Tag Archives: Wichita city council

Wichita in ‘Best Cities for Jobs 2018’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita has momentum, they say

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

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

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

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

In March Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis penned a column for the Wichita Eagle praising the county’s efforts in economic development. 5 Dennis is also chair of the commission this year. In his column, the commissioner wrote: “Economic development is a key topic for the Board of County Commissioners and for me in particular. Right now we have a lot of momentum to make our community a more attractive place for people and businesses.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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


Notes

  1. “The methodology for our 2018 ranking largely corresponds to that used in previous years. We seek to measure the robustness of metro areas’ growth both recently and over time, with some minor corrections to mitigate the volatility that the Great Recession has introduced into the earlier parts of the time series. The ranking is based on three-month rolling averages of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ ‘state and area’ unadjusted employment data reported from November 2006 to January 2018.” 2018 How We Pick The Best Cities For Job Growth. Available at http://www.newgeography.com/content/005973-2018-how-we-pick-best-cities-job-growth.
  2. 2017 How We Pick The Best Cities For Job Growth. Available at http://www.newgeography.com/content/005618-2017-how-we-pick-best-cities-job-growth.
  3. Daniel McCoy. ICT Millennial Summit: Wichita is having a moment. Wichita Business Journal, November 30, 3017. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2017/11/30/ict-millennial-summit-wichita-is-having-a-moment.html.
  4. Heck, Josh. Emerging Leaders panel offers insight into eco-devo strategies. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2018/01/11/emerging-leaders-panel-offers-insight-into-eco.html.
  5. David Dennis. Sedgwick County part of drive to strengthen area workforce. Wichita Eagle, March 5, 2018. Available at http://www.kansas.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/article203559734.html.
  6. Wichita is moving forward. March 1, 2018. Available at http://www.kansas.com/opinion/editorials/article135573253.html.
  7. Bill Wilson. Wichita council member unveils bid for county commission. Wichita Business Journal, November 30, 3017. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2018/02/13/wichita-council-member-unveils-bid-for-county.html.
  8. Weeks, Bob. Wichita personal income up, a little. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-personal-income-up-2016/.
  9. Weeks, Bob. Downtown Wichita business trends. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/downtown-wichita-business-trends/.
  10. Weeks, Bob. Wichita unemployment rate falls. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/economics/wichita-unemployment-rate-falls-2018-03/.
  11. Weeks, Bob. Wichita economy shrinks. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/economics/wichita-economy-shrinks/.
  12. In some presentations these figures may differ slightly due to data revisions and methods of aggregation. These differences are small and not material.

How much will this cost Wichita taxpayers?

How much, if anything, do tax abatements cost?

Someone asked a question regarding an item on the Wichita City Council agenda today: How much will this cost taxpayers?

The item in question is agenda item IV-1: Public Hearing and Request for a Letter of Intent to Issue Industrial Revenue Bonds (WAM Investments #6, LLC). 1

Attached was an article from the Wichita Business Journal previewing the matter. 2

How much do these bonds cost taxpayers? It’s important to remember that with Industrial Revenue Bonds in Kansas, cities and counties are not the lender. 3 If this company was not able to pay the bond interest or principle, the city would be under no obligation to pay. The city makes no guarantee as to repayment. Bond buyers know this.

(As an aside, the Business Journal article states: “However, using IRB financing can help the company secure a lower interest rate.” This is simply not true unless the bonds are tax-exempt municipal bonds. Those bonds have a lower interest rate because the interest income is not subject to income tax. But the IRBs considered today are not tax-exempt.)

So if the city is not lending money, and if the city is not guaranteeing repayment, do these bonds have a cost to taxpayers? The answer depends on which side of the fence you sit.

The benefit to WAM, today’s applicant, is that IRBs carry with them tax abatements. Specifically, a whole or partial exemption from paying some property taxes. Additionally, IRBs also enable escape from paying sales tax on purchases made with bond proceeds.

So one way to look at the IRBs is that they do indeed have a cost. The city, county, school district, and state will not receive tax revenue they otherwise would receive.

Supporters of this incentive make two rebuttals. One is that without the tax abatements, the project would not be built. Therefore, no tax revenue. So by abating taxes for a period of time, the project can be built, and after the abatements expire, it will be paying taxes. (For this project, the property tax abatement is for five or likely ten years, with a reduced rate of abatement in the final five.)

The second argument is that by building something, new jobs and commerce are created. These new employees and commercial activity pay taxes. The city and other jurisdictions receive more from these new taxes than they gave up in tax abatements. This is called the benefit-cost ratio. It’s computed by Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. City documents often refer to something like a “1.57:1 benefit-cost ratio,” meaning that for every one dollar foregone in tax revenue, the city expects to gain $1.57 in other tax revenue.

There are problems with these arguments. For the first: The developer of this project says the incentives are “critical.” If true, this claim exposes a large problem, which is if taxes are so high as to block investment, how are we going to grow as a city and region? Will every project require tax incentives? If not, why do some say they need incentives, and some don’t?

Second: Remember that government says that with the new project, tax revenue will increase. But this almost always happens regardless of whether the company has received incentives. Therefore, the benefit-cost ratio calculations are valid only if incentives were absolutely necessary.

Are incentives necessary? The benefiting companies usually make their case with a lot of numbers and projections, most of which are simply guesses. Plus, there is strong incentive to not tell — to not know — the truth. Here’s why. Suppose fictional company XYZ dangles the idea of expanding its presence in Wichita, or maybe in some other city. XYZ cites incentive packages offered by other cities. Wichita comes up with millions in incentives, and XYZ decides to expand in Wichita. Question: Were the incentives necessary? Was the threat to expand elsewhere genuine? If XYZ admits the threat was not real, then it has falsely held Wichita hostage for incentives. If the city or state admits the threat was not real, then citizens wonder why government gave away so much. No one has an incentive to be truthful. 4

Back to the item on today’s agenda. How much tax revenue is foregone through the abatements? City documents in the agenda packet did not have these numbers, but a presentation made to council members did, as follows:

Value of one year 95% tax abatement ($6,000,000 at 80%)
City of Wichita: $37,240
Sedgwick County: $33,508
USD 375 (Circle public schools): $61,255
State of Kansas: $1,710
Total: $133,713

These values would apply annually for five years. If occupancy goals are met, the incentives would apply for another five years, at a lower rate. (The values above are 95 percent of the usual taxes. The rate for the second five years would be 50 percent of the usual taxes.)

(As an aside, the Business Journal should not use headlines like it did in this case: “Wichita City Council to consider $6 million in IRBs for industrial spec building.” A better headline would be something like “Wichita City Council to consider $133,713 in annual tax abatements.” That is the real economic transaction that happened today.)

But this is not all. The applicant company will almost certainly receive an exemption from paying sales tax on the building. City documents did not provide an estimate for how much sales tax might be abated, but it could be several hundred thousand dollars.


Notes

  1. Wichita City Council agenda packet for May 1, 2108.
  2. Daniel McCoy. Wichita City Council to consider $6 million in IRBs for industrial spec building. Wichita Business Journal, April 30, 2018. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2018/04/30/wichita-city-council-to-consider-6-million-in-irbs.html.
  3. Weeks, Bob. Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/industrial-revenue-bonds-kansas/.
  4. For more on this, see LeRoy, Greg. The Great American Jobs Scam. Especially chapter two, titled Site Location 101: How Companies Decide Where to Expand or Relocate. The entire book may be read online at http://www.greatamericanjobsscam.com/pages/preview-book.html. A relevant excerpt: “These prisoners’ dilemma games also enable companies to create fictions about cause and effect. These fictions can be used to create public versions of how deals happened that no one can credibly contradict, because the company’s real decision-making process will never be revealed. The most important fiction to maintain, of course, is that subsidies matter in deciding where a company expands or relocates. For example, being able to send secret signals to competing cities means companies can tell contradictory stories to different cities and have no fear of being exposed. If a company really has its heart set on City A, it can tell that city that it is in the hunt, but needs to do better. Meanwhile, it can send less urgent signals to Cities B and C, even if they offered bigger packages at first. Eventually, City A offers the biggest package, and the company announces its decision to go there.”

