Tag Archives: Tim Norton

Unruh recollections disputed

A former Sedgwick County Commissioner disputes the narrative told by a retiring commissioner.

By Karl Peterjohn
A version of this appeared in the Wichita Eagle.

Lame duck county commissioner Dave Unruh’s recent commentary (“It’s time to set the record straight.” December 14, 2018 Wichita Eagle.) is an attempt to re-write county commission history. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Here are county commission facts correcting the commentary fiction:

Commissioner Unruh was deeply involved in both the hiring, and recent firing, of county manager Scholes by Commissioner Unruh. I know because I was involved in Scholes’ hiring, but as a citizen, publicly opposed the firing of General Scholes, as well as county counselor, Judge Eric Yost in 2018.

The group of county manager candidates were evaluated by all five county commissioners three years ago. Three county commissioners ranked General Scholes as the best candidate. Commissioner Unruh was one of these three commissioners.

I wasn’t one of these three. While I ranked General Scholes highly, I ranked one other candidate as slightly better in our final candidate evaluations. I readily admit that I was very comfortable in agreeing with my three colleagues in hiring General Scholes. This was followed by all five commissioners: Unruh, Tim Norton, Jim Howell, Richard Ranzau, and myself voting to hire General Scholes.

Commissioner Unruh’s inaccurate commentary is part of an effort to provide an excuse for the scandalous mess that has engulfed the current county commission majority resulting in a variety of FBI and state investigations after Commissioner Michael O’Donnell’s criminal indictments. However, only Commissioner Unruh was part of the current commission majority (Unruh, O’Donnell, and David Dennis) involved in both this hiring, and supporting the firing of both General Scholes, and the county counselor, Judge Eric Yost.

This is important because there also seems to be some confusion by Commissioner Dennis about the powers of former Sedgwick County Commissioners like myself. In December, Commissioner Dennis publicly claimed that I was in some way responsible for this personnel debacle and the financial mess created by the current progressive-moderate commission majority in firing first Judge Yost, and then General Scholes.

I reject this ludicrous claim. My impact on Sedgwick County finances ended the day I left the commission in January, 2017. Anyone on the county commission who claims otherwise is trying to hide their own malfeasance. I believe that Commissioner Dennis should apologize to me for his fabulist statement. Sedgwick County citizens also deserve an apology for this commission majority’s misconduct in mishandling county staff, and finances. I have asked Commissioner Dennis for an apology for his statement attacking me, and publicly do so again with this letter.

In Sedgwick County, Norton’s misplaced concern for an industry

In the campaign for Sedgwick County Commission, the incumbent Tim Norton touts his experience, judgment, “intellectual stamina, thirst for data and feedback,” and his efforts in economic development. Following, from January 2013, an example of how uninformed he is regarding basic facts about the Kansas economy.

In Sedgwick County, Norton’s misplaced concern for an industry

kansas-gdp-by-industry-for-2010Expressing concern about a large industry that he said is important to Sedgwick County and Kansas, Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton spoke in favor of the need for comprehensive government planning. He cited the commonly-held belief that humans, with their desire for large suburban home lots, are depleting the stock of available farmland.

Specifically, Norton said “Agribusiness is the third largest economic driver in our community, in our region.”

But is this true? Using 2010 figures from the Kansas Statistical Abstract, these are the largest industries in Kansas in terms of gross domestic product:

Agriculture ranks below many other industries, contributing 3.7 percent of Kansas Gross Domestic Product. In most years agriculture would rank even lower, but because of high farm prices in recent years, it ranks higher than it has.

Norton also expressed concern that humans with large home lots would deplete the land available for agriculture. But he need not worry, as I show in Saving farms from people.

Tim Norton: Saving farms from people and their preferences

In the campaign for Sedgwick County Commission, the incumbent Tim Norton touts his experience, judgment, “intellectual stamina, thirst for data and feedback,” and his efforts in economic development. Following, from January 2013, an example of how uninformed he is. You also see his preference for government regulation over economic and personal freedom.

Tim Norton: Saving farms from people and their preferences

Last week at a meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, Commissioner Tim Norton spoke in favor of the need for comprehensive government planning. In support, he cited the commonly-held belief that humans — especially with their desire for large suburban home lots — are depleting the stock of farmland to the point of being detrimental to agribusiness.

Here’s part of what Norton said (video below):

Now I know people don’t like the idea of sprawl and growth rings and all that, but the truth is there is a balance between where people live and preserving our good agricultural lands and how do you make that work. And that’s being able to sustain part of our economy. Agribusiness is the third largest economic driver in our community, in our region, and to say that we’re okay with every five acre tract being taken up by somebody’s rural residence sounds really good if you’re talking only property rights. But if you’re talking about preserving and sustaining agribusiness you gotta have the land and it’s got to be set aside for that enterprise.

Farms and ranches being driven out of existence by homeowners — that sounds like a problem that might threaten our food supply. But what are the facts?

First, there is an overabundance of farmland in America. There is so much farmland that we pay farmers billions each year to refrain from planting crops. We pay corn farmers billions in subsidies each year and then use their crops for motor fuel, instead of for making fine Kentucky bourbon and taco shells, as God intended.

Considering Sedgwick County, as that is what Norton represents: Despite being the second-most populous county in Kansas and home to its largest city and surrounding suburban communities, Sedgwick County ranks fourth among Kansas counties in the number of farms, thirty-fourth in farmland acres, seventh in total harvested cropland acres, thirty-third in market value of harvested crops, sixty-sixth in market value of livestock, and eighty-seventh in pasture acres. (Data from Kansas Farm Facts 2011, reporting on 2007 farm statistics.)

There’s something else that might ease Commissioner Norton’s concern, if he would only believe in the power of markets over government: That is the price system. If we were truly running short of farmland, crop prices would rise and farmland would become more valuable. Fewer people would be willing to pay the price necessary to have a five-acre home lot.

In fact, if crop prices were high enough, farmers would be buying back the five-acre lots, or perhaps paying homeowners to rent their yards for planting crops or grazing livestock.

In either case, markets — through the price system — provide a solution that doesn’t require politicians and bureaucrats. There are many other areas in which this is true, but government nonetheless insists on regulation and control.

