Must the City of Wichita spend its share of Sedgwick County sales tax proceeds in a specific way?
Sedgwick County collects a one-cent per dollar retail sales tax. The county keeps some, then distributes the rest to cities. On Facebook, a question arose regarding how Wichita may spend its share of the sales tax proceeds. Couldn’t some funds that go towards building Kellogg be rerouted to, say, fund the operations of Wichita’s public library system?
A former city council member argued that “As it stands, Wichita cannot spend its allocated portion of that sales tax on anything but roads and bridges.” I posted that there was a Wichita city ordinance that said how the sales tax is to be spent in Wichita, and that ordinance could be modified or canceled. The same former council member admonished me to call a specific person in the city budget office and “he will clarify for you that the City Council doesn’t have the ability to override the Sedgwick County sales tax referendum language.”
I looked for the referendum language. The document is available in Sedgwick County’s election document system. The canvass of the special sales tax election was held on August 2, 1985, and this was reported:
The returns of the election were presented to the Board as received from the official conducting the election on the following proposition:
SHALL THE FOLLOWING BE ADOPTED?
A proposition to enact a countywide retailers’ sales tax in Sedgwick County, Kansas, in the amount of one percent (1%), such tax to take effect on October 1, 1985, pursuant to K.S.A. 1984 Supp. 12-187.
The language of the referendum is silent regarding how the tax revenue may or may not be spent.
There are, however, other considerations. One, according to Mark Manning, the city’s budget officer, is that the city has borrowed money, with proceeds from the sales tax pledged for repayment.
Second, there is a Wichita city ordinance, number 41-185. It pledges half the city’s share of the sales tax towards property tax reduction. Then, it states: “… and pledges the remaining one half of the one percent (1%) of any revenues received to Wichita road, highway and bridge projects including right-of-way acquisitions.” This was adopted on August 25, 1992 and replaced an existing ordinance that said the same.
The 1992 ordinance also holds this, in section II: “It is the specific intent of the Governing Body of the City of Wichita that the City of Wichita continue to use the tax revenues as outlined in this ordinance and that this pledge be continued as a matter of faith and trust between the people and the present and future Governing Bodies of the City of Wichita.”
We often hear that half the city’s share of the sales tax is pledged for Kellogg construction. In actuality it is pledged to “Wichita road, highway and bridge projects.”
But really, it isn’t even pledged to that. The pledge is in the form of a city ordinance. It may be changed at any time at the will of four council members.
Yes, the ordinance says the city intends to continue using the tax revenues in the same way “as a matter of faith and trust.” Unfortunately, that trust has been destroyed in many ways, one being council members who tell us things that aren’t true.
The Wichita City Council will consider approval of a redevelopment plan in a tax increment financing (TIF) district.
This week the Wichita City Council will hold a public hearing considering approval of more tax increment financing (TIF) spending in downtown Wichita. The spending is for the second phase of redevelopment of the Union Station property on East Douglas. According to city documents, the total cost of this phase is $31,000,000, with TIF paying for $2,954,734. 1
This is a pay-as-you-go form of TIF, which means the city does not borrow funds as it would in a traditional TIF district. Instead, the eligible portion of the developer’s property taxes will be rerouted back to the development as they are paid.
The TIF district was established in 2014. The council this week considers a redevelopment plan, which authorizes spending TIF funds on a specific project. Redevelopment plans must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the council. While overlapping jurisdictions like counties and school districts can block the formation of a TIF district, they have no such role in the approval of a redevelopment plan.
Of note, this public hearing is being held after the fact, sort of. City documents state: “A development agreement was approved by the City Council on August 7, to allow for the developer to begin non-TIF eligible improvements in order to meet deadlines for a new tenant.” The city documents for the August 7 meeting hold this: 2
The Developer has requested that the development agreement be approved now, prior to adoption of the project plan, to allow work to begin on the Meade Corridor improvements in order to complete the project in time for the tenant to move in. The Development agreement is drafted to allow for the Meade Corridor improvements to occur following adoption of the agreement, however, any work or reimbursement for TIF is contingent on City Council adoption of the project plan following the September 11 public hearing.
Citizens have to wonder will the September 11 public hearing have any meaning or relevance, given that on August 7 the city gave its de facto approval of the redevelopment plan.
Following, more information about tax increment financing.
Tax increment financing disrupts the usual flow of tax dollars, routing funds away from cash-strapped cities, counties, and schools back to the TIF-financed development. TIF creates distortions in the way cities develop, and researchers find that the use of TIF means lower economic growth.
How TIF works
A TIF district is a geographically-defined area.
In Kansas, TIF takes two or more steps. The first step is that cities or counties establish the boundaries of the TIF district. After the TIF district is defined, cities then must approve one or more project plans that authorize the spending of TIF funds in specific ways. (The project plan is also called a redevelopment plan.) In Kansas, overlapping counties and school districts have an opportunity to veto the formation of the TIF district, but this rarely happens. Once the district is formed, cities and counties have no ability to object to TIF project plans.
Before the formation of the TIF district, the property pays taxes to the city, county, school district, and state as can be seen in figure 1. Because property considered for TIF is purportedly blighted, the amount of tax paid is usually small. Whatever it is, that level is called the “base.”
After approval of one or more TIF project plans the city borrows money and gives it to the project or development. The city now has additional debt in the form of TIF bonds that require annual payments. Figure 2 illustrates. (There is now another form of TIF known as “pay-as-you-go” that works differently, but produces much the same economic effect.)
Figure 3 shows the flow of tax revenue after the formation of the TIF district and after the completion of a project. Because buildings were built or renovated, the property is worth more, and the property tax is now higher. The development now has two streams of property tax payments that are handled in different ways. The original tax — the “base” — is handled just like before, distributed to city, state, school district, and the state, according to their mill levy rates. The difference between the new tax and the base tax — the “increment” — is handled differently. It goes to only two destinations (mostly): The State of Kansas, and repayment of the TIF bonds.
Figure 4 highlights the difference in the flow of tax revenues. The top portion of the illustration shows development outside of TIF. We see the flows of tax payments to city, county, school district, and the state. In the bottom portion, which shows development under TIF, the tax flows to city, county, and school district are missing. No longer does a property contribute to the support of these three units of government, although the property undoubtedly requires the services of them. This is especially true for a property in Old Town, which consumes large amounts of policing.
(Cities, counties, and school districts still receive the base tax payments, but these are usually small, much smaller than the incremental taxes. In non-TIF development, these agencies still receive the base taxes too, plus whatever taxes result from improvement of the property — the “increment,” so to speak. Or simply, all taxes.)
The Kansas law governing TIF, or redevelopment districts as they are also called, starts at K.S.A. 12-1770.
TIF and public policy
Originally most states included a “but for” test that TIF districts must meet. That is, the proposed development could not happen but for the benefits of TIF. Many states have dropped this requirement. At any rate, developers can always present proposals that show financial necessity for subsidy, and gullible government officials will believe.
Similarly, TIF was originally promoted as a way to cure blight. But cities are so creative and expansive in their interpretation of blight that this requirement, if it still exists, has little meaning.
The rerouting of property taxes under TIF goes against the grain of the way taxes are usually rationalized. We use taxation as a way to pay for services that everyone benefits from, and from which we can’t exclude people. An example would be police protection. Everyone benefits from being safe, and we can’t exclude people from benefiting from police protection.
So when we pay property tax — or any tax, for that matter — people may be comforted knowing that it goes towards police and fire protection, street lights, schools, and the like. (Of course, some is wasted, and government is not the only way these services, especially education, could be provided.)
But TIF is contrary to this justification of taxes. TIF allows property taxes to be used for one person’s (or group of persons) exclusive benefit. This violates the principle of broad-based taxation to pay for an array of services for everyone. Remember: What was the purpose of the TIF bonds? To pay for things that benefited the development. Now, the development’s property taxes are being used to repay those bonds instead of funding government.
One more thing: Defenders of TIF will say that the developers will pay all their property taxes. This is true, but only on a superficial level. We now see that the lion’s share of the property taxes paid by TIF developers are routed back to them for their own benefit.
It’s only infrastructure
In their justification of TIF in general, or specific projects, proponents may say that TIF dollars are spent only on allowable purposes. Usually a prominent portion of TIF dollars are spent on infrastructure. This allows TIF proponents to say the money isn’t really being spent for the benefit of a specific project. It’s spent on infrastructure, they say, which they contend is something that benefits everyone, not one project specifically. Therefore, everyone ought to pay.