Wichita tourism fee budget

The Wichita City Council will consider a budget for the city’s tourism fee paid by hotel guests.

If you stay at a hotel in Wichita, you’ll pay sales tax of 7.5 percent, hotel tax (transient guest tax) of 6.00 percent, and since 2015, a tourism fee of 2.75 percent. The tourism fee arises from the city’s creating of a Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID), with boundaries matching those of the city. 1 Funds collected from this fee go to Visit Wichita, the city’s visitor and convention bureau. (Of note, the TBID ordinance specifies that if the tax is itemized on hotel bills, it is to be called the “Tourism Fee.” Everyone pays, even those who are not tourists.) (Also, some hotels are in Community Improvement Districts, charging up to another 2 percent.)

Coming to Wichita for business. (Click for a larger version.)

This week the Wichita City Council will consider the budget for the use of this tourism fee revenue. 2 City documents (the agenda packet) show actual results and goals for economic impact. As can be seen in the nearby excerpt, for leisure travel in 2017, Visit Wichita claims $81,343,227 in economic impact. This figure comes from summing identifiable dollars, which comes to $20,433,737. Then a multiplier is applied to produce the economic impact. All this results in a return of investment of $53 dollars for every dollar of investment (“Media Leisure Investment”), Visit Wichita says. (This is for the “leisure” market segment only. There are separate goals and statistics for group travel, which is meetings, conventions, or sporting events.)

This data represents what is called “incremental” travel, for which Visit Wichita takes credit: “The rate of travel by those who are ‘unaware’ is considered the base rate of travel, which would have been achieved if no advertising were placed. Any travel above this base by ‘aware’ households is considered influenced — or the rate of incremental travel.” 3

As for the performance of the overall Wichita hotel market, growth is slow. Looking at growth in hotel tax collections, only two of the ten largest markets in Kansas have grown slower than Wichita. This is since January 1, 2015, which was when the tourism fee started. (Hotel tax collections collected by the Kansas Department of Revenue do not include local taxes like the city tourism fee.)

Further, if we were expecting a boost in hotel sales from the recent hosting of NCAA basketball tournament games, that didn’t happen. See Effect of NCAA basketball tournament on Wichita hotel tax revenues.

Kansas transient guest tax collections are available in an interactive visualization here.

Example from the visualization. Click for larger.


Notes

  1. City of Wichita, Ordinance No. 49-677. Available at http://www.wichita.gov/CityClerk/OrdanicesDocuments/49-677%20TBID%20Ordinance%20-%20version%204.pdf.
  2. Wichita city council agenda packet for May 1, 2018.
  3. City council agenda packet.

Free standing emergency department about to open in Wichita

A project in Wichita received substantial subsidy from taxpayers. How have public policy issues been reported?

Free standing emergency rooms are a recent trend in medical care. This is a facility that has equipment, personnel, and capability like a traditional hospital emergency room, but is not connected to a hospital. The first in Wichita is nearly ready to open, on Twenty-first Street east of Webb Road.

Regarding the Wichita facility, the Wichita Business Journal quoted Malik Idbeis, chief information officer for Kansas Medical Center: “We see a lot of patients from the northeast side of Wichita. We thought it’d be nice to bring our style of care closer to them. There are a lot of neighborhoods and families in that area.” 1

Here, the spokesman is promoting that facility is located convenient to (affluent) families in northeast Wichita. That wasn’t the argument made to the Wichita City Council last year when the facility applied for tax relief through the Industrial Revenue Bonds program. At that time, the facility was pitched as an attraction that would serve many out-of-town customers. City documents reported: “The current Economic Development Policy requires medical facilities to attract at least 30% of patients from outside the Wichita MSA. Kansas Medical Center reviewed the location of patients utilizing the emergency room in Andover, which revealed that 37% come from outside the Wichita MSA.” 2

It seems a stretch to assume that the demographic characteristics of a hospital in Andover would also apply to an emergency room in Wichita, but the city council accepted this reasoning.

Aside from this, the Wichita Business Journal article contains problems in its reporting of public policy issues. The reporter wrote: “Last summer, the Wichita City Council authorized issuing industrial revenue bonds for the project to help finance land and construction costs. With IRBs, the city serves as a pass-through entity for developers to obtain a lower interest rate on projects. IRBs require no taxpayer commitment.” (For background on IRBs in Kansas, see Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas.)

It’s not likely the facility will save on interest costs with IRBs. It might save if the bonds were non-taxable, but these bonds are taxable, according to the agenda packet for this item. The article is correct in that IRBs require no taxpayer commitment — at least superficially. Here, I believe the reporter is letting readers know that the city makes no guarantee as to the bond repayment. If the city guaranteed repayment, that would help the borrower obtain a lower interest rate. But there is no guarantee.

Instead, the benefit of the IRB program is lower taxes. The city estimates the first-year property tax savings to be $61,882, allocated this way: City of Wichita: $17,226. State of Kansas: $792. Sedgwick County: $5,520. USD 259 (Wichita public school district): $28,345. Savings like this would be realized for five years, plus another five years if employment commitments are met.

This property tax forgiveness is, in many ways, a “taxpayer commitment.” If we don’t recognize that, then we must reconsider the foundation of local tax policy.

In Wichita, as in most cities, the largest consumers of property tax dollars are the city, county, and school district. All justify their tax collections by citing the services they provide: Law enforcement, fire protection, education, etc. It is for providing these services that we pay local taxes.

But through the Industrial Revenue Bond program, properties don’t pay property tax. (In the case of this facility, the property tax abatement is limited to 88 percent of the full tax burden.)

Yet, this new facility will undoubtedly demand and consume the services local government provides — law enforcement, fire protection, and education. But it won’t be paying property tax to support these services (except for the 12 percent not abated). Others will have to pay this cost.

We’re left with an uncomfortable and awkward circumstance. City officials tell us that we must pay property tax so the city can provide services. (In fact, last year the Wichita city manager recommended increasing property taxes to pay for more police officers.)

At the same time, however, the city creates special classes of people who use services but don’t pay for them.

Often the justification for economic development incentives is economic necessity, that is, the project could not be built without the incentive. That argument was not made for this project.

Free standing emergency rooms

Free standing emergency departments are controversial. The notes to this article hold references to news articles and academic studies looking at the costs and usage of these facilities. 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Researchers note that the emergency rooms are much more expensive than traditional doctor offices or urgent care facilities, yet many of the diagnoses made at the ERs are the same as made at non-emergency facilities.