Wichita Chamber speaks on county spending and taxes

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce urges spending over fiscally sound policies and tax restraint in Sedgwick County.

Today the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce issued a “key vote” alert. This procedure, used by political groups of all persuasions, alerts elected officials that the Chamber prefers a certain outcome on an issue. Those who vote in harmony with the Chamber are likely to receive support in their next election, while the noncompliant are implicitly threatened with opponents the Chamber will support.

Here’s what the Chamber sent to commissioners:

From: Barby Jobe
Sent: Tuesday, August 11, 2015 2:47 PM

TO: SEDGWICK COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS

FROM: WALTER BERRY, Vice Chair, Wichita Metro Chamber Government Relations Committee

RE: KEY VOTE ALERT

While we have not recently had many “key votes” at the local level, the Wichita Metro Chamber would like to alert you that we will be key voting the 2016 Budget.

The Chamber would like to encourage the Commission to consider a compromise by leaving the property tax rate as it is currently and reducing the amount of cash-funded roads thus allowing a reallocation of funds for economic development and education, culture and recreation, city partnerships, and health and human services.

Thank you for your consideration.

Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city's 2012 Performance Measure Report
Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city’s 2012 Performance Measure Report
It’s unclear precisely what the Wichita Chamber is asking commissioners to do. It seems likely the Chamber is asking for support of “Plan C.” That is the plan drafted by commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh, which proposes deferring road maintenance in order to free funds for current spending. That plan sets the county on the course chosen by the city of Wichita some years ago. That is, defer maintenance on streets and other infrastructure to support current spending. That policy lead to declining quality of streets and a large backlog of other maintenance, with a recent report from the city finding that the “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is an additional $45 to $55 million per year.

This deferral of maintenance needs is a form of deficit spending. It’s curious that a purportedly conservative organization like the Wichita Chamber of Commerce would support that.

Well, it’s not really surprising. The Wichita Chamber has long advocated for more taxation and spending, taking the lead in promoting the one cent per dollar sales tax proposal in Wichita last year. The Chamber has supported big-spending Republicans over fiscal conservatives for office at several levels.

Your chamber of commerce radio buttonsIn Wichita, and across the country, local chambers of commerce support crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.

That may be surprising to read. Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce — since their membership is mostly business firms — support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s usually not the case. It’s certainly is not the case in Wichita, where the Chamber supports higher taxes, more government spending, more business welfare, more government planning and control, more cronyism — and less economic freedom. The predictable result is less prosperity, which has been the case in Wichita under the leadership of the Wichita Chamber, its policies, and the politicians and bureaucrats it supports.

Here, in an excerpt from his article “Tax Chambers” economist Stephen Moore — formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now with Heritage Foundation — explains the decline of the local chamber of commerce:

The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda — but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government.

In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes in his recent book, “Rip-Off,” “state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes.”

In the states, chambers have come to believe their primary function is to secure tax financing for sports stadiums, convention centers, high-tech research institutes and transit boondoggles. Some local chambers have reportedly asked local utilities, school administrators and even politicians to join; others have opened membership to arts councils, museums, civic associations and other “tax eater” entities.

“I used to think that public employee unions like the NEA were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions,” says Mr. Caldera of the Independence Institute. “I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself ‘the business community’ and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations.”

From Stephen Moore in the article “Tax Chambers” published in The Wall Street Journal February 10, 2007. The complete article is here.

Wichita Eagle editorial board on county budget

When someone invokes “ideology” in their criticism of you, you know that they’ve either run short of actual arguments based on fact, or they don’t know what ideological means.

In its op-ed this Sunday, the Wichita Eagle editorial board blasts the Sedgwick County Commission for cuts to various programs, mentioning “Sedgwick County Zoo, Exploration Place, the Arts Council and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition” specifically.

I might invite the Eagle editorialists to revisit the county’s recommended budget for 2013, prepared under the leadership of then-chairman Tim Norton, the body’s sole Democrat, both then and now. According to county documents, Norton’s recommended budget made these cuts:

Zoo: $255,889
Exploration Place: $112,405
Arts Council: $0
GWEDC: $0

So this is not the first time the zoo and Exploration Place have been cut.

Additionally, Norton’s recommended budget cut 113.80 employees from the county payroll. Of these, 60.75 were from the closure of the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch Juvenile Detention Program, leaving 53.05 in cuts from other county programs. The 2016 recommended budget calls for cuts of 10.00 employees.

I wonder: Did the Eagle editorial writers rail against commissioners Norton, Unruh, and Skelton for the cuts in the 2013 recommended budget? Yes, there was criticism of budget cuts then, but no ideological bashing.

This year the Eagle editorial board also criticizes the commission majority for its plan to eliminate routing borrowing for county roads and bridges. Last year the Eagle recommended Wichitans vote in favor of a sales tax. One of its components, viewed favorably by the city and the Eagle, was the avoidance of borrowing for a large public works project.

But now that conservatives on the county commission propose avoiding debt — some debt, not all debt — the Eagle is opposed.

The shifting sands underlying the Eagle editorial board’s criticism is evidence of an ideology, and a rather shallow one. Cuts made by conservatives? Bad. There will be damage, says the headline.

Much larger cuts made by progressives? The editorial board acknowledges “the county needs to tighten its belt and prioritize its services.”

That’s quite a contrast.

Here are excerpts from the 2013 and 2016 Sedgwick County recommended budgets showing recommended cuts.

Wichita arena sales tax not a model of success

Supporters of a new sales tax in Wichita use the Intrust Bank Arena as an example of successful application of a sales tax.

As Wichita debates the desirability of a sales tax, a former sales tax is used as a model of success. Let’s take a look at a few of the issues.

Ongoing vs. capital expenses

A portion of the proposed sales tax will be used for operational expenses, and the demand for this spending will not end when the sales tax ends.

The sales tax for the Intrust Bank Arena was used to build a capital asset and establish a small reserve fund. Spending on capital assets is characterized by a large expense in a short period of time as the asset is constructed. Then, the spending is over — sort of.