This attitude is represented by a comment left at Voice for Liberty, which contended: “The thing is that real estate developers do not invest in public streets, sidewalks and lamp posts, because there would be no incentive to do so. Why spend millions of dollars redoing or constructing public streets when you can not get a return on investment for that”
This perception is common: that when we see developers building something, the City of Wichita builds the supporting infrastructure at no cost to the developers. But it isn’t quite so. About a decade ago a project was being developed on the east side of Wichita, the Waterfront. This project was built on vacant land. Here’s what I found when I searched for City of Wichita resolutions concerning this project:
Note specifically one item: $1,672,000 for the construction of Waterfront Parkway. To anyone driving or walking in this area, they would think this is just another city street — although a very nicely designed and landscaped street. But the city did not pay for this street. Private developers paid for this infrastructure. Other resolutions resulted in the same developers paying for street lights, traffic signals, sewers, water pipes, and turning lanes on major city streets. All this is infrastructure that we’re told real estate developers will not pay for. But in order to build the Waterfront development, private developers did, with a total cost of these projects being $3,334,500. (It’s likely I did not find all the resolutions and costs pertaining to this project, and more development has happened since this research.)
In a TIF district, these things are called “infrastructure” and will be paid for by the development’s own property taxes — taxes that must be paid in any case. Outside of TIF districts, developers pay for these things themselves.
If not for TIF, nothing will happen here
Generally, TIF is justified using the “but-for” argument. That is, nothing will happen within a district unless the subsidy of TIF is used. Paul F. Byrne explains:
“The but-for provision refers to the statutory requirement that an incentive cannot be awarded unless the supported economic activity would not occur but for the incentive being offered. This provision has economic importance because if a firm would locate in a particular jurisdiction with or without receiving the economic incentive, then the economic impact of offering the incentive is non-existent. … The but-for provision represents the legislature’s attempt at preventing a local jurisdiction from awarding more than the minimum incentive necessary to induce a firm to locate within the jurisdiction. However, while a firm receiving the incentive is well aware of the minimum incentive necessary, the municipality is not.”
“This paper conducts a comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness of Chicago’s TIF program in creating economic opportunities and catalyzing real estate investments at the neighborhood scale. This paper uses a unique panel dataset at the block group level to analyze the impact of TIF designation and investments on employment change, business creation, and building permit activity. After controlling for potential selection bias in TIF assignment, this paper shows that TIF ultimately fails the ‘but-for’ test and shows no evidence of increasing tangible economic development benefits for local residents.” (emphasis added)
In the paper, the author clarifies:
“To clarify these findings, this analysis does not indicate that no building activity or job crea-tion occurred in TIFed block groups, or resulted from TIF projects. Rather, the level of these activities was no faster than similar areas of the city which did not receive TIF assistance. It is in this aspect of the research design that we are able to conclude that the development seen in and around Chicago’s TIF districts would have likely occurred without the TIF subsidy. In other words, on the whole, Chicago’s TIF program fails the ‘but-for’ test.
Later on, for emphasis:
“While the findings of this paper are clear and decisive, it is important to comment here on their exact extent and external validity, and to discuss the limitations of this analysis. First, the findings do not indicate that overall employment growth in the City of Chicago was negative or flat during this period. Nor does this research design enable us to claim that any given TIF-funded project did not end up creating jobs. Rather, we conclude that on-average, across the whole city, TIF was unsuccessful in jumpstarting economic development activity — relative to what would have likely occurred otherwise.” (emphasis in original)
The author notes that these conclusions are specific to Chicago’s use of TIF, but should “should serve as a cautionary tale.”
The paper reinforces the problem of using tax revenue for private purposes, rather than for public benefit: “Essentially, Chicago’s extensive use of TIF can be interpreted as the siphoning off of public revenue for largely private-sector purposes. Although, TIF proponents argue that the public receives enhanced economic opportunity in the bargain, the findings of this paper show that the bargain is in fact no bargain at all.”
TIF is social engineering
TIF represents social engineering. By using it, city government has decided that it knows best where development should be directed. In particular, the Wichita city council has decided that Old Town and downtown development is on a superior moral plane to other development. Therefore, we all have to pay higher taxes to support this development. What is the basis for saying Old Town developers don’t have to pay for their infrastructure, but developers in other parts of the city must pay?
TIF doesn’t work
Does TIF work? It depends on what the meaning of “work” is.
If by working, do we mean does TIF induce development? If so, then TIF usually works. When the city authorizes a TIF project plan, something usually gets built or renovated. But this definition of “works” must be tempered by a few considerations.
Does TIF pay for itself?
First, is the project self-sustaining? That is, is the incremental property tax revenue sufficient to repay the TIF bonds? This has not been the case with all TIF projects in Wichita. The city has had to bail out two TIFs, one with a no-interest and low-interest loan that cost city taxpayers an estimated $1.2 million.
The verge of corruption
Second, does the use of TIF promote a civil society, or does it lead to cronyism? Randal O’Toole has written:
“TIF puts city officials on the verge of corruption, favoring some developers and property owners over others. TIF creates what economists call a moral hazard for developers. If you are a developer and your competitors are getting subsidies, you may simply fold your hands and wait until someone offers you a subsidy before you make any investments in new development. In many cities, TIF is a major source of government corruption, as city leaders hand tax dollars over to developers who then make campaign contributions to re-elect those leaders.”
We see this in Wichita, where the regular recipients of TIF benefits are also regular contributors to the political campaigns of those who are in a position to give them benefits. The corruption is not illegal, but it is real and harmful, and calls out for reform. See In Wichita, the need for campaign finance reform.
The effect of TIF on everyone
Third, what about the effect of TIF on everyone, that is, the entire city or region? Economists have studied this matter, and have concluded that in most cases, the effect is negative.
“TIF districts grow much faster than other areas in their host municipalities. TIF boosters or naive analysts might point to this as evidence of the success of tax increment financing, but they would be wrong. Observing high growth in an area targeted for development is unremarkable.”
So TIF districts are good for the favored development that receives the subsidy — not a surprising finding. What about the rest of the city? Continuing from the same study:
“If the use of tax increment financing stimulates economic development, there should be a positive relationship between TIF adoption and overall growth in municipalities. This did not occur. If, on the other hand, TIF merely moves capital around within a municipality, there should be no relationship between TIF adoption and growth. What we find, however, is a negative relationship. Municipalities that use TIF do worse.
We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF.” (emphasis added)
In a different paper (The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development), the same economists wrote “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not. … These findings suggest that TIF trades off higher growth in the TIF district for lower growth elsewhere. This hypothesis is bolstered by other empirical findings.” (emphasis added)
“This article addresses the claim by examining the impact of TIF adoption on municipal employment growth in Illinois, looking for both general impact and impact specific to the type of development supported. Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment. These results are consistent with industrial TIF districts capturing employment that would have otherwise occurred outside of the adopting municipality and retail TIF districts shifting employment within the municipality to more labor-efficient retailers within the TIF district.” (emphasis added)
These studies and others show that as a strategy for increasing the overall wellbeing of a city, TIF fails to deliver prosperity, and in fact, causes harm.
Wichita city council agenda packet for September 11, 2018. ↩
Wichita city council agenda packet for August 7, 2018. ↩
It may be very expensive for the City of Wichita to terminate its agreement with the Wichita Wingnuts baseball club, and there are questions.
As the City of Wichita prepares to build a new stadium for a new baseball team, there is the issue of the old stadium and the old team. The city has decided that the old stadium will be razed. On Tuesday the city council will consider what to do about the old team.
The old team, the Wichita Wingnuts, has a lease agreement with the city. The lease is from January 2015 and is for a period of ten years. The documents, both the lease from 2015 and the proposed settlement to be considered this week, appear in full in Wichita city council agenda packets. I’ve extracted the relevant pages for easier access. Click on lease or proposed settlement.
According to the settlement, the Wingnuts will receive either $2.2 million or $1.2 million, the smaller amount applying in the case the city is “unable to reach an agreement with an affiliated minor league baseball team in the year 2018.” The payment is scheduled to be made in installments over the next several years. (Section 2c)
Reading the lease, I can’t find anything regarding the need to pay for terminating the lease. So why the need to pay up to $2.2 million to terminate?
Here’s a possible answer: City documents hold this: “This negotiated settlement resolves all claims and potential claims that the parties have or may have, including breach of the Lease, loss of revenue, injunctive relief, specific performance, other contract breaches, tort assertions, and claims for equitable relief without the uncertainly of litigation.”
So there may be disputes that need to be resolved. Now the question becomes this: What did the city do? What could be so bad that the remedy is to pay the Wingnuts up to $2.2 million? Citizens ought to know the answer to this question.
Further, why is the amount of the settlement contingent on what happens in Wichita in the future? (Remember, the settlement is $2.2 million if the city lands a new team, but only $1.2 million if it doesn’t.) If the purpose of the settlement is to compensate the Wingnuts for harm caused by the city, how and why is the magnitude of harm dependent on future events?
Such a large settlement is especially surprising given the low rent the Wingnuts paid and the city’s history with the Wingnuts as a tenant. Consider:
The Wingnuts didn’t always pay their rent. The city charged the Wingnuts just $25,000 annual rent, and the team was $77,000 behind in rent in January 2015. The proposed settlement agreement states: “As of the Effective Date, the 2018 rent payment in the amount of Twenty-five Thousand Dollars ($25,000) due and payable by WIB to the City shall be waived and no longer due and payable by WIB.” (Section 2c) (WIB is the company that owns the Wingnuts.)
