Tag Archives: Wichita Downtown Development Corporation

WichitaLiberty.TV: Trump and the Wichita Eagle, property rights and blight, teachers union, and capitalism

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Was it “Trump” or “Bernie” that incited a fight, and how does the Wichita Eagle opine? Economic development in Wichita. Blight and property rights. Teachers unions. Explaining capitalism. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 117, broadcast April 24, 2016.

What else can Wichita do for downtown companies?

With all Wichita has done, it may not be enough.

Within a month, these two headlines appeared in the opinion pages of the Wichita Eagle:

Investment in downtown Wichita is impressive 1

State and local leaders need to help meet Cargill’s needs 2

The second headline was in response to the news story “Cargill plans to move its Wichita headquarters — but where?” 3 In this story, Carrie Rengers reports “Cargill is looking to move its Wichita headquarters, but whether that’s within downtown, where it already is, or outside of it or even outside of Kansas is unclear. … City and state officials are working in full gear to make sure Wichita — downtown specifically — is the option Cargill selects.”

Rengers reports that Wichita city officials say no specific incentives have been offered to Cargill, but “any incentives likely would involve infrastructure help, such as with parking, or assistance with easing the process for a new building, such as with permitting.” Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell says “cash incentive won’t be an option,” according to Rengers.

A Cargill official says that the company needs to attract millennials and younger people, who are not attracted to “traditional office space and office-type buildings.”

Now, consider the first opinion headline: “Investment in downtown Wichita is impressive.” In this op-ed, Phillip Brownlee writes “It’s encouraging that investment in downtown Wichita is continuing — and that it is mostly privately funded. A vibrant downtown is important to the city’s image and to attracting and retaining young adults. More than $1 billion in private and public investment has occurred downtown in the past decade. About $675 million of that investment has been privately funded, and $411 million has been public projects, according to Wichita Downtown Development Corp.”

Brownlee goes on to note other investments, such as 800 new apartment units “in the works.”

On the importance of downtown, Brownlee writes “City leaders have long recognized the value of a healthy downtown. Besides the symbolic importance of not having a lot of empty buildings, many young adults prefer an urban environment. That makes downtown important even for businesses not located there, because it can help or hurt their ability to recruit and retain young professionals.”

I see a discontinuity. Our city’s leaders — opinion, elected, and bureaucratic — brag about all the investment in downtown Wichita, public and private, yet it doesn’t seem to be enough to retain a major Wichita employer in downtown.

At least editorialist Rhonda Holman recognizes the problem in her column: “It’s concerning that Cargill’s stated intentions to relocate and consolidate have not included a commitment to remain downtown or even in Wichita or Kansas.” What is her solution? “Elected and business leaders need to be creative and assertive in helping Cargill meet its needs.”

I share Holman’s concern. It’s very troubling that with $411 million in private investment over the past decade, downtown Wichita still isn’t attractive enough to retain Cargill, if the company’s intent to move is real and genuine. And advising the same group of people who have been in power during the decline of the Wichita economy to be “creative and assertive” is a solution?

What’s even more disconcerting is that the person who has overseen much of this downtown spending has been promoted. Now Jeff Fluhr of Wichita Downtown Development Corporation is president of Greater Wichita Partnership, with responsibility “to grow the regional economy.”

Forgive me if I’m underwhelmed.

Regulation
One of the things that may be offered to Cargill, according to Rengers, is “assistance with easing the process for a new building, such as with permitting.” This is a big red flag on a very tall flagpole. If the city has regulations so onerous that they are a consideration as to whether to locate in Wichita, this is something that must be fixed immediately. But the instinct of the Wichita City Council and city bureaucrats is to create more regulations covering everything from the striping of parking lots to the personal hygiene of taxi drivers.