For the proposed Wichita sales tax, 63 percent is scheduled for capital asset spending on an enhanced water supply. The remainder, 37 percent, is for operation of the bus transit system, street repair, and economic development. These three items are operational in nature, meaning they are ongoing expenses. It’s not likely that after five years the bus system will be self-sustaining, or that streets will no longer need repair, or that there will be no more clamoring for economic development.

There is a large difference, then, between the arena sales tax and the proposed Wichita sales tax. While sales tax boosters say the tax will end in five years, the likelihood is that because much of it will have been paying for operational expenses, there will be great pressure to continue the tax and the spending it supports. That’s because the appetite for tax revenue by government and its cronies is insatiable. An example: As the arena sales tax was nearing its end, Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton “wondered … whether a 1 percent sales tax could help the county raise revenue.” (“Norton floats idea of 1 percent county sales tax,” Wichita Eagle, April 4, 2007)

Intrust Bank Arena economics

Having promoted a false and incomplete picture of the economics of the Intrust Bank Arena, civic leaders now use it as a model of success.

The building of a new arena in downtown Wichita was promoted as an economic driver. So far, that hasn’t happened. There have been spurts of development near the arena. But the arena is also surrounded by empty lots and empty retail space, and there have been months where no events took place at the arena.

Regarding the accounting of the profits earned by the arena, we need to realize that civic leaders are not telling citizens the entire truth. If proper attention was given to the depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena, that would recognize and account for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. This would be a business-like way of managing government — something we’re promised. But that hasn’t happened.

Civic leaders and arena boosters promote a revenue-sharing arrangement between the county and the arena operator, referring to this as profit or loss. But this arrangement is not an accurate and complete accounting, and it hides the true economics of the arena. An example of the incomplete editorializing comes from Rhonda Holman of the Wichita Eagle, who earlier this year wrote “Though great news for taxpayers, that oversize check for $255,678 presented to Sedgwick County last week reflected Intrust Bank Arena’s past, specifically the county’s share of 2013 profits.”

There are at least two ways of looking at the finances of the arena. Most attention is given to the “profit” (or loss) earned by the arena for the county according to an operating and management agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.

This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. For 2103, the accounting method used in this agreement produced a profit of $705,678, to be split (not equally) between SMG and the county. The county’s share, as Holman touted, was $255,678. (Presumably that’s after deducting the cost of producing an oversize check for television cameras.)

The Operations of Intrust Bank ArenaWhile described as “profit” by many, this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

That bears repeating: This is not a reckoning of profit and loss in any recognized sense. It is simply an agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG as to how SMG is to be paid, and how the county participates.

A much better reckoning of the economics of the Intrust Bank Arena can be found in the 2013 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Sedgwick County. The CAFR, as described by the county, “… is a review of what occurred financially at Sedgwick County in 2013. In that respect, it is a report card of our ability to manage our financial resources.” Regarding the arena, the CAFR states:

The Arena Fund represents the activity of the INTRUST Bank Arena that opened on January 9, 2010. The facility is operated by a private company; the county incurs expenses only for certain capital improvements or major repairs and depreciation, and receives as revenue only a share of profits earned by the operator, if any. The Arena had an operating loss of $4.7 million. The loss can be attributed to $5.3 million in depreciation expense.

Financial statements in the same document show that $5,295,414 was charged for depreciation in 2013, bringing accumulated depreciation to a total of $21,190,280.

Depreciation expense is not something that is paid out in cash. Sedgwick County didn’t write a check for $5,295,414 in depreciation expense. Instead, depreciation accounting provides a way to recognize the cost of long-lived assets over their lifespan. It provides a way to recognize opportunity costs, that is, what could be done with our resources if not spent on the arena.

Any honest reckoning of the economic performance of Intrust Bank Arena must include depreciation expense. We see our governmental and civic leaders telling us that we must “run government like a business.” Without frank and realistic discussion of numbers like these and the economic facts they represent, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information.

Effect on sales and jobs

Taxes have an impact. Definitely.

Boosters of the proposed Wichita sales tax say that since it is so small — “just one cent,” they say — its effect won’t be noticed. I wonder: If increasing prices by one percent has no effect, why don’t merchants raise their prices by one percent right now and pocket the profit?

Taxes have an impact. The problem with assessing the impact is that the results of the tax are usually concentrated and easy to see — a new arena, water supply, repaved streets, more buses, etc. But the consequences of the tax are usually spread out over a large number of people and collected in small amounts. The costs are dispersed, and therefore more difficult to detect. But there has been an analysis performed of a situation parallel to the Intrust bank Arena tax.

A paper titled “An Assessment of the Economic Impact of a Multipurpose Arena” by Ronald John Hy and R. Lawson Veasey, both of the University of Central Arkansas, (Public Administration & Management: An Interactive Journal 5, 2, 2000, pp. 86-98) looked at the effect of jobs and economic activity during the construction of the Alltel Arena in Pulaski County, Arkansas. This arena cost $50 million. It was funded in part by a one percent increase in the county sales tax for one year (1998). The sales tax generated $20 million.

In the net, considering both jobs lost and jobs gained due to sales tax and construction effects, workers in the wholesale and retail trades lost 60 jobs, and service workers lost 52 jobs. There was a net increase of 198 jobs in construction.

The fact that jobs were lost in retail should not be a surprise. When a sales tax makes nearly everything sold at retail more expensive, less is demanded. It may be difficult to estimate the magnitude of the change in demand, but it is certain that it does change.

The population of Pulaski County in 2000 was 361,474, while Sedgwick County’s population at the same time was 452,869, so Sedgwick County is somewhat larger. The sales tax for the arena lasted 2.5 times as long, and our arena was about three times as expensive. How these factors affected the number of jobs is unknown, but it’s likely that the number of jobs lost in Sedgwick County in retail and services was larger that what Pulaski County experienced.

Wichita not good for small business

The Wichita Business Journal reports today:

When it comes to having good conditions to support small businesses, well, Wichita isn’t exactly at the top of the list, according to a new ranking from The Business Journals.