Notes

  1. Heck, Josh. Medical group sets opening date for free-standing ER. Wichita Business Journal. Available at https://www.bizjournals.com/wichita/news/2018/04/06/medical-group-sets-opening-date-for-free-standing.html.
  2. City of Wichita. Request for Letter of Intent for Industrial Revenue Bonds (E Wichita Properties, LLC/Kansas Medical Center, LLC). City Council agenda packet for June 6, 2017.
  3. NBC News. You Thought It Was An Urgent Care Center, Until You Got the Bill. Available at https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-care/you-thought-it-was-urgent-care-center-until-you-got-n750906.
  4. Carolyn Y. Johnson. Free-standing ERs offer care without the wait. But patients can still pay $6,800 to treat a cut. Washington Post, May 7, 2017. Available at http://wapo.st/2pUCskD?tid=ss_tw&utm_term=.21bb76a447aa.
  5. Rice, Sabriya.Texans overpaid for some medical services by thousands, study says. Dallas Morning News. Available at https://www.dallasnews.com/business/health-care/2017/03/23/texans-overpaid-medical-services-thousands-study-said.
  6. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas. Rice U. Study: Freestanding Emergency Departments In Texas Deliver Costly Care, ‘Sticker Shock’. Available at https://www.bcbstx.com/company-info/news/news?lid=j0s5sm9d.
  7. Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc. Dissecting the Cost of a Freestanding Emergency Department Visit. Available at https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/ucaoa.site-ym.com/resource/resmgr/Alan_Ayers_Blog/UCAOA_Ayers_Blog_FSED_Pricin.pdf.
  8. Michael L. Callaham. Editor in Chief Overview: A Controversy About Freestanding Emergency Departments. Annals of Emergency Medicine, Volume 70, Issue 6, 2017, pp. 843-845. Available at http://www.annemergmed.com/article/S0196-0644(17)31505-6/fulltext.
  9. Ho, Vivian et al. Comparing Utilization and Costs of Care in Freestanding Emergency Departments, Hospital Emergency Departments, and Urgent Care Centers. Annals of Emergency Medicine, Volume 70 , Issue 6 , 846 – 857.e3. Available at http://www.annemergmed.com/article/S0196-0644(16)31522-0/fulltext.
  10. Jeremiah D. Schuur, Donald M. Yealy, Michael L. Callaham. Comparing Freestanding Emergency Departments, Hospital-Based Emergency Departments, and Urgent Care in Texas: Apples, Oranges, or Lemons? Annals of Emergency Medicine, Volume 70, Issue 6, 2017, pp. 858-861. Available at http://www.annemergmed.com/article/S0196-0644(17)30473-0/fulltext.

Wichita baseball consulting contract extension may have no discussion

The City of Wichita proposes to extend a baseball consulting contract without public explanation or discussion.

Wichita city leaders want a better baseball team, not to mention a new stadium. To help find a minor league baseball team, the city engaged a consultant last October. 1 That contract called for a spending limit of $50,000. 2

You may have noticed that there has not been an announcement of a team. It also appears that the $50,000 spending cap of the October contract has been reached (or nearly so). So next Tuesday the city council will consider spending (up to) another $50,000 with the same consultant. 3

Why the need for a contract extension? City documents explain: “Over the course of the past six months, Beacon has made successful inroads into the affiliated baseball community presenting the opportunities for MiLB and its teams. Due to the success in attracting the interest of affiliated baseball, staff believes it is imperative to further pursue affiliated baseball discussions with the assistance and expertise of Beacon Sports Capital Partners, LLC.”

I’m afraid I just don’t understand. The consultant’s effort has been successful, says the city, but yet there is no team. It’s really puzzling because last August Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell was confident there would be an announcement before the end of 2017:

“By the end of this calendar year, we feel confident that we will be able to announce a team, who the team is, all of the above,” Longwell told The Eagle Tuesday afternoon. “We hope that we can complete all of those conversations by the end of this year and be able to announce a contract in place.” 4

That confidence was expressed before the engagement of the consultant in October.

Consent agenda, again

The city council will deal with this matter on its consent agenda. A consent agenda is a group of items — perhaps as many as two dozen or so — that are voted on in bulk with a single vote. An item on a consent agenda will be explained and discussed only if a council member requests the item to be “pulled.” If that is done, there will be discussion. Then the item might be withdrawn, delayed, voted on by itself, or folded back into the consent agenda with the other items.

“Pulling” an item is uncommon, as items on consent agendas are not controversial, at least according to the city’s reasoning. I suppose that applies to this item, as the first contract with this consultant was also handled on the consent agenda. And on March 27 the council authorized the spending of over $7 million on a consent agenda item. 5


Notes

  1. Weeks, Bob. A consultant to help Wichita’s confidence factor. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/consultant-help-wichita-confidence-factor/.
  2. “MiLB Baseball Consultant Contract.” Wichita City Council Agenda packet for October 24, 2017. Available at http://www.wichita.gov/Council/Agendas/10-24-2017%20City%20Council%20Agenda%20Packet.pdf.
  3. “MiLB Baseball Consultant Contract Amendment.” Wichita City Council Agenda packet for April 10, 2018. Agenda Report No. II-15. Available at <a href=”http://www.wichita.gov/Council/Agendas/04-10-2018%20City%20Council%20Agenda%20Packet.pdf.
  4. Salazar, Daniel. Expect affiliated baseball team announcement by end of 2017, Wichita mayor says. Wichita Eagle, August 29, 2017. Available at http://www.kansas.com/news/local/article170095417.html.
  5. Weeks, Bob. In Wichita, spending semi-secret. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-spending-semi-secret/.

Wichita property tax rate: Down

The City of Wichita property tax mill levy declined for the second year in a row.

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 2017 it was 32.667, based on the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and the Sedgwick County Clerk. That’s an increase of 1.377 mills, or 4.40 percent, since 1994. (These are for taxes levied by the City of Wichita only, and do not include any overlapping jurisdictions.)

In 2016 the mill levy was 32.685, so the mill levy dropped by .018 for 2017. That’s a drop of 0.06 percent, and while small, it’s a refreshing change. It’s also the second year in a row for a decrease in the mill levy.

Wichita mill levy rates. Click for larger version.
The Wichita City Council does not take explicit action to set the mill levy 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.

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 city usually decides to spend more than the previous year’s mill levy generates in taxes. Therefore, tax rates usually rise.

Change in Wichita mill levy rates, year-to-year and cumulative. Click for larger version.
It’s more common for the mill levy to rise rather than to fall. In those years, the council does not take responsibility to the rise. It will be interesting to see if council members take credit for the falling mill levy this year.

An increase of 4.40 percent over two decades may not seem like much of an increase. But this is an increase in a rate of taxation, not tax revenue. As property values rise, property tax bills rise, even if the mill levy rate is unchanged.

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 2017 it was 8.511. That’s a reduction of 1.511 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 2017 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.

In Wichita, spending semi-secret

The Wichita City Council authorized the spending of a lot of money without discussion.

At its March 27, 2018 meeting, the Wichita City Council passed a resolution authorizing the spending of funds for the River Vista development on the west bank of the Arkansas River in downtown.

The agenda packet for the meeting gave the details: “The overall project budget is $7,862,999 with STAR Bonds financing $4,750,000 of the costs and the City financing $1,050,000. The balance of the project costs will be assessed against the Improvement District.”

(STAR bonds are a mechanism whereby future sales tax revenue is routed to the project developer, rather than paying for the cost of state and Sedgwick County government. The “Improvement District” is the development itself, and the “City” is, of course, the taxpayers of Wichita.)

All this was approved by the city council at its meeting on July 21, 2015, under the item “Amendment to Amended and Restated Development Agreement – River Vista, L.L.C. (West Bank Apartments) and issuance of Sales Tax Special Obligation Revenue (STAR) Bonds (District VI).” It appeared on the March 27, 2018 agenda so that a resolution formalizing the arrangement could be passed.

