The cost of the Naftzger Park makeover is rising, will be paid for with borrowed funds, and possibly handled without public discussion.
The cost of the Naftzger Park project in downtown Wichita is rising, according to an item the Wichita City Council will consider at its Tuesday February 5, 2019 meeting. According to city documents, an additional $85,000 is needed for stormwater retention, a function the former pond provided.
This seems like a major oversight in the original project plans. The city has regulations regarding stormwater retention that private sector developers must follow. Didn’t any city planners consider these regulations as the project was planned? Didn’t any council member or bureaucrat look at the plans and wonder about stormwater drainage? Wasn’t there a highly-regarded architect designing the park? What about TGC Development, the developer of the surrounding property, to whom the city effectively outsourced the development of Naftzger Park? The construction manager?
The extra cost is proposed to come from savings realized in another nearby project. That requires a waiver of policy, according to the agenda: “Staff requested waiver of City Council Policy No. 2 regarding the use of projects savings to allow this transfer of funds.”
On top of that, this money will be borrowed. An accompanying resolution (number 19-048) provides the authorization: “Section 2. Project Financing. All or a portion of the costs of the Project, interest on financing and administrative and financing costs shall be financed with the proceeds of general obligation bonds of the City.”
Borrowing this money, even though it is a small amount, is a significant public policy issue. The city decided to use tax increment financing (TIF) to pay for this project. City officials pitch this as a method of financing that costs the general public nothing, as the TIF bonds are repaid from a project’s future property taxes.
In this case, as the surrounding development by TGC starts to pay higher property taxes, these taxes would be used to pay for Naftzger Park. (Never mind who pays for the public services the development will consume.)
But now, some expenses of the project have been shifted away from TIF to the general city.
The equitable way of handling this is to charge this expense to the TIF district. Either that, or to the responsible parties whose oversight, we now see, was lacking.
By the way, this item is on the consent agenda, meaning there will be no discussion unless a city council member requests the item to be “pulled” for discussion and a potentially separate vote. (A consent agenda is a group of items that are voted on in bulk with a single vote. An item on a consent agenda will be discussed only if a council member requests the item to be “pulled.” If that is done, the item will be discussed. Then it might be withdrawn, voted on by itself, or folded back into the consent agenda with the other items. Generally, consent agenda items are considered by the city to be routine and non-controversial, but that is not always the case.)
Following, an excerpt from the February 5, 2019 city council agenda:
Background: Naftzger Park currently has a small pond that acts as a storm water retention facility during rain events. Proposed improvements to Naftzger Park will eliminate the pond and all available storm retention. The project does not include funding for replacing the retention capacity.
Analysis: With the elimination of the existing pond, underground on-site storage is necessary to prevent a negative impact on the area storm sewer system and the surrounding developments during rain events.
Financial Considerations: Currently, the Stormwater Utility does not have funding available for these improvements. Staff proposes transferring $85,000 in General Obligation bond funding from the Douglas Underpass project. Funding is available for transfer due to underruns of bid items upon project completion and favorable bid pricing. Staff requested waiver of City Council Policy No. 2 regarding the use of projects savings to allow this transfer of funds. The total budget for the stormwater retention facility would be $85,000 and the revised budget for Douglas Underpass would be $2,015,000.
Wichita city leaders will latch onto any good news, no matter from how flimsy the source. But they ignore the news they don’t like, even though it may come from the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
In his media briefing today, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell cited an article promoting the purportedly recession-proof and growing Wichita-area economy. 1
Based on the article 2 Longwell cited Wichita’s low unemployment rate and growing job count.
One quote from the article highlights Wichita’s low unemployment rate: “In 2018, the city saw unemployment fall to 3.5 percent — the lowest it’s been since May 1999.” Here’s some data regarding this claim:
In the table, we see that the unemployment rate (monthly average) for 2018 is nearly unchanged from 1999. Also nearly unchanged for these 19 years are the civilian labor force and number of jobs. Both values are slightly lower now. This is not “steady job growth.”
The article the mayor relies upon doesn’t reflect the economic reality in Wichita. It isn’t even close. Yet the mayor and other city officials have heavily promoted this article on social media.
