Tag Archives: David Dennis

Project Wichita right to look ahead at city’s future

We can understand self-serving politicians and bureaucrats. It’s what they do. But a city’s newspaper editorial board ought to be concerned with the truth.

In February the Wichita Eagle editorialized about Project Wichita, a ramping-up effort to do something about the future of Wichita. 1 It’s worthwhile to take a look at the op-ed, if only to learn something about the quality of Wichita Eagle editorial writing.

I understand civic boosterism; the desire to paint a positive image of the future. But this rosy outlook has to be based, at least loosely, on facts. Following, a look at a few claims made in the editorial.

“Our downtown is becoming more of a destination and place to live.”
The problem is this: Wichita economic development officials use a circuitous method of estimating the population of downtown Wichita, producing a number much higher than Census Bureau estimates. Downtown Wichita, the city’s economic development agency responsible for downtown, says the population of downtown is 2,138, which is far — really far — outside the range the Census Bureau gives. For more about this, see Living in downtown Wichita.

As far as a destination for business, the U.S. Census Bureau tracks business trends by zip code. For zip code 67202, which is downtown Wichita, results since 2007 show fewer business establishments, fewer people working downtown, and lower earnings generated in downtown Wichita. In all cases, the trend is lower. For more about this, see Downtown Wichita business trends.

Further, Wichita leaders have exaggerated the number of people working in downtown. For years our leaders told us there were 26,000 daytime workers in downtown Wichita. But this claim is based on misuse of data so blatant it can be described only as malpractice. In fact, this figure is now omitted from the state of downtown reports. No one will accept responsibility for this mistake. See Downtown Wichita jobs, sort of and Downtown Wichita report omits formerly prominent data.

“But Wichita feels pretty good about itself, which suggests the community is at the perfect time to think about its future.”
I have to say, we’ve been hoodwinked, and by our top leaders. Recently both the mayor of Wichita and chair of the county commission penned upbeat editorials praising our economy. See Mayor Longwell’s pep talk and Sedgwick County’s David Dennis on economic development.

But the reality is quite different. See:

Given this, why do the mayor, county commission chair, and our newspaper’s editorial board say what they do? The first two are politicians, but we ought to ask that our newspaper seek the truth, not personal political gain.

“It will get more serious in March, when students and volunteers from Wichita State University’s Public Policy and Management Center …”
This is the same organization on which the city relies for many services, including the gathering of public input in past campaigns like the 2014 sales tax election. The city seemed sure that tax would pass, but voters rejected it by a wide margin. 2

“Public Policy director Misty Bruckner and her group will deliver feedback and conclusions to Project Wichita’s four co-chairs.”
A few years ago Bruckner co-authored a paper titled “Citizen Attachment: Building Sustainable Communities.” 3 My reporting on it was titled Wichita needs more, and willing, taxpayers. An excerpt: “Increasingly, citizens are retreating from their responsibilities to community and demanding more from government than they are willing to pay for. But changes in local government behavior can be instrumental in reversing this trend, by strengthening citizens’ commitment to the well-being of their communities. Citizens who are committed to community are more willing to accept responsibility for the well-being of their fellow citizens and are also more likely to join with government and other parties to improve their communities. Citizens who are committed to community are also more willing taxpayers — that is, when government demonstrates that it can be trusted to invest public resources in ways that strengthen the community. The central thrust of this model is getting citizens and governments to work together, but realistically, many communities will require new revenue — including additional tax dollars — if they are to assemble the critical mass of resources necessary for meaningful change. Accordingly, citizens who are willing to pay increased taxes are an important component of building sustainable communities.” (emphasis added)

Please don’t fault me for being cynical when I suspect that this entire operation is designed to prepare Wichitans (or the region) for a tax increase.

“Community input will be as wide as the city limits.”
Wait a moment. I thought we were supposed to think regionally.