Cash incentives
Mayor Longwell says there will be no cash incentives offered to Cargill. Instead, something like help with parking may be offered. This might take the form of building a parking garage for Cargill. We should ask: What is the difference between giving cash to Cargill and building a parking garage for Cargill’s use? There really isn’t a meaningful difference, except for Cargill. That’s because cash incentives are taxable income. Free use of a parking garage isn’t taxable. 4 5

Further, Cargill may qualify for PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas.6 This program allows companies to retain 95 percent of the payroll withholding tax of employees. The original intent of this program was to lure companies to locate in Kansas, but in recent years the program has been expanded to include incentivizing companies to remain in Kansas. While this is a state program and not a city program under the mayor’s control, PEAK benefits are more valuable than cash.


Notes

  1. Brownlee, Phillip. Investment in downtown Wichita is impressive. Wichita Eagle. March 5, 2016. Available at www.kansas.com/opinion/editorials/article64129977.html.
  2. Holman, Rhonda. State and local leaders need to help meet Cargill’s needs. Wichita Eagle. April 1, 2016. Available at www.kansas.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/now-consider-this/article69534982.html.
  3. Rengers, Carrie. Cargill plans to move its Wichita headquarters — but where? Wichita Eagle. March 29, 2016. Available at www.kansas.com/news/business/biz-columns-blogs/carrie-rengers/article68700517.html.
  4. Journal of Accountancy, (2009). Location Tax Incentive Not Federal Taxable Income. Available at: www.journalofaccountancy.com/issues/2009/apr/locationtaxincentive.html.
  5. American Institute of CPAs, (2015). Federal Treatment of State and Local Tax Incentives. Available at: www.cpa2biz.com/Content/media/PRODUCER_CONTENT/Newsletters/Articles_2008/CorpTax/Federaltreat.jsp.
  6. Weeks, Bob. In Kansas, PEAK has a leak. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/kansas-peak-leak/.

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

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

In Wichita, open records relief may be on the way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita, again, fails at open government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita tourism plan should include spending disclosure

As part of a plan for spending a dedicated tax revenue stream, the Wichita city council should include disclosure of spending. It would fulfill a campaign promise.

When the City of Wichita collects money through taxation, citizens have the right to know how it is spent. For the city, it is possible to view every check that is written, although the city is not able to supply this information in machine-readable form. But it is available.

But when the city establishes non-profit corporations that are funded totally, or nearly totally, with taxes, different rules apply, says the city: Spending does not have to be disclosed.

This is contrary to the spirit of the Kansas Open Records Act, which opens with the preamble “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.”

For some time citizens have asked that the spending records of Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau (now known as Visit Wichita) be made available. But it is the position of each of these agencies that despite being funded almost totally by taxes, they do not need to reveal their spending records. The City of Wichita has backed this position.

This week the city council will consider a scope of services and budget agreement with its convention and visitors bureau. This year that agency is receiving the proceeds of a new 2.75 percent tax on hotel bills. City documents indicate this tax is expected to raise $2.7 million annually. When added to other tax funds the convention and visitors bureau receives, its budget is some $5 million per year.

But none of this money is subject to the same disclosure as regular city spending.

During the recent mayoral campaign, candidate Jeff Longwell wrote this in response to a question for the Wichita Eagle voter guide: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”

Now Wichita mayor, Longwell has an opportunity to implement a campaign promise. It would be simple to do. All the council needs to do is insist that the convention and visitors bureau agree that it is what the law says it is: An agency funded nearly totally by taxes, which means it is a public agency that falls under the scope of the Kansas Open Records Act.

Wichita city hall falls short in taxpayer protection

An incentives agreement the Wichita city council passed on first reading is missing several items that city policy requires. How the council and city staff handle the second reading of this ordinance will let us know for whose interests city hall works: citizens, or cronies.

This week I presented the Wichita City Council my concerns about an inadequate developer agreement for a TIF district development project, the Mosley Avenue Project.

My presentation centered on the lack of an agreement by the developer to forgo appeals of the tax valuation of the property. The applicant had done this in the past, and it caused a shortfall of TIF revenue that the city had to makeup. The city manager had said that taxpayers would be protected in future deals, but the city did not include this protection in the Mosely agreement.

