This week Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer delivered his annual “State of the City” address. While the Wichita Eagle editorial commenting on the mayor’s speech is titled “Cause to boast, hope,” a look at some of the important topics the mayor addressed will lead some to conclude otherwise.
The text of the mayor’s address may be read at several places, including here.
Regarding Wichita’s economic development, the mayor said that the city’s efforts saved 745 jobs and created 435 jobs, for a total impact of 1,180 jobs. To place those numbers in context, we note that American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates the labor force in Wichita is 191,760 persons. This means that the economic development efforts of the City of Wichita affected a number of jobs equivalent to 0.6 percent of the city workforce.
This small number of jobs impacted by the city’s economic development initiatives is dwarfed by other economic events. Additionally, these efforts by the city are counterproductive — if our interest is creating a dynamic economy in Wichita. Analysis by the Kauffman Foundation finds that it is new firms — young firms, in other words — that are the primary drivers of job creation. But the economic development policies of cities like Wichita are definitely biased toward older, established firms. The cost of these economic development efforts, which are paid for by everyone including young businesses firms struggling to grow, means that we prop up unproductive companies at the expense of the type of firms we need to really grow the Wichita economy.
In particular, the mayor’s proudest achievement — he nearly burst with pride when speaking of it — pours a large amount of state, county, and city funds into Hawker Beechcraft, an old-line company that is shrinking its employment in Kansas. This deal with Hawker Beechcraft should not be viewed as a proud moment for Wichita and Kansas. Instead, we should view this as succumbing to economic blackmail by Hawker, based on a threat that may not have been genuine. We responded by making in investment in an old-line, shrinking company, apparently the first time that the state has invested public funds in a downsizing company.
Furthermore, the investment in Hawker comes on the heels of an analysis that says Hawker should divest itself of all its lines of business except for one. The analysis paints a grim future for Hawker: “In addition, backlogs are dwindling, R&D budgets are miniscule, employee pensions are underfunded by $296 million and the prospects of paying down its long-term debt are remote. At this point, it would be a monumental task just to roll-over the debt, let alone pay it off entirely. At the root of the problem is the state of Hawker Beechcraft’s business jet product lines. … At the heart of HBC’s current strategy is the assumption that a market recovery will fix what’s ailing the company, and that is just not true. The company’s business aviation products are seriously underperforming with new products relegated to minor upgrades due to a token R&D budgets based on an across-the-board derivative strategy.”
The mayor also touted an agreement with Bombardier Learjet for the company to produce a new jet in Wichita. This deal required that the state issue bonds to raise money to give to Bombardier. The bonds will be paid off by the company’s employee withholding taxes. That’s money that would normally go to the state’s general fund. Instead, this deal raises the cost of government for everyone else.
The mayor said of these deals: “As I suggested at the time of the Hawker deal, this was a declaration that Kansas and Wichita will fight to keep its aircraft industry. As I said then, ‘You’re not going to take what’s most important to us, and that’s our aviation industry.’ Simply put, we will not lose these jobs. Period.”
Unfortunately, the mayor’s declaration is an invitation to Kansas companies of all types to seek public funds just as these two companies did, and as others have across Kansas. The result is increased costs of government and a state and city less inviting to the dynamic and innovative young companies that we now know are the engine of prosperity and job growth.
The mayor also lauded the use of “revenue bonds” used for the construction of a IMAX movie theater in west Wichita. Focusing on the bonds allowed the mayor to gloss over the large measure of property tax forgiveness — corporate welfare — granted to the Warren Theater. The theater’s owners have received corporate welfare before from the city.
Plans for downtown
On the master plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita, the mayor said the plan will “lead us to a point where ultimately the private investment exceeds public investment by a 15 to 1 ratio.” At the time agitation for a downtown plan started two years ago, research indicated that the ratio of private to public investment in downtown was approximately one to one. It’s quite a stretch for the mayor to promise an eventual 15 to one ratio, especially since the Goody Clancy plan recently adopted by the city council calls for — over the next 20 years — $500 million in private investment supported by $100 million of public investment. That’s a five to one ratio, not the 15 to one mentioned by the mayor. Even then, it will be surprising if anything near a five to one ratio is achieved.
The mayor also promoted the decision by Cargill to build a new facility downtown as a sign of success. This facility, however, required over $2.5 million in various subsidy from state and local governments. It hardly seems a measure of proud success when companies are able to extract this level of corporate welfare in exchange for locating facilities in Wichita.
Accountability and transparency
In his address, 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.”
This an instance in which the actions of the city do not match with Brewer’s rhetoric. A small example is from last fall when the city had a stakeholder meeting to discuss the city’s community improvement district policy. While the term “stakeholder” is vague and means different things to different people, you might think that such a gathering might include representatives from the community at large. Instead, the meeting was stacked almost exclusively with those who have an interest in extracting as much economic subsidy as possible from the city. Often we find that meetings of this type are designed so that no dissenting voices are present.
More importantly, the City of Wichita has failed to follow a fundamental law that provides accountability and transparency: the Kansas Open Records Act.
I have made requests for records from three quasi-governmental agencies, two of which are under the city’s direct influence: Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Each of these organizations denied that they are public agencies as defined in the KORA, and therefore refused to fulfill my requests.
Two times last year I appeared before the city council when the city was considering renewal of its contract with Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked the mayor that as a condition of renewing the contracts, the city ask that the agencies follow the law. But the mayor and the city rely on an incorrect interpretation of the KORA from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf and refused to act on my request. It should be noted that Rebenstorf has been wrong several times before when issuing guidance to the 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.
The Kansas Open Records Act 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.” Governments in Kansas should be looking at ways to increase availability of information. Instead, the City of Wichita uses a narrow — not liberal — interpretation of the records law restrict citizen access to records. At some time I believe the city’s legal position will be shown to be wrong.
At any time the mayor could ask — and it could have been written into their contracts — that these agencies comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. The mayor’s refusal to do so indicates an attitude of accountability and transparency on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law.
At many levels of government, when the chief executive makes an annual address like this, time is provided for someone to make a response, usually someone with a different point of view. This is the practice at the federal level, and also in Kansas when the governor delivers the state of the state address.
The City of Wichita ought to do the same.