current trends, constrained suburban growth, and suburban and infill growth mix. Whenever we see words like “constrained” we need to be cautious. We need to be on guard. The Wichita Eagle reported this: “In the city’s recently completed series of 102 public meetings, citizens were clear, City Manager Robert Layton said: Redevelop the core. We’ve had enough suburban growth for awhile.”

It’s unclear how closely the findings from the public meetings reflects actual citizen preference. Cynics believe that these meetings are run in a way that produces a predetermined outcome aligned with what city officials want to hear. At any rate, when you ask people about their preferences, but there is no corresponding commitment to act on their proclaimed preferences, we have to wonder how genuine and reliable the results are.

There is a very reliable way to find out what people really want, however. Just let them do it. If people want to live downtown on in an inner city neighborhood, fine. If they want suburban-style living, that’s fine too. Well, it should be fine. But reading between the lines of city documents you get the impression that city planners don’t think people should live in suburban-style settings.

Sometimes we don’t have to read between the lines. Sometimes the attitude of planners is explicit. In 2010 the city — actually the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation — employed Goody Clancy, a Boston-based planning firm, to help plan the revitalization of downtown Wichita. In the article Goody Clancy market findings presented to Wichita audience I reported on some of what the planners said. For example, David Dixon, the Goody Clancy principal for this project, told how that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is found only at the core. “Have dinner someplace, pass a cool shop, go to a great national music act at the arena, and then go to a bar, and if we’re lucky, stumble home.”

This idea that only downtown people are socially and culturally rich is an elitist attitude that we ought to reject. By the way, when I presented to the Wichita City Council on this topic, I noted that no council members, except for possibly one, lived in neighborhoods that might be described as in “the core.”

Other speakers from Goody Clancy revealed a condescending attitude towards those who hold values different from this group of planners. One presenter said “Outside of Manhattan and Chicago, the traditional family household generally looks for a single family detached house with yard, where they think their kids might play, and they never do.”

This, again, is an elitist attitude. No, it’s worse than that. It’s condescending. It reveals that the professional planning class thinks that the ordinary people of Wichita can’t decide for themselves what they really want. Somehow, people are duped into buying homes that don’t really meet their needs, and they’re not smart enough to realize that. That is the attitude of the professional planning class. It’s an elitism that Wichitans ought to reject.

The planning process

The planners tells us that the process is based on data. “Data-driven” is a term they use. But when we look under the covers at the data, we realize that we need to be very skeptical of claims.

Returning to the Goody Clancy plan for downtown Wichita, the principal planner used Walk Score in a presentation delivered in Wichita. Walk Score is purported to represent a measure of walkability of a location in a city. Walkability is a key design element of the master plan Goody Clancy has developed for downtown Wichita.

Walk Score is not a project of Goody Clancy, as far as I know, and Dixon is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of the Walk Score website. But he presented it and relied on it as an example of the data-driven approach that Goody Clancy takes.

Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, as presented by planning firm Goody Clancy. Click image for a larger version.
Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, as presented by planning firm Goody Clancy. Click image for a larger version.

The score for 525 E. Douglas, the block the Eaton Hotel and Wichita Downtown Development Corporation is located in and mentioned by Dixon as a walkable area, scored 91, which means it is a “walker’s paradise,” according to the Walk Score website.

But here’s where we can start to see just how bad the data used to develop these scores is. For a grocery store — an important component of walkability — the website indicates indicates a grocery store just 0.19 miles away. It’s “Pepsi Bottling Group,” located on Broadway between Douglas and First Streets. Those familiar with the area know there is no grocery store there, only office buildings. The claim of a grocery store here is false.

There were other claimed amenities where the data is just as bad. But the chairman of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation at that time said that Walk Score has been updated. I should no longer be concerned with the credibility of this data, he told me through a comment left on my website.

He was correct in one regard: Walk Score had been updated. For the same location the walk score was revised to 85%, which is considered “very walkable.” The “grocery store” is no longer the Pepsi Bottling Group. It’s now “Market Place,” whose address is given as 155 N. Market St # 220.

Someone strolling by that location would notice that address, 155 N. Market number 220, is the management office for an office building whose name is Market Place.

Still no grocery store. Nothing even resembling a grocery store.

I looked this week at the Walk Score website. It’s been updated and redesigned. Now for the same block in the heart of downtown Wichita the walk score is 74, which is “very walkable,” according to the site. In a narrative explanation, the site says this: “The closest grocery stores are Ray Sales Co, Market Place and The Hot Spot Detox Shop.”

Ray Sales Co., in the shadow of Intrust Bank Arena.
Ray Sales Co., in the shadow of Intrust Bank Arena.

I don’t know if you’ve been to Ray Sales, but it’s a tiny store with a very limited product selection. It’s not the type of place that will attract people to downtown Wichita. We know that because officials say a grocery store is one of downtown’s most pressing needs, despite the existence of Ray Sales.

Market Place is listed again as evidence of a grocery store in downtown Wichita. Remember, Market Place is the name of an office building located on Market Street. It’s not a grocery store.

The third location listed as a grocery store is a shop that sells kits to help people pass drug tests. It’s nothing like a grocery store.

Again, David Dixon and Goody Clancy did not create the Walk Score data. But they presented it to Wichitans as an example of the data-driven, market-oriented approach to planning that they use. Dixon cited Walk Score data as the basis for higher real estate values based on the walkability of the area and its surrounding amenities. But anyone who relies on the evidence Dixon and Goody Clancy presented would surely get burnt unless they investigated the area on their own.

Keep in mind that the presentation of this Walk Score data was made after Goody Clancy staff had spent considerable time in Wichita. That someone there could not immediately recognize how utterly bogus the data is: That should give us cause for concern that the entire planning process is based on similarly shoddy data and analysis.

Constraining growth

Returning to the city’s presentation: How does the city “constrain” suburban growth? By taking away the freedom for people to live where they want. Why would the city want do that? City leaders say that suburban development is expensive. It’s not sustainable. Suburban living depends on the personal automobile. And remember the attitude of the professional planners Wichita Downtown Development Corporation hired: People can’t be trusted to know what they really want for themselves.

Special taxes paid on a residential home.
Special taxes paid on a residential home.

If it really is more expensive to develop new suburban areas, the city should simply charge what it costs. To some extent this already happens. Anyone who builds a new home in a new area will pay for the residential street and other infrastructure through special taxes. If the city feels it needs to charge for building arterial streets to serve new suburban areas, it should do so. But the city should realize that people spending their own money to buy or rent a residence — this is the best indication of their true preferences. What people say in focus groups or on paper survey forms is nowhere near as reliable.