Was the council’s action of public business and interest? The city council didn’t think so. The item was passed as part of the meeting’s consent agenda. This is a bundle of agenda items that are voted on in bulk, with one single vote, unless a council member requests an item be “pulled” for discussion and possibly a separate vote. If no council member asks to pull an item, there is no discussion.

No one asked to “pull” this agenda item for a discussion and vote.

Generally, items on consent agendas are not controversial, at least according to the city’s reasoning. I suppose that applies to this item, as the spending was approved in the past.

It might have been useful, however, to remind Wichitans of the taxpayer-supplied subsidy going to this project. Just so we’re reminded now and then of where our money is going.

But: The principals of the apartment project are frequent seekers of taxpayer subsidy, and likely plan to ask for more — much more — in the future. Some are also big funders of campaigns, in particular that of Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell. We call this cronyism.

So the consent agenda provides a handy place to pass laws without discussing them, hoping that no one will notice. Semi-secret.

As it turns out, the Wichita Business Journal noticed this item and wrote the article West bank Arkansas River upgrades on City Council agenda. The article starts with “Wichita’s City Council on Tuesday is scheduled to discuss …” But because of the consent agenda and no council member believing the spending deserved attention, that discussion never happened.

Naftzger Park private use plans unsettled

An important detail regarding Naftzger Park in downtown Wichita is unsettled, and Wichitans have reason to be wary.

In the developer agreement regarding Naftzger Park passed on December 19, 2017, there was this: “The City and the Board will cooperate with Developers, upon Developers’ request, to create an Annual Master Calendar of private and public events for the Park, with the expectation that the Developers will have the use of the Park for certain private events.” 1 (In this agreement, “Board” refers to the Board of Park Commissioners of the City of Wichita, Kansas.)

Recently I asked the city if this master calendar had been created, or if there was a framework for determining how many private events can be held. According to the city, decisions are ongoing, and “According to Park & Recreation officials, what can be shared now is that the City will create and maintain a master calendar of events and programming. The developer will share in the programming responsibility and host several events throughout the year. Collaborating will ensure that the park is programmed well and active.”

Wichitans should not take comfort in learning this. We can easily imagine where the developer will want to have private events often, especially if homeless people continue using the park as a gathering spot, as is their right. “TGIF kickoff, tonight at Naftzger Park! Drinks and hot hors d’oeuvre! $15 to enter, free to residents of Lofts at Spaghetti Works and partners at Martin Pringle.”

Could this happen? How often could this happen? These are open questions, and we’re being asked to trust that city bureaucrats will negotiate a good deal for the entire city.

A panoramic view of Naftzger Park at winter’s end. Click for larger.

We shouldn’t trust the city to get a good deal for the average Wichitan. Even if the city strikes a deal that looks good, we should not trust the city to enforce the deal. Here’s an example to illustrate why.

In 2012 the city negotiated a deal with a private developer regarding an apartment development. As part of the deal, the city negotiated a provision that requires the apartment developer to pay “Additional Annual Rent” if certain conditions were met. To the casual observer, that might seem like a magnanimous gesture by the apartment developer. It made it look like the city was been a tough negotiator, hammering out a good deal for the city, letting citizens profit along with the apartment developer.

But the list of costs the developer could deduct before determining “additional annual rent” was broad, including the ability to contribute to reserve funds that would be owned by the developer. At the time, I observed, “We can be sure that if this project was ever in the position where it looked like it might have to remit ‘Additional Annual Rent’ to the city, contributions to these reserve funds would rise. Then, no funds paid to the city.” 2

As it turns out, the city did not enforce this agreement. It didn’t even ask for the information needed. Last year I became aware that the city did not ask for, and the developers did not produce, annual reports. 3

So might it happen that the private developments adjacent to Naftzger Park treat the park as their own? Recall that these developers have taken advantage of nearly every available program to fund their private developments. 4 Included in the list of benefits is a new benefit the city has offered only once before, to my knowledge: The city is paying the developer for parking spaces, on the theory they will be available to the public when the development does not need them.

Many of these benefits to the developer appeared only after the Wichita city manager said the development would not proceed, as the Wichita Eagle reported: “Plans to tear up and rebuild Naftzger Park downtown have been shelved indefinitely, after developers who own neighboring property pulled out of working with the city, Wichita City Manager Robert Layton said Friday [November 17, 2017].” 5 Somehow the deal was quickly revived, with even more taxpayer-funded benefits to the developer.

Should Wichitans trust the city to negotiate a good deal, and if it does, to enforce it? In my experience, the answer is no.


Notes

  1. DEVELOPMENT AGREEMENT between the CITY OF WICHITA, KANSAS, BOARD OF PARK COMMISSIONERS OF THE CITY OF WICHITA, KANSAS, SENECA PROPERTY, LLC, and SUNFLOWER WICHITA, LLC Dated as of January 19, 2018. Section 3.12. In the agenda packet for the December 19, 2017 Wichita city council meeting.
  2. Weeks, Bob. Wichita WaterWalk apartment deal not good for citizens. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-waterwalk-apartment-deal-not-good-for-citizens/.
  3. Weeks, Bob. Wichita WaterWalk contract not followed, again. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-waterwalk-contract-not-followed/.
  4. Weeks, Bob. Naftzger Park project details. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/naftzger-park-project-details/.
  5. Lefler, Dion. Naftzger Park won’t be torn down, rebuilt after Spaghetti Works developer pulls out. Wichita Eagle, november 17, 2017. Available at http://www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article185304103.html.

Wichita city council public agenda needs reform

Recent use of the Wichita City Council public agenda has highlighted the need for reform.

At meetings of the Wichita city council, non-council members generally have two opportunities to address the council members. One is as each agenda item is considered. There is (usually) an opportunity to speak only on that topic. If you want to speak about something else, there is also an opportunity near the start of the meeting called the public agenda.

The council has policies regarding the public agenda, particularly the need to sign up before the meeting, and far in advance: “Members of the public desiring to present matters to the council on the public agenda must submit a request in writing to the office of the city manager prior to twelve noon on the Tuesday preceding the council meeting.” 1

The practical problem is this: If the council takes action on Tuesday that inspires someone to address the council on the public agenda, that probably can’t happen at the next council meeting, if the policy is followed as stated. For one thing, the council might not take action until after noon, so the deadline for speaking at the next meeting has passed by then. But more likely and most importantly, many people are not able to watch the council meeting live. Instead, they may view a delayed broadcast on cable television, watch the meeting through the city’s website, or read news reporting. By the time any of these happen, the deadline for the next meeting’s public agenda has passed.

Why is this important? In Kansas cities of the first class, a law is not “officially passed” until it has passed on “second reading.” 2 This is a procedure whereby an ordinance that has passed “first reading” is voted upon again, and if it passes, it then may become law. Often second reading happens at the next council meeting, one week later. (“First reading” is what people see in meetings and is reported in news stories. A proposed ordinance is explained, usually by city staff. Then there may be discussion from the public and among council members, and then a vote.)

So if a person has a problem with an ordinance that passed first reading and wants to speak to the council before the second reading of the ordinance, that probably won’t be possible, for timing reasons explained above.

There’s the related issue that the second reading is placed on the consent agenda. A consent agenda is a group of items — perhaps as many as two dozen or so — that are voted on in bulk with a single vote. An item on a consent agenda will be discussed only if a council member requests the item to be “pulled.” If that is done, the item will be discussed. Then it might be withdrawn, voted on by itself, or folded back into the consent agenda with the other items. Generally, consent agenda items are considered by the city to be routine and non-controversial, but that is not always the case.