“Project Wichita seems similar to Visioneering Wichita …”
I wonder if anyone remembers anything positive that resulted from Visioneering Wichita. After a few years, the organization’s website went stale, and staff discontinued making presentation to the city council and county commission See Visioneering asks for money. Let’s ask these questions.

“Unlike Visioneering, Project Wichita isn’t headed by city or county government.”
Visioneering Wichita was led by the Chamber of Commerce, not government. Local governments made financial contributions to Visioneering, just as they are also contributing to Project Wichita. 4


Notes

  1. Wichita Eagle Editorial Board. Project Wichita right to look ahead at city’s future. Available at http://www.kansas.com/opinion/editorials/article198178899.html.
  2. Ryan, Kelsey. Voters soundly defeat Wichita sales tax proposal. Available at http://www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/election/article3567045.html.
  3. See http://www.gfoa.org/sites/default/files/GFR_OCT_10_24.pdf.
  4. Wichita Business Journal. Sedgwick County Commission approves Visioneering Wichita funding. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/blog/2012/12/sedgwick-county-commission-approves.html.

Sedgwick County’s David Dennis on economic development

Following the Wichita Mayor, the Chair of the Sedgwick County Commission speaks on economic development.

Last week Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis penned a column for the Wichita Eagle praising the county’s efforts in economic development. 1 Dennis is also chair of the commission this year.

In his column, the commissioner wrote: “Economic development is a key topic for the Board of County Commissioners and for me in particular. Right now we have a lot of momentum to make our community a more attractive place for people and businesses.”

This emphasis on the word “momentum” seems to be a fad among Wichita’s government leaders. More about this later.

Dennis also wrote: “Traditional governmental incentives are a thing of the past. There are no more blank checks from Sedgwick County for businesses.”

Except: The county participates in incentive programs that allow companies like Spirit to escape paying taxes, and when you don’t have to pay taxes, that’s the same economic effect as someone giving you cash to pay those taxes. Spirit Aerosystems will receive Industrial Revenue Bonds, which are not a loan of money to Spirit, but allow the company to avoid paying property taxes and sales taxes. 2 3 These incentives are a cost to the county and other units of government, and are as good as cash to Spirit. (For this and many other projects the county is not involved in the approval of the IRB program, but it doesn’t object, and it sees its tacit approval as part of its partnership with the City of Wichita.)

Besides this, the county engages in traditional incentives — almost like a blank check — but disguises them. In this case, for example, the county is contributing $7 million towards the construction of a building exclusively for Spirit’s use. How will the county pay for that? The memorandum that the county agreed to states: “The county participation of $7 million US is anticipated to be available cash.” 4

You might be wondering if the county is treating this contribution as an investment that a business would make, where it would earn back its investment plus a profit by collecting rent from Spirit. After all, county leaders tell us they want to operate government like a business.

But, you’d be wrong if you thought that. The memorandum specifies the rent as $1 per year. Not $1 per square foot per year, but $1 per year for the entire building. Furthermore, at the end of 20 years, Spirit will have the option to purchase the property for $1.

There’s really no way to characterize this transaction other than as a multi-million giveaway to Spirit. Not directly as a blank check or cash, but in a roundabout way that costs the county and benefits Spirit in the same way as cash.

I can understand how Dennis and others like Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell want to convince the public that they are no longer dishing out cash. Often, the public doesn’t like that. So instead they do the same thing in roundabout ways like leasing a building for $1 per year or paying millions in cash for a “parking easement” for which the city has no real use. 5 Chairman Dennis and others hope you won’t notice, but these leaders would be more credible if they didn’t try to obfuscate the truth.

Sedgwick County jobs. Click for larger.
Sedgwick County jobs, change from prior year. Click for larger.
At the end of his column, Dennis wrote: “There is a lot of momentum and forward movement in our community right now and I’m encouraged to see what we can achieve as a team.”

There’s that word again: momentum. Coincidently, shortly after this column was published, the Bureau of Labor Statistics published an update to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. It shows the number of jobs in Sedgwick County declining. This update was released after Dennis wrote his column, but as can be seen from the nearby charts, the slowdown in Sedgwick County jobs and the Wichita-area economy is not a new trend.