There have also been disputes over utility payments. But, the city will forgive the water and sewer bill: “The City shall pay all utility payments due to the Department of Public Works and Utilities that are assessed for 2018.” (Section 2d)
It’s clear that the Wingnuts haven’t always lived up to the basics of its agreement with the city. Why, then, does the city feel such a large obligation upon termination? Paragraph 13 of the lease says “Lessor agrees not to utilize termination for convenience for the purpose of placing any professional baseball franchise at the Lawrence-Dumont Stadium site.” This is what the city is doing. But, in paragraph 23: “The parties agree that upon a violation of any provision of this lease, the aggrieved party may, at its option, terminate this lease by giving the breaching party not less than 30 days written notice of termination.” Non-payment of rent seems like it ought to be a violation of the lease, giving the city the right to terminate the lease for cause.
What is the source of the $2.2 million? City documents state the source is “management agreement payments paid by the new AAA baseball team.” The meaning of “management agreement payments” is unclear and a question that needs an answer. But presumably this is money that the city would receive from the new team. If not paid to the Wingnuts, these funds might be available for other purposes.
And: If the city is not able to land a new team, the city will have to pay the Wingnuts $1.2 million without any compensating revenue source.
Repairs, replacements, and improvements
Here’s a puzzling aspect of the settlement: How was the dollar amount determined? City documents state: “The value of the severance is based on the number of years remaining in the existing lease and the anticipated City financial cost of capital repairs, replacements and improvements over those same remaining years.” (emphasis added)
What? “Repairs, replacements and improvements” to a stadium that will be demolished soon? Why is this a consideration?
Questions, but little time
There are questions, but little time for answers. The agenda packet was posted on the city’s website on Friday September 7, at 12:03 pm. The council will consider this item Tuesday morning.
Do council members have answers to these questions? Some of these matters may have been discussed in executive session. Now that the matters have been settled, it’s time to let citizens know the details.
But if council members don’t have answers, I don’t think they can make an informed vote.
I couldn’t stop noticing. I’d go on to see the same in Colorado Springs, in Fresno, in Indianapolis, in Oklahoma City, in Nashville.
And it wasn’t just the coffee shops — bars, restaurants, even the architecture of all the new housing going up in these cities looked and felt eerily familiar. Every time I walked into one of these places, my body would give an involuntary shudder. I would read over my notes for a city I’d visited months prior and find that several of my observations could apply easily to the one I was currently in.
In his commentary on this article, Aaron M. Renn wrote: “While every company tries its hardest to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company in its industry, every city tries its hardest to convince you that it is exactly the same as every other city that’s conventionally considered cool.”
Later in the same piece, he wrote:
A challenge these places face is that the level of improvement locally has been so high, locals aren’t aware of how much the rest of the country has also improved. So they end up with an inflated sense of how much better they are doing versus the market. … People in these Midwest cities did not even know what was going on in the next city just 100 miles down the road. They were celebrating all these downtown condos being built. But the same condos were being built everywhere. … But even today people in most cities don’t really seem to get it that every city now has this stuff. Their city has dramatically improved relative to its own recent past, but it’s unclear how much it’s improved versus peers if at all.
Does this — the sameness of everywhere — apply to Wichita? Sure. Everyone thinks Wichita is different from everywhere else. We have a flag! A warehouse district! A Frank Lloyd Wright house! The NCAA basketball tournament! We’re (probably) getting a new baseball team and stadium!
We even have, as Schwindt does in cataloging what you’ll find in every single city mid-size and above, “Public murals that dare you to pass them without posing for a pic for the ‘gram.”
So many other places have this stuff, too.
It isn’t bad that Wichita has these things. But the danger, as Renn notes, is that these things don’t distinguish Wichita. As much as we wish otherwise, these things are probably not going to reverse the course of the declining Wichita economy. If you don’t believe the Wichita economy is declining, consider that our GDP in 2016 was smaller than in the year before. Wichita metro employment growth was nonexistent during 2017, meaning it’s unlikely that GDP grew by much. (In January 2017 total non-farm employment in the Wichita MSA was 295,000. In January 2018 it was the same. See chart here.)
Even things that might really have a positive effect on the economy, like the Wichita State University Innovation Campus, are far from unique to Wichita. But developments like this are pitched to Wichitans as things that will really put Wichita on the map. A prosperous future is assured, we are told.
It’s great to love your city. But we can’t afford to be lulled into complacency — a false recognition of achievement — when all the data says otherwise.
Wichita spending data presented as a summary, and as a list.
As part of an ongoing transparency project, I asked the City of Wichita for check register data. I’ve made the data available in a visualization using Tableau Public. This visualization is updated with data through August 31, 2018.
To learn more about this data and use the visualization, click here.
A lawsuit claims that when the City of Wichita refinanced its special assessment bonds, it should have passed on the savings to the affected taxpayers, and it did not do that.
A lawsuit filed in Sedgwick County District Court charges that the City of Wichita improperly handled the savings realized when it refinanced special assessment bonds at a lower interest rate. The case is 2018-CV-001567-CF, filed on July 13, 2018, and available here.
The suit names David L. Snodgrass and Leslie J. Snodgrass as plaintiffs, and a long list of defendants, namely:
The City of Wichita, Kansas
Wichita City Manager Robert Layton
Wichita Finance Director Shawn Henning and Former Wichita Finance Director Kelly Carpenter
Wichita City Clerk Karen Sublett
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell and former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer
Current Wichita City Councilmembers Brandon Johnson, Pete Meitzner, James Clendenin, Jeff Blubaugh, Bryan Frye, and Cindy Claycomb
Former Wichita City Councilmembers Lavonta Williams, Janet Miller, Sue Schlapp, Paul Gray, Jeff Longwell, Jim Skelton, and Michael O’Donnell
Gilmore And Bell, A Professional Corporation
Kutak Rock, LLP
Sedgwick County Treasurer Linda Kizzire
The suit asks for a class to be created consisting of “all other affected land owners paying excess special assessments,” which would, undoubtedly, be many thousands of land owners. No specific amount of relief is requested.
The suit’s basis
The city borrows money by issuing bonds to fund improvements to (generally) new neighborhoods. These bonds pay for things like residential streets, water pipes, and sewer lines. The debt service for these bonds, that is, the money needed to make the bond payments, is charged to benefitting property owners in the form of special assessment taxes, often called “specials.” These specials are separate from the general property taxes that are charged to all property.
General property taxes are based on a property’s assessed value multiplied by a mill levy rate. Specials, however, are based on the cost of the infrastructure and the payments needed to retire the debt. This amount is determined at the time bonds are sold and the repayment schedule is established. (Bond payments depend on the amount borrowed, the length of the repayment period, and the interest rate. All this is known at the time the bonds are issued.)
These specials usually last 15 years, and after paid, no longer appear on a property’s tax bill. Sometimes special assessments are prepaid.
What the city did, and didn’t do, according to plaintiffs
During the last decade, interest rates on long-term bonds generally fell. In response, the city issued refunding bonds. These bonds took advantage of low interest rates by paying off old bonds that had higher interest rates, replacing them with bonds with lower interest rates. The lawsuit alleges that since 2009, the city has issued $216 million in refunding bonds saving $60.2 million, according to city documents cited in the lawsuit. The suit does not specify how much of this savings is attributed to special assessment bonds.
So the city refinanced special assessment debt at a lower rate, reducing the cost of the debt. That’s good. Homeowners often do this when mortgage rates are low, and it’s good that the city does this too.
The problem, according to the lawsuit, is that some of the refinanced debt was special assessment debt. The lawsuit contends that, based on Kansas law, the city should have passed on the savings to the property owners that were paying off this special assessment debt. Instead, says the suit, “the City of Wichita transferred the excess special assessment money paid by affected Wichita taxpayers to support its general fund and/or other municipal funds.” In other words, the city spent the savings on other things, when it should have directed the savings to land owners who were paying the special taxes.
Plaintiffs allege that the conduct of the city and its advisors constitutes fraud against those paying special assessment taxes:
The fraudulent actions of Defendant City of Wichita, along with the other Wichita Defendants, and Defendants Springsted, Gilmore and Bell and Kutak Rock resulted in the misappropriation of millions of dollars of “saved” tax payments that should have been returned to Plaintiffs along with all other affected land owners paying special assessments levied under the General Improvement and Assessment Laws of the State of Kansas.
Further, the suit alleges that the liability faced by many of the defendants is personal:
Because the Wichita Defendants actively participated in the fraud practiced by Defendant City of Wichita, they cannot escape personal liability for the fraudulent actions of the City of Wichita upon Plaintiffs and all other affected land owners paying special assessments.
While there is one named party as plaintiff, the suit alleges that all similarly situated persons have been harmed, and so a class action is appropriate. That would be all property owners who have paid special assessment taxes to Wichita since 2009, including myself.
A Wichita Eagle editorial argues for higher property taxes to help the city grow.