Community input

The survey that Wichita used has its own problems. Here’s an example of a question respondents were asked to agree or disagree with: “Local government, the school district, community organizations and the business community should work together to create an investment climate that is attractive to business.”

The meaning of an attractive investment climate means different things to different people. Some people want an investment climate where property rights are respected, where government refrains from meddling in the economy and transferring one person’s property to another. An environment free from cronyism, in other words. But the Wichita way is, unfortunately, cronyism, where government takes an active role in managing economic development. We in Wichita never know when our local government will take from us to give to politically-favored cronies, or when city hall will set up and subsidize a competitor to your business.

Wichita flights compared to the nation.
Wichita flights compared to the nation.

Sometimes the questions are misleading. A question relating to the subsidy program at the Wichita airport read “I’m willing to pay increased taxes or fees to support investment … that uses public dollars to reduce the cost and increase the number of commercial flights at Mid-Continent Airport.”

This is an example of a question which has a false premise. Since the subsidy programs have been in place, the number of flights from the Wichita airport has declined, not increased as the question would lead readers to believe. See Wichita flight options decrease, despite subsidies and Wichita airfare subsidy: The negative effects.

Leadership of city fathers

On these and other issues, the Wichita Eagle quoted mayor Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”

It’s almost as if the mayor is speaking as a bystander. But he’s been mayor for nearly seven years, and was on the city council before that time. During that time, he and other city leaders have boasted of not increasing property taxes. While the property tax rate has been stable, property tax revenue has increased due to development of new property and rising assessment values. In spite of this, the city has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. The way to interpret this is that the city has really been engaging in deficit spending under Brewer’s leadership. We didn’t spend what was needed to maintain our assets, and now the mayor tells us we need to increase spending to make up for this.

The economist Milton Friedman told us that it’s more important to look at government spending rather than the level of taxation. That’s because spending must eventually be paid for, either through current taxes or future taxation. The federal government generate deficits and can pay for spending through creating inflation. Fortunately, cities and states can’t do that.

But, as we’ve seen, cities like Wichita can incur costs without paying for them. This is a form of deficit spending. By deferring maintenance of our infrastructure, the city has pushed spending to future years. The report released this week gives an idea of the magnitude of this deferred spending: It’s huge.

This form of deficit spending is “off the books” and doesn’t appear in city financial statements. But it’s real, as the mayor now admits. The threat to our freedom to live where we want is real, too. We must be watchful and diligent.

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

city-council-chambers-sign-smallThis week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda. I’ve excerpted the document here, and following are some of the most problematic items.

Agenda: Existing economic development tools are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our community.

First. The premise of this item is incorrect. We don’t have growth and prosperity in Wichita. Compared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. See For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure for details.

Second: In general, these incentives don’t work to increase prosperity. Click here for a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.

Third: Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development. The city’s document lists the tools the city wants the legislature to protect:

  • GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions
  • Industrial Revenue Bond tax abatements (IRBX)
  • Economic Development Exemptions (EDX)
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
  • Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds
  • Community Improvement Districts (CID)
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) tax rebates
  • Special Assessment financing for neighborhood infrastructure projects, facade improvements and abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
  • State Historic Preservation Tax Credits (HPTC)
  • State administration of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP) tax credits
  • Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT) grants
  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program
  • Economic Revitalization and Reinvestment Act bonding for major aviation and wind energy projects
  • Kansas Industrial Training (KIT) and Kansas Industrial Retraining (KIR) grants
  • Network Kansas tax credit funding
  • State support for Innovation Commercialization Centers in Commerce Department budget

That’s quite a list of incentive programs. Some of these are so valuable that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Agenda: GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions

This may refer to the city wanting to prevent these agencies from having to fulfill records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act. (If so, I wonder why the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation was left off.) City leaders say Wichita has an open and transparent government. But Kansas has a weak records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. This is an insult to citizens who are not able to access how their taxes are spent. For more on this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any legislative attempts to restrict the taxing and spending authority of local governments.

As Wichita city leaders prepare to ask for a higher sales tax rate in Wichita, we can hope that the legislature will save us from ourselves. At best, we can hope that the legislature requires that all tax rate increases be put to popular vote.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any restrictions on the use of state and/or local public monies to provide information to our citizens and to advocate on their behalf.

This is the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. As you can see in this document, many of the things that Wichita city leaders believe people want, or believe that will be good for their constituents, are actually harmful. Additionally, many of the methods the city uses to engage citizens to determine their needs are faulty. See In Wichita, there’s no option for dissent for an example. Also, see Wichita survey questions based on false premises.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the current framework for local elections, continuing the current February/April schedule of local primary and general elections, as well as the local option allowing non-partisan elections.

The present system of non-partisan elections held in the spring results in low voter turnout that lets special interest groups exercise greater influence than would be likely in fall elections. See my legislative testimony in Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the development of appropriate state and local incentives to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.

Translation: The city knows better than you how to provide for your entertainment and cultural edification, and will continue to tax you for your own benefit.

Agenda: Public support and awareness of the possibility of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton has grown over the past two years.

I’m not sure where the claim of public support and awareness growing comes from, but people are definitely not informed about the economics of passenger rail. In 2010, when the state rolled out several plans for this passenger rail service link, I reported as follows:

Expansion of rail service in Kansas is controversial, at least to some people, in that any form of rail service requires taxpayer involvement to pay for the service. First, taxpayer funding is required to pay for the start-up costs for the service. There are four alternatives being presented for rail service expansion in Kansas, and the start-up costs range from $156 million up to $479 million.

After this, taxpayer subsidies will be required every year to pay for the ongoing operational costs of providing passenger rail service. The four alternatives would require an annual operating subsidy ranging from $2.1 million up to $6.1 million. Taking the operating subsidy and dividing by the estimated number of passengers for each alternative, the per-passenger subsidy ranges from $35 up to $97 for every passenger who uses the service.

It would be one thing if tickets sales and other revenue sources such as sale of food and beverage paid for most of the cost of providing passenger rail service, and taxpayers were being asked to provide a little boost to get the service started and keep it running until it can sustain itself. But that’s not the case. Taxpayers are being asked to fully fund the start-up costs. Then, they’re expected to pay the majority of ongoing expenses, apparently forever.

