Tag Archives: Wichita city council

Metro Monitor for the Wichita economy

A research project by The Brookings Institution illustrates the performance of the Wichita-area economy.

Metro Monitor from The Brookings Institution rates metropolitan areas on several indicators. For this year’s report, the most recent data included is from 2015.

For this year’s report, the news for the Wichita area is mixed. For the period 2010 to 2015, Wichita ranks 88th in growth, 69th in prosperity, and 44th in inclusion. (The 100 largest metro areas were ranked.)

Looking at just the most recent years, 2014 to 2015, Wichita ranks 73rd in growth, 42nd in prosperity, and 9th in inclusion. That’s moving in the right direction. So perhaps there is hope for progress, in that the rankings for the most recent years are better than the rankings for the past five years.

There is good news in these numbers, too. Wichita does well in most measures of “Inclusion,” which Brookings describes: “Inclusion indicators measure how the benefits of growth and prosperity in a metropolitan economy — specifically, changes in employment and income — are distributed among individuals. Inclusive growth enables more people to invest in their skills and to purchase more goods and services. Thus, inclusive growth can increase human capital and raise aggregate demand, boosting prosperity and growth.”

Wichita’s productivity ranking is good, also.

Brookings computed a measure called “Metro area competitive shift.” It’s described as “The difference between the actual job growth and the expected job growth. It indicates whether the metro area overperformed or underperformed given its industrial structure.” For the period 2010 to 2015, Wichita scored -4.2 percent. For 2014 to 2015, the measure is -0.5 percent. Again, movement in the right direction.

Looking at more recent data gathered from the Bureau of Labor Statistics through April 2017, we see that at a time private sector employment in the entire nation is rising steadily, in Wichita (and Kansas) employment rose at a slower rate, and has been (roughly) level since 2016.

Looking forward, the employment situation may not improve, or improve only slowly. Recently Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Growth and Business Research revised its forecast downward: “Revised employment numbers showed that Wichita’s economic growth came to a screeching halt in October of 2016. Even though employment growth presumably stopped, there is lacking evidence that the slowed employment growth is systemic. Employment growth is expected to pick up marginally, but multiple headwinds could derail that growth.” 1

Other data from BLS that I’ve charted through the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis show that Wichita’s unemployment rate is going down, and so is the civilian labor force. Manufacturing employment is far below previous levels, and is on a slow downward trend. You may view the Wichita dashboard here. A similar dashboard for Kansas is here.


Notes

  1. Center for Economic Growth and Business Research. Wichita State releases 2017 employment forecasts. Available at http://www.wichita.edu/thisis/wsunews/newsrelease/?nid=3675.

As Wichita considers new ventures, a look back at some data

The City of Wichita will soon be flooded with data regarding downtown convention and performing arts facilities. Past experience should warn us to be skeptical.

Goody Clancy, a planning firm hired by Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, told a Wichita audience that the planning effort for downtown Wichita is grounded in data and hard analysis.1

But at least some of the data Goody Clancy used turned out to be total nonsense.

Specifically, Goody Clancy presented Walk Score data for downtown Wichita. Walk Score is purported to represent a measure of walkability of a location in a city. Walkability is a key design element of the master plan Goody Clancy has developed for downtown Wichita. David Dixon, who leads Goody Clancy’s Planning and Urban Design division, used Walk Score in a presentation delivered in Wichita.

Walk Score is not a project of Goody Clancy, as far as I know, and David Dixon is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of the Walk Score website. But he presented it and relied on it as an example of the data-driven approach that Goody Clancy takes.

For example, the score for 525 E. Douglas, the block the Eaton Hotel is in and mentioned by Dixon as a walkable area, scored 91, which means it is a “walker’s paradise,” according to the Walk Score website.

Walk score data for 525 E. Douglas, in 2010. Click for larger.
But here’s where we can start to see just how bad the data used to develop these scores is. For a grocery store — an important component of walkability — the website indicates indicated a grocery store just 0.19 miles away. It’s “Pepsi Bottling Group,” located on Broadway between Douglas and First Streets. Those familiar with the area know there is no grocery store there, only office buildings. The claim of a grocery store here is false. It’s an office, not a store.

For a nearby library, it listed Robert F. Walters Digital Library, which is a specialized geological library costing $1,500 per year to use — over the internet.

For a drug store, it listed Rx Doctor’s Choice, which is a company selling oral chelation treatments by mail order. It’s nothing at all like a general-purpose drug store. One of those is nowhere nearby.

There were other claimed amenities where the data is just as bad. But as Larry Weber, then chairman of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation told me, Walk Score has been updated. I should no longer be concerned with the credibility of this data, he said.

He was correct — partially. Walk Score was updated, but we should still be concerned about the quality of the data. Now for the same location the walk score is 85, which is considered “very walkable.” The “grocery store” is no longer the Pepsi Bottling Group. It’s now “Market Place,” whose address is given as 155 N. Market St #220.

If anyone would ever happen to stroll by that location, they would find that address — 155 N. Market number 220 — is the management office for an office building whose name is Market Place. It’s not a grocery store. It’s an office. So I became even more concerned about the credibility of this data and the fact that Goody Clancy relied on it. I was also concerned that Weber thinks thought this was an improvement, and that he felt I should not be concerned.

David Dixon and Goody Clancy did not create the Walk Score data. But he and his planning company presented it to Wichitans as an example of the data-driven, market-oriented approach to planning that they use.

But anyone who relies on the evidence Dixon and Goody Clancy presented would surely be confused unless they investigated the area on their own.

And since this reliance on Walk Score was made after Goody Clancy had spent considerable time in Wichita, the fact that someone there could not immediately recognize how utterly bogus the data is: That should give us cause for concern that the entire planning process is based on similar shoddy data and analysis. We also ought to be concerned that no one at WDDC or city hall looked closely enough at this data to realize its total lack of correspondence to reality.

When I presented these concerns to the Wichita Metropolitan Area Planning Commission in 2010, Scott Knebel, a member of the city’s planning staff who is the city’s point man on downtown planning, address the concerns raised by me. He said, “In terms of the Walk Score, I suspect Mr. Weeks is absolutely right, it probably is a relatively flawed measurement of Walk Score.” He added that the measurement is probably flawed everywhere, downtown and elsewhere. He said that Goody Clancy used it “as an illustration of the importance of walkability in an urban area.”

An isolated incident, long ago?

Seven years later, should we be concerned about this incident?

If that was the only example of low-quality and deceptive data, we could say sure, that was long ago. Let’s forget this and go forward. Our city leaders are smarter now.

Except they’re not.

The oft-cited claim of 26,000 workers in downtown Wichita is another example of misuse of data, and in a very big way. It comes from the U.S. Census Bureau. This particular data set counts all Wichita school district employees as downtown workers, even though nearly all work at locations scattered throughout the city.2

If we accept this data as meaning what WDDC and the city says it means, we’d have to believe that 7,740 people work in a one square block area from First to Second Streets, and Wichita to Water Streets. That block is mostly surface parking, but it does hold the administrative offices of the Wichita school district. So all school district employees are counted as working in this block.

There is similar problem in another block. All City of Wichita employees are treated as though they work at city hall. But they don’t.

Does any of this matter? It ought to matter. The planners tell us they use data to make decisions. This week the city council decided to hire a consulting firm to investigate the feasibility of a refurbished or new convention center and performing arts center. I’m sure much data will be presented. Based on our past experience, we’ll have to carefully examine data for appropriate usage.


Notes

  1. Weeks, Bob. Goody Clancy market findings presented to Wichita audience. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/goody-clancy-market-findings-presented-to-wichita-audience/.
  2. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita jobs, sort of. The claim of 26,000 workers in downtown Wichita is based on misuse of data so blatant it can be described only as malpractice. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-jobs/.

Wichita about to commit to more spending. Bigly.

This week the Wichita City Council considers hiring a consulting firm to develop plans for a new performing arts and convention center.

Options from the City of Wichita.
It’s no secret that many in Wichita want a new performing arts and convention center to replace Century II. Documents produced by the city sketch four possibilities ranging in price from $272 million to $492 million.1 2

The two least expensive scenarios keep the existing Century II structure, while two call for completely new buildings, including the possibility of a performing arts center located a few blocks to the east of the present Century II and proposed convention center site.

Apart from the financial desirability of these projects is the question of how to pay. The traditional approach would be for a city to build, own, and operate the project, paying for it through long-term borrowing. (Governments, including Wichita, often speak of “bonding” projects, a word which seems less foreboding than “borrowing.”)

This week’s business for the city council foreshadows the city using a different method. The firm the city wants to hire, Arup Advisory, Inc., is an advocate of “P3” or public-private partnerships. A report Arup prepared for the City of Los Angeles3 recommended that the city use a method known as Design Build Finance Operate and Maintain (DBFOM), which ARUP says is used interchangeably with P3.

In the DBFOM or P3 model as applied to Wichita, a third party — thought to be George Laham — would do all the work of designing, financing, building, and operating a convention center and possibly a performing arts center. Then, the city simply pays a fee each year to use the center. It’s called an “availability payment.” Most people call this rent or lease payments.