In a recent op-ed, the Wichita Eagle editorial board writes: “It’s hard to make the argument that Wichitans are overtaxed by their city government. It’s time for the community to look at how it helps the city grow. A responsible plan that asks Wichita families to chip in the cost of a family meal should be part of the conversation.” 1
The argument that a tax increase is only “the cost of a family meal” is weak. (From the editorial: “A 1-mill increase would cost a property owner $11.50 annually for every $100,000 of appraised value of a home.”) In other words, it’s just a little bit. Just one dollar each month. You won’t even notice it.
This is a standard argument made by those who want higher taxes and those who oppose tax cuts. The problem is just that: Everyone makes this argument, and when added together, the nickels and dimes add up to real money.
Besides, there are families in Wichita who have trouble paying for family meals.
Then, there’s the effect on business. An ongoing study reveals that generally, property taxes on commercial and industrial property in Wichita are high. Specifically, taxes on commercial property in Wichita are among the highest in the nation. Commercial property is taxed at 2.180 times the rate as residential property. (The U.S. average is 1.683.) Because Wichita’s ratio is high, it leads to high property taxes on commercial property. 2
Raising taxes on commercial enterprise shifts economic activity from the private sector to government. Citizens may want to ask where money is spent most beneficially.
The Eagle editorial board says higher property taxes could help the city grow. There’s no doubt the city needs help growing. But given the record of our local government leaders — both elected and bureaucratic — it’s difficult to see how giving them more money to spend will help.
As an example of government helping the city grow, consider the Waterwalk development in downtown Wichita. Despite some $41 million in taxpayer subsidy, the development languishes. On top of that, the city doesn’t enforce agreements that might benefit taxpayers. 3
The Wichita Eagle editorialized “Seven years into a project that was supposed to give Wichita a grand gathering place full of shops, restaurants and night spots as well as offices and condos, some City Council members and citizens remain skeptical at best about WaterWalk’s ability to deliver on its big promises. … True, the skepticism to date is richly deserved.” 4
Oh. That editorial was written in 2009, nine years ago. Since then, there has been some improvement, like the Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites Hotel and the fountain. But, Gander Mountain — the development’s retail anchor — closed.
The present Eagle editorial board calls for a “responsible plan.” But when we see the city spending on things like Waterwalk and then failing to uphold agreements designed to protect taxpayers — well, the city hasn’t been acting responsibly.
Contrast downtown’s Waterwalk with Waterfront, a development at 13th and Webb Road in east Wichita that started around the same time as Waterwalk. There, developers spent millions of their own money to build a beautiful parkway, sewers, traffic lights, and the like. 5
It is at Waterfront where we see large first-class office buildings and small executive offices. It is there we find desirable nationally-known restaurants like Abuelo’s Mexican Food Embassy, Bonefish Grill, PF Chang’s China Bistro, and Red Robin. We also see fine local restaurants like Chester’s Chophouse & Wine Bar. It is at Waterfront we find lodging like Homewood Suites by Hilton, retail stores like Ethan Allen, and the city’s only Whole Foods Market.
All this at Waterfront was done without help from the taxpayers, unlike downtown’s Waterwalk consuming our $41 million. Other popular developments like Bradley Fair and New Market Square were developed with little or no government help.
Even the subsidized “development” that most people agree is a success is not all it’s cracked up to be. That is downtown Wichita, where there has been hundreds of millions in private and public investment over the past decade. The result is that over the same time, business activity in downtown Wichita has been on a downhill trend. The data for 2016 (the most recent year for data) is a bit of good news, with the decline stopping and business activity remaining mostly unchanged. It isn’t the vibrant growth we’ve been told is happening in downtown Wichita, but at least things are not getting worse. 6
So: Do we trust Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leaders to develop a “responsible plan?” Give this record, do we want to shift more resources from the private sector to the government sector?
Competing tax hikes
It’s surprising that the Eagle editorial board would recommend higher property taxes right now. That’s because it’s likely we’ll be asked to approve more taxation, probably soon. There is support among the city’s elite for a renovated or new performing arts and convention center, something that probably can’t be done without more tax revenue. Project Wichita is seen by many as an effort to persuade the region for higher taxes.
Also: In 2014 the steering committee for the Wichita/Sedgwick County Community Investments Plan delivered a report to the Wichita City Council. This report told the council that the “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is an additional $45 to $55 million per year over current levels of spending. 7
I’m not aware of the city directing additional spending to cure this maintenance gap. As time passes, the gap becomes larger. Although: The city decided to spend an additional $10 million on street repair. But that was a one-time infusion made available when the city sold a capital asset.
This backlog of maintenance is a manifestation of the city not being responsible with assets Wichita taxpayers paid for. And if it is true that we need to spend an additional $45 to $55 million per year, where will the city get those funds? The Eagle urges a one mill property tax increase, which it says means the “city budget would gain $3.5 million to $4 million.” To fix our maintenance backlog would require a property tax increase of over ten mills, if that is how the city decides to raise the funds.
The Douglas Design District proposes to transform from a voluntary business organization to a tax-funded branch of government (but doesn’t say so).
Update: On August 21, the council approved the formation of the planning committee.
This week the Wichita City Council will consider taking the first step in forming a business improvement district (BID) in east-central Wichita. Some explanation from the agenda packet for the meeting: 1
First, there already exists a voluntary organization: “The Douglas Design District (DDD) is a voluntary organization of over 300 local businesses located near Douglas Avenue between Washington Avenue and Oliver Avenue. In 2017, the DDD established a five-year strategic plan to become a financially self-sustaining organization that is not reliant on elective membership.”
The purpose of a business improvement district: “A BID provides for the administration and financing of additional and extended services to businesses within the district and is funded by the City levying a mandatory service fee on the businesses within the district.”
Who will collect, and who will spend? “While the City levies the service fee, it can contract with a third-party organization such as the DDD to operate the BID. The approach is similar to that used by the City to contract with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation in downtown.”
The action on the agenda this week is to establish a planning committee to develop things like district boundaries, services to be provided, and a budget. Although city documents aren’t specific, it’s likely this “service fee” will be levied as a property tax.
Are BIDs a good idea? Most information about them is provided by their boosters, that is, those who directly benefit from the service fee, which is really a tax. But there are some doubters. The New Republic, by no means a conservative publication, printed a piece arguing against BIDs, stating: “But too often BIDs have turned against the businesses they were meant to serve, making the cost of entry into a new area even higher for local merchants, or lacking the transparency needed to instill trust from the community.” 2
A larger and more balanced look at BIDs comes from Washington Monthly this summer:
The privatized structure of BIDs may raise liberals’ hackles, but it’s clear that BIDs can be a useful tool to remake neighborhoods into places where people actually want to spend their time. Many big-city mayors — who are overwhelmingly Democratic — have thrown their weight behind them. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently doled out grants totaling $300,000 to five neighborhoods thinking about forming their own BIDs. (One of the grantees, Dupont Circle, with the decaying park, will start collecting taxes from business owners in the fall.)
Still, there are real downsides to BIDs for renters and small business owners, who will not benefit from rising property values and may ultimately be pushed out of the area. Luckily, this isn’t a hugely difficult problem to remedy. The best, and easiest, way to revamp how BIDs are run is through city halls; they’re the ones who legislate what BIDs can and can’t do, while holding them accountable to the public. But too often, they renege on that responsibility. 3
From Canada, harsh criticism:
In this paper, we propose and develop the concept of “socio-economic hygiene” to denote the ways in which neoliberal Western urban space is spatially regulated and re-oriented towards consumption in a way that reinforces social exclusion. … We conclude by tracking how sociological strategies of “hygiene” have moved from racial and biological features to features of place and socioeconomic status, and how BIDs, resembling genocidal states in certain ways, use these strategies to continually justify their own existence. 4
Civil society, or government?
What should trouble everyone is the replacement of civil society with political society. Edward H. Crane explains: “There are basically only two ways to organize society: Coercively, through government mandates, or voluntarily, through the private interaction of individuals and associations. … In a civil society, you make the choices about your life. In a political society, someone else makes those choices.”
Right now DDD is a voluntary organization. Civil society, in other words. But now it is proposed to replace it with political society.
Why trade voluntary cooperation for the force of government? The annual report of the DDD (included in the city council agenda packet) explains: “Approximately 1/3 of businesses in DDD’s project area are DDD members yet ALL businesses benefit from DDD’s efforts. A BID eliminates this ‘free rider’ problem and, if implemented, would allow DDD to have a singular focus on implementing the BID business plan rather than always chasing membership.” For emphasis, the report notes: “THE PAYMENT OF THE BID ASSESSMENT WILL REPLACE MEMBERSHIP DUES.”
Another term for chasing membership is selling your product by showing how it creates value. If the formation of the BID is successful, the Douglas Design District will be relieved of this necessity. Will having a guaranteed source of revenue make DDD more or less responsive to its members?