It is very rare for the second reading of an ordinance to be “pulled” from a consent agenda for discussion and separate vote. It may have happened, and if so, I can’t recall when. So even if you spoke on the public agenda regarding an ordinance at the meeting where that same ordinance appears on second reading, your speech might not mean much unless a council member “pulls” the item from the consent agenda for discussion and possibly, an individual vote.

By the way, one speaker said that the council’s policies meant there could be only 20 speakers per month. I think the arithmetic behind this comes from the council’s policy of five speakers per meeting and four meetings per month. It’s actually less than that. As explained on the council’s web site, the fourth meeting of a month is a “workshop” meeting. At these meetings the council considers consent agenda items only, along with information presentations (the workshop). There is no public agenda at these fourth Tuesday meetings, and the council doesn’t meet on fifth Tuesdays.

(You may be wondering: Does second reading ever happen in the fourth Tuesday meetings where there is no public agenda? Yes. It happened on January 23, 2018, for example.)

Would reform of the council’s public agenda make a difference? Do council members listen to and consider the opinions of speakers on the public agenda?

That’s a good question!


Notes

  1. Wichita City Council. INSTRUCTIONS FOR PUBLIC AGENDA REQUEST FORMS. Accessed March 20, 2018. Available at http://www.wichita.gov/Council/CityCouncilDocument/PUBLIC%20AGENDA%20REQUEST%20FORM.pdf.
  2. Myers, Bob. Drafting of City Ordinances and Resolutions In Kansas. Available at http://webs.wichita.edu/depttools/depttoolsmemberfiles/hugowall/Outline%20-%20Res%20and%20Ord%20Drafting.pdf.

WichitaLiberty.TV: John Todd and the fight against blight

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

Shownotes

Property under attack in Kansas

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

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

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

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

Growing the Wichita economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita MSA unemployment through September 2017. Click for larger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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

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


Notes

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

In Wichita, three Community Improvement Districts to be considered

In Community Improvement Districts (CID), merchants charge additional sales tax for the benefit of the property owners, instead of the general public. Wichita may have an additional three, contributing to the problem of CID sprawl.

This week the Wichita City Council will hold public hearings considering the formation of three Community Improvement Districts. In Kansas Community Improvement Districts, merchants charge additional sales tax for the benefit of the property owners, instead of the general public. 1

Each of these CIDs will charge customers additional sales tax, with a cap on the amount that may be raised, and a separate cap on the length of the CID. For the three projects this week, here are the details: 2

Delano Catalyst CID: 2% additional tax, raising up to $3,000,000, up to 22 years
Spaghetti Works CID: 2% additional tax, raising up to $3,118,504, up to 22 years
Chicken N Pickle CID: 1.5% additional tax, raising up to $2,300,000, up to 15 years

All these CIDs are of the pay-as-you-go type, which means the city is not borrowing money that would be repaid by the CID tax proceeds. Instead, the CID tax proceeds are periodically sent to the landowners as they are collected. The city retains a 5% administrative fee.

Additionally, two of these CIDs earmark 10% of the CID tax collections for public benefits, which are extra park maintenance for the Spaghetti Works CID, and street improvements for the Chicken N Pickle CID. While these earmarks may seem magnanimous gestures, they directly work to the developers’ benefit. For Spaghetti Works, Naftzger Park is, in effect, becoming the front yard to a development. It will be of great benefit for it to be maintained well, especially considering that the developers will be able to close the park for private events. For the Chicken N Pickle CID, the street improvements the CID will fund are usually paid for by special tax assessments on the nearby landowners, which in this case is the Chicken N Pickle. This is a large savings.

By the way, none of the applications for these economic development incentives pleads economic necessity. They simply want more money, and are willing to let government take the blame when customers notice they’re paying 9% or 9.5% sales tax in these districts.

Of additional note: The Delano and Spaghetti Works developments are receiving many millions of taxpayer-provided subsidy from other economic development incentive programs. 3 4

It will be interesting to see how the council’s two new members, Brandon Johnson (district 1, northeast Wichita) and Cindy Claycomb (district 6, north central Wichita), will vote in these matters. As Progressives, we might expect them to be opposed to higher sales taxes, which affect low-income households disproportionally. We also might expect them to be opposed to targeted tax incentives for the “wealthy,” such as the now-defunct exemption on pass-through business income in Kansas. Here, they are asked to vote on a highly targeted tax incentive that will benefit identifiable wealthy parties.

Issues regarding CID

Perhaps the most important public policy issue regarding CIDs is this: If merchants feel they need to collect additional revenue from their customers, why don’t they simply raise their prices? But the premise of this question is not accurate, as it is not the merchants who receive CID funds. The more accurate question is why don’t landlords raise their rents? That puts them at a competitive disadvantage with property owners that are not within CIDs. Better for us, they rationalize, that unwitting customers pay higher sales taxes for our benefit.

Consumer protection
Customers of merchants in CIDS ought to know in advance that an extra CID tax is charged. Some have recommended warning signage that protects customers from unknowingly shopping in stores, restaurants, and hotels that will be adding extra sales tax to purchases. Developers who want to benefit from CID money say that merchants object to signage, fearing it will drive away customers.

State law is silent on this. The City of Wichita requires a sign indicating that CID financing made the project possible, with no hint that customers will pay additional tax, or how much extra tax. The city also maintains a website showing CIDs. This form of notification is so weak as to be meaningless. See Wichita community improvement districts should have warning signs and In Wichita, two large community improvement districts proposed. In the latter, future Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell argued that signs showing different tax rates for different merchants would be confusing. Council Member Sue Schlapp said she supported transparency in government, but informing consumers of extra taxes would make the program “useless.”

Eligible costs
One of the follies in government economic development policy is the categorization of costs into eligible and non-eligible costs. The proceeds from programs like CIDs and tax increment financing may be used only for costs in the “eligible” category. I suggest that we stop arbitrarily distinguishing between “eligible costs” and other costs. When city bureaucrats and politicians use a term like “eligible costs” it makes this process seem benign. It makes it seem as though we’re not really supplying corporate welfare and subsidy.

As long as the developer has to spend money on what we call “eligible costs,” the fact that the city subsidy is restricted to these costs has no economic meaning. Suppose I gave you $10 with the stipulation that you could spend it only on next Monday. Would you deny that I had enriched you by $10? Of course not. As long as you were planning to spend $10 next Monday, or could shift your spending from some other day to Monday, this restriction has no economic meaning.

Notification and withdrawal
If a merchant moves into an existing CID, how might they know beforehand that they will have to charge the extra sales tax? It’s a simple matter to learn the property taxes a piece of property must pay. But if a retail store moves into a vacant storefront in a CID, how would this store know that it will have to charge the extra CID sales tax? This is an important matter, as the extra tax could place the store at a competitive disadvantage, and the prospective retailer needs to know of the district’s existence and its terms.

Then, if a business tires of being in a CID — perhaps because it realizes it has put itself at a competitive disadvantage — how can the district be dissolved?

The nature of taxation
CIDs allow property owners to establish their own private taxing district for their exclusive benefit. This goes against the grain of the way taxes are usually thought of. Generally, we use taxation as a way to pay for services that everyone benefits from, and from which we can’t exclude people. An example would be police protection. Everyone benefits from being safe, and we can’t exclude people from participating in — and benefiting from — police protection.

But CIDs allow taxes to be collected for the benefit of one specific entity. This goes against the principle of broad-based taxation to pay for an array of services for everyone. But in this case, the people who benefit from the CID are quite easy to identify: the property owners in the district.


