For this year’s report, the news for the Wichita area is mixed. For the period 2010 to 2015, Wichita ranks 88th in growth, 69th in prosperity, and 44th in inclusion. (The 100 largest metro areas were ranked.)
Looking at just the most recent years, 2014 to 2015, Wichita ranks 73rd in growth, 42nd in prosperity, and 9th in inclusion. That’s moving in the right direction. So perhaps there is hope for progress, in that the rankings for the most recent years are better than the rankings for the past five years.
There is good news in these numbers, too. Wichita does well in most measures of “Inclusion,” which Brookings describes: “Inclusion indicators measure how the benefits of growth and prosperity in a metropolitan economy — specifically, changes in employment and income — are distributed among individuals. Inclusive growth enables more people to invest in their skills and to purchase more goods and services. Thus, inclusive growth can increase human capital and raise aggregate demand, boosting prosperity and growth.”
Wichita’s productivity ranking is good, also.
Brookings computed a measure called “Metro area competitive shift.” It’s described as “The difference between the actual job growth and the expected job growth. It indicates whether the metro area overperformed or underperformed given its industrial structure.” For the period 2010 to 2015, Wichita scored -4.2 percent. For 2014 to 2015, the measure is -0.5 percent. Again, movement in the right direction.
Looking at more recent data gathered from the Bureau of Labor Statistics through April 2017, we see that at a time private sector employment in the entire nation is rising steadily, in Wichita (and Kansas) employment rose at a slower rate, and has been (roughly) level since 2016.
Looking forward, the employment situation may not improve, or improve only slowly. Recently Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Growth and Business Research revised its forecast downward: “Revised employment numbers showed that Wichita’s economic growth came to a screeching halt in October of 2016. Even though employment growth presumably stopped, there is lacking evidence that the slowed employment growth is systemic. Employment growth is expected to pick up marginally, but multiple headwinds could derail that growth.” 1
Other data from BLS that I’ve charted through the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis show that Wichita’s unemployment rate is going down, and so is the civilian labor force. Manufacturing employment is far below previous levels, and is on a slow downward trend. You may view the Wichita dashboard here. A similar dashboard for Kansas is here.
It’s appropriate, then, to understand what the 26,000 number means. The Eagle article mentions “a likely mistake in how the number of jobs downtown is calculated.”3 The same article quotes Jeremy Hill, director of CEDBR, as saying, “It looks very obvious and plausible that it is an error.”
There is no “mistake” or “error” in this Census data, which is known as LEHD Origin-Destination Employment Statistics, or LODES. But we need to be curious or cautious enough to investigate what this data means. Documentation from the Census Bureau for LODES data gives the definition of the place of work and a cautionary note: “A place of work is defined by the physical or mailing address reported by employers in the QCEW (formerly ES-202) or Multiple Worksite Reports. An address from administrative data may or may not be the actual location that a worker reports to most often.”
The Census Bureau continues with another warning regarding this data: “Nonreporting of multiple worksites is especially common with state and local governments and school districts. In such a case, LEHD infrastructure files assign all workers for that employer (within the state) to the main address provided.”4
In the case of downtown Wichita, the mistake was made in the application of this data, which is the claim that there are 26,000 workers in downtown Wichita. There may be that many people who draw a paycheck from an administrative office located in downtown. But large numbers of these don’t come to downtown to perform their jobs.
The LODES data reports a one square block in downtown that holds 7,740 workers. This is the block that holds the administrative office building for the Wichita public school district. Regarding this, the Eagle article reports: “One of the most likely reasons for the difference, according to multiple local academics, including Hill, is that the Census is reporting that every employee for USD 259 works downtown. Most USD 259 employees work in buildings across the city, but the central office is located downtown.” This is something the Census Bureau warns users to consider.
There’s another area of erroneous application, too, and it isn’t mentioned in the Eagle article. This concerns the second largest concentration of workers in downtown Wichita (according to the LODES data) in a Census block which has 3,437 employees. This is the block that holds Wichita city hall. In 2014 the city had 3,270 employees. But they don’t all work at Main and Central. They’re dispersed throughout the city in police stations, fire stations, and other sites.
How was this missed?
Nearby is an example of using the Census OnTheMap application.5 This is the source of LODES data that the WDDC cites in its footnotes to its annual report. When using the application for zip code 67202, there are two — and only two — large dark blue dots. These represent the census blocks with the greatest number of workers, 7,740 and 3,437. I’d like to think that if someone at CEDBR, WDDC, or city hall looked at this map and saw those two big blue dots, they might ask a few questions. Wasn’t someone curious as to how a single block of downtown Wichita manages to hold so many employees? Which companies do they work for? What can we learn from the success of these companies that employ so many people? Can we duplicate this success in other parts of downtown?
But I don’t think anyone asked these questions. No one — not at CEDBR, WDDC, or city hall — was inquisitive enough to really look at this data and see what it means. It’s either that or there was a willful misrepresentation.
The Eagle article also reports this: “This won’t make much of a difference to most businesses downtown, according to Hill. They already know how big the market is because they have experience with it. … The best companies will look at census data when coming up with their business plans, Hill said, but every business relies on several numbers, so even if there are thousands of fewer jobs downtown than previously thought, it’s unlikely that it would have much of an impact.”
On these remarks, I would say that first, we’re trying to recruit new businesses to downtown Wichita. It’s those business firms that this data speaks to. While the “best” companies may use other sources of data, I don’t think we want to discriminate. All companies are welcome to Wichita, I hope.
Second, Hill says companies “will look at census data.” Well, this is census data.
Third, Hill says this mistake won’t have “much of an impact.” In the future, I think we’ll need to ask CEDBR, WDDC, and city hall if the data they supply is intended to have an impact, or is it for something else.
Fourth, there is other census data. The United States Census Bureau tracks business data by zip code.6 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. For 2015 the number of jobs is 13,581, not much more than half of what city leaders have told us. Again, these are private-sector workers only.7
Not only are these numbers much smaller, the results since 2007 show fewer business establishments, fewer people working downtown, and lower earnings generated in downtown Wichita. In all cases, the trend is lower. The LODES data is on a downwards trend, too.
“But the reason for this is not because 7,000 workers actually will leave but because of a likely mistake in how the number of jobs downtown is calculated. ↩
“For LODES, a place of work is defined by the physical or mailing address reported by employers in the QCEW (formerly ES-202) or Multiple Worksite Reports. An address from administrative data may or may not be the actual location that a worker reports to most often. The distinction of worksite and administrative address may be especially significant in some industries such as construction, where work is often carried out at temporary locations. In some cases, employers do not provide a multiple worksite report when it would be appropriate to do so. Nonreporting of multiple worksites is especially common with state and local governments and school districts. In such a case, LEHD infrastructure files assign all workers for that employer (within the state) to the main address provided. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show a national noncompliance rate of 5.61 percent of multiunit employers responsible for about 4.45 percent of multiunit employment.” U.S. Census Bureau. Matthew R. Graham, Mark J. Kutzbach, and Brian McKenzie. Design comparison of LODES and ACS commuting data products. Available at ftp://ftp2.census.gov/ces/wp/2014/CES-WP-14-38.pdf. ↩
But at least some of the data Goody Clancy used turned out to be total nonsense.