In fact, the Wichita metro area’s small-business vitality score is nearly at the bottom — 99th out of the 101 U.S. metro areas included in the study. (Wichita near bottom for small-business vitality score, April 2, 2014)

Many in Wichita don’t want to recognize and confront the bad news about the performance of the Wichita-area economy. Last year, when presenting its annual report to local governmental bodies, the leaders of Visioneering Wichita would not present benchmark data to elected officials.

wichita-peer-job-growth-1990-2014-01

So what is the record of the Wichita metropolitan area regarding job creation, that seeming to be the most popular statistic our leaders cite and promote? I’ve prepared statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor for Wichita and a broad group of peer cities. I included our Visioneering peer cities, cities that Visioneers traveled to on official visits, and a few others. The result, shown nearby, is not pretty. (Click on charts for larger versions, or click here to use the interactive visualization)

wichita-peer-job-growth-2007-2014-01

If we look at job creation starting in 1990, Wichita lags behind our Visioneering peers, but not behind all the peer cities that I selected. Wichita does better than Springfield, Illinois, for example. I chose to include that as a peer metropolitan area because that’s the immediate past city that Gary Plummer worked in. He was president of that city’s Chamber of Commerce, and is now president of the Wichita Chamber. Note the position of Springfield: Last place.

In next-to-last place we see Wichita Falls, Texas. I chose to include it because it is the immediate past home of Tim Chase. He was the head of Wichita Falls Economic Development Corporation. He’s now president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development for the Wichita area.

In second-to-last place we see Pittsburgh, which I added because Visioneering leaders recently made a visit there.

Then, we come to Wichita.

If we look at job creation since 2007 we find Wichita in a common position: Last place in job creation, and by a wide margin except for two cities. One is Wichita Falls, where our present GWEDC president recently worked. The other city that barely out-performs Wichita is Chattanooga, which I included because Visioneering civic leaders recently traveled there to learn from that city.

Over the decades in which Wichita has performed poorly, there have been a few common threads. Carl Brewer has been council member or mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for decades. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for more than two decades. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. It is these officials who have presided over the dismal record of Wichita.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But he’s becoming part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

toolbox-29058_640

These leaders often complain that Wichita does not have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete with other cities in economic development. Wichita does, however, have and use incentives. The State of Kansas regularly offers incentives so generous that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Incentives: We have them. They haven’t worked for us.

It is nearly certain that this year Wichitans will be asked to approve a higher sales tax in order to pay for many things, including the more aggressive approach to job creation that Brewer mentioned. Based on the track record of our elected officials and bureaucrats, we need to do this: Before approving the tax and expenditures, Wichitans need to take a long look at the people who have been in charge, and ask what will be different going forward.

For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure

Delano Clock Tower, WichitaCompared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. As Wichita embarks upon a new era of economic development, we need to ask who to trust with this important task.

The good news: In a recent op-ed, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer wrote that the city needs to make a decision regarding “A more aggressive approach to job creation.” (Carl Brewer: Wichita can have a great next year, December 22, 2013 Wichita Eagle)

The bad news: Wichita has performed very poorly in job creation in recent decades, and even if we decide on a more aggressive approach, pretty much the same crew is in charge.

Many in Wichita don’t want to recognize and confront the bad news about the performance of the Wichita-area economy. Last year, when presenting its annual report to local governmental bodies, the leaders of Visioneering Wichita would not present benchmark data to elected officials.

Some, however, have recognized the severity of the problem. In 2008 Harvey Sorensen, who has been chair of Visioneering Wichita, chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, and has held other civic leadership positions, wrote in the pages of the Wichita Eagle: “We are losing ground competitively with our peer communities.” (Community Needs a Common Vision, August 24, 2008 Wichita Eagle)

wichita-peer-job-growth-1990-2014-01

So what is the record of the Wichita metropolitan area regarding job creation, that seeming to be the most popular statistic our leaders cite and promote? I’ve prepared statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor for Wichita and a broad group of peer cities. I included our Visioneering peer cities, cities that Visioneers traveled to on official visits, and a few others. The result, shown nearby, is not pretty. (Click on charts for larger versions, or click here to use the interactive visualization)

wichita-peer-job-growth-2007-2014-01

If we look at job creation starting in 1990, Wichita lags behind our Visioneering peers, but not behind all the peer cities that I selected. Wichita does better than Springfield, Illinois, for example. I chose to include that as a peer metropolitan area because that’s the immediate past city that Gary Plummer worked in. He was president of that city’s Chamber of Commerce, and is now president of the Wichita Chamber. Note the position of Springfield: Last place.

In next-to-last place we see Wichita Falls, Texas. I chose to include it because it is the immediate past home of Tim Chase. He was the head of Wichita Falls Economic Development Corporation. He’s now president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development for the Wichita area.

In second-to-last place we see Pittsburgh, which I added because Visioneering leaders recently made a visit there.

Then, we come to Wichita.

If we look at job creation since 2007, the year before Sorensen wrote his op-ed, we find Wichita in a common position: Last place in job creation, and by a wide margin except for two cities. One is Wichita Falls, where our present GWEDC president recently worked. The other city that barely out-performs Wichita is Chattanooga, which I included because Visioneering civic leaders recently traveled there to learn from that city.

Over the decades in which Wichita has performed poorly, there have been a few common threads. Brewer has been council member or mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for decades. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for more than two decades. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. It is these officials who have presided over the dismal record of Wichita.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But he’s becoming part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

toolbox-29058_640

These leaders often complain that Wichita does not have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete with other cities in economic development. Wichita does, however, have and use incentives. The State of Kansas regularly offers incentives so generous that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Incentives: We have them. They haven’t worked for us.

It is nearly certain that this year Wichitans will be asked to approve a higher sales tax in order to pay for many things, including the more aggressive approach to job creation that Brewer mentioned. Based on the track record of our elected officials and bureaucrats, we need to do this: Before approving the tax and expenditures, Wichitans need to take a long look at the people who have been in charge, and ask what will be different going forward.

Wichita performs a reference check, the video

Citizens of Wichita are rightly concerned about whether our elected officials and bureaucrats are looking out for their interests, or only for the interests and welfare of a small group of city hall insiders. The video below explains, or click here to view in HD on YouTube. For an article on this topic, see Wichita performs a reference check, sort of.

