For a video presentation of this material, click on Wichita performs a reference check, the video.
Citizens of Wichita are rightly concerned about whether our elected officials and bureaucrats are looking out for their interests, or only for the interests and welfare of a small group of city hall insiders. Cronies, if you will.
A recent application filed with Wichita City Hall regarding the West Bank Development Project raises two questions: Did the government officials listed as references give their permission, and were any of the references contacted to learn what they knew about the applicants?
The application filed by the River Vista development team shows this: The team, consisting of George Laham, Dave Wells, Dave Burk, and Bill Warren listed numerous local, state, and federal officials as references. Here’s the list of officials that appeared one or more times:
Wichita city manager Robert Layton
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer
Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita)
Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita)
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett
Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter
Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh
Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback
U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo
Except for Jeff Easter, none of these officials gave permission for their names to be used in this way. (We didn’t get a response regarding Tim Norton.)
Furthermore, none of these officials were contacted by the evaluation committee whose job it is to vet these potential city partners.
A few questions: First, do you think it is appropriate for the city manager to be listed as a reference, given that anyone who reads this document would take it as an endorsement? No, of course it is not appropriate.
Related: Do you think it’s appropriate for the city manager to endorse one of the applicants? We don’t know if the presence of the city manager’s name as a reference implies an endorsement, because George Laham did not ask the city manager if he could be listed as a reference. We know this because we asked.
Further, the committee that evaluated the development teams did not call the city manager to inquire about George Laham. We asked about this, too. But making inquiries of references: Isn’t that what an evaluation committee or vetting team should do? But we know that the evaluation committee did not contact even one of these officials that were listed as references.
These applicants likely knew that the evaluation committee would not contact these references. Therefore, they freely listed these government officials. Which makes us wonder — what is the point of having an evaluation committee?
Even further: Is it appropriate for the city to partner with people who think it’s proper to list the city manager as a reference without asking if that was permissible, knowing that the manager wouldn’t be contacted? Same question regarding the mayor, governor, our U.S. Congressman, and district attorney?
In light of this — numerous government officials listed as references without their permission or knowledge, an evaluation committee that never contacted these officials, and the information that these references could have provided: Do you think the evaluation committee fulfilled its duty to perform due diligence on behalf of the interests of the people of Wichita?
What the evaluation committee might have learned
If the evaluation committee had contacted these references, here’s what might have been learned.
Dave Wells: Wells is president of Key Construction. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget.” Noting the cost overruns, reporter Bill Wilson wrote: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.” (Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects.)
Also, two years ago Key Construction proposed — and was awarded by the city council — a no-bid contract for a parking garage. But the city later put the contract to competitive bid. Key, which first bid $6 million, later bid $4.7 million. If the desire of the majority of the city council, including Mayor Carl Brewer, had been realized, Wichita taxpayers would have sent an extra — and unnecessary — $1.3 million to a politically-connected construction company.
By the way, the mayor’s relationship with Wells means he should not have voted on this matter.
Dave Burk, Dave Wells: These two were original partners in WaterWalk, which has received over $40 million in subsidy, with little to show for results.
Dave Burk: He’s received many millions from many levels of government, but still thinks he doesn’t get enough. This is what we can conclude by his appeal of property taxes in a TIF district. Those taxes, even though they are rerouted back to him for his benefit, were still too high for his taste, and he appealed. The Wichita Eagle reported in the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property): “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”
A number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s act. According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”
Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.’”
In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, Wichita city manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.’”
The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.
This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high. Now he wants more city taxpayer subsidy.
Bill Warren: In 2008 the Old Town Warren Theater was failing and its owners — Bill Warren being one — threatened to close it and leave the city with a huge loss on a tax increment financing (TIF) district formed for the theater’s benefit. Faced with this threat, the city made a no-interest and low-interest loan to the theater. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”
Besides Warren, you may — or may not — be surprised to learn that the theater’s partners included Dave Wells and Dave Burk, the same two men mentioned above. Also, Mayor Brewer’s relationship with Warren means he should not have voted on this matter.