The Los Angeles document explains the potential benefits of using DBFOM or P3:

Here, the City as asset owner hires a developer team to take on the full project development responsibility (design, build, finance, operate, maintain) and pays them an annual service fee for the availability of the functioning capital asset (i.e. infrastructure as a service). The service fee is called an “availability payment” in the P3 industry; it is a contractually scheduled pay-for-performance arrangement where the private partner is paid to design, build, and finance a turnkey capital asset and then is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the asset according to performance standards set by the City. The availability payments are fixed at the time the P3 contract is signed and are only subject to indexation to an agreed inflation index (e.g., US or Los Angeles region CPI) and deductions for non-performance against the contractually defined performance standards. The availability payments, which are the only form of compensation by the owner to the P3 developer, start only when the P3 developer has satisfied all the conditions stipulated in the contract for successful completion of construction and start of operations. These features provide substantial incentives for the P3 developer to achieve on-schedule and on-budget construction, as well as optimized life-cycle maintenance over the long term that meets the owner’s needs.

A common strategy recommended by Arup is to “cross-subsidize” with real estate. This is vaguely defined as to “unlock significant land value” in city-owned real estate near the convention center. Specific to Wichita, the proposal from Arup to the city includes, “Assess potential revenue from the monetization of city’s owned land located in proximity to the Century II facility and determine the size of the cross subsidy to the project expansion design schemes 1 and 3.”4

What are the benefits to the city of pursuing the DBFOM/P3 path? The Los Angeles document gives these: “No impact on debt capacity; significantly reduced cost to the General Fund, structured as an obligation to pay a service fee (i.e. availability payment) to the private partner where the value of the service fee is less than the sum of all the relevant LACC costs [for other options].”

Should Wichita do this?

Convention business is on a long downward trend. The Arup report for Los Angeles recognizes this:

Over the last two decades, most large and medium size American cities have experienced a spur in convention center development. According to the Brookings Institution (2005), exhibit hall space in the US grew from 40 million square feet in 1990 to 85 million in 2014 distributed among 400+ facilities. There is a sense in the Convention business that the supply may be exceeding demand.

(For more on convention center trends, see Should Wichita expand its convention facilities? The Brookings report is available at Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy.)

A commitment of this size needs public input in the form of a vote. The “availability payments” the city may commit to will be characterized in various ways, but they represent a long-term commitment by the city that it can’t escape. If promised revenues from expanded convention trade don’t cover these payments, taxpayers will have to pay. The city, unfortunately, doesn’t have a good record of honesty with citizens:

  • In 2014 the city told citizens that $250 million in new sales tax revenue was required to provide drought protection. After the vote on the tax failed, the city found less expensive ways to provide the same protection.5
  • Subsidized city projects have not delivered promised benefits.6
  • The city is not truthful in reporting the number of people working in downtown Wichita.7
  • Despite much investment in downtown Wichita, both public and private, business activity is declining.8
  • Despite much investment in downtown Wichita, both public and private, total property valuation is declining.9
  • While touting transparency, the city fails in many basic ways, even though the city communications staff has been expanded.10 11 12

Citizens and taxpayers should insist the city address these issues before committing to any new project, much less one the size of a renovated or new performing arts and convention center.

And — most importantly — the people need to vote up or down on this project.

Update: On May 9 the city council decided to hire this firm.


Notes

  1. City of Wichita. Grand Vision: Wichita Performing Arts & Convention Center: ‘Millenials Place.’ Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Century-2-Vision.pdf.
  2. City of Wichita. The Heart of Downtown: Catalyst to a 21st Century Riverfront. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Analysis-of-century-2.pdf.
  3. City of Los Angeles, Office Of The City Administrative Officer. Public-private Financing Options For The Los Angeles Convention Center Expansion Project. Available at http://cao.lacity.org/Reports/20151223%20CAO%20LACC%20Alternative%20Financing.pdf.
  4. City of Wichita. Agenda Packet for May 9, 2017.
  5. Weeks, Bob. In Wichita, the phased approach to water supply can save a bundle. In 2014 the City of Wichita recommended voters spend $250 million on a new water supply. But since voters rejected the tax to support that spending, the cost of providing adequate water has dropped, and dropped a lot. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-phased-approach-water-supply-can-save-bundle/.
  6. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita’s Block One, a beneficiary of tax increment financing. Before forming new tax increment financing districts, Wichita taxpayers ought to ask for progress on current districts. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-block-one-beneficiary-tax-increment-financing/.
    Also: Ken-Mar TIF district, the bailouts. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/ken-mar-tif-district-the-bailouts/. Since the bailout, the situation at the former Ken-Mar center has worsened.
    Also: Wichita TIF district disbands; taxpayers on the hook. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-tif-district-disbands-taxpayers-hook/.
    Also: Wistrom, Brent. Warren bailout poses dilemma — city loan, vacant theater both carry risks. Wichita Eagle. Available at https://brentwistrom.wordpress.com/clips/eagle-exposes-lost-taxdollars-in-downtown-theater-loan/.
  7. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita jobs, sort of. The claim of 26,000 workers in downtown Wichita is based on misuse of data so blatant it can be described only as malpractice. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-jobs/.
  8. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita business trends. There has been much investment in Downtown Wichita, both public and private. What has been the trend in business activity during this time? https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-business-trends/.
  9. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita tax base is not growing. There’s been much investment in downtown Wichita, we’re told, but the assessed value of property isn’t rising. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-tax-base-not-growing/.
  10. Weeks, Bob. Wichita check register. A records request to the City of Wichita results in data as well as insight into the city’s attitude towards empowering citizens with data. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-check-register-2016/.
  11. Weeks, Bob. Wichita doesn’t have this. A small Kansas city provides an example of what Wichita should do. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-does-not-have-this/.
  12. Weeks, Bob. During Sunshine Week, here are a few things Wichita could do. The City of Wichita says it values open and transparent government, but the city lags far behind in providing information and records to citizens. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/open-records/sunshine-week-wichita/.

On Wichita’s STAR bond promise, we’ve heard it before

Are the City of Wichita’s projections regarding subsidized development as an economic driver believable?

Map of STAR bond districts. Click for larger.
This week the Wichita City Council will consider a project plan for a STAR bonds district near Downtown Wichita. These bonds divert future incremental sales tax revenue to pay for various things within the district.1

City documents promise this: “The City plans to substantially rehabilitate or replace Lawrence Dumont Stadium as a modern multi-sport stadium as part of a larger project to develop the river and stadium areas. … Combined, the museum, pedestrian bridge, waterfront improvements and multi-sport stadium will generate significant new visitor tourism as well as provide signature quality of life amenities for the citizens of Wichita and the region.”2

We’ve heard things like this before. Each “opportunity” for the public to invest in downtown Wichita is accompanied by grand promises. But actual progress is difficult to achieve, as evidenced by the lack of progress in Block One.3

Trends of business activity in downtown Wichita. Click for larger.
In fact, change in Downtown Wichita — if we’re measuring the count of business firms, jobs, and payroll — is in the wrong direction, despite public and private investment.4

Perhaps more pertinent to a sports facility as an economic growth driver is the Intrust Bank Arena. Five years ago the Wichita Eagle noted the lack of growth in the area.5 Since then, not much has changed. The area surrounding the arena is largely vacant. Except for Commerce Street, that is, and the businesses located there don’t want to pay their share of property taxes.6

I’m sure the city will remind us that the arena was a Sedgwick County project, not a city project, as if that makes a difference. Also, the poor economic performance cited above is for Downtown Wichita as delineated by zip code 67202, while the proposed STAR bond project lies just outside that area, as if that makes a difference.

By the way, this STAR bonds district is an expansion of an existing district which contains the WaterWalk development. That development has languished, with acres of land having been available for development for many years.


Notes

  1. Weeks, Bob. STAR bonds in Kansas. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/star-bonds-kansas/.
  2. Agenda packet for May 2, 2017. Excerpt available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B97azj3TSm9MajNOUmQ3dDV0dXc/view.
  3. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita’s Block One, a beneficiary of tax increment financing. Before forming new tax increment financing districts, Wichita taxpayers ought to ask for progress on current districts. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-block-one-beneficiary-tax-increment-financing/.
  4. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita business trends. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-business-trends/.
  5. “Ten years ago, Elizabeth Stevenson looked out at the neighborhood where a downtown arena would soon be built and told an Eagle reporter that one day it could be the ‘Paris of the Midwest.’ What she and many others envisioned was a pedestrian and bike-friendly neighborhood of quaint shops, chic eateries and an active arts district, supported by tens of thousands of visitors who would be coming downtown for sporting events and concerts. It hasn’t exactly turned out that way. Today, five years after the opening of the Intrust Bank Arena, most of the immediate neighborhood looks much like it did in 2004 when Stevenson was interviewed in The Eagle. With the exception of a small artists’ colony along Commerce Street, it’s still the same mix of light industrial businesses interspersed with numerous boarded-up buildings and vacant lots, dotted with ‘for sale’ and ‘for lease’ signs.” Lefler, Dion. 5 years after Intrust Bank Arena opens, little surrounding development has followed. Wichita Eagle. December 20, 2014. Available at http://www.kansas.com/news/local/article4743402.html.
  6. Riedl, Matt. Has Commerce Street become too cool for its own good? Wichita Eagle. April 8, 2017. http://www.kansas.com/entertainment/ent-columns-blogs/keeper-of-the-plans/article143529404.html.

Growth in Downtown Wichita Jobs

Even if we accept the measure of jobs used by the City of Wichita, the trend is in the wrong direction. Citizens should ask for truth and accountability.