Specifically, Goody Clancy presented Walk Score data for downtown Wichita. Walk Score is purported to represent a measure of walkability of a location in a city. Walkability is a key design element of the master plan Goody Clancy has developed for downtown Wichita. David Dixon, who leads Goody Clancy’s Planning and Urban Design division, used Walk Score in a presentation delivered in Wichita.
Walk Score is not a project of Goody Clancy, as far as I know, and David Dixon is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of the Walk Score website. But he presented it and relied on it as an example of the data-driven approach that Goody Clancy takes.
For example, the score for 525 E. Douglas, the block the Eaton Hotel is in and mentioned by Dixon as a walkable area, scored 91, which means it is a “walker’s paradise,” according to the Walk Score website.
But here’s where we can start to see just how bad the data used to develop these scores is. For a grocery store — an important component of walkability — the website indicates indicated a grocery store just 0.19 miles away. It’s “Pepsi Bottling Group,” located on Broadway between Douglas and First Streets. Those familiar with the area know there is no grocery store there, only office buildings. The claim of a grocery store here is false. It’s an office, not a store.
For a nearby library, it listed Robert F. Walters Digital Library, which is a specialized geological library costing $1,500 per year to use — over the internet.
For a drug store, it listed Rx Doctor’s Choice, which is a company selling oral chelation treatments by mail order. It’s nothing at all like a general-purpose drug store. One of those is nowhere nearby.
There were other claimed amenities where the data is just as bad. But as Larry Weber, then chairman of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation told me, Walk Score has been updated. I should no longer be concerned with the credibility of this data, he said.
He was correct — partially. Walk Score was updated, but we should still be concerned about the quality of the data. Now for the same location the walk score is 85, which is considered “very walkable.” The “grocery store” is no longer the Pepsi Bottling Group. It’s now “Market Place,” whose address is given as 155 N. Market St #220.
If anyone would ever happen to stroll by that location, they would find that address — 155 N. Market number 220 — is the management office for an office building whose name is Market Place. It’s not a grocery store. It’s an office. So I became even more concerned about the credibility of this data and the fact that Goody Clancy relied on it. I was also concerned that Weber thinks thought this was an improvement, and that he felt I should not be concerned.
David Dixon and Goody Clancy did not create the Walk Score data. But he and his planning company presented it to Wichitans as an example of the data-driven, market-oriented approach to planning that they use.
But anyone who relies on the evidence Dixon and Goody Clancy presented would surely be confused unless they investigated the area on their own.
And since this reliance on Walk Score was made after Goody Clancy had spent considerable time in Wichita, the fact that someone there could not immediately recognize how utterly bogus the data is: That should give us cause for concern that the entire planning process is based on similar shoddy data and analysis. We also ought to be concerned that no one at WDDC or city hall looked closely enough at this data to realize its total lack of correspondence to reality.
When I presented these concerns to the Wichita Metropolitan Area Planning Commission in 2010, Scott Knebel, a member of the city’s planning staff who is the city’s point man on downtown planning, address the concerns raised by me. He said, “In terms of the Walk Score, I suspect Mr. Weeks is absolutely right, it probably is a relatively flawed measurement of Walk Score.” He added that the measurement is probably flawed everywhere, downtown and elsewhere. He said that Goody Clancy used it “as an illustration of the importance of walkability in an urban area.”
An isolated incident, long ago?
Seven years later, should we be concerned about this incident?
If that was the only example of low-quality and deceptive data, we could say sure, that was long ago. Let’s forget this and go forward. Our city leaders are smarter now.
Except they’re not.
The oft-cited claim of 26,000 workers in downtown Wichita is another example of misuse of data, and in a very big way. It comes from the U.S. Census Bureau. This particular data set counts all Wichita school district employees as downtown workers, even though nearly all work at locations scattered throughout the city.2
If we accept this data as meaning what WDDC and the city says it means, we’d have to believe that 7,740 people work in a one square block area from First to Second Streets, and Wichita to Water Streets. That block is mostly surface parking, but it does hold the administrative offices of the Wichita school district. So all school district employees are counted as working in this block.
There is similar problem in another block. All City of Wichita employees are treated as though they work at city hall. But they don’t.
Does any of this matter? It ought to matter. The planners tell us they use data to make decisions. This week the city council decided to hire a consulting firm to investigate the feasibility of a refurbished or new convention center and performing arts center. I’m sure much data will be presented. Based on our past experience, we’ll have to carefully examine data for appropriate usage.
This week the Wichita City Council considers hiring a consulting firm to develop plans for a new performing arts and convention center.
It’s no secret that many in Wichita want a new performing arts and convention center to replace Century II. Documents produced by the city sketch four possibilities ranging in price from $272 million to $492 million.12
The two least expensive scenarios keep the existing Century II structure, while two call for completely new buildings, including the possibility of a performing arts center located a few blocks to the east of the present Century II and proposed convention center site.
Apart from the financial desirability of these projects is the question of how to pay. The traditional approach would be for a city to build, own, and operate the project, paying for it through long-term borrowing. (Governments, including Wichita, often speak of “bonding” projects, a word which seems less foreboding than “borrowing.”)
This week’s business for the city council foreshadows the city using a different method. The firm the city wants to hire, Arup Advisory, Inc., is an advocate of “P3” or public-private partnerships. A report Arup prepared for the City of Los Angeles3 recommended that the city use a method known as Design Build Finance Operate and Maintain (DBFOM), which ARUP says is used interchangeably with P3.
In the DBFOM or P3 model as applied to Wichita, a third party — thought to be George Laham — would do all the work of designing, financing, building, and operating a convention center and possibly a performing arts center. Then, the city simply pays a fee each year to use the center. It’s called an “availability payment.” Most people call this rent or lease payments.
The Los Angeles document explains the potential benefits of using DBFOM or P3:
Here, the City as asset owner hires a developer team to take on the full project development responsibility (design, build, finance, operate, maintain) and pays them an annual service fee for the availability of the functioning capital asset (i.e. infrastructure as a service). The service fee is called an “availability payment” in the P3 industry; it is a contractually scheduled pay-for-performance arrangement where the private partner is paid to design, build, and finance a turnkey capital asset and then is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the asset according to performance standards set by the City. The availability payments are fixed at the time the P3 contract is signed and are only subject to indexation to an agreed inflation index (e.g., US or Los Angeles region CPI) and deductions for non-performance against the contractually defined performance standards. The availability payments, which are the only form of compensation by the owner to the P3 developer, start only when the P3 developer has satisfied all the conditions stipulated in the contract for successful completion of construction and start of operations. These features provide substantial incentives for the P3 developer to achieve on-schedule and on-budget construction, as well as optimized life-cycle maintenance over the long term that meets the owner’s needs.