Wichita performs a reference check, sort of

Wichita city hall logoFor a video presentation of this material, click on Wichita performs a reference check, the video.

Citizens of Wichita are rightly concerned about whether our elected officials and bureaucrats are looking out for their interests, or only for the interests and welfare of a small group of city hall insiders. Cronies, if you will.

A recent application filed with Wichita City Hall regarding the West Bank Development Project raises two questions: Did the government officials listed as references give their permission, and were any of the references contacted to learn what they knew about the applicants?

The application filed by the River Vista development team shows this: The team, consisting of George Laham, Dave Wells, Dave Burk, and Bill Warren listed numerous local, state, and federal officials as references. Here’s the list of officials that appeared one or more times:

Wichita city manager Robert Layton
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer
Wichita City Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita)
Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita)
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett
Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter
Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh
Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback
U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo

Except for Jeff Easter, none of these officials gave permission for their names to be used in this way. (We didn’t get a response regarding Tim Norton.)

Furthermore, none of these officials were contacted by the evaluation committee whose job it is to vet these potential city partners.

A few questions: First, do you think it is appropriate for the city manager to be listed as a reference, given that anyone who reads this document would take it as an endorsement? No, of course it is not appropriate.

Related: Do you think it’s appropriate for the city manager to endorse one of the applicants? We don’t know if the presence of the city manager’s name as a reference implies an endorsement, because George Laham did not ask the city manager if he could be listed as a reference. We know this because we asked.

Further, the committee that evaluated the development teams did not call the city manager to inquire about George Laham. We asked about this, too. But making inquiries of references: Isn’t that what an evaluation committee or vetting team should do? But we know that the evaluation committee did not contact even one of these officials that were listed as references.

These applicants likely knew that the evaluation committee would not contact these references. Therefore, they freely listed these government officials. Which makes us wonder — what is the point of having an evaluation committee?

Even further: Is it appropriate for the city to partner with people who think it’s proper to list the city manager as a reference without asking if that was permissible, knowing that the manager wouldn’t be contacted? Same question regarding the mayor, governor, our U.S. Congressman, and district attorney?

In light of this — numerous government officials listed as references without their permission or knowledge, an evaluation committee that never contacted these officials, and the information that these references could have provided: Do you think the evaluation committee fulfilled its duty to perform due diligence on behalf of the interests of the people of Wichita?

What the evaluation committee might have learned

If the evaluation committee had contacted these references, here’s what might have been learned.

Dave Wells: Wells is president of Key Construction. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget.” Noting the cost overruns, reporter Bill Wilson wrote: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.” (Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects.)

Also, two years ago Key Construction proposed — and was awarded by the city council — a no-bid contract for a parking garage. But the city later put the contract to competitive bid. Key, which first bid $6 million, later bid $4.7 million. If the desire of the majority of the city council, including Mayor Carl Brewer, had been realized, Wichita taxpayers would have sent an extra — and unnecessary — $1.3 million to a politically-connected construction company.

By the way, the mayor’s relationship with Wells means he should not have voted on this matter.

Dave Burk, Dave Wells: These two were original partners in WaterWalk, which has received over $40 million in subsidy, with little to show for results.

Dave Burk: He’s received many millions from many levels of government, but still thinks he doesn’t get enough. This is what we can conclude by his appeal of property taxes in a TIF district. Those taxes, even though they are rerouted back to him for his benefit, were still too high for his taste, and he appealed. The Wichita Eagle reported in the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property): “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, 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, according to court records and the city attorney.”

rebenstorf-quote-dave-burkA number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s act. According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.'”

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, Wichita city manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.'”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high. Now he wants more city taxpayer subsidy.

warren-bailout-poses-dilemma

Bill Warren: In 2008 the Old Town Warren Theater was failing and its owners — Bill Warren being one — threatened to close it and leave the city with a huge loss on a tax increment financing (TIF) district formed for the theater’s benefit. Faced with this threat, the city made a no-interest and low-interest loan to the theater. 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.”

Besides Warren, you may — or may not — be surprised to learn that the theater’s partners included Dave Wells and Dave Burk, the same two men mentioned above. Also, Mayor Brewer’s relationship with Warren means he should not have voted on this matter.

WichitaLiberty.TV August 11, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks asks if shoppers have ever paid extra sales tax in Wichita’s Community Improvement Districts, and describes efforts by the city to avoid disclosure of this tax. Then, are there similarities between Wichita and Detroit? Finally, a Sedgwick County Commissioner is worried about agriculture being driven out of the county, but Bob thinks he doesn’t need to worry. Episode 8, broadcast August 11, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Language makes a difference

No longer is it “Sustainable Communities.” Now it’s “South Central Kansas Prosperity Plan.” Either way, the program is still centralized government planning, with great potential to harm our economy and liberties.

South Central Kansas Prosperity Plan

The newly-renamed planning initiative has a new website set to launch in a few days — Let’s Talk Prosperity.

But no matter how politicians and bureaucrats dress it up, we need to remember the roots of this program. It took from 1987 to 2012, but Sedgwick County actually adopted the language of the United Nations regarding sustainability.

Those critical of sustainability planning are concerned that engaging in the practice has the potential to import harmful policies and practices originating from the United Nations. Critics of these critics say this is nonsense and overreacting. Tin-foil hat stuff, they say. Examples as reported in the Wichita Eagle come from Commissioner Dave Unruh and Commission Chair Tim Norton:

Unruh said he sees the grant simply as an “effort to make decisions about our future for us and our future generations that will save money, conserve resources and be the best solutions for all the folks in our region.” …

Norton said he sees the grant as a way to “look to the future, try to figure out best possible outcomes and make decisions today that will be good for tomorrow.”

“We’re all in this together. You may not like the federal government. You may not like the state government. You may not even like the local government. But I like being at the table and being involved in the future.”

He dismisses any connection to Agenda 21.

“It was a non-binding agreement passed during the first Bush era,” he said of former president George H.W. Bush. “I don’t rail on President Bush because it happened on his watch. I’m not twitchy about it. I’m not worried about it.”