Click for larger.
Click for larger.
Click for larger.
The City of Wichita and its surrogates tell us there are 26,000 daytime workers in downtown Wichita, defined as zip code 67202. There is a serious problem with that number, as it includes workers whose “administrative home” is downtown, even though they work somewhere else.1 The largest example of this is the counting of all Wichita school district employees as downtown workers, even though almost all work in schools and other locations throughout the city.

But even if we use the statistic promoted by the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, the trend in jobs is in the wrong direction. WDDC promotes the large investment in downtown Wichita, by both private and public sources. But employment is trending in the opposite direction.

As Wichita considers other large downtown investments, such as STAR bond financing for the west bank of the Arkansas River or a new convention center and performing arts center, we should ask at least two questions:

  • Can we depend on the city to use meaningful and truthful data?
  • Will the city recognize the lackluster results of its economic development efforts?
  • Shouldn’t we insist on progress in projects like Block One before proceeding elsewhere?2


Notes

  1. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita jobs, sort of. The claim of 26,000 workers in downtown Wichita is based on misuse of data so blatant it can be described only as malpractice. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-jobs/.
  2. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita’s Block One, a beneficiary of tax increment financing. Before forming new tax increment financing districts, Wichita taxpayers ought to ask for progress on current districts. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-block-one-beneficiary-tax-increment-financing/.

Downtown Wichita’s Block One, a beneficiary of tax increment financing

Before forming new tax increment financing districts, Wichita taxpayers ought to ask for progress on current districts.

Windows in the former Henry’s building promote Block One. They’re fading from exposure to the sun. Click for larger.
I’ll not bore you with the mechanism of tax increment financing (TIF). But if you’re curious, please read Wichita TIF projects: some background and Tax increment financing district (TIF) resources.

Whatever the mechanism, tax increment financing is meant to spur economic growth. But in one of Wichita’s largest TIF districts, economic activity, much less growth, is difficult to find.

In particular, “Block One” — a square block bounded by Douglas and William, Broadway and Topeka — has benefited from TIF money, but has stumbled. There is the Ambassador Hotel, which received many millions in taxpayer subsidy in addition to TIF benefits. There is also the Kansas Leadership Center, a handsome new building.

Block One retail space sits mostly empty, despite the benefit of tax increment financing. Click for larger.
But on William Street, progress is harder to find.

The former Henry’s building remains empty. Promotional materials in its display windows have been fading in the sun for four years. Across the alley to the east is 8,400 square feet of retail space, all empty for four years except for a used book store. It’s not for lack of parking that this space is empty, as it lies underneath a taxpayer-funded parking garage. There’s plenty of on-street parking too, as little happens on this block.

Some of the surrounding property is not doing well, either. The Broadway Plaza building features a large ground floor office or retail space that has been empty for years. South of that, the former State Office Building — directly across Broadway from the former Henry’s building — faces possible demolition.

Block One ribbon cutting, March 2013.
Has there been lack of promotion for Block One? No. The downtown development agency uses it as an example of the success of its efforts in downtown Wichita. It has called it “the first complete city block of development along the core of Douglas Avenue.”

But the legacy of this, at least along William Street, is empty storefronts and a hulking vacant building.

Now the City of Wichita has approved the formation of yet another tax increment financing district. Sedgwick County and the Wichita School District have an opportunity to veto its formation. Before approving any new tax increment financing districts, we might want to ask for some progress in what we have.

Block One promotional material. Click for larger.

Cargill subsides start forming

Details of the subsidy programs used to keep Cargill in Wichita are starting to take shape.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider one of the (potentially many) subsidy programs offered to keep Cargill in Wichita.

Cargill Protein Group is currently located at 151 N. Main. The plan is for Cargill to purchase and demolish the Wichita Eagle building at 825 E. Douglas, then build a new office building in its place. The subsidy program to be considered this week is the Industrial Revenue Bond program1. The city won’t be lending Cargill money. Instead, IRB’s are a (convoluted) method whereby local governments are able to forgive the payment of property taxes. For the case of Cargill, city documents state the tax forgiveness could be worth $1,359,531 per year.2 This would be shared by these taxing jurisdictions, again according to city documents.

  • City of Wichita: $378,450
  • Sedgwick County: $340,958
  • USD 259, the Wichita Public School District: $622,723
  • State of Kansas $17,400

Of note, the city is in a hurry to handle this matter. Pending legislation would reduce the amount of property tax able to be exempted.3

In addition to the property tax exemption, the IRBs also carry a sales tax exemption for purchases related to construction. City documents give an estimated value of $2,026,291 for the sales tax Cargill will not have to pay.

Not the entire subsidy package

The action to be considered this week is likely just a portion of total subsidy package. For example, at one time it was speculated that the City of Wichita would build a parking garage and let Cargill use it as their own. With a proposed capacity of 750 parking spots, this would cost many millions.4

Now, the city plans to let Cargill construct the garage, and the city will, according to city documents, “purchase a parking easement from Cargill to obtain public access to the parking structure Cargill will complete as part of this project.” It sounds like the city will rent spaces in the garage. It will be interesting to see the rate the city will agree to pay.

From the state of Kansas Cargill is likely to receive PEAK benefits. Under this program, the Kansas state withholding tax deducted from Cargill employees’ paychecks will be routed back to Cargill.5 (Well, only 95 percent goes back to Cargill. The state keeps five percent.)


Notes

  1. Weeks, Bob. Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas. https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/industrial-revenue-bonds-kansas/.
  2. City of Wichita. Council agenda packet for April 18, 2017.
  3. Kansas Legislature. SB 146: Continuation of 20 mill statewide levy for schools and property tax exemption of certain portion of property used for residential purposes from such levy. http://www.kslegislature.org/li/b2017_18/measures/sb146/.
  4. Recently the city paid $4.73 million (not including change orders) to build a downtown garage with 270 parking spaces, a cost of about $17,500 per stall. Applying that to a 750 stall garage results in a cost of $13.1 million).
  5. Weeks, Bob. In Kansas, PEAK has a leak. https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/kansas-peak-leak/.

Cash incentives in Wichita, again

The City of Wichita says it does not want to use cash incentives for economic development. But a proposal contains just that.

Update: The council did not approve this project, by a vote of four to three.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider a package of incentives for the developer of a large downtown building, the Finney State Office Center. While the city has said that it does not want to use cash incentives, they are proposed for this project.1

Finney State Office Building environs
Elements of the proposal are these:

The Wichita Public Building Commission will sell the building for $100,000.

The project is also asking for the city to issue Industrial Revenue Bonds. Despite the use of the term “bond,” the city is not lending money to anyone. Someone else will purchase the bonds. Instead, the IRBs are a vehicle for conveying property tax abatements and sales tax exemptions.

In this case, the developer requests a sales tax exemption for purchases during the renovation. City documents don’t give a value for the sales tax that might be exempted. But the developer has requested IRBs for an amount up to $35,000,000. Therefore, a sales tax exemption might be worth up to $2,625,000, depending on the price of taxable products and services purchased, and the sales tax rate at the time.

If someone excuses you from paying millions in sales tax, that’s better than receiving cash. But cash incentives are proposed, too. The city proposes a grant of up to $2,000,000, although the city calls this an “investment.”2

Whatever it is called, this is a cash incentive.

Also, the Wichita Public Building Commission will pay up to $1,000,000 for improvements to the building.3

This proposed payment from the WPBC seems to be in violation of the city statutes governing the commission, which read: “Under no circumstances shall any income of the public building commission inure to the benefit of any private person.”4

I’m sure the city will characterize its $2 million “investment” in some way other than a cash incentive. The city will also say the $1 million from the WPBC is not from the city, which is true. But the city will have to rationalize allowing the commission to violate the clear language of its statutes.

There are some good aspects of this agreement with the developer, such as a timeline and performance bond requirement. But the cash incentives are against stated city policy and its laws.


Notes

  1. Wichita City Council agenda packet for April 11, 2017.
  2. ibid. “The City proposes to invest up to $2,000,000 to be used to modernize the building. The investment would only be paid upon completion of the entire building renovation project.”
  3. ibid. “On April 5, 2017, the WPBC approved the Development Agreement/Purchase and Sale Agreement and agreed to commit up to $1,000,000 for building improvements as well.”
  4. Wichita Municipal Code. Sec. 2.12.640 (i). Under no circumstances shall any income of the public building commission inure to the benefit of any private person. https://www.municode.com/library/ks/wichita/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=TIT2ADPE_CH2.12BOAGCO_S2.12.640SAUNCO.

In Kansas, the war on property rights

John Todd makes an appearance on The Voice of Reason with Andy Hooser to talk about proposed legislation in Kansas that would be harmful to private property rights. View below, or click here to view on YouTube. Recorded on March 16, 2017.

For more information on this important issue, see In Kansas, the war on blight continues: Kansas governments are trying — again — to expand their powers to take property to the detriment of one of the fundamental rights of citizens: private property rights.

Wichita property tax rate: Level

The City of Wichita says it hasn’t raised its property tax mill levy in many years. For this year, the city is correct.

Wichita mill levy rates. This table holds only the taxes levied by the City of Wichita and not any overlapping jurisdictions.
In 1994 the City of Wichita mill levy rate — the rate at which property is taxed — was 31.290. In 2016 it was 32.685, based on the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and the Sedgwick County Clerk. That’s an increase of 1.395 mills, or 4.46 percent, since 1994. (These are for taxes levied by the City of Wichita only, and do not include any overlapping jurisdictions.)