A common strategy recommended by Arup is to “cross-subsidize” with real estate. This is vaguely defined as to “unlock significant land value” in city-owned real estate near the convention center. Specific to Wichita, the proposal from Arup to the city includes, “Assess potential revenue from the monetization of city’s owned land located in proximity to the Century II facility and determine the size of the cross subsidy to the project expansion design schemes 1 and 3.”4
What are the benefits to the city of pursuing the DBFOM/P3 path? The Los Angeles document gives these: “No impact on debt capacity; significantly reduced cost to the General Fund, structured as an obligation to pay a service fee (i.e. availability payment) to the private partner where the value of the service fee is less than the sum of all the relevant LACC costs [for other options].”
Should Wichita do this?
Convention business is on a long downward trend. The Arup report for Los Angeles recognizes this:
Over the last two decades, most large and medium size American cities have experienced a spur in convention center development. According to the Brookings Institution (2005), exhibit hall space in the US grew from 40 million square feet in 1990 to 85 million in 2014 distributed among 400+ facilities. There is a sense in the Convention business that the supply may be exceeding demand.
A commitment of this size needs public input in the form of a vote. The “availability payments” the city may commit to will be characterized in various ways, but they represent a long-term commitment by the city that it can’t escape. If promised revenues from expanded convention trade don’t cover these payments, taxpayers will have to pay. The city, unfortunately, doesn’t have a good record of honesty with citizens:
In 2014 the city told citizens that $250 million in new sales tax revenue was required to provide drought protection. After the vote on the tax failed, the city found less expensive ways to provide the same protection.5
Subsidized city projects have not delivered promised benefits.6
The city is not truthful in reporting the number of people working in downtown Wichita.7
Despite much investment in downtown Wichita, both public and private, business activity is declining.8
Despite much investment in downtown Wichita, both public and private, total property valuation is declining.9
While touting transparency, the city fails in many basic ways, even though the city communications staff has been expanded.101112
Citizens and taxpayers should insist the city address these issues before committing to any new project, much less one the size of a renovated or new performing arts and convention center.
And — most importantly — the people need to vote up or down on this project.
Update: On May 9 the city council decided to hire this firm.
Are the City of Wichita’s projections regarding subsidized development as an economic driver believable?
This week the Wichita City Council will consider a project plan for a STAR bonds district near Downtown Wichita. These bonds divert future incremental sales tax revenue to pay for various things within the district.1
City documents promise this: “The City plans to substantially rehabilitate or replace Lawrence Dumont Stadium as a modern multi-sport stadium as part of a larger project to develop the river and stadium areas. … Combined, the museum, pedestrian bridge, waterfront improvements and multi-sport stadium will generate significant new visitor tourism as well as provide signature quality of life amenities for the citizens of Wichita and the region.”2
We’ve heard things like this before. Each “opportunity” for the public to invest in downtown Wichita is accompanied by grand promises. But actual progress is difficult to achieve, as evidenced by the lack of progress in Block One.3
In fact, change in Downtown Wichita — if we’re measuring the count of business firms, jobs, and payroll — is in the wrong direction, despite public and private investment.4
Perhaps more pertinent to a sports facility as an economic growth driver is the Intrust Bank Arena. Five years ago the Wichita Eagle noted the lack of growth in the area.5 Since then, not much has changed. The area surrounding the arena is largely vacant. Except for Commerce Street, that is, and the businesses located there don’t want to pay their share of property taxes.6
I’m sure the city will remind us that the arena was a Sedgwick County project, not a city project, as if that makes a difference. Also, the poor economic performance cited above is for Downtown Wichita as delineated by zip code 67202, while the proposed STAR bond project lies just outside that area, as if that makes a difference.
By the way, this STAR bonds district is an expansion of an existing district which contains the WaterWalk development. That development has languished, with acres of land having been available for development for many years.
“Ten years ago, Elizabeth Stevenson looked out at the neighborhood where a downtown arena would soon be built and told an Eagle reporter that one day it could be the ‘Paris of the Midwest.’ What she and many others envisioned was a pedestrian and bike-friendly neighborhood of quaint shops, chic eateries and an active arts district, supported by tens of thousands of visitors who would be coming downtown for sporting events and concerts. It hasn’t exactly turned out that way. Today, five years after the opening of the Intrust Bank Arena, most of the immediate neighborhood looks much like it did in 2004 when Stevenson was interviewed in The Eagle. With the exception of a small artists’ colony along Commerce Street, it’s still the same mix of light industrial businesses interspersed with numerous boarded-up buildings and vacant lots, dotted with ‘for sale’ and ‘for lease’ signs.” Lefler, Dion. 5 years after Intrust Bank Arena opens, little surrounding development has followed.Wichita Eagle. December 20, 2014. Available at http://www.kansas.com/news/local/article4743402.html. ↩
Even if we accept the measure of jobs used by the City of Wichita, the trend is in the wrong direction. Citizens should ask for truth and accountability.
The City of Wichita and its surrogates tell us there are 26,000 daytime workers in downtown Wichita, defined as zip code 67202. There is a serious problem with that number, as it includes workers whose “administrative home” is downtown, even though they work somewhere else.1 The largest example of this is the counting of all Wichita school district employees as downtown workers, even though almost all work in schools and other locations throughout the city.
But even if we use the statistic promoted by the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, the trend in jobs is in the wrong direction. WDDC promotes the large investment in downtown Wichita, by both private and public sources. But employment is trending in the opposite direction.
As Wichita considers other large downtown investments, such as STAR bond financing for the west bank of the Arkansas River or a new convention center and performing arts center, we should ask at least two questions:
Can we depend on the city to use meaningful and truthful data?
Will the city recognize the lackluster results of its economic development efforts?
Shouldn’t we insist on progress in projects like Block One before proceeding elsewhere?2
It is cited by our chief economic development agency.2
The city’s downtown development agency uses this number in brochures and annual reports.34
It appears in a federal grant application made by the city.5
It appears in our state’s largest newspaper, as reported by a journalist billed as a data specialist.6
It appears in a Wichita specialty business newspaper quoting a Wichita business leader.7
It’s advertised on a vacant downtown building, the former Henry’s store at Broadway and William.
The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation states the data for workers in downtown Wichita, which is defined for these purposes as zip code 67202, comes from the United States Census Bureau, specifically an application called “OnTheMap Application and LEHD Origin-Destination Employment Statistics.”8 The data is commonly known as LODES. Using this application and focusing analysis on zip code 67202 produces the figure 25,850 primary jobs. Round that to 26,000, and that’s the source of the job claims for downtown Wichita.
But: Census documentation for this data gives the definition of the place of work and a cautionary note: “A place of work is defined by the physical or mailing address reported by employers in the QCEW (formerly ES-202) or Multiple Worksite Reports. An address from administrative data may or may not be the actual location that a worker reports to most often.”