It’s instructive to notice, however, that the language Sedgwick County uses when considering sustainability comes directly from the United Nations. General Assembly Resolution 42/187: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development holds this language: “Believing that sustainable development, which implies meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, should become a central guiding principle of the United Nations, Governments and private institutions, organizations and enterprises.” (emphasis added)

Sedgwick County’s Sustainability Page holds this: Definition of Sustainability for Sedgwick County … Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs … (emphasis added)

Sedgwick County left out the word “own,” but otherwise the language is identical. This definition was repeated on the county’s 2012 Employee Sustainability Survey.

The Sedgwick County page — and other county documents — mention economic development, environmental protection, institutional and financial viability, and social equity as “the four core factors that Sedgwick County considers when making community policy and program management decisions.” These goals are often mentioned in Agenda 21 documents, especially social equity.

Government planning, itself, is dangerous

The very existence of a government plan is dangerous, as its construction creates powerful constituencies that have shaped it to fit their needs and are highly motivated to see it implemented.

Planning

In Sunday’s Wichita Eagle, Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton defended the regional community planning initiative underway in south-central Kansas. (Tim Norton: Planning effort helps shape region’s future)

Much of the Commissioner’s article simply described the program and the need for it in vague generalities that are neither correct or incorrect, and which do little to advance understanding of what is really likely to happen.

But Norton did write something useful when he attempted to deflect the fact that this is a government plan, backed by the ability of government to compel compliance (or make it very expensive to avoid). He wrote: “This is not about any one governing body or level of government imposing or mandating what we should do. It is about what we decide collectively is best for our region and then choosing to make it happen.”

When the Sedgwick County Commission voted to participate in this HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant, some commissioners justified their votes in favor of the plan because “it’s only a plan.” If we develop a plan, and then we find we don’t like it, we can shelve it. Problem solved.

This meme of “it’s only a plan” that can be shelved is likely to be repeated. Watch for it.

Except: By shelving time, millions will have been invested in the plan. Reputations like Norton’s will depend on adopting the plan. Bureaucratic jobs will be at stake (See Sedgwick County considers a planning grant for an explanation of how planning helps make work for bureaucrats and academics.)

Besides boosting the interests of politicians and bureaucrats, the government planning process started in south-central Kansas will likely be captured by special interest groups that see ways to benefit from the plan. The public choice school of economics and political science has taught us how special interest groups seek favors from government at enormous costs to society, and we will see this at play again over the next years.

Once the planning process begins, special interests plot to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. We saw this at work in the first project to emerge after the Wichita downtown planning process (Project Downtown), where public policy was shaped on the fly to meet the needs of politically-connected special interests, at detriment to the public.

Most importantly: The very existence of a government plan is dangerous, as the plan itself becomes a reason to proceed, contrary to reason and harm to liberty and economic freedom.

An example of how much reverence is given to government plans comes right from the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Kelo v. New London, in which the Court decided that government could use the power of eminent domain to take one person’s property and transfer it to someone else for the purposes of economic development. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Stevens cited the plan: “The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community.” Here we see the importance of the plan and due reverence given to it.

Stevens followed up, giving even more weight to the plan: “To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.”

To Stevens, the fact that the plan was comprehensive was a factor in favor of its upholding. The sustainable communities plan, likewise, is nothing but comprehensive, as described by county manager Bill Buchanan in a letter to commissioners: “[the plan will] consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

That pretty much covers it all. When you’re charged with promoting economic prosperity, defending earth against climate change, and promoting public health, there is no limit to the types of laws you might consider. This likely to be the argument to follow whatever emerges from Commissioner Norton’s planning process.

In Sedgwick County, misplaced concern for an industry

Wheat harvestExpressing concern about a large industry that he said is important to Sedgwick County and Kansas, Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton spoke in favor of the need for comprehensive government planning. He cited the commonly-held belief that humans, with their desire for large suburban home lots, are depleting the stock of available farmland.

Specifically, Norton said “Agribusiness is the third largest economic driver in our community, in our region.”

But is this true? Using 2010 figures from the Kansas Statistical Abstract, these are the largest industries in Kansas in terms of gross domestic product:

Industry GDP (millions)
State and local government $13,047
Real estate and rental and leasing $11,794
Health care and social assistance $9,898
Durable goods manufacturing $9,620
Finance and insurance $8,426
Retail trade $8,324
Wholesale trade $7,910
Non-durable goods manufacturing $7,750
Professional and technical services $6,652
Information $5,806
Agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting $4,612
Transportation and warehousing $4,418
Construction $4,062
Federal military $3,816
Administrative and waste services $3,769
Other services, except government $3,250
Accommodation and food services $3,157
Utilities $2,639
Federal civilian $2,608
Management of companies and enterprises $1,769
Mining $1,472
Educational services $770
Arts, entertainment, and recreation $506

 

Agriculture ranks below many other industries. In most years agriculture would rank even lower, but because of high farm prices in recent years, it ranks higher than it has.

Norton also expressed concern that humans with large home lots would deplete the land available for agriculture. But he need not worry, as I show in Saving farms from people.

Saving farms from people

Wheat combine on farmLast week at a meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, Commissioner Tim Norton spoke in favor of the need for comprehensive government planning. In support, he cited the commonly-held belief that humans — especially with their desire for large suburban home lots — are depleting the stock of farmland to the point of being detrimental to agribusiness.

Here’s part of what Norton said (video below):

Now I know people don’t like the idea of sprawl and growth rings and all that, but the truth is there is a balance between where people live and preserving our good agricultural lands and how do you make that work. And that’s being able to sustain part of our economy. Agribusiness is the third largest economic driver in our community, in our region, and to say that we’re okay with every five acre tract being taken up by somebody’s rural residence sounds really good if you’re talking only property rights. But if you’re talking about preserving and sustaining agribusiness you gotta have the land and it’s got to be set aside for that enterprise.

Farms and ranches being driven out of existence by homeowners — that sounds like a problem that might threaten our food supply. But what are the facts?

