Tag Archives: Pete Meitzner

Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner

From Pachyderm: Sedgwick County Commission candidates

From the Wichita Pachyderm Club: Republican Candidates for Sedgwick County Commission. Appearing, in order of their initial appearance, were:

  • Richard Ranzau, District 4.
  • Pete Meitzner, District 1.
  • Jim Howell, District 5.

This was recorded September 7, 2018.

Shownotes

Wichita being sued, alleging improper handling of bond repayment savings

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
  • Springsted Incorporated
  • 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.

Is the pursuit of intergovernmental grants wise?

Is the pursuit of intergovernmental grants wise? Would local governments fund certain programs if the money was not seen as “free?”

An eariler version of this article failed to distinguish Jim Howell’s position from the majority of candidates. I regret the error.

At a forum of candidates for Sedgwick County Commission, the subject of intergovernmental grants was discussed. All candidates except for current commissioners Richard Ranzau and Jim Howell were fully in favor — enthusiastic, even — of the grant system. Both Ranzau and Howell expressed skepticism of the wisdom and efficacy of the grant system.

Other candidates participating in the forum had several justifications for accepting intergovernmental grants: It’s our tax money we sent to Washington or Topeka, it’s foolish not to try to get back our tax money, the grants are already funded, the money will simply go somewhere else. There are a few problems with these lines of reasoning.

First, the grants are not “already paid for.” Since the federal government runs a deficit, we’re not paying the entire cost of government. To say that some things (program A, B, and C) are paid for, and other things (programs D, E, and F) are not paid for, is making artificial distinctions that can’t be justified.

But deficit spending (on grants or other things) makes sense to politicians who want to deliver more government services than are being paid for by current levels of taxation. Federal and state grants make sense to local politicians and bureaucrats who want to be able to say they “won” federal or state dollars, so that the county or city can spend at no one’s cost. That’s how grant money is often characterized: Spending at no one’s cost.

But politicians and bureaucrats across the nation make the same argument. We all wind up spending money at no one’s cost, so they say.

Then: We must “try to get back our tax money.” This highlights another absurdity of government grants. We pay taxes, and then hope that we win the competition to get back our money. Who developed this system? Again, politicians like to boast they “won” grant funding that has no cost. Bureaucrats thrive on the jobs and power that grants provide, both locally and at the state and federal levels. Someone has to collect the taxes, write the applications for grants, evaluate the applications, administer the grant money at the state or federal level, administer the grant money at the local level, write reports on how the grant money is spent, and then someone has to read the reports. This creates a lot of jobs for bureaucrats. It also costs a lot, which is a deadweight cost, that is, costs that provide no benefit.

(If politicians and bureaucrats in other states, cities, and counties are smarter than us, do we have a fair chance of getting our tax money back in the form of grants?)

Finally: There is evidence that intergovernmental grants accepted today result in higher taxes tomorrow. Worse, this is for spending that local governments might not choose if local government bore the entire cost. But after the grant ends and after a constituency is created, it’s difficult to stop the spending.

Following, from 2013, a presentation of research on grants and future taxation.

Federal grants seen to increase future local spending

“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” — Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman

Is this true? Do federal grants cause state and/or local tax increases in the future after the government grant ends? Economists Russell S. Sobel and George R. Crowley have examined the evidence, and they find the answer is yes.

The research paper is titled Do Intergovernmental Grants Create Ratchets in State and Local Taxes? Testing the Friedman-Sanford Hypothesis.

The difference between this research and most other is that Sobel and Crowley look at the impact of federal grants on state and local tax policy in future periods.

This is important because, in their words, “Federal grants often result in states creating new programs and hiring new employees, and when the federal funding for that specific purpose is discontinued, these new state programs must either be discontinued or financed through increases in state own source taxes.”

The authors caution: “Far from always being an unintended consequence, some federal grants are made with the intention that states will pick up funding the program in the future.”

The conclusion to their research paper states:

Our results clearly demonstrate that grant funding to state and local governments results in higher own source revenue and taxes in the future to support the programs initiated with the federal grant monies. Our results are consistent with Friedman’s quote regarding the permanence of temporary government programs started through grant funding, as well as South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s reasoning for trying to deny some federal stimulus monies for his state due to the future tax implications. Most importantly, our results suggest that the recent large increase in federal grants to state and local governments that has occurred as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will have significant future tax implications at the state and local level as these governments raise revenue to continue these newly funded programs into the future. Federal grants to state and local governments have risen from $461 billion in 2008 to $654 billion in 2010. Based on our estimates, future state taxes will rise by between 33 and 42 cents for every dollar in federal grants states received today, while local revenues will rise by between 23 and 46 cents for every dollar in federal (or state) grants received today. Using our estimates, this increase of $200 billion in federal grants will eventually result in roughly $80 billion in future state and local tax and own source revenue increases. This suggests the true cost of fiscal stimulus is underestimated when the costs of future state and local tax increases are overlooked.

So: Not only are we taxed to pay for the cost of funding federal and state grants, the units of government that receive grants are very likely to raise their own levels of taxation in response to the receipt of the grants. This is a cycle of ever-expanding government that needs to end, and right now.

An introduction to the paper is Do Intergovernmental Grants Create Ratchets in State and Local Taxes?.

Wichita in ‘Best Cities for Jobs 2018’

Wichita continues to decline in economic vitality, compared to other areas.

NewGeography.com is a joint venture of Joel Kotkin and Praxis Strategy Group. Its annual “Best Cities for Jobs” project ranks metropolitan areas according to growth in employment.

Of 422 metropolitan areas considered, Wichita ranked 383, dropping 28 spots since the previous year.

Among 100 medium size metropolitan areas, Wichita ranked 93, dropping 5 spots from the previous year.

NewGeography.com uses employment data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics from November 2006 to January 2018. 1 Last year’s publication contains a more detailed explanation of how the rankings capture current year-growth, mid-term growth, and momentum. 2

In the analysis for 2017, Wichita had also fallen in ranking.

Wichita has momentum, they say

Despite this news, Wichita leaders are in denial. Recently Greater Wichita Partnership president Jeff Fluhr told a group of young people this:

From the innovation campus at Wichita State University and development along the Arkansas River in downtown, including a new baseball stadium, to the conversations happening now about a new convention center and performing arts facility, Fluhr said the momentum is pushing to keep Wichita on par with the development of other communities around the country.

That development, which has in recent years expanded to incorporate the entire region, is a critical component to attracting and retaining talent — the exact kind of talent in the ICT Millennial Summit crowd. 3

In January Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell said, “It’s hard to find a time when we’ve had more momentum.” 4

In March Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis penned a column for the Wichita Eagle praising the county’s efforts in economic development. 5 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.”

At the same time, the Wichita Eagle editorialized: “Wichita’s economy struggled to rebound from the last recession, which held the city back. But there have been positive economic signs of late, including a renewed focus on innovation and regional cooperation. … There also is a sense of momentum about Wichita. Yes, challenges remain, but the city seems to have turned a corner, with even greater things ahead.”6

In announcing his candidacy for Sedgwick County Commission, Wichita city council member Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said, “We have enjoyed great progress and growth during my two terms as a City Council member and I plan to do my part to assure Sedgwick County is part of this continued success.” 7

Given all this, it ought to be easy to find economic data supporting momentum, progress, and growth. Besides the NewGeography.com report cited above, let’s look at some other indicators.

Personal income. For the Wichita metropolitan statistical area, personal income in 2016 rose slightly from the 2015 level, but is still below the 2014 level. In real (inflation-adjusted) dollars, personal income fell in 2016. 8

Personal Income Summary, Wichita, through 2016. Click for larger.

Population. In 2000 Wichita was the 80th largest metropolitan area. In 2017 its ranking had fallen to 89. See Wichita metropolitan area population in context for more on this topic.

Trends of business activity in downtown Wichita. Click for larger.
Downtown Wichita. There’s been a lot of investment in downtown Wichita, both public and private. But since 2008 the trend is fewer business establishments, fewer people working downtown, and lower earnings generated in downtown Wichita. Almost every year these numbers are lower than the year before. This is movement in the wrong direction, the opposite of progress. There may be good news in that the number of people living downtown may be rising, but business activity is declining. 9

Employment. While officials promote the low Wichita-area unemployment rate, there is an alternative interpretation. First, the good news: The unemployment rate for the Wichita metro area declined to 3.9 percent in March 2018, down from 4.2 percent in March 2017. The number of unemployed persons declined by 8.3 percent for the same period. 10

Is Wichita’s declining unemployment rate good news, or a byproduct of something else? The unemployment rate is the ratio of the number of unemployed persons to the labor force. While the number of unemployed persons fell, so too did the labor force. It declined by 3,367 persons over the year, while the number of unemployed persons fell by 1,056. This produces a lower unemployment rate, but a shrinking labor force is not the sign of a healthy economy.

A further indication of the health of the Wichita-area economy is the number of nonfarm jobs. This number declined by 1,200 from March 2017 to March 2018, a decline of 0.4 percent. This follows a decline of 0.7 percent from February 2017 to February 2018.