Mayor Longwell also said, “We want to celebrate some of our successes because it has not been easy to get here and it’s been very intentional, and the things that we’re doing that help make Wichita a great place to live but more importantly a place where we can ride out a potential recession that may hit the rest of the country at some point in time and we think that’s a great place for us to be right now.”
Regarding recessions and being “recession-proof:” The usual definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of declining economic activity as measured by gross domestic product. For the nation, the last recession ended in 2009. For metropolitan areas like Wichita GDP data is not available quarterly. Annual data, however, tells us that since 2011 — well after the end of the last national recession — Wichita has had two separate years in which real GDP declined, 2013 and 2017. 3
That’s like two recessions in Wichita at a time the national economy was growing. Is that recession-proof?
The mayor also presented a forecast that Wichita will add 2,700 jobs in 2019. The source of this forecast is the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University. 4
For the Wichita metropolitan area economy, adding 2,700 jobs in a year represents 0.9 percent job growth. Is that good? Nationally, the economy is expected to continue strong growth, although perhaps slightly slower than in 2018, in which nonfarm jobs grew by 1.8 percent. 5 Nationally, job growth is forecast at 1.7 percent for 2019. 6 Wichita’s forecast rate of 0.9 percent is 53 percent of the national rate — barely more than half.
The nearby chart illustrates that since the end of the last recession, job growth in Wichita has been below job growth in the nation as a whole. 7 Generally, job growth in Wichita has been at about half the rate of the nation. In 2017, Wichita lost jobs. Yet, City of Wichita officials tout “steady job growth.”
It’s not only jobs and output. Personal income has grown only slowly. 8
The Wichita metropolitan area population is growing, but at a rate slower than most metro areas. From 2010 to 2017, the Wichita metro area grew in population by 2.3 percent. For all U.S. metro areas, the population growth was 6.5 percent. Of the 382 metropolitan areas, Wichita ranked 245. Considering just the change from 2016 to 2017, Wichita’s population grew by 0.1 percent, ranking 268 of the 382 metro areas. All U.S. metro areas grew by 0.8 percent over the same period.
For net domestic migration, Wichita experienced a loss of 2.9 percent of its population from 2010 to 2017. This ranked 295 among metro areas. For 2016 to 2017, Wichita lost 0.5 percent, ranking 293, nearly unchanged from the larger earlier period. 9
This slow population growth and out-migration is happening at the same time Wichita-area leaders tell us that we have great momentum going forward. But the data — domestic migration, employment, gross domestic product, and personal income — don’t support what our leaders tell us.
U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Total Real Gross Domestic Product for Wichita, KS (MSA) RGMP48620, retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/RGMP48620, January 31, 2019.
The All industry total includes all Private industries and Government. Real GDP by metropolitan area is an inflation-adjusted measure of each metropolitan area’s gross product that is based on national prices for the goods and services produced within the metropolitan area.
Also: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real Gross Domestic Product GDPCA, retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/GDPCA, January 31, 2019. ↩
Wichita city officials promote an article that presents an unrealistic portrayal of the local economy.
An article promoting the Wichita economy 1 was noticed and promoted by official City of Wichita sources.
A tweet came from the official @CityofWichita Twitter account and reads “We have been named one of the top two recession-proof cities in the nation by @Livability. Wichita was praised for its ability to withstand turbulence in the national economy, steady job growth and the state’s low income-to-debt ratio.” 2
Those who retweeted this include the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, Wichita Economic Dev (“Promoting, building and preserving Wichita’s economic strength to ensure Wichita is the preferred location for new, existing and expanding organizations.”), and Scot Rigby, who is who is Assistant City Manager, Director of Development Services for the City of Wichita. City officials also shared the article of the city’s Facebook page. 3 That post has been shared 169 times.
One quote from the article highlights Wichita’s low unemployment rate: “In 2018, the city saw unemployment fall to 3.5 percent — the lowest it’s been since May 1999.” Here’s some data regarding this claim:
In the table, we see that the unemployment rate (monthly average) for 2018 is nearly unchanged from 1999. Also nearly unchanged for these 19 years are the civilian labor force and number of jobs. Both values are slightly lower now. This is not “steady job growth,” as Wichita officials proclaim.