If Dennis really believes our economy has “momentum and forward movement,” it is my sincere hope that he is simply uninformed or misinformed about these statistics. Because if he is aware, we can only conclude that he is something else that is worse than being merely ignorant.


Notes

  1. David Dennis. Sedgwick County part of drive to strengthen area workforce. Wichita Eagle, March 5, 2018. Available at http://www.kansas.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/article203559734.html.
  2. Weeks, Bob. Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/industrial-revenue-bonds-kansas/.
  3. Weeks, Bob. Spirit expands in Wichita. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/spirit-expands-wichita/.
  4. Sedgwick County. RESOLUTION AUTHORIZING THE EXECUTION OF A MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING WITH THE CITY OF WICHITA AND SPIRIT AEROSYSTEMS, INC. RELATING TO PROJECT ECLIPSE. Available at https://sedgwickcounty.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=3290907&GUID=E732A9A2-C01A-4ACE-B134-C15E551F989F.
  5. Weeks, Bob. More Cargill incentives from Wichita detailed. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/cargill-incentives-from-wichita-detailed/.

For Sedgwick County Commission, too much debate

By moving to end motions and debate, the Sedgwick County Commission isn’t effectively serving citizens and taxpayers.

Yesterday’s meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission offered an opportunity to learn how we can improve local government.

The issue the commission was considering, significant in its own right, is not important to the following discussion. It’s the process that needs improvement.

There was a proposed ordinance. Commissioner Jim Howell offered two amendments — really substitute motions — that altered the proposed ordinance. Each failed by votes of three to two.

Howell had two more motions to offer. But Commissioner David Dennis moved a motion to end the offering of additional motions. In this vote the majority prevailed, and Howell was silenced. Commissioners voting to end debate were Chair Dave Unruh, Michael O’Donnell, and Dennis. Richard Ranzau and Howell opposed the motion to end debate.

The county commission is not a deliberative body like a legislature. The county does not have committees like a legislature. I’m not advocating for the county to form committees, but here’s what is missing from the county process: There is no opportunity for interested parties — often lobbyists, but also regular people — to testify before a committee as legislation is being developed. There is no committee mark-up process in which the text of a bill is crafted and finalized. There is no committee vote that decides whether to recommend the bill to the entire legislative body.

Some of this happens in Sedgwick County, of course, but mostly behind the scenes. There is the county staff meeting Tuesday morning, when the commissioners meet with staff in an informal setting. While this meeting is open to the public, there is rarely news coverage. (Hint to county staff: These meetings could easily be broadcast and archived on the internet without much cost or effort.)

In a legislature, when a bill is considered by the entire body, there is usually an amendment process. They may be many amendments that require time to debate and consider. This process was mentioned by two commission members who have served in the Kansas legislature.

But it seems a majority of Sedgwick County Commission members don’t care for this process.

I understand why some commissioners wanted to end debate. Sometimes amendments to legislation create a moment where legislators have to cast a vote on an issue, often a finely-grained issue. Sometimes that vote is used as a campaign issue in future elections. Those votes may appear in compilations of legislative activity that reveal how legislators vote.

But amendments and debate are part of the legislative process. Commissioner Howell had several amendments that he had prepared in advance. They were not off-the-cuff, spur-of-the-moment ideas. They were crafted to attempt to find a compromise that a majority of commissioners could accept.

But a majority of Sedgwick County Commission members didn’t want that.

Perhaps some commissioners where concerned about the meeting becoming lengthy. We see that from Wichita City Council members. They’re paid a part-time salary, so maybe there’s merit to their carping about long meetings.

But Howell’s amendments took just a few minutes each to consider. And — this is highly relevant — the members of the Sedgwick County Commission are paid a handsome full-time salary. They should not object to the meeting lasting all day, if that’s what it takes to serve the citizens. And citizens were not well-served by the commission’s decision to silence one of its members.