Of the metropolitan areas in the United States, BLS reports that 308 had over-the-year increases in nonfarm payroll employment, 72 (including Wichita) had decreases, and 8 had no change.

Growth in output. The worst news, however, is that the Wichita-area economy shrank from 2015 to 2016. In real (inflation-adjusted) dollars, the Wichita metropolitan area gross domestic product fell by 1.4 percent. For all metropolitan areas, GDP grew by 1.7 percent. Since 2001, GDP for all metropolitan areas grew by 29.3 percent, while Wichita had 12.3 percent growth. 11

Wichita MSA employment, annual change. Click for larger.
The GDP figures are for 2016, and figures for 2017 won’t be available until September. So what happened in 2017? Could 2017 be the genesis of momentum to drive our economy forward?

While GDP figures aren’t available, jobs numbers are. For the year 2016, total nonfarm employment in the Wichita metropolitan area grew by 0.62 percent. For 2017, the growth rate was 0.56 percent — a slowdown in the rate of job growth. These job growth figures are far below the rate for the nation, which were 1.79 and 1.58 percent respectively.

Annual change in job growth, Wichita and USA through 2017. Click for larger.

Furthermore, Wichita’s job growth rate in 2016 was lower than 2015’s rate of 1.07 percent. This is momentum in the wrong direction. Nearby charts illustrate. 12

What to do?

The failure of the Wichita-area economy to thrive is a tragedy. This is compounded by Wichita leaders failing to acknowledge this, at least publicly. While we expect people like the mayor, council members, and the chamber of commerce to be cheerleaders for our city, we must wonder: Do these people know the economic statistics, or do they choose to ignore or disbelieve them?

From private conversations with some of these leaders and others, I think it’s a mix of both. Some are simply uninformed, while others are deliberately distorting the truth about the Wichita economy for political or personal gain. The people who are uninformed or misinformed can be educated, but the liars are beyond rehabilitation and should be replaced.


Notes

  1. “The methodology for our 2018 ranking largely corresponds to that used in previous years. We seek to measure the robustness of metro areas’ growth both recently and over time, with some minor corrections to mitigate the volatility that the Great Recession has introduced into the earlier parts of the time series. The ranking is based on three-month rolling averages of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ ‘state and area’ unadjusted employment data reported from November 2006 to January 2018.” 2018 How We Pick The Best Cities For Job Growth. Available at http://www.newgeography.com/content/005973-2018-how-we-pick-best-cities-job-growth.
  2. 2017 How We Pick The Best Cities For Job Growth. Available at http://www.newgeography.com/content/005618-2017-how-we-pick-best-cities-job-growth.
  3. Daniel McCoy. ICT Millennial Summit: Wichita is having a moment. Wichita Business Journal, November 30, 3017. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2017/11/30/ict-millennial-summit-wichita-is-having-a-moment.html.
  4. Heck, Josh. Emerging Leaders panel offers insight into eco-devo strategies. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2018/01/11/emerging-leaders-panel-offers-insight-into-eco.html.
  5. 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.
  6. Wichita is moving forward. March 1, 2018. Available at http://www.kansas.com/opinion/editorials/article135573253.html.
  7. Bill Wilson. Wichita council member unveils bid for county commission. Wichita Business Journal, November 30, 3017. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2018/02/13/wichita-council-member-unveils-bid-for-county.html.
  8. Weeks, Bob. Wichita personal income up, a little. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-personal-income-up-2016/.
  9. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita business trends. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-business-trends/.
  10. Weeks, Bob. Wichita unemployment rate falls. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/economics/wichita-unemployment-rate-falls-2018-03/.
  11. Weeks, Bob. Wichita economy shrinks. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/economics/wichita-economy-shrinks/.
  12. In some presentations these figures may differ slightly due to data revisions and methods of aggregation. These differences are small and not material.

Wichita metropolitan area population in context

The growth of population in Wichita compared to other areas.

Several Wichita city officials have noted that the population of the City of Wichita now exceeds that of Cleveland. This, to them, is a point of pride and sign of momentum in Wichita.

It’s true, at least the population facts. For 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the population of Wichita as 389,902 and Cleveland as 385,809. From the 2010 census, Wichita’s population was 382,368; Cleveland’s 396,815. 1

That Wichita moved up in population rank is more due to Cleveland losing 11,006 people (2.8 percent loss) while Wichita gained 7,534 people (2.0 percent gain).

Looking only at city population, however, misses the fact that the Cleveland metropolitan statistical area population is 2,058,844 compared to the Wichita MSA at 645,628, a difference of 3.2 times.

For most types of economic and demographic analysis, metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) are preferred to cities proper. The Census Bureau notes: “The general concept of a metropolitan or micropolitan statistical area is that of a core area containing a substantial population nucleus, together with adjacent communities having a high degree of economic and social integration with that core.” 2

Wichita officials usually recognize this and have started to emphasize the importance of the region (the MSA), not just the city. Many of our civic agencies have named or renamed themselves like these examples: Greater Wichita Partnership, Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth, Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, Wichita Area Planning Organization, Regional Economic Area Partnership of South Central Kansas, South Central Kansas Economic Development District.

Further, there is more economic data available at the MSA level (compared to the city level) from agencies like Bureau of Labor Statistics and Bureau of Economic Analysis. This data includes important measures like employment, labor force, unemployment rate, gross domestic product, and personal income.

City boundaries are still important, as Wichita, for example, can’t impose property or sales taxes outside the city limits. Nor can it write laws affecting neighboring towns or the county.

But not even schools respect city boundaries, with several large suburban school districts (Andover, Maize, Goddard) reaching far into the city limits of Wichita.

While Wichita may be the 50th largest city, its rank is not as high when considering metropolitan areas. Worse, its rank is slipping as other areas grow at a faster clip. In the 1990 and 2000 census, Wichita was the 80th largest metro area. By 2010 Wichita’s rank had fallen to 82, and for 2017 the rank is 89.

Growth of Wichita MSA population and economy

Wichita officials incessantly talk about momentum. Using a misguided measure of regional size and growth (Wichita is larger than Cleveland!) is one example.

Unfortunately, there are many other examples. Recently Wichita’s mayor spoke of a “thriving city” and that “we’re going to continue our growth pattern.” 3

Recently Greater Wichita Partnership president Jeff Fluhr told a group of young people this:

From the innovation campus at Wichita State University and development along the Arkansas River in downtown, including a new baseball stadium, to the conversations happening now about a new convention center and performing arts facility, Fluhr said the momentum is pushing to keep Wichita on par with the development of other communities around the country.

That development, which has in recent years expanded to incorporate the entire region, is a critical component to attracting and retaining talent — the exact kind of talent in the ICT Millennial Summit crowd. 4

In January Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell said, “It’s hard to find a time when we’ve had more momentum.” 5

In announcing his candidacy for Sedgwick County Commission, Wichita city council member Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said, “We have enjoyed great progress and growth during my two terms as a City Council member and I plan to do my part to assure Sedgwick County is part of this continued success.” 6

But these pictures — thriving, growth, progress, momentum — just aren’t true, according to the best statistical evidence. Wichita is shedding jobs. 7 In 2016 the Wichita economy shrank. 8 Our labor force is declining. 9 Sedgwick County shows a decline in employees and payroll in 2016. 10

Finally, as can be seen in the nearby chart of population growth in the Wichita metro area and a few other examples. Wichita’s growth rate is low, and is slowing. (The other metro areas in the chart are our Visioneering peers plus a few others.)

It is terribly unfortunate that the Wichita economy is not growing. What’s worse is the attitude of our city leaders. If we don’t confront our problems, we probably won’t be able to solve them.

In an interactive visualization I’ve prepared from census data, you can compare growth in metropolitan statistical areas. Click here to access the visualization.

Wichita and other population growth. Click for larger.


Notes

  1. Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for Incorporated Places of 50,000 or More, Ranked by July 1, 2016 Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2016. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division. Release Date: May 2017
  2. Available at https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/metro-micro/about.html.
  3. Weeks, Bob Mayor Longwell’s pep talk. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/politics/mayor-longwells-pep-talk/.
  4. Daniel McCoy. ICT Millennial Summit: Wichita is having a moment. Wichita Business Journal, November 30, 3017. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2017/11/30/ict-millennial-summit-wichita-is-having-a-moment.html.
  5. Heck, Josh. Emerging Leaders panel offers insight into eco-devo strategies. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2018/01/11/emerging-leaders-panel-offers-insight-into-eco.html.
  6. Bill Wilson. Wichita council member unveils bid for county commission. Wichita Business Journal, November 30, 3017. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2018/02/13/wichita-council-member-unveils-bid-for-county.html.
  7. Weeks, Bob. Wichita unemployment rate falls. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/economics/wichita-unemployment-rate-falls-2018-03/.
  8. Weeks, Bob. Wichita economy shrinks. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/economics/wichita-economy-shrinks/.
  9. Weeks, Bob. Why Wichita may not have the workforce. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/why-wichita-may-not-have-the-workforce/.
  10. Weeks, Bob. Business patterns in Kansas counties. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/economics/business-patterns-in-kansas-counties/.