Regarding jobs, the article states: “In 2019, job growth is predicted to be positive and steady, and the city anticipates adding 2,700 new jobs.” As a source, the article cites an article from KSN News, which states: “For 2019, the job growth is expected to jump modestly by 0.9 percent, meaning 2,700 new jobs are predicted to come to the city.” 4
This is an accurate report of what the WSU forecast said, except it doesn’t come from the Wichita State University School of Business, as the article reports. Instead, the source is the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University. 5
Is 0.9 percent job growth good? Nationally, the economy is expected to continue strong growth, although perhaps slightly slower than in 2018. 6 Nationally, job growth is forecast at 1.7 percent for 2019. 7 Wichita’s forecast rate of 0.9 percent is 53 percent of the national rate.
The nearby chart illustrates that since the end of the last recession, job growth in Wichita has been below job growth in the nation as a whole. Generally, job growth in Wichita has been at about half the rate of the nation. In 2017, Wichita lost jobs. Yet, City of Wichita officials tout “steady job growth.”
It’s not only employment that has been bad news. In 2017 the Wichita economy contracted. 8 Personal income has grown only slowly. 9
We really must wonder what Wichita officials are thinking and where they get their data.
A tweet from a top Wichita city official promotes great news that really isn’t so great.
The @WichitaEconDev Twitter account is managed by Scot Rigby, who is Assistant City Manager, Director of Development Services for the City of Wichita. Its tagline is “Promoting, building and preserving Wichita’s economic strength to ensure Wichita is the preferred location for new, existing and expanding organizations.”
But the Business Journal article didn’t provide any useful context. Once we learn more about what the numbers in the forecast mean, we may want to temper our enthusiasm.
The forecast for Wichita metro area employment in 2019 calls for modest growth of 0.9 percent, according to the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University. 1 This follows growth of 0.8 percent in 2018. 2
Nationally, the economy is expected to continue strong growth. 3
The nearby chart illustrates that since the end of the last recession, job growth in Wichita has been below job growth in the nation as a whole. Generally, job growth in Wichita has been at about half the rate of the nation. In 2017, Wichita lost jobs.
Of Wichita job growth in 2018, the CEDBR forecast notes, “This marked a return to the level of growth experienced in the Wichita area from 2012 to 2016, after experiencing a contraction in overall employment in 2017.” The average annual rate of job growth for those years in Wichita was 0.83 percent. It was 1.82 percent for the nation, which is 2.2 times the rate for Wichita.
CEDBR also notes, “Wichita’s unemployment rate declined throughout 2018 to a low of 3.5 percent in October 2018, the lowest unemployment rate for the area since 1999.” We should note that this decline is primarily due to a declining labor force in Wichita, rather than robust job growth.
Back to Rigby’s tweet: There is good news — Wichita is not forecast to lose jobs, as it has in the recent past.
But the rate of growth seen for Wichita is not robust, and that’s a serious problem, especially when our officials think it’s good.
The city council, however, decided to require the company to pay only $100,000 of that. The city reasoned that because the company is planning an expansion, that would offset the other $153,000 of the clawback.
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell described this is holding the company accountable. The Wichita Eaglequoted him as saying, “This is why we’ve done it, to make sure that everyone is accountable and that the taxpayers, at the end of the day, win.”
But despite the mayor’s bluster, the city failed to enforce the agreement it made to protect taxpayers. Instead, the company receives $153,000 in free taxes that it didn’t deserve, along with an interest-free loan of $100,000 amortized over four years.
By the way, the same Eagle article reported: “Fiber Dynamics, a company founded by Darrin Teeter to commercialize technology developed at Wichita State’s National Institute for Aviation Research in the early ‘90s, hasn’t had to pay city property taxes since 2008, an estimated value of more than $500,000.”
Actually, the company didn’t pay any property taxes on the exempted property. That includes county, school, and state taxes.
The unrealized potential of an economic development incentive teaches lessons.
This week the Wichita City Council will consider an amendment to an economic development incentive agreement. 1
In 2008 the city awarded an incentive to a company in the form of exemption from paying property taxes, estimated by the city to be $93,175 annually at the time the incentive was awarded. 2
The incentive was awarded based on the applicant company creating a certain number of jobs and making a certain level of investment. It was rewarded on a five plus five basis, meaning that the city council reviewed the deal after five years. The plan was if the company met goals, the city would extend the incentive for another five years.