Also, in Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas I reported on the Heartland Flyer route specifically. This is from 2010, but I doubt much has changed since then.

For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Asking the taxpayers of Wichita to pay subsidies each time someone boards an Amtrak train: This doesn’t sound like economic development, much less a program that people living in a free society should be forced to fund.

File folder and documents

Kansas Open Records Act and the ‘public agency’ definition

Update: The bill has been referred to another committee, and the February 19 hearing is canceled.

File folder and documents

Despite the City of Wichita’s support for government transparency, citizens have to ask the legislature to add new law forcing the city and its agencies to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act.

Open records laws allow citizens to ask government agencies for records. While these laws are valuable, we find that in practice governmental agencies find many ways to avoid filling records requests. Because the City of Wichita does not live up to the standards of open government — even through it proclaims its support for government transparency — citizens are working to have the law changed.

Locally, the City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

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

Contrary to what the mayor and manager say, when we look at some specific areas of government transparency, we find that the city’s efforts are deficient. That’s a problem, because citizen watchdogs and journalists need access to records and data.

The City of Wichita has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

I have asked each organization for checkbook-level spending data. Each has refused to comply, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But consider the WDDC: At the time I made my records request, its percent of revenue derived from taxes was well over 90 percent in every year but one. In many years the only income WDDC received was from taxes and a small amount of interest earned.

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter at my request, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position.

So what is the next step? The Kansas Attorney General is of no help in this matter. His office refers all cases to the local District Attorney. That’s a problem right there, and there is some talk that the AG may open a small bureau to work with records requests problems.

One course of action open to me as a citizen watchdog is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit. The irony of this is that citizens will find their own tax dollars being used against them as the city and other agencies defend secrecy.

Another course of action is persuading the city and these agencies to release the records. While these agencies believe the law doesn’t require them to release the records, the law does not prohibit or restrict releasing the records. They could fulfill requests if they wanted to. That would be in line with what the mayor and city manager say they want for Wichita. I and others have tried that.

But that didn’t work. The true attitude of the city was expressed eloquently by Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner last month in a television news story about the inability of citizens to see how their money is being spent by these organizations. Meitzner said “The public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.”

The vice mayor also told the reporter that these organization have review boards. Therefore, citizen oversight is not necessary. These boards, however, are usually filled with insiders whose interests may not be aligned with the interests of citizens and promoting good government.

Another course of action is to change the law, and that’s what I and others are trying to do. This week a committee of the Kansas House of Representatives will hear testimony on HB 2567, which will expand the definition of public agency.

The current law says this in defining what agencies are subject to the open records law: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The proposed law contains this additional definition: “Further, on and after July 1, 2014, ‘public agency’ shall include any nonprofit organization supported in whole or in part by public funds, which organizations are engaged in economic development, tourism or general marketing activities for the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof.”

This language, if passed into law, would appear to bring the three problematic agencies under the Kansas Open Records Act. That doesn’t mean that they’ll have to turn over all and any records that are asked for, as the Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions. But we should be able to get spending data and other records that will help citizens oversee the operation of their government and the spending of tax dollars.

It’s a little distressing that citizens have to pass new legislation in order to get government to behave well. Citizens have to resort to these measures even though city leaders say they value open and transparent government.

Following is the testimony I will deliver this week.

Testimony to house of Representatives Committee on Judiciary as proponent of HB 2567, concerning public records.
Bob Weeks, February 19, 2014

Chairman Kinzer and members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present testimony in support of HB 2567, regarding the Kansas Open Records Act.

Cities and other local governmental bodies have set up non-profit organizations to conduct business such as economic development. These agencies, as in the case of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, may in some years receive as much as 98 percent of their revenue from taxation. They often have only one client, that being the governmental agency that provides their tax revenue. They perform functions that are governmental in nature. Yet the Sedgwick County District Attorney says they are not public agencies for purposes of the Kansas Open Records Act. Based on that, these agencies, particularly the WDDC, have refused to fulfill my records requests. This flies in the face of the Legislature’s declared intent in the preamble of the Act: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

There can be large amounts of money involved. The City of Wichita may soon add a 2.75 percent tax to hotel bills as a “City Tourism Fee.” These new taxpayer-provided funds, estimated at $2.5 million per year, would be spent by Go Wichita Convention and Tourism Bureau. This agency, despite receiving nearly all its revenue from taxation, maintains that it is not a public agency as defined by the Kansas Open Records Act. It refused to fulfill my records request.

Citizen watchdogs and journalists need the ability to examine the spending of tax money. When government creates quasi-governmental bodies that are almost totally funded through taxes and then refuses to disclose how that money is spent, we have to wonder why the city doesn’t want citizens to know how this money is spent.

Recently the vice mayor of Wichita told a television news reporter that these organization have review boards. Therefore, citizen oversight is not necessary. These boards, however, are usually filled with insiders whose interests may not be aligned with the interests of citizens and promoting good government.

There is much that Kansas can, and should do, to strengthen its Open Records Law to give citizen watchdogs and journalists better access to records and documents. Restricting the ability of local governments to erect a protective wall under the guise of non-profit corporations that are almost totally funded by taxation is an important step.

I have additional information about the Kansas Open Records Act and its problems at wichitaliberty.org/open-records.

Respectfully submitted,
Bob Weeks

Transparency groups want to know where Wichita tax money is going to promote Wichita

By Craig Andres, KSN News. View video below, or click here. For more on this issue, see Open government in Kansas.

WICHITA, Kansas — Public or private? GoWichita, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition get more than three million dollars a year. Some of that is taxpayer money.

“Why are their records not public?” asks Randy Brown with the Sunshine Coalition. “It’s ridiculous because we ought to know. These are largely tax supported entities. It’s our money that’s being used. There’s no reason in the world these things shouldn’t be open.”

The Sunshine Coalition is not alone. Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty is asking the same questions.

“I have asked several times for complete open records on these three entities,” says Weeks.” But the mayor and city council have not been interested.”

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner talked with KSN. We asked if the ledgers not being 100% public could be a problem.

“Okay, it could smell like that. But it’s not because we get boards. They have review boards,” says Meitzner. “They have review boards that are members of this community that would not allow it.”

Meitzner says the public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.

“The people that would be looking at that on a daily basis would be our peer city competitors,” explains Meitzner. “Oklahoma, Tulsa, Kansas City and Omaha, they would want to know everything that we are doing to get people downtown.”

Still, watchdog groups say they want to know more.