WichitaLiberty.TV: John Todd and the fight against blight

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: John Todd explains how cities in Kansas are seeking additional power to seize property, and tells us why we should oppose this legislation. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 188, broadcast March 17, 2018.

Shownotes

Property under attack in Kansas

Local governments in Kansas are again seeking expanded power to seize property.

In Kansas, officials of many city governments feel they don’t have enough power to deal with blight. This year, as in years past, there is legislation to expand the power of cities to seize property. 1 2

John Todd, along with Paul Soutar, made a video to explain the bill and the surrounding issues. It’s just five minutes in length. View it below, or click here to view at YouTube. Todd’s written testimony to the Kansas Legisalture has photographs and examples. It may be viewed here.

Background

Presently, tools are in place. Cities already have much power to deal with blight and related problems. Last year Todd and I, along with others, had a luncheon meeting with a Kansas Senator who voted in favor of expanding cities’ powers. When we told him of our opposition, he asked questions like, “Well, don’t you want to fight blight? What will cities do to fight blight without this bill?” When we listed and explained the many tools cities already have, he said that he hadn’t been told of these. This is evidence that this bill is not needed. It’s also evidence of the ways cities try to increase their powers at the expense of the rights of people. 3

The Governor’s veto. A similar bill passed the legislature in 2016. Governor Brownback vetoed that bill, explaining, “The right to private property serves as a central pillar of the American constitutional tradition.” 4

The Governor’s veto provoked a response from Wichita government officials. It let us know that they are not as respectful of fundamental rights as was Brownback. 5

For example, in remarks from the bench, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said there is no intent to be “aggressive in taking people’s property.” 6 But expanding the power of government — aggression, in other word — is what the bill does. Otherwise, why the need for the bill with its new methods and powers of taking property?

And once government is granted new powers, government nearly always finds ways to expand the power and put it to new uses. Even if we believe Meitzner — and we should not — he will not always be in office. Others will follow him who may not claim to be so wise and restrained in the use of government power.

Government expands and liberty recedes. Government continuously seeks new ways to expand its powers through enabling concepts like blight. Did you know the entire suburban town of Andover is blighted? 7 Across the country, when governments find they can take property with novel and creative interpretations of blight, they do so. 8

It’s easy to sense the frustration of government officials like Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell. In his remarks, he asked opponents of SB 338 “what they would do” when confronted with blight. That is a weak argument, but is advanced nonetheless. Everyone has the right — the duty — to oppose bad legislation even if they do not have an alternate solution. Just because someone doesn’t have a solution, that doesn’t mean their criticism is not valid. This is especially true in this matter, as cities already have many tools to deal with blight.


Notes

  1. Kansas Legislature. HB 2506. Rehabilitation of abandoned property by cities. Available at http://kslegislature.org/li/b2017_18/measures/hb2506/.
  2. Weeks, Bob. Power of Kansas cities to take property may be expanded. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/power-kansas-cities-take-property-may-expanded/.
  3. Weeks, Bob. In Kansas, the war on blight continues. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/kansas-war-blight-continues/.
  4. Weeks, Bob. Governor Brownback steps up for property rights. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/governor-brownback-steps-property-rights/.
  5. Weeks, Bob. In Wichita, revealing discussion of property rights. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/wichita-revealing-discussion-property-rights/.
  6. Video. Wichita City Council speaks on blight. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-city-council-speaks-blight/.
  7. Weeks, B. (2012). Andover, a Kansas city overtaken by blight. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at wichitaliberty.org/economics/andover-a-kansas-city-overtaken-by-blight/.
  8. Nicole Gelinas, Eminent Domain as Central Planning. (2015). City Journal. Available at www.city-journal.org/html/eminent-domain-central-planning-13253.html.

Growing the Wichita economy

Wichita leaders are proud of our region’s economic growth. Here are the numbers.

Greater Wichita Partnership is our region’s primary agency responsible for economic development. On its website, it tells us, “We are an organization built upon teamwork and the idea that, when everyone is advancing in the same direction, we can create a powerful force to effect change — and, thanks to our numerous investors and partners, we are.” One of the things GWP says we are doing is “Growing primary jobs.” 1

Recently Greater Wichita Partnership president Jeff Fluhr told a group of young people this:

From the innovation campus at Wichita State University and development along the Arkansas River in downtown, including a new baseball stadium, to the conversations happening now about a new convention center and performing arts facility, Fluhr said the momentum is pushing to keep Wichita on par with the development of other communities around the country.

That development, which has in recent years expanded to incorporate the entire region, is a critical component to attracting and retaining talent — the exact kind of talent in the ICT Millennial Summit crowd. 2

In January Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell said, “It’s hard to find a time when we’ve had more momentum.” 3

In announcing his candidacy for Sedgwick County Commission, Wichita city council member Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said, “We have enjoyed great progress and growth during my two terms as a City Council member and I plan to do my part to assure Sedgwick County is part of this continued success.” 4

Given all this, it ought to be easy to find economic data supporting momentum, progress, and growth. Let’s look at some indicators.

Personal income. For the Wichita metropolitan statistical area, personal income in 2016 rose slightly from the 2015 level, but is still below the 2014 level. In real (inflation-adjusted) dollars, personal income fell in 2016. 5

Personal Income Summary, Wichita, through 2016. Click for larger.

Population. In 1990 Wichita was the 80th largest metropolitan area. In 2016 its ranking had fallen to 87.

Trends of business activity in downtown Wichita. Click for larger.
Downtown Wichita. There’s been a lot of investment in downtown Wichita, both public and private. But since 2008 the trend is fewer business establishments, fewer people working downtown, and lower earnings generated in downtown Wichita. Almost every year these numbers are lower than the year before. This is movement in the wrong direction, the opposite of progress. There may be good news in that the number of people living downtown may be rising, but business activity is declining. 6

Employment. While officials promote the low Wichita-area unemployment rate, there is an alternative interpretation: The September 2017 unemployment rate declined to just about half the January 2011 rate. The number of employed persons rose by 1.2 percent, but the labor force fell by 3.1 percent. If we consider only the unemployment rate, it looks like the Wichita area is prospering. But the unemployment rate hides bad news: The number of jobs increased only slightly, and the labor force fell by a lot. While it’s good that there are more people working, the decline in the labor force is a problem. (More about employment below.) 7

Wichita MSA unemployment through September 2017. Click for larger.

Growth in output. The worst news, however, is that the Wichita-area economy shrank from 2015 to 2016. In real (inflation-adjusted) dollars, the Wichita metropolitan area gross domestic product fell by 1.4 percent. For all metropolitan areas, GDP grew by 1.7 percent. Since 2001, GDP for all metropolitan areas grew by 29.3 percent, while Wichita had 12.3 percent growth. 8

Wichita MSA employment, annual change. Click for larger.
The GDP figures are for 2016, and figures for 2017 won’t be available until September. So what happened in 2017? Could 2017 be the genesis of momentum to drive our economy forward?

While GDP figures aren’t available, jobs numbers are. For the year 2016, total nonfarm employment in the Wichita metropolitan area grew by 0.62 percent. For 2017, the growth rate was 0.56 percent — a slowdown in the rate of job growth.

These job growth figures are far below the rate for the nation, which were 1.79 and 1.58 percent respectively.

Annual change in job growth, Wichita and USA through 2017. Click for larger.

Furthermore, Wichita’s job growth rate in 2016 was lower than 2015’s rate of 1.07 percent. This is momentum in the wrong direction. Nearby charts illustrate. 9

What to do?

You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.
— Phillip C. McGraw

The failure of the Wichita-area economy to thrive is a tragedy. This is compounded by Wichita leaders failing — at least publicly — to acknowledge this. While we expect people like the mayor, council members, and the chamber of commerce to be cheerleaders for our city, we must wonder: Do these people know the economic statistics, or do they choose to ignore or disbelieve them?

From private conversations with some of these leaders and others, I think it’s a mix of both. Some are simply uninformed, while others are deliberately distorting the truth about the Wichita economy for political or personal gain. The people who are uninformed or misinformed can be educated, but the liars are beyond rehabilitation and should be replaced.


Notes

  1. Greater Wichita Partnership. Available at http://www.greaterwichitapartnership.org/about_us/about_us.
  2. Daniel McCoy. ICT Millennial Summit: Wichita is having a moment. Wichita Business Journal, November 30, 3017. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2017/11/30/ict-millennial-summit-wichita-is-having-a-moment.html.
  3. Heck, Josh. Emerging Leaders panel offers insight into eco-devo strategies. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2018/01/11/emerging-leaders-panel-offers-insight-into-eco.html.
  4. Bill Wilson. Wichita council member unveils bid for county commission. Wichita Business Journal, November 30, 3017. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2018/02/13/wichita-council-member-unveils-bid-for-county.html.
  5. Weeks, Bob. Wichita personal income up, a little. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-personal-income-up-2016/.
  6. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita business trends. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-business-trends/.
  7. Weeks, Bob. Wichita employment up. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-employment-up/.
  8. Weeks, Bob. Wichita economy shrinks. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/economics/wichita-economy-shrinks/.
  9. In some presentations these figures may differ slightly due to data revisions and methods of aggregation. These differences are small and not material.