First, there is an overabundance of farmland in America. There is so much farmland that we pay farmers billions each year to refrain from planting crops. We pay corn farmers billions in subsidies each year and then use their crops for motor fuel, instead of for making fine Kentucky bourbon and taco shells, as God intended.

Considering Sedgwick County, as that is what Norton represents: Despite being the second-most populous county in Kansas and home to its largest city and surrounding suburban communities, Sedgwick County ranks fourth among Kansas counties in the number of farms, thirty-fourth in farmland acres, seventh in total harvested cropland acres, thirty-third in market value of harvested crops, sixty-sixth in market value of livestock, and eighty-seventh in pasture acres. (Data from Kansas Farm Facts 2011, reporting on 2007 farm statistics.)

There’s something else that might ease Commissioner Norton’s concern, if he would only believe in the power of markets over government: That is the price system. If we were truly running short of farmland, crop prices would rise and farmland would become more valuable. Fewer people would be willing to pay the price necessary to have a five-acre home lot.

In fact, if crop prices were high enough, farmers would be buying back the five-acre lots, or perhaps paying homeowners to rent their yards for planting crops or grazing livestock.

In either case, markets — through the price system — provide a solution that doesn’t require politicians and bureaucrats. There are many other areas in which this is true, but government nonetheless insists on regulation and control.

The power of prices, as told by Thomas Sowell: “The last premiere of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, is said to have asked British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: How do you see to it that people get food? The answer was that she didn’t. Prices did that. And the British people were better fed than those in the Soviet Union, even though the British have never grown enough food to feed themselves in more than a century. Prices bring them food from other countries.”

Wichita economic development solution, postponed

Recent reporting in the Wichita Business Journal on Wichita’s economic development efforts has many officials saying Wichita doesn’t have enough incentives to compete with other cities. That is, we are not spending enough on incentives.

Whether these incentives are good economic development policy is open for debate. I don’t believe we need them, and that we in Kansas and Wichita can chart another course to increase economic freedom in Kansas. That will make our area appealing to companies. But our local bureaucrats, most business leaders, and nearly all elected officials believe that targeted incentives are the way to attract and retain business.

(Charts at the end of this article illustrate the record in Wichita on jobs.)

Our leaders have identified what they believe is a solution to a problem, but have not implemented that solution effectively, in their own words.

I should say have not implemented the solution on a widespread basis, because Wichita has devoted more tax money to economic development. According to the 2010 City Manager’s Policy Message, page CM-2, “One mill of property tax revenue will be shifted from the Debt Service Fund to the General Fund. In 2011 and 2012, one mill of property tax will be shifted to the General Fund to provide supplemental financing. The shift will last two years, and in 2013, one mill will be shifted back to the Debt Service Fund. The additional millage will provide a combined $5 million for economic development opportunities.”

So the city has decided to spend more tax dollars on economic development, but this allocation is being phased out — at the same time nearly everyone is calling for more to be spent in this area.

Isn’t this a failure of political and bureaucratic leadership? We have a long-standing problem, officials have identified what they believe is a solution, but it is not being implemented. These leaders have the ability to spend more on economic development, as illustrated by Wichita’s shifting of tax revenue.

Even if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best (and I don’t believe that), we have to conclude that our efforts aren’t working. Several long-serving politicians and bureaucrats that have presided over this failure: Mayor Carl Brewer has been on the city council or served as mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for many years. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for 21 years. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. Unruh has said he wants to be Wichita’s next mayor.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But as he approaches his fourth anniversary in Wichita, he starts to become part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

Wichita’s job creation record

Two charts illustrate the record of job growth in Wichita. The first shows Wichita job growth compared to Kansas and the nation. Data is from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, and indexed with values for 2001 set to 1.00.

As you can see, job growth in Wichita trails both Kansas and the nation.

The next chart shows Wichita job growth by sector.

Private sector job growth is prominently lower than government. This is a problem, because more economic activity is directed away from the productive private sector to inefficient government.

Sedgwick County Commission: Let’s not vote today

At the October 31 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, Karl Peterjohn introduced a measure that would let the Kansas Legislature know that the commission supports improving the tax climate in Kansas, and specifically would limit property tax growth. But electoral politics forced a delay in a vote.

In response to Peterjohn’s proposal, the coalition of one Democrat and two liberal Republicans that form the working majority on the commission maneuvered to delay voting on the measure until after the November 6 election. With the item appearing on tomorrow’s agenda, it’s very likely that the majority coalition — Commission Chair Tim Norton, Dave Unruh, and Jim Skelton — will vote against the proposal.

Why the rush for delay? Norton was facing a vigorous challenge in the election. He couldn’t afford to cast a vote against property tax reform. With Skelton publicly supporting Norton, and Unruh doing so behind the scenes, the two Republicans supported their liberal Democratic fellow traveler in delaying the vote until after the election.

But after the election, Norton is free to vote against property tax reform. Skelton and Unruh don’t face the voters for another two years, and they’ll be relying on the short memory span of most voters.

From the United Nations to Sedgwick County

It took from 1987 to 2012, but Sedgwick County has adopted the language of the United Nations regarding sustainability.

Those critical of sustainability planning are concerned that engaging in sustainable communities planning has the potential to import harmful policies and practices originating from the United Nations. Critics of these critics say this is nonsense and overreacting. Examples as reported in the Wichita Eagle come from Commissioner Dave Unruh and Commission Chair Tim Norton:

Unruh said he sees the grant simply as an “effort to make decisions about our future for us and our future generations that will save money, conserve resources and be the best solutions for all the folks in our region.” …

Norton said he sees the grant as a way to “look to the future, try to figure out best possible outcomes and make decisions today that will be good for tomorrow.”

“We’re all in this together. You may not like the federal government. You may not like the state government. You may not even like the local government. But I like being at the table and being involved in the future.”

He dismisses any connection to Agenda 21.

“It was a non-binding agreement passed during the first Bush era,” he said of former president George H.W. Bush. “I don’t rail on President Bush because it happened on his watch. I’m not twitchy about it. I’m not worried about it.”