“The Mayor and the City Manager say all the time that we must be transparent, that we value giving records and information to the citizen,” says Bob Weeks with the Voice For Liberty. “But when it comes down to it they really don’t act in the same way that they say.”

WichitaLiberty.TV January 19, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: How much would you pay to visit the Wichita Art Museum? You might be surprised to learn how much each visit really costs. Then: A transparency agenda for Wichita city government and the Kansas Legislature. Finally, a look at public schools wasting money. Episode 28, broadcast January 19, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

A transparency agenda for Wichita

Wichita City Hall

Kansas has a weak open records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. But with a simple change of attitude towards open government and citizens’ right to know, Wichita could live up to the goals its leaders have set.

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

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

Wichita logic open records
But when we look at some specific areas of government transparency, we find that the city’s efforts are deficient. Below are a few areas in which the city could improve. Much more is available here: Open government in Kansas

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.

In reality, Kansas has a weak open records law. Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. But with a simple change of attitude towards open government and citizens’ right to know, Wichita could live up to the goals its leaders have set.

Attitude

Citizen watchdogs need access to records and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

I have asked each organization for checkbook-level spending data. Each has refused to comply, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But consider the WDDC: In every year but one, its percent of revenue derived from taxes is well over 90 percent. In many years the only income WDDC received was from taxes and a small amount of interest earned. Click here to see how much of WDDC’s revenue comes from taxes.

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position. (Click here to read the determination.) The only course of action open to me as a citizen watchdog is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit.

There is one other course of action, however. That is, these agencies and the city could fulfill the records requests that I have made. These agencies believe the law doesn’t require them to release the records, but the law does not prohibit or restrict releasing the records. They could fulfill requests if they wanted to, which goes back to the attitude of the city. For more, see Wichita, again, fails at open government.

Citizen watchdogs and others need the ability to examine the spending of tax money. When government creates quasi-governmental bodies that are almost totally funded through taxes and then refuses to disclose how that money is spent, we have to wonder why the city doesn’t want citizens to know how this money is spent.

An example of why this is important is the case of Mike Howerter, a trustee of Labette Community College in Parsons. He noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Upon his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a political campaign contribution. While the college president committed no violation by making this political contribution using college funds, this is an example of the type of information that citizens may want regarding the way public funds are spent.

Website

The most important way governments can communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. While the former website had its share of problems — such as a search feature that didn’t work very well — the new website has been a step backwards.

For example, it appears that for citizen review boards like the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and Historic Preservation Board, agendas and minutes prior to 2012 did not survive the conversion to the new website. Other documents that were previously available but appear to be missing after the conversion include the daily arrest reports. It appears that only a few years of past budgets are available, but the comprehensive annual financial reports are available for about ten years back. (If I missed any documents that are actually available, I apologize. But the fact that I couldn’t find them is its own problem.)

The prior website had a service called “MyWichita.” This was a very useful service. After registration, citizens could see a list of documents and check the types of documents for which they’d like to receive notification when newly available, such as meeting agenda and minutes. This email reminder service was very valuable. It didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing new to replace its function.

The search feature on the new website is better than on the old. But there is a curious twist to the new search: It gives different results depending on the starting page. This could be a potentially useful feature if users were made aware of it. For example, if the user is currently viewing the Finance Department web page and starts a search, the system could give the user a choice of search just the Finance Department, or all of the website. Presently, it appears that the search would be confined to just the Finance Department, and users could easily conclude that documents they searched for don’t exist, when in fact they do.

Most new websites in recent years will adapt so they are usable from mobile devices like smartphones. Not so with the new Wichita website.

Spending data

Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, and also the Wichita school district. Not so the City of Wichita.

wichita-checkbook-register-example
Even after asking for checkbook spending data, Wichita can supply data of only limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult and beyond the capability of most citizens to translate the data to useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Legal notices

Kansas law requires that local government agencies publish legal notices for a variety of topics. Presently these are published in the Wichita Eagle at great cost to taxpayers. These notices could also be published on the city’s website, where they could be searched and archived. This would increase the usability of these documents at very little cost to the city.

Publish requests

When governmental agencies like the City of Wichita fulfill records requests, they could also publish the records on their websites. Most of the time the records are supplied electronically, so this is an additional simple (and low cost) step that would leverage the value of the city’s effort.

Leveraging our lobbyists

What do lobbyists, including taxpayer-funded lobbyists, do in Topeka? One thing they do is testify before committees, in both verbal and written form. Another thing they do is to prepare reports for the clients, advising them on upcoming legislation, analyzing how it affects them, and what the prospects for the bill might be. They also meet with legislators and their clients, which are your elected officials.

Here’s a proposal that will help citizens make best use of their taxpayer-funded lobbyists:

I see nothing in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows local governmental units in Kansas to refuse to disclose these documents: testimony, reports by lobbyists to their government clients, and the lobbyists’ calendars (or billing records for contract lobbyists). Instead of making citizens ask for these records, possibly paying fees to obtain what they’re already paying for, why don’t local governments post these documents immediately on their websites?

Citizens could then benefit from the activities of the lobbyists they’re paying for. They could learn more about legislation as it works its way through the process. Citizens could judge whether the positions taken by the government lobbyists they’re paying for are aligned with their policy preferences.

If the actions taken by taxpayer-funded lobbyists are truly in the public interest, you’d think that cities, counties, and school boards would already be making this information easily available. In any case, there should be no resistance to starting this program.

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

city-council-chambers-sign-smallThis week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda. I’ve excerpted the document here, and following are some of the most problematic items.

Agenda: Existing economic development tools are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our community.

First. The premise of this item is incorrect. We don’t have growth and prosperity in Wichita. Compared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. See For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure for details.

Second: In general, these incentives don’t work to increase prosperity. Click here for a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.

Third: Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development. The city’s document lists the tools the city wants the legislature to protect:

  • GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions
  • Industrial Revenue Bond tax abatements (IRBX)
  • Economic Development Exemptions (EDX)
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
  • Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds
  • Community Improvement Districts (CID)
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) tax rebates
  • Special Assessment financing for neighborhood infrastructure projects, facade improvements and abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
  • State Historic Preservation Tax Credits (HPTC)
  • State administration of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP) tax credits
  • Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT) grants
  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program
  • Economic Revitalization and Reinvestment Act bonding for major aviation and wind energy projects
  • Kansas Industrial Training (KIT) and Kansas Industrial Retraining (KIR) grants
  • Network Kansas tax credit funding
  • State support for Innovation Commercialization Centers in Commerce Department budget

That’s quite a list of incentive programs. Some of these are so valuable that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Agenda: GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions

This may refer to the city wanting to prevent these agencies from having to fulfill records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act. (If so, I wonder why the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation was left off.) City leaders say Wichita has an open and transparent government. But Kansas has a weak records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. This is an insult to citizens who are not able to access how their taxes are spent. For more on this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any legislative attempts to restrict the taxing and spending authority of local governments.