In 2015 the mill levy was 32.686, so the mill levy dropped by .001 for 2016. That’s a refreshing change. While the city says the mill levy hasn’t increased, the nearby table and summary above indicate otherwise.

It is true that the Wichita City Council did not take explicit action to raise this rate. Instead, the rate is set by the county based on the city’s budgeted spending and the assessed value of taxable property subject to Wichita taxation.

Wichita mill levy rates. Click for larger version.
While the city doesn’t have control over the assessed value of property, it does have control over the amount it decides to spend. As can be seen in the chart of changes in the mill levy, the council decides to spend more than the previous year’s mill levy generates in taxes. Therefore, tax rates rise.

Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative. Click for larger version.
Also, while some may argue that an increase of 4.46 percent over two decades is not very much, this is an increase in a rate of taxation, not actual tax revenue. As property values rise, and as the mill levy rises, property tax bills rise rapidly.

The total amount of property tax levied is the mill levy rate multiplied by the assessed value of taxable property. This amount has risen, due to these factors:

  • Appreciation in the value of property
  • An increase in the amount of property
  • Spending decisions made by the Wichita City Council

Application of tax revenue has shifted

Wichita mill levy, percent dedicated to debt service. Click for larger version.
The allocation of city property tax revenue has shifted over the years. 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.”

In 2005 the mill levy dedicated to debt service was 10.022. In 2016 it was 8.508. That’s a reduction of 1.514 mills (15.1 percent) of property tax revenue dedicated for paying off debt. Another interpretation of this is that in 2005, 31.4 percent of Wichita property tax revenue was dedicated to debt service. In 2016 it was 26.0 percent.

This shift has not caused the city to delay paying off debt. This city is making its scheduled payments. But we should recognize that property tax revenue that could have been used to retire debt has instead been shifted to support current spending. Instead of spending this money on current consumption — including economic development spending that has produced little result — we could have, for example, used that money to purchase some of our outstanding bonds.

What the city council says

Despite the data that is readily available in the city’s comprehensive annual financial reports, some choose to remain misinformed or uninformed. The following video from 2012 provides insight into the level of knowledge of some former elected officials and city staff. Based on recent discussions with city officials, things have not improved regarding present staff.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas conventions, taxing and spending, and Wichita economic development

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Co-host Karl Peterjohn joins Bob Weeks to discuss the Kansas congressional nominating conventions, taxing and spending in Topeka, and Wichita economic development and promotion. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 139, broadcast February 19, 2017.

Shownotes

In Wichita, the surveillance state expands again

In Wichita, we see another example of how once government starts a surveillance program, it probably won’t produce the promised results, yet will be expanded.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider adding more surveillance cameras to Old Town. City documents don’t specify how many video cameras will be installed as part of the $618,261 program (for one-time installation costs only), except that it may be “as many as 100.” The city is also asking council members to pass an ordinance with bonding authority of up to $750,000 to pay for this project. In other words, the city is borrowing to pay for this system.1

This proposed expansion of camera surveillance is another expansion of police powers in Wichita at the loss of civil liberties.2 In 2014 the city designated Old Town an “entertainment district,” giving the city increased powers to attempt to control crime.3 Critics are concerned that the extra enforcement measures granted to entertainment districts are discriminatory to certain minority groups.4

This proposed expansion of cameras is not likely to be the last. Wichita’s police chief is seeking to add more surveillance and cameras.5

Across the county, those concerned with the loss of civil liberties and privacy are concerned about the expansion of the surveillance state. Adding irony to this debate are the remarks of Wichita City Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita). She called the addition of the new cameras “huge” and “exciting,” adding that she is “very, very happy” at their addition.6 The irony is that she would insist that she is a protector of civil rights.

What are civil rights important in this matter? Discussing this matter on Facebook, one local political activist wondered, “How long before someone is being blackmailed with footage from a police surveillance cam, for stumbling down the road, or some other harmless but embarrassing scenario?”

In response, I added, “Or blackmailed for marital infidelity, or entering a gay bar, a marijuana dispensary, a church, an STD clinic, an abortion doctor’s office, or maybe being spotted dropping off an anonymous tip to the newspaper.” (Well, we don’t have marijuana dispensaries, but we do have complimentary stores.) (There are two newspapers in Old Town. Well, one is across the street from Old Town, but is moving into Old Town.)

We have to wonder whether the cameras work as advertised. The website You Are Being Watched, a project of the American Civil Liberties Union, comes to this conclusion: “An increasing number of American cities and towns are investing millions of taxpayer dollars in surveillance camera systems. But few are closely examining the costs and benefits of those investments, or creating mechanisms for measuring those costs and benefits over time. There is extensive academic literature on the subject — studies carried out over many years — and that research demonstrates that video surveillance has no statistically significant effect on crime rates. Several studies on video surveillance have been conducted in the UK, where surveillance cameras are pervasive. The two main meta-analyses conducted for the British Home Office (equivalent to the US departments of Justice and Homeland Security) show that video surveillance has no impact on crime whatsoever. If it did, then there would be little crime in London, a city estimated to have about 500,000 cameras.”

An irony is that law enforcement likes recording citizens, but not the other way around. As John Stossel has noted, police don’t like to be recorded. In some states its a crime to tape a police officer making an arrest. A video excerpt from Stossel’s television shows the attitudes of police towards being recorded. At Reason Radley Balko details the problem, writing “As citizens increase their scrutiny of law enforcement officials through technologies such as cell phones, miniature cameras, and devices that wirelessly connect to video-sharing sites such as YouTube and LiveLeak, the cops are increasingly fighting back with force and even jail time—and not just in Illinois. Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.”

Writing for Cato Institute, Julian Sanchez noted:

It is also unlikely that cameras will be especially helpful in deterring such attacks. Even when it comes to ordinary crime — where the perpetrators are generally motivated by the desire to make a quick buck without getting caught — studies have been mixed and inconclusive about the value of CCTV cameras as a crime deterrent.

Some show significant declines in crime in some regions of cities with camera networks, which may be attributable to the cameras — but many show no discernible effect at all.

Of note, one country with a government that really likes surveillance cameras is China.


Notes

  1. Wichita City Council agenda for February 14, 2017.
  2. Weeks, Bob. Surveillance state arrives in Wichita. https://wichitaliberty.org/liberty/surveillance-state-arrives-in-wichita/.
  3. Weeks, Bob. Wichita seeks to form entertainment district. https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-seeks-form-entertainment-district/.
  4. Class-action lawsuit alleges racial discrimination at Power & Light. Kansas City Star, March 10, 2014. http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article341880/Class-action-lawsuit-alleges-racial-discrimination-at-Power–Light.html.
  5. Finger, stan. Police seek answers, reversal as aggravated assaults surge. Wichita Eagle, February 10, 2017. http://www.kansas.com/news/local/crime/article132071799.html.
  6. Lefler, Dion. Wichita working to bring Old Town under camera surveillance. Wichita Eagle, February 10, 2017. http://www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article131952109.html.

Greater Wichita Partnership

Greater Wichita Partnership features untruthful information on its website, which casts doubt on the reliability of the organization and the City of Wichita.

Greater Wichita Partnership uses the url of its predecessor, the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, or GWEDC. GWP is in charge of efforts to develop the economy in the greater Wichita area. It describes itself as “a driving force in building a remarkable city and region.”1

Greater Wichita Partnership website, featuring unreliable information. Click for larger.
But there is a problem. Based on the information GWP makes available on the front page of its website, I don’t have much confidence in the organization’s efforts. And that’s too bad.

In the past I’ve observed how GWEDC — that’s the predecessor to GWP — was derelict in keeping its information current. In 2014, I noticed that GWEDC credited itself with recruiting a company named InfoNXX to Wichita.2 But GWEDC did not update its website to reflect current conditions. When I looked at GWEDC’s website in October 2013, I found this on a page titled Office Operations:

Wichita hosts over a dozen customer service and processing centers — including a USPS Remote Encoding Center (985 employees), InfoNXX (950), T-Mobile (900), Royal Caribbean (700), Convergys (600), Protection One (540), Bank of America (315) and Cox Communications (230.)

The problem was this: At the time I looked at the GWEDC website in October 2013, InfoNXX had closed its Wichita operations in 2012.3 Still, the official Wichita-area economic development agency touted the existence of a company that no longer existed in Wichita, and claimed a job count that the company never achieved. (Also, at that time the USPS facility was in the process of closing and eliminating all Wichita jobs.)

Now, the Greater Wichita Partnership website trumpets — on its front page — the expansion of a company that has actually contracted its operations in Wichita.

The company is NetApp, a maker of computer server storage systems. It’s the type of high tech company all cities are recruiting, and for which cities and states will open the economic development incentives pocketbook. Locally, Wichita and the State of Kansas announced expansion plans for NetApp operations in Wichita in 2012. But by the end of 2015, NetApp was not meeting its job goals in Wichita, according to information from Sedgwick County. Since then, NetApp announced two rounds of job cuts, with the cuts in Wichita unspecified.4 5

NetApp has not met the lofty expectations Wichita and Kansas officials promoted. That’s unfortunate, and perhaps the situation will improve and NetApp will grow.