Notes

  1. Weeks, Bob. Community improvement districts in Kansas. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/community-improvement-districts-kansas/.
  2. Wichita City Council Agenda Packet for January 9, 2018. Agenda items IV-1, IV-2, and IV-3.
  3. Weeks, Bob. Naftzger Park project details. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/naftzger-park-project-details/.
  4. Weeks, Bob. Delano catalyst site. https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/delano-catalyst-site/.

Naftzger Park project details

The city has finalized a proposal for a development near Naftzger Park. It includes a few new and creative provisions.

This week the City of Wichita will consider a development agreement for land and buildings near Naftzger Park in downtown Wichita. 1

Community Improvement District

The plan includes the formation of a Community Improvement District. In CIDs, merchants charge additional sales tax for the benefit of the property owners, instead of the general public.2 In this CID, the proposed additional sales tax is two cents per dollar, the maximum available under state law, and could generate up to $3.1 million over a period as long as 22 years.3

This proposed CID contains a “sweetener,” likely designed to reduce public opposition. Ten percent of the CID revenue would be used to maintain Naftzger Park. We’ve seen this before, as in the Cabela’s CID where some of the funds paid for road improvements near the store.4

The action the city council will consider this week is whether to accept the petitions to form the CID and set January 9, 2018 as the date for the public hearing.

Industrial Revenue Bonds and tax forgiveness

This project is also requesting Industrial Revenue Bonds. under this program, the city will not be lending money, nor will it be responsible for repaying any loans. Instead, the program allows the developers to avoid paying sales tax on construction.5 City documents don’t give an amount of tax savings, but it could be over one million dollars. 6

City documents state that a property tax abatement is not being requested. That isn’t available for this project, as its property taxes are already allocated by TIF.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF)

The project has already been approved for of Tax Increment Financing. In this case, future property tax revenues from this project will be rerouted from their normal flow to reconstruct Naftzger Park, something that is seen as a large benefit to the developers.

Construction administration fee

The city will pay the developers up to $250,000 for construction administration of the park.

Parking

This agreement also contains something I’m sure is considered as creative. We also saw this as an incentive offered to Cargill earlier this year. In this case, the city will pay the developers a fee for using their parking spaces. In this case, the city proposes paying a one-time easement fee of $10,000 per spot for from 80 to 90 parking spots. The total payment would be from $800,000 to $900,000. These parking spots would be available to the public outside of business hours, which are defined as 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Private events

Buried with the development agreement is a provision that the developers may use the park for private events: “The City and the Board will cooperate with Developers, upon Developers’ request, to create an Annual Master Calendar of private and public events for the Park, with the expectation that the Developers will have the use of the Park for certain private events.”

Little else is mentioned regarding these private events, such as the maximum number of private events. This seems subject to abuse.

Other Naftzger Park material

  1. City of Wichita Agenda Packet for December 19, 2017, Item IV-6.
  2. Weeks, Bob. Community improvement districts in Kansas. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/community-improvement-districts-kansas/.
  3. Council Agenda: “The Developer and Park Board control the land within the proposed CID. The requested CID would provide pay-as-you-go financing for qualified project costs through the imposition of a 2% special retail sales tax on all taxable retail sales within the district for a maximum of 22 years. The eligible project costs identified in the CID petition include costs of renovating the building at 691 E. William and construction of the Class A commercial building. The City will receive 10% of the CID revenue to fund Naftzger Park maintenance and or ROW repairs and improvements, in addition to the 5% administrative fee. The revenue is estimated to be $310,000. The maximum amount of project costs that can be reimbursed is $3,118,504 based on the projected revenue of the project, exclusive of the City’s administrative fee and Naftzger Park maintenance.”
  4. Weeks, Bob. Cabela’s CID should not be approved in Wichita. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/cabelas-cid-should-not-be-approved-in-wichita/.
  5. Weeks, Bob. Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/industrial-revenue-bonds-kansas/.
  6. “The Developer is also requesting the issuance of a letter of intent to issue Industrial Revenue Bonds (IRBs), valid through December 31, 2022, in an amount not-to-exceed $26,000,000 to achieve a sales tax exemption on items purchased for the redevelopment project. No property tax abatement is being requested.”

Panhandling in Wichita

The City of Wichita cracks down on panhandling.

In today’s Wichita Eagle Chase Billingham has an excellent column explaining the recent changes to panhandling laws in the City of Wichita (Chase Billingham: New laws will criminalize homeless). An assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University, he makes important observations and warnings about the effect of these laws.

In his column, Billingham notes a problem with the ordinance designed to regulate “aggressive” panhandling: “Importantly, though, the ordinance defines ‘contact’ in an extremely vague manner.” I may have noticed the same problem in this example from Ordinance No. 50-643:

Section 2: “Contact” means the intentional action by any person which attempts to attract the attention of any other person for the purpose of inducing such other person to slow, stop or which obstructs or hinders the movement of such other person to facilitate a transfer of anything to or from either person.

Street theater in New Orleans. Would this be legal in Wichita? Click for larger.
What is an example of attracting someone’s attention to induce them to slow or stop? Busking. And it’s designed to encourage — “facilitate” — the transfer of money to the busker.

In the ordinance, the city says its purpose is to “regulate behaviors that are intimidating, threatening or harassing.” At the same time, the city takes actions that work in cross-purposes. In particular, the city has taken steps to allow — if not to encourage — more alcohol consumption. In 2016 laws were changed that both restricted and liberalized alcohol consumption. This year the city lobbied the state for laws that would establish “common consumption areas.” These are geographically-defined areas where free-range drinking is allowed. That is, you can drink outside in public, like on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Besides Old Town, the city mentioned Delano and College Hill as possible common consumption areas.

There is a reason why cities have long outlawed drinking on the streets and sidewalks. But I guess that no longer applies.

I wonder if the city is running the risk of creating a Disneyland downtown, where everything is planned, staged, and regulated. Our city planners set design standards for buildings, and then use the lure of our tax money to encourage compliance. Is there a purportedly problematic public park interfering with you plans for development? No problem. Just ask the city to redirect your tax dollars away from police and schools so that the park can be rebuilt at no cost to you — in a Disneyland style. Too much crime on the streets? The city will install expensive and obtrusive surveillance systems to protect you, and also to harvest revenue if you forget to activate your turn signal in time.

The city uses words like “vibrant” to describe its vision for downtown and other areas. In this commentary about Indianapolis we see the same issues at play. This is from Erika D. Smith: Tougher panhandling law would hurt Indy’s urban fabric:

Vibrant urban areas need organic, grass-roots use of public spaces. It’s a big part of what makes a city a city and not a carefully manicured suburb. It’s knowing that the unexpected could be around any corner and fully embracing that possibility.

Funny thing is, the entities that are pushing for this crackdown on panhandling know this. Visit Indy, Indianapolis Downtown Inc. and Ballard’s administration called for the promotion of organic urban experiences in the Velocity Action Plan released earlier this month.

They want a freer, livelier atmosphere Downtown. They want “guerrilla-style” takeovers of public spaces. They want visitors and residents to be surprised by randomness. In short, they want a true urban environment.

But here’s the inconvenient truth: To get that kind of organic, vibrant urban atmosphere, you cannot control everything. And part of not being able to control everything is that, to a certain extent, you have to accept the good with the bad. The pretty with the ugly.