As Wichita city leaders prepare to ask for a higher sales tax rate in Wichita, we can hope that the legislature will save us from ourselves. At best, we can hope that the legislature requires that all tax rate increases be put to popular vote.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any restrictions on the use of state and/or local public monies to provide information to our citizens and to advocate on their behalf.

This is the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. As you can see in this document, many of the things that Wichita city leaders believe people want, or believe that will be good for their constituents, are actually harmful. Additionally, many of the methods the city uses to engage citizens to determine their needs are faulty. See In Wichita, there’s no option for dissent for an example. Also, see Wichita survey questions based on false premises.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the current framework for local elections, continuing the current February/April schedule of local primary and general elections, as well as the local option allowing non-partisan elections.

The present system of non-partisan elections held in the spring results in low voter turnout that lets special interest groups exercise greater influence than would be likely in fall elections. See my legislative testimony in Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the development of appropriate state and local incentives to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.

Translation: The city knows better than you how to provide for your entertainment and cultural edification, and will continue to tax you for your own benefit.

Agenda: Public support and awareness of the possibility of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton has grown over the past two years.

I’m not sure where the claim of public support and awareness growing comes from, but people are definitely not informed about the economics of passenger rail. In 2010, when the state rolled out several plans for this passenger rail service link, I reported as follows:

Expansion of rail service in Kansas is controversial, at least to some people, in that any form of rail service requires taxpayer involvement to pay for the service. First, taxpayer funding is required to pay for the start-up costs for the service. There are four alternatives being presented for rail service expansion in Kansas, and the start-up costs range from $156 million up to $479 million.

After this, taxpayer subsidies will be required every year to pay for the ongoing operational costs of providing passenger rail service. The four alternatives would require an annual operating subsidy ranging from $2.1 million up to $6.1 million. Taking the operating subsidy and dividing by the estimated number of passengers for each alternative, the per-passenger subsidy ranges from $35 up to $97 for every passenger who uses the service.

It would be one thing if tickets sales and other revenue sources such as sale of food and beverage paid for most of the cost of providing passenger rail service, and taxpayers were being asked to provide a little boost to get the service started and keep it running until it can sustain itself. But that’s not the case. Taxpayers are being asked to fully fund the start-up costs. Then, they’re expected to pay the majority of ongoing expenses, apparently forever.

Also, in Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas I reported on the Heartland Flyer route specifically. This is from 2010, but I doubt much has changed since then.

For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Asking the taxpayers of Wichita to pay subsidies each time someone boards an Amtrak train: This doesn’t sound like economic development, much less a program that people living in a free society should be forced to fund.

Wichita can advocate for government transparency, or not

Wichita City Hall

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

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

Go Wichita, along with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, contends that it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and most council members are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and action may be taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. We can call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

The legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking Go Wichita to act as though it was a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

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

Earlier this year, the city won an award for government transparency regarding the city’s website. In a statement, the city manager said the city “will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law.

Why open records are important

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

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

This item in the past

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

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

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

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

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

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

Misunderstanding the scope of KORA

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

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

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

Is the city overwhelmed with records requests?

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

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

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

Wichita’s attitude towards citizens

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita logic open records

Downtown Wichita tax base: Growing?

IMG_1956

There’s been much investment in downtown Wichita, we’re told, but the goal of increasing the tax base is farther away rather than closer.

Wichita city leaders have promoted public investment in downtown Wichita as wise because it will increase the tax base.

In his State of the City Address for 2013, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer told the audience (based on his prepared remarks):

As you know, revitalizing downtown has been a key part of growing our community in recent years, recognizing that a healthy and thriving downtown improves our ability to attract new business, keep our young people here, and expand our tax base. With $100 million in completed downtown projects in 2012 and another $115 million starting this year, we’ve made extraordinary progress toward having the downtown that Wichitans have dreamed of. … As development continues downtown, we are closer to reaching our goals of increased pride, an increased tax base, and bringing more businesses and jobs to Wichita.

ssmid-investment-quote-2013

In its report on the economics of downtown Wichita redevelopment, the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation says:

The Downtown SSMID (Self Supported Municipal Improvement District — shown above) has seen a ten-year total amount of $396,850,538 in public investment and $564,776,159 in private investment. SSMID property values have increased over $300 million in the last ten years.

The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation sold the planning process to Wichitans by making the argument that “it will grow existing tax base revenues.”

Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID) boundary map

To evaluate the success of the city’s efforts, we might look at the change in assessed property valuation in downtown Wichita over past years. A way to do that is to look at the valuations for property in the Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID). This is a region of the city that pays an additional property tax to fund the activities of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Its boundaries are roughly the Arkansas River east to Washington, and Kellogg north to Central.

Assessed valuation is the basis for levying property tax. The process starts with an appraised value, which is targeted to be fair market value for the property. Then, that is multiplied by 25 percent for commercial property, or by 11.5 percent for residential property. This produces the assessed value. Multiply that by the sum of the several mill levy rates that apply to the property, and you have the total property tax for that property.

With all the new projects coming online in downtown Wichita, we should expect that the assessed valuation is rising. As someone converts an old, dilapidated property into something more valuable, appraised and assessed values should rise. As new buildings are built, new appraised and assessed value is created where before there was none (or very little). This process is the success story that Mayor Brewer and boosters of public investment in downtown trumpet, as the mayor did twice in one paragraph in his State of the City Address.

So what has happened to the assessed valuation of property in downtown Wichita, using the SSMID as a surrogate?

The answer is that after a period of increasing values, the assessed value of property in downtown has has been declining. The peak was in 2008. The nearby table holds the figures.

This is the opposite of what we’ve been promised. We’ve been told that public investment in downtown Wichita builds up the tax base.

Some might excuse this performance by noting there’s been a recession. That’s true. But according to presentations, there has been much activity in downtown Wichita. Hundreds of millions of dollars in worth, we are told.

So why isn’t the assessed valuation rising? Why is it falling during the time of huge successes?

Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID) assessed property valuation

Data can be viewed here.

Touring a Wichita-owned downtown retail development

I have often wondered why economists, with these absurdities all around them, so easily adopt the view that men act rationally. This may be because they study an economic system in which the discipline of the market ensures that, in a business setting, decisions are more or less rational. The employee of a corporation who buys something for $10 and sells it for $8 is not likely to do so for long. … A politician who wastes his country’s resources on a grand scale may have a successful career.
— Ronald Coase

william-street-parking-garage-2013-09-02-01

At one time it was thought that the Wichita city-owned parking structure in the 400 block of East William Street would house retail shops along the street. But the results should give us reason to be wary of government economic development efforts.

As reported by the Wichita Eagle almost twenty years ago on Wednesday, October 20, 1993:

The council also approved a plan to spend about $76 a square foot to construct roughly 6,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor of the parking garage. The space would lease for an estimated $8.70 a square foot.

Council member Sheldon Kamen questioned that part of the plan. ”I just can’t visualize spending $76 a square foot,” he said. “If I was a developer I wouldn’t spend $76 a square foot for retail space on William street.”

Council member Joan Cole disagreed with Kamen, calling $8.70 a “very good price” that would attract tenants. ”It is my feeling there are small operations that would find this kind of small space very attractive,” she said.

(Adjusted for inflation, these prices would be $122 and $14.)

But it hasn’t happened. As can be seen in this video, a Wichita city government office occupied some of the space, but the office has moved to another location.

It’s not as though the building has some advantages. There are hundreds of state employees parking in the garage each workday. It’s adjacent to the block with the Eaton Hotel and the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, the agency charged with promoting downtown. This retail space is right across the street from the city’s bus transit center. It’s also one block away from the Intrust Bank Arena, which was promoted as a driver of commerce and activity for the surrounding area.

william-street-parking-garage-2013-09-02-02

As can be seen in the nearby photos (click them for larger versions), a walk down this block also reveals maintenance issues that might, in some circumstances, be considered as contributing to blight. Maybe that’s why there’s evidently no demand to rent this space — except by a government office, and even it has left.

The difference

What is the difference between private ownership of assets and government ownership? A big factor is the accountability provided by markets, along with the profit motive. Private owners of rental property like this have a big incentive to keep it filled with tenants. If the private owners are able to attract tenants and control their costs, they can earn a profit. Markets impose a discipline on these costs, because landlords can charge only what the market will bear for rent. If landlords can’t attract tenants, or can’t control costs, they go out of business. That makes the property available to someone else, perhaps someone who can manage the property successfully.

Markets and the profit motive are not perfect. But when private landlords are inefficient, no one is harmed except the landlords.

Government, however, can’t earn a profit or suffer a loss. It can’t even calculate profit and loss in any meaningful sense. Usually government doesn’t account for its capital investment. That’s certainly the case with this empty retail space. A private landlord would realize that this empty space that can’t be rented has an opportunity cost that is very real. That doesn’t appear to be the case with Wichita city management.

This illustrates the weak accountability that government faces. Despite situations like this, the Wichita city manager received effusive praise from the Wichita City Council this year, along with a large raise in pay. Two years ago the incumbent Wichita mayor didn’t inspire a strong opponent, and only about 12 percent of the people bothered to vote.

Considering all the advantages this government property has, it’s failing. It has no tenants, and it’s becoming blighted. The best thing the city could do is sell this property so that the benefits of markets and the profit-and-loss system can replace city bureaucrats.

A vision for Wichita

Wichita city hall logo

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

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

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

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

The Vision of the Urbanites

By Randal O’Toole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WichitaLiberty.TV August 25, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

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

Where is the downtown Wichita tax base?

There’s been much investment in downtown Wichita, we’re told, but the goal of increasing the tax base is farther away rather than closer.

Wichita city leaders have promoted public investment in downtown Wichita as wise because it will increase the tax base.

In his State of the City Address for 2013, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer told the audience (based on his prepared remarks):

As you know, revitalizing downtown has been a key part of growing our community in recent years, recognizing that a healthy and thriving downtown improves our ability to attract new business, keep our young people here, and expand our tax base. With $100 million in completed downtown projects in 2012 and another $115 million starting this year, we’ve made extraordinary progress toward having the downtown that Wichitans have dreamed of. … As development continues downtown, we are closer to reaching our goals of increased pride, an increased tax base, and bringing more businesses and jobs to Wichita.

ssmid-investment-quote-2013

In its report on the economics of downtown Wichita redevelopment, the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation says:

The Downtown SSMID (Self Supported Municipal Improvement District — shown above) has seen a ten-year total amount of $396,850,538 in public investment and $564,776,159 in private investment. SSMID property values have increased over $300 million in the last ten years.

The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation sold the planning process to Wichitans by making the argument that “it will grow existing tax base revenues.”

Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID) boundary map

To evaluate the success of the city’s efforts, we might look at the change in assessed property valuation in downtown Wichita over past years. A way to do that is to look at the valuations for property in the Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID). This is a region of the city that pays an additional property tax to fund the activities of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Its boundaries are roughly the Arkansas River east to Washington, and Kellogg north to Central.

Assessed valuation is the basis for levying property tax. The process starts with an appraised value, which is targeted to be fair market value for the property. Then, that is multiplied by 25 percent for commercial property, or by 11.5 percent for residential property. This produces the assessed value. Multiply that by the sum of the several mill levy rates that apply to the property, and you have the total property tax for that property.

With all the new projects coming online in downtown Wichita, we should expect that the assessed valuation is rising. As someone converts an old, dilapidated property into something more valuable, appraised and assessed values should rise. As new buildings are built, new appraised and assessed value is created where before there was none (or very little). This process is the success story that Mayor Brewer and boosters of public investment in downtown trumpet, as the mayor did twice in one paragraph in his State of the City Address.

So what has happened to the assessed valuation of property in downtown Wichita, using the SSMID as a surrogate?

The answer is that after a period of increasing values, the assessed value of property in downtown has has been declining. The peak was in 2008. The nearby table holds the figures.

This is the opposite of what we’ve been promised. We’ve been told that public investment in downtown Wichita builds up the tax base.

Some might excuse this performance by noting there’s been a recession. That’s true. But according to presentations, there has been much activity in downtown Wichita. Hundreds of millions of dollars in worth, we are told.

So why isn’t the assessed valuation rising? Why is it falling during the time of huge successes?

Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID) assessed property valuation

Data can be viewed here.

Wichita downtown tax base: Rising?

Wichita city leaders have promoted public investment in downtown Wichita as wise because it will increase the tax base.

In his State of the City Address for 2013, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer told the audience (based on his prepared remarks):

As you know, revitalizing downtown has been a key part of growing our community in recent years, recognizing that a healthy and thriving downtown improves our ability to attract new business, keep our young people here, and expand our tax base. With $100 million in completed downtown projects in 2012 and another $115 million starting this year, we’ve made extraordinary progress toward having the downtown that Wichitans have dreamed of. … As development continues downtown, we are closer to reaching our goals of increased pride, an increased tax base, and bringing more businesses and jobs to Wichita.

The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation sold the planning process to Wichitans by making the argument that “it will grow existing tax base revenues.”

Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID) boundary map

To evaluate the success of the city’s efforts, we might look at the change in assessed property valuation in downtown Wichita over past years. A way to do that is to look at the valuations for property in the Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID). This is a region of the city that pays an additional property tax to fund the activities of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Its boundaries are roughly the Arkansas River east to Washington, and Kellogg north to Central.

Assessed valuation is the basis for levying property tax. The process starts with an appraised value, which is targeted to be fair market value for the property. Then, that is multiplied by 25 percent for commercial property, or by 11.5 percent for residential property. This produces the assessed value. Multiply that by the sum of the several mill levy rates that apply to the property, and you have the total property tax for that property.

With all the new projects coming online in downtown Wichita, we should expect that the assessed valuation is rising. As someone converts an old, dilapidated property into something more valuable, appraised and assessed values should rise. As new buildings are built, new appraised and assessed value is created where before there was none (or very little). This process is the success story that Mayor Brewer and boosters of public investment in downtown trumpet, as the mayor did twice in one paragraph in his State of the City Address.

So what has happened to the assessed valuation of property in downtown Wichita, using the SSMID as a surrogate?

The answer is that after a period of increasing values, the assessed value of property in downtown has has been declining. The peak was in 2008. The nearby table holds the figures.

This is the opposite of what we’ve been promised. We’ve been told that public investment in downtown Wichita builds up the tax base.

Some might excuse this performance by noting there’s been a recession. That’s true. But according to presentations, there has been much activity in downtown Wichita. Hundreds of millions of dollars in worth, we are told.

So why isn’t the assessed valuation rising? Why is it falling during the time of huge successes?

More research is needed.

Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID) assessed property valuation

Data can be viewed here.

Downtown Wichita economic development numbers questioned

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

Wichita Project Downtown Annual Report 2012

In his questions, Wichita City Council Member Paul Gray (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) asked whether the amount of public investment presented did, in fact, include all public investment.

In his answer, Scott Knebel, who is Downtown Revitalization Manager, said no, not all forms of public investment were included in the figures presented in the report. He told the council that an analysis is being prepared, perhaps to be available in May.

Gray urged Knebel to be more forthcoming when reporting on the level of public investment in order to gain a better level of community buy-in: “If you truly want a greater level of community buy-in, being as forthcoming as we can with the financial analysis of these projects and truly demonstrating what we as a community are putting in through all the different public financing mechanisms available. You may not persuade the people who don’t like public participation in projects — you’re not going to change their viewpoints by that and I don’t expect you to — but the difference is you may get more trust and buy-in from the community that thinks you’re not being forthcoming and honest with them.”

Regarding Wichita news media, Gray said the media may say “‘See, it’s a 90 percent private funded ratio versus 10 percent’ which is not really the case. We’re skewing actual numbers to demonstrate our successes downtown, but I think our successes downtown speak for themselves.”

Knebel and Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President Jeff Fluhr promised to be more forthcoming with investment figures in the future.

Gray also asked about the city’s practice of building retail space and practically giving it away to developers, who can then lease the space and earn outsized returns at taxpayer expense. I reported this at the time this lease was under consideration by the city council:

According to a letter of intent approved by the city council — and sure to become law after a public hearing at a meeting of the Wichita City Council on September 13th — the city is planning to build about 8,500 square feet of retail space in a downtown parking garage. The garage is being built, partly, to serve a hotel Burk and partners are developing.

Here are the details of the deal Burk and his partners are getting from the taxpayers of Wichita: The city plans to lease this space to Burk and $1.00 per year. Not $1.00 per square foot, but $1.00 for the entire space — all 8,500 square feet.

That’s the plan for the first five years. For the next 10, the city would charge $21,000 rent per year, which is a rate of about $2.50 per square foot.

For years 15 through 20, the rent increases to $63,000, or $7.41 per square foot. At the end of this period, Burk will have the option of purchasing the space for $1,120,000, which is a cost of about $132 per square foot.

That cost of $132 per square foot is within the range of what sources in the real estate industry tell me top-quality retail space costs to build in Wichita, which is from $130 to $140 per square foot. Rents asked for that space would be from $15 to $18 per square foot per year.

Using the low figure, Burk could expect to collect about $127,500 in annual rent on space he rents for $1.00, leaving a gross profit of $127,499 for him. As the $15 rent is a net figure, Burk’s tenants will pay taxes, insurance, and maintenance.

Wichita city manager Robert Layton answered Gray by saying that real estate leasing is not an area of the city’s expertise.

Without Gray’s questions, these important matters of public policy would likely not have been brought to public attention. For mentioning these topics, Gray was — in an attempt at humor by Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) — branded as “Debby Downer.”

Citizens might expect that as millions in public funds are invested, someone in city hall is keeping track, and that there is a plan for reporting these numbers. Citizens should ask why Mayor Brewer, City Manager Layton, and current council members are not concerned that there appears to be no such plan for accountability.

The notion of reporting that there was only $10.7 million in “public projects” in 2012 is absurd. Just one project, the Ambassador Hotel, received $15,407,075 in taxpayer funds to get started, and then was slated to receive $321,499 per year for the first five years, with smaller amounts for 22 years. Wichita voters rejected a small part of the ongoing subsidy, but the rest remained.

As to city manager Layton’s answer that the city is not experience in real estate leasing, my response is well, why then did you get involved? It’s not the first time the city has made such a sweetheart lease deal with some of the same parties. It’s become almost routine, as I reported at the time this lease was being considered:

While most citizens might be shocked at the many layers of subsidy offered to Burk, he’s accustomed to such treatment. In 2003, the city offered a similar deal to Burk and his partners for retail space that is part of the Old Town Cinema project. That deal was made with Cinema Old Town, LLC, whose resident agent is David Burk. According to the Wichita Eagle, other partners in this corporation include Wichita theater owner Bill Warren, real estate agent Steven Barrett, Key Construction and seven others.