Also, the DDD annual report states: “A BID assessment is not a tax.” I wonder what will happen to anyone who decides to skip paying this tax. After a few years, they will experience the blunt power of government tax collection.
Taxation without transparency
The agenda packet states this about the relationship between the city and the district: “While the City levies the service fee, it can contract with a third-party organization such as the DDD to operate the BID.”
Wichita has similar organizations. One is the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, now known as Downtown Wichita. This organization is funded nearly entirely by tax revenue from an improvement district. Yet, it refuses to make its spending records public, and the city supports that decision. 5
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.” 6
Of interest is a segment from the KAKE Television public affairs program “This Week in Kansas” where the failure of the Wichita City Council, especially council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), to recognize the value of open records and open government is discussed. Video is here.
Since this time, the city has formed a business improvement district known as a TBID. It covers all hotels in the city and imposes an additional 2.75 percent tax to hotel bills, although the city and hotels call it a “City Tourism Fee.” 7 I’ve not asked for records of this spending, but I am sure the request would be rejected.
Will the Douglas Design District follow the standard set by Wichita’s other improvement districts and evade accountability and transparency?
Results from current improvement districts
The Washington Monthly piece mentions that city halls can hold BIDs accountable. But lack of transparency works against oversight and accountability.
Then, if anyone wonders what about the results of Wichita’s improvement districts, here are a few findings:
For the past decade business activity in downtown Wichita has been on a downhill trend. The data for 2016 (the most recent year for data) is a bit of good news, with the decline stopping and business activity remaining mostly unchanged. It isn’t the vibrant growth we’ve been told is happening in downtown Wichita, but at least things are not getting worse. 8
Truthfulness is in short supply. The Downtown Wichita organization has been caught in either a huge lie or gross incompetence regarding its claim of the number of people working in downtown Wichita. After brought to its attention, the number is no longer used. 9
Wichita economic development officials use a circuitous method of estimating the population of downtown Wichita, producing a number much higher than Census Bureau estimates. 10
Looking at hotel guest tax receipts, which are a surrogate for total hotel room revenue, we observe that of the largest markets in Kansas, Wichita has experienced the least growth in hotel guest tax collections since 2010. 11
Despite this record, Wichita City Hall seems satisfied with these results.
Three years ago the biggest concern in this community is we need jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. And today, we need people. And so keeping Cargill in Wichita and seeing Spirit grow and seeing companies invest is far different than what we had just three years ago when people were so concerned about the opportunity to find meaningful employment in our city.
What the mayor said sounds good. Now. here are statistics from Bureau of Labor Statistics, civilian labor force and nonfarm employment by metropolitan area, seasonally adjusted, for the Wichita Metropolitan Statistical Area:
Civilian labor force: 306,574 (down by 1.5 percent)
Employment: 295,012 (down by 0.42 percent)
Unemployment rate: 3.8 percent (down by 1.0 percentage point, or 20.8 percent)
These are statistics from the Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) data set, also known as the household survey.
Here are some other statistics, again from Bureau of Labor Statistics, state and area employment, seasonally adjusted, for the Wichita Metropolitan Statistical Area:
Employment: 298,600 (up by 1.0 percent)
These are statistics from the Current Employment Statistics (CES) data set, sometimes called payroll data.
These are two different sets of data. One shows employment rising, and one shows it declining. The difference comes from the fact that one set of data comes from households, and the other from employers. For a full explanation of the data and how there can be these differences, see Visualization: Metro area employment and unemployment.
The important thing is that Mayor Longwell said, in a roundabout way, that there are plenty of jobs in Wichita, and there are not enough workers to fill them.
If there are not enough workers in Wichita, it’s because the labor force (the number of people working plus those looking for work) shrank over the time period the mayor mentioned. That’s why there are not enough people to meet Wichita’s job growth (such as it is).
And while the number of jobs in Wichita rose in the employer survey, it rose by 1.0 percent over three years. The same statistic for the entire United States rose by 5.1 percent over the same period. This doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment, Wichita growing jobs at a rate one-fifth of the nation.
If a newspaper is going to write a news story, it might as well take a moment to copy and paste information from a city council agenda packet. Especially when what is missing from the story is perhaps the most important information.
When the Wichita City Council approved an Industrial Revenue Bond issue at its July 10, 2018 meeting, the city’s business press covered the matter. In the Wichita Eagle, the story fails to mention the motivation for the item. 1
The meeting agenda packet for this item, very near its start, states plainly the benefits of the IRBs: “Cargill Incorporated (Cargill) is requesting a Letter of Intent (LOI) for the issuance of Industrial Revenue Bonds (IRBs) in an amount not to exceed $38,000,000 and an 81.5% five-plus-five-year tax abatement and a sales tax exemption for the construction of a new biodiesel facility in north Wichita.” 2
There it is, in plain sight and language: Cargill will save a lot of money in taxes by using these bonds. How much? The same city document details some of the savings:
Based on the current mill levy, the estimated tax value of exempted property for the first full year is $337,904. The value of an 81.5% real property tax exemption (assuming the property is appraised at 80% of the capital investment) as applicable to taxing jurisdictions is:
USD 259 $154,797
The agenda packet doesn’t give an amount for the value of the sales tax exemption, but if all $38,000,000 in bond proceeds was spent on taxable items, sales tax would be $2,850,000. The actual sales tax savings will likely be less than that, but still a lot. (We’ll likely never know, as the Kansas Department of Revenue won’t release the value of sales tax exemptions associated with bond issues.)
Why didn’t the Eagle report this? I don’t know. But the property and sales tax exemptions are the driving motivation behind almost all requests for IRBs. 3
It’s not the case that the company can’t obtain financing on the market. Many IRBs are purchased by the requesting company, as is the case with these bonds, according to the agenda packet: “The bonds will be privately placed with Cargill.”
Instead, Kansas law requires, in most cases, that to issue property and sales tax abatements, IRBs must be used. Again, from the agenda packet: “To insure that all of the real property improvements are receiving the tax abatement, the improvements must be bond financed.” 4
Why can’t the city council simply wave a magic wand and absolve Cargill of paying millions of dollars in property and sales taxes? This is what the city council did, but in a roundabout way.
But because the tax giveaway is mixed with confusing details of bonds, many citizens don’t notice the giveaway. Especially when our city’s leading newspaper does not report this.
Wichita Business Journal reporting was a little better, mentioning the property and sales tax exemptions, but not their monetary value. 5
This article also contains this: “With IRBs, the city serves as a pass-through entity for developers to obtain a lower interest rate on projects. IRBs require no taxpayer commitment.” This is language the newspaper often includes when reporting on IRB issues, and it is simply not true. In this case, a portion of this project qualifies for tax-exempt financing, as it is a solid waste processing facility. 6
But for the remainder of the project, as is the case for most IRB-funded projects, it is not likely the facility will save on interest costs with IRBs. The article is correct in that IRBs require no taxpayer commitment. The city makes no guarantee as to the bond repayment. If the city did guarantee repayment, that would help the borrower obtain a lower interest rate. But there is no guarantee.
As noted below, there is a slight wrinkle in this IRB issue, as some of the financed property is exempt from federal income taxes on interest payments and requires IRBs for that particular property. This is an unusual factor, and does not require that all the plant be financed with IRBs. ↩
“The solid waste processing component qualifies under Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations for tax exempt financing, which can save the company interest expense. Of the total project, approximately $30,000,000 would qualify as a Solid Waste Processing Facility, and therefore, eligible for tax-exempt financing.” Agenda Packet for July 10, 2018. ↩
Next week the Wichita City Council will consider a major step in proceeding with a new Wichita water plant.
The central water plant in Wichita is old, and the city has been planning a new plant. The new facility is called the Northwest Water Treatment Facility (NWWTF). Much information is available in the agenda packet for the July 10, 2018 city council meeting.
The city plans to issue a letter of interest (LOI) to apply for a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 2014 (WIFIA) federal loan for up to 49 percent of the project cost, which at this time is estimated as $524,200,000.
The Environmental Protection Agency says that “Based on the information provided in the letter of interest, EPA will invite selected prospective borrowers to submit an application for WIFIA credit assistance.” This will not be the first time the city has attempted to use this financing source, according to city documents: “The City submitted a WIFIA LOI in 2017 but was not invited to apply.”
For the balance of the financing, the city says it intends to apply for a loan from the Kansas State Revolving Loan Fund (SRLF). The advantage to using these government financing sources, says the city, is “Both programs offer low, fixed interest rates and have less expensive financing costs compared to traditional revenue bonds. Repayment of WIFIA is not required until five years after construction is completed and repayment of SRLF begins two years after the first disbursement is received. The delayed repayment allows rates to be smoothed over time to minimize customer impacts, and the low cost of financing keeps the overall project cost down.”