At the five-year review, however, the applicant company had not met the job goals. The city invoked an exception that allowed extension of the incentive based on a downturn in the economy as measured by the Wichita Current Conditions Index, which is produced by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University. 3
Now is the end of the second five-year period. The job goals have not been met, and the city has decided the applicant company is in default of the agreement. The city is proposing a clawback, that is, recovery of the value of the incentive for the second five-year period. According to the agenda packet: “The value of the abated taxes for the second five-years is approximately $253,000. The City Council could clawback the entire amount, or some portion, per the incentive agreement.”
But: The agreement that the council will consider is that the applicant company build an expansion to its facilities at a cost of $2,500,000, using no incentives. Also, the company will repay $100,000 of the abated taxes, in four annual payments of $25,000.
A few things to learn:
First, economic development incentives don’t always work. This reflects the uncertainty of business. When the city presents projections like benefit-cost ratios, it might want to remind us that these values will be achieved only if the project targets are reached. When businesses describe their plans, these are called forward-looking statements. They are accompanied by disclaimers like “subject to risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially.” Investors and interested parties are “cautioned not to place undue reliance on these forward-looking statements.” The same cautions hold for citizens of Wichita, as they are the investors paying the cost of incentives and expecting to receive the benefits. That is, after all, the foundation of the benefit-cost analysis that accompanies requests for incentives: That by spending now or by giving up future tax collections, the city receives even more in benefits.
Second, cities often don’t have the fortitude to strictly enforce clawbacks. Here, the company is receiving credit of $153,000 for construction an expansion to its facility, something the company was contemplating anyway. In other words, receiving credit for something it was going to do anyway. This is the usual case. 4
Third, when the city and its officials say we no longer use cash as an incentive, here’s a case where the city canceled $153,000 of debt the city is entitled to, based on its agreement with the applicant company. That’s just like cash.
Bartik, Timothy J. 2018. “‘But For’ Percentages for Economic Development Incentives: What percentage estimates are plausible based on the research literature?” Upjohn Institute Working Paper 18-289. Kalamazoo, MI: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. https://doi.org/10.17848/wp18-289. ↩
The Wichita City Council seems poised to enter an unnecessarily complicated transaction.
This week the Wichita City Council will consider a loan to the operator of the Starlite Drive-In Theater in Wichita. According to city documents, the proposal is for a five-year loan of $200,000 with an annual interest rate of one percent. The city is requiring both a personal guarantee and a letter of credit, presumably from a reputable bank. 1
We have to wonder why the city asks for both a letter of credit and a personal guarantee. When issuing a letter of credit, a bank will be careful. It is, in effect, making a promise to issue credit to a borrower (the operator of the Starlite) if the borrower does not perform according to the agreement with the city. That alone ought to be enough security.
Moreover, if a bank has enough confidence in a customer to issue a letter of credit for $200,000, it would probably make a loan for the same amount. But that would cost more than one percent in interest.
This is really what the city is doing: Reducing the cost of a loan that a borrower ought to be able to obtain on his own.
Given this, why doesn’t the city simply subsidize the interest cost of the loan? I don’t know what rate a bank would charge this borrower, but it might be 12 percent or so. Then the borrower would have interest costs of $24,000 per year as compared to $2,000 per year for the City of Wichita loan. If the city would simply pay the borrower the difference between the two, things would be much simpler for the city. It wouldn’t have to worry about the loan being repaid.
Well, the city shouldn’t have to worry about repayment, because of the letter of credit. But if the borrower qualifies for that, he can also qualify for a loan.
There are other reasons why the city shouldn’t get involved in the Starlite theater, but if it must, let’s try to keep things simple. Based on what we know so far, I don’t think we’re being told the entire story.