David Wells, one of the owners of Key Construction, is a partner with Burk on the new hotel project, and Key is slated to build the garage under a process that doesn’t require competitive bidding, even though city money is used to pay for it. Note: Later the garage was put out for competitive bid.

The Old Town project let Burk and his partners lease 17,500 square feet of retail space from the City of Wichita for $1.00 per year for the first five years. Like the proposed project, that’s not $1.00 per square foot, but $1.00 per year for all 17,500 square feet.

I wonder: Is the fact that these parties — Burk, Key Construction, Bill Warren — are reliable campaign contributors to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members, does that mean anything?

Wichita Eagle reporting on this meeting is at City Council member Paul Gray questions numbers by Wichita Downtown Development.

Downtown Wichita issues not appreciated

Once again, the Wichita Eagle editorial board misses the point regarding downtown Wichita development.

There may be some that are opposed to downtown simply because it’s downtown, or for other silly reasons. That seems to be the focus of Rhonda Holman’s editorial today.

But speaking from a perspective of economic freedom and individual liberty, it’s government interventionism in downtown that I object to. This is what harms Wichita, not the fact that people are living and working downtown or anywhere else, for that matter.

The political cronyism involved in many projects in downtown Wichita is what harms our city. When government takes from one and gives to another, everyone is worse off — other than the recipients. I understand that it’s easy to look at a subsidized project — be it downtown or elsewhere — and see people working at jobs. It’s much more difficult, however, to see the harm that the government intervention causes: Prosperity and jobs are lost due to inefficient government allocation of capital through political, not market, mechanisms. In the whole, we are worse off, not better.

If you don’t believe this — if you insist that the city government can create jobs and prosperity through its interventions, and that these have no net cost — then you have to ask why the city is not involved in more development.

It is the principled objection to government involvement that many do not understand, including, I think, the Wichita Eagle editorial board. An example: In September 2011, after I and others started a campaign to overturn a city council decision to award a tax subsidy to the Ambassador Hotel, the hotel’s lead developer asked to meet with me. In the meeting I explained that I would oppose the city’s action if applied to any hotel, located anywhere in Wichita, owned by anyone. He said that he sensed my opposition was based on principle, and I agreed.

The curious thing is that this seemed to puzzle him — that people would actually apply principles to politics.

The political allocation of investment capital in Wichita leads to problems of the appearance of impropriety, if not actual impropriety. There is a small group of people that repeatedly receive large amounts of taxpayer subsidy. These people and others associated with their companies regularly contribute to the campaign funds of city council members and candidates. These council members then vote to grant these people taxpayer-funded subsidy, year after year.

City council members also vote to award them with no-bid contracts. That’s terrible government policy. Especially when one recent contract was later put to competitive bid, and turned out to cost much less than the no-bid price. City council members, all except one, were willing to award their significant campaign contributors with an overpriced no-bid contract at taxpayer expense.

The company that won the no-bid contract was Key Construction. Its owners and executives were the sole contributors to the campaign fund of Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) in 2012 as she prepared to run for reelection this spring.

James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), also running for reelection this spring, and also having voted for the no-bid contract for Key, also received many contributions from Key and its executives in 2012. That company, along with person associated with one other company, were the sole source of Clendenin’s campaign funding that year.

Doesn’t the Wichita Eagle editorial board see a problem here? Doesn’t the newsroom?

There was a time when newspaper opinion editors crusaded against this type of behavior.

Newspaper editorial writers ought also to be concerned about how taxpayer funds are spent. The City of Wichita, however, has established non-profit organizations to spend taxpayer funds. The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, for example, is funded almost exclusively through taxes. Yet, it claims that it is not a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act, and therefore need not fulfill records requests seeking to bring transparency as to how the agency spends its taxpayer funds. The city, inexplicably, backs WDDC in this interpretation of law that is contrary to the interests of citizens.

Secrecy of this type regarding taxpayer funds is not good public policy. There was a time when newspaper editors railed against government secrecy like this.

We need a newspaper editorial board that understands principle vs. political expediency. As a first step, let’s ask for an editorial board that recognizes these abuses of citizens and is willing to talk about them.

In Wichita, failure to value open records and open government

On the KAKE Television public affairs program “This Week in Kansas” the failure of the Wichita City Council, especially council member Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), to recognize the value of open records and open government is discussed.

For more background, see Wichita, again, fails at open government.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita could do better regarding open government, if it wants

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. The renewal will provide another opportunity for the council to decide whether it is truly in favor of open government and citizen access to records.

Go Wichita, along with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, contends that it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and all council members except Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and action may be taken there soon to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. We can call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

The legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking Go Wichita to act as though it was a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

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

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law.

Why open records are important

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

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

This item, last year

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

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

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

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

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

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

John Rolfe, president of Go Wichita, told the council that he has offered to provide me “any information that is relevant” regarding Go Wichita. He mentioned the various financial reports his organization provides. He said he is unclear on the transparency question, and what isn’t transparent.

Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) asked Rolfe if he had ever denied a KORA request. Rolfe replied no, perhaps not remembering that Go Wichita denied my request.

Misunderstanding the scope of KORA

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

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

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

Is the city overwhelmed with records requests?

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

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I have made no requests this year to the city citing the open records act. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to his concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

As for a workshop for city council on the topic of open records: This would probably be presented by Rebenstorf, and his attitude towards the open records law is known, and is not on the side of citizens.

O’Donnell made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Wichita’s attitude towards citizens

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita government’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know is an issue

At a meeting of the Wichita City Council, Kansas Policy Institute president Dave Trabert explained the problems in obtaining compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act.

The target of Trabert’s record request was Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. This agency — contrary to any reasonable interpretation of the law — believes it is not subject to KORA, even though it receives nearly all its funding from taxes.

It’s important to remember that while the Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions that agencies use to avoid releasing records, agencies may release the records if they want.

The city hides behind a narrow and tortured legal interpretation of the Kansas Open Records Act. Today, not one city council member spoke in support of government transparency. It would be a simple matter for the council to ask that WDDC satisfy records requests. There are many exclusions that cover records WDDC may not want to release.

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

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

For more on this issue in Kansas, see Open records again an issue in Kansas.