The omission of this taxpayer protection was not all that was missing. The Downtown Development Incentives Policy, revised by the council on June 10, 2014, calls for several items to be supplied when seeking incentives, including tax increment financing, which was the incentive requested for the Mosely project. As I show below, many significant items related to taxpayer protection were missing.

The council approved the project on first reading, noting that the development agreement would be finalized in time for second reading.

This is insufficient. The second reading of an ordinance is usually handled as part of the consent agenda. This is a grouping of items that are voted on as a group, in bulk. There is no discussion unless a council member specifically requests. The practice of the city is that the text of the ordinances on second reading is not made available in the agenda packet, even though changes may have been made between first reading and second reading. That will certainly be the case with this ordinance, as many things are missing from the development agreement.

It’s not clear why there is a first reading and a second reading of an ordinance. It may be so that details may be corrected. Or, perhaps council members would like to have a chance to reconsider their first vote. City code seems to give no guidance as to how much change to an ordinance is allowable between first and second reading.

The problem we face in Wichita is that the approval of a development plan in a TIF district has a mandated public hearing. It is not optional. But the motion passed by the council this week closed the public hearing. Yet, the city will need to make substantial changes to the ordinance and development agreement if it intends to follow the downtown incentives policy that it created. But the public will have no chance to comment on the new material. If past city practice is followed, the new material will not be made available to the public, and perhaps not to council members.

This is a conflict that I do not believe can be resolved unless the city reopens the public hearing for consideration of the revised ordinance and developer agreement on first reading. Anything else disrespects procedures that are designed to benefit and protect the public.

Except. As with many city council policies, there are loopholes. As outlined below, the council can simply vote to waive the requirements of the downtown incentives policy. That gives the council an easy out. But that makes another mockery of the city’s policies, if the council waives them whenever they are inconvenient.

When I presented the defect in the development agreement to the council I asked: Is this lack of taxpayer protection an oversight, or is it by design? There was no answer.

I did not ask this question, but didn’t any city council member notice the omission of significant items needed to comply with its own policies? What about the city manager? Economic development director? City attorney?

More importantly, who in city hall looking out for the interests of taxpayers? Could the generous campaign contributions of Burk and his wife be a factor in this missing taxpayer protection? Or the generous contributions of Key Construction and its executives? (Key Construction is frequently used by Burk.) This is one more incident illustrating the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita.

Missing items

Section D of the incentives policy states “parties requesting Downtown Development Incentives must submit the information listed below.” Significant missing items included the following:

CEDBR Fiscal Impact Model
The idea behind the city’s use of economic development incentives is that the city receives more than it spends or forgoes in future tax revenue. An analysis performed by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University is used to make this decision. This appears to have not been done for this project.

Guarantee for a proportional share of public revenue shortfall
This was not present in the developer agreement.

Economic analysis confirms that the project is infeasible “but for” public investment
This was not present in the developer agreement.

Minimum private to public capital investment ratio of 2 to 1
Information necessary to make this judgment was not included in the agenda presentation.

Pro Forma
The incentives policy states: “Pro Forma — The project pro forma will be evaluated on the following criteria:
a. Rate of private investment return
b. Rents/prices consistent with performance of comparables
c. Projected rate of absorption consistent with performance of comparables
d. Long-term project solvency”
It appears that this analysis was not performed.

“Gap” Financing Requirement
The downtown incentives policy states: “Approval of Downtown Development Incentives will require a financial analysis demonstrating that the project would not otherwise be possible without the use of the requested development incentive (“gap” analysis). Parties requesting Downtown Development Incentives will be required to provide the City pro forma cash flow analyses and sources and uses of funds in sufficient detail to demonstrate that reasonably available conventional debt and equity financing sources are not available to fund the entire cost of the project and still provide the developer a reasonable market rate of return on investment.”

There is no evidence that this analysis was performed and made available to the council.

Waiver
The incentives policy contains a loophole. If the council believes it is “inappropriate to evaluate a particular request for Downtown Development Incentives” using the policy, it may vote to waive the requirements.

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 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 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.”

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?

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: 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 were 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.

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.