Further evidence of lack of transparency is that this matter has been elevated to an emergency. According to city documents, the mayor will make this declaration regarding the enabling ordinance: “I, Jeff Longwell, Mayor of the City of Wichita, Kansas, hereby request that the City Council declare that a public emergency exists requiring the final adoption and passage on the day of its introduction, to wit, December 18, 2018 …” 2
“The $200,000 loan from the City will be structured to be repaid over five years as an interest only loan with an interest rate of 1% per annum, with quarterly interest payments for the first four years. The borrower will pay one-twelfth of the principal amount plus interest in each month of year five. The borrower is Blake Smith through Starlite, LLC, a Kansas limited liability company. Smith will provide the City with a personal guarantee as well as a letter of credit securing the entire loan. The letter of credit will be structured as a declining letter of credit. If any principal amount of the loan is prepaid, the letter of credit can be reduced by an equal amount. For instance, if $25,000 is paid at the end of year one, the letter of credit may be reduced to $175,000, the remaining balance of the loan.” City of Wichita, Agenda Packet for December 18, 2018. Item V-5. ↩
REQUEST FOR DECLARATION OF EMERGENCY
REQUEST OF THE MAYOR OF THE CITY OF WICHITA, KANSAS, FOR THE DECLARATION BY THE CITY COUNCIL OF SAID CITY OF THE EXISTENCE OF A PUBLIC EMERGENCY REQUIRING THE ADOPTION OF AN ORDINANCE BELOW DESIGNATED.
TO THE MEMBERS OF THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF WICHITA, KANSAS:
I, Jeff Longwell, Mayor of the City of Wichita, Kansas, hereby request that the City Council declare that a public emergency exists requiring the final adoption and passage on the day of its introduction, to wit, December 18, 2018 of an ordinance entitled:
ORDINANCE NO. _____
AMENDMENTS TO ORDINANCE 50-585 OF THE CITY OF WICHITA, KANSAS, PERTAINING TO HYATT GRANT PROCEEDS FOR COMMUNITY IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS, GRANTS AND GRANT PROGRAMS
The general nature of such public emergency lies in the need to pass and publish this ordinance to authorize the release of funds for the purchase of special digital projection equipment and for costs related to its installation for Wichita’s Starlite Drive-In, which was recently purchased by an anonymous buyer to prevent its closure.
It is therefore expedient at this time that the City Council find and determine that a public emergency exists by reason of the foregoing and that the above entitled Ordinance be finally adopted on the day of its introduction.
Executed at Wichita, Kansas on this day of December 18, 2018.
MAYOR OF THE CITY OF WICHITA, KANSAS. ibid. ↩
As Wichita prepares to award a large construction contract, let’s hope the city acts in an ethical manner this time.
As the Wichita City Council prepares to make a decision regarding a contract for the new baseball stadium, the council’s past reputation in these matters can’t be overlooked.
The controversy over the stadium contract has been covered by the Wichita Eagle: “The Wichita City Council hasn’t officially approved a design-build team for the city’s new $75 million Minor League ballpark, but there’s already been a protest over the recommended group. … At issue in a protest by a competing team is whether the JE Dunn team meets a key requirement to be selected, which is that it has built at least three similar Major or Minor League ballparks.” 1
The biggest potential for unethical behavior comes from Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell. In 2012, as the Wichita city council was considering the award of the contract for the new airport terminal, Longwell (then a council member) received campaign contributions from executives of Walbridge, a Michigan construction company partnering with Key Construction to build the new Wichita airport terminal. 2
Two Walbridge contributions were made on July 16, 2012, the day before the council, Longwell included, voted to award the contract to the Key/Walbridge partnership. More contributions from Walbridge arrived on July 20, according to Longwell’s campaign finance reports.
When questioned about the Michigan contributions, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle, “We often get contributions from a wide variety of sources, including out-of-town people.” But analysis of past campaign finance documents filed by Longwell showed just three out-of-state contributions totaling $1,500. 3
In deciding the airport contract issue, the council was asked to make decisions involving whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. It’s not surprising that Jeff Longwell made these decisions in favor of his campaign contributors. But he shouldn’t have been involved in the decision.
That was not the first time Jeff Longwell has placed the interests of his campaign contributors ahead of taxpayers. In 2011 the city council, with Longwell’s vote, decided to award Key a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.
It’s not only Longwell with problematic behavior in the past. In 2012, before the vote on the airport contract, executives of Key Construction and spouses contributed heavily to the campaigns of both Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita). These contributions were not known to the public until months after the vote was cast.
Williams is no longer on the council, but Clendenin remains.
The city needs an adult in the room. That person is, or should be, Wichita city manager Robert Layton. In the past he has implemented policies to end the practice of no-bid contracts. We don’t know what will happen this week.