Relevant to public policy is that NetApp was slated to receive a lot of incentives from many levels of government, up to $35 million.6 It is likely impossible to determine how much of these incentives were actually paid to NetApp. We do know that both the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County stopped paying incentives to NetApp, as these incentives were predicated on achieving certain levels of job counts, and NetApp has not met them.

But the lesson to learn today is that the Greater Wichita Partnership, the agency in charge of economic development in the area, still advertises NetApp as a success.

The problem is not only the blatant lie that GWP promotes prominently: “NetApp doubles its Wichita footprint.” It’s a serious problem that GWP has not updated its website to reflect reality. What if a company considering Wichita for expansion or location checks the NetApp story? How would such a company reconcile reality with what GWP promotes? What does this say about the reputation and reliability of GWP?

I don’t expect GWP to highlight its failures. But we ought to expect GWP to care enough about the truth to remove false information from such a prominent presentation.

Wichita’s history

Presentation by James Chung. Click for larger.
Presentation by James Chung. Click for larger.
Presentation by James Chung. Click for larger. See text for problems with this presentation.
In September 2015 James Chung delivered several lectures on the Wichita-area economy and its outlook.7 In the event I attended, Chung showed examples of web pages from the Des Moines and Omaha chambers, and contrasted them to a similar page from the Wichita chamber. Chung got it wrong, as the page he showed to illustrate the Wichita chamber was a print version of the page, which — intentionally — is a simplified version of the page designed for viewing in a web browser.8 The print version of the page, however, is what appears in Google, and most people will not investigate beyond that.

Still, the Wichita chamber page was stale compared to the others. And Chung’s point was, and is, relevant: First impressions matter.

The Wichita chamber’s site is better now. But someone at the Greater Wichita Partnership didn’t get the message. Content — reliable content — counts.

__
Notes

  1. Greater Wichita Partnership. About us. http://www.gwedc.org/about_us/about_us.
  2. Weeks, Bob. Wichita economic development not being managed. https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-economic-development-managed/.
  3. Siebenmark, Jerry. KGB to close Wichita call center by end of January. Wichita Eagle. Decenber 7, 2011. http://www.kansas.com/news/business/article1081923.html.
  4. Horwath, Bryan. NetApp cuts employees in Wichita. Wichita Eagle. March 2, 2016. http://www.kansas.com/news/business/article63559417.html.
  5. Rengers, Carrie. NetApp restructures, announces layoffs. Wichita Eagle. November 3, 2016. http://www.kansas.com/news/business/biz-columns-blogs/carrie-rengers/article112339362.html.
  6. Weeks, Bob. NetApp economic development incentives: all of them. https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/netapp-economic-development-incentives-all-of-them/.
  7. Wenzl, Roy. Analyst presents sobering view of Wichita economy, community. Wichita Eagle, September 22, 2015. http://www.kansas.com/news/business/article36236142.html.
  8. For a view of the page as it looked on April 5, 2015, see http://web.archive.org/web/20150405131957/http://wichitachamber.org/news_room-wichita_accolades.php.

Activate Wichita, an embarrassment

A communications initiative of the City of Wichita brings embarrassment to our city.

At one time Activate Wichita was touted by Wichita city officials as an “online conversation about the future of the Greater Wichita metropolitan area.”

It’s described on its companion Facebook page as: “Activate Wichita is an innovative new way to be heard on the issues you’re passionate about. Whether your passion is local arts, the environment, or employment creation, you can log on and voice your opinion and local leaders will respond. Together communities come up with solutions and vote on the best course.”

For a system designed to be an interactive conversation, there aren’t many people talking. And maybe I didn’t look diligently enough, but I didn’t see local leaders responding.

At one time Activate Wichita had some activity. Then it changed. There was a different design. All the old content was gone. There was very little new content.

In December 2015 I inquired to the city and was told that My Sidewalk, the company that provides the software that runs Activate Wichita, made changes to improve the system. I was also told: “While the City has not used Activate Wichita as extensively in 2015 as in previous years, our staff has been working with the My Sidewalk support team to learn how to best make effective use of the new design as part of City engagement initiatives. The Library has a series of engagement conversations in planning for 2016. We expect increased use from several other departments as well.”

Whatever plans the city had for Activate Wichita in 2016, it doesn’t look like they materialized. As of today, there is only one active item on Activate Wichita, from March 2016. Or it could be March 2015; it doesn’t say. The companion Facebook page for Activate Wichita has only three posts since the middle of 2016, with the most recent from August.

The harm of Activate Wichita

This lack of attention to these communication initiatives might not be very important except that the city prominently features Activate Wichita. An inviting graphic appears prominently on nearly every page at wichita.gov, the city’s website.

The banner on almost all City of Wichita web pages, showing activate Wichita link.
If someone using the wichita.gov city website happens to click on the Activate Wichita logo, they would see something that can be described — charitably — as pathetic. Think of someone considering moving to Wichita, or a company planning to locate or expand in Wichita. Think of people already in Wichita. Is Activate Wichita the impression the city wants to make?

Remember, Activate Wichita is prominent on the city’s website. The city devotes precious web space to promoting it. I can understand that reviving Activate Wichita into something useful is time-consuming.

But minimizing the damage should be a snap. Just remove the Activate Wichita link from the city’s website. When Activate Wichita is revived, restore the link.

By the way, did you know the city increased the size of its communication staff by hiring a Strategic Communications Director? He’s been at work almost two years.

Wichita check register

A records request to the City of Wichita results in data as well as insight into the city’s attitude towards empowering citizens with data.

As part of an ongoing transparency project, I asked the City of Wichita for check register data. I’ve made the data available in a visualization using Tableau Public. Click here to access the visualization.

Analyzing this data requires a bit of local knowledge. For example, there is a vendor named “Visit Wichita” that started to receive monthly payments in March 2015. What about payments for January and February? Those were made to a vendor named “Go Wichita,” which changed its name to “Visit Wichita.”

Similarly, there are payments made to both “Westar Energy” and “Westar Energy — EDI.” These are the same entities, just as “Visit Wichita” and “Go Wichita” are the same entity. To the city’s credit, the matching pairs have the same vendor number, which is good. But resolving this requires a different level of analysis.

There are interesting entries. For example, the city had been spending a few hundred dollars per month to the Kansas Turnpike Authority. Then in July 2015, the city paid $3.7 million to KTA. A quick search of city council agenda packets didn’t reveal any reason for this.

Of note, it looks like there were 1,475 checks issued in amounts $20 or less over a period of nearly two years. Bank of America has estimated that the total cost of sending a business check ranges from $4 to $20.

The records request

Wichita spending data from 2013.
Wichita spending data from 2013.
The city supplied this data in an Excel spreadsheet, in an arrangement that can easily be analyzed in Excel or loaded into other programs. This is a step forward. Three years ago, Wichita could supply data of limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult to translate the image data into machine-readable text, and even more difficult to reorganize it to a useful arrangement or format for analysis.

Denver open checkbook.
Denver open checkbook.
In 2015 had to pay $24.00 to the city for this data. That’s a problem. It is by now routine for governmental agencies to post spending data like this, but not at the City of Wichita. Upon inquiry, city officials told me that the present financial management system “does not include many modern system features such as an ‘open checkbook.’” An “open checkbook” refers to a modern web interface where citizens can query for specific data and perhaps perform other analysis. An example is Denver’s open checkbook.

While the next-generation Wichita financial system will probably have such a feature, there’s no reason why citizens can’t experience some of the benefits now. The spreadsheet of spending data like that I paid for could easily be posted on the city’s website on a monthly basis. People like myself will take that data and make it more useful, as I did. There is no reason why this should not be happening.

Fees

When I learned of the fee for these records in 2015, I asked for a waiver, sending this to the city’s records official:

I’d like to ask for a waiver of the requested fee. I ask this because check register data is an example of records that many governmental agencies make freely available on their websites. The Wichita Public School District and Sedgwick County are two local examples.

I’d like to also call attention to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, which allows for fee waivers in some circumstances: “…fee waivers are limited to situations in which a requester can show that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.”

I suggest that the records I am requesting will indeed “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government,” and that it is in the public interest of the people of Wichita that these records be freely available.

I received an answer:

Mr. Weeks,

Your request for waiver of fees is denied. KORA allows fees to be collected prior to finding and producing the document you seek. KSA 45-218(f). The extensive statute setting out how fees are to be determined, KSA 45-219, does not contain any provision for waiver in the manner you suggest.

The City will provide the document to you upon payment as invoiced.

Sincerely,
Jay C. Hinkel,
Deputy City Attorney

Mr. Hinkel is absolutely correct. Governmental agencies in Kansas have the right to charge for records, and the Kansas statutes do not mention the waiving of fees as do the federal statutes. But the Kansas Open Records Act does not require cities to charge for providing records, especially for records that the city should already be providing. Especially when citizens are willing to take that data and make it better, at no charge to the city.

(For the most recent records request, the city waived its intended fee of $24.00, noting this waiver is for the current request only. The city acknowledges that it temporarily misplaced my request, and as a result, was late in responding. I believe that is the reason for the fee waiver.)

Wichita’s attitutude, from top down

Hinkel provided a lawyer’s answer. Here, however, is the public policy the city promotes, from a Wichita city news release from 2013:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

The importance of transparency. The city wants to empower and engage citizens by providing information. Well. I offered to “contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government,” but had to pay to do so.