Of note, the city intends to use an acquisition process that is different from the usual:
City staff have analyzed different project delivery methods and determined that a Hybrid DBo is the most beneficial approach. It pairs the lowest cost source of financing, which is available exclusively to the City, with the cost containment and project quality that can be delivered under a public-private partnership. This expertise also provides value-added engineering and access to advanced technologies that may lower total project costs. The key to getting the best of both approaches is to hire a Construction Management company with expertise in constructing similar treatment facilities. The City will also issue an RFP to select a Construction Management company that will oversee the selected DBo team.
In the LOI to the EPA, the city included this:
The City has considered and evaluated multiple project delivery approaches, including a range of possibilities from traditional design-bid-build to full privatization through a design-build-own- finance-operate and maintain model. Through these deliberations, the City has concluded that design-build with short-term operations presents the least risk and highest value. The City refers to this delivery approach as DBo, in which the operations component is a relatively short term of up to 5 years, including transitioning operations to the City. The City has selected a DBo approach for the following reasons:
Accelerated project delivery by overlapping design, permitting, and equipment procurement tasks (see Attachment 6, Project Schedule).
Optimal risk allocation by assigning risk to the party or parties that can best control those risks (see Table A-1).
Early cost certainty.
Highest value for money derived by leveraging the experience and capability of the designer, builder, and operator to achieve the optimal balance of capital and lifecycle costs.
Ability to “staff up” through the use of a contract operator during startup and commissioning of the NWWTF.
Ability to prepare for transition to City operation through robust training of the City’s operations leadership.
Ability to “staff down” once the City’s own operations forces are trained and available
Wichita water users need to follow this process carefully. The ASR project — a $247 million Wichita water project — has been underperforming by a large amount.
There has been much public and private investment in Downtown Wichita. What has been the trend in business activity during this time?
According to the 2017 report from Wichita Downtown Development Corporation (now known as Downtown Wichita), over the past decade there has been $593,868,858 in private investment, $160,522,002 in public investment, and $171,087,276 investment in Intrust Bank Arena. That’s $925 million of investment in downtown over this period, with more before. 1
What has been the result of this investment? If you expected business growth in downtown Wichita, you may be disappointed. For the past decade business activity in downtown Wichita has been on a downhill trend. The data for 2016 is a bit of good news, with the decline stopping and business activity remaining mostly unchanged. It isn’t the vibrant growth we’ve been told is happening in downtown Wichita, but at least things are not getting worse.
The United States Census Bureau tracks business data by zip code. 2 The data that is available includes the number of business establishments, the number of employees, and the annual payroll, expressed in thousands of dollars not adjusted for inflation. It includes private-sector workers only, so it does not count all workers.
Nearby are results for zip code 67202, which has nearly the same boundaries as the Self-Supporting Municipal Improvement District (SSMID). This is a district that pays extra property tax for supporting the WDDC. Its boundaries, roughly, are from Kellogg north to Central, and the Arkansas River east to Washington. It is greater Downtown Wichita plus Old Town.
The results since 2007 show fewer business establishments, fewer people working downtown, and lower earnings generated in downtown Wichita. In nearly all cases for nearly all years, the trend is lower — except for 2016.
For 2016 the numbers are nearly unchanged, with only small changes from the previous year. The number of business establishments is down slightly, while the number of employees and annual payroll rose, also slightly.
Except for 2016, this is movement in the wrong direction, the opposite of progress. And 2016 represents merely a stop in the downhill slide, not growth. There may be good news in that the number of people living downtown may be rising. But in estimating the population of downtown Wichita, economic development officials use a circuitous method. The result of their calculations is a population much higher than Census Bureau estimates, far outside the range of probable results. 3
Despite promises, Wichita fails to inform citizens on important activities of its government.
For several years, the Kansas city of Lawrence has published an economic development report letting citizens know about the activities of the city in this area. The most recent edition may be viewed here.
The Lawrence report contains enough detail and length that an executive summary is provided. This report is the type of information that cities should be providing, but the City of Wichita does not do this.
It’s not like the City of Wichita does not realize the desirability of providing citizens with information. In fact, Wichitans have been teased with the promise of more information in order to induce them to vote for higher taxes. During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax in 2014, a city document promised this information regarding economic development spending if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” (This is what Lawrence has been doing for several years.)
The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised, “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.” (But “Yes Wichita” was a campaign group and not an entity whose promises can be relied on, and can’t be held accountable for failure to perform.)
These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance, because the city (and other overlapping governmental jurisdictions) still spends a lot on economic development.
Why is this information not available? Is the communications staff overwhelmed, with no time to provide this type of information?
During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”
This year the city produces headlines like “Annual Arbor Day Returns Friday” and “Arkansas River Trash Roundup Saturday.”
But if you want to know how much — and how well — the city spends economic development dollars, you won’t find that.
Wichitans need to know that besides living in a city that doesn’t provide much information about its operations, the city believes it is doing a good job. Here is a Wichita city news release from 2013:
“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”
In 2015 the city won another award, with the city reporting: “The City of Wichita has been recognized nationally for leading efforts related to technology, community engagement and transparency.
When I’ve expressed frustration with the process of asking for information from the city, communications staff told me this: “I should note that the City has won multiple awards for openness and citizen participation, but City leaders recognize this work is never done. They strive each and every day to become more open and transparent and will continue to do so.”
Wichitans need to wonder:
Why can’t we have the same information about our city government that residents of Lawrence have?
Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax in 2014?
Does the city believe it deserved the awards it has received?
Is transparency really a governing principle of our city?
The growth of population in Wichita compared to other areas.
Several Wichita city officials have noted that the population of the City of Wichita now exceeds that of Cleveland. This, to them, is a point of pride and sign of momentum in Wichita.
It’s true, at least the population facts. For 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the population of Wichita as 389,902 and Cleveland as 385,809. From the 2010 census, Wichita’s population was 382,368; Cleveland’s 396,815. 1
That Wichita moved up in population rank is more due to Cleveland losing 11,006 people (2.8 percent loss) while Wichita gained 7,534 people (2.0 percent gain).
Looking only at city population, however, misses the fact that the Cleveland metropolitan statistical area population is 2,058,844 compared to the Wichita MSA at 645,628, a difference of 3.2 times.
For most types of economic and demographic analysis, metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) are preferred to cities proper. The Census Bureau notes: “The general concept of a metropolitan or micropolitan statistical area is that of a core area containing a substantial population nucleus, together with adjacent communities having a high degree of economic and social integration with that core.” 2
Further, there is more economic data available at the MSA level (compared to the city level) from agencies like Bureau of Labor Statistics and Bureau of Economic Analysis. This data includes important measures like employment, labor force, unemployment rate, gross domestic product, and personal income.
City boundaries are still important, as Wichita, for example, can’t impose property or sales taxes outside the city limits. Nor can it write laws affecting neighboring towns or the county.
But not even schools respect city boundaries, with several large suburban school districts (Andover, Maize, Goddard) reaching far into the city limits of Wichita.
While Wichita may be the 50th largest city, its rank is not as high when considering metropolitan areas. Worse, its rank is slipping as other areas grow at a faster clip. In the 1990 and 2000 census, Wichita was the 80th largest metro area. By 2010 Wichita’s rank had fallen to 82, and for 2017 the rank is 89.
Growth of Wichita MSA population and economy
Wichita officials incessantly talk about momentum. Using a misguided measure of regional size and growth (Wichita is larger than Cleveland!) is one example.
Unfortunately, there are many other examples. Recently Wichita’s mayor spoke of a “thriving city” and that “we’re going to continue our growth pattern.” 3
Recently Greater Wichita Partnership president Jeff Fluhr told a group of young people this:
From the innovation campus at Wichita State University and development along the Arkansas River in downtown, including a new baseball stadium, to the conversations happening now about a new convention center and performing arts facility, Fluhr said the momentum is pushing to keep Wichita on par with the development of other communities around the country.
That development, which has in recent years expanded to incorporate the entire region, is a critical component to attracting and retaining talent — the exact kind of talent in the ICT Millennial Summit crowd. 4
In announcing his candidacy for Sedgwick County Commission, Wichita city council member Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said, “We have enjoyed great progress and growth during my two terms as a City Council member and I plan to do my part to assure Sedgwick County is part of this continued success.” 6
But these pictures — thriving, growth, progress, momentum — just aren’t true, according to the best statistical evidence. Wichita is shedding jobs. 7 In 2016 the Wichita economy shrank. 8 Our labor force is declining. 9 Sedgwick County shows a decline in employees and payroll in 2016. 10
Finally, as can be seen in the nearby chart of population growth in the Wichita metro area and a few other examples. Wichita’s growth rate is low, and is slowing. (The other metro areas in the chart are our Visioneering peers plus a few others.)
It is terribly unfortunate that the Wichita economy is not growing. What’s worse is the attitude of our city leaders. If we don’t confront our problems, we probably won’t be able to solve them.
In an interactive visualization I’ve prepared from census data, you can compare growth in metropolitan statistical areas. Click here to access the visualization.
Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for Incorporated Places of 50,000 or More, Ranked by July 1, 2016 Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2016. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division. Release Date: May 2017 ↩
Someone asked a question regarding an item on the Wichita City Council agenda today: How much will this cost taxpayers?
