Category Archives: Wichita city government

Open letter to Wichita City Council regarding AirTran subsidy

January 24, 2005

Dear Councilmember:

I am writing to express my concern about the upcoming renewal of the subsidy being paid to AirTran Airways. You may recall that I appeared before the Council last May and spoke in opposition to the subsidy. Since then I have learned more about the Fair Fares program.

As an example, Mr. Troy Carlson, then Chairman of Fair Fares, wrote a letter that was published on September 16, 2004 in the Wichita Eagle. In that letter he claimed $2.4 billion economic benefit from the Fair Fares program ($4.8 billion for the entire state). I was curious about how these figures were derived. I learned that the basis for them is a study by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University that estimates the economic impact of the airport at $1.6 billion annually. In this study, the salaries of the employees of Cessna and Bombardier, because these companies use the airport’s facilities, are counted as economic impact dollars that the airport is responsible for generating.

To me, this accounting doesn’t make sense on several levels. For one thing, if we count the economic impact of the income of these employees as belonging to the airport, what then do we say about the economic impact of Cessna and Bombardier? We would have to count it as very little, because the impact of their employees’ earnings has been assigned to the airport.

Or it may be that someday Cessna or Bombardier will ask the City of Wichita for some type of economic subsidy, and they will use these same economic impact dollars in their justification. But these dollars will have already been used, as they were attributed to the airport.

My primary opposition to the AirTran subsidy is based on the superiority of free markets to government subsidies. But I believe that if the Council should consider a subsidy, it should have sensible information at its disposal. The arguments the Fair Fares supporters make seem to be based on an overextended assessment of the airport’s economic impact.

I have written more about this in on my website “Voice for Liberty in Wichita” at wichitaliberty.org.

Sincerely,

Bob Weeks

The motivations of politicians

Presently Mr. Bob Knight of Wichita, a private citizen, is promoting the building of a casino in Park City, Kansas. These articles from The Wichita Eagle have reported Mr. Knight’s position on casino gambling in Kansas when he was the mayor of Wichita:

GOP governor hopefuls stake their positions (July 3, 2002) “Knight and Kerr said they oppose gambling but would consider voter approval.”

Trump has no plans for local casino (May 9, 2003) “Last year, Ruffin said, he approached former Mayor Bob Knight about the possibility of relocating the track to downtown and adding a casino if lawmakers approved. Knight was not interested, he said.”

Gambling on the slots (May 22, 2002) “Wichita Mayor Bob Knight, seeking the Republican nomination, said gambling is an unreliable source of revenue. ‘I don’t think it fits my sense of how you build and sustain a strong state,’ he said.”

The cynic in me imagines Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy of the television show Law and Order with Mr. Knight on the witness stand asking — justifiably indignant — “Were you lying then, or are you lying now?”

But I do not know Mr. Knight, and there may be other explanations. It may be that as mayor of Wichita, he wasn’t being very careful or thorough in forming his opinions. A Wichita Eagle editorial Plan requires serious look states in part: “He [Knight] acknowledged that as mayor he had opposed an earlier casino plan for Wichita. But after studying this project, he said, he became convinced that a true destination casino could pay off handsomely for the Wichita area and region.” Mr. Knight has been out of the mayor’s office for less than two years. What about the Wichita area has changed in that time that makes a casino a good bet (so to speak) now?

Or, has a casino always been a good idea, but Mr. Knight either didn’t know that when he was mayor, or he just didn’t want the citizens of Wichita gambling on his watch?

I do not know the answer to these questions, and given our collective experience with politicians, I probably wouldn’t believe Mr. Knight if he answered them. Such is the credibility of the motivations of politicians.

Links referred to:
GOP governor hopefuls stake their positions http://www.kansas.com/mld/kansas/news/politics/3590300.htm
Trump has no plans for local casino http://www.kansas.com/mld/kansas/5820055.htm
Gambling on the slots http://www.kansas.com/mld/eagle/3310716.htm
Plan requires serious look http://www.kansas.com/mld/eagle/news/editorial/10648925.htm

The Real Scandal at City Hall

In 2003, local Wichita news media devoted extensive news coverage to two officials in the City of Wichita’s finance department. They were accused of improperly spending between $52,000 and $73,800 on travel. While I don’t condone this waste and I’m glad that our local news media uncovered it, the amount involved is relatively small. Furthermore, the people who wasted this money are no longer in a position to repeat.

The real scandal, however, is the ongoing lack of care exercised when spending our money. Time and time again we read in the newspaper how the mayor or city council members are surprised by facts and circumstances arising after a decision has been made.

For example, in an article titled “Kolb goal: full facts in future city deals” (Wichita Eagle, September 26, 2004) we read this:

“Due diligence should have been done,” Mayor Carlos Mayans said when he learned of the losses: “We expect the staff to provide us with information that helps us make sound decisions.”

In the same article, council member Paul Gray, upon hearing of bad financial news at the city-owned ice rink, is quoted as saying “Why is it just now coming to us?”

Continuing in the same article, council members were described as being surprised upon learning that the industrial revenue bonds and property tax abatement awarded to a local business also included a sales tax break. How could they be surprised? The City of Wichita website contains a nicely-done page titled “Industrial Revenue Bonds” (located at http://www.wichitagov.org/Business/EconomicDevelopment/IRB) (This is the first result that appears when you use the wildly popular Google search engine and search for “Wichita IRB.”) The first link on this page is titled “IRB Overview: Industrial Revenue Bond Issuance in the State of Kansas,” and you don’t have to read very far before you come to the sentence reading “Generally, property and services acquired with the proceeds of IRBs are eligible for sales tax exemption.”