When I asked city officials for clarification of why I had to pay to receive these records, communications staff told me: “I should note that the City has won multiple awards for openness and citizen participation, but City leaders recognize this work is never done. They strive each and every day to become more open and transparent and will continue to do so.”

I must disagree. This is not “open and transparent.” This is not how to “empower and engage” the people of Wichita. Not even close.

The city lags far behind comparable agencies in providing access to data. It’s been almost two years since the city expanded its staff by adding a Strategic Communications Director. It doesn’t seem that this has helped to provide information to citizens.

In Kansas, the war on blight continues

Kansas governments are trying — again — to expand their powers to take property to the detriment of one of the fundamental rights of citizens: private property rights.

Empty lots in northeast Wichita. Click for larger version.
Last year cities in Kansas lobbied for a bill that would expand their powers to take property from its lawful owners, all in the name of saving neighborhoods from “blight.” Governor Brownback vetoed that bill, explaining, “The right to private property serves as a central pillar of the American constitutional tradition.”1

The governor further explained: “The broad definition of blighted or abandoned property would grant a nearly unrestrained power to municipalities to craft zoning laws and codes that could unjustly deprive citizens of their property rights. The process of granting private organizations the ability to petition the courts for temporary and then permanent ownership of the property of another is rife with potential problems.”

The bill introduced this year is SB 31, titled “Rehabilitation of abandoned property by cities.”2 It is a slightly modified version of SB 338, the bill from last year.It deserves opposition for the same multitude of reasons. Last year John Todd summarized the reasons for opposition:

  • Senate Bill 338 appears to provide local governmental units with additional tools that they don’t need to “take” properties in a manner that circumvents the eminent domain statutes that private property rights advocates fought so hard to achieve in 2006.
  • The total lack of compensation to the property owner for the deprivation or taking of his or her property is missing in the bill.
  • Allowing a city or their third party take possession of vacant property they do not own and have not obtained legal title to is wrong.
  • Please take a look at a comparison between a free-market private sector solution as contrasted to a government mandated program to achieving affordable housing and the impact highly subsidized government housing solutions are having on adjacent home owners.

This year’s bill is a “committee bill,” meaning that no legislator was willing to be a named sponsor. We might call this the “Longwell-Meitzner bill,” as these two Wichita City Council members were particularly disappointed that the governor of Kansas blocked their power grab.3

Of note, Todd and I, along with others, had a luncheon meeting with a Kansas Senator who voted for last year’s bill. 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.

Following, John Todd’s testimony opposing SB 31. His exhibits are available via a link at the end of the testimony.4

January 26, 2017

Senator Elaine Bowers, Chair
Senate Ethics, Elections and Local Government

Subject: MY OPPOSITION to Senate Bill No. 31 scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Ethics, Elections, and Local Government Committee on January 26, 2017

Dear Senator Bowers and members of the Senate Ethics, Elections, and Local Government Committee,

I OPPOSE the passage of Senate Bill No. 31 of 2017 since it is basically a slightly modified and expanded version of the Senate Bill No. 338 of 2016 that Governor Sam Brownback correctly vetoed. I see no new provisions in the 2017 bill that gives citizens any additional private property protection; rather, it strengthens local authorities “unmitigated power in determining which properties should be seized, allowing localities to write their own rules. It also cedes to municipalities the power to select which private organizations receive control of the property.”

This quote is from an e-mail the Governor’s office issued in announcing his Veto of the 2016 bill (see copy attached). A “Message from the Governor” dated April 11, 2016 provides his excellent reasoning for the Veto, explaining, “The right to private property serves as a central pillar of the American constitutional tradition (see copy attached).

Shortly after starting my career in the real estate business in 1976 I acquired my first rehab house. It was located in the Old Orchard area of Wichita that everyone considered one of the most economically challenged and difficult neighborhoods to work with in town. I paid the seller nearly $20 thousand her dilapidated house that included three vacant single family building lots. It cost me in the range of $10 thousand to rehabilitate the house that included repairing a caved in concrete block basement wall. I sold the rehabilitated house and the lot it was on for the $30 thousand I had invested in the transaction and wound up with the vacant lots free and clear. I sold the three lots to a builder for $9 thousand cash and he subsequently built three new affordable entry level homes on them.

Now let’s take a look at this private sector transaction:

  1. The seller of the house received cash for her property through a mutually agreed upon transaction without coercion (no eminent domain) involved.
  2. I rehabilitated the house and sold it to a young couple for their first home.
  3. The builder who purchased the 3 vacant lots built three new houses that he sold to owner occupant homeowners.
  4. The builder provided construction jobs and purchased building materials from local vendors.
  5. The Orchard neighborhood saw immediate improvement and felt the benefits of economic uplift.
  6. The City, County, and School District tax base was expanded providing with one rehabilitated and three new houses thus providing additional tax revenue to fund fire, police, public safety, and money to educate our children.
  7. I paid Federal and state taxes on the profit I made in the transaction and I suspect the builder did too.
  8. There was no need for government subsidies of any nature for this private sector transaction to work.

Now in contrast, let’s take a look at how our local government has been handling similar neighborhood opportunities. Please take a look at the attached Building Blocks Infill Project Area map to discover what has been happening in a predominantly African American neighborhood community in Wichita.

  1. The vacant green rectangles are dozens of vacant lots where houses once stood that were bulldozed by the city.
  2. The owners of these houses were paid $0 for the houses that were taken by the city’s bulldozer
  3. In my judgment, many if not a majority of these bulldozed houses had economic value and offered the potential for rehabilitation and the creation of low-cost entry level housing. (See exhibit A)
  4. The city charged the property owner $8 – $10 thousand for bulldozing charges leaving the owner with a vacant lot that was left to produce high weeds and collect trash.
  5. Most of the owners let their vacant lots go back for taxes and many were sold for $100 or less and they received $0 for their properties.
  6. Thus the existing and potential tax base was lost as well as the wonderful opportunity for clean low-cost affordable entry level home ownership that is part of the American dream.
  7. Some of the most vulnerable and economically challenged property owners of our city rightly feel helpless in the face of this devastation.

Now local governmental officials are asking you for additional powers through Senate Bill No. 31 to “deal” with this problem.

  1. They want the power to seize unoccupied houses without compensating the owners anything for their property.
  2. They want to empower non-profit (non-taxpaying) organizations of their choice to seize unoccupied houses without compensating the owners for their property.
  3. The non-profits involved in the redevelopment of this neighborhood community with the exception of Habitat for Humanity rely heavily on tax subsidies for wealthy taxpayers and generous Federal subsidies in the range of $50 thousand for each house built and sold.
  4. I hear talk of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to finance redevelopment in this community. The TIF program is simply a diversion of tax revenue that needs to go to city, county, and school district treasuries and not flow back to developers.

I see nothing in Senate Bill No. 31 that does anything to promote private sector redevelopment.

Is there a private sector solution? I say YES and I see it happening. Private sector investors, contractors and homeowners are stepping up and seizing opportunity (See Exhibit B). This economic uplift is healthy for the neighborhood community, expands the tax base, and offers an opportunity for investor/contractor profit in some cases or low-cost affordable home homeownership in others.

The rehabilitation of existing houses and redevelopment on vacant “infill” is best achieved by the private sector and not by government planners or their favored non-profit entitles.

The taking of property by local government without compensation is wrong. I believe that was what Governor Brownback was saying in his veto message, “Government should defend and protect the property rights of all citizens, ensuring that the less advantaged are not denied the liberty to which ever other citizen is entitled.”

I urge you to OPPOSE passage of Senate Bill No. 31!

Sincerely,
John R. Todd
A Kansas Citizen

The exhibits referred to are available in pdf form. Click here.


Notes

  1. Weeks, Bob. Governor Brownback steps up for property rights. https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/governor-brownback-steps-property-rights/.
  2. SB 31. Rehabilitation of abandoned property by cities. http://www.kslegislature.org/li/b2017_18/measures/sb31/.
  3. Weeks, Bob. In Wichita, revealing discussion of property rights. https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/wichita-revealing-discussion-property-rights/.
  4. Todd, John. Exhibits on Blight in Wichita. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B97azj3TSm9MMzFYZDQxRTRJb1U/view?usp=sharing.

From Pachyderm: Legislative Agendas for 2017

From the Wichita Pachyderm Club this week: Representatives of local governments presented issues important to them in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. Presenters were:

  • Sheril Logan, board member for Wichita Public Schools. The material she presented to the audience is here.
  • James Clendenin, Wichita City Council. His presentation is here.
  • Jim Howell, Sedgwick County Commission. A link to the county’s legislative agenda is here.

This is an audio presentation recorded on January 6, 2017.

Won’t anyone develop in downtown Wichita without incentives?

Action the Wichita City Council will consider next week makes one wonder: If downtown Wichita is so great, why does the city have to give away so much?

Next week the Wichita City Council will consider a package of incentives for the developer of a large downtown building, the Finney State Office Center.

The building has an appraised value of $7,902,570, per the Sedgwick County Treasurer. The city will sell it for $100,000. That’s a mere 1.3 cents per dollar, if the county’s valuation is reasonable.

(But, the $100,000 is non-refundable, should the purchaser decide not to close on the building.)

Finney State Office Building environs. Click for larger.
The project is also asking for the city to issue Industrial Revenue Bonds. Despite the use of the term “bond,” the city is not lending money to anyone. Someone else will purchase the bonds. Instead, the IRBs are a vehicle for conveying property tax abatements and sales tax exemptions.