The Census Bureau continues with another warning regarding this data: “Nonreporting of multiple worksites is especially common with state and local governments and school districts. In such a case, LEHD infrastructure files assign all workers for that employer (within the state) to the main address provided.”9
This is highly relevant and important in the case of downtown Wichita. When using the OnTheMap application for zip code 67202, there are two large bright blue dots that stand out from all others. These represent the two highest concentrations of workers in downtown Wichita. One is Census block 201730043001036, which has 7,740 employees. This is a one square block area from First to Second Streets, and Wichita to Water Streets. The block consists mostly of surface parking lots, although there are three buildings. One building is the Wichita school district administration building, and there’s the problem with the way the city uses this data. The school district has thousands of employees. Only a small fraction, however, work in the downtown administrative building at First and Water Streets. The rest are dispersed throughout the city in school buildings and other sites such as the large facility at 37th Street North and Hydraulic.
But this Census data counts all these employees in one census block. This is an example of the warning the Census Bureau supplies with the data: Nonreporting of multiple worksites is especially common with state and local governments and school districts.
There’s another example. The second largest concentration of workers in downtown Wichita appears in Census block 201730043001023, which has 3,437 employees. This is the block that holds Wichita city hall. In 2014 the city had 3,270 employees. But they don’t all work at Main and Central. They’re dispersed throughout the city in police stations, fire stations, and other sites.
(By the way, the 26,000 number is often qualified as daytime workers. But we know that many police officers and firefighters work at night. The same is true for people working at the many hotels, restaurants, and bars in downtown. They aren’t all daytime workers.)
Here’s something to consider: The Wichita school district is moving its administrative offices to the former Southeast High School building at Lincoln and Edgemoor. That’s in zip code 67218. What will happen to the reporting of jobs in downtown Wichita when some seven thousand workers start receiving their paychecks from an office in that zip code, and the Census Bureau adjusts it data accordingly?
So how many people do actually work in downtown Wichita, zip code 67202? A different set of Census data gives the number 13,593 for 2014.10 This data is much more representative of the number of people actually working in a location, although it includes private-sector workers only. Se we might add a few to that number. But it’s clear that the claim of 26,000 workers is far from true.
We’re told that the city makes decisions based on data and analysis. In the city manager’s policy message in the current city budget, the manager wrote: “In 2016, the City was selected by Bloomberg Philanthropies as a What Works City for making a public commitment to use data for informed decision making.” The same document also states: “Departmental goals and data drive decision making within each department.”
The use of data for decision making is especially important for downtown planning, we’ve been told. In selling the plan for downtown Wichita in 2010, the city’s consultants told us that the plan is “grounded in data and hard analysis.”11 But I showed that data the consultants relied on — a “walk score” — was based on nonsensical data.
We’re left with a few observations:
The claim of 26,000 workers in downtown Wichita is true. But as we’ve seen, it is not true in the way it is used, which is as an indication of the number of human beings actually working in downtown.
Did the person who gathered this data about downtown workers know what it means? If not, why not?
Did the person who decided to use this data in marketing downtown Wichita know what it means? If not, why not?
If someone knew the meaning of this data and decided to use it anyway: What does that tell us?
Did no one at Wichita city hall look at this data? As I’ve shown, it’s easy to see that the mapping application says 3,437 people work in the block holding city hall. Did no one look at the big blue dot and that number and realize that it is not real?
What if you opened a lunch counter in downtown Wichita based on the claim of 26,000 daytime workers, and then you learn there are really only half that many, with some of those working at night?
We want to trust our city leaders. We want downtown Wichita and the entire metropolitan area to succeed so that people may prosper and be happy. But episodes like this destroy trust and breed well-deserved cynicism. We can — we must — do better than this.
City of Wichita. Proposed Budget 2017 – 2018. Page 2. “Over 26,000 workers also populate downtown every day, working in industries such as education, finance, manufacturing, health care, government, and retail. ↩
Greater Wichita partnership. Living & Working. “With a highly trained pool of talent and a deeply rooted entrepreneurial spirit, Downtown Wichita is work central, boasting 26,000 daytime workers in the financial, healthcare, education, oil & gas and creative services industries.” Available at http://greaterwichitapartnership.org/living_working/downtown_wichita. ↩
“For LODES, a place of work is defined by the physical or mailing address reported by employers in the QCEW (formerly ES-202) or Multiple Worksite Reports. An address from administrative data may or may not be the actual location that a worker reports to most often. The distinction of worksite and administrative address may be especially significant in some industries such as construction, where work is often carried out at temporary locations. In some cases, employers do not provide a multiple worksite report when it would be appropriate to do so. Nonreporting of multiple worksites is especially common with state and local governments and school districts. In such a case, LEHD infrastructure files assign all workers for that employer (within the state) to the main address provided. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show a national noncompliance rate of 5.61 percent of multiunit employers responsible for about 4.45 percent of multiunit employment.” Matthew R. Graham, Mark J. Kutzbach, and Brian McKenzie. Design comparison of LODES and ACS commuting data products. Available at ftp://ftp2.census.gov/ces/wp/2014/CES-WP-14-38.pdf. ↩
Whatever the mechanism, tax increment financing is meant to spur economic growth. But in one of Wichita’s largest TIF districts, economic activity, much less growth, is difficult to find.
In particular, “Block One” — a square block bounded by Douglas and William, Broadway and Topeka — has benefited from TIF money, but has stumbled. There is the Ambassador Hotel, which received many millions in taxpayer subsidy in addition to TIF benefits. There is also the Kansas Leadership Center, a handsome new building.
But on William Street, progress is harder to find.
The former Henry’s building remains empty. Promotional materials in its display windows have been fading in the sun for four years. Across the alley to the east is 8,400 square feet of retail space, all empty for four years except for a used book store. It’s not for lack of parking that this space is empty, as it lies underneath a taxpayer-funded parking garage. There’s plenty of on-street parking too, as little happens on this block.
Some of the surrounding property is not doing well, either. The Broadway Plaza building features a large ground floor office or retail space that has been empty for years. South of that, the former State Office Building — directly across Broadway from the former Henry’s building — faces possible demolition.
Has there been lack of promotion for Block One? No. The downtown development agency uses it as an example of the success of its efforts in downtown Wichita. It has called it “the first complete city block of development along the core of Douglas Avenue.”
But the legacy of this, at least along William Street, is empty storefronts and a hulking vacant building.
Now the City of Wichita has approved the formation of yet another tax increment financing district. Sedgwick County and the Wichita School District have an opportunity to veto its formation. Before approving any new tax increment financing districts, we might want to ask for some progress in what we have.
There has been much investment in Downtown Wichita, both public and private. What has been the trend in business activity during this time?