CID and other incentives approved in downtown Wichita

The Wichita City Council approves economic development incentives, but citizens should not be proud of the discussion and deliberation.

Today’s meeting of the Wichita City Council saw the council discuss and approve economic development incentives for a project in downtown Wichita.

The item contemplated economic development incentives for redevelopment of an empty building in downtown Wichita to become a Hilton Garden Inn Hotel. The incentives being considered were a Community Improvement District (CID), Industrial Revenue Bonds (IRB), a parking agreement, and a skywalk easement. The discussion by the council was useful for revealing two members who are opposed to some targeted economic development incentives, but it also showed a troubling lack of knowledge and consideration by others.

Property tax

The hotel is requesting industrial revenue bonds. These bonds do not mean the city is lending any money. Instead, IRBs in Kansas are a mechanism to convey property tax abatements and sales tax exemptions.

The agenda packet for this item states: “[Hotel developer] WDH is not requesting abatement of property taxes in conjunction with the IRBs.”1 This is presented as a magnanimous gesture, as something the hotel developers (WDH) could have requested, but did not, presumably out of some sort of civic duty.

But: Property tax abatements may not be granted within the boundaries of a TIF district, which this hotel is located within.2 3 So the developers did not request something that they are not entitled to request. This is not news. Nonetheless, several council members were grateful.

As to property taxes, Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked what would be the increase in value in the building, once finished. Later Wichita City Council Member Jeff Blubaugh (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) praised the property taxes that will be paid. He also mentioned the “nearly-empty parking garage.” When the city built this garage and accompanying retail space it was to be a showpiece, but has been suffering from blight and lack of tenants paying market rates for rent.4

Asking about tax abatements, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked “They didn’t apply for other …” His voice trailed off before finishing the question, but the “other” tax abatement that could be applied for is the property tax abatement. Except, the law does not allow for a property tax abatement for this project.

All these questions alluded to the increased property taxes the renovated building will pay. Except, being within a TIF district, property taxes may not be abated. So where will the hotel’s property taxes go?

First, the property tax generated by the present value of the property (the “base”) will be distributed as before. But the increment — which will be substantial — will go to the TIF district, not the city, county, and school district. Except: This is an unusual TIF district, in that an agreement between the city and county provides that only 70 percent of the incremental property taxes will go to the TIF district, with the remainder being distributed as usual. This was not mentioned during today’s discussion.

There was talk about a “gap.” Some economic development incentives require documenting of a “financing gap” that makes the project not economically feasible. But that is not required for the incentives considered for this hotel.

Sales tax

Regarding the sales tax exemption: City document do not state how much sales tax will be forgiven, so we’re left to speculate. Previous city documents5 indicate spending $3,000,000 on furniture and fixtures, which is taxable. Sales tax on this is $225,000.

The same city document mentioned spending of $6,250,000 on construction of the hotel, and of $1,000,000 for construction of retail space. Sales tax on this combined total is $543,750. Based on material from the Kansas Department of Revenue, these amounts would be due if not for the action of the city council.6

In total, the development of this hotel will escape paying $768,750 in sales tax. It should be noted that Kansas is one of the few states that charges sales tax on groceries at the same rate as other purchases, making Kansas food sales tax among the highest in the nation.7

Curiously, council members Clendenin and Williams, who represent low-income districts where families may be struggling to buy groceries — and the sales tax on them — did not object to this special sales tax treatment for a commercial developer.

No more cash?

In his remarks, the mayor talked about how we can continue with economic development “without handing cash to corporations.” But when a project is going to buy materials and services on which $768,750 in sales tax is normally due, and the city council takes action to extinguish that liability, well, that’s better than cash to the receiver.

Good news

Kudos to Wichita City Council Member Bryan Frye (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), who actually cited the United States Constitution in his statement from the bench. He said that the issues surrounding this project are a far cry from what our Founding Fathers envisioned as the role of government, saying “I struggle with using city resources to collect and distribute sales tax for the sole benefit of one commercial entity.” He offered a substitute motion which would have approved all the parts of the agreement except for the CID tax. His motion failed, with only he and Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell voting in favor.

On the original motion, which was to approve all parts of the incentive agreement, Longwell and Frye voted in opposition, with everyone else voting in favor.


Notes

  1. City of Wichita. Agenda packet for September 6, 2016. Available here.
  2. “Certain property, even though funded by industrial revenue bonds, does not qualify for exemption: … property located in a redevelopment project area established under K.S.A. 12-1770 et seq. cannot be exempt from taxation.” Kansas Department of Revenue. Property Tax Abatements. Available at www.ksrevenue.org/taxincent-proptaxabate.html. Also, Kansas Department of Commerce. Industrial Revenue Bond Exemptions. Available at www.kansascommerce.com/DocumentCenter/Home/View/1082.
  3. Gilmore & Bell PC. Economic Development tools. Available here.
  4. Weeks, Bob. As landlord, Wichita has a few issues. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/landlord-wichita-issues/.
  5. Wichita City Council Agenda packet for August 16, 2016. Available at wichita.gov/Government/Council/Agendas/08-16-2016%20City%20Council%20Agenda%20Packet.pdf.
  6. “General rule: Materials are taxable.” (p. 4) Also: “Taxable labor services in Kansas are the services of installing, applying, servicing, repairing, altering, or maintaining tangible personal property performed on real property projects in the general category of commercial remodel work.” (p. 8) Kansas Department of Revenue. Sales & Use Tax for Contractors, Subcontractors, and Repairmen. Available at www.ksrevenue.org/pdf/pub1525.pdf.
  7. Food sales tax a point of shame for Kansas. Wichita Eagle. January 25, 2016. Available at http://www.kansas.com/opinion/editorials/article56532903.html.

WichitaLiberty.TV: News media, hollow Kansas government, ideology vs. pragmatism

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: New outlets for news, and criticism of the existing. Is Kansas government “hollowed out?” Ideology and pragmatism. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 124, broadcast July 17, 2016.

Shownotes

In Wichita, Meitzner, Clendenin sow seeds of distrust

Comments by two Wichita city council members give citizens more reasons to be cynical and distrusting of politicians.

In a recent Facebook post that someone sent to me, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) wrote: “Hmmmm…..of note; Wichita is the only sizable city in Kansas that does not ADD any sales tax on top of the State and Sedgwick County sales tax rate.”

Pete Meitzner sales tax Facebook 2016-07-06

It is astonishing that council member Meitzner would brag of this — that Wichita has no city sales tax. That’s because Meitzner, along with all council members but one, voted to place the sales tax measure on the November 2014 ballot. Wichita voters rejected that sales tax, with 62 percent of voters voting “No.”1

Meitzner is not the only council member to brag of no city sales tax in Wichita. Just a month after the November 2014 election in which Wichita voters rejected the sales tax, Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) said, in a council meeting, “thanks to a vote we just had, [Wichita] has zero municipal sales tax.”2

I wonder: If the Wichita city sales tax had passed, would Meitzner and Clendenin feel the same way?

The answer is “No.” If the sales tax had passed, I believe Wichita city council members Pete Meitzner and James Clendenin would be congratulating themselves on the wisdom and foresight that led them to allow Wichitans to vote on the tax. They would be boasting of their ability to gauge the sentiment of public opinion. They would be proud of the investment they are making in Wichita’s future.

That’s important to remember. The city council, at its initiative, decided to place the sales tax on the ballot. Why would the council do this if it did not believe the tax was a good thing for the city?

Because if the tax would not be good for Wichita, then we have to wonder: Why did the Wichita City Council — including Pete Meitzner and James Clendenin — decide that the people of Wichita should vote on a sales tax? Was it a whim? A flight of fancy? Just a poll to gauge public opinion, without binding meaning?

Anyone can conduct a poll of public opinion. But when the Wichita city council places a measure on the ballot asking whether there should be a sales tax, the results have meaning. The results are binding. There will be a new tax, if a majority of voters agree.

Say, what should we ask the city council to let us vote on this November?

We have to ask: Why would Wichita city council members allow Wichitans to vote on a tax they didn’t — personally — believe in? There is no good answer to this question. So when we see city council members boasting of no city sales tax in Wichita, remember this was not their preference. This is especially important because the city told us we needed to spend $250 million of the tax on a new water supply. Now we know that we can satisfy our future needs by spending much less, at least $100 million less.3

Lily Tomlin once said “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” Here we have two Wichita city council members illustrating and reinforcing the truth of Tomlin’s observation.


Notes

  1. Sedgwick County Election Office. November 4th, 2014 General Election Official Results – Sedgwick County. Available at www.sedgwickcounty.org/elections/election_results/Gen14/index.html.
  2. City of Wichita. Minutes of city council meeting, December 2, 2014. Page 9.
  3. Weeks, Bob. In Wichita, the phased approach to water supply can save a bundle. wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-phased-approach-water-supply-can-save-bundle/.

In Wichita, revealing discussion of property rights

Reaction to the veto of a bill in Kansas reveals the instincts of many government officials, which is to grab more power whenever possible.