The mime outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse and the man sitting quietly with a sign asking for money. The woman sprawled on the sidewalk with a cup and the saxophone-playing busker who sends people to the Chatterbox club to hear more jazz.

This is the messiness of an urban environment. It’s not always pretty. But it’s not supposed to be. The people who live Downtown know this. We understand it. It’s why we moved here and not to Carmel.

Delano catalyst site

A development near downtown Wichita may receive subsidy through four different avenues.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider approval of a development agreement with EPC Real Estate, LLC, for the Delano catalyst site. This is vacant land north of Douglas, between the Advanced Learning Library and the River Vista project.

Update: The measure passed four votes to three, with Bluebaugh, Frye, and Longwell in the minority.

Wichita Eagle reporting mentions some of the public subsidy the development will receive: $12 million over a period of years, in the form of Tax Increment Financing and Community Improvement District sales tax. (Delano project looks to add 180 apartments, hotel next to new Wichita library)

One form of additional subsidy is forgiveness of sales tax on the construction of buildings. The Letter of Intent for Industrial Revenue Bonds the council will consider states: “The City’s governing body has authorized an application for sales tax exemption with an estimated value of $1,611,822.”

But a really big gift to the developers is the price of the land. City document state the selling price for the 7.2 acre plot is $750,000. That’s about ($750000 / 7.2 acres) = $104,167 per acre. It’s a pretty good deal for the buyers. A look at some current commercial land listings in Wichita finds these:

1.20 acres at 47th South and Seneca for $425,000, or $354,167 per acre.
0.50 acres at 140 N. West St. for $225,000, or $450,000 per acre.
20.00 acres at 1462 S. Maize Road “Great for entertainment, retail, etc.” for $4,251,456, or $212,573 per acre.
0.52 acres at 640 N. Webb Road for $368,570, or $708,788 per acre.

It’s clear that the developers are buying the land from the city for a small fraction of its value.

By the way: Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell says the city will no longer offer cash incentives for economic development. But selling land a deeply discounted price: Is that different from a cash incentive?

We might also note that this project will receive millions in benefits from Tax Increment Financing. This was a program born out of a perceived need to help redevelop blighted property. This development site, however, is vacant land.

Finally: If downtown Wichita is really progressing as well as its boosters say, why is it necessary to offer so much subsidy to develop a project like this?

Spirit expands in Wichita

It’s good news that Spirit AeroSystems is expanding in Wichita. Let’s look at the cost.

While it is good news that Spirit AeroSystems is expanding its Wichita operations, it is not without cost to several governmental agencies. Here’s a summary of what is publicly available so far.

First, a new “entity” will be formed in order to facilitate the construction and ownership of a new building on the Spirit campus. 1

This entity will be funded with $7 million in cash from Sedgwick County and $3 million cash from the City of Wichita. Further, the city will forgive Spirit’s debt of $3.5 million associated with a water project. 2

Second, through the mechanism of Industrial Revenue Bonds,3 Spirit receives a property tax exemption of one hundred percent for five years, with renewal for another five years if goals are met. Despite the use of the term “bond,” no governmental entity is lending money to Spirit, and no one except Spirit is liable for bond repayment.

Third: The bonds confer another benefit to Spirit: According to city documents, “IRBs will, pursuant to STATE law, provide for a sales tax exemption on materials and labor subject to sales tax necessary to construct and equip FACILITY.” 4 City documents give no dollar amount is given for the sales tax exemption. But in the analysis conducted by Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University these figures are used for the amount of sales tax exemption: City of Wichita: $279,445. Sedgwick County: $137,354. State of Kansas: $3,120,000. Total: $3,536,799. 5

Fourth, this project will undoubtedly qualify for PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas. This is a State of Kansas program that allows companies to keep the state income taxes their employees pay through paycheck withholding, less a small fee. 6 It isn’t possible to know in advance how much PEAK benefit the company will receive, because the individual circumstances of each employee determine the income tax withheld. The following calculation, however, gives an indication of the magnitude of the amount of PEAK benefits Spirit can expect:

$56,000 annual salary / 26 pay periods = $2,154 per bi-weekly pay period. For a married worker with two children, withholding tables show $55 to be withheld each pay period, or $55 * 26 = $1,430 per year. For 1,000 employees, the PEAK benefit is $1,430,000 per year. 7

There may be other programs that this project qualifies for.

Are these incentives necessary?

Taxpayers might be wondering if these incentives are necessary for Spirit to be able to expand its operations, and for it to select Wichita as the site. Spirit says it has received generous offers from other locations. If so, Spirit could do itself a favor by revealing these offers. So too, could other Wichita companies that have claimed intense courtship by other cities. But the economic development industry operates in darkness.

One thing that would also increase the credibility of economic development efforts is for Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell (and others) to stop making claims of “no more cash incentives.” The city explicitly offers cash in this proposal. The city also offers to cancel a debt, which is just like cash. Forgiveness of future taxes is as good as cash, too.

For years we’ve been told that Wichita needs to diversify its economy, meaning that it relies too heavily on the aircraft industry. This expansion by Spirit will undoubtedly heighten that concentration. We should not turn down this expansion of our local economy. But the incentives that are offered have a cost, and that cost is paid — partly — by other business firms in other industries that are trying to grow in Wichita.

Many will undoubtedly cheer the Spirit announcement as an economic development win on a large scale. It will add many jobs. But the Wichita-area economy is so far behind it will take much more growth than this to catch up with the rest of the nation. In fact, the Wichita-area economy shrank last year. 8 And while many cheer our low unemployment rate, sole reliance on that number hides a shrinking labor force. 9

Also, let’s be appropriately humble when boasting about this expansion. A region’s largest employer deciding to expand in the same city: This is the minimum level of competence we ought to expect from our economic development machinery.

Further, economists caution us to look beyond any single project, no matter how large, and consider the entirety of the local economy. As economist Art Hall has noted, large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. “The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.” 10

That’s assuming that the incentives even work as advertised in the first place. Alan Peters and Peter Fisher, in their paper titled The Failures of Economic Development Incentives published in Journal of the American Planning Association, wrote on the effects of incentives. A few quotes from the study, with emphasis added:

Given the weak effects of incentives on the location choices of businesses at the interstate level, state governments and their local governments in the aggregate probably lose far more revenue, by cutting taxes to firms that would have located in that state anyway than they gain from the few firms induced to change location.

On the three major questions — Do economic development incentives create new jobs? Are those jobs taken by targeted populations in targeted places? Are incentives, at worst, only moderately revenue negative? — traditional economic development incentives do not fare well. It is possible that incentives do induce significant new growth, that the beneficiaries of that growth are mainly those who have greatest difficulty in the labor market, and that both states and local governments benefit fiscally from that growth. But after decades of policy experimentation and literally hundreds of scholarly studies, none of these claims is clearly substantiated. Indeed, as we have argued in this article, there is a good chance that all of these claims are false.

The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state or local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering their expectations about their ability to micromanage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing the foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.