According to the 2016 report from the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, over the past decade there has been $602 million in private investment and $369 million in public investment in downtown. An additional $190 million investment is in the form of the Intrust Bank Arena. The total, according to WDDC, is $1,161 million.1
What has been the result of this investment? If you expected business growth in downtown Wichita, you may be disappointed.
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 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 all cases, the trend is lower.
This is movement in the wrong direction, the opposite of progress. There may be good news in that the number of people living downtown may be rising. But business activity is declining.
Details of the subsidy programs used to keep Cargill in Wichita are starting to take shape.
This week the Wichita City Council will consider one of the (potentially many) subsidy programs offered to keep Cargill in Wichita.
Cargill Protein Group is currently located at 151 N. Main. The plan is for Cargill to purchase and demolish the Wichita Eagle building at 825 E. Douglas, then build a new office building in its place. The subsidy program to be considered this week is the Industrial Revenue Bond program1. The city won’t be lending Cargill money. Instead, IRB’s are a (convoluted) method whereby local governments are able to forgive the payment of property taxes. For the case of Cargill, city documents state the tax forgiveness could be worth $1,359,531 per year.2 This would be shared by these taxing jurisdictions, again according to city documents.
City of Wichita: $378,450
Sedgwick County: $340,958
USD 259, the Wichita Public School District: $622,723
State of Kansas $17,400
Of note, the city is in a hurry to handle this matter. Pending legislation would reduce the amount of property tax able to be exempted.3
In addition to the property tax exemption, the IRBs also carry a sales tax exemption for purchases related to construction. City documents give an estimated value of $2,026,291 for the sales tax Cargill will not have to pay.
Not the entire subsidy package
The action to be considered this week is likely just a portion of total subsidy package. For example, at one time it was speculated that the City of Wichita would build a parking garage and let Cargill use it as their own. With a proposed capacity of 750 parking spots, this would cost many millions.4
Now, the city plans to let Cargill construct the garage, and the city will, according to city documents, “purchase a parking easement from Cargill to obtain public access to the parking structure Cargill will complete as part of this project.” It sounds like the city will rent spaces in the garage. It will be interesting to see the rate the city will agree to pay.
From the state of Kansas Cargill is likely to receive PEAK benefits. Under this program, the Kansas state withholding tax deducted from Cargill employees’ paychecks will be routed back to Cargill.5 (Well, only 95 percent goes back to Cargill. The state keeps five percent.)
Recently the city paid $4.73 million (not including change orders) to build a downtown garage with 270 parking spaces, a cost of about $17,500 per stall. Applying that to a 750 stall garage results in a cost of $13.1 million). ↩
The City of Wichita says it does not want to use cash incentives for economic development. But a proposal contains just that.
Update: The council did not approve this project, by a vote of four to three.
This week the Wichita City Council will consider a package of incentives for the developer of a large downtown building, the Finney State Office Center. While the city has said that it does not want to use cash incentives, they are proposed for this project.1
Elements of the proposal are these:
The Wichita Public Building Commission will sell the building for $100,000.
The project is also asking for the city to issue Industrial Revenue Bonds. Despite the use of the term “bond,” the city is not lending money to anyone. Someone else will purchase the bonds. Instead, the IRBs are a vehicle for conveying property tax abatements and sales tax exemptions.
In this case, the developer requests a sales tax exemption for purchases during the renovation. City documents don’t give a value for the sales tax that might be exempted. But the developer has requested IRBs for an amount up to $35,000,000. Therefore, a sales tax exemption might be worth up to $2,625,000, depending on the price of taxable products and services purchased, and the sales tax rate at the time.
If someone excuses you from paying millions in sales tax, that’s better than receiving cash. But cash incentives are proposed, too. The city proposes a grant of up to $2,000,000, although the city calls this an “investment.”2
Whatever it is called, this is a cash incentive.
Also, the Wichita Public Building Commission will pay up to $1,000,000 for improvements to the building.3
This proposed payment from the WPBC seems to be in violation of the city statutes governing the commission, which read: “Under no circumstances shall any income of the public building commission inure to the benefit of any private person.”4
I’m sure the city will characterize its $2 million “investment” in some way other than a cash incentive. The city will also say the $1 million from the WPBC is not from the city, which is true. But the city will have to rationalize allowing the commission to violate the clear language of its statutes.
There are some good aspects of this agreement with the developer, such as a timeline and performance bond requirement. But the cash incentives are against stated city policy and its laws.
Wichita City Council agenda packet for April 11, 2017. ↩
ibid. “The City proposes to invest up to $2,000,000 to be used to modernize the building. The investment would only be paid upon completion of the entire building renovation project.” ↩
ibid. “On April 5, 2017, the WPBC approved the Development Agreement/Purchase and Sale Agreement and agreed to commit up to $1,000,000 for building improvements as well.” ↩
An ongoing study reveals that generally, property taxes on commercial and industrial property in Wichita are high. In particular, taxes on commercial property in Wichita are among the highest in the nation.
The study is produced by Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence. It’s titled “50 State Property Tax Comparison Study, June 2016” and may be read here. It uses a variety of residential, apartment, commercial, and industrial property scenarios to analyze the nature of property taxation across the country. I’ve gathered data from selected tables for Wichita.
In Kansas, residential property is assessed at 11.5 percent of its appraised value. (Appraised value is the market value as determined by the assessor. Assessed value is multiplied by the mill levy rates of taxing jurisdictions in order to compute tax.) Commercial property is assessed at 25 percent of appraised value, and public utility property at 33 percent.
This means that commercial property faces 2.180 times the property tax rate as residential property. The U.S. average is 1.683. Whether higher assessment ratios on commercial property as compared to residential property is desirable public policy is a subject for debate. But because Wichita’s ratio is high, it leads to high property taxes on commercial property.
For residential property taxes, Wichita ranks below the national average. For a property valued at $150,000, the effective property tax rate in Wichita is 1.29 percent, while the national average is 1.43 percent. The results for a $300,000 property were similar. Of note, however, is the property taxes on a median-valued home. In this case Wichita is a bargain, due to our lower housing prices. A home at the median value in Wichita pays $1,552 in taxes, while the nationwide average is $3,097.
Looking at commercial property, Wichita taxes are high. For example, for a $100,000 valued property, the study found that the national average for property tax is $2,351 or 1.96 percent of the property value. For Wichita the corresponding values are $3,398 or 2.83 percent, ranking sixth from the top. Wichita property taxes for this scenario are 45 percent higher than the national average.
For industrial property taxes, the situation in Wichita is better, with Wichita ranking near the middle. For an industrial property worth $1,000,000, taxes in Wichita are $30,980. The national average is $32,445.
The City of Wichita says it hasn’t raised its property tax mill levy in many years. For this year, the city is correct.
In 1994 the City of Wichita mill levy rate — the rate at which property is taxed — was 31.290. In 2016 it was 32.685, based on the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and the Sedgwick County Clerk. That’s an increase of 1.395 mills, or 4.46 percent, since 1994. (These are for taxes levied by the City of Wichita only, and do not include any overlapping jurisdictions.)