“A campaign finance report filed by Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell contains contributions from executives associated with Walbridge, a Michigan construction company partnering with Key Construction to build the new Wichita airport terminal. … These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.” Weeks, Bob. Michigan company involved in disputed Wichita airport contract contributes to Jeff Longwell. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/michigan-company-involved-in-disputed-wichita-airport-contract-contributes-to-jeff-longwell/. ↩
“Analysis of Longwell’s July 30, 2012 campaign finance report shows that the only contributions received from addresses outside Kansas are the Walbridge contributions from Michigan, which contradicts Longwell’s claim. Additionally, analysis of ten recent campaign finance reports filed by Longwell going back to 2007 found three contributions totaling $1,500 from California addresses.” Weeks, Bob. Jeff Longwell out-of-town campaign contributions. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/jeff-longwell-out-of-town-campaign-contributions/. ↩
A Wichita Eagle headline reads “Wichita aircraft supplier plans 45 new jobs with $7.5 million bond request,” but important information is buried and incomplete.
According to the agenda packet for the December 4, 2018 meeting of the Wichita City Council, a local aircraft supplier is “requesting issuance of bonds” worth $7.5 million. 1
Even if you read the entire Wichita Eagle article2 on this matter, you wouldn’t really learn much about this item. You might think the city is lending the company this money, which many people assume is the purpose of the Industrial Revenue Bonds program. But in the IRB program, the city lends no money, nor does it guarantee repayment of the bonds. 3
Instead, the purpose of the IRBs is to convey a tax holiday. In the very last paragraph, the article mentions this property tax abatement, but no dollar value is given, even though the “city documents” presumably used as a source for this story clearly state the dollar values. The sales tax exemption is also mentioned, with no dollar value given. City documents don’t hold that, either.
The value of the tax holiday, according to the city, is estimated at $82,040 annually for up to ten years, shared among local taxing authorities thusly:
City of Wichita: $22,837
State of Kansas: $1,050
Sedgwick County: $20,575
USD 259 (Wichita school district): $37,578
For the value of the sales tax exemption, no value is given. By city documents state the purpose of the bonds is to pay for “$4,000,000 for new machinery and equipment.” Sales tax on that would be $300,000. If the entire $7.5 million is spent on taxable purchases, sales tax savings would be $562,500.
Why doesn’t the Wichita Eagle mention some of these important matters?
The article also holds no mention of the important public policy issues involved. For example, why does the owner of the business want to escape paying the same taxes that (nearly) everyone else must pay? This question is especially pertinent as Kansas is one of the few states in which even low-income households pay the full sales tax rate on groceries.
Perhaps the reason is that the cost of government makes this investment unprofitable. If that is true, we have a grave problem. If the city must issue bonds and create a tax holiday for this rather small investment, we have a capacity problem. A reader on Facebook left this wry comment to the Eagle story: “So, local area population 600,000+ people … About to add 45 jobs over 5 years?”
The city justifies tax giveaways like this by using a benefit-cost analysis. That is, if the city gives up some taxes, it will receive even more in additional taxes. This analysis is useful to politicians and bureaucrats. But the analysis is valid and meaningful only if the investment is impossible without the tax giveaway.
The question then becomes: Is this tax forgiveness necessary? City documents don’t say. Showing necessity is not a requirement of the IRB incentive program. We’re left wondering if the tax expenditure, which is potentially more than one million dollars over ten years, is truly needed.
The city is proud of its requirements that the benefit-cost ratio must be at least 1.3 to 1. But for USD 259, the Wichita school district, the ratio is 1.17 to 1. So the city is pushing an “investment” on the school district that is below the standard it requires for itself. The school district has no say in the matter, based on Kansas state law. Note also that the school district gives up the most tax revenue, 1.6 times as much as the city.
By the way, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell says the city is no longer using cash as economic development incentives. But when the city waves a magic legislative wand and says you don’t have to pay $82,040 per year in property tax, how is that different than giving the same amount in cash? Or when the city says don’t bother paying the sales tax on this, how is that different than giving a cash discount?
The answer is there’s no difference. The mayor, city council members, and city bureaucrats hope you won’t notice the sleight of hand, that is, skillful deception. And with the Wichita Eagle being the watchdog, there’s little chance very many people will be informed.
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.