The language Sedgwick County uses when considering sustainability comes directly from the United Nations. General Assembly Resolution 42/187: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development holds this language: “Believing that sustainable development, which implies meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, should become a central guiding principle of the United Nations, Governments and private institutions, organizations and enterprises.” (emphasis added)

Sedgwick County’s Sustainability Page holds this: Definition of Sustainability for Sedgwick County … Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs … (emphasis added)

Sedgwick County left out the word “own,” but otherwise the language is identical. This definition was repeated on the county’s 2012 Employee Sustainability Survey.

The Sedgwick County page — and other county documents — mention economic development, environmental protection, institutional and financial viability, and social equity as “the four core factors that Sedgwick County considers when making community policy and program management decisions.” These goals are often mentioned in Agenda 21 documents, especially social equity.

Sedgwick County tower sale was not in citizens’ best interest

The sale of a radio tower owned by Sedgwick County reveals another case of local government not looking out for the interests of citizens and taxpayers, with the realization that the stain of cronyism is alive and well.

As a result of system upgrades, the county no longer needs a radio tower located near 77th Street North and Interstate 135. Pixius Communications, LLC made an offer to purchase the tower and the five acre tower site for $280,000. The county proceeded making arrangements for the sale, preparing a sales agreement contract between Sedgwick County and Pixius with a sales price of $280,000, along with several other legal documents necessary to support the sale. These documents are available at the agenda file for this item.

According to sources, County Manager William Buchanan supported the Pixius offer. So did commissioners Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton.

But commissioners Richard Ranzau and Karl Peterjohn felt that the best way to sell the tower was through an auction.

Commission Chair Tim Norton, because of his receipt of campaign contributions from Pixius, Jay Maxwell (owner of Pixius), and Penny Maxwell (spouse of owner), was going to abstain from voting. (Skelton has accepted contributions from the Maxwells, but he was going to vote nonetheless.)

So there was not a majority of three votes to accept the Pixius offer. Buchanan suggested the auction. All commissioners agreed.

Now we know the results of the auction: A Florida company offered $610,000. After a sales commission ($55,000) and half of closing costs ($1,128), the county will net $553,872. That’s almost twice the price the county manager and two commissioners were willing to sell the tower for.

There’s something else: What will be the appraised value of the tower and site for tax purposes? The selling price of a property is strong evidence of its value. As a result of the auction, therefore, this property is likely to be appraised at $610,000 instead of $280,000. That’s good for those who think it’s good for government to bring in more tax revenue.

This episode is another instance where no-bid contracts and cronyism cost taxpayers. Maxwell, the almost-beneficiary of this sweetheart no-bid contract, has been the recipient of many benefits at taxpayer expense, such as tax increment financing and community improvement district taxes. He’s tried for more, but even the Wichita City Council has a limit to its cronyism, now and then. Although cronyism and no-bid contracts have been a problem at Wichita City Hall.

Interestingly, a recent KSN Television news story characterized Ranzau and Peterjohn as “hardline fiscal conservatives.” The story went on to report “Incumbent Democrat Tim Norton often sides with the two more moderate members of the commission with many votes being decided by a 3-2 margin.” Those moderate members are, of course, Unruh and Skelton.

Norton didn’t have to take sides — at least publicly — on this issue, but I’m confident that if this was not an election year for Norton, he would have voted for the original Pixius deal that we now see was a disaster for taxpayers.

In the KSN story Norton was quoted as saying “I’m a business man of many years in Wichita. I understand the business climate and job retention.”

Unruh and Skelton are also businessmen. I hope these commissioners look after their personal business with more care and concern than they have shown for the business of taxpayers.

Tim Norton commercial: Some context

A television advertisement for Tim Norton, candidate for re-election to the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners, contains claims that, while probably true, hide the reality of Norton’s record.

Tim Norton television advertisement

One claim in the ad is that “I’ve worked hard to create new jobs, and save what we have.” A graphic in the ad reads “Over 18,000 new & retained jobs.”

I don’t know the source of the job claims, but the numbers provided by Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, our area’s economic development organization, must be viewed with caution.

An example is MoJack, a company which had received a forgivable loan from Wichita and Sedgwick County based on promises to create a certain number of jobs.

But later MoJack revised its projections of job creation from 53 down to 26.

A larger example is likely to be reported soon is the case of Hawker Beechcraft. Economic development officials are taking credit for retaining 4,500 jobs there, a dubious claim to begin with. But there have been hundreds of layoffs this year.

Do economic development officials revise their statistics in response to these later events?

We ought to also take a look at Sedgwick County employment since Norton took office in 2001. The following chart shows that the number of people working in Sedgwick County is lower now than in 2001. We’ve endured two recessions during that time, to be sure, and these were not the fault of anyone in Sedgwick County government. And while jobs are created, others are lost due to the dynamic nature of the economy.

But when we talk about creating jobs, we ought to also take a look at the entire employment situation.

Another look at Sedgwick County employment shows that government employment has grown at the expense of private sector jobs.

I’m not saying that Tim Norton is responsible for the growth of federal and state employees in Sedgwick County during his three terms as commissioner. But this information provides context to any claims of job creation or growth.

A recent report from GWEDC shows us that power of government to influence economic development is weak. The organization claimed to have created 1,509 jobs in Sedgwick County during 2011. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force in Sedgwick County in 2011 was 253,940 persons. So the jobs created by GWEDC’s actions amounted to 0.59 percent of the labor force. This is a very small fraction, and other economic events are likely to overwhelm these efforts. See Wichita economic development isn’t working.

Tim Norton television advertisement

Another graphic in the commercial reads “Reduced the mill levy 3 consecutive years.” This is true. But it’s not the entire history of Sedgwick County property taxes while Norton has been on the commission. The chart below illustrates.

Notice how the property tax rate jumps in 2006? It increased from 28.758 to 31.315 mills, according to Sedgwick County Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports. That’s an increase of 8.9 percent. Tim Norton, along with other commissioners, explicitly voted for this tax increase on August 9, 2006. It wasn’t an accidental increase. It was deliberate.

While Norton in later years voted with other commissioners to reduce the mill levy — making the claim in the advertisement true — these reductions were not at his initiative. Instead, his attitude, I believe, is revealed by his opposition to initiatives that would require voter approval for tax increases. He prefers to keep the power to raise taxes.