In 2015 the mill levy was 32.686, so the mill levy dropped by .001 for 2016. That’s a refreshing change. While the city says the mill levy hasn’t increased, the nearby table and summary above indicate otherwise.
It is true that the Wichita City Council did not take explicit action to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to Wichita taxation.
While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. As can be seen in the chart of changes in the mill levy, the council decides to spend more than the previous year’s mill levy generates in taxes. Therefore, tax rates rise.
Also, while some may argue that an increase of 4.46 percent over two decades is not very much, this is an increase in a rate of taxation, not actual tax revenue. As property values rise, and as the mill levy rises, property tax bills rise rapidly.
The total amount of property tax levied is the mill levy rate multiplied by the assessed value of taxable property. This amount has risen, due to these factors:
Appreciation in the value of property
An increase in the amount of property
Spending decisions made by the Wichita City Council
Application of tax revenue has shifted
The allocation of city property tax revenue has shifted over the years. According to the 2010 City Manager’s Policy Message, page CM-2, “One mill of property tax revenue will be shifted from the Debt Service Fund to the General Fund. In 2011 and 2012, one mill of property tax will be shifted to the General Fund to provide supplemental financing. The shift will last two years, and in 2013, one mill will be shifted back to the Debt Service Fund. The additional millage will provide a combined $5 million for economic development opportunities.”
In 2005 the mill levy dedicated to debt service was 10.022. In 2016 it was 8.508. That’s a reduction of 1.514 mills (15.1 percent) of property tax revenue dedicated for paying off debt. Another interpretation of this is that in 2005, 31.4 percent of Wichita property tax revenue was dedicated to debt service. In 2016 it was 26.0 percent.
This shift has not caused the city to delay paying off debt. This city is making its scheduled payments. But we should recognize that property tax revenue that could have been used to retire debt has instead been shifted to support current spending. Instead of spending this money on current consumption — including economic development spending that has produced little result — we could have, for example, used that money to purchase some of our outstanding bonds.
What the city council says
Despite the data that is readily available in the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports, some choose to remain misinformed or uninformed. The following video from 2012 provides insight into the level of knowledge of some former elected officials and city staff. Based on recent discussions with city officials, things have not improved regarding present staff.
There’s been much investment in downtown Wichita, we’re told, but the assessed value of property isn’t rising.
Wichita city leaders have promoted public investment in downtown Wichita as wise because it will increase the tax base. Over the past ten years, we’re told that there has been one billion dollars in investment in downtown Wichita, including projects in progress.1
To evaluate the success of the city’s efforts, we might look at the change in assessed property valuation in downtown Wichita over past years. A way to do that is to look at the valuations for property in the Wichita downtown self-supporting municipal improvement district (SSMID). This is a region of the city that pays an additional property tax to fund the activities of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Its boundaries are roughly the Arkansas River east to Washington, and Kellogg north to Central.
Assessed valuation is the basis for levying property tax. The process starts with an appraised value, which is targeted to be fair market value for the property, or for commercial property sometimes an income-based method is used. Then, that is multiplied by 25 percent for commercial property, or by 11.5 percent for residential property. This produces the assessed value. Multiply that by the sum of the several mill levy rates that apply to the property, and you have the total property tax for that property.
With all the new projects coming online in downtown Wichita, we should expect that the assessed valuation is rising. As someone converts an old, dilapidated property into something more valuable, appraised and assessed values should rise. As new buildings are built, new appraised and assessed value is created where before there was none (or very little).
So what has happened to the assessed valuation of property in downtown Wichita, using the SSMID as a surrogate?
The answer is that after a period of increasing values, the assessed value of property in downtown has been declining. The peak was in 2008. The nearby table holds the figures.
This is the opposite of what we’ve been promised. We’ve been told that public investment in downtown Wichita builds up the tax base.
Some might excuse this performance by noting there’s been a recession. That’s true. But according to presentations, there has been much activity in downtown Wichita. Hundreds of millions of dollars over the last ten years, we are told.
A few years ago the city said that the decline was due to the legislature exempting business equipment and machinery from the property tax rolls. Undoubtedly this was true when the law took effect, which was in 2006. It could also explain the some of the drop for a few years after that.
But for the last several years this factor is gone. At any rate, I believe its effect was small compared to the value of real property.
Also: How how does the assessed valuation in the SSMID compare to the city as a whole? Nearby is a chart of the percent change in assessed valuation for each year, comparing the SSMID with the city as a whole less the SSMID. In other words, Wichita minus downtown. The SSMID is underperforming the city.
So why isn’t the assessed valuation rising? Why is it falling during the time of huge successes?
I don’t have enough data to answer this question. But we need to know.
Greater Wichita Partnership features untruthful information on its website, which casts doubt on the reliability of the organization and the City of Wichita.
Greater Wichita Partnership uses the url of its predecessor, the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, or GWEDC. GWP is in charge of efforts to develop the economy in the greater Wichita area. It describes itself as “a driving force in building a remarkable city and region.”1
But there is a problem. Based on the information GWP makes available on the front page of its website, I don’t have much confidence in the organization’s efforts. And that’s too bad.
In the past I’ve observed how GWEDC — that’s the predecessor to GWP — was derelict in keeping its information current. In 2014, I noticed that GWEDC credited itself with recruiting a company named InfoNXX to Wichita.2 But GWEDC did not update its website to reflect current conditions. When I looked at GWEDC’s website in October 2013, I found this on a page titled Office Operations:
Wichita hosts over a dozen customer service and processing centers — including a USPS Remote Encoding Center (985 employees), InfoNXX (950), T-Mobile (900), Royal Caribbean (700), Convergys (600), Protection One (540), Bank of America (315) and Cox Communications (230.)
The problem was this: At the time I looked at the GWEDC website in October 2013, InfoNXX had closed its Wichita operations in 2012.3 Still, the official Wichita-area economic development agency touted the existence of a company that no longer existed in Wichita, and claimed a job count that the company never achieved. (Also, at that time the USPS facility was in the process of closing and eliminating all Wichita jobs.)
Now, the Greater Wichita Partnership website trumpets — on its front page — the expansion of a company that has actually contracted its operations in Wichita.
The company is NetApp, a maker of computer server storage systems. It’s the type of high tech company all cities are recruiting, and for which cities and states will open the economic development incentives pocketbook. Locally, Wichita and the State of Kansas announced expansion plans for NetApp operations in Wichita in 2012. But by the end of 2015, NetApp was not meeting its job goals in Wichita, according to information from Sedgwick County. Since then, NetApp announced two rounds of job cuts, with the cuts in Wichita unspecified.45
NetApp has not met the lofty expectations Wichita and Kansas officials promoted. That’s unfortunate, and perhaps the situation will improve and NetApp will grow.