The item in question is agenda item IV-1: Public Hearing and Request for a Letter of Intent to Issue Industrial Revenue Bonds (WAM Investments #6, LLC). 1
Attached was an article from the Wichita Business Journal previewing the matter. 2
How much do these bonds cost taxpayers? It’s important to remember that with Industrial Revenue Bonds in Kansas, cities and counties are not the lender. 3 If this company was not able to pay the bond interest or principle, the city would be under no obligation to pay. The city makes no guarantee as to repayment. Bond buyers know this.
(As an aside, the Business Journal article states: “However, using IRB financing can help the company secure a lower interest rate.” This is simply not true unless the bonds are tax-exempt municipal bonds. Those bonds have a lower interest rate because the interest income is not subject to income tax. But the IRBs considered today are not tax-exempt.)
So if the city is not lending money, and if the city is not guaranteeing repayment, do these bonds have a cost to taxpayers? The answer depends on which side of the fence you sit.
The benefit to WAM, today’s applicant, is that IRBs carry with them tax abatements. Specifically, a whole or partial exemption from paying some property taxes. Additionally, IRBs also enable escape from paying sales tax on purchases made with bond proceeds.
So one way to look at the IRBs is that they do indeed have a cost. The city, county, school district, and state will not receive tax revenue they otherwise would receive.
Supporters of this incentive make two rebuttals. One is that without the tax abatements, the project would not be built. Therefore, no tax revenue. So by abating taxes for a period of time, the project can be built, and after the abatements expire, it will be paying taxes. (For this project, the property tax abatement is for five or likely ten years, with a reduced rate of abatement in the final five.)
The second argument is that by building something, new jobs and commerce are created. These new employees and commercial activity pay taxes. The city and other jurisdictions receive more from these new taxes than they gave up in tax abatements. This is called the benefit-cost ratio. It’s computed by Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. City documents often refer to something like a “1.57:1 benefit-cost ratio,” meaning that for every one dollar foregone in tax revenue, the city expects to gain $1.57 in other tax revenue.
There are problems with these arguments. For the first: The developer of this project says the incentives are “critical.” If true, this claim exposes a large problem, which is if taxes are so high as to block investment, how are we going to grow as a city and region? Will every project require tax incentives? If not, why do some say they need incentives, and some don’t?
Second: Remember that government says that with the new project, tax revenue will increase. But this almost always happens regardless of whether the company has received incentives. Therefore, the benefit-cost ratio calculations are valid only if incentives were absolutely necessary.
Are incentives necessary? The benefiting companies usually make their case with a lot of numbers and projections, most of which are simply guesses. Plus, there is strong incentive to not tell — to not know — the truth. Here’s why. Suppose fictional company XYZ dangles the idea of expanding its presence in Wichita, or maybe in some other city. XYZ cites incentive packages offered by other cities. Wichita comes up with millions in incentives, and XYZ decides to expand in Wichita. Question: Were the incentives necessary? Was the threat to expand elsewhere genuine? If XYZ admits the threat was not real, then it has falsely held Wichita hostage for incentives. If the city or state admits the threat was not real, then citizens wonder why government gave away so much. No one has an incentive to be truthful. 4
Back to the item on today’s agenda. How much tax revenue is foregone through the abatements? City documents in the agenda packet did not have these numbers, but a presentation made to council members did, as follows:
Value of one year 95% tax abatement ($6,000,000 at 80%)
City of Wichita: $37,240
Sedgwick County: $33,508
USD 375 (Circle public schools): $61,255
State of Kansas: $1,710
These values would apply annually for five years. If occupancy goals are met, the incentives would apply for another five years, at a lower rate. (The values above are 95 percent of the usual taxes. The rate for the second five years would be 50 percent of the usual taxes.)
(As an aside, the Business Journal should not use headlines like it did in this case: “Wichita City Council to consider $6 million in IRBs for industrial spec building.” A better headline would be something like “Wichita City Council to consider $133,713 in annual tax abatements.” That is the real economic transaction that happened today.)
But this is not all. The applicant company will almost certainly receive an exemption from paying sales tax on the building. City documents did not provide an estimate for how much sales tax might be abated, but it could be several hundred thousand dollars.
Wichita City Council agenda packet for May 1, 2108. ↩
For more on this, see LeRoy, Greg. The Great American Jobs Scam. Especially chapter two, titled Site Location 101: How Companies Decide Where to Expand or Relocate. The entire book may be read online at http://www.greatamericanjobsscam.com/pages/preview-book.html. A relevant excerpt: “These prisoners’ dilemma games also enable companies to create fictions about cause and effect. These fictions can be used to create public versions of how deals happened that no one can credibly contradict, because the company’s real decision-making process will never be revealed. The most important fiction to maintain, of course, is that subsidies matter in deciding where a company expands or relocates. For example, being able to send secret signals to competing cities means companies can tell contradictory stories to different cities and have no fear of being exposed. If a company really has its heart set on City A, it can tell that city that it is in the hunt, but needs to do better. Meanwhile, it can send less urgent signals to Cities B and C, even if they offered bigger packages at first. Eventually, City A offers the biggest package, and the company announces its decision to go there.” ↩
The Wichita City Council will consider a budget for the city’s tourism fee paid by hotel guests.
If you stay at a hotel in Wichita, you’ll pay sales tax of 7.5 percent, hotel tax (transient guest tax) of 6.00 percent, and since 2015, a tourism fee of 2.75 percent. The tourism fee arises from the city’s creating of a Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID), with boundaries matching those of the city. 1 Funds collected from this fee go to Visit Wichita, the city’s visitor and convention bureau. (Of note, the TBID ordinance specifies that if the tax is itemized on hotel bills, it is to be called the “Tourism Fee.” Everyone pays, even those who are not tourists.) (Also, some hotels are in Community Improvement Districts, charging up to another 2 percent.)
This week the Wichita City Council will consider the budget for the use of this tourism fee revenue. 2 City documents (the agenda packet) show actual results and goals for economic impact. As can be seen in the nearby excerpt, for leisure travel in 2017, Visit Wichita claims $81,343,227 in economic impact. This figure comes from summing identifiable dollars, which comes to $20,433,737. Then a multiplier is applied to produce the economic impact. All this results in a return of investment of $53 dollars for every dollar of investment (“Media Leisure Investment”), Visit Wichita says. (This is for the “leisure” market segment only. There are separate goals and statistics for group travel, which is meetings, conventions, or sporting events.)
This data represents what is called “incremental” travel, for which Visit Wichita takes credit: “The rate of travel by those who are ‘unaware’ is considered the base rate of travel, which would have been achieved if no advertising were placed. Any travel above this base by ‘aware’ households is considered influenced — or the rate of incremental travel.” 3
As for the performance of the overall Wichita hotel market, growth is slow. Looking at growth in hotel tax collections, only two of the ten largest markets in Kansas have grown slower than Wichita. This is since January 1, 2015, which was when the tourism fee started. (Hotel tax collections collected by the Kansas Department of Revenue do not include local taxes like the city tourism fee.)
If Wichita-area companies can’t fill jobs, the declining labor force may be the reason. Who is responsible?
The Chung Report has a recent article noting the low unemployment rate in Wichita. That may make it difficult to fill jobs: “Wichita also has a low unemployment rate, which has seen steep decline in the past five years and now sets at 3.9 percent, below the national average of 4.1 percent. So even if companies are dead set on hiring, do we have the available workforce?” 1
It’s a useful article. But where it could be better, especially when discussing how Wichita companies will find workers to fill anticipated new jobs, is to note the shrinking Wichita labor force.
Here is a table of data for the Wichita MSA from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) program. 2 It is part of the Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), which is a “monthly survey of households conducted by the Bureau of Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” 3
I chose the year ending January 2011 as a comparison point, as it is near the low point of the great recession. Since then, the unemployment rate has fallen greatly, and is just half the rate of 2010.
But that isn’t the total story. It isn’t even the most important part of the story. Since the unemployment rate is a ratio, it has two moving parts, specifically the number of unemployed people and the number of people in the labor force. (The labor force, broadly, is the number of persons working plus those actively looking for work.)
It is possible that the unemployment rate falls while the number of people employed falls or rises slowly. This is the general trend in Wichita for the past seven years or so. The nearby table illustrates this. The labor force has fallen, and by a lot, while employment growth has been modest.
In fact, of the changes, we can say that 35.2 percent of the change in the unemployment rate is due to new jobs, while 67.8 percent of the change is due to a smaller labor force.
So when Wichita leaders ask “Do we have the workforce?” the answer might be no. The next question ought to be “Why not?”
Our leaders are quick and eager to take credit for economic development gains. But what about the shrinking labor force caused by the many of the same leaders and their policies?
As the proverb says, “Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.”
As Project Wichita gets ready to gather information and set goals, let’s be aware that we’ve done this before, and not long ago.
Project Wichita is a new initiative to do something about the future of Wichita. I hope it works. But we’ve been down this road before, and I don’t know of anything created that has been of lasting value.