When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that justifies it.
— Frederic Bastiat

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s veto of a bill that gives cities additional means to take blighted property has produced reaction from local officials in Wichita. The bill is Senate Bill 338.

As has been noted in numerous sources, cities in Kansas have many tools available to address blight. 1 What is the purported need for additional power?

In remarks from the bench, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) said there is no intent to be “aggressive in taking people’s property.” 2 But expanding the power of government — aggression, in other words — is what the bill does. Otherwise, why the need for the bill with its new methods and powers of taking property?

And once government is granted new powers, government nearly always finds ways to expand the power and put it to new uses. Even if we believe Meitzner — and we should not — he will not always be in office. Others will follow him who may not claim to be so wise and restrained in the use of government power.

In particular, government finds new ways to expand its powers through enabling concepts like blight. Did you know the entire suburban town of Andover is blighted? 3 Across the country, when governments find they can take property with novel and creative interpretations of blight, they do so. 4

It’s easy to sense the frustration of government officials like Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell. In his remarks, he asked opponents of SB 338 “what they would do” when confronted with blight. That is a weak argument, but is often advanced nonetheless. Everyone has the right — the duty — to oppose bad legislation even if they do not have an alternate solution. Just because someone doesn’t have a solution, that doesn’t mean their criticism is not valid. This is especially true in this matter, as cities already have many tools to deal with blight.

Proponents of SB 338 also make unfounded accusations about the motivation of opponents of the law. Because someone opposes this law, it doesn’t mean they are in favor of more blight. Those who fight for freedom and liberty are used to this. Advocating for the right to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that one is in favor of actually doing it.

The nature of rights

Much of the discussion this issue concerns the rights of people who live near blighted property. People do have certain rights, but rights have limits. Regarding property, Roger Pilon writes: “Thus, uses that injure a neighbor through various forms of pollution (e.g., by particulate matter, noises, odors, vibrations, etc.) or through exposure to excessive risk count as classic common-law nuisances because they violate the neighbor’s rights. They can be prohibited, with no compensation owing to those who are thus restricted.” 5

Note that Pilon mentions “excessive risk” as something that injures a neighbor. Some of the activities the city wants to control are things like drug dealing, drug usage, and prostitution that may take place on blighted property. And, I suppose it is a risk to have gangs dealing drugs out of the house across the street, blighted or not. But these activities are illegal everywhere, and there are many laws the city can use to control these problems. There is no need for new laws.

It is important to draw a bright line as to where property rights end. Pilon: “By contrast, uses that ‘injure’ one’s neighbor through economic competition, say, or by blocking ‘his’ view (which runs over your property) or offending his aesthetic sensibilities are not nuisances because they violate no rights the neighbor can claim. Nor will it do to simply declare, through positive law, that such goods are ‘rights.'” 6

In today’s world, however, where new rights are seemingly created from thin air, people want to exercise their purported right to control how their neighbor’s property looks. But we have no such right, writes Pilon: “The principle, in fact, is just this: People may use their property in any way they wish, provided only that in the process they do not take what belongs free and clear to others. My neighbor’s view that runs over my property does not belong free and clear to him.” 7

Opposition in the Legislature

When the Kansas House of Representatives and Senate voted on this bill, several House members submitted explanations of their vote. In the Senate, David Haley filed a protest and message explaining his opposition to the bill. These statements follow.

Explanation of vote in the House of Representatives

MR. SPEAKER: I VOTE NO ON SB 338. KANSAS ALREADY HAS SUFFICIENT TOOLS IN PLACE TO ADDRESS BLIGHT. SB 338 circumvents our current eminent domain statutes by redefining “abandoned property” and by allowing our local governments to expeditiously confiscate, seize or destroy law abiding citizens’ private property without compensation, adequate notice, and a legal property title. This is an egregious overreach that deprives some citizens of their private property rights without sufficient due process and it will cause irreparable harm to our most vulnerable citizens that do not have the resources to protect their property.
— GAIL FINNEY, BRODERICK HENDERSON, RODERICK HOUSTON, BEN SCOTT, VALDENIA WINN, JOHN CARMICHAEL, KASHA KELLEY, BILL SUTTON, JERRY LUNN, CHARLES MACHEERS

Protest of Senator David Haley against Senate Bill 338

February 23, 2016

In Accordance with Article 2, Section 10 of the Constitution of Kansas, I, David Haley, a duly elected Senator representing the Fourth District of Kansas, herein PROTEST the action of this Legislature in the promulgation and passage of Senate Bill 338: An Act pertaining to Cities.

In my 23 years as a Kansas Legislator and as but one of only three attorneys in the Senate, this is the first PROTEST I have ever lodged on any measure of the thousands I have considered.

This Chamber now further denigrates real property rights to which every Kansan should be heir.

SB 338 which purports to grant authority to cities and nonprofit organizations to petition courts to possess vacant property for rehabilitation purposes will, simply, but legalize grand theft.

The Senate Commerce committee as is its charge (and not the Senate Local Government committee where, justifiably, similar language as SB 338 had over many years failed time and time again) recognizes and advances business and financial opportunities for our State.

First, the question of a city, redefining definitions of “abandonment” and “blight” as these terms apply to real property, land and or improvements, is the expertise of deliberations of a committee membership dedicated to the auspices of municipalities not the principles of profit.

The principles of real property ownership should always inure to the rights of the citizen not to a developer’s bottom line or even a desire to enhance appraised valuations for tax purposes.

Diabolical in its spawning, methodical and tenacious in its steady lurch forward, SB 338 adheres to two tiered definitions of “abandoned property;” both ingenuous and neither accurate. One definition of “abandoned property”: vacant for 365 days and having a “blighting influence” on surrounding properties; the other definition vacant for 90 days and 2 years tax delinquent.

There are numerous every day scenarios whereby a real property owner has in no way “abandoned” their property though that same property may be vacant for 90 to 365 days, be tax delinquent for 2 years or may have need of rehabilitation to conform to a local standard, real or perceived. But SB 338 alleges “abandonment” and triggers governmental intrusion, harassment and potentially leads to a taking of real property by the government for the benefit of an organization which profits from the taking and kick back higher taxes to the city.

“Commerce,” yes, but a shameful way to run a citizen responsive “Local Government.”

The specious argument in favor of this legislation portends neighborhood beautification, tax viability and repopulation of or demolition and rebuilding of older houses. By eradicating “blight,” the entire community, even the city, is greatly enhanced.

With that premise, I, David Haley, could not agree more.

Today, with no need for warping and putting into statute time-honored definitions of “blight” and “abandonment” or presupposes new postulates for passages of time periods to correlate to real property owners’ interests or genuine concern with their legally owned land(s), there are tools already available to every municipality to address blight. “Code enforcement” departments can post notice and bring to environmental and district court negligent property owners. Subsequent to insufficient response, steep fines and even jail time can be issued now. Today in current statute, a property with two or more years of delinquent property taxes may be sold by the Sheriff of each Kansas County in a “Delinquent Property Tax Sale” also known as a “Sheriff’s” sale or as property “sold on the Courthouse steps.” Again, these are current tools available to curb or cure blight and to put real property into fiscally responsive ownership.

The property rights of legal property owners should not be infringed upon by this Legislature.

Marginal or fragile property owners (traditionally average income or poor property owners attempting to hold on to inherited property or an entrepreneurial hope structure as often found in inner cities) will be set upon by keen-eyed, out of county based developers sheltered by an industrious “not-for-profit” which uses the city and district court as the leverage to harass and ultimately take the land, all in the name of “civic pride” or “community betterment.” Theft.

The late Kansas City, Missouri civil rights leader Bernard Powell (1947-1979) envisioned and warned of the transfer of inner city property back into the same hands of those who fled the same a half century or more ago to the sanctity of the suburbs. Bernard Powell predicted the day would come when government, and the tools they elect and hire, will work hand-in-hand with “robber barons” to turn those out; those who have despaired in neglected, under represented, often high crime, poorly educated neighborhoods, those who have weathered poverty, hard times, civic and civil harassment but yet held a real property interest, a “piece of the pie” … to force them out. Bernard Powell spoke of prosperity returning to the inner city and nothing being tendered to the people who had paid the price for the most sought after of land.

He called it government assisting the turning of the “ghetto into a goldmine.” How prophetic.

Here I sit, practically alone in my opposition to this expansion of eminent domain targeted at poorer property owners ill equipped to “fight City Hall,” in this Kansas Senate and watch this unfold. Again, SB 338 came out of the Commerce committee as well it should.

Government has redefined terms before to shape shift often dastardly need to justify ill deeds.

I remember efforts to redefine “blight” for economic purposes in another eminent domain taking for use in building the Kansas Speedway and Legends in Wyandotte County. Succinctly, the new definition of “blight” was the ability for exponentially more taxes to be levied against the future use of the land than that which the owner who it was being taken from could be expected to pay in its current use. Remnants of that economically fascist philosophy resonate in SB 338. As more people flee the “golden ghettos” of suburbia, the inner city “ghettos” will be repopulated and turned into “goldmines” at the expense I fear, once again, of the poor and unsuspecting. Ironically, we celebrated and honored some of our Korean and Vietnam War heroes today in the Senate Chamber. Was the freedom to own real property without fear of unwarranted government intrusion something for which they fought?