Relevant to public policy is that NetApp was slated to receive a lot of incentives from many levels of government, up to $35 million.6 It is likely impossible to determine how much of these incentives were actually paid to NetApp. We do know that both the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County stopped paying incentives to NetApp, as these incentives were predicated on achieving certain levels of job counts, and NetApp has not met them.
But the lesson to learn today is that the Greater Wichita Partnership, the agency in charge of economic development in the area, still advertises NetApp as a success.
The problem is not only the blatant lie that GWP promotes prominently: “NetApp doubles its Wichita footprint.” It’s a serious problem that GWP has not updated its website to reflect reality. What if a company considering Wichita for expansion or location checks the NetApp story? How would such a company reconcile reality with what GWP promotes? What does this say about the reputation and reliability of GWP?
I don’t expect GWP to highlight its failures. But we ought to expect GWP to care enough about the truth to remove false information from such a prominent presentation.
In September 2015 James Chung delivered several lectures on the Wichita-area economy and its outlook.7 In the event I attended, Chung showed examples of web pages from the Des Moines and Omaha chambers, and contrasted them to a similar page from the Wichita chamber. Chung got it wrong, as the page he showed to illustrate the Wichita chamber was a print version of the page, which — intentionally — is a simplified version of the page designed for viewing in a web browser.8 The print version of the page, however, is what appears in Google, and most people will not investigate beyond that.
Still, the Wichita chamber page was stale compared to the others. And Chung’s point was, and is, relevant: First impressions matter.
The Wichita chamber’s site is better now. But someone at the Greater Wichita Partnership didn’t get the message. Content — reliable content — counts.
A communications initiative of the City of Wichita brings embarrassment to our city.
At one time Activate Wichita was touted by Wichita city officials as an “online conversation about the future of the Greater Wichita metropolitan area.”
It’s described on its companion Facebook page as: “Activate Wichita is an innovative new way to be heard on the issues you’re passionate about. Whether your passion is local arts, the environment, or employment creation, you can log on and voice your opinion and local leaders will respond. Together communities come up with solutions and vote on the best course.”
For a system designed to be an interactive conversation, there aren’t many people talking. And maybe I didn’t look diligently enough, but I didn’t see local leaders responding.
At one time Activate Wichita had some activity. Then it changed. There was a different design. All the old content was gone. There was very little new content.
In December 2015 I inquired to the city and was told that My Sidewalk, the company that provides the software that runs Activate Wichita, made changes to improve the system. I was also told: “While the City has not used Activate Wichita as extensively in 2015 as in previous years, our staff has been working with the My Sidewalk support team to learn how to best make effective use of the new design as part of City engagement initiatives. The Library has a series of engagement conversations in planning for 2016. We expect increased use from several other departments as well.”
Whatever plans the city had for Activate Wichita in 2016, it doesn’t look like they materialized. As of today, there is only one active item on Activate Wichita, from March 2016. Or it could be March 2015; it doesn’t say. The companion Facebook page for Activate Wichita has only three posts since the middle of 2016, with the most recent from August.
The harm of Activate Wichita
This lack of attention to these communication initiatives might not be very important except that the city prominently features Activate Wichita. An inviting graphic appears prominently on nearly every page at wichita.gov, the city’s website.
If someone using the wichita.gov city website happens to click on the Activate Wichita logo, they would see something that can be described — charitably — as pathetic. Think of someone considering moving to Wichita, or a company planning to locate or expand in Wichita. Think of people already in Wichita. Is Activate Wichita the impression the city wants to make?
Remember, Activate Wichita is prominent on the city’s website. The city devotes precious web space to promoting it. I can understand that reviving Activate Wichita into something useful is time-consuming.
But minimizing the damage should be a snap. Just remove the Activate Wichita link from the city’s website. When Activate Wichita is revived, restore the link.
By the way, did you know the city increased the size of its communication staff by hiring a Strategic Communications Director? He’s been at work almost two years.
A records request to the City of Wichita results in data as well as insight into the city’s attitude towards empowering citizens with data.
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. Click here to access the visualization.
Analyzing this data requires a bit of local knowledge. For example, there is a vendor named “Visit Wichita” that started to receive monthly payments in March 2015. What about payments for January and February? Those were made to a vendor named “Go Wichita,” which changed its name to “Visit Wichita.”
Similarly, there are payments made to both “Westar Energy” and “Westar Energy — EDI.” These are the same entities, just as “Visit Wichita” and “Go Wichita” are the same entity. To the city’s credit, the matching pairs have the same vendor number, which is good. But resolving this requires a different level of analysis.
There are interesting entries. For example, the city had been spending a few hundred dollars per month to the Kansas Turnpike Authority. Then in July 2015, the city paid $3.7 million to KTA. A quick search of city council agenda packets didn’t reveal any reason for this.
Of note, it looks like there were 1,475 checks issued in amounts $20 or less over a period of nearly two years. Bank of America has estimated that the total cost of sending a business check ranges from $4 to $20.
The records request
The city supplied this data in an Excel spreadsheet, in an arrangement that can easily be analyzed in Excel or loaded into other programs. This is a step forward. Three years ago, Wichita could supply data of limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult to translate the image data into machine-readable text, and even more difficult to reorganize it to a useful arrangement or format for analysis.
In 2015 had to pay $24.00 to the city for this data. That’s a problem. It is by now routine for governmental agencies to post spending data like this, but not at the City of Wichita. Upon inquiry, city officials told me that the present financial management system “does not include many modern system features such as an ‘open checkbook.’” An “open checkbook” refers to a modern web interface where citizens can query for specific data and perhaps perform other analysis. An example is Denver’s open checkbook.
While the next-generation Wichita financial system will probably have such a feature, there’s no reason why citizens can’t experience some of the benefits now. The spreadsheet of spending data like that I paid for could easily be posted on the city’s website on a monthly basis. People like myself will take that data and make it more useful, as I did. There is no reason why this should not be happening.
When I learned of the fee for these records in 2015, I asked for a waiver, sending this to the city’s records official:
I’d like to ask for a waiver of the requested fee. I ask this because check register data is an example of records that many governmental agencies make freely available on their websites. The Wichita Public School District and Sedgwick County are two local examples.
I’d like to also call attention to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, which allows for fee waivers in some circumstances: “…fee waivers are limited to situations in which a requester can show that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.”
I suggest that the records I am requesting will indeed “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government,” and that it is in the public interest of the people of Wichita that these records be freely available.
I received an answer:
Your request for waiver of fees is denied. KORA allows fees to be collected prior to finding and producing the document you seek. KSA 45-218(f). The extensive statute setting out how fees are to be determined, KSA 45-219, does not contain any provision for waiver in the manner you suggest.
The City will provide the document to you upon payment as invoiced.
Jay C. Hinkel,
Deputy City Attorney
Mr. Hinkel is absolutely correct. Governmental agencies in Kansas have the right to charge for records, and the Kansas statutes do not mention the waiving of fees as do the federal statutes. But the Kansas Open Records Act does not require cities to charge for providing records, especially for records that the city should already be providing. Especially when citizens are willing to take that data and make it better, at no charge to the city.