That past effort was Visioneering Wichita. I’d supply a link to its website, but the site went stale from lack of updates. Eventually it was abandoned, although its remnants may be found at archive.org. (Visioneering Wichita does have a Facebook page, although it hasn’t been updated for eight years.)
Here’s one of the goals that Visioneering Wichita created for the city:
Income Growth: The Wichita MSA must increase its focus on those non-manufacturing job sectors that generate higher pay. Since 2002, the Wichita per capita income as a percent of the United States per capita income has slowly increased, and in 2006 and 2007, the value exceeded 100%, for the first time since 1987.16 In spite of the recent uptick in Wichita’s per capita income as a percentage of the United States, it is expected that it will continue the longer term decline c until: a) the decline in manufacturing jobs stops b) the gap between the United States and Wichita in non-manufacturing earnings per job begins to decrease and c) the gap in minority income is decreased. 1
I’ve gathered data on per capita personal income through 2016, the latest year for a full year of data, and prepared charts similar to those Visioneering used. Wichita per capita personal income continues to be lower than the cities identified as Visioneering peers, except for Oklahoma City. In fact, Wichita per capita personal income was lower in 2016 than in 2014.
Comparing Wichita to the nation, we see that Wichita took a downturn the past few years.
Per capita measures, while useful, are not without caveats that need to be understood and considered. For example, if half the people of Wichita moved to other cities, the per capita income would not change if the income of those who left was evenly distributed compared to the original distribution.
Staff of the Visioneering Wichita project used to provide updates on these statistics from time to time. The last update provided to officials that I can recall was in 2013.
Speaking of moving from Wichita, one of the things our region needs to address is the shrinking labor force. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the Wichita labor force is on the decline, while it is rising for the nation.
Of the declining labor force, Wichita government and civic leaders use this in two different, and conflicting, ways. First, the declining labor force means that even though job growth is very low, the unemployment rate has dropped, and by a lot. This improved unemployment rate is trumpeted by politicians and bureaucrats. Second, we see concern that Wichita may not have the workers necessary to fill jobs in expanding companies like Spirit Aerosystems. This is used to promote increasing spending on incentives and training infrastructure.
Perhaps the best thing Project Wichita could do is to reveal the truth about the Wichita economy and the economic development infrastructure we’ve built. The Chung Report has done a bit of this. But I don’t think our civic leaders act as through they know and understand. It is against their self-interest to admit that what they’ve done hasn’t been working.
Visioneering Wichita Revised Vision Document, May 2009. ↩
A project in Wichita received substantial subsidy from taxpayers. How have public policy issues been reported?
Free standing emergency rooms are a recent trend in medical care. This is a facility that has equipment, personnel, and capability like a traditional hospital emergency room, but is not connected to a hospital. The first in Wichita is nearly ready to open, on Twenty-first Street east of Webb Road.
Regarding the Wichita facility, the Wichita Business Journal quoted Malik Idbeis, chief information officer for Kansas Medical Center: “We see a lot of patients from the northeast side of Wichita. We thought it’d be nice to bring our style of care closer to them. There are a lot of neighborhoods and families in that area.” 1
Here, the spokesman is promoting that facility is located convenient to (affluent) families in northeast Wichita. That wasn’t the argument made to the Wichita City Council last year when the facility applied for tax relief through the Industrial Revenue Bonds program. At that time, the facility was pitched as an attraction that would serve many out-of-town customers. City documents reported: “The current Economic Development Policy requires medical facilities to attract at least 30% of patients from outside the Wichita MSA. Kansas Medical Center reviewed the location of patients utilizing the emergency room in Andover, which revealed that 37% come from outside the Wichita MSA.” 2
It seems a stretch to assume that the demographic characteristics of a hospital in Andover would also apply to an emergency room in Wichita, but the city council accepted this reasoning.
Aside from this, the Wichita Business Journal article contains problems in its reporting of public policy issues. The reporter wrote: “Last summer, the Wichita City Council authorized issuing industrial revenue bonds for the project to help finance land and construction costs. With IRBs, the city serves as a pass-through entity for developers to obtain a lower interest rate on projects. IRBs require no taxpayer commitment.” (For background on IRBs in Kansas, see Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas.)
It’s not likely the facility will save on interest costs with IRBs. It might save if the bonds were non-taxable, but these bonds are taxable, according to the agenda packet for this item. The article is correct in that IRBs require no taxpayer commitment — at least superficially. Here, I believe the reporter is letting readers know that the city makes no guarantee as to the bond repayment. If the city guaranteed repayment, that would help the borrower obtain a lower interest rate. But there is no guarantee.
Instead, the benefit of the IRB program is lower taxes. The city estimates the first-year property tax savings to be $61,882, allocated this way: City of Wichita: $17,226. State of Kansas: $792. Sedgwick County: $5,520. USD 259 (Wichita public school district): $28,345. Savings like this would be realized for five years, plus another five years if employment commitments are met.
This property tax forgiveness is, in many ways, a “taxpayer commitment.” If we don’t recognize that, then we must reconsider the foundation of local tax policy.
In Wichita, as in most cities, the largest consumers of property tax dollars are the city, county, and school district. All justify their tax collections by citing the services they provide: Law enforcement, fire protection, education, etc. It is for providing these services that we pay local taxes.
But through the Industrial Revenue Bond program, properties don’t pay property tax. (In the case of this facility, the property tax abatement is limited to 88 percent of the full tax burden.)
Yet, this new facility will undoubtedly demand and consume the services local government provides — law enforcement, fire protection, and education. But it won’t be paying property tax to support these services (except for the 12 percent not abated). Others will have to pay this cost.
We’re left with an uncomfortable and awkward circumstance. City officials tell us that we must pay property tax so the city can provide services. (In fact, last year the Wichita city manager recommended increasing property taxes to pay for more police officers.)
At the same time, however, the city creates special classes of people who use services but don’t pay for them.
Often the justification for economic development incentives is economic necessity, that is, the project could not be built without the incentive. That argument was not made for this project.
Free standing emergency rooms
Free standing emergency departments are controversial. The notes to this article hold references to news articles and academic studies looking at the costs and usage of these facilities. 345678910
Researchers note that the emergency rooms are much more expensive than traditional doctor offices or urgent care facilities, yet many of the diagnoses made at the ERs are the same as made at non-emergency facilities.
Jeremiah D. Schuur, Donald M. Yealy, Michael L. Callaham. Comparing Freestanding Emergency Departments, Hospital-Based Emergency Departments, and Urgent Care in Texas: Apples, Oranges, or Lemons? Annals of Emergency Medicine, Volume 70, Issue 6, 2017, pp. 858-861. Available at http://www.annemergmed.com/article/S0196-0644(17)30473-0/fulltext. ↩
The City of Wichita proposes to extend a baseball consulting contract without public explanation or discussion.
Wichita city leaders want a better baseball team, not to mention a new stadium. To help find a minor league baseball team, the city engaged a consultant last October. 1 That contract called for a spending limit of $50,000. 2
You may have noticed that there has not been an announcement of a team. It also appears that the $50,000 spending cap of the October contract has been reached (or nearly so). So next Tuesday the city council will consider spending (up to) another $50,000 with the same consultant. 3
Why the need for a contract extension? City documents explain: “Over the course of the past six months, Beacon has made successful inroads into the affiliated baseball community presenting the opportunities for MiLB and its teams. Due to the success in attracting the interest of affiliated baseball, staff believes it is imperative to further pursue affiliated baseball discussions with the assistance and expertise of Beacon Sports Capital Partners, LLC.”
I’m afraid I just don’t understand. The consultant’s effort has been successful, says the city, but yet there is no team. It’s really puzzling because last August Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell was confident there would be an announcement before the end of 2017:
“By the end of this calendar year, we feel confident that we will be able to announce a team, who the team is, all of the above,” Longwell told The Eagle Tuesday afternoon. “We hope that we can complete all of those conversations by the end of this year and be able to announce a contract in place.” 4
That confidence was expressed before the engagement of the consultant in October.
Consent agenda, again
The city council will deal with this matter on its consent agenda. A consent agenda is a group of items — perhaps as many as two dozen or so — that are voted on in bulk with a single vote. An item on a consent agenda will be explained and discussed only if a council member requests the item to be “pulled.” If that is done, there will be discussion. Then the item might be withdrawn, delayed, voted on by itself, or folded back into the consent agenda with the other items.
“Pulling” an item is uncommon, as items on consent agendas are not controversial, at least according to the city’s reasoning. I suppose that applies to this item, as the first contract with this consultant was also handled on the consent agenda. And on March 27 the council authorized the spending of over $7 million on a consent agenda item. 5
“MiLB Baseball Consultant Contract Amendment.” Wichita City Council Agenda packet for April 10, 2018. Agenda Report No. II-15. Available at <a href=”http://www.wichita.gov/Council/Agendas/04-10-2018%20City%20Council%20Agenda%20Packet.pdf. ↩