Notes

  1. “The CITY, COUNTY and COMPANY would each take action to establish a new legal entity separate and apart from the CITY, COUNTY and COMPANY for development of the PROJECT (the “ENTITY”) which will take such form as the PARTIES may approve.” Memorandum of Understanding for Project Eclipse, Section I.A. Contained within agenda packet for Wichita City Council meeting for December 13, 2017.
  2. “The COUNTY participation of $7 million US is anticipated to be available cash; the CITY participation would consist of cash in the amount of $3 million US, forgiveness of $3.5 million US in future COMPANY payments associated with the CAPITAL COMPONENT and an agreement to make additional capital improvements relating to the WATER AGREEMENT in an approximate cost of $1 million US.” Memorandum of Understanding for Project Eclipse, Section I.B
  3. Weeks, Bob. Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/industrial-revenue-bonds-kansas/.
  4. Memorandum of Understanding for Project Eclipse, Section I.3.E
  5. Project Eclipse – ROI calcs plus author’s calculation. Available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1uGaxTgrctYpBjkG7PR6bP81SxgFjpzjo/.
  6. Weeks, Bob. PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/peak-promoting-employment-across-kansas/.
  7. Kansas Department of Revenue Withholding tables. Available at https://www.ksrevenue.org/pdf/whtables2017.pdf.
  8. Weeks, Bob. Wichita economy shrinks. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/economics/wichita-economy-shrinks/.
  9. “It is possible that the unemployment rate falls while the number of people employed falls or rises slowly. This is the general trend in Wichita for the past seven years or so.” Weeks, Bob. Wichita employment up. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-employment-up/.
  10. William F. Fox and Matthew N. Murray, “Do Economic Effects Justify the Use of Fiscal Incentives?” Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 71, No. 1, 2004, p. 79. A

Briefs

Reminds me of the Wichita flag

Wichita Eagle Opinion Line, December 5, 2017: “So Wichita wants to put its flag on license plates. I hope not. Every time I see it, it reminds me of how much it looks like the KKK emblem.” I’ve noticed this too. Have you? Here is the center of the Wichita flag along with the blood cross used by the Ku Klux Klan.

Wichita hotel resurgence?

At the meeting of the Wichita City Council today, there was self-congratulation on the success of the city and its convention and tourism bureau in generating business for Wichita hotels. But: Looking at hotel guest tax receipts, which are a surrogate for total hotel room revenue, we observe that of the largest markets in Kansas, Wichita has experienced the least growth in hotel guest tax collections since 2010. While Wichita is the largest city in Kansas, Overland Park collects the most hotel guest tax. See Kansas hotel tax collections.

Guest tax collections in largest hotel markets in Kansas, indexed change. Click for larger.

Customer-focused vs government

Wichita Eagle Opinion Line, December 5, 2017: “Why did the mailbox get taken down at the corner of Pershing and Douglas? No outcry from those who use it. Citizens arise! Demand the mailbox be returned. It was an ill-conceived action and should be corrected.” Writer, welcome to the world of government bureaucracy. Wouldn’t it be great if mail could be delivered by organizations that actually want your business? Although, I have to say that the new Informed Delivery service from USPS is pretty good. It’s the rare exception, however, that confirms the usual.

All this for one weekend?

Writing about the plans to transform Naftzger Park in downtown Wichita, the Wichita Eagle opined, “The plan seemed to come out of nowhere and with a goal of looking good for the NCAAs — an awful lot to ask for one weekend of tourists.” (What we learned in six busy months of Naftzger Park design project. Wichita Eagle editorial, November 22, 2017.) This is a rare admission from the Wichita elite, that the upcoming NCAA mens basketball tournament is just one weekend of activity. Yet, the tournament was cited as a justification for building the downtown arena and for the remodeling of an entrance. We were told that having the NCAA tournament would transform Wichita. We’d be famous!

In Wichita, the surveillance state expands again — and again

In Wichita, we see another example of how once government starts a surveillance program, the urge to expand it is irresistible.

Earlier this year the City of Wichita installed 70 cameras in Old Town for the purpose of enhancing public safety. 1

Now we’ve learned two things, according to Wichita Eagle reporting: The cameras aided in making one arrest for a serious crime, and the role of the cameras has expanded to include traffic enforcement. 2

When the city council approved the cameras in February, city documents didn’t specify how many video cameras would 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 also asked council members to pass an ordinance with bonding authority of up to $750,000 to pay for this project. In other words, the city borrowed to pay for this system.3

These expansions of camera surveillance are additional examples of the expansion of police powers in Wichita at the loss of civil liberties.4 It started with a small program of a few cameras owned by private property owners. Then in 2014 the city designated Old Town an “entertainment district,” giving the city increased powers to attempt to control crime.5 Critics are concerned that the extra enforcement measures granted to entertainment districts are discriminatory to certain minority groups.6

Now we have dozens of city-owned and monitored cameras, used first for public safety, and now for traffic enforcement.

This proposed expansion of cameras is not likely to be the last. Wichita’s police chief is seeking to add more surveillance and cameras.7

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.8 The irony is that she would insist that she is a protector of civil rights.

Civil rights are important

Why 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, a soup kitchen, an STD clinic, an abortion doctor’s office, or maybe being spotted dropping off an anonymous tip to the Wichita Eagle.” (Well, we don’t have marijuana dispensaries, but we do have stores that sell complementary products.)

We also have to wonder whether the cameras work as advertised. 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. Leflier, Dion. If you think someone’s watching you in Old Town — they are. Wichita Eagle, June 22, 2017. Available at http://www.kansas.com/news/local/crime/article157654759.html.
  2. Manna, Nicole. Officers are using Old Town cameras to pull over drivers. Wichita Eagle, November 3, 2017. Available at http://www.kansas.com/news/local/crime/article182478176.html.
  3. Wichita City Council agenda for February 14, 2017.
  4. Weeks, Bob. Surveillance state arrives in Wichita. https://wichitaliberty.org/liberty/surveillance-state-arrives-in-wichita/.
  5. Weeks, Bob. Wichita seeks to form entertainment district. https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-seeks-form-entertainment-district/.
  6. 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.
  7. Finger, Stan. Police seek answers, reversal as aggravated assaults surge. Wichita Eagle, February 10, 2017. http://www.kansas.com/news/local/crime/article132071799.html.
  8. 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.

Wichita to look outside for management of engagement

Wichita decides to have someone else conduct public engagement.

At the November 7, 2017 meeting of the Wichita City Council, the council will be asked to approve a request for proposal (RFP) document relating to Century II.

The RFP is a document that spells out what the city wants done relating to public engagement regarding the future of Century II. Specifically, interested parties are invited to “design and implement a transparent public engagement process that involves a broad cross-section of Wichita residents in a discussion of interests related to the future of Century II as a performing arts center.”

A “Screening and Selection Panel” selected by the Wichita city manager will evaluate the proposals based on several criteria and select a winner.

The introduction to the RFP states: “The primary purpose of this engagement is to identify the community’s interests and recommendations related to Century II as a performing arts center, to include the option of its removal and replacement, as well as its relationship to the convention center, both in function and spatial proximity.” No cost ceiling is given by the city.

Of note, the schedule in the RFP gives November 3 as the due date for proposals. But it is four days after that, on November 7, that the city council will be asked to, according to city documents, “approve the scope of services and amendment for the Request for Proposals.”

While some may criticize the city for relying on an outside consultant to conduct public engagement, the reason given is a recommendation by the city manager that the process be “be led by an independent third party to ensure neutral framing of the issues.”

That makes a lot of sense, as Wichita doesn’t have a good track record in this regard. For example, in even-numbered years the city has surveyed residents asking them to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data found in versions of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.

The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey, the group that conducted the survey for the city.

There’s also the 2014 city sales tax election, where the city was proud of its engagement with citizens, convincing them of the need for the tax. On election day, 62 percent voted against the tax.

Before that there was Activate Wichita, a system for gathering citizen feedback. But when rating ideas, there was no voting option for expressing disagreement or disapproval with an idea. “Neutral” is as much dissent as Wichitans were allowed to express in this system. This system fell into disuse and became an embarrassment for the city.