I protest the passage of Senate Bill 338 as is my Constitutional right as a Kansas State Senator under Article Two, Section 10 of the Kansas Constitution for reasons, beliefs afore-listed as well as others not so and hereby vow to continue to assist unnecessarily embattled real property owners in my home District as we together will face the challenges that this bill, when signed into law, will undoubtedly bring.


Notes

  1. Todd, John. Power of Kansas cities to take property may be expanded. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/power-kansas-cities-take-property-may-expanded/.
  2. Video. Wichita City Council speaks on blight. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-city-council-speaks-blight/.
  3. Weeks, B. (2012). Andover, a Kansas city overtaken by blight. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at wichitaliberty.org/economics/andover-a-kansas-city-overtaken-by-blight/.
  4. Nicole Gelinas, Eminent Domain as Central Planning. (2015). City Journal. Available at www.city-journal.org/html/eminent-domain-central-planning-13253.html.
  5. Pilon, Roger. Protecting Private Property Rights from Regulatory Takings. (1995). Cato Institute. Available at www.cato.org/publications/congressional-testimony/protecting-private-property-rights-regulatory-takings.
  6. ibid
  7. ibid

In Wichita, open records relief may be on the way

A new law in Kansas may provide opportunities for better enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act.

This year the Kansas Legislature passed HB 2256, captioned as “An act concerning public bodies or agencies; relating to the state of Kansas and local units of government; providing certain powers to the attorney general for investigation of violations of the open records act and the open meetings act; attorney general’s open government fund …”

The good part of this law is that it provides additional enforcement options when citizens feel that government agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Law. Before this law, citizens and news organizations had — effectively — two paths for seeking enforcement of KORA. One is private legal action at their own expense. The other is asking the local district attorney for an opinion.

Now the Kansas Attorney General may intervene, as noted in the summary of the new law: “The bill allows the Attorney General to determine, by a preponderance of the evidence after investigation, that a public agency has violated KORA or KOMA, and allows the Attorney General to enter into a consent order with the public agency or issue a finding of violation to the public agency prior to filing an action in district court.”

Not all aspects of this bill are positive, as it also confirms many exceptions to the records act and adds to them. It also adds to the authority of the Attorney General, as have other bills this year.

The City of Wichita has been obstinate in its insistence that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require it to fulfill certain requests for records of spending by its subordinate tax-funded agencies. The city believes that certain exceptions apply and allow the city to keep secret records of the spending of tax funds. The city may be correct in its interpretation of this law.

But the law — even if the city’s interpretation is correct — does not prohibit the city from releasing the records. The city could release the records, if it wanted to.

Fulfilling the legitimate records requests made by myself and others would go a long way towards keeping promises the city and its officials make, even recent promises.

The city’s official page for the mayor holds this: “Mayor Longwell has championed many issues related to improving the community including government accountability, accessibility and transparency …”

During the recent mayoral campaign, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle that he wants taxpayers to know where their money goes: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”

In a column in the Wichita Business Journal, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell wrote: “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.”

Following, from 2012, discussion of problems with the City of Wichita and open government.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

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.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas revenue and spending, initiative and referendum, and rebuliding liberty

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Kansas Legislature appears ready to raise taxes instead of reforming spending. Wichita voters have used initiative and referendum, but voters can’t use it at the state level. A look at a new book “By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission.” View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 83, broadcast May 3, 2015.

Wichita has examples of initiative and referendum

Citizens in Wichita have been busy exercising their rights of initiative and referendum at the municipal level. The Kansas Legislature should grant the same rights to citizens at the state level.

What recourse do citizens have when elected officials are not responsive? Initiative and referendum are two possibilities. Citizens in Wichita have exercised these rights, but Kansans are not able to do this at the state level.

Initiative is when citizens propose a new law, and then gather signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is filed, the matter is (generally) placed on a ballot for the electorate to decide whether the proposed law will become actual law. Examples are the initiative to add fluoride to Wichita water (which voters rejected) and reduce the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana (which passed, but has not taken effect pending legal action by the Kansas Supreme Court.)

Referendum is when citizens petition to overturn an act passed by a governing body. An example is the 2012 repeal of a charter ordinance passed by the Wichita city council.

So at the municipal level in Kansas, citizens have the right of initiative, although in practice the right is limited. The right of referendum is more narrowly limited. But at the state level, there is no possibility for citizens to exercise initiative or referendum. The law simply does not allow for this.

Policies, not politicians

Initiative and referendum allow citizens to vote on specific laws or policies. This is contrasted with elections for office, where voters must choose candidate A or candidate B. Voters have to take the entire package of positions associated with a candidate. It isn’t possible to select some positions from candidate A, and others from candidate B. So when a candidate wins an election, can we say why? Which of the candidate’s positions did voters like, and which did voters not like? Results of regular elections rarely provide a clear answer.

Initiative and referendum, however, let citizens vote on a specific law or proposal. There is little doubt as to the will of the voters.

There’s a difference between voting for politicians and voting for policies. When given a chance, Wichitans have often voted different from what the council wanted. An example is the 2012 overturn of a charter ordinance the council passed. Another is the failure of the sales tax in November 2014. That was on the ballot not because of citizen initiative, but it is an example of voting directly for an issue rather than a candidate. Citizens rejected the sales tax by a wide margin, contrary to the wishes of the city council, city hall bureaucrats, and the rest of Wichita’s political class.

It’s different voting for policies than politicians. For one thing, the laws passed by initiative don’t change, at least for some period of time. But politicians and their campaign promises have a short shelf life, and are easily discarded or modified to fit the current situation.

Politicians don’t want it, which is its best argument

Generally, politicians and bureaucrats don’t want citizens to be empowered with initiative and referendum. When the city council was forced to set an election due to the successful petition regarding the Ambassador Hotel issue, reactions by council members showed just how much politicians hate initiative and referendum. Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) wanted to move the election to an earlier date so as to “avoid community discourse and debate.”

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) expressed concern over “dragging this out,” and said she wants to “get it over with as soon as we can so that we can move on.”

In his remarks, Mayor Carl Brewer advocated having the election as soon as possible. He told the city “By doing that, it eliminates a lot of turmoil inside the community, unrest.”

As you can see by these remarks, politicians don’t like citizens second-guessing their actions. Initiative and referendum gives citizens this power. John Fund said it best: “Without initiatives and referendums, elites would barely bother at all to take note of public opinion on issues they disdained — from supermajority requirements to raise taxes to term limits. They serve as a reminder that the experts sometimes have to pay attention to good old common sense.”

Petitioning is not easy

A criticism often leveled against initiative and referendum is that ballots will be crowded with questions submitted by citizens. But as anyone who has been involved in a petitioning effort knows, filing a successful petition is not a simple matter. The first petition effort to relax Wichita marijuana laws failed, with the election commissioner ruling that an insufficient number of valid signatures were submitted. (Generally, petition signers must meet certain requirements such as being a registered voter and living within a certain jurisdiction.) Now the Kansas Attorney General contends that the second petition by the same group is defective because it lacks the proper legal language. It is common for the validity of petitions to be contested, either by government or by special interest groups that believe they will be adversely affected.

How to get it

It will take an amendment to the constitution for the people of Kansas to have initiative and referendum rights at the state level. That requires passage in both chambers of the legislature by a two-thirds margin, and then passage by a majority of voters.

Although the governor does not play a direct role in constitutional amendments — as they do not require the governor’s signature — a governor can still have a role. In 1991 Joan Finney supported initiative and referendum. An amendment passed the Kansas Senate, but did not advance through the House of Representatives.

Today it seems unlikely that the present Kansas Legislature would support an amendment implementing initiative and referendum. Politicians just don’t want to give up the power. (The laws giving some initiative and referendum rights at the municipal level is a state law. State legislators were imposing a hardship on other elected officials, not themselves.)

But initiative and referendum are popular with voters. In 2013 Gallup polled voters regarding petitioning at the national level. 68 percent favored this, while 23 percent opposed. One of the few issues that poll higher than this is term limits for office holders.

By the way, do you know what citizens in states often do after gaining the right of initiative? Impose term limits on their legislatures. Lawmakers don’t want you to do that.

Recent history in Wichita

In 2011, Wichitans petitioned to overturn a charter ordinance passed by the city council. In February 2012 the ordinance was overturned by a vote of 16,454 to 10,268 (62 percent to 38 percent). This was a special election with only question on the ballot.

In 2012 a group petitioned to add fluoride to Wichita water. The measure appeared on the November 2012 general election ballot, and voters said no by a vote of 76,906 to 52,293, or 60 percent to 40 percent.

On the November 2014 general election ballot, Wichita voters were asked about a one cent per dollar sales tax. This was not the result of a petition, but it provides an example of a vote for a policy rather than a person. Voters said no to the sales tax, 64,487 to 38,803 (62 percent to 38 percent.)

In 2015 a group petitioned to reduce the penalties for possession of small amount of marijuana. The measure appeared on the April 2015 city general election ballot, where Wichita voters approved the proposed law 20,327 to 17,183 (54 percent to 46 percent).