In this case, the developer requests a sales tax exemption for purchases during the renovation. City documents don’t give a value for the sales tax that might be exempted. But the developer has requested IRBs for an amount up to $35,000,000. So a sales tax exemption might be worth up to $2,625,000, depending on how much taxable products and services are purchased.

IRBs also carry the possibility of a property tax abatement. Granting of the abatement is routine in most areas of the city. But, this property is located within a tax increment financing (TIF) district. That means, according to Kansas law, that a property tax abatement may not be awarded. That is, unless the property is removed from the TIF district, which is what the city proposes.

What is the value of the tax abatement? City documents don’t say. But if the developer spends $35 million on the project, it ought to carry something near that appraised value when complete. So its annual property tax bill would be ($35,000,000 * 25 percent assessment rate for commercial property = $8,750,000 assessed value * 124.341 mill rate) $1,087,984.

There’s another exception the city will probably make for this project. According to the city’s economic development incentives policy, the city must receive a payoff of at least 1.3 times its investment. That benchmark isn’t met in this case, with Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research reporting a benefit-cost ratio of 1.04 to the city. Nonetheless, city staff recommends the city approve the incentives, citing several loopholes to the policy.

There’s also a parking agreement to consider. Given the city’s past practice, the city will lease parking stalls at rates below market rate or the city’s cost to provide.

No cash incentives

The city, in particular Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell, have prominently and proudly touted the end of cash incentives. But, this project is receiving benefits better than cash: An $8 million building for a song, no sales tax, and no property tax for ten years. Let’s ask the city to be honest and give us dollar values for these incentives.

Why?

A second question is this: Why is it necessary to provide all these incentives in order to induce someone to develop in downtown Wichita? The cost of these incentives increases the cost of government for everyone else — that is, everyone else except all the other incentive-receivers.

Year in Review: 2016

Here are highlights from Voice for Liberty for 2016. Was it a good year for the principles of individual liberty, limited government, economic freedom, and free markets in Wichita and Kansas?

Also be sure to view the programs on WichitaLiberty.TV for guests like journalist, novelist, and blogger Bud Norman; Radio talk show host Joseph Ashby; David Bobb, President of Bill of Rights Institute; Heritage Foundation trade expert Bryan Riley; Radio talk show host Andy Hooser; Keen Umbehr; John Chisholm on entrepreneurship; James Rosebush, author of “True Reagan,” Jonathan Williams of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC); Gidget Southway, or Danedri Herbert; Lawrence W. Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education; and Congressman Mike Pompeo.

January

Kansas legislative resources. Citizens who want to be informed of the happenings of the Kansas Legislature have these resources available.

School choice in Kansas: The haves and have-nots. Kansas non-profit executives work to deny low-income families the school choice opportunities that executive salaries can afford.

Kansas efficiency study released. An interim version of a report presents possibilities of saving the state $2 billion over five years.

Wichita Eagle Publisher Roy Heatherly. Wichita Eagle Publisher Roy Heatherly spoke to the Wichita Pachyderm Club on January 15, 2016. This is an audio presentation.

Pupil-teacher ratios in the states. Kansas ranks near the top of the states in having a low pupil-teacher ratio.

Kansas highway conditions. Has continually “robbing the bank of KDOT” harmed Kansas highways?

Property rights in Wichita: Your roof. The Wichita City Council will attempt to settle a dispute concerning whether a new roof should be allowed to have a vertical appearance rather than the horizontal appearance of the old.

Must it be public schools? A joint statement released by Kansas Association of School Boards, United School Administrators of Kansas, Kansas School Superintendents’ Association, and Kansas National Education Association exposes the attitudes of the Kansas public school establishment.

Kansas schools and other states. A joint statement released by Kansas Association of School Boards, United School Administrators of Kansas, Kansas School Superintendents’ Association, and Kansas National Education Association makes claims about Kansas public schools that aren’t factual.

After years of low standards, Kansas schools adopt truthful standards. In a refreshing change, Kansas schools have adopted realistic standards for students, but only after many years of evaluating students using low standards.

Brownback and Obama stimulus plans. There are useful lessons we can learn from the criticism of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, including how easy it is to ignore inconvenient lessons of history.

February

Spending and taxing in Kansas. Difficulty balancing the Kansas budget is different from, and has not caused, widespread spending cuts.

In Sedgwick County, choosing your own benchmarks. The Sedgwick County Commission makes a bid for accountability with an economic development agency, but will likely fall short of anything meaningful.

This is why we must eliminate defined-benefit public pensions. Actions considered by the Kansas Legislature demonstrate — again — that governments are not capable of managing defined-benefit pension plans.

Kansas transportation bonds economics worse than told. The economic details of a semi-secret sale of bonds by the State of Kansas are worse than what’s been reported.

Massage business regulations likely to be ineffective, but will be onerous. The Wichita City Council is likely to create a new regulatory regime for massage businesses in response to a problem that is already addressed by strict laws.

Inspector General evaluates Obamacare website. The HHS Inspector General has released an evaluation of the Obamacare website HealthCare.gov, shedding light on the performance of former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius.

Kansas highway spending. An op-ed by an advocate for more highway spending in Kansas needs context and correction.

Brookings Metro Monitor and Wichita. A research project by The Brookings Institution illustrates the poor performance of the Wichita-area economy.

March

Wichita: A conversation for a positive community and city agenda. Wichita City Manager Robert Layton held a discussion titled “What are Wichita’s Strengths and Weaknesses: A Conversation for a Positive Community and City Agenda” at the February 26, 2016 luncheon of the Wichita Pachyderm Club.

In Kansas, teachers unions should stand for retention. A bill requiring teachers unions to stand for retention elections each year would be good for teachers, students, and taxpayers.

In Kansas, doctors may “learn” just by doing their jobs. A proposed bill in Kansas should make us question the rationale of continuing medical education requirements for physicians.

Power of Kansas cities to take property may be expanded. A bill working its way through the Kansas Legislature will give cities additional means to seize property.

Wichita TIF district disbands; taxpayers on the hook. A real estate development in College Hill was not successful. What does this mean for city taxpayers?

Kansas and Colorado, compared. News that a Wichita-based company is moving to Colorado sparked a round of Kansas-bashing, most not based on facts.

In Wichita, the phased approach to water supply can save a bundle. In 2014 the City of Wichita recommended voters spend $250 million on a new water supply. But since voters rejected the tax to support that spending, the cost of providing adequate water has dropped, and dropped a lot.

Wichita Eagle, where are you? The state’s largest newspaper has no good reason to avoid reporting and editorializing on an important issue. But that’s what the Wichita Eagle has done.

April

Wichita on verge of new regulatory regime. The Wichita City Council is likely to create a new regulatory regime for massage businesses in response to a problem that is already addressed by strict laws.

Wichita economic development and capacity. An expansion fueled by incentives is welcome, but illustrates a larger problem with Wichita-area economic development.

Rich States, Poor States, 2106 edition. In Rich States, Poor States, Kansas continues with middle-of-the-pack performance, and fell sharply in the forward-looking forecast.

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.

‘Trump, Trump, Trump’ … oops! An event in Wichita that made national headlines has so far turned out to be not the story news media enthusiastically promoted.

Wichita doesn’t have this. A small Kansas city provides an example of what Wichita should do.

Kansas continues to snub school choice reform that helps the most vulnerable schoolchildren. Charter schools benefit minority and poor children, yet Kansas does not leverage their benefits, despite having a pressing need to boost the prospects of these children.

Wichita property tax rate: Up again. The City of Wichita says it hasn’t raised its property mill levy in many years. But data shows the mill levy has risen, and its use has shifted from debt service to current consumption.

AFP Foundation wins a battle for free speech for everyone. Americans for Prosperity Foundation achieves a victory for free speech and free association.

Kansas Center for Economic Growth. Kansas Center for Economic Growth, often cited as an authority by Kansas news media and politicians, is not the independent and unbiased source it claims to be.

Under Goossen, Left’s favorite expert, Kansas was admonished by Securities and Exchange Commission. The State of Kansas was ordered to take remedial action to correct material omissions in the state’s financial statements prepared under the leadership of Duane Goossen.

May

Spirit Aerosystems tax relief. Wichita’s largest employer asks to avoid paying millions in taxes, which increases the cost of government for everyone else, including young companies struggling to break through.

Wichita mayor’s counterfactual op-ed. Wichita’s mayor pens an op-ed that is counter to facts that he knows, or should know.

Electioneering in Kansas?. An op-ed written under the banner of a non-profit organization appears to violate the ban on electioneering.

Wichita city council campaign finance reform. Some citizen activists and Wichita city council members believe that a single $500 campaign contribution from a corporation has a corrupting influence. But stacking dozens of the same $500 contributions from executives and spouses of the same corporation? Not a problem.

In Wichita, more sales tax hypocrisy. Another Wichita company that paid to persuade you to vote for higher taxes now seeks to avoid paying those taxes.

Wichita student/teacher ratios. Despite years of purported budget cuts, the Wichita public school district has been able to improve its student/teacher ratios.

June

KPERS payments and Kansas schools. There is a claim that a recent change in the handling of KPERS payments falsely inflates school spending. The Kansas State Department of Education says otherwise.