Is it asking too much that someone at City Hall read the City’s own website? Or, is it possible that they knew this, but decided to overlook inconvenient facts?

Recently, in an article titled “Plaza falls short” (Wichita Eagle, November 14, 2004), we read this:

The cinema plaza is the latest in a series of public and public-private projects that have underperformed compared with projections. Others include the Hyatt Regency Wichita, Ice Sports Wichita and Auburn Hills Golf Course.

Mayans said he’s getting tired of such surprises and is working with City Manager George Kolb to make changes.

“We need to find out why we have so many projects (from) previous years that are having financial difficulties,” he said. “From now on, we have to make sure that we are not using anyone else’s numbers and we are doing our own due diligence.”

In fairness to Mayor Mayans, I emphasize that these decisions were made before he took office.

Now as we undertake spending even more money on projects such as the Waterwalk and the downtown Wichita arena, how can we restore confidence in our local government officials?

The best thing to do would be to stop spending on projects that are better handled by the private sector. It seems like the City of Wichita, when partnering with private developers, often assumes most of the risk but is not in position to received the rewards the private developers earn (and rightly deserve to earn) if the project succeeds.

A recent editorial by Phillip Brownlee in the November 21, 2004 Wichita Eagle illustrates the risk involved in these dealings. The editorial, when recommending how to avoid future mistakes like the Old Town Square tax shortfall, states there should be “Better communication between the developers and the city, especially if the project changes.” The key idea in this sentence is change. Things always seem to change. Private developers, being close to the ground and having their own money at risk, sense the need for change earliest. If they are spending their own money, they have the perfect right to change as they see fit. But if they have agreed with the government on a course of action, and now that course needs correction, they have to go back to the government and ask permission to change. That can take a long time — maybe too long to respond adequately to the changing markets.

The editorial also recommends “Clearer expectations (and in writing) about what the developers will build and what occupancy rates likely will be.” First, this sentence illustrates the element of risk again, what the rates likely will be. No one knows. There is risk in developing a business of any type. It seems like the City assumes the risk, however. Also, I am wondering why Mr. Brownlee seems to imply that expectations have not been given in writing. Furthermore, what recourse does the City have if expectations are not met?

Finally, the editorial reads “Closer City Council scrutiny before projects are approved (members at the time now say they didn’t know who all the Old Town development partners were, and they seemed to accept on faith the assurances by city staff that the project would exceed revenue projections).” I first note that it seems like city staff are acting as cheerleaders for these projects, when they should provide a sober assessment. Furthermore, if the project would exceed revenue projections, why not adjust the projections so that they accurately reflect what we believe the future will hold?

The City of Wichita can do a better job. At one time it seemed like our mayor would be better. From an article titled “Mayans takes on WaterWalk” (May 30, 2003 Wichita Business Journal):

One area Mayans says he’s concerned about is a “leasehold mortgage” referred to in the agreement. That means the city is allowing the developer to place a first lien on the ground owned by the city and leased to the developers for the project, Mayans says. Later, the agreement specifies that the city agrees that their ownership of the ground is to be “subordinated” to a loan obtained by the developer to build the improvements.

“If the project is unsuccessful, the lender then has the right to take not only the improvements, but also the city’s land,” Mayans says.

This is the type of thorough analysis and due diligence needed before the City enters into agreements of any type. Why is the city staff not providing this, and why are the Mayor and City Council members not demanding it?

Remarks to City Council, May 11, 2004, Regarding AirTran Airways Subsidy

I delivered these remarks to the Wichita City Council as they were preparing to vote on extending AirTran Airway’s subsidy for another two years. The extension passed with only one dissenting vote.

Mr. Mayor, Members of the Council:

I speak today in opposition to the continuation of the subsidy the City is paying to AirTran Airways.

There are several reasons why I believe this subsidy should not be continued. The primary reason is that the subsidy, since it is paid to one company and one company only, is not fair to the other companies. Yes, it is true that fares are lower. But is that a legitimate reason to enrich one company at the expense of others?

If creating an environment of unfair competition is good and correct, why should we not do this in other markets?

If we feel that gasoline prices are too high, why not select a chain of gasoline stations and pay it a subsidy so that it could lower its prices?

If we feel that a chain of grocery stores has too much market power and their prices are too high, why not create and subsidize stores to compete with them?

If we feel that the commissions that real estate companies charge are too high, why not pay one of Wichita’s major firms a subsidy so that they could reduce their commissions?

Let us all hope, then, that we do not find ourselves running, or being an employee of, a business whose prices the City believes are too high.

But the situation is even worse. Through the Fair Fares program, the City has organized the potential customers of the subsidized business to ensure that they purchase from it. For the companies that pledged to Fair Fares: How would they feel if the government started a public body for the purpose of organizing their customers, and then used its powers of persuasion to compel them to buy from a competitor at the same time the City is subsidizing the competitor?

All of this is in direct opposition to the American principles of limited government, individual liberty, and fair markets.

The distortion of the market that the subsidy creates has another aspect: By creating an environment of unfair competition, we make it unlikely that any airline will consider starting service to Wichita unless they too receive a subsidy.

If the Council feels that we must subsidize an airline, consider this alternative: why not subsidize one of the other established airlines, one that that flies to many destinations? Or, why not rotate the subsidy every year to a different airline? After all, if fares can be lowered if any airline reduces their fares, it shouldn’t matter which airline does it.