A Wichita Shocker, redux

Based on events in Wichita, the Wall Street Journal wrote “What Americans seem to want most from government these days is equal treatment. They increasingly realize that powerful government nearly always helps the powerful …” But Wichita’s elites don’t seem to understand this.

A Wichita ShockerThree years ago from today the Wall Street Journal noted something it thought remarkable: a “voter revolt” in Wichita. Citizens overturned a decision by the Wichita City Council regarding an economic development incentive awarded to a downtown hotel. It was the ninth layer of subsidy for the hotel, and because of our laws, it was the only subsidy that citizens could contest through a referendum process.

In its op-ed, the Journal wrote:

The elites are stunned, but they shouldn’t be. The core issue is fairness — and not of the soak-the-rich kind that President Obama practices. One of the leaders of the opposition, Derrick Sontag, director of Americans for Prosperity in Kansas, says that what infuriated voters was the veneer of “political cronyism.”

What Americans seem to want most from government these days is equal treatment. They increasingly realize that powerful government nearly always helps the powerful, whether the beneficiaries are a union that can carve a sweet deal as part of an auto bailout or corporations that can hire lobbyists to write a tax loophole.

The “elites” referred to include the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, the political class, and the city newspaper. Since then, the influence of these elites has declined. Last year all three campaigned for a sales tax increase in Wichita, but voters rejected it by a large margin. It seems that voters are increasingly aware of the cronyism of the elites and the harm it causes the Wichita-area economy.

Last year as part of the campaign for the higher sales tax the Wichita Chamber admitted that Wichita lags in job creation. The other elites agreed. But none took responsibility for having managed the Wichita economy into the dumpster. Even today the local economic development agency — which is a subsidiary of the Wichita Chamber — seeks to shift blame instead of realizing the need for reform. The city council still layers on the levels of subsidy for its cronies.

Following, from March 2012:

A Wichita shocker

“Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.” So starts today’s Wall Street Journal Review & Outlook editorial (subscription required), taking notice of the special election last week in Wichita.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is one of the most prominent voices for free markets and limited government in America. Over and over Journal editors expose crony capitalism and corporate welfare schemes, and they waste few words in condemning these harmful practices.

The three Republican members of the Wichita City Council who consider themselves fiscal conservatives but nonetheless voted for the corporate welfare that voters rejected — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) — need to consider this a wake up call. These members, it should be noted, routinely vote in concert with the Democrats and liberals on the council.

For good measure, we should note that Sedgwick County Commission Republicans Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton routinely — but not always — vote for these crony capitalist measures.

The Wichita business community, headed by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce endorsed this measure, too.

Hopefully this election will convince Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leaders that our economic development policies are not working. Combined with the startling findings by a Tax Foundation and KMPG study that finds Kansas lags near the bottom of the states in tax costs to business, the need for reform of our spending and taxing practices couldn’t be more evident. It is now up to our leaders to find within themselves the capability to change — or we all shall suffer.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Transportation issues in Wichita

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s legislative agenda concerning transportation issues is unsound. For airfares, it relies on a questionable presentation, and for passenger rail, it advocates for a system that is costly for taxpayers. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast December 7, 2014.

For more on this issue, see: City of Wichita State Legislative Agenda: Airfares and City of Wichita State Legislative Agenda: Passenger rail

In Wichita, the need for campaign finance reform

Actions of the Wichita City Council have shown that campaign finance reform is needed. Citizen groups are investigating how to accomplish this needed reform, since the council has not shown interest in reforming itself.

Consider recent actions by the council and its members:

  • The council voted to give a movie theater operator a no-interest and low-interest loan, after having already received the benefit of tax increment financing.
  • A minister dabbling in real estate development made a large contribution to his council representative just before he asked the city council for tax increment financing.
  • The council voted to give a construction company a no-bid contract for a parking garage. When later put out for competitive bid, the same company won the contract, but with a bid 21 percent less costly to taxpayers.
  • Executives of a Michigan construction company made contributions to the campaign of a city council member just before and after the council voted to give the company and its local partner a huge construction contract.
  • When a group of frequent campaign contributors wanted to win a contest for the right to build an apartment project, the city’s reference-checking process was a sham. City and other government officials were listed as references without their knowledge or consent, and none of the people listed as references were actually contacted.
  • A frequent campaign contributor, according to the Wichita Eagle, “represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city ‘s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza.” City officials expressed varying degrees of displeasure. But it wasn’t long before David Burk was receiving taxpayer subsidy again from the city council.
  • The council voted to grant $703,017 in sales tax forgiveness to frequent campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted to send millions to Key, including overpriced no-bid contracts.
What is the common thread running through these incidents? Council members have voted to enrich their significant campaign contributors. Each of these are examples of a “pay-to-play” environment created at Wichita City Hall. It’s harmful to our city in a number of ways.

First, overpriced no-bid contracts and other giveaways to campaign contributors isn’t economic development. It’s cronyism. It’s wasteful.

Second: Citizens become cynical when they feel there is a group of insiders who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. At one time newspaper editorial pages crusaded against cronyism like this. But no longer in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle has reported on some of these issues — sometimes in depth, sometimes in passing, but some have escaped notice. The editorial page of the newspaper sometimes takes notice, but is rarely critical of the council or mayor.

Third, when it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

Importantly: Will the Wichita city council prop up a competitor to my company with economic development incentives that place my company at severe disadvantage?

Wichita's mayor sells his barbeque sauce at movite theaters owned by a campaign contributor who receives city taxpayer subsidies.
Wichita’s mayor sells his barbeque sauce at movite theaters owned by a campaign contributor who receives city taxpayer subsidies.
We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. A model law for Wichita is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

We’d also need to add — as does New Jersey law — provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. This is because for Kansas municipal and school district elections, only personal contributions may be made. Additionally the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses and children, are considered to be from the business itself for purposes of the law. These provisions are important, as many city council members in Wichita receive campaign contributions from business owners’ family members and employees as a way to skirt our relatively small contribution limits. For two examples of how companies use family members, employees, and friends to stack up campaign contributions, see Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita.

Such campaign finance reform would not prohibit anyone from donating as much as they want (up to the current limits) to any candidate. Nor would the law prevent candidates from accepting campaign contributions from anyone.

This reform, however, would remove the linkage between significant contributions and voting to give money to the contributor. This would be a big step forward for Wichita, its government, and its citizens.

Proponents see three paths towards campaign finance reform. One would be to press for a law in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. Such a law would be statewide in scope, and could apply to city councils, county commissions, school boards, townships, and other elective bodies.

A second path would be to use the municipal initiative process. Under this process, a group writes a proposed ordinance. Then, it collects valid signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is verified, the city council must either (a) pass the ordinance as written, or (b) set an election to let the people vote whether the ordinance should become law.

There is also a third path, which is for the Wichita City Council to recognize the desirability of campaign finance reform and pass such an ordinance on its own initiative.

If we take the affected parties at their word, this third path should face little resistance. That’s because politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t do it to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

Some incidents

warren-bailout-poses-dilemmaIn 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

When questioned about election donations:

“I would never do anything because of a campaign contribution,” said [former council member Sharon] Fearey, who received $500 from David Burk and $500 from David Wells.

“I don’t think $500 buys a vote,” said [former council member Sue] Schlapp.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said.

Also in 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

Campaign contributions to Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams from an applicant for tax increment financing.
Campaign contributions to Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams from an applicant for tax increment financing.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. 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.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table compiled from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member, led the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project: $6,000. When Longwell ran for Sedgwick County Commission this summer, these parties donated generously to that campaign, too.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

In 2011 nearly all council members approved a no-bid contract for this garage. It was later re-bid at a much lower price.
In 2011 nearly all council members approved a no-bid contract for this garage. It was later re-bid at a much lower price.
What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Of interest to current mayoral politics: In 2012 while Jeff Longwell was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission, campaign contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance reports. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new Wichita Airport terminal provide a clue?

Michigan contractors headline 500These 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.

On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner.

Jeff Longwell vote to help Michigan CompanyThen on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members.

Options for funding Wichita’s future water supply

Now that the proposed Wichita sales tax has failed, how should Wichita pay for a future water supply?

At the December 2 meeting of the Wichita city council, discussion by Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) referred to the recent election in which Wichita voters rejected a proposed sales tax. (Video below, or click here to view at YouTube.) The major portion of the tax, $250 million collected over five years, would have been used to expand the ASR system as a way of providing for Wichita’s future water needs.

One of the arguments advanced by opponents of the sales tax such as myself is that water users should pay for future water supply. Advocates of the sales tax disagreed, arguing that Wichitans and visitors should pay higher sales taxes to fund a new water supply.

What does the arithmetic look like if we pay for a water supply though water bills? (Some use the term rates.) First, let’s set aside the questions of when the city needs an expanded water supply and how that water should be supplied.