(For the most recent records request, the city waived its intended fee of $24.00, noting this waiver is for the current request only. The city acknowledges that it temporarily misplaced my request, and as a result, was late in responding. I believe that is the reason for the fee waiver.)
Wichita’s attitutude, from top down
Hinkel provided a lawyer’s answer. Here, however, is the public policy the city promotes, from 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.”
The importance of transparency. The city wants to empower and engage citizens by providing information. Well. I offered to “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government,” but had to pay to do so.
When I asked city officials for clarification of why I had to pay to receive these records, communications staff told me: “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.”
I must disagree. This is not “open and transparent.” This is not how to “empower and engage” the people of Wichita. Not even close.
The city lags far behind comparable agencies in providing access to data. It’s been almost two years since the city expanded its staff by adding a Strategic Communications Director. It doesn’t seem that this has helped to provide information to citizens.
Action the Wichita City Council will consider next week makes one wonder: If downtown Wichita is so great, why does the city have to give away so much?
Next week the Wichita City Council will consider a package of incentives for the developer of a large downtown building, the Finney State Office Center.
The building has an appraised value of $7,902,570, per the Sedgwick County Treasurer. The city will sell it for $100,000. That’s a mere 1.3 cents per dollar, if the county’s valuation is reasonable.
(But, the $100,000 is non-refundable, should the purchaser decide not to close on the building.)
The project is also asking for the city to issue Industrial Revenue Bonds. Despite the use of the term “bond,” the city is not lending money to anyone. Someone else will purchase the bonds. Instead, the IRBs are a vehicle for conveying property tax abatements and sales tax exemptions.
In this case, the developer requests a sales tax exemption for purchases during the renovation. City documents don’t give a value for the sales tax that might be exempted. But the developer has requested IRBs for an amount up to $35,000,000. So a sales tax exemption might be worth up to $2,625,000, depending on how much taxable products and services are purchased.
IRBs also carry the possibility of a property tax abatement. Granting of the abatement is routine in most areas of the city. But, this property is located within a tax increment financing (TIF) district. That means, according to Kansas law, that a property tax abatement may not be awarded. That is, unless the property is removed from the TIF district, which is what the city proposes.
What is the value of the tax abatement? City documents don’t say. But if the developer spends $35 million on the project, it ought to carry something near that appraised value when complete. So its annual property tax bill would be ($35,000,000 * 25 percent assessment rate for commercial property = $8,750,000 assessed value * 124.341 mill rate) $1,087,984.
There’s another exception the city will probably make for this project. According to the city’s economic development incentives policy, the city must receive a payoff of at least 1.3 times its investment. That benchmark isn’t met in this case, with Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research reporting a benefit-cost ratio of 1.04 to the city. Nonetheless, city staff recommends the city approve the incentives, citing several loopholes to the policy.
There’s also a parking agreement to consider. Given the city’s past practice, the city will lease parking stalls at rates below market rate or the city’s cost to provide.
No cash incentives
The city, in particular Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell, have prominently and proudly touted the end of cash incentives. But, this project is receiving benefits better than cash: An $8 million building for a song, no sales tax, and no property tax for ten years. Let’s ask the city to be honest and give us dollar values for these incentives.
A second question is this: Why is it necessary to provide all these incentives in order to induce someone to develop in downtown Wichita? The cost of these incentives increases the cost of government for everyone else — that is, everyone else except all the other incentive-receivers.
Despite claims to the contrary, the attitude of the City of Wichita towards citizens’ right to know is poor, and its attitude will likely be reaffirmed this week.
This week the Wichita City Council will consider approval of a contract with Visit Wichita, the city’s convention and visitor bureau. Once again, citizens will be left out of knowing how the city’s tax money is spent.
In the past, I’ve asked that Visit Wichita (formerly Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau) make its spending records available. It’s the same type of information that the city will send you about its own spending. But for Go Wichita, spending must — apparently — be kept secret.
It’s not a small amount of money that will be spent in secret. This year the city will send Go Wichita almost $2.5 million.1
But that’s not all. Since the implementation of the “City Tourism Fee” Visit Wichita collects 2.75 percent of hotel bills. (Welcome to Wichita! Here’s the bill for your tourism fee!) That’s estimated to generate $3 million in 2017.2
That is a lot of tax money, and also a high proportion of the agency’s total funding. We don’t have IRS filings from Visit Wichita since the city tourism fee started, so it’s difficult to say what portion of its funding is tax money. But it’s a lot, at least 90 percent.
Despite being nearly totally funded by taxes, Visit Wichita refuses to supply spending records. Many believe that the Kansas Open Records Act requires that it comply with such requests. If the same money was being spent directly by the city, the records undoubtedly would be supplied.
The lack of transparency at Visit Wichita is more problematic than this. Visit Wichita refused to provide to me its contract with a California firm retained to help with the re-branding of Wichita. When the Wichita Eagle later asked for the contract, it too was refused. If the city had entered into such a contract, it would be a public record. Contracts like this are published each week in the agenda packet for city council meetings. But Visit Wichita feels it does not have to comply with simple transparency principles.
The City of Wichita could easily place conditions on the money it gives to these groups, requiring them to show taxpayers how their tax dollars are being spent. But the City does not do this. This is not transparency.
In the past I’ve argued that Visit Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s interpretation of the law.
So let’s talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even it is the case that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require Visit Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit or prevent them from fulfilling requests for the types of records I’ve asked for. Even if the Sedgwick County District Attorney says that Visit Wichita is not required to release documents, the law does not prevent the release of these records.
Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:
Why does Visit Wichita want to keep secret how it spends taxpayer money, as much as $5.5 million next year?
Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent? Many council members have spoken of how transparency is important. One said: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” That was Mayor Brewer speaking in his 2011 State of the City address.
The city’s official page for the current mayor holds this: “Mayor Longwell has championed many issues related to improving the community including government accountability, accessibility and transparency …”
During the recent mayoral campaign, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle that he wants taxpayers to know where their money goes: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”
In a column in the Wichita Business Journal, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell wrote: “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.”
Now is the chance to fulfill these promises. All the city needs to do is add to its contract with Visit Wichita that the agency agree that it is a public agency spending public dollars, and that it will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act.
It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more. It costs the city and its agencies nothing, because the open records law lets government charge for filling records requests. I would ask, however, that in the spirit of open transparent government, in respect for citizens’ right to know how tax funds are spent, and as a way to atone for past misdeeds, that Visit Wichita fulfill records requests at no charge.
“The 2017 Adopted Budget includes funding for Visit Wichita’s annual allocation in the amount of $2,476,166, which is to be paid from the Convention & Tourism Fund.” City of Wichita. Agenda for December 20, 2016.↩
“For 2017 the tax is budgeted to generate $3 million.” City of Wichita. Agenda for April 19, 2016.↩