Regulation in Wichita, a ‘labyrinth of city processes’. Wichita offers special regulatory treatment for special circumstances, widening the gulf between the haves and have-nots.

They really are government schools. What’s wrong with the term “government schools?”

July

Kansas City Star as critic, or apologist. An editorial in the Kansas City Star criticizes a Kansas free-market think tank.

State and local government employee and payroll. Considering all state and local government employees in proportion to population, Kansas has many, compared to other states, and especially so in education.

Kansas government ‘hollowed-out’. Considering all state and local government employees in proportion to population, Kansas has many, compared to other states, and especially so in education.

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.

David Dennis, gleeful regulatory revisionist. David Dennis, candidate for Sedgwick County Commission, rewrites his history of service on the Kansas State Board of Education.

Say no to Kansas taxpayer-funded campaigning. Kansas taxpayers should know their tax dollars are helping staff campaigns for political office.

Roger Marshall campaign setting new standards. Attacks on Tim Huelskamp reveal the worst in political campaigning.

Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce on the campaign trail. We want to believe that The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and its PAC are a force for good. Why does the PAC need to be deceptive and untruthful?

August

Which Kansas Governor made these proposals?. Cutting spending for higher education, holding K through 12 public school spending steady, sweeping highway money to the general fund, reducing aid to local governments, spending down state reserves, and a huge projected budget gap. Who and when is the following newspaper report referencing?

Wichita Business Journal editorial missed the news on the Wichita economy. A Wichita business newspaper’s editorial ignores the history of our local economy. Even the history that it reported in its own pages.

Sedgwick County Health Department: Services provided. Sedgwick County government trimmed spending on health. What has been the result so far?

School staffing and students. Trends for the nation and each state in teachers, administrators, and students, presented in an interactive visualization.

Intrust Bank Arena loss for 2015 is $4.1 million. The depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita recognizes and accounts for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena.

School spending in the states. School spending in the states, presented in an interactive visualization.

September

Kansas construction employment. Tip to the Wichita Eagle editorial board: When a lobbying group feeds you statistics, try to learn what they really mean.

Wichita has no city sales tax, except for these. There is no Wichita city retail sales tax, but the city collects tax revenue from citizens when they buy utilities, just like a sales tax.

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.

Cost per visitor to Wichita cultural attractions. Wichitans might be surprised to learn the cost of cultural attractions.

GetTheFactsKansas launched. From Kansas Policy Institute and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, a new website with facts about the Kansas budget, economy, and schools.

The nation’s report card and charter schools.
* An interactive table of NAEP scores for the states and races, broken down by charter school and traditional public school.
* Some states have few or no charter schools.
* In many states, minority students perform better on the NAEP test when in charter schools.

School choice and funding. Opponents of school choice programs argue the programs harm traditional public schools, both financially and in their ability to serve their remaining students. Evidence does not support this position.

October

Public school experts. Do only those within the Kansas public schooling community have a say?

Kansas and Arizona schools. Arizona shows that Kansas is missing out on an opportunity to provide better education at lower cost.

Video in the Kansas Senate. A plan to increase visibility of the Kansas Senate is a good start, and needs to go just one or two steps farther.

Kansas, a frugal state?. Is Kansas a frugal state, compared to others?

Topeka Capital-Journal falls for a story. The editorial boards of two large Kansas newspapers have shown how little effort goes into forming the opinions they foist upon our state.

Kansas revenue estimates. Kansas revenue estimates are frequently in the news and have become a political issue. Here’s a look at them over the past decades.

Kansas school fund balances.
* Kansas school fund balances rose significantly this year, in both absolute dollars and dollars per pupil.
* Kansans might wonder why schools did not spend some of these funds to offset cuts they have contended were necessary.
* The interactive visualization holds data for each district since 2008.

In Wichita, developer welfare under a cloud. A downtown Wichita project receives a small benefit from the city, with no mention of the really big money.

Wichita, give back the Hyatt proceeds. Instead of spending the proceeds of the Hyatt hotel sale, the city should honor those who paid for the hotel — the city’s taxpayers.

Kansas Democrats: They don’t add it up — or they don’t tell us. Kansas Democrats (and some Republicans) are campaigning on some very expensive programs, and they’re aren’t adding it up for us.

November

How would higher Kansas taxes help?. Candidates in Kansas who promise more spending ought to explain just how higher taxes will — purportedly — help the Kansas economy.

Decoding the Kansas teachers union. Explaining to Kansans what the teachers union really means in its public communications.

Kansas school spending: Visualization. An interactive visualization of revenue and spending data for Kansas school districts.

Decoding Duane Goossen. The writing of Duane Goossen, a former Kansas budget director, requires decoding and explanation. This time, his vehicle is “Rise Up, Kansas.”

Decoding the Kansas teachers union. Decoding and deconstructing communications from KNEA, the Kansas teachers union, lets us discover the true purpose of the union.

Government schools’ entitlement mentality. If the Kansas personal income grows, should school spending also rise?

December

Wichita bridges, well memorialized. Drivers on East Twenty-First Street in Wichita are happy that the work on a small bridge is complete, but may not be pleased with one aspect of the project.

Gary Sherrer and Kansas Policy Institute. A former Kansas government official criticizes Kansas Policy Institute.

Wichita to grant property and sales tax relief. Several large employers in Wichita ask to avoid paying millions in taxes, which increases the cost of government for everyone else, including young companies struggling to break through.

Economic development incentives at the margin. The evaluation of economic development incentives in Wichita and Kansas requires thinking at the margin, not the entirety.

The Wichita economy, according to Milken Institute. The performance of the Wichita-area economy, compared to other large cities, is on a downward trend.

State pension cronyism. A new report details the way state pension funds harm workers and taxpayers through cronyism.

In Wichita, converting a hotel into street repairs. In Wichita, it turns out we have to sell a hotel in order to fix our streets.

In Wichita, we’ll not know how this tax money is spent. Despite claims to the contrary, the attitude of the City of Wichita towards citizens’ right to know is poor, and its attitude will likely be reaffirmed this week.

In Wichita, we’ll not know how this tax money is spent

Despite claims to the contrary, the attitude of the City of Wichita towards citizens’ right to know is poor, and its attitude will likely be reaffirmed this week.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider approval of a contract with Visit Wichita, the city’s convention and visitor bureau. Once again, citizens will be left out of knowing how the city’s tax money is spent.

In the past, I’ve asked that Visit Wichita (formerly Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau) make its spending records available. It’s the same type of information that the city will send you about its own spending. But for Go Wichita, spending must — apparently — be kept secret.

It’s not a small amount of money that will be spent in secret. This year the city will send Go Wichita almost $2.5 million.1

But that’s not all. Since the implementation of the “City Tourism Fee” Visit Wichita collects 2.75 percent of hotel bills. (Welcome to Wichita! Here’s the bill for your tourism fee!) That’s estimated to generate $3 million in 2017.2

That is a lot of tax money, and also a high proportion of the agency’s total funding. We don’t have IRS filings from Visit Wichita since the city tourism fee started, so it’s difficult to say what portion of its funding is tax money. But it’s a lot, at least 90 percent.

Despite being nearly totally funded by taxes, Visit Wichita refuses to supply spending records. Many believe that the Kansas Open Records Act requires that it comply with such requests. If the same money was being spent directly by the city, the records undoubtedly would be supplied.

I’ve appeared before the council several times to ask that Visit Wichita and similar organizations comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. See Go Wichita gets budget approved amid controversy over public accountability, City of Wichita Spends $2 million, Rebuffs Citizen’s Transparency Request, and articles at Open Records in Kansas.

The lack of transparency at Visit Wichita is more problematic than this. Visit Wichita refused to provide to me its contract with a California firm retained to help with the re-branding of Wichita. When the Wichita Eagle later asked for the contract, it too was refused. If the city had entered into such a contract, it would be a public record. Contracts like this are published each week in the agenda packet for city council meetings. But Visit Wichita feels it does not have to comply with simple transparency principles.

The City of Wichita could easily place conditions on the money it gives to these groups, requiring them to show taxpayers how their tax dollars are being spent. But the City does not do this. This is not transparency.

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

So let’s talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even it is the case that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require Visit Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit or prevent them from fulfilling requests for the types of records I’ve asked for. Even if the Sedgwick County District Attorney says that Visit Wichita is not required to release documents, the law does not prevent the release of these records.

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

Why does Visit Wichita want to keep secret how it spends taxpayer money, as much as $5.5 million next year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent? Many council members have spoken of how transparency is important. One said: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” That was Mayor Brewer speaking in his 2011 State of the City address.

The city’s official page for the current 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.”

Now is the chance to fulfill these promises. All the city needs to do is add to its contract with Visit Wichita that the agency agree that it is a public agency spending public dollars, and that it will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act.

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. It costs the city and its agencies nothing, because the open records law lets government charge for filling records requests. I would ask, however, that in the spirit of open transparent government, in respect for citizens’ right to know how tax funds are spent, and as a way to atone for past misdeeds, that Visit Wichita fulfill records requests at no charge.


Notes

  1. “The 2017 Adopted Budget includes funding for Visit Wichita’s annual allocation in the amount of $2,476,166, which is to be paid from the Convention & Tourism Fund.” City of Wichita. Agenda for December 20, 2016.
  2. “For 2017 the tax is budgeted to generate $3 million.” City of Wichita. Agenda for April 19, 2016.