Meitzner’s questioning of city public works director Alan King elicited how many water meters or accounts the water department has, which King said is almost 140,000. Meitzner then proceeded to ask if the cost of a new water supply — $250 million — was born equally by each of these customers, how much would that add to water bills? King said it would be in the range of “23, almost 24 dollars per bill, and at the high end something closer to 30 dollars per bill. That would be each month, you would have to pay that for 60 months.”

Meitzner then ran through computations that resulted in a cost of $1,500 per meter over five years to pay for the cost of a new water supply. He then compared that to sales tax opponents who said that the cost of the additional sales tax per family would be $160 per year. Meitzner said that would be an additional cost of $800 over five years to pay for everything the proposed sales tax was dedicated to, not just a new water supply.

The line of reasoning followed by Meitzner is superficially appealing but economically unsound. It is true that water bills would have to rise by quite a bit in order to raise $250 million over five years. But it seems unlikely that the city would decide to spread that cost equally among its water customers. Would the city ask its largest industrial customers to contribute the same amount each month as small households that do no outside irrigation? I don’t think that most people would think this is reasonable. But Meitzner’s arithmetic implies that the city would, or could, do exactly this.

There are many ways the city could apportion the cost of a new water supply among water users. First, the city could simply raise the price of a gallon of water. That would let water users participate in the funding of a new water supply in proportion to the amount of water they use.

Second, the city could add a fixed amount to each water bill, that money reserved for a future water supply. The city already has a fixed cost for water service. It’s referred to in the rate ordinance as the “minimum monthly” charge. It varies from $11.95 per month for the smallest hookups to $478.78 per month for the largest wholesale users. This amount could be increased by equal portion — say ten percent — for everyone. Or, if the city wants to reduce the burden on small households, it could leave the rate for small hookups as it is, and raise it for larger hookups.

Third, the city could decide to raise the price of a gallon of water by different amounts for different classes of water users. Wichita, like many cities, use a tiered structure of rates that separates summer irrigation water usage from household usage inside the home. How does Wichita’s tiered structure of rates compare to other cities? A recent Black & Veatch survey found for that the 50 cities in the survey, considering only the water portion of bills, the average cost for using 3,750 gallons per month is $19. For using 15,000 gallons, the cost is $65. That’s a ratio of 3.4 to 1. For Wichita, the survey reported costs of $18 and $36, for a ratio of 2.0 to 1.

These are two important numbers: 3.4 and 2.0. They mean that while the price per gallon of Wichita water becomes marginally more expensive as more water is used, the slope is as steep as the average. It means that Wichita households that use low amounts of water pay about average rates, but those Wichita households using a lot of water pay rates much less than average. This is something the city could easily adjust. It would also have the benefit of encouraging conservation, which is something the city says is important for our future.

We need to be aware of the cost of water

Wichita proposed sales tax explanation on waterIt’s important to have water users pay for a new water supply. The benefit is that water users will become acutely aware of the costs of a new water supply. That awareness is difficult to achieve. Many citizens are surprised to learn that the city has spent $247 million over the past decade on a water project, the ASR program. Nearly all that was paid by using long-term debt, the same type of debt that the city urged citizens to avoid during the sales tax campaign.

Paying for a new water supply through water bills would let commercial and industrial users participate in paying the cost of the project. These water users usually don’t pay a lot of sales tax. A restaurant, for example, does not pay sales tax on the food ingredients it purchases. An aircraft manufacturer does not pay sales tax on the raw materials and component parts it buys. But these companies have a water bill. Yet, the city recommended that low income households pay more sales tax on their groceries. The city said this is the best way to pay for a new water supply to protect our lawns and golf courses during a drought.

Wichita economic development items

The Wichita city council has been busy with economic development items, and more are upcoming.

At the November 25 meeting of the Wichita City Council, on the consent agenda, the council passed these items.

Approved a sublease in a warehouse. This action was necessary as the incentivized warehouse pays no property taxes due to a subsidy program. Given tax costs and industrial building rents, this policy gives these incentivized buildings a cost advantage of about 20 to 25 percent over competitors. That’s very high, and makes it difficult for existing buildings to compete. This lease is for 40,500 square feet for annual rent of $196,425.00, which is $4.85 per square foot. Competing warehouse space might be able to charge rent of $4.25 plus property tax of about $1.00, for a total rent of $5.25 per square foot to the tenant. In the case of the subsidized building, the landlord collects $4.85 instead of $4.25, and the tenant pays $4.85 instead of $5.25. Everyone’s happy. Everyone, that is, except for existing industrial landlords in Wichita — especially those with available space to rent — who must be wondering why they attempt to stay in business when city hall sets up subsidized competitors with new buildings and a large cost advantage. Then, other commercial tenants must be wondering why they don’t get discounted rent. Taxpayers must be wondering why they have to make up the difference in taxes that the subsidized tenants aren’t paying. (On second thought, these parties may not be wondering about this, as we don’t have a general circulation newspaper or a business newspaper that cares to explain these things.) See Wichita speculative industrial buildings.

While asking for tax breaks, the owner of this building wanted you to pay higher taxes.
While asking for tax breaks, the owner of this building wanted you to pay higher taxes.
Set January 6 as the date for a public hearing on a TIF district project plan. This is the plan for Union Station in downtown Wichita. The public hearing for the formation of its tax increment financing district has already been held, and it passed. The project plan will consider and authorize the actual project and spending of taxpayer funds to reimburse the developer for various items. Unlike the formation of the TIF district, the county and school district have no ability to object to the project plan.

Set December 16 as the date for the public hearing on the formation of a community improvement district. This district is for the benefit of the River Vista project, the proposed apartments on the west bank of the Arkansas River between Douglas and First streets. CIDs redirect sales tax revenue from general government to the developers of the project. Say, does anyone remember Charter Ordinance No. 144, which says this land “shall be hereafter restricted to and maintained as open space”? See In Wichita, West Bank apartments seem to violate ordinance.

Also on that day, during its workshop, the council heard items for the city’s legislative agenda. I have a several articles covering these topics as they relate to the legislative agenda: Airfares, passenger rail, cultural arts districts, and economic development.

On its December 2 agenda, the council has these items:

Property tax and sales tax exemptions for Bombardier Learjet. The council may grant property tax discounts worth as much as $268,548 per year for up to ten years, according to city documents. This will be split among taxing jurisdictions as follows: City $72,389, State $3,340, County $65,415, and USD 259 $127,404. The purchased items may also receive an exemption from sales tax, but city documents give no amount. Bombardier boasts of “Investing in the communities where we do business to ensure we have strong contexts for our operations” and “We support our home community through donations, sponsorships and our employee volunteering program.” Evidently this commitment to investment and support does not extend to shouldering the same tax burden that everyone else does.

Property tax exemptions for Cessna Aircraft Company. The council may grant property tax discounts worth as much as $302,311 per year for up to ten years, according to city documents. This will be split among taxing jurisdictions as follows: City $81,491, County $73,639, State $3,760, and USD 259 $143,421. Generally, items purchased with proceeds of the IRB program also receive sales tax exemption, but city documents do not mention this. Cessna speaks of its commitment to the communities where it operates, but evidently this commitment does not extend to shouldering the same tax burden that everyone else does.

High Touch Technologies in downtown Wichita, with sign calling for higher sales tax.
High Touch Technologies in downtown Wichita, with sign calling for higher sales tax.
Property tax exemptions for High Touch. This is an extension of tax breaks first granted last year. See In Wichita, the case for business welfare. Did you know the CEO of this company is also chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce? And that while campaigning for higher sales taxes in Wichita, including higher taxes on groceries for low-income households, he sought and received a sales tax exemption for his company?

Forgivable loan to Apex Engineering International. The Wichita Eagle reported that this company “has been growing briskly and adding employees.” Still, the company seeks incentives, in this case a forgivable loan from the city of $90,000. It will ask Sedgwick County for the same amount. These loans are grants of cash that do not need to be repaid as long as goals are met. Three years ago Apex received $1,272,000 in tax credits and grants under programs offered by the State of Kansas. It is not known at this time if Apex is receiving additional subsidy from the state. According to a company news release, “AEI was nominated for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce 2012 Small Business Awards. This prestigious award recognizes two companies each year who are selected based on specific criteria including: entrepreneurship, employee relations, diversity, community contribution and involvement, and leadership and performance.” Maybe we can justify this grant as repayment for Apex’s community contribution. This forgivable loan may receive resistance from some council members. Current council member and mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) was recently quoted in the Wichita Eagle as wanting a “moratorium on forgivable loans right now until we can reassess the way that we do economic development.” While campaigning for his current office, Council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) told an audience “I am not for forgivable loans.” He noted the contradiction inherent in the terms “forgivable” and “loan,” calling them “conflicting terms.” Meitzner has said he will run for his current office again.

Set January 6 as the date for the public hearing regarding the project plan for the Mosely Avenue Project TIF district in Old Town. This TIF district is a project of David Burk and Steve Barrett. Burk has received millions of taxpayer dollars in subsidy. But he’s not finished.

Consider whether to raise water bills by about 5 percent.

Consider a new lease agreement with Museum of World Treasures, Inc. which will, among other things, reduce the museum’s rent paid to the city from $60,000 per year to $1.

Consider passing the legislative agenda. See above for more on this topic.